100 Days Project: What Would YOU Do With 100 Days of Making?

100 Days Complete

100 Days CompleteIt began with a question: What would you do with 100 days of making?

I’d seen the posts on Twitter and Facebook, but hadn’t really paid attention to them because they seemed aimed at people who painted or sculpted or took pictures of something other than dogs and morning coffee.

But then my friend Deb said she was thinking about participating in this project – The 100 Day Project, in order to stretch long dis-used fiction-writing muscles, and would I consider doing it, too? (This is usual for us. Partly, I think, it’s because we often respond to similar things, but also it’s because committing to a project is a little less daunting if you’re doing it with a friend.)

I told her I’d think about it, and then ignored the invitation for a week, after which I went to the web page where the project founder, Elle Luna, was interviewed, and I read more about the whole thing, and finally I committed to the project.

I’m going to tell you a secret: I’m a little bit phobic about commitments. I mean, I was the girl who never wanted to get married when I was younger, and when Deb and Becca and I were in the pre-launch stages of this very ezine, I wasn’t sure I even wanted to be part of it. My brain just gets weird like that sometimes.

I’m going to tell you another secret: I think we creative types need a little bit of external accountability. At least, I know I do. I started blogging over a decade ago, because I am incapable of keeping a journal. I mean, what’s the point of writing things no one will ever read? But my secondary motivation was that if I had to put my writing somewhere public, I’d have to stick with it.

That’s why I love The 100 Day Project.

It provides accountability, but not a lot of it. It’s finite – slightly longer than three months. It’s also flexible. You can draw, paint, sculpt, collage, write, shoot photos, knit, sew, embroider, sing or play music, or cook. Basically anything that can be repeated daily fits into this project.

When I signed up to do The 10 Day Project last year, it was just before the start date, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. A few of the people I follow on Instagram, where this project lives, were posting snippets of prose or poetry, apparently typed on paper, and I loved that concept, but didn’t know how to execute it. (Now I do know, but it’s too much work.)

I also have a great love of micro-fiction, flash-fiction, and American Sentences (17-word sentences that are emotionally truthful.)

I chose, then, to commit to writing one really good sentence, scene, or story, whatever would fit completely onto a typical 3×5 notecard, which I would photograph and post on Instagram, per the project rules. To make it more interesting for me, I bought a multi-pack of note-cards in five bright colors. Even better? They were Post-It ™ notecards, so once a photo had been uploaded, I began sticking themWant to Play on the front (and eventually the side) of my fridge.

It got to the point where friends who were visiting would go directly to my kitchen to see what had been added since they were last in my house, and I can’t deny that watching the columns of colored cards expand to fill so much space was kind of cool.

That each of them was covered with my words, was even cooler.

But that was last year. The 100 Day Project begins again on Tuesday, April 19th, and while I’m definitely participating again, I haven’t quite decided how. I’m already writing so much that adding another writing project, especially one I’ve already completed seems counter-intuitive. I’ve been doing a lot of kitchen experimentation lately, so I might try a food-based project. Not a whole new meal, every day, but definitely a featured daily recipe.

I guess my Instagram feed will be filling up with food-porn this spring and summer.

As for you… dear reader… wouldn’t you like to participate in The 100 Day Project with me?

What would you do with 100 days of making?

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa A. BartellMelissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: Kite and String

Kite and String

Sunday Brunch With Melissa Bartell


“What is it like,” I asked my husband earlier this weekend, “being married to someone with a creative personality?”

“Well,” he answered slowly (but then, he does most things both slowly and methodically), “it’s never boring.”

“That was very diplomatic,” I told him. “But not terribly helpful.”

Kite and StringHe pointed out that since he was in the process of hanging all the clean laundry that doesn’t get folded, he was being helpful enough for one day. “Anyway,” he added, “you keep telling me I suck at multitasking.”

“Well,” I responded. “You do.”  Then I turned on my heel and left the room, fighting not to laugh.

Last month, Fuzzy (that’s my nickname for him, though his real identity isn’t a secret) and I celebrated our twenty-first wedding anniversary. Our celebration was tame – we went out for breakfast – which may seem like nothing, but a lot of our first dates involved breakfast food, so it was appropriate for us.

Besides, we bought each other our big gifts – VIP tickets to Dallas Comic Con in June – back in February. Going to cons is something we both enjoy, and we’re comfortable enough in our mutual geekiness that we’re not embarrassed about it.

If you’d asked me, when I was seven, if I was ever going to get married I would have giggled and blushed and admitted that I had a crush on Shaun Cassidy, who was known to me, then, as Joe Hardy on the Hardy Boys television show.

If you’d asked me the same question when I was twelve, I would have glowered at you, and insisted I was never, ever getting married, but on the off-chance that I did we would have separate apartments. (Sometimes, I’m not sure that was a bad idea.)

I was never the girl who dreamed about getting married, had her wedding planned before she could construct complete sentences, or gushed over brides and babies.

At nineteen, I had this romantic notion of being a contemporary version of a foreign correspondent, traveling all over the world, sending thick, vivid letters back home, and having a succession of brooding, artsy lovers.

That didn’t happen, but I did date a musician for a while when I was twenty-one. He was older. And he was a mess. But every relationship teaches you something, and I came away from that experience with a great appreciation for jazz and blues and The Great American Songbook.

From the beginning, our relationship – Fuzzy’s and mine – was uniquely ours. We met online in a time when nobody was doing that, and the world wide web… wasn’t. We started planning a proper wedding only to realize we didn’t want to deal with the fuss, or our family’s differing religious and political views, or the fact that I’d just moved from California to South Dakota to be with him, and didn’t have a job (or health insurance) yet.

We eloped on a chilly Friday in March, in the courthouse where Laura and Almanzo Wilder’s marriage was registered (I was a life-long Laura fan, and became more of one when, on my first visit to South Dakota, the drive to the family farm took us, not only down the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historical Highway, but past DeSmet – the actual “Little Town” on the prairie.)

My mother refused to talk to me for a month after I told her, but then she sent us a box with some great gifts, and a check… and months after that, she threw us a fantastic party where we had a re-commitment ceremony in her front yard, and a pot-luck reception featuring a smoked turkey and the traditional wedding foods from several of her friends’ cultures of origin, in the back yard.

Holding HandsOver the years, our marriage has gone through several changes. For a while I made more money than Fuzzy, but he was proud of me for that, even though he often worried about the number of hours I spent at work. For the last decade, he’s been the primary wage-earner, and while he won’t admit it, I think there’s a part of him that secretly likes being able to be the provider.

Sometimes, I’ve worked at an office while he got to spend a couple days a week at home, and sometimes he’s worked over an hour away while I could walk to work. Today, we both work from home (which is why there are only two of us plus four dogs living in our five-bedroom house – we each need our own office), but he travels for work, and every so often I travel without him for one reason or another.

There are also things that have never changed: we’re both nocturnal, more likely to see dawn because we haven’t been to bed than because we just woke up; we still make each other laugh at least once a day; we both sleep better when we’re curled up together in the center of our bed (dogs permitting) than on separate sides.

I drink coffee, and he drinks warm orange soda. He wears shoes to the beach, and I’m barefoot as much as possible. I double the amount of walnuts in anything I bake because he loves them, and he brings me flowers every time he goes grocery shopping. I’m a Star Trek fan to the depths of my soul, while he prefers Star Wars, and he’s a Marvel guy while I’m a DC girl, but, at the end of the day, whatever we have works.

He still flirts with me, at home, in public, everywhere.

I still can’t get enough of his kisses, or his singing voice.

If there are times when his somewhat introverted, often pedantic, stoic, engineer self makes me feel like I’m actually married to the android Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, I’m certain that my tendency to bounce from topic to topic, change my accent on a whim, and wander around the house talking to myself as I work out lines of dialogue for an audio drama I’m in, or a story I’m writing, makes him feel like he’s married to Sibyl.

So, what is it like for my sweet, loyal, list-following, spreadsheet-loving husband to be married to someone who has a creative personality? Here’s how I described our relationship to my friend Caroline (in Sweden) a few days ago – and how I describe us to most people:

I’m kind of like a kite – flying around doing all sorts of things – writing, improv, music, voice acting, podcasting – letting the wind take me where it will, and he’s the string, giving me enough room to fly, but still keeping me anchored to the earth.

Kite and String.

Me and Fuzzy.

Twenty-one years.

It isn’t always perfect, but at the same time, it totally is.

Kite and String Copyright: altomedia / 123RF Stock Photo
Holding Hands Copyright: worapong / 123RF Stock Photo


About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa A. BartellMelissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Conversations Over Coffee: Mario Batali

Mario Batali

Conversations Over Coffee with MCL


In November, 2008, I had the great pleasure of interviewing one of my favorite celebrity chefs, Mario Batali for All Things Girl. Our phone call was only about twenty minutes long, but he talks even faster than I do (people who know me will be impressed by this), and we covered a lot in a relatively brief time.

We’re re-running this piece today (with a few edits), because it’s one of our favorite pieces, and because all of us on the editorial staff here at Modern Creative Life love to play in our own kitchens, and believe that cooking is just as much a creative pursuit as writing, art, or music.


Mario Batali

First, tell us a bit about yourself: How did you get into food? How does someone from the West Coast end up in New Jersey?
I grew up in Seattle to a half-Italian half-French-Canadian family. We were always into food. Everyone in my entire family: my uncles, my aunts, my cousins, my brother, sister, mom, dad. Everybody I know knew how to cook and was interested in food from the inception of picking something or growing something, picking things wild or harvesting them, or shooting birds or fishing and doing the whole thing.

My grandfather was actually a game guide in British Columbia, and brought home lots of moose and elk and all sorts of weird stuff for us to eat – so it was always part of our lives.

When I was fourteen, my family moved to Madrid, Spain. My dad worked with Boeing, so we had some kind of foreign brat lifestyle over in Madrid, which was delightful. And when it was time to go to college, it would seem to me that it would be easier to get to the east coast than to anywhere else, and I had never been to the east coast, let alone anywhere east of Idaho, for that matter.

Oh, wow. Was there culture shock?
You know what? I fell in love with it immediately. I don’t know that my brother or sister would have been ready for it, but after I spent a year there, my brother came and went to Princeton, just down the street. (I went to Rutgers.) I fell in love with New Jersey. I liked the idea of being close to New York without being in New York at that early age, and I went to school to get a degree in Spanish Theatre of the Golden Age and in finance, or economics.

I did that, but while I was doing it, I worked at a place called “Stuff Yer Face” which is a Stromboli and pizzeria in New Brunswick, and fell in love with the immediacy of a dinner rush and – kind of – my ability to actually react well under pressure and cook very quickly as well as making something delicious, so that’s really the start.

Food was obviously a big part of your family, as you’ve said, and you mentioned growing it as well, which brings me to my next question: The concept of “slow foods” and buying local and eating local is very popular right now. What are your thoughts on that?

Long before it was considered a “carbon footprint massacre” to ship things around the world, I have always been a fan of local produce, and for one reason only – a very selfish reason: it’s easier to make food taste delicious if it hasn’t had to travel very far.

Understanding seasonality is something that is born into Italian people’s mentality, when they’re in Italy. Americans have been able to eat asparagus on Christmas Eve for as long as I’ve been alive, and that’s one of the tragedies of successful commercial farming is that in fact it removes seasonality from things. It also removes the kind of high points that you can get when you eat something that is in season, so I’m all about eating seasonally, eating and buying locally, and supporting farmers whose names you actually know.

And what you’ll capture is: when you’re tasting something in Parma, on a Thursday afternoon in October, and it’s either right in the middle of, or right before or right after the grape harvest and you taste a plate of prosciutto – nothing more, just a simple plate of prosciutto, maybe with some bread on the side – you can smell in the food everything that’s going on around you in the atmosphere. You can smell the way the – kind of – wind smells, and the flavor of the localness, and if you can capture that in whatever part of the country that you’re at, then you have done a great job as a cook, and understanding and working with that kind of local flavor is something that is so unique.

What happened a lot of times in the fancy restaurant world of the last twenty years is that a luxury item became the item that everyone wanted to have, so they had caviar and they had fois gras and they had all this stuff that had really nothing to do with the place that you’re at. What I’m looking for – when I go somewhere traveling, what I’m looking for is something that is geo-specific, something that tastes like it could only be had here, and that – in Texas – could be any kind of barbecue; it could be any kind of crazy onion; it could be any kind of good chili. It could be made by anybody and it doesn’t have to be fancy, but what it has to do is represent that local flavor.

You’ve mentioned living in Spain as a teenager. Did that experience have anything to do with the decision to make your show On the Road Again: Spain [PBS, Fall 2008]?
Yes, well. When I started to talk about the producer – about us doing TV – and he said, “Well how about doing something on Spain which is an undiscovered jewel?”

And I said, “Well, that’s a great idea. I would love to go back to all my old stomping grounds,” and as it turns out, I was at a dinner party and Gwyneth [Paltrow] was at it and we’ve been friends for about ten years and I was talking to everyone at the table about this kind of new show idea that we were working on, and she demanded to be let in, and it was – I thought she was just being polite.

About two months later, when she heard it being talked about again by somebody else, and I wasn’t there, she called me and said – to make sure that I didn’t cut her out – and that kind of worked. So she also spent some time in high school as an exchange student in Talavera de la Reina, I think it was, outside of Madrid.

And so, the whole Spanish thing is to go back and see how it’s changed – I lived there when [Generalissimo] Franco just had died – and to see how it has come a thousand miles and become the forefront of molecular gastronomy, in addition to being still very much its traditional –kind of – old world self was an easy layup for me, and traveling around, I think it looks like we’re having fun, because in fact we are having fun.

Let’s talk more about Spain. What typifies the cuisine of Spain, as opposed to other Latin countries? We in America tend to think of Latin food as primarily Mexican.
I would say that when you talk about European food, it isn’t really Latin. I would say it’s Mediterranean at that point, and that kind of adds a component to it. Clearly like a lot of southern French cooking, like a lot of northern African cooking, and like all Italian cooking, it’s really based on the lipid of choice and olive oil, of course: number one.

So you have that kind of olive culture to it, which is, for a lot of people, something that tastes exotic, but for most people that I know, that’s something that almost says “home.” It says you’re where you should be, and the olive oil being kind of pervasive in all of the dishes, if there’s another flavor that I could put my palate on, there’s almost a smoky component to a lot of the things that they cook, and even some of the things that are raw. And they are not afraid to bring things to the edge of nearly burnt or very dark brown and letting that be kind of the extension of its ultimate caramelization.

And when you taste these things, and even – sometimes the ham and sometimes even the wine, or like a soup, a bean soup – it will have just lightly scorched on the bottom and on purpose. I’d say that there’s something almost smoky to it and whenever anything gets in touch with that magnificent paprika they call pimento, then that also becomes a real kind of intensive part of the flavor – kind of – portfolio.

You mentioned the term molecular gastronomy. Can you explain that a little bit?
Ah, well that is where food preparers, cooks, guys like Ferran Adria (perhaps the most famous member of the molecular gastronomist club) – they choose to provoke people by changing the texture or the appearance of food into something that it never was before while still trying to retain its essential flavor.

So you’ll have caviar that’s made of green apples, and it’ll have that same kind of pop-y texture, and what they’ll use to do that is some form of sea algae that they mix into a liquid and then they add a different kind of algae to the original substance – say, you took a puree of beans and you mix it with this one product and then you drop it into a water solution that has another product and it will sphere-ify the actual item – the whatever-you-dropped-in-there and then it will allow it to be stable for twenty-four to thirty-six hours. So then you’ll make like a little – some kind of a soup, and then you’ll put something that looks like a little glass ball in it, and in fact it tastes like another kind of soup. Or it tastes like salmon. Or it tastes like… whatever.

So they mess around with the basic tenet of very simple products, and yet they don’t – they do it in a way that will make you feel more intellectually stimulated by something that was already very physically stimulating.

And if they get lost it’s – sometimes it’s just like it’s too abstract. You know, there’s something that doesn’t have any connection, and because the food wasn’t very well prepared, or wasn’t very good when they got it raw, it’s wrong, but that doesn’t happen in all of these restaurants. Generally they’re pretty smart about it and it’s very…provocative…to eat in some of these restaurants. And it’s very much fun. But that said, sometimes it loses its way.

Fun seems to be an important element for all really successful chefs. Do you think fun is important?
Above all, fun should be important. And childishness is superior to adult-ness. And there’s a certain whimsical-ness that is what makes really good meals taste really good.

Sometimes you’ll sit down in the fanciest of restaurants and they have removed any of the fun from the experience in the name of creating high art, and that is when, suddenly, it’s no longer interesting to eat.

I like things to be fun. I like them to be unexpected if possible, but most importantly if the cooks are having fun and making things with really good natural products, odds are possibly with you that it will be delicious and fun to eat as well.

Do you think that a chef’s joy in what they’re making transfers to the end product, when a stranger is tasting it?
Absolutely. As in all art.

I mean, there are the members of the “tortured artist” school, and they work their world, and they do it, and they can still come up with great things, but certainly if something is loved and enjoyed by the person who is making it – you know – I mean, when you see a great rock ‘n’ roll band play, they are having fun on stage because they’re doing what they’re supposed to do and they really dig it. Like, REM on tour is one of the greatest bands you’ll ever see ’cause they’re great at it, and they know what they’re doing, and they have a blast and it’s that same way in food.

Comedians are often expected to be “funny” on command. Do you find yourself being “volunteered” to cook? Do you mind?
No, I’ll happily – at the drop of a hat, I’ll cook any time, all the time. Being funny’s a little different because you have to have an intellectual component to it. You could cook silently, and still make delicious food, even if you were not necessarily in the mood. The techniques of the purchase, and then the actual heat transfer is something I enjoy all the time.

That said, being funny’s a little harder.

True confessions time: Do you ever resort to having Chinese food delivered in a plain brown bag, after midnight?
Of course I do. My kids love delivery Chinese food. I wouldn’t want to cut them out of an essential part of New York Culture. I believe they had Chinese food here last night. (I wasn’t here, but I think they did, last night). It’s from the local Grand Szechuan. They make these soup dumplings that are to die for.

You have a wonderful television presence, but you don’t fit the conventional “handsome actor” television host model. How did someone like you become one of the coolest chefs on TV?
You know what? Being in front of a camera for a long time only makes you more like what you are naturally. You can’t really practice to become relaxed, it just eventually happens to you, but I think that my reliance on the traditions of the Italian table and the obviousness of it being merely my interpretation gave me a certain platform or a soapbox to talk from, and in the end, I didn’t really have to invent a character. I really just interpreted the great things about the food that I love. And that, I believe, is what makes it evident.

It doesn’t look like I’m trying to be a performer. I’m just doing what I do. And in that way, there’s no kind of strange colored glass that everyone looks at you through because you’re trying to do something that maybe is like trying to memorize someone else’s play, which is what actors do all the time.

I could never do that. I could never remember lines. But if you can give me the idea, I can kind of espouse what that is, and that’s really what I’ve done. I’ve taken really good Italian cooking and just kind of shown people where and how it came from. And my reliance during a show, if I ran out of things to kind of show you, I just talked about the history, which I already knew because I pay attention. I’m a student of that game.

In your career, you’ve been involved with the design of a specific kind of rolling pin. Is there any kitchen gadget that you’d love to re-engineer, or any that you think should be eliminated?
You know, tools are something that are very personal. There’s things in each one that I find I’m very excited about but there’s nothing I would say should be absolutely removed except for the syringe. I don’t think anyone needs a syringe. But that’s – you know – if you need to marinate your turkey and you want to do it that way then you’re going to put it in there, but other than that, I think that all tools are very personal, and once you discover a way to do it, everyone should use whatever they’re comfortable with. There should be no dogma.

Do you have a favorite tool that you use? Are you a knife guy or is it the wooden spoon for you?
I like… you know my favorite tool is, I have this – in my kitchen there’s a giant (well, not giant, it’s probably ten feet by four feet). It is a marble slab. We do our – we live our entire lives on top of this piece of marble. We do homework there, we make pasta there, we roll out dough, we – tonight, for example, there’s a bake sale. My kids are doing a bake sale tomorrow for something called the Imagination Campaign, and everything we’re gonna do from now – they’re just walking in right now, from school – until everyone goes to bed, we will live our lives on our marble counter.

Connect with Mario

Follow Mario Batali on Twitter (@MarioBatali) and check him out on Eataly NYC‘s #TakingRequests.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa A. BartellMelissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Waspish by Melissa A. Bartell


The door was open, and his bags were waiting beside it. “Sweetie,” he said, “I’m sorry. I hate traveling this much. This is the last trip this quarter, and I’ll be home in a week.” He tried to kiss her, but she stiffened, and pulled away.

“Go,” she said, in a flat tone. “Just go.” Something flew past her face–a wasp–and she reached a hand up to brush the feeling aside. Waspish

They had been fighting ever since he arrived home from his most recent trip. Hong Kong, she thought, or Tokyo. She really couldn’t be bothered to remember any more, where he was at any given moment, and she was also tired of fighting, tired of trying to make him hear her. All weekend, when they could have been in bed making up for all the days he had been gone, she had been in a mood, sometimes crying, sometimes screaming.

“It’s my job,” he threw back at her. “You knew I’d have to travel when I accepted the promotion.”

The wasp followed a scent trail to the kitchen window, and alighted on the screen, but neither noticed.

“I thought I’d get to go with you. Working from home was supposed to give me that option.”

“None of the wives get to go,” he said. “It just isn’t done.”

“I’m not ‘one of the wives.’ I’m your wife. You wouldn’t even have this job if I hadn’t written your resume.”

He walked to the kitchen window and slammed it shut, trapping the wasp against the screen. It buzzed angrily and tried unsuccessfully to escape. The buzzing didn’t cease, but neither of them noticed. “Is there someone else?” he asked softly.

“No,” she said, and then. “I just don’t like the person I’ve become. I don’t like that I’m always at home, waiting for you to come back. I don’t like that you have an entire life separate from mine, and when I ask how work was, all you say is ‘busy’. What kind of an answer is that?”

“Work is busy,” he said. “It’s always busy. I don’t even take lunch most days. And when I go away, all I do is work. There’s no time for sight-seeing. You’d be bored.”

“I could sight-see without you, you know.” She opened her mouth to say more, then closed it, and stared at him mutely. He was silent as well, staring back.

The blast of the horn from the taxi waiting at the curb jolted them out of their silence, and masked the soft thud of the tiring wasp falling to the bottom of the casement as it struggled to break free. Wordlessly, he picked up his bags and left.

She watched the taxi drive away then sank down onto a chair. She hated these chairs. They were too large for her short frame, and the table was too tall, and it made her feel small and helpless. He hadn’t closed the door behind him; she hadn’t bothered to do it after he was gone.

Her cell phone was just in front of her. She should pick it up. Apologize for being a basket case. Apologize for not kissing him goodbye or wishing him a safe trip. But she didn’t. She made coffee, instead, and fetched a magazine from the living room.

Behind her back, the wasp kept up a relentless exploration of every corner of its prison, looking for a way out.

When it grew too dark to read she looked up, and realized she’d never turned a light on. Her coffee, poured and forgotten, had grown cold. She didn’t remember a single thing she’d read in the magazine.

Her cell phone rang at three in the morning, and she groggily answered it. “Hello?”

“Hi, Sweetie. My plane was late, and I just got in.” A pause. “I wasn’t going to wake you, but…”

“No–” she interrupted, sleep leaving her, “–I’m glad you did. I’m sorry I yelled at you.”

“I know.” He took a beat, and she could hear the faint static that represented the thousands of miles between them. “I’m sorry I had to go.”

“I hate when you’re away.” She sounded pathetic, even to herself.

“I know. I hate being away.” His voice was soft.

“Forgive me for being so bitchy?”

“Always. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

She hung up the phone, and went back to sleep, her arms holding his pillow close to her body.

Downstairs, trapped between the screen and glass of the kitchen window, the wasp died.

Image Credit: victorass88 / 123RF Stock Photo

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa A. BartellMelissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: Guitar Journey

Sunday Brunch With Melissa Bartell

There’s something magical about walking into a store that sells musical instruments, even if you’re not a musician. Maybe it’s because all the wire and wood, all the skins and snares, represent more than just the instruments they compose, but the music they will eventually produce. Maybe it’s because bows and sticks and mallets and pics whisper to the most innocent, childlike, fun-loving parts of our brains, telling us, no – urging us –  just to play.

Maybe it’s because we know that when we’re sitting at a piano keyboard, stretching our arms out to get a violin ‘fitted,’ or cradling the curves of a cello against our bodies we’re not just considering the purchase of a musical instrument, we’re buying possibility.

I hadn’t been into an instrument shop in years, but last August, I recognized that it was finally time to follow through on a dream: after 31 years of cello, I was finally going to take the guitar journey I’d been flirting with, and never committing to, for years.

I was going to buy a guitar.

I started on the internet first, of course, researching types of guitars, and learning a bit about the instrument so that, at the very least, when I entered a brick and mortar store, I’d be able to speak intelligently.

My research taught me that I wanted a six-string acoustic guitar. My taste informed me that I wanted an instrument that would be good for folk music. My history with my cello, and the process of shopping for that told me that I wanted a guitar that had as much real wood as possible. Guitar HandsMy size – I’m exactly five feet tall and have fairly small hands – made a smaller instrument seem like the wiser choice. My budget dictated that I not spend more than $500 for my first guitar.

Armed with this information, recommendations from friends, and a few things I’d learned from a guitar blogger who also reviews instruments, I went to my local Guitar Center.

At first, I was a little daunted. Most of the people in the room were sporting visibly edgy looks – I saw piercings that surprised even me – and the vast majority were twenty-something males. I was expecting them to look at me, short, round, white, old (although I still get carded), hobbling because of a recent knee-injury, and not give me the time of day.

I was wrong of course, mostly because I’d forgotten the bond of musicians, the one that is just intrinsically there. It’s this little undercurrent that says I know you even if you’ve never met the other person, and even if you play drastically different instruments.

“I’ve played cello forever,” I said, “but I’ve always wanted to play the guitar.”

The long-haired sales clerk who sported a few very well-placed tattoos on his muscular arms and had the piercings in his ears filled with discs the diameter of quarters, smiled at me. “Okay, let me ask you some questions.”

And he did.

What kind of music did I want to play? Was I looking to record or just have an instrument to learn on. Had I tried any guitars already? Was there a make I had in mind? How much did I want to spend?

I answered his barrage of questions and he led me to a room full of guitars. “There really isn’t that big a difference between a ‘travel’ guitar like the Little Martin that Ed Sheeran uses and a full-size guitar, but those few millimeters can make a difference. Try some out, let me know if you have questions.”

My husband had come with me for support and consultation. Like me, Fuzzy is a musician, but not a guitarist. He’s not even a string player! His instruments are piano, trumpet, and accordion. (No, really, accordion.)

Still, it was nice to have someone there to help me lift the guitars off the racks, and give me an external opinion that wasn’t colored by my initial overwhelmedness – I mean, a room full of guitars – really.

I strummed about five guitars that day. Luna Safari I had no intention of buying one on the first outing unless I fell in love with it, and left pretty much thinking I’d be back in a week to get the solid spruce-top Little Martin. It was at the top of my price range, but Martin is a good brand and I liked the feel of it.

I’m glad I waited to buy it, though, because in the meantime, I discovered a brand called Luna, that specialized in guitars that were designed by, and marketed toward, women. The Luna guitars that I looked at online had everything the Little Martin had, but they were also pretty.

Obviously, what a guitar looks like does not affect its sound in the slightest, but when I bought my cello, I was able to customize it so that the fittings are rosewood, which gives it a more feminine look. Was it wrong, all things considered, to want my guitar to be sort of pretty and feminine also?

My next issue was that the spruce-top travel guitar Luna wanted was not in stock at any of the instrument shops near me. I could have ordered it from Zzounds (a company I highly recommend for recording gear), but even when you think you know what you want, you should never buy an instrument without trying it first.

I did more research, and finally, the day before my birthday, Fuzzy and I drove to the Guitar Center in Dallas (as opposed to the suburban branch I’d initially visited), where a man who was a dead-ringer for Anthony LaPaglia (back when he played Joe in Empire Records) greeted us.

“I know you don’t have the Luna I’m looking for,” I said. “But you have a Luna travel guitar that isn’t spruce-top and it will, at least, let me see how it feels.”

He showed me several smaller guitars, including a Baby Taylor, that was too pricey and not as pretty, and then I played the laminate Luna.

It sounded like a cigar box.

But it felt like I’d met an old friend.

(Just for fun, even though I’d just made my choice, I also played a cotton-candy pink Luna electric-acoustic, but I didn’t like it nearly as well, even though it looked cool.)

We went back to talk to not-actually-Anthony-LaPaglia and he said, “Oh, we can special order the model you want. If you have it delivered to your local store, there’s no shipping fee.”

Four days later, I was holding my Luna Safari Supreme in my hands, tuning it with an app I’d downloaded to my iPhone, and taking my first guitar lesson via a collection of YouTube videos. I haven’t started formal lessons with a live teacher yet – that will probably be this summer’s project – but I’m enjoying the challenge of learning a new instrument after all these years.

I’m also enjoying telling people about my guitar shopping experience, which is best summed up thusly: When I told not-actually-Anthony-LaPaglia that I’d played cello for decades and wanted to take up a new instrument, he looked at me like I was some kind of musical goddess.

“I tried the cello once, a long time ago,” he confessed. “I couldn’t figure it out. Dude… cello’s hard.”

I don’t remember what my response was, but I know that my journey with this guitar – with the wire and the wood, and learning a whole new way of using my hands and fingers, feeling this instrument become part of me – is only just beginning,   and I can’t wait to find out where it takes me next.

I mean, anything’s possible.

(Image credits: Guitar Player is from djoronimo / 123RF Stock Photo; Guitar Face is from Luna Guitars.)

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa A. BartellMelissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Unaccompanied by Melissa A. Bartell

Copyright: belchonock / 123RF Stock Photo

Below the melody, I can hear the pressure of his fingers, blunt force pushing the string down to meet the fingerboard. Pale flesh meeting ebony wood with wire sandwiched between.

Copyright: belchonock / 123RF Stock PhotoThe actual piece doesn’t matter. It’s something by Bach, of course, baroque and brooding, an elegy at times, a discourse at others. I know that it’s Bach in the same way most people know the difference between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but the name of the specific piece eludes me.

Between the notes, I hear him draw a breath. If I were watching him, I’d probably see him reposition his bow in that same moment. As it is, I hear the air being released from his lungs, from his lips, just before the bow attacks the strings.

I can’t watch him.

I look at my phone, observe the deep claret colour of the wine in my glass, devote close study to the remains of the dark chocolate mousse cake on my plate.

Anything to avoid his eyes.

Behind the music I catch the rasp of his sleeve where it brushes against the bridge on an up-bow. I lift my eyes – just for a second, I tell myself – and drink in the crisp white of his shirt, the jet black of his tie.

Finally, I am caught, trapped in the warm brown of his eyes.

He notices me staring at him, but his playing never falters, though there’s a slight quirk of his brow that just matches the note he flourishes.

Beneath the chords, I hear the faint buzz, not quite a wolf-tone, from the titanium strings, and discern – barely – the soft contact of his thumb resettling itself in the saddle of his cello.

As he lifts his bow from the strings, the faint tang of sweat and rosin assaults my senses. I lick my lips, anticipating the moment when he leaves the stage and joins me at my table.

People warned me about dating a musician. “You’ll be alone at all his gigs,” they said. “You’ll feel like a groupie; you’ll lose your identity.”

They were wrong.

I’m never alone, merely… unaccompanied.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa A. BartellMelissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.