Founder and owner of Green Mountain Software, a consulting firm based in the Capital District of New York focusing on SQL Server.
Consulting DBA ("and other duties as assigned") by day, and sometimes night, and caver by night (and sometimes day).
When I'm not in front of a computer or with my family I'm often out hiking, biking, caving or teaching cave rescue skills.
The dream is always the same. … and I… find myself in a room full of kids taking their college boards. I’m over three hours late; I’ve got two minutes to take the whole test. I’ve… just made a terrible mistake. I’ll never get to college. My life is ruined. – Risky Business
Today is the day. For the first time in over 30 years I’ll be sitting down in a college classroom and taking a class. I distinctly recall taking my final exam for college. It was in Microbiology. I wasn’t overly concerned. I need to get something like a 40% on it to pass the class (and since it was counting as transfer credit, my actual letter grade didn’t matter as far as RPI was concerned.). It was multiple choice. Once I was confident I had gotten well over 40% I put down the pen and walked out. (For the record I ended up well over 80% on the exam.)
But I have to remind myself, that technically while that was the end of my undergrad career, I have taken classes since then. I took a class on SQL Server a few years later, I studied for and got my MCSE a few years after that, and starting in 2002, I started my career with the NCRC where I have since become an instructor.
But, this is different. For one, it’s 12 weeks of classes. There will be a lab. There will be homework. It’ll be harder in its own way than the other training.
Like many, for years after I graduated, I’d have a dream, usually around May, where it was exam time and I realized there was a class I had never attended and now had to take an exam in it. I’d always wake up a bit upset. One year though finally the dream changed. This time the setup was the same, but when I went to take the final exam, I aced it. Don’t ask me how. But I literally stopped having these exam dreams after that.
So I figure it’s appropriate that I had a dream about starting school last night. In my dream though, I was over in Schenectady (about 15 miles from the community college I’ll be taking classes at) trying to get folks to tell me what time it was, since I had to be at class at 2:00 PM. None would give me a straight answer at first until I got upset. Finally one person told me it was 1:45 PM. I was panicking because I knew there would be no way I’d make it to the Torrington CT Campus of UConn. It was then that I recalled that fortunately I didn’t have to drive that far.
All this is a setup to admit that yes, I am actually both excited and nervous. I’ve gone in a few short weeks from a feeling of ennui when it came to my career and life to one of stress and even a slight bit of panic. Of course it didn’t help that I had to get my vaccination status cleared, and then a bunch of other paperwork finished up late yesterday before it all became official.
I honestly have very little idea what my experiences over the next several years will be like. But I’m looking forward to them.
Andy Yun (t | b) is this month’s host. Our challenge this month is:
…to think about something you’ve learned, that subsequently changed your opinion/viewpoint/etc. on something.
I’m going to give a twofer for this one, since he’s also allowing non-technical answers.
“SQL Server writes everything in 8K blocks.” I recall learning this probably close to 2 decades ago. And, it makes sense, at a lot of levels. And it was “confirmed” when we reformatted the disks on one of our production servers into 64K blocks so SQL Server could read/write 8 blocks at a time. Performance definitely improved. But, then I learned from Argenis Fernandez that this isn’t necessarily true. SQL Server will write what it wants to write. And if you think about it, that makes sense. If you update one record and it’s a single value you’re updating, SQL Server isn’t going to simply sit there and not write your 1 byte change to disk. And it’s not going to make up random 8191 bytes just so it can satisfy this rule of 8K. Yes, SQL Server will try to consolidate disk I/O and be efficient about it, but even then, it may not matter. Gone are the days where we’re writing data to bare metal (some of us are old enough to recall an option in early versions of SQL Server where one could create a database on a “raw” partition to get a performance boost). No, today we’re probably writing through multiple layers, more than we realize. For one client for example, a disk write from SQL Server will pass through an encryption layer, then to the OS, which will pass it through a disk driver layer that will then pass it on to the VM which will have its own layers. At that point, even if SQL Server were trying to only write 8K blocks, it’s quite possible every other layer has its own rules.
Yes, changing our disk formatting from 8K blocks to 64K blocks helped. It helped us. But, your requirements and situation may be different and ultimately you may end up writing more or less than 8K blocks all the time. (and I hope I summed up Argenis’s position accurately.)
Toss the Rope Down
As many know, I’m a caver. I’ve been caving for decades. Early in my caving career I learned vertical caving and back then we still used what was known as a “3-knot” system or “prussiks”. That hardware has improved and changed. But one habit took longer. It was (and unfortunately still is) common to tie one end of the rope to a tree or other rigging point, and drop the rest down the pit. Sure, you ended up with a pile of rope at the bottom, but no one really cared, as long as you didn’t step on it (which is another myth for another time). This helped guarantee that your rope actually reached the bottom. The only thing that sucks more than rappelling down a pit and reaching the knot at the end of the rope 50′ from the bottom of the pit is rappelling down a pit and realizing 50′ from the bottom of the pit that you forgot to put a knot in your rope.
But somewhere along the line, folks started to realize, “hey, that rope at the bottom of the pit is useless. It’s FAR more useful if we can leave it at the top of the pit.” As the depth of most pits are known, it’s actually not that hard to measure out the rope you think you need (plus a bit extra) and then rig the rope so that you have extra at the top. Why is this important? Some call this “rigging for rescue” (or more accurately, one part of the bigger concept).
Imagine the scenario where you’re ascending the rope and have an equipment failure. You can’t go up and can’t go down. If all the extra rope is below you, it doesn’t do you any good. You can’t do anything with it. But, if that extra 10′ or 20′ (or more) is at the top and you’ve rigged correctly, someone at the top can, without too much effort, safely change the rigging (with you still on the rope) to a 3:1 or if nothing else, a 2:1 haul system. Suddenly that extra rope sitting at the top of the pit becomes useful.
Beginners will still often toss the extra rope to the bottom of the pit, but more experienced cavers will rig it to stay at the top and this may literally save lives.
Stop and think about practices that you do now that you may have learned that could be wrong or no longer applicable. And more importantly, do those bad practices interfere with doing something that’s better or safer? With SQL Server, over the past few decades, a lot has changed and improved, but are you still doing something you were taught 2 decades ago because “well that’s the way things are done.” A lot has changed in 2 decades. Make sure your knowledge is still valid!
As I posted in my 2022 Year in Preview on Saturday among other goals, I had decided to work towards a career change. On Facebook and elsewhere I asked folks to read it and by extension, for support.
Wow, I got it in spades. I’m humbled and thankful. Now if I could say I wasn’t nervous or even already feeling a bit overwhelmed.
I thought I’d provide a quick update.
One of the first steps I need to complete before I can even apply for PA school is to fulfill a bunch of prerequisites. This means taking a fairly full class load at the local community college. To do that, I needed to actually register for classes. I figured that would be the easy part, so I set off full of hope yesterday morning to do so. Their offices were closed last week, so yesterday was my first opportunity.
And I hit my first roadblock. I was told I needed to prove my vaccination status to the health office first. Well that’s a bit of a problem because for various reasons, I didn’t have access to my health records from when I was a kid, when I would have received the required vaccinations. After series of calls to various providers and the community college health office, I learned I could, if necessary get the shots from the health office. But, I needed to be registered for classes first. So effectively I couldn’t register until the health office said everything was OK, and the health office couldn’t say everything would be OK until I was registered for classes. Welcome to the classic Catch-22.
Eventually I was able to cut some red-tape and am registered and on the way to solving my vaccination status issues.
So, first hurdle cleared.
Then another one hit: I may have underestimated what prereqs I need and if that’s true, will have to 100% definitely push back one year for the whole process.
I’ll admit that gives me very mixed feelings. One one hand, it may mean a lot less pressure to get everything done this year. On the other, it definitely means another year before I can fully change careers.
So, yesterday was a roller coaster of emotions.
And it was just the first week. But I didn’t expect it all to be roses and flowers. But I’ve decided to t least share most of my ups and downs with my readers.
Oh and one upside: I finally got a Christmas present that I had wanted for two years: the Lego Saturn V. Thanks Ian. I’m going to take my time building it, spread out the enjoyment.
I started last year’s version of this post with the suggestion I should leave it as a blank page and I’m tempted again, but no, I actually have goals for next year.
By words, thoughts become actions, and by actions words become deeds.
I’m going to start with the usual list of items and then have a big reveal at the bottom (you can skip to that if you want).
Like last year, I’m going to continue to write for Red-Gate. Even if it’s just one article. I will also attempt to keep my “Friends of Red-Gate’ status. In fact, I vow to be even more involved if I can find time.
This year for the NCRC, I’m looking to premiere a new class we’re calling “Tip of the Spear” aka TOTS. The focus of the class will be to work with medical doctors, nurses, physicians assistants and other medically trained personal to get them (the tip of the spear) to the patient deep in the cave as quickly as possible to provide the best possible medical care. Unlike our normal classes where there’s a strong focus on things like setting up communications, rigging, searching, etc this will focus solely on getting them there to use their skills. I’m excited about this, even though there’s a fair amount of work required to fully develop the curriculum.
Yeah, I’ll continue blogging. ‘Nough said. (Hey no one says you have to read it!)
Travel: While I do plan to do more, the big trips may be out for reasons to be mentioned below. But we’ll see.
Biking: Yeah, I hope to hit at least 700 miles this year (that has sort of been my minimum goal for years and I’ve beat it every year. I’ll continue to do so).
Hike More: I hope to do at least one overnight this year. And of course day hikes. So if you’re interested in doing a hike, let me know.
Caving: There’s a few caves I want to get into this year. So I’m looking forward to that.
Changes are Coming!
And now “the big reveal”. I’m going to start by saying that while I enjoy consulting and I think I’m pretty good at it, I am not enjoying it as much as I used to. I’m also simply not finding it fulfilling in a way I’d like it to be.
Among the reasons is that at the end of the day I look at what I’ve done and wonder “what difference does it really make?” Yes, I’ve written some solid code. I’ve helped with projects that have saved my clients thousands of dollars or made them tens of thousands. Financially, they’ve obviously made a difference. But, on a personal level they haven’t.
One reason I’ve enjoyed teaching cave rescue so much (and participating in the few I have, including a body recovery) is because at the end of the day I know I’ve made a difference: I’ve taught someone valuable skills, helped someone get out safely, or even in the most extreme case, been able to help others find closure.
I’ve been contemplating a change for awhile. I had toyed with a few ideas, such as going back to being a full-time employee, ideally in a management position for awhile. And I may still end up doing that, but that’s not where I am planning on heading right now. Financially it would probably be the right move, and honestly, I think when I’ve had the right environment, I’ve been a good manager (on the flip side, in a bad environment I’ve found it hard to be an effective or good manager).
So, instead, I’m going to pivot a bit and attempt a career change. I’m going to to try to move into a field where I think I can make a direct impact on people’s lives. I’m going to start taking prerequisite classes so I can apply for a Physician’s Assistant program. This is an idea I’ve toyed with off and on for years. Or rather one of several. Besides enjoying working with computers, I’ve been fascinated with two other fields: medical and law. I’ve thought for quite a few years if perhaps I should explore them. This really came to a head during my dad’s fatal illness 6 years ago. I’ll brag a bit and say that more than once I had one of the attendings or nurses ask me (after discussing his condition or treatment) “Are you in the medical field?” Once even when students were rounding, the attending asked them a question and none answered it to his satisfaction, I was able to step in and correctly answer it. Yes, one or two students scowled at me.
Now, having said that, I’m quite realistic in understanding that while I do claim a greater than a laymen’s knowledge of things medical, I have a LONG way to go and I’m entering a difficult field later in life and have a bit of catchup to do. I have no illusions that this will be easy for me. But to perhaps channel a bit of John F. Kennedy “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”
In the most optimistic timeframe, I’ll be completing my PA work in mid 2025. In a more realistic timeframe, probably 2026. This is a serious investment of time and effort. This is arguably going to be one of the hardest things I’ve done in years. There’s no guarantee of success (heck, there’s no guarantee that even after doing all the prereqs I’ll be accepted into a program). But, I’ve decided I have to try. Ah but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for? I won’t know if I can do it unless I try and I don’t want to be a 4 years older wondering “what if?”
I’d been having thoughts about this for a long time. I finally put the thoughts into words, which made them that much more real. Now I’m starting to put the words into actions.
And one of those actions is to write the words down here for others to read. I do this for a multitude of reasons.
By writing this down and revealing it to the world (or at least to a small part of it) it holds me a bit more accountable for trying.
I’ll freely admit, I could use any and all support and help any of my friends, family, including #sqlfamily, and others are willing to give.
And honestly, perhaps it’ll inspire others in a similar position to stretch for their own goals.
For the coming year
I’ll keep working in SQL, you’ll see me at events and I’ll probably do some speaking, but I won’t be seeking out new work. I simply won’t have the time.
I’ll still keep running my local user group and looking for speakers
I’ll be blogging about my successes, and failures.
Ayup, it’s that time of year where I look back on what I wrote just short of one year ago and heap praise or shame on myself. It’s not original, but gives me some perspective. You can make of it what you will.
So, how did I do for my goals?
I did better writing for Red-Gate than I thought. It appears they published 4 of my articles (and in the back of my mind I thought it was only 1 or 2). So check that one off.
Expanding my client base: Sort of. Talked to 2 potential clients, one fell through, the other is still in the works. And had another client come back to me with another project which is still in progress. So call that half-way.
NCRC Weeklong – Well, a hit and a miss. The National Seminar which was scheduled for June we postponed to August figuring things would be better with vaccines. BUT, there was enough interest in a Level 1 Regional, we used the original June dates for that. And then ended up cancelling the August one, not because of fears here in New York, but more so elsewhere in the country, including the fact that a number of our instructors were being told by their employers they were essential during the end of August and as such could not leave work for a week. So we had A seminar, but not THE seminar. Next year is scheduled for Virginia and isn’t my baby this time around.
Continue blogging: This turns out to be my 2nd best year yet in term of page views (unless I get over 300 on this particular post which I suspect I won’t). Last year I was boosted because Brent Ozar happened to retweet one of my blogs. So I think without that I did well anyway. A friend jokes he tells his jokes not to amuse others, but because they amuse him. Well, my blogging is a bit like that. While I always hope others take away something from my blog and writing, I do it as much for myself, both as an exercise in discipline and to keep my writing skills honed (though some may snark I could be failing a the latter).
Travel: Nope. Didn’t really do much of that this year. I did get down to Washington DC twice to see old friends (and hopefully make new ones). Those two trips were the first time in close to two years I’ve stayed under a roof outside of New York State. One was via train, so I did get to see the new Moynihan Train Hall in NYC.
Continue Biking: Definitely did. But I didn’t get a new bike. This was due to two reasons. One, I stopped by a bike store I had visited years ago, but this time the indifference of the staff was partly a turn off, as was the fact that they didn’t have the bike I really wanted to try in stock. The second was, even if they had the model, getting the one I wanted, apparently had an 18 month backlog. So, we’ll see what 2022 brings. I did NOT do a century ride this year. And instead of 1300 miles, only did 843. Still not too shabby.
Hike More: The goal was at least one or two overnight hikes. That was a big fat zero. Mostly due to scheduling and other events just didn’t happen. But, on the flip side, did do several hikes with Randi towards the end of the summer, including one that was a bit more rugged than I remembered (and we almost ended up having to assist in a carryout rescue, which would have really sucked, but the rangers decided to airlift her out).
A Book: This was not on my official list since I added it later in the year. I had given some thought and even wrote an outline and 1 or 2 chapters for an idea for a new book, but that didn’t come to fruition. Call is partly due to the Covid Doldrums.
Continue to enjoy life: This I definitely did. It was definitely a different year. In some ways 2020 was both harder and easier. 2020 at some point I think I simply accepted the fate of Covid and that we wouldn’t get back to normal until a vaccine was widely available. So I stopped getting my hopes up. 2021 was in some ways harder because with a vaccine, it was easy to get ones hopes up, but due to various surges and now Delta and Omicron, have them dashed again and again. I’ll say right here I’m frustrated and angry with those who continue to ignore the science and tout conspiracy theories about the vaccines and refuse to take them for “freedom” and the like. But I’ll save further thoughts for another day.
Tomorrow I’ll post my goals and hopes for 2022 (and one will surprise most of my readers!) (yeah, a bit click-baiting there!)
But in the meantime, for the close of 2021 (and for some the bell has tolled) let me wish you a happy and safe end to the New Year. If you do insist on going out, be safe, and for the love of all that is holy, and for the sake of my friends who will be working in EMS and elsewhere tonight, do NOT drink and drive!
P.S.: I will link two fellow bloggers who are also ending their blogging year:
Steve Jones – The End of 2021 The amount this man writes is simply amazing. Follow him if only for his Daily Coping tips.
Deborah Melkin – My 2021 In Review Deborah doesn’t blog as much as Steve (but who does) but when she does, it’s top notch.
If others have year and blogs, I’ll add those here if they want.
It’s been awhile since I’ve focused exclusively on SQL Server or even T-SQL and perhaps this would make a great question for someone to ask on a T-SQL Tuesday, but for now I’ll ask.
An open question to any of my readers who work with T-SQL: “What command or construct do you find difficult?”
Let’s be honest, we all have something about T-SQL that trips us up. I’m hoping the basic SELECT statement doesn’t. Though, start to throw in stuff like an outer join and a correlated subquery, it can get complicated pretty quickly. But even those I can generally get written without too much effort.
The one construct I do encounter infrequently, but enough that I feel I should fully grok it by now is a DELETE with a join. It’s actually not all that complicated, but I often have to look up the syntax to remind myself.
But the one that gets me every single time: PIVOT. I’ve probably only written a half-dozen pivots in my life and that’s 6 too many in my opinion. I’m not sure what it is about them, but my mind still doesn’t just fully grasp the syntax in an easy way.
Thinking about it, I think one reason is because when I’ve had to use them, it has never been a trivial case.
Fortunately, since my primary focus is on the operations side of being a DBA, and most of the code I write is to support that, I don’t come across the need for a pivot very often. I suppose though if I were writing a lot more code, I’d use it more and understand it better.
I like when the day I blog lines up with a holiday, or some sort of astronomical event. it gives me a ready made topic.
And so in that theme, this post will be similar to the day: short.
Several years ago (it feels like a lifetime) my family and I flew into Manchester UK so I could speak at a SQL Saturday there. I hadn’t really given thought to how far north it was and the fact that it was close to the Summer Solstice, but I woke up at 4:00 AM local time and it was basically no darker than twilight I was a big groggily confused. Once I was finally awake later in the day I realized why it was so bright at that time.
This time of the year it’s the opposite. I wake up at my normal time (generally around 6:30 to 7:00, the time varies as I almost never use an alarm clock) and it’s still fairly dark and I have to check a clock to make sure if my body’s clock has really woken me up in time for the day.
Between shorter days and the fact that my largest client client is basically in a freeze period, my days are fairly empty, at least in terms of workload. The amount of darkness and lack of work does cause a lack of motivation for much, including writing this blog.
But, that’s belayed a bit by the fact that both kids are home from college, one until her next semester starts and the other until he discovers what life has to bring now that his college career is finished. Like me on the Winter Solstice, one thing is ending and the future seems limitless, perhaps a bit overwhelming. But it is ultimately something to look forward to.
Days are starting to get longer, and in 10 days, a New Year will begin, and I look forward to what that will bring.
In the meantime, I’ll enjoy my Christmas Music, have the lights I inherited from my grandparents lit (technically just the strand, I think I’ve replaced all the bulbs at least once, and they’re getting more rare and more expensive!)
So, here’s to longer days and a better New Year.
And see, I told you this would be a short one, much like the day.
Favorite Conference: The easy answer has been SQL Pass, but honestly, at this point, any where I get to see folks in person!
Best Venue: Ignoring Pass at Seattle, I have to say Manchester UK was nice, simply because it was my first overseas SQL Saturday, or perhaps Virginia Beach SQL Saturday, because Monica Rathbun and her group provided a nice charcuterie board!
Best Presenter: Oh, this is a tough one. I’m going to take a pass. But then cheat and answer below. Sort of.
Next event and why it’ll be Costa Rica: I’m suspecting sort of a bias in this question, but to be honest, I’d love to go. I think 2022 will be a bit too busy for me to visit, but perhaps 2023 or 2024. Maybe I can work in some caving then too!
That all said, I want to get back to my shout-outs above and tie that into this T-SQL Tuesday.
As the coordinator for the Capital Area SQL Server User Group, one of my primary roles, in fact perhaps the most important, is finding speakers to present. I’ve tried over the past few years to have a good variety and to bring some variety. We haven’t really missed a meeting since the pandemic has started, but we have been virtual for well over a year now. This has presented both drawbacks and opportunities. The biggest drawback of course is the lack of actual in-person interaction and the feeling of connectedness that has brought. On a personal note it also means not only have I not gotten out of cooking dinner the night of meetings, but often, I’m juggling getting something together for dinner and getting the session started (though last night my wonderful wife did take care of dinner for me.)
On the flip side, being virtual has allowed me to invite speakers who might not otherwise be willing or able to travel in person to Albany NY and for attendees from across the country to show up. It has also given me the opportunity to experiment a bit more with formats.
Last year, instead of our traditional in-person holiday party format, we did a version of “Bluff the Listener” where I asked various presenters to tell their worst IT/SQL horror stories, but one was lying. It was a success and a lot of fun.
Not wanting to repeat that, this year I decided to ask the above 4 presenters to present lightning rounds. That’s not so bad, except I added a twist. They didn’t get to choose their topics, they were given them: 10 minutes before they were scheduled to present. (And yes, some may I stole this idea from Buck Woody, I’d like to say I was inspired).
I’ll admit I was very nervous about this idea. It seemed a bit gimmicky and it could have been a complete disaster with lesser speakers. Fortunately, all four brought their A-Game.
Rob Farley, presenting from the future, in I believe a public work space, managed to give one of the best talks on column-store indices I’ve seen. Given he had only 10 minutes of prep, I was impressed. His presentation included the use of Powerpoint in sort of a “green screen” mode so he could draw on his screen and we could see what he was drawing.
Peter Shore followed up talking about Tips in Advancing a Career in Data. Again, off-the-cuff with limited prep time, he did very well with this topic. I think in some ways this was almost harder than the more technical topics because you can’t fall back on a demo or graphics.
Deborah Melkin followed, talking about the Best new SQL Server features (2019, 2022, Azure). I had announced previously that the best speaker would be awarded a prize. By I think unanimous declaration, even before Rob Sewell finished out the night with his presentation, the other speakers decided Deborah was the winner. She included some demos in her presentation, which, given the lead time, really impressed folks.
Closing out the evening, Rob Sewell entertained us with a demo of SQL Injection. Not surprisingly, he made use of PowerShell and Notebooks.
As I said, it was an entertaining and educational evening. I purposely set expectations low and made sure folks understood that the entertainment value was as much, if not more important than actual educational value. But I was very pleased with how educational it turned out to be. It was a nice way to end the year and honestly, I think a decent way to get a break from the bad news that seems to have surrounded us lately.
I do have a theory though about why the educational part turned out as well as it did though. In general I’ve always enjoyed lightning talks and I honestly, think they’re among the hardest type of talk to give. Sometimes people promote them as a good introduction to speaking for novice speakers, but I’m not so sure. To give a successful lightning talk, one really has to strip a presentation to the bare essentials and really focus on just one or two key concepts. This can be difficult. But done well I think it really makes those concepts stick.
Now, combine that with topics only being given out 10 minutes in advance, I think that really forces a presenter to focus on key concepts even more. I wouldn’t give an inexperienced presenter a random topic, and even with an experienced presenter, I’d give them a chance to decline a topic if they feel it’s completely outside their wheelhouse. But otherwise, give them a chance to see what they can do. It might surprise you. Heck, it might surprise them.
So, to go back and answer a question from above: Best Presenter… at least last night Deborah Melkin, who if nothing else proved her Google-foo was impressive.
And I think if I can find volunteers, I will definitely try to do an in-person version of this at a future SQL Saturday or Data Saturday or other conference.
Thanks to all who participated and joined us. It was a blast. But honestly, next year, I hope to see you all in person at our holiday party!
I’m sitting here listening to The Hudson River Sampler on WAMC a local Public Radio station, hosted by Wanda Fischer and reflecting more on Bill Staines and Scott Alarik. There’s a lot to reflect upon, but I’m going to comment on just a bit.
First is a quote from Scott Alarik talking about folk music and how memory is how a person remembers, but tradition is how a society remembers. He then talked about how we can tell what was important to a society by what is preserved and what we hear years later and how we can be drawn back in history by tradition.
But the other thought is a basic tautology: every performer has their own style of performing. This reminded me first of the two “worst” folk performers I’ve heard over the years. Now, worst is relative. Neither technically were bad performers. Technically they were competent and their performance enjoyable, but…
In the first case, it was a performer who performed at Mother’s Wine Emporium at RPI. I honestly don’t remember who it was, but they did their two sets, and at the end of the evening asked for their check, which I promptly handed to them. Now, let me point out here, that as much as many performers loved performing, performing was the way they put bread on the table. Performers who appeared at Mother’s were professionals and we paid them as such. But… In all my years of interacting with performers this was the first, and only, that treated it simply as a job. There was nothing more there. I think they would have put in the same effort with no crowd, or with the largest crowd ever. I’d say their heart simply wasn’t in it or something. That’s fine, but not what we wanted.
The second performer was one my wife and I caught at a lodge on the Skyline Drive in Virginia. We were staying there for the night and during dinner, there was live music. The performer setup, and segued from a warm-up into the performance. He was quite good, and he had some good monologue to go with it, but unfortunately he failed to make any attempt to connect with the audience. It was a shame because there was another family there with young kids and I suspect they walked away without any sense of the specialness of the music. From his demeanor and comments, I suspect this was a regular gig he did every week and was simply a bit jaded. Which is a shame.
This is not to disparage either performer, but more to offer a contrast to other performers such as Scott and Bill.
Bill loved to perform, as the mileage on his car, and the name of 2 of his albums suggested. I don’t think he’d pass up a chance to perform. And despite how many performances he did, I always felt like he was there for the audience. He’d give his all and the audience always enjoyed it. I think the bigger the crowd, the more energy he’d give and make the room feel all that much larger. He could make a small room feel like a concert hall.
But listening tonight, I realized Scott had a very different style, one that worked for him. I’m not sure Scott ever was performing for the audience per se. He was performing for himself, but inviting the audience to come along for the ride. As he’d sing, you could tell he was enjoying the songs and if you joined him and enjoyed the show, great, but if not, he was going to enjoy it anyway. It was almost like being invited into the inner sanctum of his mind. In his case, no matter how large the room, he could make it feel like an intimate, small space where it was just you and him.
Both had their styles and I enjoyed both and will miss them.
As I start to write this, the TV reminds me, that this is the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor; and that there are still a few veterans alive from that day.
This is both a somber note, and a somewhat celebratory one to start the day. Horrible things can happen, and yet life can still go on. I was reminded of this over the weekend.
I woke up on Saturday morning to read on Facebook that Scott Alarik had passed away. Some of my readers will recognize the name immediately, but for those who don’t, a little background. Scott was a singer-songwriter who was also a columnist for the Boston Globe and write a book on folk music and wrote for a number of other columns. I first met Scott at Mother’s WineEmporium so many years ago. He had performed his opus Fresh-Water Whaling, telling the little known history of the glory days of whaling on the Great Lakes. I must add that the history is so little known as to be non-existent. But, for those who do recall it, remember those little harpoons you sometimes find in drinks memorialize it. Or so it was said by Scott. As much as Scott liked to sing, I think he preferred more to talk and write. He was a living, walking history of the world of folk music. I still recall one night, after he had performed at a Mother’s Wine Emporium show at RPI where we discussed “what exactly is folk music?” We agreed it was “music of the folk” but beyond that we decided it had no easy definition. As I write this, I’m listening to the first video I found on YouTube and it is Scott at his best. Yes, there’s a song or two in there, but mostly it’s him telling stories. It’s as I remember Scott.
That news was hard enough, but to myself I said, “at least Bill is still with us.” I had read late last month that another singer-songwriter I knew, Bill Staines was fighting cancer and the battle was not going well. Alas though, on Sunday I woke up to more tragic news. Bill had journeyed to the next folk stage. Bill was another performer I had met through Mother’s Wine Emporium many years ago. I have several of his albums, at least one I believe signed. He was known for the prodigious miles he would put on his car, I believe at one point he said he averaged 100,000 miles a year, as he drove from performance to performance. Three of his albums reflect this: The First Million Miles, The First Million Miles, Vol 2, and The Second Million Miles. His best known song was perhaps River,(Take Me Along). I think his final journey though is longer than all his rest.
Finally, later on Sunday I also read of the death of fellow caver Mark Hodges. I can’t say I knew Mark very well. I want to say I caved with him at least once, but I honestly can’t remember. But I knew the impact he had on the cavers around him. He apparently suffered a heart attack while exiting a cave over the weekend. The tributes left to him from his friends and fellow cavers are touching and serve as a reminder, that one doesn’t need to write books, or travel 100,000 miles a year to have an impact on those around him.
I’m going to close with a memory of another friend and also former “Mother” at Mother’s Wine Emporium: Tom Duscheneau. Tom was a fixture at Mother’s for more years than I can remember, and many an attendee will recall him taking a seat at the front of the room, settling in as the music would wash over him, and closing his eyes. Yes, occasionally he’d need a nudge if had started snoring, but otherwise he would simply sit there, soaking in the music until the set ended. He passed in 2006, but I still recall him from time to time. I suspect if there’s a great beyond, he’s just pulled up a chair and sat down, preparing to take in a great concert as Scott and Bill decide to tell a few tall tales and perform a duet or two.
Mother’s Wine Emporium aka Mother’s Coffehouse – For those who don’t know what Mother’s was, it was a magical place at RPI, a place where one could retreat from the hustle-bustle of the busy world and sit back and listen to singers, raconteurs and more. It had moved at least once over the years (the above photo is the latest incarnation). For the longest time, it was the oldest, continuously student run coffeehouse in the nation. Scott liked to talk about how if you made it here, you knew you had probably gotten your ticket to the college coffehouse circuit. Those of us who had the honor of working here were known as “Mothers” and it is were my wife and I met. Due to a variety of circumstances, including the death of Tom Duscheneau, it had its last show sometime in 2007. In 2019, I worked with the RPI to bring back Scott Alarik for a performance, with a hope for future shows. Covid has unfortunately put a hold on that plan, but I do hope in the coming years to again sit back and soak in the music of some great performers.