I’m at Trader Joe’s doing my “food gathering” thing and rolling the cart past the display of ready-made yummies because…well…I am good at reheating and turning on the microwave.
Another shopper, a Gen Xer kind of gal, is leaning into the stacks of meatloaf and chicken wraps when her cell phone goes off. Let’s put it this way, the volume is at eleven, and it’s playing The Age of Aquarius. Suddenly this particular quadrant of TJ’s is awash in the cast of Hair singing “This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, Age of Aquarius…”
She wrestles the cell phone from her purse and answers, “Hi Mom!”
MOM? That’s mom’s ringtone? Really? I saw Hair in 1968 at the Aquarius Theater in Hollywood. If I had had a kid (instead of house plants) that kid could have been this lady.
I wanted to laugh out loud. But I didn’t. This is the same Trader Joe’s where my mother had a public melt-down. Where they almost had to call the guys in white suits to haul her off. (Click Click if you want to read THAT blog). It happened a handful of years ago but it kind of feels like yesterday. So I quietly remind myself that I’m still alive. I’m still making music AND—here’s the big news—I’m appearing (along with a whole bunch of other musicians) in a brand new documentary called Never Too Old.
One of my longtime friends got me into the party last June when we filmed at the Long Beach Senior Center. This documentary was produced by The Recording Industry’s Music Performance Trust Fund which is part of The American Federation of Musicians. They send musicians to underserved communities around the country to share music and a whole lot of happy. The documentary gig is right up my alley. This is what I do when I’m not teaching—I sing and play ukulele for senior citizens and I LOVE LOVE LOVE it.
Before my performance, the crew puts me in a big high-back wicker chair that I swear feels like a throne. It goes crunch when I move so I try not to move. It’s decorated with a fat garland of plastic roses. There’s a lot of pink happening here.
We are on a second floor walkway outside the senior center and the director asks me lots of questions about performing and music and then we have to wait a few seconds as a helicopter whizzes go by…and a nearby siren stops wailing…and the car horns stop honking. You know…urban life. (Special shout out to the film editor.)
The video crew filmed in New York City, New Orleans, Long Beach and the documentary features very talented and dedicated musicians. Life-long musicians, doing such important work, changing lives, all the while hovering under the media radar. And here we are bringing the generous heart of music to communities where music really heals, really comforts and really brings us together. At least for an hour.
It runs twenty-seven minutes and I hope you will watch the whole thing because you will be inspired! I appear around minute nineteen. They have included snippets from several songs I play including two of my own tunes: Pony Ride (which is a ukulele instrumental) and This Morning Something Wonderful Happened To Me (I Woke Up).* You have to know that I am THRILLED about that. As a songwriter I’m not sure there is anything better than hearing people sing your song back to you.
I am so proud to be part of this documentary. Big record companies actually help support these Trust Fund projects. Jeez isn’t it nice to know that it isn’t always about making $$$ and getting a zillion downloads on Spotify. Music is also about serving the heart and soul of a community with something that reminds us all of our shared humanity. That we are in this together.
Maybe this really IS the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.
*This Morning Something Wonderful Happened to Me is from my CD “Smile, Smile, Smile.” Available on Amazon, iTunes and CD Baby. And yes, Spotify.
We are having a date! Husband and I are zigzagging through rain-splashy traffic for an afternoon matinee of Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood Village. It’s dog-eat-dog as he squeezes our little Honda Fit into the long line of cars entering the $4 validated parking lot next to Trader Joe’s. It may be “mellow Sunday” but it’s still a zoo out there and we will do just about anything for cheap parking in Los Angeles.
You may remember Julia Sweeney as “Pat,” the gender-bending character on Saturday Night Live, way way back in the day. Was she a boy? Was she a girl? After that stint in the limelight she wrote shows and took them on the road. They were about her life—losing her religion, losing her brother, almost losing her own life, adopting a little girl from China, marrying a scientist, settling into middle-class housewife-dom in the Midwest and today, at the age of fifty-nine, bringing her new show to Los Angeles. She calls it “Older and Wider.”
We afternoon revelers take our seats, forming an intimate semi-circle around an empty floor in the middle of the Geffen’s mini-theater room. Well it’s not quite empty. An usher brings a bottle of water and a big cup of something, places them on the stool and arranges the microphone and stand real close to the beverage supply. With no fanfare whatsoever Julia is introduced and bounces into the spotlight wearing a black jogger suit as if she too just dashed over from Trader Joe’s.
And immediately she apologizes. For her voice. She’s getting over a cold and is still hoarse and crackly and improvises on the spot about her emergency room visit. Then the microphone goes dead. Then the lighting goes funky. And this is NOT part of the show. But as the jean-clad techie rushes on stage and replaces the mic and the sound lady, whose disembodied voice is floating above, proclaims that the lighting IS the way it’s supposed to be, Julia Sweeney soldiers on. With grace and humor. She answers audience questions until the new microphone arrives. She sweetly tells the light lady “NO we need the lights turned down” and we applaud happily when that finally happens. All these distractions…and this woman “stays in the moment.”
That is why, when Julia Sweeney makes an audience-schmooze appearance after the show, I tell her “you are such a pro.” Because it takes a pro to navigate the vagaries of doing a show, the vagaries of being in show business, the vagaries of just living your life and still grabbing onto an anchor—to something—that keeps you, well, upright. And maybe even smiling. Because you are still breathing, after all.
She weaves story after story through her ninety-minute monologue, embellishing each one with lots of ha-ha moments. But like any good storyteller, Julia Sweeney is holding up a mirror for us, so we can catch a glimpse of ourselves. When her daughter confesses that her boyfriend is “annoying,” mom declares, “everybody is annoying. E-V-E-R-Y-B-O-D-Y…” The audience is roaring, of course, because…well…DUH…
Once upon a time The Geffen was The Westwood Playhouse, standing pretty in the shadow of UCLA, which is right across the street. I flash back to the summer of 1984 where I am the first person in line with my $25 sit-anywhere-you-can-grab-a-seat ticket to see Miss Peggy Lee. I want to be in the front row, center, close enough to see the veins in her eyeballs. She is my favorite singer.
Her combo launches into THE signature song as she s-l-o-w-l-y approaches the microphone. It’s delicious torture how she takes her time. She extends her arm towards the audience, starts snapping her fingers and sings, “Never know how much I love you…” Oh wow! This is what COOL looks like. Her platinum hair—a wig probably—is dolloped just so in a perfect pageboy—and she sings that song—Fever— like she’s singing it for the first time. What a pro!
Talk about the vagaries of life—she has traveled THAT road. Peggy Lee had a hardscrabble childhood, born in the “jazz capital” of the world—Jamestown, North Dakota. But she found a way to do what she loved—to sing and write great songs and be a star. I do think she was a “diva.” She also liked to sue people who pissed her off. Like the Muppet folks when they added a new character to their brood: A blond—it’s all about me—bombshell. With an attitude. They gave this pink fluff a familiar Midwest hardscrabble back-story and named her “Miss Piggy Lee.”
Well Peggy Lee got wind of this and called her lawyers. That is why today Kermit the Frog’s on-again, off-again paramour is known simply as Miss Piggy.*
Apparently Peggy Lee had a pre-show ritual which included knocking back a shot of cognac and letting lose with a guttural whoop before going on stage. I can only imagine she was doing that before the show I saw in 1984. Then she comes on stage and sings like there is no tomorrow.
I remember hearing someone say that the sum of his whole life has brought him to THIS moment and then THIS moment. In other words, THIS is it. Peggy Lee brought each filament of her life to THIS moment. I could hear it in her songs, see it in her face. Just as Julia Sweeney does in her show. That’s what singers and actors and comics and writers and artists DO. They hold up a mirror so WE can see ourselves…doing the same thing. SHOWING UP and landing here. Baggage included.
I’m doing my thing in my little corner of the world—teaching, doing gigs, writing songs. If you are a Southern California person and interested in my ukulele classes here’s an update:
I am starting a brand new class: Ukulele For Beginners PLUS. We need a transitional workshop for folks who already play a little but want to feel more confident and learn more goodies on the ukulele. This four-week workshop begins Saturday, March 2, 2019 at Boulevard Music in Culver City.
My Four-Week OnGoing Ukulele Workshop & Jam is beginning a new session on Saturday, February 16, 2019 at Boulevard Music. This has morphed into an intermediate level class where we co-create song arrangements and add lots of flash and fun.
So I’m trying to clean my desk today… Those of you who have actually seen my desk and the piles of paper growing to the left, to the right, on the floor, know this endeavor is more like dream-on sucker. But I seriously want to make space, make calm. Okay, I want to know where stuff is.
There are people in this world who can grab and jettison without pause or reflection. I am not one of those people. I have to look at every little scrap before I decide on its final resting place. I had barely begun my excavation when I found a couple pages of pithy quotes–nuggets of wisdom I had gathered over the years that I’ve supposedly used in my shows.
Well… Truth be told, this is the most quotable quote I use in my shows now: “Is it hot in here or is it me?”
Not exactly Thoreau… Or Yoda.
But I want to share these quotations with you because they are like little arrows pointing at a radiant moon. Don’t get stuck on the arrows. Look at the freaking moon.
Many moons ago I dragged my sorry butt to meditation retreats. You are supposed to do some serious “letting go” at these things. Not me. I collected experiences and quotes and wrote long discourses in my spiral notebook about what I was feeling and the ah-ha moments that would change my life. I wrote fast and frantic. God knows I didn’t want to lose THAT thought. I hauled my treasures home like I’d hit the jackpot on Black Friday.
Except it doesn’t work that way. Between the time I scribbled them down at the retreat and the evening I re-read them after dinner and Wheel of Fortune they had lost their sizzle, their pizazz, their power to move me.
And that sucks.
But it’s not all bad news. Something does change, change in my wiring. Something shifts. Little bitty cracks appear that let in some light.
THAT’S the treasure.
Not the words, not the stuff. It’s the sweet, potent residue they leave behind in our hearts. Something to remember as I fill up the Hefty Bags today.
I’ve been spinning a lot of plates in the air lately. Gigging, teaching, doing what we all do to stay connected with each other, sleeping (sometimes), celebrating a wedding anniversary and my husband’s birthday. Oh yes, I’ve been writing songs, practicing the uke and got to participate in not one, but two ukulele festivals the last three weeks.
I will share more about that in another blog but I just have to tell what happened at The Antelope Valley Ukulele Festival during the Friday evening concert. Not the part where the fire alarm went off, the police showed up, the building was evacuated and everyone huddled in the parking lot as we sang “Island Style” accompanied by some of the performers who remembered to skedaddle WITH their ukuleles…
Not that part.
This part: The three handsome, joy-infused fellows who are a delight for the eyes and ears. Whoo-hoo they can sing! In three-part harmony. They are very accomplished musicians and their arrangements are original and super cool. It’s yummy. It’s delicious. Uh-oh, I am suddenly besotted with food. Maybe it’s their name. The Naked Waiters. But they are not waiting tables. Nor are they naked. And they will leave the stage wearing clothes.
I mention this in passing because the action on stage then takes an abrupt turn. In my head. It’s all in my head.
I have a flashback:
My mother’s birthday is coming up. Crazy mom–who has been obsessed with sex since I can remember and is a poster child for the old adage: The ones who talk the most about it have gone the longest without it. And now she’s in her late seventies and still making casual conversation about men’s parts. I kid you not.
So for her B-Day I decide to take her to a matinee performance of the musical-comedy review, Naked Boys Singing. It’s playing in a very small West Hollywood theater. The boxy room is the entire stage. No stadium seating here because there are ONLY two rows. On the stage. As an audience person you are either sitting in the front row. Or the back row. One expects that the performers may get…um…um…real close. So the decision to sit in the front or back row is made with much consideration.
Mind you, this is a surprise for my normally talky-talky mother. She has no idea what’s going on, why we are in THIS place and if that marquee about naked boys on the front of the building is, like, for real.
It’s interesting what happens when reality collides with fantasy. The talkers get real quiet.
Guess what, mom and I sit in the front row and everybody gets quiet as the house lights dim, the musicians hit the downbeat and suddenly eight naked men are singing. Right in front of us. Okay, they are not quite naked. They’re are wearing headset mics. On their heads. That’s it. The stage lighting is…very good.
Oh God where do I look first? Well you know damned well where I look. I’m an only child. I didn’t grow up with brothers. I was never an Army Nurse. Of course I’ve seen “the package,” in person, but never more than one at a time. It’s like I’m in line at the Soup Plantation of Life here!
I have no idea what they are singing. I think they are dancing or something but I’m mesmerized by the sheer majesty and variety in the human species. Well at least eight of them. A few are more buff than others but the great equalizer is that they all appear to be having a really good time. I don’t even like to dance naked in my own house, with the curtains closed and the lights dimmed to almost nothing. But these guys are groovin’ and it’s kind of contagious.
Interestingly enough, after three songs I am just about done watching dingle-dangles and start focusing on, gasp, the music, the performance, the whole twisted fun of it. These guys are really good singers and dancers and actors. Maybe they are exhibitionists too. But whatever.
One of my friends, a brilliant comedy writer, wrote a song for the show called “The Bliss of The Bris.” It’s written from the point of view of the one getting the manicure. (Yes you can YouTube it). If you don’t know what a bris is please ask your nearest Jewish friend to explain. Because I’m not going there. But the truth is, all the songs and skits in the show are really ingenious and entertaining and, oh yeah, the guys are naked.
As I observed earlier, the nakedness thing gets kind of “ho-hum” after a while and that is both surprising and comforting. I think I’m settling down and that’s when I notice THE something that will become THE enduring, stand-out memory of THE whole day…
THE lower abs!
“Really,” you ask?
Really…and picture this: My singing teacher–my mentor–would stand us in front of a full-length mirror leaning front and center in her over-stuffed living room, place her hands on her lower abdominal muscles and implore me to do the same with my belly. Mind you we are definitely wearing clothes. We inhale, exhale, tighten and loosen those things like we’re blowing up a balloon in our gut then letting the air out. Over and over. I’m thinking she’s freaking nuts. But you know what, if I do THAT when I’m singing (big IF), all at once I have this exquisite control of the sounds I make. Singing becomes a whole body experience. My legs and butt come online, the ribs expand, the multiple little mechanisms in my throat and mouth and nose relax and begin working together. It feels really really good.
So back to West Hollywood… There is one naked guy who is doing it. Just ONE. Every time he takes a breath to sing he squeezes his abs. There it is! THAT’s what great singing technique looks like. Well, on a well-toned naked man body. The mental image is seared into my brain. This makes me so happy.
Another thing that makes me happy is that my mother has gone mute. It’s temporary of course and later that evening she will find her voice again and go all Mae West. In a few short years she’ll spiral out of control but this afternoon she’s had a close encounter with the real deal. Happy Birthday Mom!
And ain’t that how music goes. When it’s just right–those words, those melodies—they can send us back in time. Or down a brand new road.
Our two weeks in Kauai have come and gone, like everything else in life, but the memories are still burning bright. And…I have pictures and a video to show for it!
Have ukulele, will travel!
I bring along my beloved beat-up mid-century modern Flea, the one I take to UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital to play for the kids. The one I take to the beach. A good friend has shared a gorgeous instrumental with me, Ashokan Farewell, and I get busy writing a ukulele arrangement. With the soft rain and gentle trade winds making their own kind of music, inspiration is only a breath away.
This tune was written in the style of a Scottish lament by a fiddle player from the Bronx, Jay Ungar, and it became the theme song in Ken Burn’s mini-series The Civil War. There is something about the elegant simplicity of the melody that short-circuits my chattering mind and what opens up is…well…wordless and yummy. Even after woodshedding the thing hundreds of times I still feel a big “ahhh” when I play it.
Finally I plop down on a plastic chair in our friend’s backyard in beautiful Hanalei and Craig takes this short video. We get it in just before it begins to rain and a neighbor turns on his chain saw. Please CLICK HERE to watch.
It feels like we are living through a global storm surge right now—there’s a lot of “I’m right and you’re wrong” strong fisting going on. Of course I have my own Rolodex of political concerns and let’s put it this way, I frequently wake up at three o’clock in the morning in a state of existential angst. That’s when I grab the Sudoku I have snipped from the LA Times, a pencil and flashlight which I tuck under my chin, pull the covers over my head and dive into the world of numbers. Nothing puts me to sleep faster than numbers…
But what do I do during the day? Well I vote and I TRY to be kind. Moment to moment, my act of civil disobedience is being kind. Can you imagine that? I do not email my congresswoman or sign petitions or post political stuff on Facebook. I do not appear at marches.
Unless I’m in Kauai.
It just so happens that the “Families Belong Together” March is happening around the country AND right at the airport in Lihue. This week! My husband and I spray on sunblock, grab the Gatorade and drive an hour to the green space that will soon fill with 500 hearty souls dressed in all sorts of subversive displays of dissent. It’s a people-watcher’s dream. Cars and big flatbed trucks swoosh by, honking their horns in support as the crowd goes “YAY!” A Hawaiian band of musicians bang their drums and plays songs. The march organizers let me borrow a sign from last year’s Woman’s March so I’m not exactly the picture of “current events” but by golly I’m here.
While my husband Craig is on the hunt for great photo ops, I am talking to the lady next to me and I soon learn she is protesting the penal system in Hawaii, that her letter to the editor appeared in today’s Garden Island Newspaper, that she is a gardener and lives in a converted shipping container and that we both have mothers who were pathological narcissists. Don’t ask me how a conversation with a stranger can turn so personal so fast, but it does. The more I talk about my experiences, growing up with a mother with mental illness, the more I find that SO many others are walking the same road. This reminds me that politics is personal; it’s like we are broadcasting our own radio station, all talk. 24/7. But getting to know another person, tuning into their bandwidth, for a while, it can open my heart. Just a little.
Back in November 2016, right after the election, I wrote a blog about my mother, about pathological narcissism and how it muddies the waters–for family and friends. This blog, “Not Your Normal Trip to Trader Joe’s,” is one of my favorites. You may want to check it. CLICK HERE.
Craig and I are very lucky that we get to leave our little bubble in Culver City and experience the ordinary AND extraordinary somewhere else. As if we are wearing a new set of bifocals. Even the sweet mundane stuff like taking a walk, having a cup of tea, standing in line at the box store takes on a different sheen because it feels new again.
Happy travels to us all – to the next room, down the street, one state over, across the country or the world, by car or plane or imagination.
One of my dear friends implores me to go zip-lining in Koloa. “My husband went upside down,” she tells me gleefully. For most people that would NOT be a tempting invitation… But I am intrigued. Craig and I have zip-lined once before on the North Shore of Kaua’i and it was spectacular. I want to do it again. This time on the south side.
Now you gotta know there’s no way I’m going upside-down. “Okay got that Cali?” I tell myself over and over. Hey we can “fly like a bird” or just do the standard “hang there” thing and that does sound mighty fine. Our tour guides, Coco and Sierra, are confident, funny, kind and very patient. I get fitted with a harness…a HEAVY harness…and presented with my very own zip-line-pulley which I will carry with me on the trip. Mine is etched with the initials “1 FK.” Is this a prescient sign of things to come?
We pile onto an open-sided truck that hauls us into what I will call a JUNGLE. We climb a platform to our first zip-line. It’s short and not very high but you still leap into the air and hope for the best. There are nine of us on this tour and one lady is a Russian ballerina with a sense of humor that doesn’t quit. She announces to anyone who will listen that she is doing this zip thing to conquer her fear of heights. Upon arriving at the end of the first zip-line she declares, “I need a VOdKa! I need a VOdKa!”
And so it goes. We trudge up up up, eventually landing above tree level. I thought I was in pretty good shape. Until today. It’s hot and muggy and I’m lugging some ten extra pounds of metal and strappy gizmos on my body. At one point I can’t catch my breath as the rest of the zippers navigate around me and disappear up the trail. Both Sierra and Coco stay behind, snatch the pulley from my hands and give me water. Lots of water. I tell them to “go ahead, I’ll catch up. Gasp. Gasp.” But they aren’t having any part of THAT. They wait. And wait. They regale me with stories about the beautiful valley we are in and about themselves. They are newlyweds and just got married a few months ago. My heart is going “awwwww” and I snap their picture. They love their jobs. They love Kaua’i. Finally I muster the energy to climb up to the next platform as they follow behind.
And I get my mojo back. In a very big, stupid way. Yes I decide I’m going to zip upside-down. Well, let’s just say…it doesn’t turn out that way. My husband, who zipped just before me, happens to be on the platform taking a video of my descent. A video of the WHOLE thing. I have added humorous asides and you’ll hear lots of voices in the background–that’s my husband and Sierra. The precocious kid asking all the questions is Miss VOdKa’s son…
My friends who have already seen this video tell me I’m very brave. Others question my sanity. I say maybe and yes. But for someone who is happiest sitting on her ass in front of her computer screen in earthquake country, I’m more than a little proud that the “dare-devil-she-lady” in me still lives and not only that, makes reservations to jump into mid-air and embrace gravity.
I am here on the Garden Island of Kauai…to decompress. To put a little distance between me and doing, doing, doing. To sh-sh-sh the crazed hamster turning wheelies in my head. To tear myself from my cell phone long enough to breathe and not get sucked into another wormhole. I’m here to feel my heart beat. Again. To look up at a watercolor sky. To walk barefoot. Somewhere. Anywhere.
My husband Craig and I are up for a little adventure too. I read about it in the airplane magazine—The Kauai All Girls Rodeo. This week!
We follow the GPS to Poipu then rock n’ roll down a rutted dirt road to CJM Country Stables, park by a horse trailer and slog our pasty pale bodies to the nicely painted stands just as the girls ride the flags—U.S., Hawaii, The Kauai All Girls Rodeo Association–around the arena in the opening ceremony.
The “cowgirls,” as they are called by the announcer, are little ones wearing “kid” helmets to older gals, with wind-tousled gray hair that goes all horizontal on their high speed cowponies. A few wear cowboy hats and those hats go flying as the ladies circle the barrels and race for home. The winner does it in 17 seconds; the little girls take longer. Chivalrous cowboys retrieve the chapeaus for the ladies.
We arrive with the can of sunblock we snagged at Wal-Mart in Lihue and my ubiquitous bottle of Gatorade. Even the announcer warns us about the perils of dehydration…
I think this is my first rodeo.
But when I was a little girl oh I LOVED horses, ever since I learned to “post” on an English saddle in the badlands of Washington D.C. Better known as the bridal trail loop in Rock Creek Park.
But when the family moved to Los Angeles the best news was that Western saddle. Oh God there’s something for my little girl hands to grab onto. In those days an hour horse rental at the local stable cost $2.50. I paid in pennies. I’m also lucky to be alive because I wasn’t a very good rider. Nor very smart around large animals. Twice my horse reared up and I went in the opposite direction, landing hard on my butt. Once my horse fell down, on all fours, and took me with him. I scrambled free before he rolled over me. Then there was the time my rental steed took off down a desert ravine, I lost my balance and slid off but caught my foot in the stirrup. I could have been paid big bucks for that nifty trick if I was a stuntwoman. But no… I just got dragged in the dirt until the horse decided to stop.
Craig and I took a trail ride during our honeymoon in Lake Tahoe and that’s the last time I’ve been on a horse, unless you count the merry-go-round in Santa Monica and Disneyland. It’s been 30 years.
All these memories wash ashore again as I watch the ladies do their thing. The trade winds feel like soft feathers across my face. The lush green hills and sparkly ocean form this spectacular backdrop for a rodeo, Hawaiian style, where the girls and boys speak Pidgin. Where the island tradition of Paniolo is honored and carried forth.
After the opening ceremony the “rodeo Zamboni,” which in this case is a flat bed truck pulling a giant metal grill, drives in neat concentric circles around the arena. I am mesmerized by the whole spectacle. And it’s good to smell horses again.
I cheer on each girl, even if she knocks over a barrel. My stomach drops to my knees as one the young lady is thrown from her horse at the second barrel, right in front of me. She’s laying flat on her back, legs splayed. She can’t get up. The medics rush in, another cowgirl grabs her loose horse. They know the routine. The announcer tells us that “these things happen.”
I remember how I walked away from my horsey mishaps, unscathed and very lucky, and am much relieved when the young rider is finally helped to her feet. Strong arms support her as she limps to the gate.
My life is very busy. Go cowgirl, go! Faster. Faster. And then the barrel gets ya…
We stay for the team calf roping event. There goes a baby cow…or is it a steer…and it’s running, running, taking aim at the opposite end of the arena as two ladies, their ropes spinning in the air, chase after the critter. One cowgirl is supposed to lasso the head and the other is supposed to lasso the hooves. And I’m wondering if the cow is thinking “F**K YOU!”
AND they are being timed how long this all takes, IF they can do it at all. Most of them can’t and one pair of cowgirls actually gets chased by the cow. Really? That got them a free turn. Bad cow!
I am fascinated. This is…so…outside my “bubble.” But my brain is still here, churning butter and trying to figure out HOW things work… And I’m really curious how the cow knows to RUN in the first place AND to the other side of the arena where it trots into a rather compact metal slot.
So we pass a couple cowgirls on our way to the car and I mosey over to have a little chat. “Hey There! I have a city-slicker question for you…” as I confess ignorance when it comes to animal husbandry. Well they are the nicest ladies and one declares “that’s a very good question.” What a relief because I’m feeling kind of “bubble-wrapped.”
So this is what happens: The staff comes early to work with the cows, run them around, show them the exit and all that stuff.
“Will they remember for the next rodeo?” I wonder aloud.
Apparently they kind of do remember UNLESS the rodeo is at another arena in which case they have to be “re-educated.” I immediately flash on my early piano bar days–when I changed gigs a lot and it was a different piano, in a different room, facing a differing direction, with different people… well it took me a while to “find my slot.”
This is one reason why I recommend people play their ukulele in different places in the house, outside, on a park bench, at your doctor’s office. It gets easier to find your slot, no matter where you are.
A Little Extra Something: Years ago I wrote a song called “I Wish I Was a Cowgirl.” It’s one of my absolute favorites. I was stuck in freeway traffic one icky, smoggy afternoon and this country-fantasy daydream stole me away and wrote itself into a song. Please click here to watch the video on YouTube.
First I hear it. Then I see it. Then my life passes before my eyes. In slow motion.
It falls with a thud and bounces on the hard floor. I hear wood kaploof and strings buzz like confused bees. It lands face down, my precious Koa ukulele. This is NOT where you want to see your prized instrument come to rest. A few of The CC Strummers gather around to offer solace after our Thursday class.
The spruce top is cracked. The binding is cracked. My heart is cracked.
How did this happen? OMG! Then I replay the last few seconds. Yes, I carefully place the ukulele in my case and zip it up. Do I zip it? I remember jabbering with my friends and hoisting the backpack case over my shoulder then…snap, crackle, pop.
Guess I didn’t zip it up after all. Multi-tasking is going to freaking kill me one of these days.
I beat myself up. All day I beat myself up for being so stupid. My husband sends loving texts: “Accidents happen.” “ Life is short.” “Even monkeys fall out of trees.” “I’m sure Rubio can fix it.
“Rubio” is German Vasquez Rubio. (You pronounce his first name like Hair-Mahn, not Angela Merkel’s country in Europe). He is a master guitar maker and luthier who I think would rather be in his workroom, hands to wood, than anywhere else. We have been taking our ukuleles to him for years because he’s excellent, his prices are reasonable and he’s a very kind man. His shop is no frills with bars on the windows, a couple old sofas in the waiting area, cases of classical guitars scattered about and autographed photos of grateful clients on the wall.
Armand, his right-hand man, greets us with such a big open smile that it helps tamp down my despair as I present him with Exhibit A
“Can you fix it?” I whimper.
“Of course we can.”
“Have you seen worse?” I ask.
He laughs at that one. They had to put Humpty Dumpty together again after the airlines shredded a $10,000 guitar. Just saying…
As he’s writing the paperwork I notice a nearby movie poster. “Oh! It’s Coco!” I exclaim happily.
Armand smiles again. “Yes German made the guitar from the movie.” Well suddenly I forget ALL about my ukulele because I want to hear “the rest of the story.” The rest of THAT guitar story.
Armand does a “show and tell” as he scrolls through pictures on his phone and tells us how the execs at Pixar and Disney heard about this great guitar maker in Los Angeles who also happens to be from Mexico, like the young protagonist in their upcoming movie, and they knock-knock at his door. Apparently everyone hits it off splendidly because German is hired to make a real guitar, just like the fancy white, skull-festooned one in Coco.
He builds a magnificent instrument and the execs are so pleased they bring in a crew to film him at work and they order 20 more. German just finished guitar #11. Wanna buy one? ☺
Coco debuts in Mexico first, just in time for Dia de los Muertos, and Disney flies German and the folks in his shop to the movie premiere. Within days it becomes the #1 film of all time in that country. The Los Angeles premiere comes next and again German and his peeps are VIP guests.
Then last February German is invited to his hometown in central Mexico. He needs a police escort as he is greeted by throngs of people. Their native son has returned. The man who built THE guitar. There’s music and speeches and an autograph session that lasts six hours. Try signing your name for six hours straight? And if you have the Blue-Ray version of Coco, Armand tells us that German Vasquez Rubio is one of the “bonus features.” Read more about this remarkable man.
As we leave the shop I say to my husband Craig “we better rent the movie.” As much as I love Pixar flicks, this one got lost in the holiday shuffle for me.
So we click On Demand and rent it that very night. Saturday. The following Tuesday it will disappear at exactly 7:28 P.M. The movie begins, the story unfolds, the music pours through our earphones and I start crying. I’m not Mexican. Well not that I know of (DNA test is pending). But this feels like my family and my story–the family who demands that young Miguel, the hero of this tale, chuck his dreams of becoming a musician, a guitar player, and learn to be a shoemaker like mom and dad and the rest of the kin.
My parents didn’t want me to be a musician either. My family prized academia. The arts? That’s hobby stuff. But the piano saved me when I was a sick kid. My Sears Silvertone guitar saved me through those ragged rutted teenage years. I couldn’t help myself, like Miguel.
In the movie he goes on a hero’s journey through the land of the dead on Dia de los Muertos, where he meets up with members of his departed family with their eccentricities and finely-drawn personalities intact. Miguel discovers that sometimes the very people we idolize, worship even, are balancing precariously on a wobbly pedestal. Sooner or later they land on their butts. If we are lucky, like Miguel, we learn the truth—that good guys are not always good and bad guys aren’t always bad and families, as imperfect as they are, teach us something deep and enduring about love.
Miguel brings this truth back to the land of the living, to his great-grandmother Coco, and he plays THAT guitar and sings her THE song that beckons her forth from the mists of dementia. Awakened once again, she reaches into a drawer to retrieve a tattered picture and a frayed book of poems. Her father’s songs. Apparently Coco has done a pretty good job of keeping these dusty old mementos to herself but their discovery changes the whole trajectory of the family. Music helps them “remember” — to see the dance of life across the generations, across the threshold of life and death.
Well that “Remember Me” scene just about does me in because I see this happen when I’m doing music therapy with seniors. They hear a song, the THAT song for them, the fingers on their hand move, maybe a foot taps, they look up, maybe smile. And sometimes they sing along. And for a few precious moments they have rejoined this mortal coil.
I am mindful that “reality” is a relative thing and that their reality is as valid as mine. But it’s lovely to behold when a person who is lost in another land rejoins what I would call the status-quo. At least for a while.
And for a while, Coco feels very real to me.
I watch it again Sunday night and a third time on Monday. I would have watched it Tuesday but alas, time runs out.
We picked up my ukulele last week at German’s shop. It’s beautiful. As if someone dusted it with a little magic.
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Earlier this year my husband Craig happened to be on Olvera Street in downtown L.A. and followed the music to this “Coco” celebration. He tells me that the kids were over-the-moon as they perched on daddy-shoulders, like this little girl, so many ponytails swinging back and forth with the Mariachi band. Viva Los Angeles!
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I think I got more responses from my last blog, USE THE BATHROOM, WHY DON’T YA, than any others. Some of you thought it was hilarious. (Thank goodness!) Others were grossed out. You shared your “it-happened-to-me” stories and I learned more about camping etiquette than I shall ever use in my life (because my idea of camping is Motel 6). But many of you reamed me for not saying something to the poop lady (as she was taking a dump under our third-floor balcony during her afternoon jog). You told me, in no uncertain terms, that I should report her.
To tell you the truth I feel badly for this woman. She obviously has “issues” BUT she is not homeless and this is a rules-rule community where I live. One of the rules is no #1’s and no #2’s in the common areas unless you are a dog and your master is toting baggies to clean up the poop. So I did have a little talk with the powers-that-be and an incident report was filed.
It’s been several weeks now and I haven’t seen the lady jogging or doing anything else for that matter. I don’t feel particularly vindicated. It’s just sad. We human beings struggle. All of us. And sometimes those struggles wash into public view. May kindness prevail.
It’s 5:30 P.M., dinnertime on this balmy Monday evening. My husband and I are high on salads these days as I have discovered a cornucopia of succulent green stuff at the local farmers market. All I have to do is empty part of my weekly harvest into the salad spinner and spin.
But I like to add a little extra pizzazz so I trot outside to our balcony and “my edible garden” which consists of a lone basil plant I snagged at Trader Joe’s. I grab the half-rusted shears and cut off a sprig for our salad. We live in a third floor condo in a large gated community and when I’m doing my “balcony thing” I like to peer over the wood railing and check out what’s happening down there in the concrete canyon below.
And that’s when I see her. “The Jogger Lady.” She’s jogging. And then she’s not. She stops dead in her tracks, pulls down her sweat pants, flashes her butt, full moon and all, squats and…takes a dump. Right there in “the common area” which in this case is THE ROAD.
Maybe I should have yelled “hey you…yes you…don’t shit in the road.” But I’m feeling like I just stuck my finger into an electrical outlet. It’s that kindof stunned. Maybe I should have grabbed my phone and taken a picture. You think? But I didn’t want to miss anything, especially the end of THIS story.
And it does end. And not well. She squeezes out three giant dookies. I know this because I have a bird’s eye view of her ass. Also I can count. AND I’m wearing my glasses. Then she pulls up her pants, brushes herself off and looks around. I duck behind the basil with my jaw hanging at my feet. Around here it is a mortal sin if you don’t pick up your dog’s poop. Plastic bags and leashes go hand-in-hand. Garbage cans appear in every direction on the compass. Do you think The Jogger-Lady pulled a baggie from her pocket? Do you think she scooped up her own poop? If you say YES then you live in Fairyland. Where no one poops.
Having relieved herself and probably feeling refreshed and…um…lighter…she continues her jog, disappears around the corner and leaves a steaming pile of doodoo behind. Whoever passes will think it’s the parting gift from a Great Dane or a Shetland Pony. Certainly not a lady jogger who undoubtedly knows how to flush a toilet. Thank God a big storm is coming to Los Angeles. In 24 hours. Which isn’t soon enough for me.
I understand that there are communities around here that have gotten so huffy and puffy about dog poop that as soon as DNA testing came into vogue…well you see where I’m going. An anonymous brown bomb is left on the sidewalk and the amateur scientist-board member with her do-it-yourself tester kit nails the offender. Of course it’s not the dog’s fault. Dogs will be dogs. But one would hope that owners know better.
Actually one would hope that PEOPLE know better. Sure there are cultures in the world where this story would elicit a “and…your point is?” But not here. Not in Culver City. This is where they filmed the movie Singing in the Rain. Which is what I will be doing tomorrow.
Speaking of tomorrow. AND beyond. I see this lady around. A lot. She jogs to the grocery store. She jogs to the post office. She jogs in circles. I admire her stamina. She’s probably burned through half a dozen Fitbits. But I wish she would use the bathroom. And I will forever link her face with a full moon. Spitting bon-bons.
So who made up the rule that there are ONLY twenty-four hours in a day? Because that isn’t enough time especially if you want to…like…sleep. Too.
I’ve been a busy missy and haven’t had a chance to write a blog for a while. But I think about you, my online family of fellow human beings, and hope you are doing okay. That you are slurping chicken soup as needed, smiling at a stranger at the grocery store, needed, and hopefully strumming your ukulele lots. NEEDED!
I’ve been writing lately, but not stories…
Instrumental music, of all things, and here’s the deal:
You can imagine my shock, as a singer-person, to learn that some people don’t want to sing. I hope you are laughing—a little—because fundamentally it’s kind of sweet. I know how good it feels to sing, to make a noise, and I figure everybody wants to feel good. But some of my ukulele students want to keep their mouths shut and play a cool melody on the uke instead.
So I’ve gone a-hunting for simple songs, knowing that I want folks to learn to read notes and come up with their own chord melodies. That’s the piano player in me talking. Give me a note, I can give you a chord. Give me a chord and I can give you a song!
But I haven’t found any that flutter my heart. So I’ve written a bunch of ukulele-friendly songs myself and they are gorgeous and I’m putting them into a book. News Flash—this is going to take a while. I’m just copyrighting them now. My patient husband Craig is doing all that Sibelius computer stuff and abracadabra, we’ve got sheet music with tablature.
I had a chance to play one of my favorites, Whirligig Waltz, at the recent NAMM show in Anaheim, amidst the “whirl” of thrumming sounds and swirls of people.
Craig snagged a video as I balanced a really cool Tenor Fluke on my thigh and played in the Magic Fluke Co. booth on mellow Sunday (that’s a joke).
Some of you may know that I played in piano bars for twenty years and that’s where I learned to “tune out” distractions, to put on the metaphorical blinders so to speak, and make music. Distractions like…televisions blaring, fire alarms going off, the hostess calling out “Peterson, party of four, your table is ready” on the house PA; the couple having sex—or pretty close–in the corner booth; the crusty dude with the well-fed garter snake slung around his neck and a beer in his hand; the bagpipe player who isn’t wearing underwear; the personal conversations whispered around the piano and I CAN HEAR YOU; people saying snarky things about me; me picturing a puddle of poop on their heads.
So that’s how I can keep right on playing “Whirligig Waltz,” impervious to the maelstrom around me. It’s a gift! And you can watch by CLICKING HERE.
I’ll keep you posted how “da book” is evolving. I already play instrumentals when I do music therapy gigs and a pretty melody on the uke can soothe and comfort. Oh those four magnificent strings.
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In the meantime, I’m singing too and wanted to tell you that I’m doing a Kanikapila—a Ukulele Strum Along and Workshop at Dave’s Island Instruments in Lakewood, California, Friday February 9, 2018 from 7:00 to 9:00 P.M.
Tickets are $20 and you get to keep my arrangements of the songs we play. See the flyer below. You can record the opening ceremony of the Olympics that night on your TV and join us for the real thing—people playing and singing and making music together. It is one of the sweetest pleasures in this precious life.
It’s two days before New Years. Late 2015. I am doing a morning Target run, trying to beat the crazy holiday crowds when all of a sudden a shrunken Medusa head drops from the ceiling. Just to my right. Hundreds of itty-bitty black dots are swimming in circles around her wiggly tendrils. Each minute new ones crash the party.
Here I am, frozen in the middle of the aisle, staring at the ceiling and thinking this is some weird-ass Target promotion for God-knows-what. But customers are pushing their carts around me, oblivious to the dancing head and that’s when I get really scared. Could it be me? Could this be a detached retina? My husband rushes me to the local emergency room where the crackerjack team diagnoses a posterior vitreous detachment. That’s the good news. My retina is okay. But it’s in my right eye. My good eye. I am legally blind in my left. Is this my new normal? Medusa hell.
What to do? I make a follow-up appointment to see a retina specialist and then write a blog about what happened, tap, tap, tapping through a gunky haze. I call it, appropriately enough, “Floaters.” The blog is funny, educational, it’s full of pictures and you can read it by clicking here. I hope you do because this blog is central to the rest of the story.
The Rest Of The Story — July 2017
The word “floaters” is innocuous enough. Some people “see” bugs—flies, gnats—that zip into view or hover like tiny helicopters. They swat them away. Good luck with that…
I have bugs too AND Medusa who is hanging out–right, left and center. Sometimes I’m looking through Medusa when I look at you. The medical term for this is a Weiss Ring—a circle of dark protein that is really really annoying. It’s the fallout from that magic moment when my vitreous membrane decided to divorce the back of my eye.
But in my case, there’s more… Clouds of gauze and slithery worms roll between me and my computer screen. And the television. I actually changed the channel once because CBS was all foggy. It wasn’t them. I can’t drive at night anymore because of the glare from headlights, any lights. I’m seeing halos that I thought were strictly the domain of heaven. Unless heaven is Wilshire Boulevard. One day I’m okay, the next day THIS happens.
Not long after I send out my Floater blog, I get an email from “happy uke player” who is on my e-list. She tells me about her friend. The one who had floaters too.
Yes HAD because this friend found a doctor who uses a specialized laser treatment that gets rid of them. Are you kidding me?
I contact her friend, whom I shall call Miss Floater-Free, and we talk on the phone. She describes her floaters to me. I describe mine to her. When I try to explain my “situation” to people who don’t have floaters, they kind of nod and glaze over. But she gets it. Miss Floater-Free tried special glasses and eye exercises. She spoke at length with the experts–eye docs. They told her she’ll get used to it. Don’t you just want to throw-up when someone says that to you?
So she scours the Internet. This is a woman who does her due diligence and she generously invites me along for the ride. Miss Floater-Free tells me she found THREE, ophthalmologists in the WHOLE United States who use the YAG laser to treat floaters. One in Virginia, one in Texas and one in Irvine, California. She books a flight to see the Virginia guy. In two consecutive treatments her floaters are zapped away. She pays the bill and presents him with a bouquet of flowers.
My floater-free friend warns me that eye doctors will dismiss my problem and tell me there’s nothing they can do. And THAT is exactly what happens. I understand that this isn’t about going blind. This isn’t about glaucoma or macular degeneration. But folks, I’ve got a freaking zoo in my eye.
The first retina specialist I see at the prestigious university hospital takes a quick look-see, hands me a “floater information packet” (the what, why, where, who cares of floaters) and shuffles me out the door. He should have just given me a lollipop and a pat on my head considering the way he blows me off. I get a second opinion. The new guy rates higher on the empathy bell curve, but still spews the company line: “You’ll get used to it.” And diss-diss on the YAG laser treatment (which by the way, has been around for over twenty-five years). Even my kindly optometrist tells me it will get better and why would I want to take the chance on some little-known laser thing with my one good eye? The real floater docs, it appears, are outliers.
I like outliers.
But I wait anyway. I wait a year and half and the floaters do not go away. In fact they get worse. I roll my eyes around in circles like I’m channeling Marty Feldman in the movie “Young Frankenstein,” trying to swoosh the “stuff” out of the front row. This works. Until it doesn’t. I email Miss Floater-Free again. “How are you doing? I ask. She writes back that the floaters are gone and have stayed gone. But now she has floaters in her other eye and she’s booking another trip to Virginia.
And just like that my husband and I drive one hour south on the 405 Freeway and land in Irvine, California, face to face with Dr. James Johnson. An outlier, indeed. Some have suggested I am very courageous to do this but I respectfully disagree. I have no choice.
With a big-as-your-hand 3-D model of an eyeball that opens in half to reveal the exciting innards that inform our vision, a nifty white board which Dr. Johnson props up between us (the man writes upside down so I can read it right-side up) and various other visual aids that includes Handi-Wrap (“membrane” material), he explains to me what happened and what is happening now. Finally I get it. I “see” it. No pun. We all see it… Lordy, he has beautifully framed pictures of floaters on his walls… If I didn’t know better I’d swear I’m looking at the Hubble Space Telescope’s “best of…”
I fill out lots of forms including the one where he asks how bad the floaters are on a scale of 1 to 100. 100 being awful, miserable, the worst. I check 100. Well…they seem really bad to me. Obviously this floater thing is very subjective because when he dilates my eyes and takes a “vitreous” tour Dr. Johnson tells me it’s not THAT bad. There IS Medusa however and, as he describes it, the vitreous membrane that detached from my retina is undulating like a wave through the gooey gel in the back of my eye, folding over and producing the panes of opaque that drift across my central vision. Actually floaters cast a shadow over the retina, like an eclipse, and that shadow is what we floater people see.
But hallelujah, Dr. Johnson understands how something like this impacts my life. I feel validated. FINALLY. What a freaking relief. There are no guarantees in medicine but he is confident that Medusa is a goner.
“Does it hurt?” I ask. “The laser treatment?” Dr. Johnson grins and says “I won’t feel a thing.” Meaning HE doesn’t feel a thing. Oh ha ha ha. But he quickly adds “no it doesn’t hurt.”
Well then let’s do it!” He drops a local anesthetic in my right eye and sits me in front of the laser, which looks like the “glaucoma-tester” machine to me. Well except it’s not. He places a fancy contact lens over my eye, secures my head with a Velcro strap and tells me to look that-a-way. And just like that the video game begins. He’s working a joystick and my eye is the target and “I” am the observer. It’s the strangest thing.
Pow, pow, pow. A couple red lights spark and I see Medusa floating in a sea of bright psychedelic light. Pow. Medusa jiggles and a tendril turns into tiny droplets that fall south. Pow, pow. Another tendril, more droplets. He pow pows the body of the Weiss Ring. Within minutes there is hardly anything left. Medusa has been vaporized. Her diaphanous mass turned into miniscule gas bubbles that float away.
Now he gets to work on the other gauzy stuff. Dr. Johnson will eventually do 729 laser hits. About average. We are done for today.
Mole rats have big teeth and can’t see. I feel like a mole rat. For a few seconds. The bright lights of the laser treatment have rendered the room one big weird blur. But soon I can see the wall. No Medusa. And the ceiling. No Medusa. OMG!
During this treatment, Dr. Johnson took a short video of Medusa’s demise. It runs about four minutes and includes his commentary on what’s happening. You can watch by clicking here. Don’t get thrown off by the incorrect date stamp, which he forgot to change, this is me, myself and eye! The gas bubbles actually “go up” in this video because that’s what gas bubbles do, but I see them “go down” because the eye and the brain commiserate to mess with reality. Whatever “reality” is…
Follow-Up — September 2017
Since that first visit with Dr. Johnson in late July, I have had two more treatments on my right eye and two on my goofy left eye with its double-dancing fur balls (a Weiss Ring that split in half).
The improvement is not 100% but it is startling and significant. I was encouraged to temper my expectations because some floaters are easier to treat than others. I can tell when the laser is not making a solid connection because it goes “ping” instead of “pow” and I don’t see the bubbly remnants float away. Gunk that is too close to the retina is off-limits. That testy diaphanous vitreous membrane still slinks around like a snake through the goo in the back of my eye. The laser just bounces off of it like a wisp of breeze that flutters a curtain. Tiny strands float through the lens of my life. But it is SO much better now. The Weiss Rings are gone and so are the psychedelic halos at night. Darkness is sweeter again.
If you have floaters that are driving you crazy or know someone who is swatting away imaginary flies, you may want to do some exploring. I’ve included links to various resources below. I suggest you find a doctor who has experience with The YAG laser technique. I am impressed with Dr. Johnson’s knowledge and expertise. I especially appreciate his candor about the benefits and limitations of this procedure. His entire practice is floaters and nothing but. People fly in from parts far and farther to make his acquaintance and get zapped. But medicine is an art, not an exact science, and no two cases are alike nor will they have the same outcomes.
So if we are lucky we get another birthday and another…and our body parts wear out and wear down. They detach and droop and leak and dry up and… What to do? Grab your ukulele and play a song.
A bouquet of thanks to “happy uke player” and “Miss Floater Free.” Perhaps I would have learned about the Yag laser eventually but these women expedited this journey of restoration for me and I am immensely grateful. And glad to pass the information along to you.
Ted-Ed Talk: “What Are Those Floaty Things In Your Eye” (Four minutes long). Click Here.
Vitrectomy is an eye surgery that drains and then replaces the vitreous fluid in the back of the eye. According to my doctor this is the gold standard for sweeping floaters onto their next life. But there are significant risks associated with this procedure and with only one good eye it’s not an option for me. Click Here for more details.
James H. Johnson, M.D. is my doctor. His office is located in Irvine, California. Click Here.
Video of Dr. Johnson zapping away the Weiss Ring in my right eye (4½ minutes long) Click here.
John Karickhoff, M.D. pioneered this YAG laser technique and is located in Falls Church, Virginia. Click Here.
I’m so glad people read my blogs. On the one hand, it’s cotton-candy sweet just knowing the stuff I write about is stuff that happens to you or someone you know. I love that “big human family” thing where our differences begin to pale in comparison with all that we share.
On the other hand, oh what a resource you are in my life. Case in point? Jeopardy. Watching Jeopardy is like comfort food for my husband and I. It is the official signal to tune out the happenings of our day and wind down before lights out. That said, I’m a terrible Jeopardy player. Just awful. My “processor” is slow. So when I do nail an answer it’s like WOW! “Good, honey!!!” My husband coos.
I wrote about Jeopardy in a recent blog. As most of you know it’s been a tough year cleaning out my mother’s home after she passed away. It’s taken all this time for the neurons in my brain to rejoin the party of life. And of course I wrote about the whole mess of it. Finally we sold the house and as I shared in my blog Watching Paint Dry, despite what we have been through, my husband and I are so grateful for the little miracles in our life. That we can snuggle in a warm bed and watch Jeopardy.
I receive a lovely email from a woman on my elist who actually works on Jeopardy. She asks me if I would like to see a taping. “Are you kidding? Yes, yes, YES and thank you!” And it’s not like I have to drive to Hollywood or Burbank. Sony Pictures Studios (once-upon-a-time it was MGM) is right across the street from The Culver City Senior Center, the home of The CC Strummers.
So that’s how I land at Studio 10. Actually my friends and I are escorted through the bling & swag room, the pretend mock-up studio (get your camera!), past cardboard Alex Trebek who is standing by the phalanx of Emmy Awards in their glittering display case, on to our front row seats as Jeopardy Production Guests.
I’m so excited I don’t even know my fly is down. Not that anyone would notice. Or care. Being here totally jump starts what I call my “Disneyland Complex.” It’s never enough for me to just ride the ride… No, no, no. I have to know HOW they do all those tricks. And right now I’m watching a whole lot of “HOW.”
The contestants are led into position with their respective staff member. There are animated conversations between them and fist bumps. It all seems very convivial. Stationary cameras are pointing at the contestants, the Jeopardy Board and Alex Trebek’s desk. A jib swoops in and out for the wide shots. We sit behind a bank of computers, manned by the director and writers and the lady who makes sure everything is on the up and up in game show land.
Other staffers decked out in their Jeopardy tee-shirts tell us when to clap. And stop. This is old school wonderful. No flashing applause signs here. Alex Trebek is introduced and we whoop-whoop. Microphones are hanging over the audience so we are warned several times not to holler out the answers. “Like you do at home.”
When the show breaks for the commercials Alex walks over to the audience and answers questions like “what’s your favorite show besides Jeopardy?” Better Call Saul. “Do you get nervous?” Not too much but he does get angry at himself when he fluffs a line. “Will you grow your mustache again?” No!
I ask “what do you and the contestants talk about at the end of the show?” He says just about anything and rattles off a few topics like sports, where they are from, those testy categories… The show today will be broadcast in December, hence the category about holiday songs (on this blazing hot August morning).
The answers are written on a big spread sheet that covers Alex’s desk and he crosses them off, one by one. During the break he re-records lines he messed up and the contestants get an extra dab of powder on their faces and more encouraging words from the production staff.
I don’t know what to look at first because there is so much happening at the same time. It’s like a three-ring circus. The audience has a monitor to watch, then there’s the great big Jeopardy Board itself, the contestants’ monitor and the contestants themselves, the staff nearby, the guys at the bank of computers, the cameras.
Now here’s something you don’t see on T.V. The moment Alex finishes reading an answer one of the guys sitting at a computer flips a switch (or something) that turns lights on both sides of the Jeopardy Board. That’s the signal to buzz in with your answer and the race is on. Some contestants get very “energetic” with their buzzers. I admire their spunk but wish they’d knock off the theatrics. Yeah, yeah I know you know the answer but your neighbor nailed it first so stop clicking that thing.
During the first break Alex poses for a picture with each new contestant. How these smarty-pants gals and guys stay focused with all this activity whirling around them is beyond me.
And let me just say this: Alex Trebek is 77 years old and stone-ass gorgeous. His marvelous resonant voice would make any singing teacher swoon. He practices the answers and pronunciations with his staff before the shows are taped. Johnny Gilbert, the announcer is 93 years old. Did I say “old school” rocks!
Kelly and Sarah of the Clue Crew also answer audience questions, pass out raffle tickets and souvenirs. We are attending the morning taping of three consecutive shows. This afternoon, after lunch, they will tape two more shows with a whole new audience. It’s a long day. But then again we get Jeopardy 46 weeks a year. So there…
Probably most of you remember Ken Jennings. He’s the Jeopardy champion who won an astonishing 74 consecutive games in 2004. That run became a cultural phenomenon. And a personal one for me.
Picture this: I am setting up for an evening show at a nearby retirement home. There are about twenty residents hunkered down in cushy chairs and sofas. Right beside the baby grand piano sits a big-screen T.V. that has been rolled in on a cart for this special occasion. It’s tuned to Jeopardy where Ken Jennings is doing his thing. But I have to set up my gear for the gig so I tiptoe around the television as I surreptitiously test my sound system. All eyeballs are locked on Ken Jennings and the gang. You can smell the “OMG” in the room. We’re talking Double Jeopardy, life and death.
During a commercial I run my fingers across the keyboard so I can get a quick feel of the instrument. This is called a glissando and just as I reach the highest notes on the piano the television goes black.
For a moment there is stunned silence. The residents look at the television and they look at me. They look at the television and then they look daggers at me. And now they sound like angry birds. Caw…caw…caw. They THINK I did it. They KNOW this looming tragedy is my fault.
I desperately fuss with the television knobs and the power cord. Nothing. I try to reason with the residents, explaining that doing a glissando on the piano does not affect electrical currents or cable reception. They aren’t buying it. Jeopardy is gone and it doesn’t come back. And neither does the audience. I lose them before I sing a note.
Such is the power of a beloved television show to capture us and then soak into the marrow of our bones. And today at Sony I get to watch HOW it’s done!
As for that interesting episode at the retirement home, every time I play a glissando I get a little twinge. Still.