Remembering Suzanne: An elegy in correspondence

The last email exchange I had with Suzanne Davenport—leader of NYC’s Violin Femmes, instructor at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, and committed tapir conservation enthusiast—was in May of this year. In it, she wrote of a recent tapir benefit concert of hers that I had apologized for missing:

Don’t worry about the missed event. It was absolutely amazing though, I will say, great music, 3 original tapir songs, although not performed by tapirs but fellow artists, we had a surprise guest from Japan who played monk-punk in his traditional Japanese monk outfit and his basket over his head, we had super cute hand knitted tapirs and hand printed tapir shirts – we left few stones unturned and whipped everyone into a tapir frenzy. It went so far that there were knitted Tapir Kidnappings and ransom notes! (Happy ending). All in all totally awesome.

Needless to say, I was pretty crazy about this woman.

Woman standing with tapir animal

Suzanne with a tapir, her favorite

On January 2 of this year, we commiserated about the results of the presidential election. She wrote:

No words. Only 😱😱😱. Even more so I hope to see you in 2017 – we have to stick together!!!

In 2016, when I lamented missing another of her gigs, she replied warmly:

It is so easy to grow apart in the big city, and the Femmes have taken a little bit a different path the last year, but tonight we just rocked it and I think we are back on the prawl (isn’t that a word? The thing big cats do, what’s that called). I am getting better with social media, but still a far cry from what’s possible – it does help to at least FEEL in touch.

In 2015, when I told her I’d moved in with Arthur, she replied hilariously:

April, congratulations to the moving in with the beloved! For me of course it means I can’t send you any cards as I don’t know your address. But honestly, I don’t write that often – you certainly get more out of moving.

I first met Suzanne five years ago through our mutual friend Anya, who also played in the Violin Femmes. In 2014, I wrote about them for Brokelyn. Suzanne had been a professional performing musician in her native Germany, making a good living. When she moved to NYC in 2002, she founded the Violin Femmes to give adult musicians (mostly women over 40) a venue for performing publicly (usually in the subway and on street corners), no matter their level. Why did this pro devote so much time and energy to a music gig that was poised to pay just above diddly squat?

I just really love to give these guys this opportunity to play music with each other. It’s a very democratic band, it’s not “my band;” everybody has the same say in what we do. But on a very small level, I feel that starting and maintaining it has been my contribution to adult music education. It gives me an enormous amount of satisfaction. It’s my favorite thing I do musically.

Women playing the violin dressed like Santa

The Violin Femmes rock the NYC subway one fine holiday (Suzanne on the far left)

Suzanne approved of the Brokelyn story, writing to me:

April, that is amazing! You will make us famous.

After that, Suzanne and I got to sending each other the occasional picture postcard or small package containing items such as (according to my journal) an “acorn holly cluster” and sheet music for the Violent Femmes song “Blister in the Sun.” In response to one of her gift boxes, it appears I replied, in part: “Awesome dream your friend had about the golden glasses, though I’m with you that the gift of fun could be just as valuable.” The fact that I can’t remember exactly what delighting volley of Suzanne’s I was replying to is evidence of just how rich the fruits of her friendship were.

Last month, on November 10, Suzanne died suddenly and completely unexpectedly of a heart attack.

While I know she was too cool to have been serious about wanting to get famous, Suzanne did achieve celebrity status in the minds and hearts of her students, collaborators, friends, family members, and everyone she impressed on the streets of New York City with her instant generosity, super-friendly take-no-shit vibe, and of course her musical skill—which were all evident even (or maybe especially) when she was wearing a burlap sack and a Santa hat.

Suzanne’s husband Scott (who, if I remember right, she met at a bar in Hell’s Kitchen over a pack of Pall Malls some years ago), set up this wonderful memorial page for her. When I tied the knot last year, she wrote to me:

I thought I’d never get married and it’s one of the best things I have done. 💝

Of course, all of this is just the tiniest tip of the iceberg. I wasn’t even a close friend of Suzanne’s, and still she maintained a thoughtful and enchanting correspondence with me for years. I never felt she had forgotten about me, or wouldn’t be happy to see me at her next show or for a sit-down pint-and-chat. Especially in the ‘big city,’ cultivating such an easy familiarity over time and distance is rare. But Suzanne was rare.

My heart goes out to Scott and everyone else who knew and loved Suzanne. I think she would be glad to know that she’s given us all so many good experiences and lessons. In a frenetic and selfish world, she modeled how to stick together—namely, by showing up, in every way, every time. Now, she reminds us to regard our lives and relationships as the miraculous and chancy gifts they are. Thank you, Suzanne. Your genius will live on.

Making peace with the sponsored post

Given my historic predilection for writing about (allegedly) unsexy topics such as congestion pricing, volunteering in retirement, and participatory urban development, it’s no wonder that when Katarina “Don’t Wait for Permission to be Awesome” Hybenova, founder of Bushwick Daily, needs someone to write a sponsored post about a local credit union or end-of-life planning, she rings my bell.

Think unsexy thoughts Simpsons Barney

“Think unsexy thoughts… Think unsexy thoughts…”

I will admit that the idea of writing sponsored articles sat a little uneasily with me at first, because I’m generally angered and saddened by advertising’s incessant and ever-deepening march into every aspect our lives. That said!, if boss little publications like Bushwick Daily are to keep the lights on (and I sure hope they do), someone’s got to foot the bill. If that boils down to a choice between giving readers free access to the site in exchange for throwing some sidebar ads and commissioned stories into the mix, or making readers pay individually to fund BD‘s work, I’ll go with the former.

You know what, though? In this case, it’s not even as doom-and-gloom as that. The kinds of organizations that support BD are pretty much the best kinds of organizations: they’re grassroots neighborhood staples, self-made small businesses, international nonprofits—even startups on a mission to make clean power cheaper! So really, how could I complain?

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need advertising—but heck, we wouldn’t need money, either! So until Reverend Billy & the Church of Stop Shopping become our president and congress, respectively, I hope you’ll enjoy reading about these boss organizations on one of the best little blogs in Brooklyn, and that you’ll support your own local micro-journalism outlets in whatever way best floats your boat.

Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving!

This weekend in Brooklyn: Sound summer camp for badass young ladies!

Teen girls with headphones and microphones

When I took the Bushwick Daily assignment to write about SoundGirls.org’s Live Sound Camps for Girls, I thought it would be cool. Music, Brooklyn, empowering teenage girls—what’s not to like?

Well, I was right! There was nothing not to like about writing this story.

The end!

SoundGirls.org logo

No, no—of course there is more. But it’s the good kind of more!

It turned out that in addition to getting acquainted with an awesome nonprofit that connects female sound engineers the world over, hearing wonderful stories about girls learning to rock intimidating audio gear, and bookmarking the knowledge of this traveling summer camp program for the next time I meet a cool teenage girl, I also got to spend half an hour talking with the woman who’s been Pearl Jam’s sound engineer for the last 25 years: SoundGirls.org’s executive director and co-founder, Karrie Keyes!

I will pause to mention that, while I do enjoy me some classic Pearl Jam, I was even more stoked and awed to learn that Karrie has also worked with Sonic Youth, Fugazi, and Neil Young, and did a 10-year stint as the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ monitor engineer.

Waynes World not worthy

ANYWAY, what Karrie’s doing with SoundGirls.org is just as cool as all that, of course. Check it out, and if you know an NYC-area teenage girl who’d appreciate the chance to get her audio on this weekend, do spread the word!

Deconstructing guns with Of Note magazine & artist Jessica Fenlon

“Gun violence is a women’s issue,” begins editorial director Grace Aneiza Ali’s introduction to the latest issue of her magazine Of Note. Grace goes on to explain that while ‘gun culture’ in America is dominated by men, it’s women who bear the brunt of gun violence:

  • Every 16 hours, an American woman is fatally shot by a current or former intimate partner.
  • 80% of people shot to death by their intimate partners in the U.S. each year are women.
  • Women are 16 times more likely to die by guns in the U.S. than in any other developed country.

Yet the silence and stigmas that blanket most of our country’s gender inequalities continue to hamper efforts to combat the gun violence that hurts women most.

Of Note magazine cover with gun image

“The 10 multidisciplinary women artists in Of Note‘s ‘The Gun Issue’ engage the gun as an art object in their artistic practices,” Grace continues. “In doing so, they confront the infiltration of guns in our day-to-day lives.”

It would be tough to think of a more vital and urgent topic to write or read about. Couple that with the fact that I have long been a huge fan of Grace’s, and you can imagine my excitement when she asked if I would interview one of those 10 artists and contribute a story to Of Note‘s Gun Issue.

While I would have been eager to speak with any of them (you can see they’re all spectacular), I wound up feeling especially lucky to have been paired with Jessica Fenlon, a brave, articulate, and intuitive poet and visual artist, currently based in Milwaukee. Jessica uses a process she calls “glitch sabotage” to visually break images of guns in an effort to neutralize their danger. As she said it:

“There’s a feeling of power, of control, in that moment of, ‘Here’s this thing that kills all these people, and I’m just going to break a bunch of them!’”

Jessica went on to say a lot more interesting things as we talked—but please don’t take my word for it. If you’re interested in art, guns, women, technology, reading, thinking, and/or Pittsburgh, I hope you’ll check the story out when you have time for a sit-down read. Extra credit if you drop me a line to let me know what you thought.

Pleasant surprise: My favorite interview gets the royal weirdo treatment!

One of the coolest things about freelancing (and about life on earth) is that you never know what’ll happen next. Sometimes, you can go through days or weeks without anything much unpredictable taking place. But sometimes, you walk out of an event at Carnegie Hall and go to get your bike and there’s a plastic cup of wine sitting on your bike seat.

Plastic cup of wine on a bike seat

True story.

Or sometimes, you wake up and there’s a nice email in your inbox that says, “Hi, April. I came across your Medium story and would love to republish it on our site pionic.org. What do you think?”

What did I think? I believe my exact thoughts were: “Cool!” followed by, “What is Pionic.org?”

If you’re a Luddite who lives under a rock (like me), you might not have heard of Pionic, either, but it turns out it’s a pretty cool website that posts stories with names like, “Can There Be a Theory of Everything?” and “Squirrels Have Long Memory For Problem Solving.” I’m glad to have joined their club.

The Secret Lives of Vinyl Hoarders pionic story headline

You can check out my favorite interview given new life on Pionic right here. (I mean it’s my favorite interview that I’ve done. Of the ones I haven’t done, this 1995 New York magazine article that features a vaguely interview-like conversation between Martha Stewart and David Letterman might be my favorite.)

“…as i hit the gas and crash it through a store front window.”

So goes the last half of the last sentence of what is so far my favorite vignette in the very great Rick Berlin’s newish book, The Paragraphs.

Musician Rick Berlin at the Midway Cafe Boston March 2014

Rick at the Midway Cafe, March 2014

I’ve known Rick since my college days in Boston, and have had the joy of seeing many of his live performances, attending the first Jamaica Plain Music Festival (which he helps to organize), and writing about him a few times. I also once convinced the doorman in his old Piano Factory apartment building to let me sleep in the basement when I didn’t have anywhere else to go! Yes, Rick and I go way back.

Over the years, I’ve been the lucky recipient of much correspondence from Rick—both of the personal and email blast varieties. His fearless writing (as I was stoked to be quoted as saying in the opening pages of The Paragraphs) is vital and disarming, and it makes me so happy to know that some of it has finally been anthologized.

Read more about Rick in this awesome Boston Globe article from last month (written by the also great Joan Anderman, @middlemojo) and git your copy from Jamaica Plain’s own Cutlass Press. It’s a great companion on the subway, while waiting for the doc to see you, and in bed at night, when it’s the last thing on your mind before you fall asleep.

The Trump presidency isn’t the only reason to start planning for your demise

You’re still gonna die someday, no matter who’s president! Dem’s da breaks, folks.

Elon Musk spacesuit

Unless…?

No one can game this system (well, maybe Elon Musk?), but we can go a long way toward making sure we shuffle off this mortal coil gracefully—at least with regard to our worldly stuff.

I recently spoke with an NYC-based estate law and probate attorney who gave me some good end-of-life planning tips that people of any age and economic status can use to help their friends and family avoid painful posthumous guesswork.

For her complete primer, and a few other attempts at making reading about wills and healthcare directives fun, you can peep my article in Bushwick Daily.

Oh, and as for that whole Trump-giving-everyone-suicidal-anxiety thing, here’s a bit of a cheerer-upper. Today is The Ides of Trump! Send a postcard and take a deep, life-affirming breath.

Hey Brooklyn: Divest from filth, get help with your taxes, & eat free pizza*

Brooklyn is home to so many great institutions: BAM, the Wonder WheelChamps Diner.

I recently added a new favorite to my list: the Brooklyn Cooperative Federal Credit Union!

At the behest of Bushwick Daily, I attended a free workshop at Brooklyn Cooperative last month called Tax Tips for Freelancers. Not only did I soak up some sound tax advice, I also…

  • Met a bunch of cool fellow freelancers—among them a party planner, a bike messenger, and a soap maker (so fun)
  • Spoke at length with two of the credit union’s knowledgeable and righteous employees—one of whom also teaches self-defense and leads tours in Cuba!
  • Was offered some great-looking free pizza, which I only turned down because I had just eaten (but I’ll come prepared next time; oh yes I will)
Pizza and money gif

While I cannot argue with this sentiment, our event went a lot better than this

Just as importantly, I was also turned on to some crucial information about credit unions that I had sort of failed to internalize before, such as the fact that they’re nonprofit organizations. Credit unions are owned by members (not shareholders), so they don’t have a business’s usual mandate to make money—just a mission to offer fair and affordable financial services to their community. They also don’t invest members’ money in the stock market, earning their income instead by making fair rate loans and charging small fees for some types of accounts.

Sounds fresh, right?

A Brooklyn Cooperative employee (the self-defense person, actually) offered this nice call to action: “If you’re interested in divesting from banks that fund pipelines and contribute to the housing crisis, switching your checking and savings accounts to a credit union is a great choice.”

I’m on it, Brooklyn Cooperative! Thanks for the timely inspiration.

Read the whole fun-filled, fact-filled article on Bushwick Daily.

*While Brooklyn usually feels like the center of -slash only place in the universe to me, I understand there are credit unions all over the country. Woo hoo! Can’t say they all offer free pizza at their free workshops, though. If you find out, let me know.

Looking for a practical, ongoing way to make a positive difference post-election?

I thought you might be!

Here’s one idea that checks all of the following boxes:

  • It will keep us thinking critically and articulating our thoughts about political issues in the coming year and beyond, on a regular basis
  • It will let our elected representatives know where we stand on key issues likely to be affected by the Trump administration (climate change, freedom of the press, reproductive rights, racism, immigration…)
  • It doesn’t cost anything but a couple of postage stamps and a bit of printer ink each week
  • It can be accomplished at any time of day or night, in the comfort of your home (and in your pajamas, if you so choose), in 30 minutes or less, once a week
  • It will introduce you to a grip (so far 110 and counting) of excellent people nationwide who are also committing to this peaceful act of democracy
  • Unlike complaining to our already-sympathetic friends and family in our living rooms (which I also fully intend to go on doing), this actually might help us sway decision-making at the highest levels of government

What is it??

Why, it’s a good old fashioned letter writing campaign!

Letter writing campaign

Image borrowed from DayAgainstHomophobia.org

My new friend Katie is organizing people nationwide who pledge to send one brief letter a week to our respective state’s senators (and district reps, too, if we choose) about important issues we want to weigh in on. We’ll start right after the inauguration. The group is pooling ideas for topics to write about and talking points to include, so the letter-penning task won’t turn into hours of homework for anyone. (AKA: You don’t need to be a policy wonk to make your letters meaningful! You just need to show you care.)

While of course we’d love for anyone and everyone to get in on this, we’re especially looking for people who live in “red” or mixed states or congressional districts to get on board, as well as people who live in places that experienced an unexpected swell of Trump support in the voting booths.

Here’s a document Katie drafted called The Big Idea which explains everything a little more, and one I drafted with a fun photo at the top.

If you think you might want to take part, awesome!! Just fill out this quick form, or send an email to Katie at shallnotperish2016@gmail.com with the subject “Deal Me In” and your city and state in the body. She’ll give you more details and you can decide if you want to take part.

Thanks, fellow travelers! I’m glad to have you around as we gear up for the unknown.