A LITTLE HEALING

I was a sick kid–-as familiar with my hospital room in the pediatrics wing at U.C.L.A. as I was with my own little room at home. Being a teaching hospital, I was frequently Exhibit A as interns and residents and their stern physician instructors made their daily rounds. They’d refer to me by my gender and age and disease. I didn’t appear to have a name. They didn’t know I love to play the piano or sit under big shady trees or that in some perverse way am relieved to be in the hospital and away from the war zone that is home.

I got swept into the routine of it — everything you can imagine them doing to keep a critically ill kid alive. But you never know when something wonderful will happen. One morning there is a sudden flurry of activity and excitement outside my door. Nurses and other staff are trotting up and down the corridor but not in a “Code Blue” kind of way. They are positively buoyant. Maybe I’m hallucinating because that’s the only way I can explain this level of bizarre

Until one of the nurses swoops into my room and breathlessly exclaims “Bobby Darin is here!  B-O-B-B-Y  D-A-R-I-N !!!   He’s here to see the kids.”  Splish-SplashMack The KnifeDream LoverBeyond The Sea. THAT Bobby Darin!

He’s a BIG star, this guy. And I am a BIG fan. The nurse fluffs up my hair and smooths out the wrinkles in my hospital gown just as HE walks into my room. I can’t freaking believe it. There is no entourage trailing him, taking pictures and commiserating. He leans towards me with that beautiful face. And those eyes. Oh God. And he talks…to me. “Would you like a picture and an autograph?” He asks SO sweetly as if he is singing the words. I nod yes because I can’t get my mouth to work. I’m completely undone. It’s Bobby Darin. As he hands me his 8 x 10 glossy everything is right with the world.

We all have moments in our lives that are seared into our memory, burned into our bones. Little moments that can turn into a monumental shift—like when a teacher says “good job” or a stranger looks you in the eyes and says “you’re okay.” And that close encounter with Bobby Darin is one of my moments.

He used his celebrity to bring kindness, a little healing to ALL the people in pediatrics that day. He didn’t have to do it. His warm presence was not “put-on.” Bobby Darin was a sick kid too. He was visiting “a land” he knew well. He must have known that he was on borrowed time. We all are. He died ten years later.

Even as a little girl I already knew that music healed me. And during those dark years when I was so ill, if I didn’t have a piano to play I would not have survived. So it’s just been my thing that music, at the very least gives us a second wind and at the deepest, most profound levels, it transforms us.

Our January Opica Gig with Tom, Barbara, Wena, Mollie, Marilyn, Toni, Nancy, Lou, Raymond, Cris and Rose

Which brings me to January 2017. My ukulele group, The CC Strummers” has been named “Senior of The Month” by The Culver City Senior Center because we bring a little healing to our community. We regularly play for folks with dementia at a local adult day care center and get them singing and dancing along. Several of our CC Strummers now teach ukulele to nearby middle school students once a week. The kids LOVE it and love them.

And…

Our maiden voyage at U.C.L.A. with Raymond, Michael, Rose and Vicki.

Through a series of serendipitous events–one person comes up with an idea that inspires another person to do something and suddenly more people are jumping on the bandwagon–The CC Strummers landed at The Mattel Children’s Hospital at U.C.L.A. playing and donating ukuleles to sick kids on the pediatric wards.

The story begins with our association with a wonderful organization called The Ukulele Kids Club which donates ukuleles to sick kids in hospitals around the country. Our group quickly collects enough money for five ukes and they ask where we’d like the ukuleles sent. U.C.L.A. is close to Culver City so we begin our collaboration with this respected institution as they build their music therapy program.

Christmas time with Michael, Marilyn, Toni, Carol, Ann, Jenna (the music therapist) and one happy kid with her new ukulele!

Finally the day arrives when we do our first session: Michael, Rose, Raymond, Vicki and me. We have no idea what to expect as the music therapist leads us from hospital room to room. We sing “How Much is That Doggie in the Window?” to the little ones and “All About That Bass” (minus the “booty booty” and “bitch” parts) to the bigger ones.

Singing outside the door to a kid in isolation…

Some kids are in isolation and we stand outside their door and sing. With others, we gather around them and talk about how much we love the ukulele and show them how to play “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” We give ukuleles away. The kids can’t believe it. They are over the moon. We give a ukulele to parents who will learn to play a few songs and teach their kids. The sense of gratitude is like an arrow that shoots both ways.

And here I am, coming full circle, spinning back, back, in time. Pediatrics is in a different building now than I remember. The long corridors are painted lilac, yellow, sky blue. Each kid has a name and we learn it before we meet them.. I’m doing okay…considering… But suddenly I am blindsided with emotions that rise from some deep, unknown place inside. Suddenly I am THAT sick kid again, laying in that hospital bed. AND I am a musician standing beside her, sharing a smile and a song. The past, the present are whirling together in some time-bending dance.

It’s a Bobby Darin kind of moment. A little healing. A fierce reminder that we are all on borrowed time.

2017! REALLY?

“I have always felt that laughter in the face of reality is probably the finest sound there is and will last until the day when the game is called on account of darkness. In this world, a good time to laugh is any time you can.” — Linda Ellerbee

So laugh lots. And then laugh some more in this new year!

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Craig and I sneaked to Palm Springs last weekend to recharge our batteries and visit our ukulele friends in the beautiful Coachella Valley. I usually get hauled away from my music, kicking and screaming, but this time I am willingly absconded. It’s been a tough year and I know a little change of scenery would do me good.

I get to sit next to brass Lucy and freeze my ass off taking the Windmill Tour.

I Love Lucy! Downtown Palm Springs. Photo by Craig Brandau

Tour Guide Randy and I and all those windmills reflected in the bus window on this beautiful blustery day. Cool photo by Craig Brandau

Photo by Craig Brandau

So flash forward.

It’s a brilliant chilly New Years morning here in Culver City and one more time I’m going through piles of papers and clippings and “to-do” lists on my desk. Why should this morning be any different from yesterday? I’m just another traveler on the space-time continuum.  Holidays are a fun distraction, until they aren’t. So it’s back to work for me. Happily, I might add.  And that includes bringing you up to “ukulele” speed.

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The CC Strummers at our Holiday Show at The Culver City Senior Center

Teaching The CC Strummers, my ukulele group, is a special joy for me and last year we learned our first instrumental: Pachelbel’s Canon. We play that thing over and over and over–in both classes, beginners and intermediate. They strum. They fingerpick. I play lead as we rehearse for our Holiday Extravaganza at The Culver City Senior Center. Where else can you hear “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas” and a classical canon from 1694 in the same show?

Oh and this was the first time both classes played it together. In front of like 200 people. I am sweating it. Lordy. And banging my boot on the floor to help keep us in time. You’d think I was clogging or something.

But we pull it off and I am ready to pee in my pants I am so excited. Want to watch?  CLICK HERE

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I think 2017 is going to be another wild ride. Just a feeling…

Music gets me through and I see how it comforts and inspires others. I hope lots of people got ukuleles for Christmas or Hanukkah or whatever. Now, let’s make some music. Both my Ukulele for Beginners Class and OnGoing Ukulele Workshop & Jam begin Saturday, January 14, 2017 at Boulevard Music in Culver City. Please join us.

So this morning we woke up. The rest is gravy. Enjoy today, this year, in good health. And laugh, laugh laugh…

And thank you!

ANOTHER GOODBYE

 

It's "Selfie Time" with Cali and Bill

It’s “Selfie Time” with Cali and Bill

His name was Bill and he was one of my teachers. My mentors. I had three of them. They arrived in my life, one by one. Just in time. Just when I needed them most. Adults, they were. Flawed of course. But each one invited me into their world with an open heart. And now they are all gone.

I think they were happy to have me around too. Because I practiced. Bill was my guitar teacher. He gave me homework and I did it. Like his arrangement for “One Note Samba.” Yeah, one note my ass. I woodshedded that thing until I was seeing visions of Antonio Carlos Jobim in my scrambled eggs. Hundreds and hundreds of times I played it. Never perfect or completely in the pocket. But he cheered me on until I could do it “pretty good.” And pretty good was a quantum leap for me.

Back in the day, Bill brought his big guitar to his nightclub gigs. He must have played “Misty” and “The Lady is A Tramp” thousands of times. Down-down-down with his right hand while the fingers on his left stretched across the fretboard like a dancing starfish, forming lush, sumptuous chords. Late at night he’d tune his radio to the local jazz station and analyze bass lines, what the sax is doing, piano, drum, guitar… He taught me to listen too although I will never hear what he could hear. The man was brilliant.

But he told me he didn’t really learn music until he got off the road and began teaching. When you have to explain something you have been doing intuitively your whole life, well it’s like a bucket of cold water in your face. He knew WHAT to do but now he had to learn how to put it into words.

Bill became a most excellent teacher. He taught me how to listen but he also taught me how to see. The man had an uncommon connection with mother earth. There he is, standing at the door, just standing, looking like the soles of his feet are plugged in to some unseen force. Grounded, like a mountain.

sangabs

A beautiful day in the San Gabriel Mountains

And oh he loved the mountains. And trees. And “puffer” clouds in a big blue sky.

Once Bill takes me on a hike in the San Gabriel’s, the rugged mountains near Los Angeles. We trudge across a grassy meadow when he suddenly stops and points at my boot. “Look at that flower! ” His ebullience is like a little kid on Christmas morning opening the most beautiful package under the tree. The flower looks like a weed to me. A plain little white thing that I am about to walk by or worse, crush with my big size 9.

“Look at it.  Look at it.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll look at it.” I bend over and really look. You know what, the little flower is exquisite. But how would I have known? I have to climb out of my “city slicker” high chair and get my face in the dirt. But he knows.

And he isn’t done, that Bill. He leads me to the top of the mountain where he opens his arms, like eagle wings, and bellows “WONKA, TONKA. BIG MEDICINE.” You can hear his resonate voice echoing to the next ridge and I’m thinking my guitar teacher is nuts. I’m also thinking he has stamina like a Budweiser Clydesdale has stamina. This man who is the same age as my mother. What I need right now is oxygen, a couple Snicker Bars and a bottle of Gatorade. Not him, he’s too busy being “at one” with the earth and the sky.

Pat & Bill

Pat, Bill & Vali

Maybe that’s how Bill celebrated 90 years and a few more. It helps that he married a good woman, Pat, and they lived a sweet life in Carson City, Nevada. Close to the Sierra’s. And close to the casinos. He loved to play the ponies and take a little nip of happy juice. If there is a heaven, I hope there’s a racetrack. And a bar.

Bill Wyckoff & Rosie

Here’s Bill playing my “Rosie” and getting friendly with four strings

I gave up guitar to play the ukulele because I don’t have the kind of brain that can do both. But my guitar chops inform the way I play the uke, from strumming to fingerpicking to pulling melodies out of those four strings. Bill was very gracious when I decided to go all aloha. Towards the end, he had to abandon the guitar too, when his hands and fingers just couldn’t do it anymore. A sad coda indeed. But he still had mother earth. And Pat. And his family and friends who love him.

I think our lives right now, right here, are the sum total of all our experiences and reflecting pools for the people we encounter along the way. I bring Bill to all my gigs. And my classes. He’s there reminding me to listen when the breezes sing through the Eucalyptus trees outside our bedroom window. He’s there when I see something extraordinary in the palette of my everyday life.  Thank you Bill.

Pat, Cali & Bill Wyckoff

With Bill & Pat in Carson City, 2013

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I received a torrent of emails in response to my last blog “Not Your Normal Trip to Trader Joe’s.” Thank you for the support and for sharing your stories. I think this subject hits home for a lot of us but we don’t always talk about it. Well I’m talking about it because I don’t want to suffer or see the people I care about suffer and knowledge is power. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is devastating. In my experience, I have little hope that someone with NPD will get better. Maybe they have a good day, or week, but inevitably they return to their old ways. There are techniques you can use to diffuse and distract. Or you may have to disengage and estrange yourself so you can live your own life. Read up on this stuff. It may help.

 

 

NOT YOUR NORMAL TRIP TO TRADER JOE’S

Let me tell you a story. About my mother. This happens not so long ago when she is in her eighties. Still living alone. When every little thing sets her off. Like gravity, houseplants, soap, me.

Her pantry is near empty so off we go to Trader Joe’s. I hope the lunch rush is over and we can get in and out quickly. Yes she needs food. And I need St. John’s Wort because I can tell she is itching for a fight. I grew up knowing her wild moods come on like a sudden thunderstorm in summer. I get good at taking HER temperature. I get good at sensing when it’s time for me to hide in the bathroom or play the piano or sit in the dirt under a tree.

I should have turned the car around and gone home but she would have thrown a tantrum. Screaming is bad enough, but in my late model Saturn, with the windows rolled up, it’s an echo chamber and there’s nowhere to run. She sets off a stink bomb and it feels like I’m inhaling the toxic molecules of her pissed-off world. Let’s just say that being around her is exhausting.

So I opt for the open aisles of Trader Joe’s. Sometimes they play old school Sinatra over the sound system. I could use some “Fly Me to the Moon” as mom pushes her cart through the sliding glass doors into a swarm of shoppers–zigging, zagging, grabbing stuff however and wherever they can. Is this the day before Thanksgiving or something? It’s like everybody–and their mother–is shopping at TJ’s today.

I get a cart too, trying to put a little metal between me and her. I have a bad feeling about this… I don’t like crowds. But somehow I’ve learned to get all quiet inside and stay in that place until I feel safe. My mother, on the other hand, goes ballistic. I always thought the best birthday present I could give her–ever–was a day at the nearest paintball arena.

Suddenly it happens. A man pushes his cart into my mother’s lane. Right there by the bags of shredded cheddar. She glowers at him but then her face turns ugly and twitchy. All she needs is green paint and the pointy black hat from The Wizard of Oz to make this wicked witch vision complete.

I am standing some ten feet away, next to the Fuji apples, as I watch the scene quickly unravel. No one knows I am with her or she is with me. I am all at once an impassioned observer watching what happens when mental illness goes public.

She screams. She bellows. I think she accuses him of something just short of murder. I can’t remember the exact words. But I watch the other shoppers move backwards, leaving a large semi-circle of angry space occupied by one crazed woman and “the guy with the cart.”

What I am watching is what I have felt for years. She spits venom and I move away. I see the shoppers doing the same thing. It’s a strange kind of relief.  Relief that others are affected in the same way. Enough to get their asses into a safe zone. I’m on lockdown too, like my feet are frozen in cement. Just me and the Fuji’s.

Then the man speaks. He gets in my mother’s face. He faces down her bullying and tells her to “watch your manners.” He may have apologized or mentioned how busy the store is. I blank out. But this I do know… She shuts up. Like she just swallowed a tube sock. How did he do THAT?

Having set things straight, the guy turns his cart around and disappears into the throng of shoppers who, almost in slow motion, tentatively step back into the empty space. The cheese section soon returns to normal. Well, nervous normal.

I am mortified and I also know I have to leave my hiding place to retrieve my mother. She may be mute right now but that won’t last for long. I have to get her out of there and quick.
_ _ _ _ _ _

There are any number of personality disorders and my mother is a poster child. I am not talking about your average (albeit obnoxious) me-me-me stuff. No. This is what pathological narcissism looks like in full bloom at Trader Joe’s.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

We trudge to the car in silence but once her seatbelt goes click, my mother unloads. “That nasty man. That nasty, awful, mean, terrible man…I want to kill him…” This is her mantra ALL the way home.

“But mom, you started it. You yelled at him first. It was busy and people were bumping into each other all over the place.” One more time I forget you cannot reason with a pathological narcissist because they are ALWAYS RIGHT. Try explaining the internal combustion engine to a frog, why don’t you. It just goes ree-deep, ree-deep, ree-deep and you end up having a conversation with yourself.

Ironically I know my mother is enjoying every minute of this. It’s great theater and my mom is a born actress and ANY spotlight will do, even the cheese section at Trader Joe’s.   Her gregarious, ribald personality has fooled a lot of people. For a long time. Ever the drama-queen, a day without taking aim at somebody or something is like a day without food. Her critics be dammed. “I will destroy them.” She’s smiling as she says this. A smile with a little twist of arsenic.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

In this election year I confess that my “mother buttons” are pushed and flashing red. I have heard the words pivot and temperament bandied about. As in “will he pivot?” As in “does he have the temperament to be president?” I smell my mother’s vibe.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

With mom there is no PIVOT. When she develops dementia we tell her the new medication she is taking is a vitamin. It’s really Zoloft and within 48 hours this psychotropic drug has modulated her moods–to such an extent that her new caregivers say she is delightful. My pugilistic mother is delightful… But she is drugged and losing her mind. If you want to call that a pivot…be my guest.

As for TEMPERAMENT… Ever since I was little, my fervent hope is that one day my mother will wake up and “get it.” That all her stuff will melt away with the morning sun. I love my mother and I just want her to be nice. To be normal. I want to sit down over hot chocolate and ginger snaps and have a conversation with her. Like when she talks and I listen and then I talk and she listens. Such a little thing that most people take for granted.

To the end my mother does not have the capacity to look in the mirror. At herself. To see her part in her own suffering and the suffering she causes others.  She’s too busy blaming everyone else.  She cannot bear criticism or dissent. You cross her, or just disagree with her and she will hold you in contempt. Until you give in. Suck up. Or die. If someone else is getting the attention she thinks she deserves, she blows a gasket. Compassion? Empathy? They come with too-many strings attached. When her friends do not glorify and adore her she casts them aside. She refuses to see a therapist. She refuses to take medication. “Why should I? I’m not the one with the problem. YOU are…” she snorts. When it’s always someone else’s fault there is no “getting it.” There is no adult in the room.

My mother got old but she never grew up. And then she died.

In my experience, as a daughter, this is the temperament of a pathological narcissist. I feel like Cassandra, from Greek mythology, sounding the alarm that few will hear. The only people who truly understand are the ones who have walked this path. Who have tried to love, or just get along with someone like my mother.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _

This is a sad story indeed–for my mother and everyone who cared about her. But mom is not the villain here. She was robbed. At every turn she was robbed by this awful mental illness and it sabotaged her relationships, her smarts, her ability to make sound decisions, her dreams, her capacity to love and be loved in return.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

But life goes on. I do my shopping run at Trader Joe’s early in the morning and relish the stillness in the air. But sometimes I look at the Fuji apples and remember. Sometimes I reach for a small block of Baby Swiss…and remember.

When I was a little kid, music saved me. It saves me today. In these uncertain times I fear we are in for a VERY bumpy ride.  A ride I know well. You may want to get a ukulele.
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If you are interested in learning more about Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) there is a plethora of information online. You can start with Wikipedia. CLICK HERE.

smileyukeforreal

Woodshedding, Exotic Dancers & Ukuleles

Antelope Valley Uke Festival 2016I took a well-needed break from the wall-to-wall drama swirling in my life these days with a road trip to the high desert of Southern California and the Antelope Valley Ukulele Festival.

calis_class-4

Ukulele For Beginners. Photo by Craig Brandau

This is such a sweet gathering of folks who love the ukulele and it’s a blast teaching the workshop for beginners. Then I get to hang out in “the green room” with its wall-to-wall mirrors, munchies, bathroom and jovial conviviality up the kazoo. Fred Thompson and I commiserate over chips and dip. He is a wonderful ukulele player but more than that, this eighty-plus year old can sure spin a tale.

cali-and-fred

Cali and Fred. Photo by Craig Brandau

He regales me with his show biz stories starting with one “Tempest Storm,” the uh…exotic dancer…who once wowed audiences in the showrooms of Las Vegas. It’s another time, another era.

 

tempeststorm

Tempest Storm in 2006

Apparently Fred and Tempest are appearing on the same bill and the performers hang out backstage waiting their turn. He tells me that, between sets, Tempest grabs onto a pole and…um…does her “breast exercises.” Fred describes how she’s flexes one boob and then the other. Over and over again. Working those pecs. And God knows what else.

Woodshedding in Webb's garage, Sheffield, MA

Woodshedding in Webb’s garage, Sheffield, MA

 

She’s woodshedding, by golly. I tell my students that in order to learn a new technique, a new song, a new something, you have to do it over and over. Like chopping wood. I never quite thought of woodshedding in terms of “exotic dancing” but of course it’s true. You gotta keep your instrument—and it’s parts—tuned up. After that, maintenance is everything, right?

The following Thursday I tell The CC Strummers about Fred and ask them if they’ve ever heard of Tempest Storm. Most of them nod and laugh. But it’s “Mr. B” who grabs my attention because the most beautiful smile is washing across his face, like sunshine. I think maybe he’s having “a moment” and ask him about it. He tells the class that he saw Tempest Storm perform way back in the 1960’s and she did…like…the most amazing things while she held onto the curtain. He goes into more detail but I shall leave that to your imagination. Let’s just say I am now glazing over.

Recently Richard, another one of our CC Strummers, told me that he found a “Cali Rose” on the Internet and she is a pole dancer.

Are you kidding…?

Of course I do a Google search as soon as I get home and there she is! Miss Exotic Dancer, Maryland 2014. That’s impressive. Then I find another “Cali Rose” and wouldn’t you know it, she’s a pole dancer too and a fashionista. In Australia. Are we seeing a pattern?

Secret Pole Dance StudioI think about pole dancing sometimes. Really I do. Every time I drive by this scene on my way to the 405 Freeway, right here in my homeland, Culver City. It’s the Secret Pole Dance Studio. Yeah, BIG secret. You can bet the customers at Winchell’s and HoneyBaked know about it… As for me, my frequent “drive-bys” are as close as I’m going to get to swinging on a pole.

But back to the Internet. I think there is no mistaking a fully clothed, middle-aged ukulele player for one of those blond bombshell Cali Roses.

“But can they play the ukulele?” you may ask. And I’d say, “um…does it matter?”

UNDER THE RADAR

I’ve been swooping under the radar since my mother passed away July 4th but I wanted to check in with you.

First of all, thank you for sharing your kind words and stories about my last blog — Going Out With A Bang. I try to respond to every one of your emails but suddenly the tasks before me are looming large and I can feel the giant vacuum cleaner of time doing what it does best. Suck. Please know that I have read all of your messages with a grateful heart.

So what have I been doing? Cleaning out my parent’s house. It feels like I got strapped onto a time machine/dump truck. Back, back through the decades of stuff and at the same time, fitfully HERE, directing the hard-working teams from
1-800-Got-Junk?

jacksonpollack

Jackson Pollack making visible what those memories feel like…

But somehow, through all of this, I showed up for my life and kept working. Actually my gigs and classes saved my butt. What a relief to get out of the house for a while. But music got me through when I was IN the house too. As I poured through the mountains of boxes, files, pot-bellied Hefty Bags, I kept my playlist of instrumentals running on my phone. Sweet gooey stuff that took me to the lush Redwood forests of Humboldt County where I went to college. Flew me across the Pacific to Hanalei Bay on Kaua’i, the one place where I can really feel my body again. Or sometimes a tune just helped me be present with the inevitable emotions and memories that roar onto the canvas like a Jackson Pollack. I kept my phone in my back pocket so the soothing tones traveled with me from room to room, upstairs, downstairs.

I’ve always been a believer in the healing power of music. But these past months sealed the deal. And to be able to MAKE music is a real miracle and we all are the beneficiaries.

I am honored that the folks at The Antelope Valley Ukulele Festival have invited me back this year to teach the Beginners Class and appear in the afternoon concert. Michael Lemos, who founded and produces this festival (along with his devoted cadre of volunteers) also understands the power of music and community. The proceeds from this event go towards the Antelope Valley Ukes For Schools Program.

avukefestI hope you can join Jason Arimoto and the Aloha Time Machine, Daniel Ward & Heidi Swedberg, Fred Thompson, Jim Duncan, Ka Pa Hula O Kawailehua and me at this very special festival. It’s Saturday, October 22, 2016 from 11:00 A.M to 6:00 P.M. Fabulous teachers and performers all.

avpicture

 

 

 

 

 

 

I will be starting my two ukulele classes Saturday October 29 at Boulevard Music in Culver City, CA:

Four-Week OnGoing Ukulele Workshop & Jam (11:00 to noon)

AND

Five-Week Ukulele For Beginners Class (12:30 to 1:30 P.M.)

See the flyers below…

I think one of the reasons that the ukulele continues to grow in popularity is because it’s not only for spectators. The ukulele invites YOU to join the party and make music. Because you can.

So give yourself a second wind today and strum a little. You’ll be doing this world a world of good. Under the radar and in the full light of day.

ongoing-flyer-oct-2016

beginners-class-flyer-falll-2016

 

GOING OUT WITH A BANG

It was snappingcrackling and popping around here July 4th. Despite the pleas of imageslaw enforcement, “so-called” adults (okay…idiots) were setting off fireworks, the illegal kind, in backyards and on street corners. Not to mention the big official fireworks shows nearby in Culver City and Marina del Rey. A cacophony of sounds set the air on fire. I heard blasts like gunshots, whoops, hollers and dogs. Howling, howling. I felt like howling too. “Make it stop…make it stop.” On July 4th I want to hide in bed and pull the covers over my head. And that’s where I was when the call came that my mother just passed away.

Earlier that day, the sunny board & care home where she spent her last months hosted a grand July 4th barbecue. Families, friends, neighbors converged in the backyard to chitter-chatter and fill our plates with grilled goodies. I sat with my mom and cajoled her to eat as I happily inhaled yet another hot dog and scoop of homemade potato salad. She just poked at her food then put her fork down. But chocolate is another matter. It’s always been the food of last resort. I emptied a handful of baby Hershey bars on the table, carefully unwrapped the foil and placed a little slice of brown heaven in her hand. She took a tiny chipmunk bite and put it down. Hmmm.

This is the only picture I have from that afternoon. My mother and I are seated to the right. The man in blue is standing beside us.

This is the only picture I have from that afternoon. My mother and I are seated to the right. The man in blue is standing beside us.

And she would not look at me either. “Mom, I’m over here. Let me see your beautiful face.” She’d glance quickly my way and even more quickly the other way again. I found this odd enough to mention to my husband. For the last two weeks it seemed she was dropping deeper into the land of dementia and unlatching from this mortal coil. It’s only now that I’m beginning to put two and two together.

After the party, the caregivers put her back into her Lazy Boy in the living room, in front of the big flat screen. She was holding her beloved stuffed puppy in her arms as I leaned in to kiss her. “Bye Mom. I love you.” Her reply? “I know.”

A few hours later she died in her sleep. The doctor had given her a clean bill of health only a week before. There was no frantic trip to the emergency room. My husband took me into his big warm arms and then we drove to her home. I stood over her body and studied her face. It was free of anguish. It looks like she died peacefully. We should all be so lucky. A heart attack, a stroke, a something that is quick and done.

The mortuary dude arrived quickly too. Probably July 4th is a big night in the undertaking business. I watched him drive away, with my mother in the back of his van, the red taillights disappearing in the night. Fireworks exploded nearby turning the sky smoky blue.

And just like that my “tormentor” was gone. She was 93 years old.

As you can imagine I am experiencing a cascade of emotions…and a whole lot of nothing. Those of you who are familiar with my story know that my mother had borderline personality disorder. She could be so kind and inexplicably cruel. Unfortunately, my father and I were her primary punching bags. Mom was a registered nurse, a clinical specialist, who went back to school in midlife to get her degree, which is quite an admirable feat. She prized her profession above all else and would interject the list of her accomplishments into any and all conversations. In her world there was little room for anyone else. It was only the last couple of years when dementia stole her memory and Zoloft balanced her moods that we actually had something resembling a loving relationship.

She is so much a part of “my story.” What happens to our story when a main character dies? For me, this is complicated by the specter of mental illness. I could write a book. This woman threatened to kill me. That would be a couple chapters right there.

And yet… One evening many years ago, for a few moments, my mother emerged from her mental prison into lucidity. She was standing by her front door, sobbing. “I’m so afraid I’m going to push you away” she sputtered through her tears. “I can’t help it. I can’t help it. I can’t help it.” She talked about hearing voices.

You know, I had always thought she could help it. I thought I could “fix” her. And then she’d be nice to me. But at that moment my view began to change. Albeit not enough to stop the suffering that would continue for decades—for her and me. I can only hope that today she is free.

Flash forward… I am talking with funeral-director-guy in his office at Pierce Brothers Mortuary, which is conveniently located at the final resting place of so many Hollywood stars. My parents had a pre-paid, no-frills cremation plan on file. I am deeply grateful that they did this. They bought this plan twenty years ago for $695 each. Funeral-director-guy can’t freaking believe it! He shows me what the same plan costs today. Whoa! Dying is expensive, folks… While he is imputing the information into his computer I wander around the graves and headstones. A couple tourists, distraught women, are doing some kind of emotional catharsis in front of Marilyn Monroe’s crypt, otherwise I would have taken a picture. But I do snap a few. My mother loved cemeteries. It’s feels so Zen to me—you know, that laughter in tears and tears in laughter stuff.

grave-billy wilder

grave-merv griffingrave-rodney dangerfiledMy mother could have been a stand-up comedienne. She was hilarious and loved shocking people with her ribald observations about body parts. We had this conversation a few months after my father died when I asked if she had thought about “like…going out on a date? What are you looking for in a man?” She answered so quickly and precisely that it was apparent she’d been mulling this over for a while.

“Yes. He’s got to have three qualifications. First he has to be funny.” What that means is he has to think SHE is funny.

“Second. He has to be smart.” Which means he thinks SHE is smart.

“And what’s the third one mom?” I can hardly wait to hear this one.

“He has to be impotent.”

“Uh…do you mean important?” I ask…

“No. Imp-O-tent.” She stresses the “o” so there is no doubt what she means. Or wants.

There is a moment of silence before I offer some real world advice…

“Mom it’s so hard to find the perfect guy, you know. Would ‘two out of three’ work?”

She ponders this briefly before acquiescing… “well okay, he doesn’t have to be smart…”

Not long after that my mother spiraled ever so slowly out of control and eventually lived like a bag lady in her own home, refusing to let people in, refusing help, refusing to throw anything away. There were no boyfriends.

Bernice's brown velour & puppyAt the end of my visit, I hand funeral-director-guy her brown velour pantsuit. My mother was not a girlie-girl. She dressed like a Russian soldier. Then I give him the stuffed puppy she adored the last few weeks of her life. She and her polyester pooch and brown velour will go out in a blaze together.

My mom did not want a funeral or memorial. Nothing in the newspaper. This blog is it. She did not believe in heaven. Or hell. Not an afterlife nor reincarnation. One and done. She was the mistress of fireworks, this one. Sometimes it was quite a show and you couldn’t look away. But mostly I wanted to pull the covers over my head and hide. That said, I know that my mother did the best she could with her one precious life.

I called her best friend with the news. They knew each other since they were teenagers in Washington D.C., giggling about the new boy down the street. This woman cried softly on the phone. “Your mother had a good heart, Cali…”

mom_s_birthday_party

It’s love at first sight as my mother meets her stuffed puppy at her Birthday Party last April

In time the stories soften around the edges and eventually fade away, but one thing remains: Our mother carried us in her belly for nine months and brought us into this world. Whether she had the stuff to be a good mother. Or not. How can we ever say thank you, thank you enough, for this astonishing gift? For our big messy life.

Bernice Cali BW

My mother and me…a lifetime ago

I received an avalanche of emails in response to my last blog about my mother. “Police Pursuit.” Stories that are sad, complicated and utterly human. In my blogs I have hesitated writing about my really personal stuff… You have to know that my index finger hovers over the “send” button before I push it down. Should I? Shouldn’t I? But that began to change this year with my mother, the defining relationship in my life. Your responses remind me that our stories connect us, not in our heads, but in our hearts. They give us comfort, like a deep heave-ho.An a-ha moment, perhaps. I’m especially gratified when you leave a message on my blog (WordPress) so others may be gifted with your words. Thank you!

Jet Room and mom

Don’t mess with mama, wearing her soldier glitz

POLICE PURSUIT

momandpursuitMy mother and I are craning our necks towards the big flat screen on the wall of her board and care home. We are watching a police pursuit weaving through the streets and freeways of Los Angeles. I know what is happening. She does not.

These chases occur with stunning regularity. You wonder why the soon-to-be felons don’t think things through more carefully. The helicopters are hovering overhead; the police vans with their red lights flashing are looming large in rear view mirrors. You just don’t get away. Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility is not going to save you now. The escapees will get nailed and let’s hope they don’t nail anyone else in the process.  But we keep watching as the drama unfolds. It’s like passing a car wreck on the highway. “Don’t look, don’t look…” My higher angels implore me not to participate in someone else’s suffering. The angels usually lose…

I’ve just wheeled my mother back into the living room of the big airy house after our sidewalk excursion in this quiet neighborhood. She hugs one of the stuffed dogs I have given her. It’s a sun-shiny day. Memorial Day… And she goes along for the ride without mustering one ounce of drama or angst. This is not the mother I know.

There she is smiling at the jasmine blossoms I snap off a vine and place in her out-stretched hands. She kisses her stuffed dog and looks up at the sky when I point to the little plane. But she’s happy to go back inside again and that’s where we watch the pursuit.

Dementia is an interesting thing. I sing and play ukulele in memory care units for people who respond to a familiar melody or tap along with a steady beat. They smile and laugh sometimes. They scream and paw at themselves. Their stories are gone. Their histories—dropping, dropping precipitously into a heavy mist. But something is left. An essence. And I try to honor that and meet them where they are.

Not so easy with my mother…

As we watch the erratic driver racing down the 105 freeway towards Los Angeles International Airport, Jinna, one of the caregivers, asks me if my mother liked to drive on the freeway. I chortle as memories of my mother unspool in my head like a really bad movie. My mother was a nervous driver, but as a passenger she could have won the Gloria Swanson Award for melodrama. She’d smash her right foot into the “imaginary” brake pedal on the floor. Never mind that she was in the backseat.

imagesBut I could live with that. It was her screaming that scared the hell out of me. Blood curdling screams. I’d feel the adrenalin let lose in my body in classic fight-or-fright fashion. Once she agreed to wrap her favorite leopard scarf around her face so she couldn’t see. Or scream. But then she put her big-rim eyeglasses on, over the scarf, so “I don’t look strange.” By then “strange” followed her like day follows night.

I tried to reason with her. “Mom! Don’t scream! It scares me when you scream. I’m not a good driver when I’m scared.” But my mother is a troubled woman. The Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde type and playing the “reason game” doesn’t work. She tells me she can’t help it. And today I know that’s true because that is how mental illness is.

When my mother was behind the wheel of her own car and another driver did something that pissed her off (which is casting a very wide net), her face went all Exorcist as she shouted “GO TO HELL…” Then she’d flip them off. I tell my mother it’s not a good idea to do that kind of stuff in Los Angeles. There’s that “reason” thing again. She’s lucky to be alive.

Then something happened: Dementia. When my mother no longer knew what pills she was taking, we added Zoloft to her colorful array of capsules. It helps modulate her moods. Within two days she had morphed into a sweet old lady. Fricking Betty Crocker. The caregivers say she’s so nice. She smiles a lot, laughs, kisses her stuffed dog.

And I’m thinking “who the hell are you?”

It’s been a long hard road for my mother and me. How different things would have been between us and in all of her relationships if she had been taking Zoloft, or something like it, the last ten, twenty, thirty years. And now folks who meet her for the first time are enchanted. It’s an ongoing challenge for me to reconcile “my story” of my mother with what is true today.

Like the people I work with in memory care units, I try to meet her where she is. YES, my mother was an angry and sometimes vindictive woman. YES, today she is mostly kind. YES, she has forgotten the people who were on her “hit list.” “I will destroy them,” she’d snarl. Red lights flashing. YES, she has forgotten I was on her hit list too. YES, her eyes get all sparkly when she sees me and we hold hands.

What is true? All the above, of course.

momandpuppyBy now the crazy dude on television is driving south on the 405 Freeway. He will soon run out of gas and the police will throw cuffs on his wrists and haul him to jail. Thankfully no one else is hurt in this pursuit. My mother is napping in her Lazy-Boy, clutching her polyester puppy (that fortunately survived its first ride in the washing machine and dryer).

So many memories. So many stories. And no answers. Except to trust this moment to shine a little light.

MIRRORS

shoppingtherapyI call it “shopping therapy.”

I jump on the “consumer bandwagon” and follow the sales to my local brick and mortar store. It’s like a mini-vacation that I book on my way to a gig. I don’t have to buy anything and usually don’t. But there is something about shopping that gets me out of my head and into a kind of hypnotic trance. Well that’s the way it’s supposed to work…

Steinmart, Torrance, California

Steinmart, Torrance, California

 

So here I am pushing open the doors to Steinmart. I’ve got a fist full of coupons, an hour to spare and I’m in the mood to browse. This store, along with Goodwill and Ross Dress For Less, are my go-to lodges for colorful distraction.

I veer right toward the boutique part of the store and just like that, I am seriously staring down a blue ombré tunic dress. It’s “hippy chic.” Please know that I am not a hippy. Nor chic. But then very little makes sense to me in this life so what the hell. Just then a fellow shopper swoops beside me and exclaims — I mean she EXCLAIMS: “That dress is SO you.” And she doesn’t budge until I snatch the blue thing with its black crochet sleeves off the rack and drape it over my arm. This woman is so convincing I believe her. The short-circuiting has begun.

After that encounter I wander through the rest of the store, drawn to the sale racks first, petites, hats, jewelry, shoes. This is so fun. I balance more clothes over my right arm and proudly dangle that hippy frock by its hanger as if I am a walking billboard for “cool.”

Off to the fitting room I go. I’m second in line behind another woman. She turns around and sizes me up.

“Is that dress for you?” The words slither from her mouth as her eyes drift over the blue ombré.

Maybe…” I reply, going all wishy-washy and noncommittal.

“It’s too young for you.” She snaps.

“That’s not a bad thing…” I poof, feeling like I have to say something even though what I am thinking is F—K You!

At that point I abruptly turn around and go back into the store to find more clothes. This is supposed to be “Cali Time.” Rest and relaxation and all that… But now I’m descending into the caverns of unresolved psychological stuff. Yet again.

Let’s review:

Within minutes two different people share two different opinions about the same dress. Unsolicited. And thank you very much. But what if one of them is right? Even a little right…

brain_imageOne of the gifts of getting older is that most of us reach a point where we don’t give a hoot what other people think about us. At least most of the time. But these interactions at Steinmart, albeit brief, get to me. They slice a little, like a paper cut. I want folks to like me. I want to feel like I belong to a tribe and this is what my lizard brain hears:

Woman #1: “I like you.”
Woman #2: “I don’t like you.”

Wait a minute! We are talking about a dress. That’s all. A dress. But isn’t it interesting how a whole chapter in our life story can rise out of some mere trifle like this…

The truth is neither of these women know a damned thing about me–my tally of gain and loss; what scares the hell out of me and what makes me giddy; what I value and what puts me to sleep. They don’t know my name.

Yet both of them make snap judgments. Lordy, we all do. And based on what? One of my music teachers was the “deep thinker” type and often likened us to mirrors, we human being people. When we look at each other we are really seeing flashes of ourselves. You spot it, you got it. Could it be that those two women were seeing reflections of themselves in that dress? In me?

And visa-versa?

To be honest, I enjoy the first encounter more than the second! She seems like a pal, a girlfriend. The other woman has a “boss lady” vibe like “I know best.” Or worse “I know you.” Well screw that. We are lucky in this life if we finally begin to know ourselves, much less anyone else. Being a human is THAT complicated. And mysterious.

Finally I lock myself in a fitting room and pull the dress over my head. I turn this way and that way in front of the mirror. Well it’s cute and fits perfectly.

BUT…

On me the blues and blacks look like something Morticia from the Addams family would wear when she’s harvesting this week’s stash of mushrooms in the dark cellar of the old homestead.

What was I thinking?

The truth is both women are wrong. This dress is not “me.” No matter the year I was born. I can hear my inner fashion guru again–the whispery voice that knows only two words: YesNo. Her batting average is not perfect but it’s pretty good.

heartearringsI buy a pair of fakey-silver heart earrings. With my coupon I get a whopping 75% off. That’s $4.32 out the door. I love hearts. I’d like to think I’m an open-hearted person. A kind person.

heartearringonbalcony

Until some pushy b-i-t-c-h comes along and tells me how to dress.

Damn those mirrors!

 

___________________________________________________

PROGRAM NOTE:

My next “OnGoing Ukulele Workshop & Jam”

AND

My “Five-Week Ukulele for Beginners”

BOTH start Saturday, April 23, 2016 at Boulevard Music in Culver City, California. Make music…make happy!

The flyers are below and a big hug of thanks to all of you!

ONGOING UKE:APRIL 2016

BEGINNERS CLASS-APRIL 2016

 

TOUCH THE SKY

whiplash

J.K. Simmons in his Academy Award winning role as the meanie-teacher in Whiplash.

Maybe you saw the movie Whiplash? About a mercurial music teacher who thrashes his young protégé into a drum-thumping master? I left the theater feeling like I’d been pummeled too.

Chocolate please…

Suzuki Roshi

Suzuki Roshi

 

I’m not sure what you would call this bombastic style of “getting your point across” but I prefer teaching with, shall we say, kindness. Love, even. Not gushy, but honest. The great Zen master, Suzuki Roshi, told his students “all of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement.”

The music teacher in Whiplash bullies his students, humiliates them. He sucks their spirits so dry their eyes go dead. Well that’s how it looks from my seat. In the mega-decibel finale his student performs an inspired drum solo, seemingly reaching the pinnacle of perfection and transcendence. One might conclude that the teacher, in all his mean-spirited bluster, is vindicated.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Zakir Hussain

Zakir Hussain

We’ve all had teachers. They stretch across the big bell curve of competence—from exceptional to “you-have-got-to-be-kidding.” Nobody has a corner on the truth, the immensity that is music or that is anything. “You’re just one little dot in the painting that is the music of the universe,” says Tabla master Zakir Hussain.

I tell my ukulele students that I am sharing my experience, the stuff I’ve learned first-hand as a working musician. My little “dot” in the painting. But they have to connect their own dots…

For years I studied with three teachers who were extraordinary mentors. They planted seeds, they cajoled, they got testy, they made me listen to songs and singers and music that were way outside my comfort zone. They lent me books and tapes that were subversive. They changed the trajectory of my life and for that I am deeply grateful.

I love them still. But there were “issues.” News Flash! There are always issues. Human beings are a roiling stew of pop-up emotions and contradictions. Eventually a sense of possession seeped into the teaching relationship. It was time for me to go. To take what I had learned and live it. To stand on my own two feet. When I finally left, it was messy and terribly sad. But I had to. I had to find my own way.

And I had to take a long hard look in the mirror.  Music continues to teach me. About a whole lot more than music…

Seymour Bernstein, from the documentary "Seymour: An Introduction"

Seymour Bernstein, from the documentary “Seymour: An Introduction”

88-year-old pianist Seymour Bernstein tells his students that music, like life, is about dissonances, harmonies and resolution. And then he adds “I never dreamt that with my own two hands, I could touch the sky.”

It’s a dance, this teacher thing. Always changing, always in motion. Each of us teacher AND student. I am honored that Ukulele Magazine has published my essay about teaching and “Why I Uke” in their Spring 2016 Issue.

Now go forth, teach something to somebody…and touch the sky.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Ukulele Magazine1

From Ukulele Magazine, Spring 2016, page 24

When I stand in front of one of my ukulele classes and see people who have never played an instrument before or have been told they can’t sing and here they are, strumming and singing and making music, I say to myself, “it doesn’t get any better than this…”

I began my career as a professional musician just after I bought my first car, a funky old VW Bug. I jettisoned the front passenger seat so there was room for my PA system. My musician friends and I learned early to “cobble” together a career, hustling for gigs, networking and practicing, practicing, practicing.

Working in piano bars taught me to be a good entertainer and to engage the audience so they feel like they are part of the show. Night after night I saw how music brings people together. Then a few years ago my husband, Craig Brandau, purchased a tenor Fluke and it changed the air pressure in our house. We both got real serious about learning to play.

I put the piano, guitar and banjo on hold and began my romance with the ukulele. It’s friendly and portable and turns spectators into participants. But I never expected to be a teacher. To LOVE teaching the ukulele and leading a group. I never realized that the skills I learned as a working musician and entertainer would come in so handy. But it’s all show biz, right? Learning to play the uke is not always easy but hey, let’s have a good time doing it.

Here’s what happened: On a whim I offered an eight-week beginners uke class at my local senior center in Culver City, California. Eight weeks has turned into five years. We named ourselves The CC Strummers and play together every Thursday morning. They challenge and inspire me to be a better teacher. I started another eight-week beginners class on Mondays and the same thing happened.

Suddenly I had two huge classes and we were sounding good so we decided to “take it to the streets” because we love sharing the music that makes us happy. One of my mentors said that the audience won’t remember what you play, but they will remember how you made them feel.

Today my “cobbling” continues. It’s a laundry list by golly. I teach four uke classes a week, lead The CC Strummers and do my own arrangements for our songbook. I teach private students, tool around Los Angeles doing gigs and music therapy with dementia patients. I perform at ukulele festivals and do workshops. I have two ukulele albums, write songs and blogs and of course, practice, practice, practice. I don’t cook. Or sleep much…

Maybe a few people get their “fifteen minutes” of fame and fortune, but I’m grateful that, after all these years, I’m still making a living doing what I love to do.