Just Ask

A few days ago, I walked into the bookstore that is just downstairs from one of my clients and asked the shop owner, "What have you read recently that you just loved?" I walked away with a book I know will make a great Mothers Day present for my wife, the first book of a series that sounds fantastic, and a half dozen other recommendations for future purchases.

Unsurprisingly, walking into a bookstore and asking the shopkeeper, "What do you just love?" Will put good books into your hands. "I love [name of book/genre/subject], what do you recommend?" does the same. This works in libraries too. Also, record stores. I’ve even seen it work in restaurants.

The other day, when out to lunch, I asked the server what the "Yum Yum" sauce on one of their specials tasted like. He attempted to describe it and I got the general idea but, without my asking, he went a step further and brought out a small sample of it. He knew that the best answer he could give was to let the sauce speak for itself. I didn’t end up getting the dish but I likely will next time (the sauce was good).

The point being that, in general, at many independent establishments the people who are there are experts at what they have, what’s good, and what you’ll likely enjoy. They love being asked for their opinion and a surprisingly few amount of people do so. So, take a chance next time you’re in one and ask questions. My bet is that you’ll be happy you did.

Our Prince

I was about ten years old when I first got turned on to the music of Prince. It was my next door neighbor, Michael Johnson, who got me into Prince. We were hanging out one day and he told me about this guy I just had to hear. He put on For You. It was funky and challenged many of my notions I had had up to that point about so many things.

But, it wasn’t just the music that hooked me. Michael told me that Prince was a local guy. Not just local to Minneapolis but local to South Minneapolis — our ‘hood. He graduated from Central High — just like my Dad had a few years before him. He grew up only about a mile away. I soon found out that just about everyone in the neighborhood had some direct connection to this kid — they knew him. They went to school with him or played basketball down at the park with him, or their sister dated him, or played in some basement band with him, or they just saw him around. This skinny kid with the giant afro who was either always in the music room or on the basketball court. This kid who in just a couple of more years would become known worldwide.

I became a big fan. A fan of the music and the little guy I heard so much about around where I lived. Later on, we moved away — to Iowa City, IA and then to New Haven, CT. Prince’s fame began to grow. First with Controversy then with 1999. No matter where I went, when I mentioned that I was from Minneapolis, people immediately brought up Prince. “Oh, where that Prince guy is from! ” or “Isn’t that where Prince is from?”. It worked the other way too. If someone gave me a somewhat quizzical look when I mentioned Minneapolis, all I would have to say was, “Where Prince is from…” and the recognition was immediate.

By the time I moved back to Minneapolis, Prince was a huge star. The whole world knew about him now. Purple Rain had just come out and his music was everywhere. His videos running every hour on MTV. And, in too many ways to count, he literally put the Minneapolis music scene on the map. And, there was so much happening here. The punk scene was exploding with great bands like Hüsker Dü and The Replacements. Prince himself was bringing up his friends with him like Morris Day and The Time. It was one of those magical times in the city when, every night, you could go out to a local club and hear a band or artist that now is a household name. Of course, Prince was bigger than all of them — a bonafide superstar now.

But Prince never left. He could have had houses all over the world or lived anywhere he wanted but he always called Minneapolis home. Almost everyone in Minneapolis and Saint Paul had a Prince story. He lived here. He worked here. He played here. He showed up and sat in with some local band, or was at some restaurant, or was buying fruit at the supermarket. No matter how famous he got, what levels of superstardom he achieved, he was always just Prince here in the city the world now knew. He was always around and everyone could tell you a personal story about him.

I say all of this not only to tell you the story of what Prince meant to me in a formative era in my life but so that you can understand the depth of the loss we are feeling here in this city — in his city. Imagine if New York City lost the Empire State Building, or Paris lost The Eiffel Tower… Well, we lost Prince. We lost the icon that the rest of the world knew us by. We lost the symbol that was our city to so much of the rest of the world. The thing that, no matter where you went beyond this place, all you had to do was say his name and people knew and respected where you came from.

He’s gone now, but just like the Empire State Building or The Eiffel Tower, people will not forget. There’s a great line in the in the musical Hamilton about the idea that we have no control over who lives or dies or tells our story. We don’t have control over any of that. But, what we can control is to make sure we become a part of a place, or a part of the people there, so that there are stories to tell should people wish to tell them. The better the stories we leave, the more likely people will be to tell them. Prince left a lot of stories to tell and we will be telling them here amongst each other and to the rest of the world for a long time to come. He left us some great stories.

(The photo above is the last known photo taken of him, riding his bike back to the office, just like normal.)

Let Her Teach You

My daughter, Beatrix, takes violin lessons. She uses a quarter sized violin that has been passed around various members of my wife’s family for years until they grew to a larger size. We knew, because of its age and use, that it would need a little bit of maintenance after it was passed to her. New strings were needed and handled by her teacher. But, the bow needed to be re-haired and that is best done by a professional. So, I took it to a local Luthier who came recommended highly by her teacher.

Walking into his shop was immediately stirring. Violins, violas, and the random cello were everywhere. The smell of old wood and off-gassing lacquer filled my nose. all of this coupled with a gentle greeting by the Luthier gave one the immediate sense that this was a kind of chapel. A sacred temple for the practice, care, and continuation of an ancient art.

I gave him the violin, showed him the bow, and explained what I needed. I commented on some of the other items I noticed may be needed, beyond just the bow, to get his expert opinion. Perhaps it was the way I asked my questions or understood his answers but something caused him to ask, “Do you play?”

I explained to him that I grew up in a very musical family. My Grandmother was a concert classical pianist. My mother also plays at that level. And, my siblings all play at a concert performance level as well. Growing up, learning an instrument was considered as much of a part of my education as school itself. It was required.

I further explained there is a wild “writer” gene in my family that, like a random quark, strikes certain members with that ability and seems to knock out whatever talent or desire to excel at an instrument may exist in them. I told him that I did take both violin and cello lessons as a kid but, have not played in years. I told him that, lately, I have felt a pull to pick up instruments I abandoned as a child and play them again. My daughter takes piano, voice, and music theory as well and seems to pick things up quickly. I told him getting her to practice violin was sometimes a struggle though, despite the fact she’s pretty good and a fast learner.

He said, gently, “You should play. Not just for yourself, but for her. But, more than that, you should let her teach you. If you let her teach you what she is learning, because of your age and past experience, you’ll catch on quickly and it’ll make her feel like a good teacher. It will empower her and make her feel in control. This will make her a more confident player. Then, practice will no longer be drudgery but something fun you do together.”

I was struck dead in my tracks by this idea. It seemed at once mysterious and obvious. Like he was telling me a secret I already knew but hadn’t yet believed.

At Beatrix’s next lesson, I told her teacher about this conversation and she thought it was a fantastic idea. “I have a whole closet full of full size violins. You’re welcome to borrow one.” Done.

So, I have now taken several “lessons” from Beatrix, and the results of both her interest, learning, and time spent practicing teaching are like the difference between night and day. No fighting, struggle, or argument over practicing. None of her getting frustrated or bored after five minutes. None of my feeling like getting her to practice is like getting her to swallow cod liver oil. We simply have fun playing her lessons together and, on average, do so for a half hour or more. It’s great and some of the best time I’ve spent in the last few weeks.

I suspect as well that this would work just as well with sports, or dance, or anything that requires similar practice. So, if you have a similar struggle around practice time at your house, perhaps try letting your kids teach you.

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