All posts by Hollis Easter

On Finding Purpose

We’re often taught about the importance of “finding your purpose” as you set out into the world and choose your pathway forward. The words change–sometimes it’s ‘purpose’, but you might also find your ‘bliss’, your ‘passion’, your ‘voice’, your ‘career’, or your ‘calling’–but the narrative remains the same.

Whatever it is, you’ve gotta find it. And when you do, you’ll go far.

Within this story, hiding in plain sight, is the assumption that once you’ve found your purpose, you’ll stick to it like a magnet, ne’er to be separated. Like Robert Lewis Stevenson’s shadow, your purpose will go everywhere with you, and from then on, you’ll be inseparable. That which you do, you will do with purpose, and when you do, you’ll go far.

The challenge, for many of us, is that we change–and when we do, sometimes we outgrow our old purpose and need to find a new one.

This can be excruciating for folks who feel like they’ve already found it, because the stories we celebrate mostly only show people riding this roller coaster once. We get it that it’s often important to go looking for “your thing” at some point in your life–but we get pretty uncomfortable when that journey starts happening more than once.

Thing is: the task of finding purpose isn’t always a one-time event. It can’t always be completed and permanently checked off the to-do list. Some people start questing for a new purpose because of births, deaths, weddings, or breakups; others because of job loss; still others simply because some quiet voice within begins to whisper that a change is needed.

This can be a pretty hard thing in a world that values constancy and reliability.

I’ve been musing about perspectives a lot lately–examining the ways that mental models shape what we see. I wonder if there’s a way to reframe our understanding of what it means to find purpose, and to accept the finding as a necessarily ephemeral thing.

It’s finally turning toward spring here in Vermont, and I’ve seen a few ephemeral flowers while out walking–flowers that come only briefly in the early parts of the year, and that won’t return until the next. We love them both despite and because of their brevity. Maybe that’s the model for finding purpose: to love it while it’s here, and to look forward to its return once it’s gone.

Or maybe it’s like plants with flowerpots. I have some plants that never seem to need re-potting; having reached their mature size, they don’t seem interested in further expansion. Once they’ve got the right size pot, it works forever. Other plants continually need re-potting because they keep growing and changing, and the best way to stunt their development is to refuse to accept that they need new pots. Maybe the lesson is: learn to notice when you’ve outgrown your pot and accept that it’s time to find a new one.

I’m blessed to live with a sweet and rambunctious kitten who loves to play chasing games with a cat toy on a stick. He loves it so much that if I’ve ignored his needs for too long, he’ll go fetch the toy and bring it to me, dragging it with his mouth, clearly communicating that his life would be better if I’d give him the chance to chase it again.

He’s bored when the toy sits still, because he loves the chase. It’s boring when the toy stays caught! For him, joy means getting to play the same game again and again.

Maybe that’s my lesson for finding purpose: learn to love the chase, too.

XLR Mic Mute Switch with LEDs – Proof of Concept

Mic mute switch with LED hacked and ready to road-test!


I play music on stage, and that usually means using amplification (PA) systems. The bands I play with (Frost and Fire, The Turning Stile+, and others) typically have a bunch of musicians playing a host of instruments, each with their own microphones. Consequently, we need a lot of mic mute switches. The enemy of sound is noise. The more open microphones you have on stage, the higher the noise floor gets, which is bad–so you need to be able to turn off mics when they’re not in use.

Several years ago, I bought some Rolls MS111 mic switches for this purpose, and they’ve been great–with one gripe: it’s pretty hard to see whether the mic is muted or not. You’re basically looking at a band of metal 1mm wide from about 7 feet away trying to see whether it’s 1mm or 2mm tall right now. Hard. I’ve wanted a mute switch with an LED status indicator for a while now.

The easy way to do this is to add a battery to the box, wire it into the unused side of the pushbutton switch, and use that to power the LEDs. Problem is, that would require carrying extra batteries (heavy and wasteful), modifying the case to be able to hold a 9v battery (impossible in this case), and, worst of all… knowing that the solution was inelegant.

I wanted the LEDs to be powered through the +48v phantom power that’s provided by the sound board.

an early prototype

I’ll detail how I did this in a future post (and provide the circuit schematic). I’ve had a lot of fun and a lot of frustration trying to figure this out, and I want to make it easier for future tinkerers. But for now, I’m typing this up and getting it out the door before I head out for a gig–and we’ll see how the mute switch does in the real world! There’s a video proof of concept at the end of the article.



Here’s a quick demo! Sorry for the camera shake–it was late and I was too tired to find the tripod).

Thanks for watching! I’ll post the schematic and further discussion soon. If you enjoyed this, please subscribe and give the video a thumbs-up!

How to Test Thermostat/Thermal Fuse in Kitchen Tools

I’ve been having a lot of fun with this formerly-busted Gaggia Espresso (a precursor of their Classic and other newer models of espresso machines) that I found at the dump. We’re lucky that the Chittenden Solid Waste District here in Burlington has a “ReUse Zone” at every drop-off center, meaning that people can drop off serviceable items they no longer want without them entering the waste stream.

Well, this one wasn’t quite serviceable. In fact, it didn’t work at all. But I figured that I’d either be able to fix it (in which case I’d have a fairly expensive real espresso maker for free) or I would learn something from the experience. In the end, it’s been both.

I’m planning to write about the initial tear-down where I took the whole thing apart, assessed the damage, de-scaled the boiler, cleaned all the valves, fabricated a wrench to fit the slot in a screw I couldn’t remove, and got it all working–but that’s for another day. Suffice it to say that I got it working, and that a real espresso machine (with a high-pressure pump) produces drinks of dramatically higher quality than those my old Krups steam-boiler made.

But this morning, no joy. The machine turned on but wouldn’t heat. I let it sit for a while, but nothing happened. Well… it was free when I found it, and it’s out of warranty, so I might as well try to learn from it! Let’s talk about how to test the thermostat and thermal fuse.


There’s an excellent page about the Gaggia Classic at Whole Latte Love, and I’ve learned a lot from reading their thoughts about how to diagnose problems. They also have a whole page on replacing thermal fusible links, which I found helpful.

After unplugging the unit and waiting a while to make sure everything was cold, I opened up the top cover and started looking around. No obvious damage in there, which seems like it supports the theory that there’s a problem with either the brew thermostat or the thermal fuse.

Test Thermostat

The Gaggia machines have a simple passive thermostat module that’s basically a low-pass filter for current: it acts as a closed circuit (passes current) below a certain threshold and then it opens when the temperature rises above the setpoint. This repeats on an ongoing basis, cutting and restoring power to the boiler, maintaining a relatively steady temperature.

Since we’re at room temperature, the brew thermostat should pass electricity (have continuity)… and it does. While this doesn’t conclusively rule out thermostat problems, it makes me think the thermostat isn’t the most likely culprit. So we move on to…

Test Thermal Fuse / Thermal Fuseable Link

The Gaggia machines also have a sacrificial element built into the boiler that arrests a runaway heating situation before a fire can result. This is called a thermal fuse or thermal fusible link, and it’s basically just like a regular fuse except that it clamps down because of excess heat rather than excess current. The Gaggia one is designed to fuse at 184º C, well above the routine operating temperature of the boiler.

If the thermal fuse is working, it should pass current… but it doesn’t. Problem found.

You can buy replacement fuses from Whole Latte Love and a few other places that specialize in espresso makers, but they’re $8 each plus shipping for a single piece. I like fixing things and I have a bunch of appliances that use these components, so I decided the order a selection of 85 thermal fuses for $18 instead. That’ll give me some spares as well as other values for other appliances.

What Next?

When you replace a burned-out component, you always have to ask: why did this burn out? What went wrong? This is a protection component–what was it protecting me from?

From my reading, these components often burn out on older Gaggia machines if they’re left on for too long, and the damage can happen long before the fuse burns out. I don’t know this machine’s history, but given that the inside of the boiler looked like it never received any descaling maintenance, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the previous owner wasn’t careful about turning the machine off.

We’ll see. This is part of why I’m buying a few extra thermal fuses, too–so that if it dies again, I have some backups to keep experimenting.

Use Up That Zucchini – Googoots / Cucuzza Recipe

Friends, I need to tell you something. I used to be a person who feared zucchini season, who dreaded the part of the summer when CSA farm shares seem to be about 95% summer squash, who contemplated the feasibility of sneaking some extra zucchini onto neighbors’ porches under cover of darkness.

(“Oh!”, I’d imagine saying, if caught. “I figured you’d probably want some extra zucchini because you seem like the… sort of people… who’d… uh, who’d, uh want… uh… extra… zucchini…” and then, even in my imagination, I would trail off, the words hanging in the air like unwanted cucurbits hanging from a vine.)

I’ve changed.

I’ve become a zucchini fiend, desperate for my next fix, using all the zucchini from the CSA within a day of its arrival and then pining for the next batch. Jasmine and I ate five zucchinis as an appetizer the other day, and it’s all thanks to this recipe.

Googoots. Cucuzza, or cacuzza, or googootz. Whatever you call it, it’s amazing, and it uses up zucchini faster than anything I’ve ever seen. My friend Katie Fran taught me the recipe, straight out of her Italian-American heritage, and I’ve never been the same.

Finished googoots/zucchini salad

It’s a little hard to describe googoots, but imagine a melange of crispy zucchini slices, fresh garlic, the sharp tang of red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar, and the heady aromas of basil and mint, all infused with the flavors of good olive oil and caramelization.

It’s a recipe that takes very little of your time and is ridiculously easy. I haven’t composted a single zucchini since learning to make this, and I’ve been considering asking neighbors if maybe they have any extra zucchini. Send help. (or send zucchini).

Making googoots

Start making googoots the day before you want to eat them, if you can, since roasting the zucchini goes better and faster if you’ve let them dry out first). Full recipe follows at the end of the post.

This is less a recipe than it is a cooking technique; as such, I’m not providing strict amounts. Taste frequently and adjust for the quantities you have. It’s a very forgiving recipe, too–I made one batch where I totally blackened the zucchini by accident, and the final product was still excellent. Cook boldly and without fear!

Take all the zucchini in the house, wash them, and trim off any bad spots. Kat says she sometimes uses eggplants, too. Yum!

Zucchini ready for slicing

Slice the zucchini as thinly as possible, making rounds. If you’re having trouble slicing, you’ll find that it goes easier if you flatten one side of the zucchini by cutting off a long stripe–then you can put that side against the cutting board, and the zucchini won’t roll around.

Lay a clean tea towel on a baking sheet. Lay the zucchini coins out on the sheet in a single layer, then sprinkle them lightly with salt. It’s okay if the coins overlap a bit.

Leave the cookie sheets of zucchini coins out, at room temperature, overnight. I’ve left them out for about 36 hours with no problems yet, so don’t worry too much about the timing. They’ll dry faster if you can put them in the path of a fan.

Zucchini laid out on tea towel

These slices aren’t particularly thin; I made the next batch with thinner slices because I wanted more caramelization. Whatever you do will be fine.

The next day…

Preheat the oven to 400º F (200º C/Gas Mark 6).

Preheat to 400F

Slide the cookie sheet out from underneath the tea towel and drizzle it with olive oil.

Coat cookie sheet with olive oil

Lay the zucchini coins out on the cookie sheet in a single layer. It’s okay if they overlap a little, so you shouldn’t need additional cookie sheets beyond the ones that had zucchini on them. Rub the coins around a little bit to make sure that the olive oil covers the whole baking sheet, then drizzle a little more oil over the top.

Bake at 400F for 15 minutes or so

Bake at 400º F for 15 minutes, checking for browning after about 10 minutes. Stir the zucchini slices around a bit, and if they’re browning unevenly, try to put the more-browned bits in the center of the cookie sheets. Take the zucchini out when most of the pieces are browned and crispy around the edges.

I’ve noticed that different baking sheets cook at quite different speeds–the material makes a difference, as does the color. Just check occasionally and you’ll be fine.

15 minute timer

And here’s your crispy summer squash, dramatically reduced in volume and already significantly more tasty than when you started:

crispy baked zucchini slices

crispy roasted zucchini slices

Now we make it amazing.

mint, garlic, basil, and crispy roasted zucchini

Tuck the zucchini slices into a bowl. Roughly chop some garlic and toss it in there. (I used 5 cloves of garlic with 5 zucchini for this batch, and it was lovely. Adjust for your preferences.)

Wash and de-stem some basil (I used Genovese) and some mint (I used whatever mint grows in our yard). (bonus points if you use the fancy herbalist word for this process and call it garbling the basil and mint). Chop or tear the basil and mint and add them to the zucchini. (It’s fine to chiffonade the leaves if you feel like it, but it’s not necessary).

mint, garlic, and basil

Stir the ingredients to mix them up a bit, and taste a bit to see how it’s coming along. Sprinkle some red wine vinegar or balsamic over the mixture, stirring frequently, and add some more olive oil.

You’re aiming for lightly moistening the zucchini without drowning it. If there’s liquid pooling at the bottom of the bowl, stop now–it’ll still be fine, and the zucchini will absorb it, but you probably want to use a bit less next time.

Add a bit of salt and pepper to taste, stir it some more, and you’re done. It’s good right away; it’s amazing the next day. I’m serious when I say that we’ve eaten 4-5 zucchinis worth of this stuff in a single sitting as an appetizer.

Anybody got some extra zucchini?

Googoots / Cucuzza (Caramelized Zucchini Salad)

From my friend Katie Fran, to whom I owe a great debt of gratitude for this recipe.

makes less than you want it to

  • a bunch of zucchini, summer squash, courgettes, cucuzza, tromboncino, or other summer squash–eggplant is reputedly great, too
  • good olive oil
  • 4-8 cloves of garlic (try 1 clove per zucchini)
  • red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar
  • a handful of fresh basil leaves
  • a smaller handful of fresh mint leaves
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  1. Wash and trim zucchini, removing any bad spots.
  2. Slice zucchini into thin coins. Cover a baking sheet with a tea towel, lay the coins out on it, and sprinkle with sea salt. Leave zucchini out to dry, at room temperature, overnight.
  3. Preheat oven to 400º F.
  4. Lightly coat a baking sheet with olive oil. Layer zucchini coins in a single layer on the sheet, drizzle with a bit more oil, and rub them around until they’re evenly coated.
  5. Bake approximately 15 minutes or until edges of coins are browned and crispy.
  6. Place zucchini coins in a bowl. Coarsely chop garlic, mint, and basil, adding them to the bowl. Stir.
  7. Add red wine vinegar or balsamic until coins are flavorful and lightly moistened. Drizzle a bit more olive oil in; stir. Add salt and pepper.
  8. Eat immediately or allow to marinate overnight in refrigerator.

use up that zucchini in a hurry!

Garlic and Red Wine Mustard

During a visit to my then-girlfriend Kyla’s parents just outside Boston in 2000, I was served the most delicious mustard I’d ever had. It was sharp, fragrant, spicy, filled with whole seeds like the maille à l’ancienne I’d loved in France, redolent with garlic, and absolutely impossible to stop eating. Never before (or since) had I seen a mustard I would happily eat by itself.

Seventeen years ago today, I copied the recipe into a notebook I happened to be carrying, and I’ve been making it ever since. It’s from a long-out-of-print cookbook by Helen Witty and Elizabeth Schneider Colchie called Better Than Store-Bought, and I remember seeing lots of wonderful recipes in there. I’ve just ordered a used copy, and I encourage you to do the same.

As with most recipes, I find that this one tastes best if I consider the listed quantity of garlic as a lower bound rather than an upper one–add more until it tastes amazing!

Coarse-Ground Mustard with Red Wine and Garlic

From Better Than Store-Bought, by Helen Witty and Elizabeth Schneider Colchie.

makes 3/4 to 1 cup

  • 1/4 cup mustard seeds (Hollis’s Note: I usually use yellow mustard seeds)
  • 1/4 cup red wine
  • 1/3 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/4 tsp. ground allspice
  • 1/2 tsp. honey
  • 1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. pureed garlic, or more if you’re mincing with a knife (Hollis’s Note: I usually use 3-6 cloves)
  • 1 1/2 tsps. coarse kosher salt
  • 1 bay leaf
  1. Combine the mustard seeds, red wine, and red wine vinegar in a dish, and let stand for 3+ hours.
  2. Put mixture in container of food processor or blender and add water, allspice, honey, pepper, garlic, salt, and bay leaf. Whirl to a fairly coarse texture. (Hollis’s Note: this can leave the bay leaf quite gritty and sharp, so I usually put the bay leaf in after the blending is done).
  3. Scrape into the upper part of a double boiler. Stir over simmering water for 5 to 10 minutes, or until the mustard has thickened somewhat, but is not as thick as prepared mustard. (Hollis’ Note: I usually do this in a regular flat-bottomed saucepan, stirring carefully and watching like a hawk.)
  4. Scrape the mustard into a jar and let cool, then cap and refrigerate. The mustard will keep indefinitely.

Copied from the Tornheims’ copy of Better Than Store-Bought by Helen Witty and Elizabeth Schneider Colchie on 2000/04/16.

Sometimes I add half a chile to the mixture to get a spicier mustard. In any case, I love this stuff, and I hope you’ll find it as delicious as I do!

Dance Funding: A Proposed Experiment

I’ve been on the periphery of lots of discussions lately about dance talent (musician/caller) pay, particularly in the contra dance world. I have a few hypotheses and a proposed experiment that I wonder if any dance communities would be interested in trying out.

It’s hard to talk usefully about money without using actual numbers. Otherwise, everything gets mired in assumptions. So the idea of transparency is fundamental here.

For those who aren’t touring musicians or callers, it may come as a surprise to learn that dance professionals are often paid less than the cost of the gas it takes to drive to the dance. It’s not uncommon for the pay, per person, to be less than $15/hour after accounting for immediate expenses, not including longer-term costs like instrument purchase, music lessons, car repair, insurance, web hosting for band sites, etc.

To be clear, this isn’t meant to be a rant against dance organizers. They’re good people doing a usually-thankless job, and they’re working hard to preserve and protect their communities of dancers.

There’s an essential tension in that dances are community events, and we all want to make sure that people can afford to attend them. My dance organizer friends (I used to be one, too) often point out that raising pay is impossible without raising prices, and they share their fear that raising prices will make dances inaccessible to poorer dancers. This is an important point! But I find myself wondering what data exists to help guide us.

There are lots of assumptions all around about “what would happen if”. Do we have data? If we did, I think it would make life a lot easier for dance organizers (who currently describe not being sure what their communities could support) and talent alike.

Hypothesis 1: most dancers have no idea how much dance talent gets paid.

Hypothesis 2: many dancers can afford to pay a few dollars more.

Hypothesis 3: if dancers knew how much dance talent gets paid, many of them would be willing to pay more to help.

In conversations with non-organizer dancers over the years, I’ve found people to be almost universally shocked to learn that, in 2016, the people who drove 700 miles (or even 40 miles!) to play the gig might be getting paid less than $80 to do it. I have lots of anecdotal evidence for Hypothesis 1. Anyone want to propose an experiment?

I’ve heard a lot of dancers say that they personally wouldn’t mind paying a bit more. This is part of why I advocate sliding fee scales. We used this model very effectively at Epic Skill Swap, and it helped solve a lot of thorny financial issues. Many dancers are mid- to upper-level professionals working in the tech and education industries, and it seems like a safe bet that Hypothesis 2 is true. Anyone want to propose an experiment? Has anyone surveyed their dance community to get actual data (anonymized, of course) about SES and ability/willingness to pay?

My experience is that sliding fee scales work much better when the participants can understand what they’re being asked to pay for and can clearly visualize the effects of their involvement. Thus my proposed experiment.

My proposed experiment

My experiment relates to Hypothesis 3. It goes like this:

  1. The dance organizers acquire a portable whiteboard (you can make a big one for less than $10 from materials at any building supply center like Lowe’s or Home Depot). This whiteboard will be prominently displayed at the front of the hall next to the caller, either suspended from a speaker stand or mounted on some form of easel. The idea is that it’s passively in view of all dancers, in a direction they tend to look, all night.
  2. The whiteboard gets annotated in table format like this:
    Caller: Band:
    Guarantee per person: $x $y
    Current door revenue per person: $0 $0
    Pay per person: $x $y
    Thank you for your generosity!
    Will you help support our talent by giving some extra money to the organizer at the door?

    $x and $y are whatever the dance has offered as guarantee (not all dances do this).

  3. Periodically throughout the evening, but at least at the end of the first half (just prior to the last dance) and near the end of the second half, a dance organizer will update the board based on the amount of money taken in at the door. So then the tables might look like:
    Caller: Band:
    Guarantee per person: $100 $100
    Current door revenue per person: $64 $64
    Pay per person: $100 $100
    Thank you for your generosity!
    Will you help support our talent by giving some extra money to the organizer at the door?

    and, later,

    Caller: Band:
    Guarantee per person: $100 $100
    Current door revenue per person: $64 $126 $64 $126
    Pay per person: $100 $126 $100 $126
    Thank you for your generosity!
    Will you help support our talent by giving some extra money to the organizer at the door?
  4. This is important: organizers ask dancers to help with this, on mic, during the announcements section. They also cheer the dancers when the door revenues cross the threshold of beating the guarantee, and they cheer the dancers for their generosity at the end of the night. We’re very overt about seeking financial support and about thanking people directly, immediately, and specifically for giving it.

The idea is that transparency gives all the people in the room a chance to see what’s happening and to evaluate how that sits with their financial priorities and values, and it gives them both a clear mechanism for effecting change and a method for getting feedback and social recognition for their efforts.

I think you’d want to run the experiment for at least three or four dances before you’d have much useful data to look at.

What do you think? Anyone interested in trying it? What issues do you see? How could we improve the experiment? Any other ideas about experiments to try?

Thanks for helping think about this and talk about solutions!

To Feel The Chill

It suffices, perhaps, to say that this has been a dark time.

A time of hope transmuted into fear, a time of disbelief, a time of anger, a time of labor, a time of love, a time of mute horror limned by swastikas and flaming crosses in the night.

Lately I find myself drifting through the days scarcely recognizing the world I seem to live in–a place where love of money and the will to power seem to trump all other notional virtues, where form and style and subterfuge beat substance every day. Amid all the promises broken and grimmer promises made, it’s hard not to wonder what rough beast, as the poem says, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born. So much of “Second Coming” seems prescient today.

There’s been a sense that it is time to man the barricades, time to fill the streets, time to fill every Congressional voicemail box, time to place our bodies on the line to protect those in danger, time to gather nails and hammers and steel ourselves to rebuild every last thing that gets torn down. That this is a moment when, as a nation, we are going to decide who and what we are, and that we cannot–must not–be found unequal to the task.

I share that sense. But a different thought keeps nipping at my heels.

As I’ve been making calls, writing letters, and trying to find a way to keep moving and acting through the despair, I’ve been musing about how much our society shies away from the experience of discomfort and suffering. I’ve heard lots of friends say “we can’t waste time thinking about what happened; we’ve got to keep moving”. We do our best to focus on what needs to be, not on what is. We work hard to avoid having to feel, especially when the feeling that’s waiting is despair.

So we take a painkiller, we turn up the heat, we try to focus on the positive, we tell ourselves that it’s all part of God’s plan, and we do our best to transform our experience and recast it in a different light. We try not to wallow, and we strive not to dwell.

It’s not working for me. The abyss remains, and I remain conscious of it. It haunts the dark corners of the day, always ready to ambush the unguarded mind. Perhaps you’re feeling this way too.

I’ve been trying something new. Tonight, I lit a single candle, turned off the heat, removed my socks and sweater, and sat on the floor gazing into the flame. As the room cooled and twilight stretched into full dark, I noticed the way my body began to shiver and then shake.  I tried to feel more intensely, rather than less. When my thoughts drifted toward rights and democracy, toward safety and freedom, toward fear and anger, toward fascism, and away again, I did my best to follow closely, not trying to redirect.

For perhaps an hour or two, I did my best to live with the panic, to feel the chill of winter in my bones and in my soul.

It’s awful, feeling this scared. I’m terrified about the safety of many, many people I love–all of whom stand to be hurt both by our new president’s policies and by the ugly spirit of hatred he’s gleefully unleashed. I often catch myself worrying that, if I really let myself think about what’s happening, I’d be swept away, unable to function anymore, a chip borne along by an unrelenting torrent. So I’ve tried to distract myself, to “keep my eye on the ball”, to keep showing up for things that matter, and to avoid dwelling on the abyss.

Yet it remains.

I’ve noticed that the act of trying to avoid “going there”, of distracting myself from really thinking about how bad things are, takes a lot of work. It uses a lot of mental energy. I should say that it wastes a lot of mental energy, since the abyss remains and I remain conscious of it. And that waste of energy saps resolve and undermines effort until it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that the best lack all conviction–while the worst remain full of passionate intensity. That’s a loss we can ill afford.

So, I’m trying something new: seeing whether, in a darkened room lit by a single flame, I might be able to face what scares me and draw strength for fighting back.

So far, it seems to be working. After an hour of mild physical discomfort and serious anguish, I found my mind quieting down and turning, more calmly, toward doing what needs to be done. That’s a more productive headspace for me. Maybe for you, too.


Fermata / Rokeby House (sound recording)

Ruth Whitney Picture
Ruth Whitney, 1922-2015

This year, Memorial Day is a fitting title—we’ll celebrate the life of my grandmother, Ruth Whitney, as we place her ashes into the ground.

I say “we”, but I won’t be among those present; I’ll be teaching workshops at Epic Skill Swap in New Hampshire and then performing with Frost and Fire at the Brattleboro Dawn Dance in Vermont. So we agreed that I would record myself reading Fermata, the poem I wrote shortly after one of my final visits to Ruth in the nursing home.

I paired it with Rokeby House, a tune I wrote years ago in honor of the Robinson family homestead in Ferrisburgh, VT—a stop on the Underground Railroad, home of noted abolitionists, and site of Frost and Fire’s first concert.

As a music student at Swarthmore years ago, I remember a persistent fear that my grandmother’s health would fail, and that I’d be called upon to compose a requiem mass in her honor. Too much time spent watching Amadeus as a child, I guess. I’d wake from sleep sometimes worried that I hadn’t even started composing, didn’t have any motives or ideas to work with… and that, when the time came, I would be caught without an answer, unable to help.

I’m not sure where that fear came from, but it faded over time, as most nightmares do. Time and Ruth carried on… and I stopped composing in the classical world and began defining myself as the traditional musician I’ve now become. I forgot about the requiem mass.

Ruth was a stellar musician, a world-class soprano who sang opera and the classics of the Western canon on major stages across the globe. It is fitting that she be remembered with music crafted in her honor. But as time has passed, my musical leanings have grown less ostentatious and more spare. No formal requiem mass. But I still wanted to honor her, and mark the occasion, with music. Here, then, is my reflection on the passing of her last hours, set to a tune I wrote. It’s simple, and I hope she would have approved.

I love you, Grandma. I hope that, wherever you are, there’s music.

Fix The Problem, Not The Blame

fix, verb.

  1. To repair, improve, return to service, heal, remunerate, compensate, or prevent from recurring. “She fixed the problem”, “the doctor fixed my bad knee”, or “we’ll fix it”.
  2. To immobilize, assign, stick, ascribe, prevent from moving, or render unchangeable. “Fix your eyes on this”, “it’s a fix”, or “the anchor fixes the boat in place”.

When a problem comes along, four fundamental questions travel with it: why it happenedhow we can fix it, how we can prevent it, and who’s to blame for it.

They’re all relevant. They’re all important. But if your aim is to fix the problem, do your best to let go of whose fault it was. Spend your energy instead on understanding what caused it and how to repair the damage.

Sure, problems are often caused by a person’s mistakes or poor decisions. That definitely belongs in your root-cause analysis, and you should make sure that the same thing doesn’t happen again. But once you’ve figured out why the problem happened and how to fix it and prevent it in future, it’s just not that useful to focus on whose fault it was. Fixing the blame—assigning it to a person—takes time away from other tasks and builds resentment, and you don’t get much value in return.

When people fix blame, what are they achieving? Okay, you’ve figured out whose fault the problem was… so what? How does that help you?

It certainly doesn’t make the current problem go away: if you break a bone, the doctor can’t fix it by saying “you should have been more careful!”. If your kid gets a bad grade, you can’t improve it by saying “I told you over and over again to study harder!”. Often there are action items in there—cautious behavior, better study skills—that are useful in making a prevention plan for the future, but the blaming part doesn’t add much value.

Yet we do this all the time. How often have you heard people yelling, when there’s a problem, about who should have done something differently? Shouting that someone else did something dumb? Arguing about responsibility and blame as if those things will somehow change the situation?

We rely on blame, thinking that it will motivate others not to make the same mistakes again, thinking that if we can shame people hard enough, they’ll stop screwing up. Sometimes, it’s even true: blame does motivate people to change their behavior. But it’s a poor tool even in the best craftsmen’s hands, and there are better ones available.

Accountability is important. I’m not asking you to pretend that people don’t contribute to problems, nor am I suggesting that we shouldn’t hold them accountable. I’m saying that blame—the hot, emotional, shame-filled Red Hat concept—isn’t very useful. Determine the causes, address them directly, and keep moving.

Fix the problem, not the blame.

Many thanks to Karen Butler Easter, who taught me both this concept and this framing in my early days as a manager.