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?
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.
I 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.
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)
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.
It was snapping, crackling and popping around here July 4th. Despite the pleas of law enforcement, “so-called” adults (okay…idiots) were setting off fireworks, the illegal kind, in backyards and on street corners. Not to mention the big official fireworks shows nearby in Culver City and Marina del Rey. A cacophony of sounds set the air on fire. I heard blasts like gunshots, whoops, hollers and dogs. Howling, howling. I felt like howling too. “Make it stop…make it stop.” On July 4th I want to hide in bed and pull the covers over my head. And that’s where I was when the call came that my mother just passed away.
Earlier that day, the sunny board & care home where she spent her last months hosted a grand July 4th barbecue. Families, friends, neighbors converged in the backyard to chitter-chatter and fill our plates with grilled goodies. I sat with my mom and cajoled her to eat as I happily inhaled yet another hot dog and scoop of homemade potato salad. She just poked at her food then put her fork down. But chocolate is another matter. It’s always been the food of last resort. I emptied a handful of baby Hershey bars on the table, carefully unwrapped the foil and placed a little slice of brown heaven in her hand. She took a tiny chipmunk bite and put it down. Hmmm.
And she would not look at me either. “Mom, I’m over here. Let me see your beautiful face.” She’d glance quickly my way and even more quickly the other way again. I found this odd enough to mention to my husband. For the last two weeks it seemed she was dropping deeper into the land of dementia and unlatching from this mortal coil. It’s only now that I’m beginning to put two and two together.
After the party, the caregivers put her back into her Lazy Boy in the living room, in front of the big flat screen. She was holding her beloved stuffed puppy in her arms as I leaned in to kiss her. “Bye Mom. I love you.” Her reply? “I know.”
A few hours later she died in her sleep. The doctor had given her a clean bill of health only a week before. There was no frantic trip to the emergency room. My husband took me into his big warm arms and then we drove to her home. I stood over her body and studied her face. It was free of anguish. It looks like she died peacefully. We should all be so lucky. A heart attack, a stroke, a something that is quick and done.
The mortuary dude arrived quickly too. Probably July 4th is a big night in the undertaking business. I watched him drive away, with my mother in the back of his van, the red taillights disappearing in the night. Fireworks exploded nearby turning the sky smoky blue.
And just like that my “tormentor” was gone. She was 93 years old.
As you can imagine I am experiencing a cascade of emotions…and a whole lot of nothing. Those of you who are familiar with my story know that my mother had borderline personality disorder. She could be so kind and inexplicably cruel. Unfortunately, my father and I were her primary punching bags. Mom was a registered nurse, a clinical specialist, who went back to school in midlife to get her degree, which is quite an admirable feat. She prized her profession above all else and would interject the list of her accomplishments into any and all conversations. In her world there was little room for anyone else. It was only the last couple of years when dementia stole her memory and Zoloft balanced her moods that we actually had something resembling a loving relationship.
She is so much a part of “my story.” What happens to our story when a main character dies? For me, this is complicated by the specter of mental illness. I could write a book. This woman threatened to kill me. That would be a couple chapters right there.
And yet… One evening many years ago, for a few moments, my mother emerged from her mental prison into lucidity. She was standing by her front door, sobbing. “I’m so afraid I’m going to push you away” she sputtered through her tears. “I can’t help it. I can’t help it. I can’t help it.” She talked about hearing voices.
You know, I had always thought she could help it. I thought I could “fix” her. And then she’d be nice to me. But at that moment my view began to change. Albeit not enough to stop the suffering that would continue for decades—for her and me. I can only hope that today she is free.
Flash forward… I am talking with funeral-director-guy in his office at Pierce Brothers Mortuary, which is conveniently located at the final resting place of so many Hollywood stars. My parents had a pre-paid, no-frills cremation plan on file. I am deeply grateful that they did this. They bought this plan twenty years ago for $695 each. Funeral-director-guy can’t freaking believe it! He shows me what the same plan costs today. Whoa! Dying is expensive, folks… While he is imputing the information into his computer I wander around the graves and headstones. A couple tourists, distraught women, are doing some kind of emotional catharsis in front of Marilyn Monroe’s crypt, otherwise I would have taken a picture. But I do snap a few. My mother loved cemeteries. It’s feels so Zen to me—you know, that laughter in tears and tears in laughter stuff.
My mother could have been a stand-up comedienne. She was hilarious and loved shocking people with her ribald observations about body parts. We had this conversation a few months after my father died when I asked if she had thought about “like…going out on a date? What are you looking for in a man?” She answered so quickly and precisely that it was apparent she’d been mulling this over for a while.
“Yes. He’s got to have three qualifications. First he has to be funny.” What that means is he has to think SHE is funny.
“Second. He has to be smart.” Which means he thinks SHE is smart.
“And what’s the third one mom?” I can hardly wait to hear this one.
“He has to be impotent.”
“Uh…do you mean important?” I ask…
“No. Imp-O-tent.” She stresses the “o” so there is no doubt what she means. Or wants.
There is a moment of silence before I offer some real world advice…
“Mom it’s so hard to find the perfect guy, you know. Would ‘two out of three’ work?”
She ponders this briefly before acquiescing… “well okay, he doesn’t have to be smart…”
Not long after that my mother spiraled ever so slowly out of control and eventually lived like a bag lady in her own home, refusing to let people in, refusing help, refusing to throw anything away. There were no boyfriends.
At the end of my visit, I hand funeral-director-guy her brown velour pantsuit. My mother was not a girlie-girl. She dressed like a Russian soldier. Then I give him the stuffed puppy she adored the last few weeks of her life. She and her polyester pooch and brown velour will go out in a blaze together.
My mom did not want a funeral or memorial. Nothing in the newspaper. This blog is it. She did not believe in heaven. Or hell. Not an afterlife nor reincarnation. One and done. She was the mistress of fireworks, this one. Sometimes it was quite a show and you couldn’t look away. But mostly I wanted to pull the covers over my head and hide. That said, I know that my mother did the best she could with her one precious life.
I called her best friend with the news. They knew each other since they were teenagers in Washington D.C., giggling about the new boy down the street. This woman cried softly on the phone. “Your mother had a good heart, Cali…”
In time the stories soften around the edges and eventually fade away, but one thing remains: Our mother carried us in her belly for nine months and brought us into this world. Whether she had the stuff to be a good mother. Or not. How can we ever say thank you, thank you enough, for this astonishing gift? For our big messy life.
I received an avalanche of emails in response to my last blog about my mother. “Police Pursuit.” Stories that are sad, complicated and utterly human. In my blogs I have hesitated writing about my really personal stuff… You have to know that my index finger hovers over the “send” button before I push it down. Should I? Shouldn’t I? But that began to change this year with my mother, the defining relationship in my life. Your responses remind me that our stories connect us, not in our heads, but in our hearts. They give us comfort, like a deep heave-ho.An a-ha moment, perhaps. I’m especially gratified when you leave a message on my blog (WordPress) so others may be gifted with your words. Thank you!
My mother and I are craning our necks towards the big flat screen on the wall of her board and care home. We are watching a police pursuit weaving through the streets and freeways of Los Angeles. I know what is happening. She does not.
These chases occur with stunning regularity. You wonder why the soon-to-be felons don’t think things through more carefully. The helicopters are hovering overhead; the police vans with their red lights flashing are looming large in rear view mirrors. You just don’t get away. Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility is not going to save you now. The escapees will get nailed and let’s hope they don’t nail anyone else in the process. But we keep watching as the drama unfolds. It’s like passing a car wreck on the highway. “Don’t look, don’t look…” My higher angels implore me not to participate in someone else’s suffering. The angels usually lose…
I’ve just wheeled my mother back into the living room of the big airy house after our sidewalk excursion in this quiet neighborhood. She hugs one of the stuffed dogs I have given her. It’s a sun-shiny day. Memorial Day… And she goes along for the ride without mustering one ounce of drama or angst. This is not the mother I know.
There she is smiling at the jasmine blossoms I snap off a vine and place in her out-stretched hands. She kisses her stuffed dog and looks up at the sky when I point to the little plane. But she’s happy to go back inside again and that’s where we watch the pursuit.
Dementia is an interesting thing. I sing and play ukulele in memory care units for people who respond to a familiar melody or tap along with a steady beat. They smile and laugh sometimes. They scream and paw at themselves. Their stories are gone. Their histories—dropping, dropping precipitously into a heavy mist. But something is left. An essence. And I try to honor that and meet them where they are.
Not so easy with my mother…
As we watch the erratic driver racing down the 105 freeway towards Los Angeles International Airport, Jinna, one of the caregivers, asks me if my mother liked to drive on the freeway. I chortle as memories of my mother unspool in my head like a really bad movie. My mother was a nervous driver, but as a passenger she could have won the Gloria Swanson Award for melodrama. She’d smash her right foot into the “imaginary” brake pedal on the floor. Never mind that she was in the backseat.
But I could live with that. It was her screaming that scared the hell out of me. Blood curdling screams. I’d feel the adrenalin let lose in my body in classic fight-or-fright fashion. Once she agreed to wrap her favorite leopard scarf around her face so she couldn’t see. Or scream. But then she put her big-rim eyeglasses on, over the scarf, so “I don’t look strange.” By then “strange” followed her like day follows night.
I tried to reason with her. “Mom! Don’t scream! It scares me when you scream. I’m not a good driver when I’m scared.” But my mother is a troubled woman. The Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde type and playing the “reason game” doesn’t work. She tells me she can’t help it. And today I know that’s true because that is how mental illness is.
When my mother was behind the wheel of her own car and another driver did something that pissed her off (which is casting a very wide net), her face went all Exorcist as she shouted “GO TO HELL…” Then she’d flip them off. I tell my mother it’s not a good idea to do that kind of stuff in Los Angeles. There’s that “reason” thing again. She’s lucky to be alive.
Then something happened: Dementia. When my mother no longer knew what pills she was taking, we added Zoloft to her colorful array of capsules. It helps modulate her moods. Within two days she had morphed into a sweet old lady. Fricking Betty Crocker. The caregivers say she’s so nice. She smiles a lot, laughs, kisses her stuffed dog.
And I’m thinking “who the hell are you?”
It’s been a long hard road for my mother and me. How different things would have been between us and in all of her relationships if she had been taking Zoloft, or something like it, the last ten, twenty, thirty years. And now folks who meet her for the first time are enchanted. It’s an ongoing challenge for me to reconcile “my story” of my mother with what is true today.
Like the people I work with in memory care units, I try to meet her where she is. YES, my mother was an angry and sometimes vindictive woman. YES, today she is mostly kind. YES, she has forgotten the people who were on her “hit list.” “I will destroy them,” she’d snarl. Red lights flashing. YES, she has forgotten I was on her hit list too. YES, her eyes get all sparkly when she sees me and we hold hands.
What is true? All the above, of course.
By now the crazy dude on television is driving south on the 405 Freeway. He will soon run out of gas and the police will throw cuffs on his wrists and haul him to jail. Thankfully no one else is hurt in this pursuit. My mother is napping in her Lazy-Boy, clutching her polyester puppy (that fortunately survived its first ride in the washing machine and dryer).
So many memories. So many stories. And no answers. Except to trust this moment to shine a little light.
I jump on the “consumer bandwagon” and follow the sales to my local brick and mortar store. It’s like a mini-vacation that I book on my way to a gig. I don’t have to buy anything and usually don’t. But there is something about shopping that gets me out of my head and into a kind of hypnotic trance. Well that’s the way it’s supposed to work…
So here I am pushing open the doors to Steinmart. I’ve got a fist full of coupons, an hour to spare and I’m in the mood to browse. This store, along with Goodwill and Ross Dress For Less, are my go-to lodges for colorful distraction.
I veer right toward the boutique part of the store and just like that, I am seriously staring down a blue ombré tunic dress. It’s “hippy chic.” Please know that I am not a hippy. Nor chic. But then very little makes sense to me in this life so what the hell. Just then a fellow shopper swoops beside me and exclaims — I mean she EXCLAIMS: “That dress is SO you.” And she doesn’t budge until I snatch the blue thing with its black crochet sleeves off the rack and drape it over my arm. This woman is so convincing I believe her. The short-circuiting has begun.
After that encounter I wander through the rest of the store, drawn to the sale racks first, petites, hats, jewelry, shoes. This is so fun. I balance more clothes over my right arm and proudly dangle that hippy frock by its hanger as if I am a walking billboard for “cool.”
Off to the fitting room I go. I’m second in line behind another woman. She turns around and sizes me up.
“Is that dress for you?” The words slither from her mouth as her eyes drift over the blue ombré.
“Maybe…” I reply, going all wishy-washy and noncommittal.
“It’s too young for you.” She snaps.
“That’s not a bad thing…” I poof, feeling like I have to say something even though what I am thinking is F—K You!
At that point I abruptly turn around and go back into the store to find more clothes. This is supposed to be “Cali Time.” Rest and relaxation and all that… But now I’m descending into the caverns of unresolved psychological stuff. Yet again.
Within minutes two different people share two different opinions about the same dress. Unsolicited. And thank you very much. But what if one of them is right? Even a little right…
One of the gifts of getting older is that most of us reach a point where we don’t give a hoot what other people think about us. At least most of the time. But these interactions at Steinmart, albeit brief, get to me. They slice a little, like a paper cut. I want folks to like me. I want to feel like I belong to a tribe and this is what my lizard brain hears:
Woman #1: “I like you.”
Woman #2: “I don’t like you.”
Wait a minute! We are talking about a dress. That’s all. A dress. But isn’t it interesting how a whole chapter in our life story can rise out of some mere trifle like this…
The truth is neither of these women know a damned thing about me–my tally of gain and loss; what scares the hell out of me and what makes me giddy; what I value and what puts me to sleep. They don’t know my name.
Yet both of them make snap judgments. Lordy, we all do. And based on what? One of my music teachers was the “deep thinker” type and often likened us to mirrors, we human being people. When we look at each other we are really seeing flashes of ourselves. You spot it, you got it. Could it be that those two women were seeing reflections of themselves in that dress? In me?
To be honest, I enjoy the first encounter more than the second! She seems like a pal, a girlfriend. The other woman has a “boss lady” vibe like “I know best.” Or worse “I know you.” Well screw that. We are lucky in this life if we finally begin to know ourselves, much less anyone else. Being a human is THAT complicated. And mysterious.
Finally I lock myself in a fitting room and pull the dress over my head. I turn this way and that way in front of the mirror. Well it’s cute and fits perfectly.
On me the blues and blacks look like something Morticia from the Addams family would wear when she’s harvesting this week’s stash of mushrooms in the dark cellar of the old homestead.
What was I thinking?
The truth is both women are wrong. This dress is not “me.” No matter the year I was born. I can hear my inner fashion guru again–the whispery voice that knows only two words: Yes. No. Her batting average is not perfect but it’s pretty good.
I buy a pair of fakey-silver heart earrings. With my coupon I get a whopping 75% off. That’s $4.32 out the door. I love hearts. I’d like to think I’m an open-hearted person. A kind person.
Until some pushy b-i-t-c-h comes along and tells me how to dress.
Maybe you saw the movie Whiplash? About a mercurial music teacher who thrashes his young protégé into a drum-thumping master? I left the theater feeling like I’d been pummeled too.
I’m not sure what you would call this bombastic style of “getting your point across” but I prefer teaching with, shall we say, kindness. Love, even. Not gushy, but honest. The great Zen master, Suzuki Roshi, told his students “all of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement.”
The music teacher in Whiplash bullies his students, humiliates them. He sucks their spirits so dry their eyes go dead. Well that’s how it looks from my seat. In the mega-decibel finale his student performs an inspired drum solo, seemingly reaching the pinnacle of perfection and transcendence. One might conclude that the teacher, in all his mean-spirited bluster, is vindicated.
Maybe. Maybe not.
We’ve all had teachers. They stretch across the big bell curve of competence—from exceptional to “you-have-got-to-be-kidding.” Nobody has a corner on the truth, the immensity that is music or that is anything. “You’re just one little dot in the painting that is the music of the universe,” says Tabla master Zakir Hussain.
I tell my ukulele students that I am sharing my experience, the stuff I’ve learned first-hand as a working musician. My little “dot” in the painting. But they have to connect their own dots…
For years I studied with three teachers who were extraordinary mentors. They planted seeds, they cajoled, they got testy, they made me listen to songs and singers and music that were way outside my comfort zone. They lent me books and tapes that were subversive. They changed the trajectory of my life and for that I am deeply grateful.
I love them still. But there were “issues.” News Flash! There are always issues. Human beings are a roiling stew of pop-up emotions and contradictions. Eventually a sense of possession seeped into the teaching relationship. It was time for me to go. To take what I had learned and live it. To stand on my own two feet. When I finally left, it was messy and terribly sad. But I had to. I had to find my own way.
And I had to take a long hard look in the mirror. Music continues to teach me. About a whole lot more than music…
88-year-old pianist Seymour Bernstein tells his students that music, like life, is about dissonances, harmonies and resolution. And then he adds “I never dreamt that with my own two hands, I could touch the sky.”
It’s a dance, this teacher thing. Always changing, always in motion. Each of us teacher AND student. I am honored that Ukulele Magazine has published my essay about teaching and “Why I Uke” in their Spring 2016 Issue.
Now go forth, teach something to somebody…and touch the sky.
When I stand in front of one of my ukulele classes and see people who have never played an instrument before or have been told they can’t sing and here they are, strumming and singing and making music, I say to myself, “it doesn’t get any better than this…”
I began my career as a professional musician just after I bought my first car, a funky old VW Bug. I jettisoned the front passenger seat so there was room for my PA system. My musician friends and I learned early to “cobble” together a career, hustling for gigs, networking and practicing, practicing, practicing.
Working in piano bars taught me to be a good entertainer and to engage the audience so they feel like they are part of the show. Night after night I saw how music brings people together. Then a few years ago my husband, Craig Brandau, purchased a tenor Fluke and it changed the air pressure in our house. We both got real serious about learning to play.
I put the piano, guitar and banjo on hold and began my romance with the ukulele. It’s friendly and portable and turns spectators into participants. But I never expected to be a teacher. To LOVE teaching the ukulele and leading a group. I never realized that the skills I learned as a working musician and entertainer would come in so handy. But it’s all show biz, right? Learning to play the uke is not always easy but hey, let’s have a good time doing it.
Here’s what happened: On a whim I offered an eight-week beginners uke class at my local senior center in Culver City, California. Eight weeks has turned into five years. We named ourselves The CC Strummers and play together every Thursday morning. They challenge and inspire me to be a better teacher. I started another eight-week beginners class on Mondays and the same thing happened.
Suddenly I had two huge classes and we were sounding good so we decided to “take it to the streets” because we love sharing the music that makes us happy. One of my mentors said that the audience won’t remember what you play, but they will remember how you made them feel.
Today my “cobbling” continues. It’s a laundry list by golly. I teach four uke classes a week, lead The CC Strummers and do my own arrangements for our songbook. I teach private students, tool around Los Angeles doing gigs and music therapy with dementia patients. I perform at ukulele festivals and do workshops. I have two ukulele albums, write songs and blogs and of course, practice, practice, practice. I don’t cook. Or sleep much…
Maybe a few people get their “fifteen minutes” of fame and fortune, but I’m grateful that, after all these years, I’m still making a living doing what I love to do.
My friend Wendy leads The Palm Desert Strummers who make beautiful ukulele music near the mid-century modern capital of the world: Palm Springs. Folks drive north, south, east, west from their desert abodes to play with this group. Snowbirds fly in for the winter, escaping the ice and cold of their homelands.
Last week they did one of the coolest gigs ever. And it has everything to do with Elvis.
Yes, THAT Elvis. The guy who would have turned eighty-one years old this month. IF he was still around to blow out the candles. Where was the gig? The Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway.
Apparently this is where Elvis and his bride Priscilla got “up close and personal.” Baby Lisa Marie was born exactly nine months later. You gotta love math.
Of course The Palm Desert Strummers play Elvis songs and are joined by an Elvis impersonator. Is it any wonder that Elvis has made more money as a dead person than an alive one? It’s like he’s still here. And in this case looking especially boyish and rosy-cheeked.
There is a reason I am bringing this up. I have my own Elvis story too…
I am packing up after a gig at an average retirement home in Los Angeles. There is a kind, portly fellow visiting a friend that day and he stays for the show. Afterwards this man offers to load my gear into the car. He has a warm southern drawl, rich with natural resonance that’s sweet like honey. He is what chivalry sounds like…
“What do you do for a living?” I chirp.
“I’m an Elvis impersonator.”
“How’d you get to be an Elvis impersonator?” That’s a good question, huh. I mean do you wake up one morning and realize you look and sound like the guy. AND have the marketing chops to book gigs and get paid for singing “Hound Dog,” swiveling your hips and flirting with the ladies?
He tells me that he sang in Elvis’s backup group. This was towards the end of Elvis’s career when the singer was rotund, sick and his vocal chops were chipped away. According to “Mr. Chivalry” some nights Elvis couldn’t even sing. That’s when the backup guys vocalized his part for him.
So far so good. This story is within the realm of, let’s say, possibility. But just as he’s leaning into my car trunk to re-arrange the amp, he goes all loopy.
“You know Elvis is still alive…”
“Elvis is still alive???” I repeat the words like a parrot who has just been bopped on the head by a falling coconut. “Elvis is still alive?” I aaaawk. He tells me there are things people don’t know.Will never know. This man is very sincere. And serious. I get the impression that, in his opinion, Elvis wanted out of the celebrity life and the only way to do that was to fake his death.
Gee maybe there are flying saucers too. May I remind you that I did this retirement home gig some fifteen years ago, long after Elvis had left this mortal coil. Or so we think.
But I love stories, especially “what if” stories and I begin to construct my own novella about Elvis. And me:
Free at last now that the world is grieving his death, Elvis is taking on a new identity. Like he’s in a witness protection program or something. He begins a second career working in the garden department of my local Home Depot. This is his new normal. One day I mosey in looking for a houseplant that will survive. In spite of me. And there he is. An older fellow, kind of marshmellowy-looking, receding hairline. He leads me to a perfect pothos hanging in a planter and says “how about this one.” I swear his voice can melt snow.
All right. Elvis probably died when Elvis died, but I chew on this story now and then, especially in January when I’m doing Elvis songs in my shows too. Stories can be so captivating. Soothing. They might even compel us to consider the impossible. Or at least the improbable. Isn’t there a brush stroke of imagination, magical thinking even, in the stories we tell ourselves? And others?
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Well here’s another story and I’m sticking to it!
The Palm Desert Strummers have invited me to do a ukulele workshop in the land of Honeymoon Elvis, Tuesday, January 26, 2016. I did a workshop last year and let me tell you it feels mighty fine to be invited to do another one. Isn’t this something that makes our day? Being invited BACK. Whatever IT is. I’m doing my “Let’s Arrange A Song” class, but with two new songs. The workshop is totally different this year. We’ll play different strums, finger picking patterns and even try a little chord melody. There is something for both beginners and intermediate players.
I’ll also offer private lessons Wednesday morning, Jan 27 in Palm Desert. Maybe I’ll have time to swing by The Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway and marvel, one more time, how the currents of life move us in the most mysterious ways.
I can’t see the big “E” on the eye chart that hangs in the eye doctor’s office. With my left eye, that is. Actually I can’t even see the chart. I was a little girl when they first discovered my goofy left eye. Was it because I walked into walls now and then?
Like most folks who have only one workable eye, I have adapted. I drive my car with ALL mirrors on high alert. I wear a headset microphone when I perform so I can use my good eye to see the ukulele fretboard. I’m almost sure that my depth perception and your of depth perception are not the same. For a short time I took a softball class at the local junior college. I remember the P.E. teacher groaning loudly as I’d swing the bat. Way before the ball arrived at the plate. Maybe she thought I was on drugs or would do better with T-Ball. Or no ball at all.
I bring this up because I worry about something happening to my good eye. My right eye. Because I don’t have a spare. And that’s how I end up in the Emergency Room at U.C.L.A. The day before New Years. It’s our second trip to the E.R. in 2015.
I’m having a lovely day, doing errands. I like doing errands. I like watching my fellow people behaving in interesting ways in our natural habitat. Stores. Here I am at Target and I like Target. The lights cast a yellowish “buy me” glow from above. Not like outside. And that is when I notice a throng of tiny gnats swarming in front of me. And a miniature Medusa head, tendrils and all, zigzagging to my right. Long waving filaments glistening to my left and a little puddle of goo straight ahead. What the hell kind of promotion are they doing in Target today? Then I realize I am experiencing my own private light show. In my good eye.
I flash to the last time I visited my ophthalmologist. Before my eyes totally dilate, I am staring down the poster on the wall in the darkened waiting room. It’s a “bad news” poster: If you have these symptoms, get your ass to the doctor right NOW because you are screwed! Or something like that. Standing in the express line at Target, I am seeing BAD NEWS and other stuff you might watch swim by in a dirty aquarium.
Lots of us have “floaters” in our eyes. Little knots of diaphanous pebbles that dance around the visual field. I’ve had them for years. They come and mostly go or else my brain gives up and ignores them. But today in Target this is different. WAY different.
And that’s why I’m in the Emergency Room and very embarrassed because, come on, it’s not like I’m having a heart attack or I broke some bones, like my husband did a few months ago. I apologize from the get-go to anyone who will listen. “Maybe it’s just floaters…but this is my only good eye…” I whimper.
But a generosity of kindness and goodwill pervade the E.R. on this pre-holiday afternoon. The doctors and nurses reassure me that I did the right thing. What if this is a worst-case scenario? What if my retina is detaching or tearing, even a little? Then time is of the essence to save my vision.
They begin with an ultra-sound of my right eye. Wow, I didn’t know there was such a thing? The doctor rubs the ultra-sound wand across my covered eye. Back and forth. She doesn’t see a retina tear but calls in the expert anyway. A few minutes later an ophthalmology resident appears and dilates my eyes with an assortment of drops.
I’ve never had an eye exam like this before. He warns me about the bright light he’ll shine directly into my dilated eye and the “poking and pushing.” Ladies let’s just say it’s like having a mammogram on your eye. Okay? And it goes on and on. Like ten years worth of mammograms in one flesh-squashing session.
Well I applaud the guy for his thoroughness and my husband for not keeling over. With his super-duper light probe, the doctor circles my retina as I aim my eyes at an imaginary clock on the ceiling. One O’ Clock, Two O’Clock, Three O’Clock…
“I have good news for you,” he finally says…
The gel in our eyes is called the vitreous and it’s supposed to stay jello-like; but as we get older the gel begins to shrink and detach from its moorings. The retina. The official name for this is Posterior Vitreous Detachment.
Apparently I’m okay for now, although this is an interesting way to begin a new year—watching spots and goo dance across the computer screen as I write this blog. I have a feeling my new ophthalmologist and I will be having regular meet and greets from now on. Maybe the flotilla of wiggling stuff will recede. Maybe not.
So I’m keeping an eye on things. And that is not a pun. So no groaning. I’m on the lookout for fireworks (not just a little sparkler but the grand finale of the July 4th Show) and a black curtain rolling down across my visual field. That could be bad news indeed—a detached retina.
But why should I, or anyone, be surprised. Everything changes. Our points of view, our body parts… I’m grateful I can still see and do and eat and love and be loved in return.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
PROGRAM NOTE FOR MY LOS ANGELES FRIENDS
Both my ukulele classes begin Saturday, January 23, 2016 at Boulevard Music in Culver City, CA. I teach Ukulele For Beginners, which is a five-week workshop and our four-week OnGoing Ukulele Workshop & Jam where we strum, fingerpick and learn a lot of new cool stuff. Please scroll down to see the flyers.
I am still receiving the most interesting responses to my last blog (THIS IS MY SEAT) about Frank Sinatra. Thank you! My neighbor’s father was a well-known and respected photographer. He took this iconic picture of Frank at the Hollywood Bowl in 1943. Apparently Sinatra didn’t like photographers either but he wanted a copy of this shot.
When I saw Frank Sinatra perform at The Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, the whole aroma of the evening burrowed into my memory. The theater is gone now and so is Frank. But after all these years I can still smell the evening.
I was one of thousands ensconsed in the darkness of this gigantic space, my eyes focused on the lone spotlight that Sinatra inhabited like he owned the sun, and when he turned his head in my direction and sang “Embrace me, my sweet embraceable you,” magic happened. Every other person in that audience disappeared. I mean “whoosh.” All that was left was Frank and me. He was singing to me. Just me.
Frank Sinatra had that ineffable “thing.” I saw it and felt it that night and certainly hear it today in his recordings. It’s like he’s talking to me and it feels like I’m part of the conversation. This is an astonishing gift of inclusion.
He is my favorite singer. That said, I would not have wanted to take him to lunch.
This is a tough one for me… Living with ambiguity, residing in the uncomfortable gray zone of life. We are all a mixed-bag of stuff and Frank certainly exemplified this. He had that enormous talent. He could be astonishingly generous but he also treated people miserably. I have read the stories and I’ve heard a couple first hand. He is not someone I would have wanted to hang out with.
I bring this perplexing contradiction of emotions to Party Night at the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills. It’s Saturday, December 12 and this night is Frank Sinatra’s 100th Birthday. His son, Frank Jr., is singing with a 32-piece orchestra and telling stories about dear old dad.
I saw the advertisement for this show six months ago.
“You want to go with me?” I ask my husband.
He laughs and says “have a good time.”
So I get online, study the seating chart and claim MY SEAT. It’s second row mezzanine, as center as center can be.
The night finally arrives and with my hot ticket in hand I am swallowed in a crush of L.A.’s beautiful people. This audience is inter-generational. Young ladies are wrapped in mink stoles. Older women are wearing high heels and fashionable ensembles with expensive fabric and arrays of fancy jewelry around their necks and wrists.
I am not one of them.
I hunker down in MY SEAT, brush the lint off my jeans (well…they are nice jeans…and clean), push my unhip but totally utilitarian backpack purse under the seat, and arrange my jacket just so…like a warm pillow against my back. My nest is feathered.
I am one person in a sea of couples and groups. That’s when “they” arrive at my row. The very tall woman with the short cropped blond hair and hip blue glasses looks down at me and with stunning hubris announces that “my husband and I want to sit together. Please move over one seat.”
Are you picturing this? They purchased one ticket to my left and one ticket to my right and she wants me to move.
This is one of those moment… Too often in my life I back down, acquiesce and later flog myself for doing so. Then again, what’s the big deal, moving over one seat?
These two opposing thoughts rush through my head. But this woman has such a haughty air of entitlement that she pisses me off.
“No,” I say.
“Why not?” She snaps back.
“Because this is MY SEAT.”
In a huff, she sits to my left as her husband settles to my right and I pull my arms close to my body like a figure skater beginning her spin. I’m thinking to myself “this is going to be a LONG night.”
But the husband is an amiable guy. After a few uncomfortable moments he turns to me and asks if I know what’s going to happen at the show. Do I look like a freaking oracle?
“You like Sinatra?” I ask.
“Well my wife does.”
Oh…so the mister got dragged along for the ride.
“Well at least you are here. My husband is home. Asleep.” I laugh. We laugh. This brief interlude softens the missus and, like that, she and I start chatting. She tells me that her parents played Sinatra records on Sunday mornings during the family breakfast. “All The Way” is her favorite song. She’s a physical therapist and makes house calls.
“What do you do?” she asks.
“I’m a musician and singer.”
“The kind that gets paid.” I chirp.
She turns out to be an okay person. Not someone I’d hang out with, but okay. Both of them. And I stay in MY SEAT.
The concert begins and the adoring crowd “ooo and ahh” as Frank Jr. sings those iconic songs and the trombone wails on “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” They purr as the pictures of young Sinatra, middle-aged Sinatra and finally Sinatra on the memorial postage stamp appear on the big screen behind the orchestra. It’s a love-in.
But I’m not feeling it.
These days my adoration is tempered with a measure of ambivalence. Truth is messy. People are a complicated concoction of ingredients. We can be kind and cruel. Wise and stupid. Self-centered and open-hearted. The list goes on and on.
I’m not solving this one. Just living it.
My ukulele group, The CC Strummers, really rocked our holiday party. My idea of a good time is getting the audience in on the fun. I put together a short video of our program. It’s two minutes and forty-eight seconds of joy. Click HERE to watch.
2016 is looming large. Another 366 days of UNKNOWN. Leap year, it is. What makes you happy? Or content?
Good health for sure… Hanging out with people who feel like sunshine on a cloudy day? Yummy food? Homemade. A job well done, whatever it is? A solid night’s sleep or a deep dreamy afternoon nap? A clear black sky where you see wisps of the Milky Way? The husband you love? Wife? Kids? Friends? Dog? Kitty? Catching all the green lights? A place to call home, with floor, ceiling, walls, heat and pictures on the wall?
I hope you have lots of sweet moments to remember in the New Year.
“Come here. Come here quick! YOU HAVE TO SEE THIS.” My husband is shouting from the other room.
At the moment I’m peeing. I AM p-e-e-e-e-e-ing. So thank you very much. And as far as I’m concerned, whatever it is, can wait…
So I’m not the picture of open-heartedness when I finally appear and turn my gaze toward the television set where my husband is pointing. “The banjo player,” he exclaims, “look at his left hand.”
First of all, I see a bluegrass band. Monster musicians, they are. Guitar, fiddle, mandolin, piano, upright bass. The banjo player is hot!
Wait a minute…
I lean into the T.V. for a closer look, so close I feel the heat emanating from the screen. The guy has a thumb and part of an index finger. That’s it for fingers. The rest are nubs, like little toes. But his left hand moves across the neck of the banjo in this crazy beautiful dance.
His name is Barry Abernathy and he has found a wondrous, unorthodox way to position his left hand so he can play. A quick Google search reveals that he gravitated towards players in his bluegrass neighborhood, asked them to show him a lick, then he figured out how to play it.
Then there’s gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. His whole life changed when he was 18 years old and severely burned in a fire. The doctors said he would never play guitar again. But he developed a unique style, using the two good fingers on his right hand and the scarred ones on his left. His enormous talent and innovation resonate with players today.
In his early thirties, Les Paul nearly died in an automobile accident. His right arm was crushed and it was bad, bad, bad. The doctors wanted to amputate. But they set the arm instead, at a permanent 90 degree angle, so he could still strum the guitar. It took him two years to recover AND adapt. But he did. And he continued to perform well into “elderhood.” And invent cool stuff like multi-track recording and the iconic Gibson Les Paul Guitar.
One of our CC Strummers, Betty Bryant, is a renowned jazz pianist and singer. She has made a living playing, recording and touring. With nine good fingers…
In my ukulele classes we do hand exercises. This little act of rubbing and stretching is a reminder that our body parts matter. They are precious. The exercises encourage me to get out of my head, where I usually live, and check in with my fingers and hands, my back and front, top and bottom. Yes that means accepting the truth that our bodies get tired, hurt, stiff, worn-out and out-of-whack, in one way or another.
But we find a way. That’s all. We find a way.
The CC Strummers and I are presenting our Ukulele Holiday Show Tuesday, December 22, 2015, from 1:00 to 2:00 P.M. at the Culver City Senior Center. If you live in Los Angeles and need a bolus of joy or an hour off from the holiday rushy-rushy , please join us. You will have a blast!
2. New fangled divining rod that finds water in Southern California or buried coins on the beach
3. Clandestine CIA reconnaissance device with built-in traffic Sigalert Function
4. 3-D weather barometer. “Pull my finger…oo…high pressure…”
5. Pacific Crest Trail built-in compass that also predicts the future
6. Your own personal cell phone tower
Have you figured it out?
This thing is the newest member of our family. It lives in my husband’s right wrist and Craig is playing heavy-metal ukulele these days whether he likes it or not. We have one final appointment with Dr. Kodi Azari, the hand surgeon, and it is the same routine one expects at a teaching hospital like U.C.L.A. First to appear is the new resident doing ortho rounds. She enters with a burst of warm exuberance and tells us that her name is Ro-Q-Something-Something… “But you can call me Rocky,” she exclaims.
“Well let’s see your wrist.” She is mightily impressed with Craig’s range of motion. My musician husband is very motivated… “I wish all our patients were doing this well. Let’s look at your X-Rays.” As she tappity-taps on the computer keyboard the newest films, taken ten minutes earlier, appear. She zooms in for a closer look. And so do we. Like what the hell is that? For the first time we get an IMAX view of the “thing” the surgeon cajoled into the bones of my husband’s wrist.
“Beautiful,” she exhales. “No, it’s genius!” She turns to Craig and says “I remember you. I observed your surgery and kept thinking to myself this surgeon is a genius, an artist.” Well who wouldn’t believe a woman named “Rocky.”
All smiles, Dr. Azari joins the party and announces that he’s very pleased with Craig’s progress. And relieved. Because the damage was so extensive. Now it’s on to physical therapy for the next few months. If his wrist appears in one of those fancy orthopedic journals, I’ll let you know. He is only the third patient to receive this metal sculpture. It goes without saying that we are extremely grateful that Craig has excellent medical insurance through his work and by sheer luck, we landed in Dr. Azari’s office.
May remind you that all this happened because Craig tripped on a plane-jane sidewalk in front of our busy post office in Culver City. Some sidewalks in Los Angeles arch upward like an A-frame roof on a ski chalet. In earthquake country… You see them coming and walk thoughtfully over the hills and valleys. But the sidewalk panel that is just a teeny-tiny bit displaced from its neighbor panel…that’s the one to stare down.
So here is a big shout-out to the scientists, future scientists and the insatiably curious people in the world who find a need and then find a way to fill it, build it, discover the cure, unlock the mystery.
I meet one of these people at The Los Angeles International Ukulele Festival at the merchandise booth. His name is Jason.
Teachers and performers who inform and entertain at festivals also want to sell stuff. Like our music…our DNA that we have spread onto a compact disc like butter. But we are off teaching or performing. What to do? Thank goodness high school kids in Los Angeles have to put in so many hours of volunteer work in order to graduate. A swarm of them from Torrance appear on the scene wearing matching blue shirts, bright morning smiles and are ready to do what needs to be done.
I’m getting the impression they take their work today very seriously. They emit an air of gravitas that I associate more with tired middle-aged folks with a 30-year mortgage, car payments and children.
About a half dozen oversee their slivers of space at the long merchandise tables and sell sell sell. They already have my undying admiration since the last thing I want to do on this planet is sell, sell, sell.
After The CC Strummers and I open the festival on the big stage in the plaza, I run back to the merchandise table and that’s when I meet Jason. He is leaning into a stack of my “Smile, Smile, Smile” CD’s and arranging it in a beautiful swooping geometric form. Earlier I had plunked them down on the table and disappeared, but Jason, he fills the void. And with stunning attention to detail. I’m thinking he might pull out a tape measure any second to get the width, depth and height just right. This young man stands at the intersection of art AND science.
“Are you an engineering student? I ask. The young ladies hovering close answer “ye-e-e-e-e-s” in surprising unison, like they are his back-up singers or something. This is a treasure of a moment. Oh the sheer beauty of it all and the gifts we bring “literally” to the table. Jason sells lots of CD’s and demonstrates my Rhythm Rings so ukulele players can “shake and play” at the same time.
And I miss the whole thing. But at the end of the day I do manage to scoop up the $$ Jason has neatly arranged (in order or denomination) in my Estee Lauder freebie cosmetic zip bag.
I am convinced that whatever we do, at any given moment, it takes a village. It may not seem that way sometimes, but… Sure I’m writing this blog on my computer. I’m all by myself. But what about the people who designed this computer and built it and the UPS guy who delivered it? What about the folks who keep the electricity running? What about my teachers—all of them—who are present and accounted for in every word I type? What about my husband who has my back?
Community is a marvel. A miracle of engineering.
Attention Southern California Ukulele Lovers…
My next “Ukulele For Beginners” Class starts Saturday, October 17, 2015 in Culver City. Playing this marvelous instrument does the heart good. Sign up at Boulevard Music.
Next weekend. Because that’s when Torrance, a neat little town in the South Bay part of Los Angeles, becomes “ukulele central.”
I like Torrance because I like to shop. Well I call it “shopping therapy” and Torrance is bubbling over with glorious opportunities for that kind of feel-good escape. Don’t even have to buy anything. I just run my hand over the hangers and neat stacks at Kohl’s or the swell booties at Designer Shoe Warehouse.
We follow our set with a Strum Along where everyone is invited to play and sing with us. We’ll be doing play-it-by-ear songs like Jambalaya, Dream Baby, Hound Dog and more. In fact, if “C” is the only chord you can play, we’ve got a song for you!
I hope you can join us and Grab a Little Sunshine (which is the name of my song The CC Strummers just performed at our last show). Click here to watch our video on YouTube and sing along.
This festival is a bargain at $35 which includes continuous entertainment on the main stage AND all the workshops you can squeeze into your day! I’m teaching a class,” Let’s Arrange A Song on the Ukulele,” in the afternoon. After my nap…
Coming soon! Craig’s Bionic wrist update. We visit the surgeon next week to find out how well his bones are knitting rightly with all that metal. “Fingers crossed” the doctor gives him a “thumbs up.”
Recently I did one of those heart stress tests because, well, I’m really stressed out. So I’m sitting there in the lab room as the very young and terribly sweet technician prepares to inject radioactive goo into my arm. She asks me, with all sincerity, “do you have any problem with needles?”
“Oh no,” I retort, “as long as they’re being stuck into somebody else.” Poor little thing. She believes me.
Oh what the hell. Our parts start leaking and wearing out but it sure helps to laugh a little and make music. (And yeah, I’m okay…)
I am still responding to all the heartfelt emails I have received after my last blog, Watch Your Step—the one about my sweetie Craig taking a nose-dive in front of our local post office and our visit to the emergency room at U.C.L.A.
Yes I have left you hanging. That is because life as a caregiver (albeit a temporary one), musician, teacher and grocery store shopper sucks up time like my handy Swiffer sucks up dust and yuk.
In the E.R., the young stud resident tries his best to set Craig’s fractured right wrist but a few days later the hand surgeon delivers the lousy news. As he loads the X-Ray images onto the computer screen, we hover behind, craning our necks like E.T. at what is clearly a giant mess in my husband’s wrist.
Two days later he is in surgery, fitted with a cast and sent home with enough narcotics to barely be legal. It’s a tough few days but we are propped up by the support of our friends and our neighbors, cousins who text from thousands of miles away and emails from you.
A couple weeks later we are back at U.C.L.A.’s Orthopedic Hospital, escorted into an examining room with a window view of The Bank of America across the street. I don’t know what it is about me and doctors and hospitals, but when I get placed in a holding cell, er, examining room, the first thing I do is look OUT the window.
This is Craig’s first post-op appointment. Our fabulous doctor, the best of the best, sends in his “trainer doc” first. U.C.L.A. is, after all, an educational institution. So we play along. The resident clicks on the newest X-Rays and immediately exclaims: “Oh…Oh…Oh.” Then he clicks on another view of Craig’s wrist and says it again: “Oh…Oh…Oh Dear.” Only with more intensity and concern. Then he adds the word, WHOA!
So much for the opening act.
Just then the surgeon appears. The resident moves his butt out of the kingly swivel chair and we are given a quick tutorial on how bad things can get… I look at the X-Rays and see a sheath of metal, like a bracelet almost, or a chastity belt for the wrist, with more metal things shooting out of it right and left. The surgeon explains this is a brand new procedure in the annals of hand surgery and my husband is only the third patient of his to get one. He adds, with a slight grin, that Craig may end up in the Orthopedic Journal (or whatever it is called…) We laugh. Sort of. You know, the kind of laugh that really means “you have got to be fricking kidding?
Craig gets fitted with a splint that he can thankfully remove when it’s shower time. And now he can drive. Whoo-Hoo! And appear the first day of the school year (he is a high school social studies teacher).
He can’t lift anything heavier than an iPad with his right hand. For another six weeks.
The doc warns him, with discernable gravitas, no lifting buddy, otherwise back to surgery for you.
And that is where we are now. So far so good. My musician husband can play the ukulele in short spurts. And that is sweet news indeed. Thankfully he is a finger-picker and his fingers are okay. Hopefully he will begin physical therapy at the end of September but the process of recovery will be a long haul.
And all this because one sidewalk panel in front of our post office was displaced from it’s neighbor panel by one lousy inch, which caught the toe of my husband’s tennis shoe and sent him crashing to cement earth.
But kindness and good karma are present too. I teach ukulele at a music store in Culver City and the owner does something, or says something and within days, that sidewalk is shaved even-steven, so no one else will get hurt. And because I don’t have time to cook (which is probably a good thing, considering…), we discover Ono Hawaiian BBQ right down the street. And because Craig can’t eat dinner laying down in our bed, which has been our M.O. for like forever, we gussy up the little tile perch near the kitchen sink and have dinner there. Sitting in chairs like normal people. Talking to each other about our day… Instead of chowing down in bed as House Hunters International blares on the T.V.
Oh the simple…little…things…that bring such joy and relief into our lives. And I forget them. I forget all the time. Like having two wrists that work. Like being able to drive a car. Or eat Hawaiian BBQ chicken even when I don’t have a coupon. And make music. Every moment there is room for one itty-bitty “thank you.”