Monday, June 25, 2018

I Lost My Job

Can I write about the loss of my dayjob on a metal detecting blog?
Let’s see.

Later this week, I will submit my last stories to the University of Michigan Office of Medical Development and Alumni Relations. In one way or another, I’ve been employed by the U-M (my alma mater) for 22 years – a relationship that has supported me and my family with varying degrees of generosity. Despite its many distractions (and the cognitive dissonance of dayjob vs. artist), my work for Michigan has buoyed me through the creation of dozens of dance/theater pieces and hundreds of songs. Because of this job, I have a (very) modest retirement account that I never would have had if not for those “golden handcuffs.” Because of this job, I made some stellar friends I adore to this day.

This is one of those stellar friends,
on casual Friday.
What did I actually do? From ’96 to ’01, I was the public relations coordinator for the U-M Museum of Art. I also organized community arts events that were tied to exhibitions. That was fun.

In 2001, I took a job as a development writer for the Medical School. As part of a feisty, supportive, brilliant team, I wrote campaign copy, research descriptions and donor bios (hundreds and hundreds of donor bios, which I LOVED!) I interviewed and wrote about billionaire philanthropists. I ghost-wrote letters for various deans and administrators, and historical articles and (more) research descriptions for our beautiful alumni magazine.

This is not an example of the kind of writing I
did for the U-M Medical School.

The health insurance was dreamy. After years of dancing, I had my right hip resurfaced in South Carolina in 2006. It set me back $150.

This is money I dug up. I did not have to dig
up any money to pay for my first hip surgery.
Due to dreamy U-M health insurance. 

Here's an example of one story I loved every minute of writing:

All the while, I was writing more and more music, zooming to Nashville to record demos and get the lay of the land. Al was touring the world with Bettye LaVette and I was home with the responsible dayjob/health insurance, feeling increasingly bitter, pulling against an oceanic current of longing to be part of a bigger songwriting scene.

In 2007, I asked my boss if it would be possible for me to move Nashville. He didn’t hesitate. “Sure!” he said. A year later, we did, with the full blessing and understanding of my amazing office mates and administration. Not only would I be writing from my home office in TN, I’d be driving all over the state visiting alumni. I set up my computer and worked 9-5, just like everyone else. Far from the distractions of the office, my productivity soared and my annual reviews reflected this.

Metal detecting a construction site while I should have been
at my desk working for the Medical School. SUCKAHHHS!
I am totally joking.

Things happen, though, don’t they? (The next part is boring. In fact, I’m pretty sure this whole thing is boring. That’s why I’m illustrating it with items I’ve dug out of the ground.)

Like this beautiful, brass instrument mouthpiece.

In 2013, there was a sweeping deck-shuffle back in Ann Arbor. A new director was hired to reorganize the entire office and in the process, it was “discovered” that there was a full-time employee (little me, trying desperately to keep my head down) in Tennessee of all places. Outrage! 

Look at this OUTRAGEous haul from a Nolensville-area
construction site.

A new supervisor, oozing great, smarmy “empathy” made me an offer. I could keep my job, she said, if I moved back to Michigan. I declined. They couldn’t terminate me right then because I was in the middle of a huge, multi-year writing project. But when that ended, I transitioned to free-lance.

(Even though it is beneath me, I feel a strong urge to hint at the identity of that smarmy empath. Her name sort of rhymes with “Buy me lunch” and soon after she terminated me, she was gone too. Such is OfficeLand.)

I feel a little bit bad about making fun of the name of the lady
who terminated me. Pearl is clearly embarrassed too. She
thinks I am not being the best version of myself.

I love that the word “free” is in “free-lance.” Did I feel free tho? No, mostly terrified. When you’ve had phenomenal health insurance for years, the lack of it brews up a stew of anxiety that, in turn, makes you sick. I’m not going to rant about health care in America – not here – except to say “Thank you, ACA.”

Found this awesome 1910 City of Chicago
"Vehicle Tag" in a northern Michigan field
last fall. The man largely responsible for the
ACA is said to have ties to the Windy City.

I augmented my income with lucrative assignments from renowned medical schools in Gainesville, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Chapel Hill. And of course, I taught a zillion dance classes – gritting my teeth through the pain in my other hip joint. All of it was never quite enough to pay my part of the bills, but Al, bless him, kept touring.

Me, at DancEast (where I teach), in full
detecting/songwriting regalia. Even I
am not sure why this photo exists.

I’m no innocent. As I knew would happen, the U-M freelance work began to evaporate. I’ve been physically gone from the office for years, my accomplishments and my genuine belief in the place mean nothing now.  A week ago, I got a very nice call from the truly lovely man who now heads communications there, snipping my final connection to the place. Something about a budget.

Part of someone's budget a century ago.

And so here I sit, trying to figure out what’s next. In the other room, I have two shelves of books about the history of the University of Michigan Medical School. I have thick files of research for all the stories I wrote, stories I cared about. Why did I care? Because I’m a carer, and it all seemed so important at the time. Even as I wrote the stuff, I tried to remember: this won’t last forever and won't mean much in the long run.

These items used to mean something to someone.

This Civil War gunpowder keg used to "belong"
to a soldier.

A man wore this against his chest, then lost it.

These things were useful. They had value. Then they were dropped.
And then I dug them up.

I’m 60 years old. I just had hip surgery #2. In five years, I’ll be eligible for Medicare. Who knows what will happen to the ACA in the next five years? I’ve got other some stuff going on in my body that could get rather expensive and it sure would be nice to feel like simply existing isn’t dangerous.

Me, pondering the future. Or perhaps just looking at a tree.

60. I’ve been applying for weeks, for work I could excel at with my eyes closed, and have not heard one thing back. I picture the 30-something HR lady looking at the year I graduated from Michigan and doing the math. 

I teeter back and forth between “go get that fucking JOB” and “why bother trying?” (While filling out a recent application, I was asked to answer the following question: “Do you believe in the Eternal Lake of Fire for the Unsaved? Check yes or no.”)

I really can't think of anything to say, so here are some figurines.

Notice that I haven’t said anything about trying to support myself through my songwriting? That is some pondering for another time, but suffice it to say, I’m a realist. When you blend the current state of the music “industry” together with my innate introversion and cosmic lack of drive, you get a whole lotta overwhelm. And song after song, written simply for the writing.

Me at the Bluebird Cafe, feeling grateful and happy.

Goodness! That’s enough introspection to last me a good, long while. I’d walk the dogs now, but it’s too hot. Al comes home tonight after two weeks touring Europe with country music royalty Carlene Carter, whose music always makes me feel like good things happen. So maybe they will.

Here are things I’m good at (in no particular order):
Development writing
Artist promotion
Teaching songwriting
Dance teaching (babies to adults)
Metal detecting
Metal detecting blog-writing
Driving (’99 Camry, baby...)
A particular kind of gluten-free cookie (Note: I am not GF)

If you hear of anything, let me know. Meanwhile, I'll be OK. I have a shiny, new left hip and am just about ready to plunge a shovel into the ground.

It's gonna be OK, Whit.

Saturday, January 9, 2016


I had a dream that I knocked on a door, seeking permission to metal detect. Inside, the homeowners were about to sit down to dinner. Clearly I was bothering them. It was awkward and I left. Then, I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror. Not only was my hair in large pigtails, there was a third pigtail sprouting out of the top of my head. And I remember thinking to myself, “Well. No wonder.”

It’s been nearly a year since I last posted. I’m not going to delve into the reasons why, as I’m not even sure what they are. Instead, I’m going to do a quick recap of 2015 which included some fun finds, a minor crisis of faith, and one major personal accomplishment.

Since the last blogpost was last February (!), we begin with March.

Perhaps you’ve forgotten how miserable last winter was. Snow, then an interminable ice storm. My cousin, Susan, came up for a visit and – weather be damned – wanted to go digging. I took her to “the Farm” where Cuzi enjoyed digging a ice/mud hole clear through to Papua New Guinea in order to liberate part of an old plow blade.

Isn't she just the cutest thing on legs?

I managed a few sweet finds that day, and a few weeks later.

The University of Nashville existed from 1826-1909. During
its history, it operated at various times a medical school,
a four-year military college, a literary arts college
and a boys' preparatory school.

Odds and ends. Love the keyhole.

Token from Earthman's Mercantile -- a
combination saloon and grocery in White's
Creek. It was there, in 1881, that the local
constable arrested Bill Ryan, alias Tom Hill
(no relation) -- a member of the infamous
Jesse James gang. And yes, that is a dog hair
in the upper left corner.
Happy to be out of the ground.
Also another dog hair.

Really just my favorite kind of find.

That hook thing was under a root and about made me cry.

They don't make suspender clips like they usta.

Sometime in early April, Cheryl and I made plans to dig but her car finked out on the Clarksville Pike. Waiting for the wrecker to come, we decided to explore a nearby creek. Sure was fun.

A new friend, songwriter Jerry Vandiver, invited me to check out a vacant lot he owns in East Nashville. Found way more than I expected over several trips.

Silver cross with sweet plastic "berries." I'm
thinking shop class project?

Very shiny but deceptively so. 

As the weather warmed, I intensified my efforts to get the word out about my new cd, “I Dug it Up” which features 13 songs inspired by metal detecting. Rehearsals commenced for a mid-May cd release at Douglas Corner. I was so excited. And then,  a virus decided to go metal detecting into every cell in my body, inserting snot and inflammation every which-where.

Never in all my years of performing as a songwriter have I canceled show. But I did. My husband, Al, took the slot and rocked the place, which was great. But it took me a long time to get past my disappointment.

Here’s a pic from the DancEast showcase at the end of May. Yup. When I’m not digging in the dirt, I teach li’l chilluns to dance.

Our circle is SO BIG!

Dirt Girl, as a wee ballerina.

June was spent in Ann Arbor, Michigan, readying our old family house for sale. On my way back home, I stopped just outside of Cincinnati to visit some sweet friends. I’ve known Grace since she was four teeny years old. She and I once went detecting around my house and she dug the fabulous penny shown below. Now she’s in serious, full-time training to be an Olympic gymnast, but, as they say, once a detectorist, always a detectorist.

Look at that form.

Just found pennies, but had fun.

"V" is for victory. And when you see Grace
compete, the word "victory" does come to mind.

On June 26, the Supreme Court of this country ruled that same-sex marriage is a right, nationwide. It was a joyful day, a triumph for love and common sense. Maybe I will finally dig a wedding ring,  now that there are going to be so many more of them flying off of fingers during backyard volleyball games, or at the beach, or whilst digging in gardens.

Over the summer, my dad again rented a big, old rambling house on Cape Cod. I tried my absolute best to unearth something fabulous, but all I managed to find is arranged, artfully, here.

I spent 10 hours as "the weird lady on the beach"
for this?
Back home, Cheryl and I got permission to detect a modest lawn in a neighborhood on the outskirts of CW activity, “outskirts” being the operative word. Cheryl was attacked by bees, but survived.

Here are two small digressions. The first: Hazel.

Sometimes, I get a powerful nudge about a random dog that needs a home. When a post about a little muttly cur appeared on Facebook in July, that nudge nearly knocked me down. Soon, Al and I were driving to a Franklin shelter to pick her up.


I'll have what you're having.

While she recuperated from her spay, I got busy playing matchmaker.

Hazel with her new family.

Digression #2: 

In June, an angry, not-very-bright young man with a bad haircut and access to a lot of firearms, killed a bunch of lovely, peaceful, praying human beings in an historic Charleston, S.C. church.  Amid the national grieving and disbelief, the Confederate flag was removed from the city’s state house. (I always wondered what that was doing there – or anywhere.)

At the next meeting of our local metal detecting club, the usual discussion of the Finds of the Month, dues, and other club business suddenly devolved into a heated discussion of the "true" history and meaning of the Confederate flag, how wrongheaded it was to remove it, where would this PC nonsense end, etc. The discussion ended with some heartfelt language about President Obama.

It really was unfortunate. There were some new faces at the club that night, folks who haven’t been back. My heart raced a little, but I didn't leave. It’s my club too.

For a few weeks after that, I thought a lot about the words “tradition” and “heritage” and “pride” and what it means to “honor our ancestors.”

I don’t know about anyone else, but I honor my ancestors by being the best person I can be.

Now. In this life.

(And, in truth, I don’t think my distant ancestors are floating around demanding my attention. I think they are long gone to wherever we will go. But you know, I could be wrong about this.)

End of digressions.

In September, Cheryl and I got an interesting permission: an old farm south of town. Didn’t hit any kind of motherlode, but managed a few good finds. We’ll definitely go back.

Nice bridle rosette!

Not sure what this is. I would like someone
to tell me how rare and valuable it is.

One October afternoon, I scored a nice permission in my neighborhood: a beat-up little cabin with a huge front yard, right across the street from the Cumberland bluff. Cheryl came and brought her grandson, Trey. We dug for hours, pulling out a thousand bottle caps and pulltabs. Just... nothing. And then, this. It's a 1792 Spanish 8-real piece.

To be honest, I thought it was a stainless-steel
washer at first.  Then the profile of King Charles IV
(or "Big Nose Charlie," as Doug Drake used
to call him) became visible and I made
some muffled high-pitched noises, and all
was good and right with the world.

I've been told that people used to drill holes
in coins so they could run a string through
them to prevent loss. Obviously, not foolproof.

On October 31, my daughter, Maya, was married in Ann Arbor, Michigan to her Michael. What a party it was: a Halloween costume ball in an old, cobblestone barn. It was a joyous weekend and I only thought about sneaking out to detect the farm grounds maybe three times.

The lovely bride.

In early November, a reporter from WPLN, the local NPR station, contacted me about my detecting and my new record. He interviewed me at home, then asked me to go digging. Hmm.

I certainly didn’t want to take him somewhere and then not find anything. (“Oh! Everyone loves a vintage pulltab – it’s just part of the fun!”) So I did some serious reconnaissance. Got permission for a Really Good Yard belonging to some musicians who are famous enough that I will not mention their names, as much as I would like to do that.

Scoped it out by myself and found and Enfield bullet just lying on top of the ground.

Well, that's not something you see every day.

Dug several more then backed off, leaving some really delicious signals undug. (For the record, this is hard to do.)

Came back the next day with the NPR guy, handed him my Tesoro Cibola and let him have a go. He immediately found two more Enfields and a bunch of camp lead. Then he held the microphone as I dug through tough roots, self-conscious about the amount of unladylike grunting that was being recorded For All Time.

Couple of Enfields and a pulled 69 minie ball.

The next day, the NPR guy came to our monthly club meeting where he got to see some interesting finds and talk to some interesting people. There was no political commentary that night, for which I was grateful.

The cd release show for I Dug it Up took place Wednesday, November 18 at Douglas Corner in Nashville. Backed by an ace band and a slew of my dearest friends singing backup, I sang through the entire album. There were lots of people. There was cake. There was an NPR guy. It was one of the best nights of my life.

Here we are singing "Can Slaw" -- my ode to chopped up
Mountain Dew cans everywhere.

I am thinking about becoming a professional cake decorator.

(I will post a link to a youtube video of the whole show at the end of this blogpost. It was recorded on a phone so the sound is not pristine, but it's pretty cool. Thanks,  Dave P.!)

Here are a few odds and ends from random yards near my house.

Just grand.
Someone was fascinated by transportation.

Which brings us to January. Only nine days in and I’ve already dug this

Confederate Gardner bullet -- precursor to the
more accurate Enfield. 

And this, just yesterday.

Huge yard full of nothing, then this.

My hopes/plans for the new year?

1.     Finish a new writing project
2.     Get permission for a certain vacant lot on the Cumberland bluff. I’ve been trying for a year.
3.     That the NPR guy will finish and air the story of I Dug it Up so that all the world can hear my grunty root digging.

And one other thing: I hope to travel to Fayette, Alabama where both my grandfather’s grandfathers had farms. One, Willis Harvey Whitley, was a captain in an undistinguished Confederate regiment. The other, Buck Farquhar, owned a prosperous farm, including two enslaved human beings. I’d like to locate those properties, perhaps run my detector over the land and find something that belonged to my ancestors.

Will it make me feel closer to them? Maybe, though that closeness would be a fiction.

Will I feel pride? Shame? I don't know.

Will it make me want to better understand the times they lived in, their particular spot in the river, the rot and the grit and the glory of history? Absolutely.

And if through some miracle of dimensions, Willis and Elizabeth Whitley are there in some form, floating beside me as I swing my machine over the scattered bricks of their long-demolished farmhouse, here are two things they may say to each other:

1. "Elizabeth Jane, why does our young descendent not have a Confederate flag bumper sticker on her Toyota Sienna minivan? The omission of it is so disrespectful." 

I believe this is unlikely.


2. "Willis, what on earth is growing out of the top of our young descendent's head? Lawd, Lawd, but it looks like a third pigtail. The poor girl should wear a bonnet, for decency's sake... " 

This is more likely. I shall report back.