Normally I would skim this part of the holiday season. Perhaps after a Christmas week of gross over-indulgence I’d mumble some gibberish to myself about saving money and skipping cookies, but truth be told, I’m generally a penny-pincher with an extracted sweet tooth. This year, however, I came up with something to resolve. In 2011, I will only patronize local, independent businesses – it will be a concerted effort, a year of conscience in consumerism.
So I guess that makes me trendy, right?
Seriously, this is going to be tricky. How to define local? or independent? There’s a lot of research to be done, kinks to iron, and a few unfortunate sectors of my personal budget that are irretrievably stuck in big business.
Best as I can see from here, January 1st, 2011, the problems and the perks look something like this:

1. Definitions. I’m going to restrict myself to only opening my wallet at stores that are either second-hand, or have fewer than a half-dozen locations, provided that they all reside within a single state. Goods purchased within a shop may have been produced by a large corporation, or transported long distances to their final resting place, but that’s unavoidable in some cases. There are, of course, no Ma-and-Pa toilet paper producers in Iowa, and determined though I am, I will not live without that this year. Every effort will be made to purchase independently produced goods (my handy-working friends may get a few more personal orders this year) whenever possible.
2. Those sectors of the economy that almost entirely prohibit my goal. Direct energy consumption in the forms of gasoline and home utilities are non-negotiable and completely tied up in the grid. Wood heat is no option according to my landlords, so conceded I am, at least for this year.

A few preach-free Perks:
1. No more fast food! Just think, all of those suburbanite conglomerations of chain restaurants at the crossroads of any two interstates are completely off-limits. Traveling will involve improved planning and my Green Bay Packer food cooler is going to see more mileage than it’s ever known. Like many folks’ resolutions, I’m likely to lose a little weight and eat healthier because impulse eating will be too complicated for satisfaction.
2. Saving money. Although I’m likely to pay a little more for nearly all goods I purchase, I expect to purchase less, probably just the true necessities. I might have to get damn creative (or learn how to knit) in some instances, and there certainly won’t be any of those “clearance rack” knee-jerks.

I’m excited to see if this will really be possible. I foresee awkward social situations, regular lunch dates being transplanted, and “oh, shit!” moments of pure panic if any of my major kitchen appliances break-down. I hope to keep a log of the panics and pay-offs on this blog in addition to the semi-monthly peppering of drivel normally present.

Stay tuned!

Principles of Primaries,

generative colors:

Sparkling yellow sun,

Silvery blue sky and

big Red Barns.

My next door neighbor is a Shiatsu therapist. Upon making this discovery I stopped in to have some work done. Gentle background music was playing as I got settled in. When the session started my neightbor asked, “does the music bother you? I know sometimes musicians would rather have silence.”

“Oh, no,” I said, “Just no Pachelbel.”

Grins exchanged, and then he responded. “You know, when you’re practicing, I just open the window and turn the music off, and my clients and I listen to you.”

Oh god, I think, 4 hours a day of my finest slide-issimos and open strings, and his poor paying customers have to sit through it! Pull it together Karls, don’t panic…

“Do you hear all my swearing?” I question.

“No, your voice doesn’t carry, just your violin.”

“So you don’t hear all those f-words?”


An important and friendly neighborhood exchange – puts a little bit more of my life into perspective.

I know it’s not polite to stare, but at the moment, I can’t help myself. Here I am, sitting on the bus headed north, watching a grown woman suck her thumb. An otherwise fully functional adult, well dressed and carrying on a phone conversation, who just happens to place her thumb in her mouth at every conceivable interval. Initially I thought she cut herself. That would explain the odd phenomenon. But alas, when she fell asleep an hour into the trip, with her face against the window and thumb inside her face, I knew there could be no other explanation. I don’t mean to be cruel, but this peculiar sighting has got me thinking.


Are we acting younger than ever before?

Last night I enjoyed a long visit with my old friend, Tamiko. We talked about violin playing, people we used to know, and the bemoaned inevitability of aging. The big 2-5 is coming up for me in a few months, and I fear I won’t take it well. I know, I know – it’s not that old, and life is just beginning – I know. If I’d been born 50 years ago we’d all be singing a different tune though. My mother was married at 5 years younger than what I am now – and so were all of her siblings. Most of my many aunts and uncles were working full-time, owning a home and starting a family by 25.The generation is officially a mere twenty years, but I’ll be lucky to just finish school before menopause rears its ugly head. It’s a sad irony that for 20-odd years my eyes were deadlocked on the future, anxiously wishing the be older, legitimized; and then one day I hit a brick wall and yearned for a reverse gear.

Tamiko tells me that 30 is the new 20. Many of our parents generation were able to get a good job right out of high school. The Wisconsin paper mills and cheese factories were safe, steady employers that you could count on for a lifetime of supporting your family. Now college or trade school is practically non-negotiable, even graduate degrees in many fields. A long time musical mentor of mine told me that when he was in school the only reason people got DMA’s back then was if they weren’t good enough to get a job after their Masters. I’m feeling pretty confident that I won’t be handed a salaried position in the next few years, so buying time amassing the cornucopia of graduate degrees available to a musician seems like a good idea. By my mid thirties it would be nice to have a comfortable living, but I’m not expecting anything before then. In this way 30 could be like what it was to be 20 for my elders.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. Voting and buying beer aside, being an adult is a gas. I’m lucky enough to be doing exactly what I love, all the time, and bringing home some lean bacon in the process. There are things I wouldn’t feel ready for at my age; and home-ownership and child rearing are among the mix. Independence is a slow process for me, and I imagine for many, as we slowly move away from our parental support net. I still share a cell phone plan with my folks, and now (thank you, Obama) a health insurance policy. Is it harder for our generation to get up on its own feet than ever before? Or were our folks just stronger, braver, and more rugged? Could the globalized market be to blame, with the exodus of unskilled jobs and the competitive edge climbing on middle class employment? Maybe we can blame Walmart and its loyal consumers for their thirst for cheap goods, driving prices down and sinking wages with them?

I don’t have the answers, I just ask questions. I’m no longer young enough to think I know everything, and no where near old and wise. I’m just a kid, not even 25.

Once when jump-roping as a sweaty six-year old, with the oldies-but-goodies streaming out the living room window and onto the sunny patio, I had the most (probably only) prophetic thought of my life. I told my Mom that I wanted to write songs someday, but feared that by the time I grew up all the possible melodies would have been written. Like any logical six year old, I figured that the history of music had begun at my birth, and that the totality of it had been expressed to me by my parents’ Elton John and John Denver CDs. Even so, there could only be so many combinations of pitches, and I had no doubt that by the time I hit puberty they’d all be figured out.

Though I often still worry that there’s little left undone, I’m thankful that I was indeed wrong about this. If doing something new is the lifeblood of our art (and maybe it’s not) then I’m glad there are still people coming up with fresh ideas.  To that end, here is a recording of a newer peice by composer Liam O’Brien that I performed with soprano Erica Hamilton a few weeks ago in Wisconsin.

The World Was Born When I Was Born

Performed in Appleton, Wi on April 17th, 2010 by Anna Reiser, piano and Megan Karls, violin.

I fill the cracks in my freelancer’s income by working part-time at a little coffee shop down the road. I’ve been at Brewed Awakenings on and off for the last three years. What began as a job to pay the rent my last year of undergrad became a steady gig to come back to after my first attempt with graduate school. On the weekends I tromp in late after concerts and rehearsals to bake midnight muffins; and for a few mornings a week I’m some kind of hybrid between barista and short-order cook. In general, the job is fun, and I make it my point to try hard not to try too hard.

The other day I was staring down an excessively full bowl of chicken gumbo on our journey to a table when a customer asked if he could give me a bit of advice.

“Don’t fill it so full next time?” I asked, sarcastically.

“No,” he said, “don’t watch the soup.” I grinned, thinking that if I didn’t watch the mess as it was about the unfold, then I’d never have a chance to intercept it.

“You see, I used to wait tables, in the ‘seventies, in Evanston, and you never watch the soup. You’ll freak yourself out.” My advisor, now a successful lawyer in town, no doubt put himself through school doing exactly what it is I’m doing now. He empathized better than I knew.

This parcel of wisdom got me thinking. A wise violinist told me recently that control is an illusion. I have a tendency to micro-manage as a violinist. My desire to squeeze some ideal of perfection into each and every articulation, shift, squiggle of vibrato, etc. causes me to lose the forest for the trees. In my quest for perfect planning and intention, I inhibit myself both physically and emotionally. Similarly, my lunch customer isn’t going to care if I poured him an extra half-ounce of gumbo when it’s spilled all over his saucer.

To me, “don’t watch the soup” is like the freckled step-sister of “a watched pot never boils” – what I obsess over in the short term is not so different from the constant long term planning I attempt. This winter I’d been working hard to reapply to graduate schools, and once the auditions were over, the agonizing waiting game began. For a few weeks I was running to the mailbox each day, heart pounding, hoping to get that fat envelope full of good news. Once the deadline came and went, I began to reconcile myself to another year of breves, biscotti and brownies. Then finally, news – and great news at that, yet never exactly how I’d planned.

Each year I try learn to let a little more go, and let life come as it will. If there’s a struggle that impedes me equally as a violinist as it impedes me in every other facet of life, it is this one. Maybe that’s what draws me to this four-stringed world. The violin is like a personal microscope, illuminating my faults and forcing me to address my greatest weaknesses. If I’m lucky, fixing them under the microscope might also mend them in myself.

There’s nothing wrong with my temperature-taker. Influenza, chicken pox and snotty noses aside, the thermometer says 96.2 on each of my healthy days. I’ve always justified my icy body temperature with a belief that a properly adapted Wisconsinite ought to have a temperature a little closer to her natural habitat. Not that the 2 degree difference helps me much on those -25 degree nights, but perhaps it explains my complete and total inability to enjoy warm weather. I suppose 90 feels a lot hotter to me than it does to you, and that’s why I become a whining, puffy mess of sweat and irritability when summer strikes – or at least that’s my theory.

So to give my Darwinian adaptability a run for its money I spent a few weeks of last summer in Hot Springs, Arkansas. It was hot! Summer temperatures above 90 have been an extreme rarity for me, but the climate in Arkansas was a sauna of 95 plus nearly every day of my stay. After acclimating to my sweatier skin I was able to move beyond the weather, in an attempt to get my feet wet in Hot Springs.  Much to my surprise, and excepting a few natural substitutions (Harley Hogs for rusty Ford F-150s and chiggers for mosquitos) I felt completely and totally at home. Hot Springs is a small town  nestled in the Ozark Mountains. It’s surrounded by protected forests where its down-to-earth residents camp, fish, hike, and bike during the long warm summers. Its chief economic industry is tourism, just like Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin, the town of my own birth.

Land O’, as it is affectionately called, is a similar oasis of natural charm. Chicago’s wealthy tourists have bought up much of the land in my hometown (a solid 7 hours due North of the Windy City) but never inhabit their lavish homes for more than a few weeks out of the summer months. While these cabins lay dormant for the autumnal Color-o-Rama of painted Birch, Maple, and Oak trees, the local community of just under 200 finishes up their home-canning and stocks their basement freezers with Blue Gills. When the Thick White Blanket covers all those abandoned log cabins along overpriced shorelines, my parents are driving out over their soon-to-be-pan-fried-dinners. The lake that had been the best bath in town 6 months ago is now likely to be one of the most navigable surfaces by four wheels. Balancing at the tippy-top of the great Badger State is a town that makes its money in the three months of above-freezing temperatures, then scrimps, scrapes, saves, and often prays its way through the other nine.

When I was growing up my father told me the story of the man down the road. He lived for years in a converted yellow school bus rigged with a wood burning stove in the back. Tearing through his stockpile of chopped timber one frigid January, the stove caught fire  to the frame of the bus. The flames ignited quickly throughout the rest of the small, cramped shelter and our neighbor was burned alive while the Aurora Borealis raged overhead. As a child I feared his ghost would find me if I bravely explored the abandoned lot. My feet were light as I darted amidst the remains of that old bus searching for fruitful berry bushes and wintergreen blossoms, but I was  always frightened and never stayed long.

Eventually, years later, the charred bus was removed and the remains cleaned up. Now, when suburban families of 4 and a half  drive down our road looking to buy their piece of the great Northwoods, they never know of the bus, our neighbor, nor of the incredible difficulty of survival in this beautiful place.There’s a story for every true inhabitant on our rustic lane. From the man down the road who still drives my father’s old 1985 Ford flatbed, to the elderly widow who bravely hunts berries, filberts and mushrooms every summer despite her Lyme’s disease, our town is full of colorful characters.

In my teenage years I dreamt ceaselessly of escaping Land O’ and Wisconsin, for the lights and the stardom of big city living. I wanted to see “culture” with a capital C , live for the enjoyment of art and fine food, and my snotty nose would be more likely to drop off my own face than to sit in the driver’s seat of a rusty pick-up truck. I’d forget how to use ice augers and chainsaws, and maybe, just maybe, I’d never see another red-flagged-tip-up for the rest of my charmed little life.

Well, I’m an adult now, and those things didn’t happen. In a story that is likely to be told in a future post, I tried to run, but discovered that you can’t escape your own blood, especially when it runs a chilly Wisconsinite blue. I’m no longer attracted to the privilege and frivolity of  city life, but to the gutteral and physical struggles inherent in truly surviving. These days I call my parents to remind me where the filbert patches are and to double-check the lethality of my mushroom finds. They struggled and survived the great Northwoods to become a veritable wealth of wisdom and a deep well of inspiration. Now it is my turn to struggle and my only wish is survival. My battles may differ a bit from theirs, but the war has not changed. Wish me luck.