I Don't Know What I'm Doing Most of the Time

Pastrami and Preferred Architecture  Podcast

Multi-floored buildings packed with people are great examples of giant pastrami-like layers of ideas.  

Delicious, but I don’t want a meat lover’s sandwich right now, or ever actually, but that’s just me. All good if that’s your thing. 

I have a preferred architecture. I forgot I did. Or I never thought consciously about it until now.

It operates in curves and waves. It is a rolling diagonal of tree covered mountains. It has equal parts blue sky and clouds for remembering that life is bigger. It swoops in and out of time. It speeds up on a wind current, and slows down to rest. It takes in the sun and connects dreams to experience regularly.

Now I just have to remember that when I’m between pastrami slices. 

This week I overworked again. I felt I had to, which is a problem I’m having. I felt it was the only way out. It cascaded across the week until I felt a panic on Saturday night. I started thinking “I could take on that project at 8pm and work til midnight or 1. After all I won’t have internet on the day’s drive from Portland to Grass Valley on Sunday and Monday I deliberately took off in order to really recoup, get myself, the house and fam prepped for the week.” Something in me said stop. Perhaps it was the part that was aware that I had confused three projects during the week, and that I would never have the clarity of mind that I want if I keep diving in. It’s not effective. Overworking is not effective. And it’s not my preference despite somehow having a PTSD muscle memory response and continued bad habit of participating in it. 

“I have to” and “I can’t” are my horse blinders. Here are some that I discoverered were active without my conscious signoff. Some of these hurt to think about in the sense that I realize I wasn’t the person who thought I could, who broke through whatever wall was in my way. Acting - I can’t be cast. There’s no one who looks like me or my family on the screen (This was back in the 90s.) I can’t have money/get credit. I can’t pay my bills. I have to break my back for things I believe in. I have to work for little to no money. I have to feel separate. 

That’ll shape your perspective and break your heart a little in the - as Michael Pollen said on a late night interview on his book Reluctant Psychonaut, “I am not my ego.” - sense. 

How to reapproach? Stop. Stop before I start. Stop again. Stop ‘til it feels like a risk; ‘til it feels like I’m going in the wrong direction and until I see a new one.  

That works.  

I didn’t let myself overwork on Saturday. I can see the three hours I need on Tuesday very clearly and they can wait til Tuesday, when I’m rested. This is much better than 5 hours on Saturday, exhausted, panicked and not seeing clearly or feeling confident about my work. 

Not following the “fight” reflex makes space for me to see my preferred line: green,  ascending, multi-dimensional, calm, conscientious of the structures my actions exist in, in order to move from reactive to responsive, transcend, find, operate and build in superstructures. 


“With a Thought” ends our Chapter 2.

  1. With A Thought

Pace and Space  Podcast

"It's rarely possible in a high pace, high profile, high pressure environment, to reflect on what you're doing." This was said by renowned pastry chef Wil Goldfarb in Volume 3 of Chef's Table. He's talking about why he disappeared from NYC.

I can relate to that. And it's timely to read this on vacation after six months of really over-working and going back forth from NYC. NYC is for doing (Love!). Fast (Love!). Well (Exponential Love!). NYC pace. A pace that I sought out by living in different cities and enjoyed most of my life. There's an overtone to all of that activity and it's intriguing. 

I wouldn't say reflection is rarely possible, but it's not a kind of evening bath soak of a reflection. It's a how-fast-can-you-say-ok how-fast-can-this-observation-become-second-nature  how-fast-can-you-incorporate-what-you-just-learned kind of reflection. That has it's own refreshing power. You learn and you move on, as fast as you can.

As fast as I can is also, for me, a way of not dealing with a longer term reality, or a lack of vision about a longer term reality. I used to be able to see an end goal or feel some kind of end feeling. I think it looked like recording; I don't think it ever looked like touring. Now I don't know what's over there. I have a vision of Sarah Vaughan at the piano and a memory of my dad saying "not many people know she used to play piano too" Is that me at 50? What is 6 months from now? What is 5 years? I couldn't tell you. I have to rebuild those skills. I've lost them in cities.

Not everybody loses those skills in cities. Some people have them and stick to them. They're disciplined.

I know how to be disciplined. I remember charting out my day in sometimes 5 minute increments of activity. I was fine in losing myself in that kind of chart when it was about skill building, but when it was about artistic career building...the magnet reversed. I can't explain how or why the record stops but it's a firm unwillingness kind of a feeling. A haunting feeling that work in that direction is just work to sign up for the bad pyramid scheme of broken capitalism, and endless sign up of courses to learn how to, video after video of search engine optimization, of how to be a better salesman. For what, again?  It doesn't add up and so my road tends to stop right there.

I don't know where to go when it comes to economizing. And by that I don't mean that I don't know the myriad mechanisms. I mean  I don't want to sell myself or my work (short). Personally anyway. I'd be happy if there was someone else who wanted to sell it for me. (And that's probably what everyone who is no longer having to sell something for themselves gets to say?)

This post marks the near end of Chapter 2. And now I have a looming feeling. We're catching up to the present day. I don't have a plan.

I say near because the whole time I've been writing the post, I've actually been thinking I would be sharing "With A Thought" which is the last track on the album. Today's track is actually "Problem with You" which makes more sense than it should considering it's from more than 10 years ago.

Thanks for this time and space together. This is my new weekly residency. It is the space where I can share developed and under-developed ideas. It is the space for me to reflect, with you, and I'm grateful to have it. I build these thoughts on short walks to work, or moments before bed or in the morning, in conversations through the week. I'm not in NYC but I still live a high-paced life where the only time to write this is the 30 minutes before I "need" to post it on Saturdays. It's the only artistic discipline I feel like upholding right now as I shake the marbles out of my head and try to make sense of it all.

  1. Problem With You

Some thoughts are energizing.  Podcast

and others aren't.



This track features writer Genevia Wylie. I like collaborating with Genevia. We can talk about a sparse idea and she sometimes has words to lend. In this track she's also speaking her words. That's hard to do. 

Speaking over music is maybe even harder than singing. 

Speaking over no music is probably the hardest thing of all. A super moon.


  1. Lexicon feat. poet Genevia Wylie

I'm on a plane.  Podcast

I'm flying in to New York City.

I'm being flown in to New York City.

I'm being flown in because I am the best person for the job. In New York City. From the 7.5 miles up in the air on this plane that feels quietly remarkable. (It still feels remarkable on the ground.)

Recognition is a powerful thing. It calls on you. It enables your strengths by simply seeing they are there. It's reciprocal, or can be, but it's more than reciprocal. It's yeast in bread. 

It makes me look back on situations. Where could recognition have played a transformational role? Where did I abandon instead of recognize? Good and bad. Recognizing good is great. Recognizing bad is important too. To face it head on. To not pretend it's not there.

Once on the ground, I check in and walk to the day's work. I run into a past work friend. She tells me she had just been thinking of me, of all of the history of Issue Project Room and how no one there now had the opportunity of knowing Suzanne Fiol and how she wants to put together that history because what Suzanne built is so powerful. I immediately remember standing in the space on Livingston, when it was still a dream to her, and feeling the current under our feet. Issue would be there. It is now.

  1. Lesson In Self Value

Entregar, to deliver  Podcast

Sometimes I hear Spanish words as song titles. Sometimes as lyrics.

This song developed across 2003, recorded in 2004 and released in 2005 is one of those.

I didn't know the word entregar, but it came to mind. I looked up what it meant. One meaning was "to deliver" and that seemed right for the rest of the lyrics that I had written.

I don’t speak Spanish. I should speak Spanish. I studied it in high school, I studied it in college. I studied four years of Latin. I bought some CDs again 5 years ago. I'll sign up for babbel tomorrow. 

It’s in there, but isn’t developed. I am not in enough dominantly Spanish-speaking environments on a daily basis to force the language out of its hermit crab shell. Right now it just peers out and tries to crack a joke where it can:

Un perro y un gato se siente en el patio.

El perro preguntas "Como estas?" y el gato dice "Ohhh, ,meow bien. Meow bien." 



The saxophone sound at 2:31 on this track recorded in 2004 is the sound I now hear in 2018 at sunset each night. It is the sound of geese at sunset in Grass Valley. 


Improvisation. The conversations these musicians have with each other. Like little cities.

  1. Entregar

I quit my job.  Podcast

(in 2003)

On a day's notice. It's the only time I've done that. 

"How dare I ask for more money...When someone asks you to step up, you say yes!" he roared red-faced in front of the entrance lobby of my work as everyone looked through the glass wall office. I tried to stay neutral. I was shaking...that shake. With every roar, I tried to diffuse his anger, 'he can escalate, but I will neutralize' was what I kept saying to myself, but then he got me. His "how dare I take advantage of the company in its moment of need" flew like a giant fishing hook into my gut and it was over. This strange uproar was the result of my request for more money, not even a request, consideration of a request!  This ugliness. This master and slave ugliness and that's when I started crying, bawling. And then, seeing I was broken, he calmed from his ten alarm fire of distraction down to zero - so fast, I realize in retrospect the creepy speed at which he shifted gears. Without a trace of his rage he calmly offered that the job was just like family, how I'd rethink my position over the weekend and come back clear-headed. 

I did. And I quit.

I remember what I was wearing in that shaking moment. It was a mint cotton 3/4 sleeve shirt and black straight leg jeans.

Close door. Open new one.

Possibly the same day, but more likely the next one, I walked down the street and right into Todd Brown's studio in San Francisco, a studio which would become Red Poppy. I would tell him I just quit my job and needed a place to play. He would tell me he had been talking about that 5 minutes prior to my arrival.

I started playing there weekly across I think a year or so? That weekly conversation, the rotating cast of musicians - who can do the gig this week? - that's what you need to develop something, anything really. Time, relationship, and some really talented people who are willing to go down your road just to see where it leads. Thanks to everyone who showed up during that time.

It's strange to look back and see the community that surrounded me then and at the same time remember feeling alone. I felt alone with these songs. I think I still felt on the wrong side of urgent.

I didn't know I was just dreaming about today.

I can wonder how it would have changed things, or I can recognize that's what is happening the next time I feel alone with my perspective. 

On a related and not related note, this article from start to finish.

  1. I Still Believe

End of Chapter 1: Floored  Podcast

I am lying on my back on the ground in Dave Bell’s recording studio. My elbows are crossed over my face. I am listening to the playback of this take. I am listening to Leonard Thompson’s solo. I am realizing how much music happened in such a short span of recording.

Do you hear what I hear when you listen to these tracks? 

Do you hear a tidal wave? Some other-worldliness? Some all-encompassing language more present than words? 

Is it breathing?

...The lyrics to this song never fully made sense to me until now. 

This is freedom.

At the end of this take, at the end of this session, I will close the door of the studio and I will feel the urgency of contrast. I won't understand where I fit in or how. I will be heartbroken that the world does not hear a tidal wave too. I I won't value the response I do receive.

It's OK. It's life. I'll make it through.

Charles Mingus will help. There's an interview of him that I still can't find. I heard it on cassette tape, loaned out from the Sunnyvale Library back when there was microfiche. I wish I could find that tape and hear his exact words. Something about how when you make music, you picture people dancing in the streets. And how that's not what happens. I don't think he says that last part explicitly. He just says you make music and you picture people dancing in the streets....

I will feel floored again. Floored without containment or urgency. In Boston in May 2014.

At sunrise, I will walk across town and listen to a recording from Dayna Stephens of a work of mine that he recorded by surprise. A work I wrote for him a few years after Composition's recording. A work I knew was his when it was just  in my head, while in the passenger seat of a car, driving westward on the Bay Bridge, just passing Treasure Island. In my right peripheral vision, I will see golden sparkles lifting from low left to high almost like an overlay to the silhouette of Treasure Island at sunset. In this quiet moment I will smile to know that "Amber is Falling" is Dayna's. I will know I should give it to him, and I do.

I won't remember I've seen glitter once before, in 1996, when Adrian Orme died.

- I've re-written this next section all week, so I'll stop trying to rewrite it and just let you read these elements. -

From the side view, any activity in a cylinder that happens along a cylinder appears in a sequence, but view the activity from one end of the cylinder and it becomes layered co-existence. I'm reminded of SLAC and a grade school tour of the facility. Particle acceleration.

Now consider these things again: I will envision golden leaves which I will interpret to be a statement of some kind that Amber is Falling is song that cosmically belongs to Dayna. I will record that song with John Shifflett and the many members of the True Believers in 2005. Nearly a decade later, Dayna Stephens will record it with artists I greatly admire. It will feel like the heavens open. I will feel like I belong and I will feel in awe of how beautiful it is that each of these artists will contribute their best. Every choice they make will be incredible. I will hear a tidal wave in their sound. Dayna will call his album Gratitude (in honor of his own life, saved by his aunt who donated her kidney to save him) and will release it on April 7, 2017. 

John Shifflett will pass away on April 27, 2017. RIP, John.

Here is the recording of Amber with John Shifflett in 2005.

And here is an excerpt from Dayna's recording in 2014/released in 2017. (Purchase his album. You won't regret it.)
















Stained glass artwork by Tim Bulkley.

  1. Sick of the Tame

Hellfire and Orange Juice  Podcast

You have something unique to offer. 

This is what most healthy parents tell their children.

It's true.

It's as true as your face.

I can't explain the hellfire urgency that accompanied trying to offer this uniqueness in my twenties. I hated it. When something's urgent, it means it's not here and it's not now. This urgency was an unwelcome obstacle. I would hear it in recordings. It was the extension of the shake. in the middle of Rome, in the middle of legendary producers and other young artists, I would feel it, and I would hate it. Leroy Burgess would yell across a crowd to me "Michelle, you're SO SAD!" or maybe he said mad? It was pretty much both. That he could see it made it even worse.

It's the kind of angry urgency I've only seen a few times, once when I worked in my parents' cafe. A man in his 50s walked in, irate. "GIIIVE MEEE ORANGE JUICE!!!" he roared. I was stunned. My dad was familiar with the situation, but he wasn't behind the counter. "Pupa, get the man some orange juice!" and in minutes the roaring monster turned into a human being. In case you are wondering, Pupa, pronounced poo-pah but without hanging out too long on the vowels, is one of my dad's names for me from the many names in his imagination. Pupita, Puca (this one was actually granted by my godfather and means imaginary 6-foot rabbit. Thanks! I'll take that). Years later my oldest brother would insist that Cachoomba was an original part of the nickname lexicon. He would perpetuate this propaganda until now when people's memories are fuzzy. It was not, though you can expect to see a comment below from him if he reads this. Who knows. Maybe it was what they called me behind my back! I didn't hear it until my late 20s, so I call bull, is all I'm saying. Besides, it has an unpleasant sound. 

I wasn't urgent about music growing up. Music was just a part of life. Go swimming. Eat food. Climb a tree. Ride your bike around the block. Play the piano. Make up some music. There's some TV in there and me trying to sneak in rock and roll on my stereo in my room. (Rock and roll was not allowed. :D!)

I don't remember my first song, but I remember my second song, which I made in high school and which I think I created as a soundtrack to a high school memories video? My dad had a camcorder that I had quickly made my own. That thing was heavy!! But I loved bringing it everywhere and catching pieces. And if anyone out there has that VHS gift I made, please share it back. I remember fragments only and I'm fairly confident there was an overuse of the built-in effects! YEAH!!

This second song is one I have remembered clearly for years. I just sat down to record a rough for you. (It's done on my phone, so you know...production quality.)

I don't remember my first song, but I remember playing it for my godfather. I think I was in middle school? I remember it having a rag-time feel. I think. I remember the beautiful brown tigerwood upright piano that my mother refinished. And I remember my godfather standing about 3 feet behind me. Listening. He didn't say anything, really. He asked me to play it again. A few times. He asked me if it was mine.

At that time, he was just my godfather, as in a person who has no identity except the role they play in your life. I mean that was one aspect of who he was. He was also a crooner. That's how my godfather met my dad and became friends. He would sing and my dad would accompany him in San Francisco. Back in the day. Those two on the town. Now that's something. Imagining these two made me imagine hellfire and orange juice as a cocktail. Guess what? It is one!

  1. Cycle, Cycle (ii,V)

I feel anxious.  Podcast

I’m in a car. 

For a while. 

The best thing that I can do is breathe deeply. I breathe in the most that I can. I try to breathe in to each last lung pocket. (The word crepuscular came to mind just now, a word i don’t remember ever really learning. I had to look it up just now. This happens regularly when writing. Words come out that I don't remember ever learning or using before. Crepuscular means relating to twilight.)

I try to use the technique from Brent Blair’s acting class. I breathe in to every last corner. It doesn't feel like it's enough. I feel conscious of the pockets that aren't getting filled, that the inhalation isn't big enough. After a few breaths like this, I decide to hold it at the top of the inhale and exhale, waiting to notice any small microcosmic difference. I feel stiff. I feel myself over-expecting with every breath. I will need to do this for 30 more minutes to feel a margin of relief. I will share with whomever is next to me that I am anxious. This time it is my husband. He will squeeze my knee to acknowledge.

The best thing for me not to do is flip through every aspect of my life to try and uncover what might produce the cause. What might match up exactly to this deep and nameless anxiety. This is the best thing for me not to do because there is no matchup. 

The best thing for me to do is let it come and let it go. It has a crescendo. It has a denoument.

This is the best thing for me to do.

“It’s Just A Thought” 

My father wrote the music. He’s written a lot of songs but is not a lyricist. It took a few years for me to complete the lyrics. 

Scott Sorkin is playing guitar here, beautifully.

The album cover pictured here did not feature this song, but it does feature amazing versions of Moon River, Laura and more.