WATCHING PAINT DRY

It’s a warm, postcard-pretty afternoon here in Culver City and I am guarding my parent’s home. I’m sitting on the edge of a rented white couch, hunched over my computer. The sofa, with its array of white and blue throw pillows, looks better than it feels. A big black table has become my temporary workspace. I share it with an assortment of “coffee table books” arranged just so. Just SO the colors pop. Ersatz curtains frame the big picture windows and generic paintings, the kind of fluff you see in a doctor’s office, decorate the walls.

This house is “staged” to sell. We want to get it on the market. Yesterday. Before the flying saucers land in Omaha, before the stock market crashes, before something terrible happens in the world or in Congress or at Burger King. So I have been living my own episode of Flip this House. Minus the cameras and commercials.

My mother passed away July 4th. Independence Day. There is enough irony in that to keep the generators running. Suddenly I am faced with the one thing I have been dreading for years. Cleaning out my parent’s home. Perhaps it is intrinsic to that generation—the ones who lived through The Great Depression, a world war—that they don’t throw their stuff away. Did they think the whole mess of it would suddenly vaporize? Abracadabra! Well let me tell you about magic. There is no magic.

Before me is the story… The story of two lives stuffed into boxes and files and Hefty bags. The story behind thousands of black and white pictures that have lain dormant in a musty black trunk. I look at each photograph one by one. “Who the hell are you?” I ask over and over. Out loud. No year. No name. No nothing written on the back.

A few days later I am leaning against the wall in my daddy’s den, a room that hasn’t been cleaned since Reagan fired the air traffic controllers. My jeans are coated with a thick layer of soot and dust. I’m reading my father’s love letters to my mother. He wrote them on a typewriter. Besotted, he was. He saved caches of greeting cards from my mother too, where she added flirty missives and lots of curly X’s and O’s.

Oh those kids…

So in love…

But I know how things ended. And they did not end well.

My father died 20 years ago and my mother kept his ashes in a purple-velvet bag on his desk. Once in a while she’d venture downstairs to his office, his bunker during marital wartime. There she is, my mother, standing akimbo at the door, hurling expletives at the purple bag. “You son-of-a-bitch-motherf…ker.”

It’s impossible to find the right greeting card for marriages like this. Something like: Call a truce, would ya? It’s your freaking anniversary. And have a nice day.

So back at the spiffed-up house, I am watching paint dry. Literally. The last thing on the “to do” list is to paint the front door. It has to remain open for a few hours and I’m channeling my inner German Shepard, sitting sentry even as I feel the memories within these walls begin to unfurl into the soft cushion of time.

Rodrigo putting the finishing touches on the front door. The bestest smile all day…

 POSTSCRIPT — THAT WAS THEN…THIS IS NOW

It took three months to clear out my parent’s home. Their essence faded away with each new coat of paint. Our real estate team, a mother-daughter (oh the irony…) helped at every turn with precise explanations, reassuring late night calls, hand holding and hugs. The house sold in less than two weeks, just before the election, and now a new family is writing their own story inside those walls.

It’s taken me this long to feel grounded again–in my body and in my life. From last summer, through fall, winter, into spring, it felt like my mental spark plugs were covered with gunk. Sludge. Goo. I transposed numbers, forgot people’s names, asked the guy at the grocery store where the garbanzo beans are…as I’m standing right in front of the garbanzo beans, and I made so many mistakes in my classes and at my gigs that it was no longer charming. In other words, life throws you for a loop. And you whirl.

Until you don’t. A few mornings a week I drag my butt out of bed and do a brisk walk. You know, that cardio crap. I trot right by THE house. I thought for sure this would churn up the woe-is-me stuff. But that hasn’t happened. My mother kept the shutters closed. Now I see sunlight splashing through the windows. It looks like a home that’s breathing. Again. And this makes me happy.

My parents hung in there for 51 years…

My mother and father did the best they could and I love them. I’m grateful that they got me here. But I arrived in their world. My mother’s mental illness is old. My great-grandmother had it and maybe many before her. My father was brought up by a single mother and an abusive alcoholic stepfather.  What did my parents know about a loving marriage that endures through the seasons of life?

Think of all the baggage that gets “handed down” to us through the generations. Sometimes we take it on—someone else’s burden—and make it our own.  And pass it along.

Or not.

Mom and dad at one of my fancy piano bar gigs

But this morning something wonderful happened to me.   I woke up.

I played music and talked to strangers in line at Costco, answered a few emails and wished a couple Facebook “friends” Happy Birthday even though I will never meet them in person. I got to say “hi ya” to my next-door neighbor and watch some amorous squirrels chase each other around the Eucalyptus trees that lean into our balcony. I got to look up…at the sky…and feel the warm breeze whoosh across my face. I ate something delicious with potatoes in it and enjoyed a yummy cup of Bengal Spice herbal tea. I got to hug somebody and somebody hugged me back.

My husband and I have a regular date after dinner. We watch Jeopardy. And we tell each other, out loud, how grateful we are for our sweet life.

LETTING GO

Hoarding is a big problem. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are from, how much money you have in the bank, or not.  Maybe saving stuff is like saving little slivers of ourselves. We know how this story of life is going to end. That we are marching, crawling, dancing, back-flipping toward the inevitable. Does squirreling the stuff away lull us into denial? Mute the truth? Massage our egos just enough to make it through one more day and still feel tethered to this earth by another delivery from Amazon?

My mother passed away last July. My father died twenty years earlier and his stuff has been sitting dormant in their house all this time. The place needs to be cleared out, cleaned up and sold. I don’t have brothers or sisters. My husband helps when he can but the job of looking at every little thing–of holding it in my hand, maybe pressing it against my heart and saying “thank you” or “good bye.”  Of taking its picture then depositing it in the rented dumpster in the garage—a dumpster I will fill four times. This job is mine and mine alone. It feels like I’m riding a time machine as I plow through boxes, piles of papers, endless file cabinets and big black Hefty Bags stuffed with God-knows-what.  Of memories hiding in the sooty, crusty corners that haven’t seen the light of day since 1976.

My parents had lives before they had me and now I’m coming face-to-face with the old report cards and term reports and art projects. I’m talking about theirs, not mine. In other words, my parents saved everything.  And that’s just IN the house.  There is an attic too. It takes two dump trucks from the most wonderful people at 1-800-Got-Junk? to clear that out. Just the attic. A friend stands sentry with me as the crew shoves bag after bag, box after box down the rickety wooden ladder into “today.”  If I had the time and the energy I would have emptied and searched through each bag, each box.   But I am exhausted and overwhelmed and soon it all looks alike and smells alike and I just want it to be gone.

One of the Junk guys tells me that his biggest job took thirty-two dump trucks. Thirty-two trucks to haul the mess of “whatever” away. Can you believe it? Our two loads are positively dainty compared to that…

This is just the “entrance” to the attic…

I’m so grateful for the help. And dazed by the whole spectacle.

After my father died my mother’s mental illness spiraled out of control. Not that it was ever really “in control” but with him around–well kind of living his own life in his office, his hallowed space downstairs next to the garage–she wouldn’t go too far off the rails. But after he passed away the piles of stuff grew like bamboo in a rainforest. She got meaner and petty and petulant.

The dishes lay filthy in the sink, clothes slung over chairs, then over boxes. She slept in a ratty daybed in front of the television in what was supposed to be the dining room, wearing a parka, the same parka from last night, from last week, from last month. My mother let me into the house long enough to drop groceries by the front door and would start screaming if I ventured beyond the relatively neat living room to the chaos-zone upstairs. She wouldn’t let anyone else in either. But she liked to talk on the phone and was such a good actress that she convinced her buddies that things were peachy keen at the old homestead.

“I don’t have hot water,” she confessed to me one day. “Let me call a plumber,” I implored. “NO!” She’s screaming now into the phone. This went on and on. I tried to enlist others to help, but she would tell them, in her assertive telephone voice “there’s no problem.” And they believed her and not me. She did not have hot water for a year.

In retrospect, I should have called Social Services, but termites did a better job. Yes, Western Exterminators rocked her world. My mother had to vacate the place for three days or else die with the bugs. The guys were already inside, climbing over stuff, prepping the house, the tent was unfurling over the windows, it was getting dark inside and I still had to push that woman out the front door. To a local retirement home where they treated her like “your royal highness” and got her to sign on the dotted line to move in.

My mom had her moments.  She could be delightful.  Smart.  Laugh-out-loud funny.  Then, out of the blue, turn all Joan Crawford.  If you don’t believe me, read my blog Not Your Normal Trip to Trader Joes that I wrote last November.  And now, here I am, cleaning up her mess, the landscape-of-her-psyche. Made visible.

Self-help books and Hefty Bags…the story of hoarding in one picture.

The boxes and bags arrive at ground level from the attic thanks to the 1-800 team…

These guys and gal were SO kind and helpful. The stuff is sorted, donated, re-purposed and according to them, very little ends up in the landfill.

And then there’s my father’s stuff. He was the organized one. The scientist. The one who saved bills and receipts and their mailing envelopes, going back to when Franklin Roosevelt was president. He received so many awards for his work as a writer and aerospace engineer. I take pictures of them. I take pictures of pictures. I’m doing my own hoarding, storing these electronic images somewhere in“the cloud.” Besides that, I have to look at every single scrap of paper in his office, on a mission to find social security numbers.  I am keeping the shredding department at Office Depot very busy.

I found my father’s old pipes. My friends…please don’t smoke.

Once in a blue moon I have a dream that is so vivid it feels like all the characters are real. The place is real. The time is real. I had a dream like that the night after I scoured the bottom drawer of a tall file cabinet that was tucked into a dark, musty closet. That day I had gone back in time with him, reading the most excellent papers he wrote in high school. A young man before he became a husband or a father.

In my dream I am in a laundromat washing my clothes when I glance up and see my father a few machines over. He is middle-aged and healthy, long before emphysema reduces his world to the size of the bedroom where the massive oxygen tank is hissing like a metal silo of snakes. And keeping him alive.

But here he is, in my dream, doing his laundry. I can’t believe it. My daddy. I catch his eye. Daddy! Daddy! He looks at me. No, he looks THROUGH me. As if I am invisible. The sudden despair I feel is crushing. I can’t breathe and wake up gasping for air.

My husband and I talk about the dream over dinner. “What do you think it’s about?” he asks. I don’t believe for one minute that my father actually visited me, like a ghostly apparition. But I have learned that all the characters in my dreams reflect some aspect of myself. After all, I’m the one dreaming this stuff up. And there is something about washing. It’s about taking something and making it new again. A fresh start. The father in my dream is washing something and so am I.

The heart-wrenching part is that he doesn’t recognize me while, at the same time, I am so happy to see him I’m ready to dream-dance across the washing machines and hug him like there is no tomorrow. But this is my dream and those two seemingly disparate reactions belong to me. We are talking about letting go, aren’t we? He is letting go of me. And ultimately, I am letting go of him.  Maybe in this dream my father and I are setting each other free.

Part Two Coming Soon…

My mother and father…newlyweds and working in radio. A lifetime ago.

My parents hung in there for 51 years…

BE KIND AND THROW AWAY YOUR TRASH

The folks in my ukulele group, The CC Strummers, are wise souls who have lived long. They run marathons and use Uber. They play their ukuleles even with arthritis and broken bones. We have folks who volunteer at food banks, fix toilets and do dry wall, take care of grandchildren, spouses and bake dreamy sweet potato pies. Some are poets and artists who work with oil, watercolors, leather, wood.  Our retired teachers are paying it forward. Our architect is still designing. Our jazz pianist is still performing.  I’ve seen one or two of our players show up in class after a funeral.  All of us, with seemingly ordinary lives, have extraordinary stories to tell.

Our Thursday Class

Of course we have different opinions about the hot-topics of the day—politics, religion, fill-in-the-blanks—yet the most astonishing and wonderful thing happens when class begins… Music becomes the deep well from which we ALL drink, and thankfully, it gives our chattering minds a time-out. After an hour of singing and playing together, we feel so good. “Better than a psychiatrist,” says our strummer Victoria.

Needless to say, I adore these people. They inspire me with their generosity, their stories and oh those glistening pearls of wisdom. Recently our Aikido master told me her philosophy of life. In seven little words:

Be kind and throw away your trash.

Mister Rogers, she is… AND Plato. Who apparently said this: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” In some way or another we are soldiering on, stepping through fields of daisies that grow in quicksand.

But what about trash? Litter, stuff, junk?  My mother passed away last year and her house had to be cleared out and sold. Quickly. My mom was a hoarder. If I dared remove an empty box or jar or a pile of yellowed newspapers decades old, she’d throw a tantrum that would put a four-year old to shame.

Once upon a time this was my parent’s bedroom

I have been dreading this task most of my life and now it is here. Let me be blunt. It is NOT kind to leave your trash, your mess, your stuff for someone else to clean up.

On the other hand, this mind-boggling excavation gave me plenty of “stuff” to write about. The process from beginning to end took three months and I shall begin to tackle the subject in my next blog. Coming soon!

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

In the meantime life goes on and I’m doing my teaching and music thing. Here’s a heads up for my Southern California friends:

Both my Five-Week Ukulele For Beginners Class AND my Four-Week OnGoing Ukulele Workshop & Jam start Saturday, April 22, 2017 at Boulevard Music in Culver City, California.

On Sunday, April 23, 2017 I’m presenting a show called “Songs of Culver City.” Just think about those MGM musicals, for starters. I’ve been playing tunes from The Wizard of Oz, American in Paris, Annie Get Your Gun, Singing in the Rain, Kismet since my piano bar days. And there will be a great big ukulele surprise too. If you live nearby, please join us. It’s free. Scroll down to see the flyers and thank you. Fellow storytellers!

SINGING IN THE RAIN

The CC Strummers are waiting to start the show

Those of us who live in sunny, drought-stricken California were supposed to get slammed with rain. LAST YEAR. But it didn’t happen. Little did we know Mama Nature was saving up. For the big wet party in 2017 that, unfortunately, drooled all over us—The CC Strummers and me—as we performed at Culver City’s Screenland 5K Race of The Century. My adopted hometown is celebrating 100 years of “being here” on this small parcel of land. Five square miles squeezed into the map of Los Angeles.

So it’s HOORAY time in the neighborhood with various celebrations going on all year. And why not a little foot race too? Around our historic downtown, passing the Culver Hotel where the Munchkins stayed during the filming of The Wizard of Oz, through Sony Studios, past the old MGM sound stages, east to Culver Studios, the sacred ground of Desilu, I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show. Yes, Culver City is really Mayberry…

Our CC Strummers — The Easter Bunny & The Giraffe (also known as Lillian and Mollie)

The runners are invited to “dress” as their favorite MGM movie characters. Or whatever. So are The CC Strummers. But as I frantically log onto weather.com for the latest hour-by-hour updates I’m thinking that I’m coming dressed as “an electric blanket.” Thank goodness they are putting up a tent for us.

Lots of little ones making the run.

Looks like “Dorothy” got knocked up…

The show begins at nine-freaking-o’clock in the morning. Academy Award Sunday. Our hearty band of weather-tolerant ukulele players arrive early. The tent does not. The race crew delivers chairs.

A guy drops off an electric generator for my amplifier and then runs for his truck. because…it’s raining. I snatch him back and say “oh by the way, how do you work this thing?” He points, turns dials, pulls a cord and bolts. “Oh no…nuh-uh.” I make him watch ME turn it on…and off. That’s the only way I learn. By doing it. Not watching someone else do it. I feel empowered now (no pun). I can turn on a big machine…well besides the washer.

But none of this is putting me in a good mood. It’s freezing. Okay…“Southern California” freezing. I am wearing fingerless gloves which are rapidly becoming nothing more than a “fashion statement.” We try to tune our ukuleles. Let’s put it this way… You don’t want to use the words “ukulele” and “rain” in the same sentence. I’m cabled into “the electricity.” What a lovely thought. Getting fried just as we sing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

No tent.

Plastic sleeves and all, my music got soaked.

None of us knows what to expect. We are situated at the U-Turn of the course. The city has placed one volunteer, Haley, an exuberant high schooler, a few feet ahead of us to ward off any stray runners who might plow into our front row of players. Three thousand people have signed up to run, speed walk or just mosey. It’s our largest audience ever. But they are moving. And we figure they will take a quick glance at us and head towards the finish line. Our own Emerald City. Also known as Trader Joe’s.

We warm up (that’s a joke) with “Hound Dog” then wait for the first runners to emerge from Sony Studios and gallop our way. I can’t feel my fingers. All the fancy licks I’ve been woodshedding? That ain’t gonna happen today.

Schmoozing

The elite runners show up first. They are stone-ass serious, grimacing mightily as they make the turn, until one hottie raises his arms and cheers us on. And we whoop it up right back at him. Carmen Miranda appears, wearing fruit on her head, a colorful flowy frock and expensive running shoes. We yell “Yay Carmen!” And she yips and waves back. Suddenly Dorothys and Tin Men, Beetlejuice, moms, dads, little ones, the delicious melting pot of humanity that makes Los Angeles such a spectacular metropolis, they stop and gather round us. Singing and dancing along, aiming their smart phones at us and applauding. It’s raining. It’s cold. And we are having the best time!

Who cares if it’s raining. We’re having fun!

I have a set list but this is the first show I’ve done for an audience that is in motion and changing, literally every moment. So I end up calling songs out of order so we can amp it up and do “Jailhouse Rock” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Rock Around The Clock” (all Culver City related songs) when people stop and cheer us on. “Singing In The Rain” goes over really well…

I’m so proud of The CC Strummers. They are such good sports as we soldier on. Music pages are flapping in the wind but eventually everyone catches up or just mute strums, sings and smiles at the audience. It’s all good! The Three Stooges thank us at the end.

And no tent.

This is how I’m staying hydrated…open wide

We sing to them coming and going…

The amazing thing is you can actually watch all this unfold because Moshe, a very sweet man who is married to Ilana, one of our newest CC Strummers, captured the whole show, runners and all with his video camera. He did some dandy editing so it actually feels like YOU are right here, with us. Cold, wet and soaking up all that ukulele joy.

Watch the video on YouTube by CLICKING HERE. Thanks for sharing the “Yellow Brick Road” with us. Now go make some music and add a little sunshine to someone’s rainy day.

The CC Strummers are rocking it.

A bouquet of “thanks” from The Three Stooges with our pal Bob in the middle.

I had to wipe water off my ukulele, amp, all my power cords, wireless mic and receiver and use the hairdryer to dry my music…

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!

________________________

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.

_________________________

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.

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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.
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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.
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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.

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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