December 31, 2010 — Early To Bed On New Year’s Eve
For the first time in 15 years, I don’t have a gig on New Year’s Eve, which means December 31st translates into just another day (and night) around here. Trust me, it’s okay. After a busy month of shows, I need a nap!
But I did get to celebrate a “Let’s-Make-Believe-It’s-New-Year’s-Eve” party last night at the retirement home in the valley. This was a great big family affair where all gathered in the sprawling dining room which was festooned with cheery decorations, party favors and colorful balloons. No one got drunk enough to grab one, undo the knot, suck in some helium and do their best Donald Duck imitation. It was a sweet celebration.
We start early at 7:00 P.M. and in less than an hour I am leading a conga line around the room as we sing the familiar refrain rollin’, rollin,’ rollin’ down the river from “Proud Mary,” collecting seniors, children and the energetic service staff along the way. One wheelchair-bound woman joins in with gusto, after all, “rolling” can be done sitting down. In fact many wonderful things can be done sitting down.
We do sing-a-longs and rock n’ roll until the magic hour of 8:00 P.M. when it’s time for some serious make-believe. We imagine being transported to Time’s Square, and since it’s our fantasy, we decide it’s a balmy 70 degrees in New York City (global warming, perhaps). The giant crystal ball slowly drops as we countdown together “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Happy New Year!”
Grandmas, grandpas, sons, daughters, grandchildren, friends, the staff and me—we blow our horns and sing “Auld Lang Syne.” Goodbye 2010! Albeit a day early.
This is the first year of the second decade of the new millennium. Can you believe it? It’s been a hard year for a lot of people and we want it to be better in 2011. But come on, every year is a mixed bag. Every decision we make has an upside and a downside. I watch the families interact at this party where we are encouraged to “make happy.” But the truth is we struggle sometimes and I figure when all is said and done, we’re just doing the best we can. There’s a kind of poetry in that.
Last year I wrote a blog about “Daisy,” one of the residents at this retirement home. She is a wild woman. All 96 years of her. Even though her eyesight is failing and she is more achy and tired these days, she’s still gorgeous, fashion-forward and when she gets out on the dance floor and shakes her booty the older fellas can only wish…
She reminds me that life is short, even when we live long. So kick up your heels in 2011 no matter what happens.
(To the left, Cali and “Daisy” celebrating an early New Year’s)
December 15, 2010 — Jingle Bells and Ho Ho Ho
I’ve been a busy holiday elf, doing a sleigh-load of gigs this holiday season and meeting a lot of nifty people who have signed onto my elist. Thank you and welcome to my extraordinary ordinary life.
The CC Strummers, our band of intrepid ukulele players who meet the “age requirement” for irreverence, wisdom and membership at the Culver City Senior Center, have gone YouTube wild again!
I brought my video camera to class, handed it over to our adopted videographer, Debbie C., the queen of multi-tasking at the Senior Center, and we went to town on “Jingle Bells!” If that isn’t enough, we end the video with a holiday joke where everyone gets to deliver the punch line together. Feel free to “borrow” a little ho ho ho and spread it around.
Click this link to watch our video.
Over the months we have been learning new songs, chords, strums and sharing stories about our families and friends and summer vacations. Like any group, our ukulele ‘ohana (which is Hawaiian for family) is a microcosm of communities everywhere. Some of us have gotten sick, our hands hurt, we’ve lost loved ones, we’ve boarded airplanes and travelled to exotic places, we’ve stayed close to home, we’ve remodeled a house, cleaned out the clutter and done our twenty minutes on the treadmill every other day. We’ve laughed a lot and I mean a lot. The miracle is that we have each other and we’re loving this sweet instrument, the ukulele, which makes it possible for almost everyone to play music and be part of a convivial group like ours. Life is too hard to do it alone.
So during this time of year when we celebrate endings and new beginnings, it’s okay to dance on the ashes, sing through the tears, have an extra cookie and jingle some bells.
Happy Holidays to you all!
November 27, 2010 — Alien World of Babies
My mother was an only child, so was my father, and me, that makes three. I don’t know squat about babies, human babies that is. Puppies, yes. But as far as this discussion is concerned, that is moot. My husband Craig, the teacher, who brags that he has 170 children, doesn’t know babies either. (That’s Craig and I to the left).
Growing up in the wilds of northwest Washington D.C., I remember my little girlfriends dressing up their dollies and playing house. I also remember thinking “shoot me now” because that’s the last thing on earth I want to do or play or be. Fortunately today, this contrarian view of motherhood is a bit more acceptable, but believe me I’ve had a bumpy road on the journey of being true to myself.
So now you understand why I haven’t crossed into the alien world of babies, even for a brief visit, but this Thanksgiving was different.
My husband’s best friend, Steve, is part of a big, robust extended family. During those rough and tumble adolescent years, Steve spent many evenings hanging at Craig’s house. And now, all these years later, Craig and I are hanging out with him and Grandma and Grandpa, the aunties and uncles, nephews and nieces and brand new baby Aaron, who is all of three weeks old.
Of course this adorable “creature,” as Grandma calls him, is the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving evening and I find myself fascinated, almost hypnotized, by the baby stories. It’s like watching a tennis game. Here’s mama talking about labor, suddenly the baby makes a noise and we all swing our heads that-a-way. Daddy speaketh of eleven P.M. feedings and we look back at “the creature” resting in his vibrating baby hammock. Yes you read that right. Thanks to the magic of one “D” battery, his whole world feels like the gentle roll of a choo-choo train. “Why the hell don’t they make those things for us,” I ask the new father, who nods in agreement. Sleep deprived and exhausted, both new parents could probably use one right about now. (The photo to the right is Uncle Steve, Mama and baby Aaron).
Somewhere along the baby story trajectory, I learn that daddy bites the teeny-tiny finger nails of his little boy, so they stay short and tidy. You could have knocked me over with an emery board. They hired a “doula” to help them through the process of labor and all the bodily-function stuff that follows, which apparently includes nail care. (That’s daddy and baby, below left).
Well I can’t shake this image so it’s front burner in my mind the next day when I visit Maria, my favorite hair stylist at Fantastic Sam’s. My messy mane of red hair grows almost as fast as bamboo, so Maria and I have gotten to know each other very well over the years.
She is from a big family, eleven sisters, and I figure she knows babies, so I recount the whole “nail biting story” to her. She laughs and tells me how she used to bite the finger nails of her two babies until they were almost a year old. This is what her mother did and her grandmother and so on. Back, back, back…
“What else did you mother do?” I ask. Well, like her mom, when her babies had stomach aches, Maria would rub her own saliva onto their bellies. Thank God I’m sitting down, because like, this is news to me… Now the saliva has to be the “natural kind” which happens before you brush your teeth. Her son is in high school now and reports that when he has a stomach ache, he spits on his hands, rubs the goo on his belly and feels a whole lot better.
I don’t know about you, but I’m going to try it the next time I am in gastric distress.
“What else? I ask. When her kids started teething and were in obvious discomfort, she’d give them a scallion to chew on and that took care of that. After all, why use drugs, over-the-counter or otherwise, when something like saliva and spring onions will do the trick.
And I just put scallions on salad…
I recall my high school biology teacher telling the class that we are biologically irrelevant if we don’t reproduce. I admit that I took that personally. For a long time. Even though biologically speaking, it is a legitimate point of view, I like to think of LIFE as one gigantic gestalt where everyone is doing their little part to keep the human/earth thing moving forward.
As for me, I am thrilled to be invited into the “baby world” for this brief moment in time. I may be watching from the bleachers, but oh what a sweet show.
November 22, 2010 — More on Mentors and Thanksgiving
After I pushed the “send” button on my last blog, “Losing A Mentor,” it didn’t take long for my in-box to fill up with beautiful email responses from you. Oh my goodness, I was really overwhelmed by your heartfelt messages. Thank You.
And I want to share a few excerpts with you:
I was wondering if you have a picture of your mentor that you could share.
Several of you asked about this and I actually laughed out loud because I don’t have a picture. I got nothin’ and it seems ridiculous but here’s the scoop. Miss Laura Hart, who was cute as a button, was not into posing for snapshots nor did she allow her voice to be recorded. In this age where we splatter “everything-about-me” on our Facebook page, her attitude was, shall we say, unusual.
I remember one afternoon when I decided to break the “Laura Hart Rule” and secretly tape our lesson. I don’t know what I was thinking because I’m not CIA material and have never been able to pull off anything “sneaky” without getting caught. But I tried anyway, smuggling a cassette recorder in my big purse and turning it on before she entered the room. But the lesson ran long, the off-button snapped and you could hear the dull “thud” echo back and forth against the walls. Laura knew immediately what I had done and at that moment I thought flying monkeys would crash through the windows and carry me off to purgatory.
Fortunately I promised never never, ever ever to do that again, gave her the cassette, all was forgiven and we moved on, but now that she is gone, I wish I had that tape to listen to. You’ll never know the joyful lilt in her voice or the deep wisdom in her eyes. The footprint she leaves in this world cannot be captured on paper or iPods. It is pressed into the hearts of her students and those who love her.
I have lost many mentors, friends and tormentors over the years! Not an easy part of life.
“Tormentors?” I love that. The people who create the most drama in my life (besides me…ha ha) are the ones who push my hot buttons over and over again. Whether they know it or not, they are jamming a mirror right in my face. Most of the time I push the mirror aside and trudge on, but once in a while I get a hard honest look at myself, which brings us to the next email.
You’ve reminded me that friends come and go in our lives and yet the ones we remember most fondly seem to have involved a complicated relationship.
My husband and I have just discovered the television show “Mad Men,” albeit three years after everyone else. So we have been Netflixing the last three seasons in one long marathon. The characters are very “complicated” and their relationships are a witch’s brew of honey and arsenic. I can see myself in every one of them. Maybe TV shows are easier to look at than mirrors.
Very good reflection on your friend. I too have many, but never thought about it in detail like that. Almost every day I mention “Lew, Mike, Byron, Walt, Bert” and more mentors. Just mentioned them, without thinking. Each one helping me down the road. Didn’t realize how much they meant to me but now I do…
This Thursday is Thanksgiving and many of us will share time and food and conversation with people we love and with people we don’t love, with people who get us and with people we hope we never see again. It’s complicated. We bring the “Lew’s and Mike’s and Laura Hart’s and tormentors, galore” to the table too, because they have helped make us who we are.
In her song “Prayer 2000,” singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson says it this way:
“Thank you for my tears,
loved ones who forgave me.
Thank you for my darkest years,
all the sorrow that made me,
and the beauty that saved me.”
Happy Thanksgiving and Thank You…
November 14, 2010 — Losing A Mentor
She was singing teacher, she was friend, she was “good mother.” She was my mentor for over twenty years. But that is just a number because she was also “seed planter” and I am astonished how these seeds have taken root and pushed to the surface long after she and I parted ways.
Such is the influence of our mentors — the people who guide and cajole, who lovingly point us left as we lean right and strong-arm us right as we lean left. They endeavor to keep us on the path of our own unfoldment. And if they are extraordinary, they will honor our path and not try to push us down theirs.
Her name was Laura Hart and I just found out that she passed away peacefully in her home. She guarded her age like a palace Beefeater protects The Queen so no one knew exactly how old she was at any given time. She didn’t want to be pigeon-holed or categorized according to cultural-bred expectations and I think it was her way of thumbing her nose at the status quo.
Laura was a radical vegetarian long before it was hip and enjoyed hanging out with fellow eccentrics like Gypsy Boots. I remember her unbridled joy as she pried open an enormous tin of jumbo-sized cashews delivered to her front door from some exotic country abroad and scooped out a handful for me. She never wavered from her diet and claimed she could smell people who ate meat.
Because I admired her so and in my youthful naïveté wanted to be like her, I tried to be a vegetarian too. But my recurring dreams of In & Out burgers finally did me in. Even though I sprayed on an extra whoosh of “Charlie” perfume before a lesson, I was pretty sure she could smell that I had fallen off the vegetarian wagon.
She wore polyester stretch pants in pink, yellow or robin egg blue with a matching loose-fitting blouse so she could comfortably work her abdominal muscles as we sang. Her hair was Lucille Ball red and artfully sprayed into a perfect upswept “do” which she decorated with matching bows. I never saw her out of uniform.
When she answered the phone, you could hear a smile in the word “hello” as if she was one hundred percent de-e-e-e-lighted you called. But God forbid you telephone before noon because she stayed up late with her lover and her cashew nuts and soy tempeh and slept in while the rest of us joined the morning circus.
It was serendipitous that I even met Miss Laura Hart in the first place. One mystery person saw me singing at a piano bar and suggested I give her a call. I was insulted because I thought I was doing just fine, thank you, and don’t need no singin’ teacher, but I kept the piece of paper with her name and number anyway. A few months later another mystery person made the same suggestion and slipped me her name written on a cocktail napkin.
Oh what the hell. I called her, set up a lesson and arrived at her doorstep in Sherman Oaks, which is in “The Valley” part of Los Angeles. I played and sang a few songs including ones I had written and she said that she’d like to work with me. I suddenly realized that in fact I had been auditioning for her.
“How long will it take to learn how to sing?” I asked. “Fifteen, twenty years maybe,” she smiled sweetly. I thought she was kidding but in retrospect, I wish it had taken only fifteen years. Then she asked me if I planned to be fat the rest of my life. Like what? I wasn’t fat. Pleasantly plump, maybe. Okay, I was a size 14. Laura Hart was blunt and didn’t mince words. I, on the other hand, went mute. No one had ever talked to me like that before. She took a chance that day because I could have easily bailed right then and there. But I didn’t. A week later I returned and we began our long complicated relationship.
We spent whole lessons analyzing how Frank Sinatra phrases a song and Nat King Cole pronounces every syllable of every word. We listened to Aretha Franklin wail from her chest voice and tried to imitate her sound. We channeled Mae West in order to hit high notes. We stood in front of the mirror and clapped our hands and shook our bottoms to a rock beat, swing, a cha cha cha. She knew music is a body-felt experience and she wanted me to learn this too. Not in my head. In my body.
Laura was from the “talk-singer” school of music. For her, as it is for me, singing is about having a conversation with someone, not singing at them. When we learned a new song, she had me recite the lyric first as if I was speaking to you over a cup of coffee and donuts. She taught me to support my sound from the gut, taking a deep breath and gripping those lower abdominal muscles like a vise. Because I tighten my throat and neck muscles when I get nervous she introduced me to “Herman the Worm,” which I say aloud as I rest my tongue across my lower lip, sounding every bit like Kermit the Frog and slowly I feel the muscles relax.
Indeed she was a master vocal technician, but it was her presence that most informed my life. Laura had been an entertainer in her youth and understood how it feels to be a performer, reminding me that I’m not on stage to impress anyone, but rather express and share what I love. Doing a show, singing, writing…it isn’t about me, it’s about us.
She was a “good mother” too. I needed positive role models in my life like morning glories needs sunshine and she gave me that at the very time I needed it most. I shared my secrets with her. She listened, fed me rice cakes smeared with almond butter and a sprinkle of Spike on top and she didn’t push me away. She loved me back into the world.
She grew me up and that meant that someday I would have to leave. Nothing lasts forever and relationships change. After all those years together, some of her teachings were no longer resonating with me and I wasn’t buying into the whole program. She had brought me onto her path, but the time had come to take what I had learned and forge my own way. We rarely spoke after that. I don’t know why. Maybe we were all talked out.
The last time I saw Laura I had stopped by the house, just on a whim, to say “hello.” By now I was wearing size 4, doing gigs all the time and finally feeling more comfortable in my own skin. Suddenly she is striding towards me, her arms open wide and we embrace as if all the years have disappeared and we are meeting in some otherworldly place that is beyond time and space and joy and pain. It’s a place where all is well, no matter what. The passing decades have left a gentle dusting on her face, the shoulders tilt slightly forward, but her spirit is ageless.
In her long career as a teacher she saw the parade, a revolving door of students who yearned to learn something deeper, almost metaphysical, about singing and acting. Everyday working musicians like me to big Hollywood stars pulled into her driveway and quickly learned that if you enter, you may be transformed. I was one of the few who stayed around long enough for a little magic to happen.
Sky, her husband and lover, sent an email last week saying how proud she was of me and that I was loved. These words, coming from a mentor, are like grabbing the brass ring. These same words coming from “the good mother” are succor that lasts a lifetime.
The only way I can thank her now is to stay true to myself and continue doing what I do. Her essence is imbedded in every note I sing. As for her age, that superfluous numeral we give to the number of spins we take around the sun, my guess is that Miss Laura Hart made it almost a hundred times.
October 14, 2010 — Open Mike Night
This Sunday, October 17, I am doing my “singer-songwriter” thing, as the guest artist at Boulevard Music’s Monthly Variety Night. What exactly does that mean? Well there are eight people who have already signed up to play or sing or do something personal on stage for ten minutes. Because I am the guest artist, I get twenty minutes to do the same thing.
I say “bravo” to those brave souls who wander forth into the spotlight to bare their souls to an audience that is not otherwise distracted by alcohol, food, conversation, smart phones or football on the plasma TV.
I recall seeing a survey that asked average people like you and me about their greatest fears in life. You would think that something like “dying” would top the list. But no-o-o-o. It’s public speaking. I will include public singing in that too. Okay?
Having played open mikes myself and gone catatonic with fear, I know how it feels to want people to like me or at least like what I do. And when that doesn’t happen and I’m on stage by myself and the audience is sending poison darts my way, well my friends, it does feel like dying.
That said, there are riches to be found in the land of “kiss your ass goodbye.” I am happy to report there is life after humiliation.
A few years back I was hired to do two very different performances for the same awards luncheon. To begin the afternoon, I am alone on stage with my synthesizer playing pretty instrumental music. Stuff like “Moon River.”
Soon the hall fills with hundreds of talkative senior citizens who have trouble hearing each other anyway so they talk louder and the room gets noisier. The person in charge asks me to turn down the music, which I do until I can barely hear it myself. By now I have put my fingers on auto-pilot and am just hoping for the best. But people are still holding their hands over their ears and glaring at me. This is not a good sign.
A man, who has a strong resemblance to a pissed-off gargoyle, marches right up to the stage and orders me, orders me to “stop da noise. Stop da noise!” Before returning to his table, he turns around and glowers with his beady little eyes. Is he hoping I will vaporize right then and there and suddenly there will be silence?
The room is noisy because there are four hundred people talking at the same time but I guess there are occasions when blaming the piano player is the path of least resistance.
So after an hour, per the contract, I “stop da noise” and slide out of the convention hall, past the salad carts and disgruntled folks who are looking mighty relieved to see me go. I head straight for my sanctuary, the ladies room, where I ensconce myself within the sacred walls of stall number one.
I just breathe. In and out, in and out because I know my job is not done. After the awards are handed out I am back on stage doing my “Let’s-Whoop-It-Up” Show for these very same people.
Slowly they begin to respond and clap and sing along. Well about half of them do. The rest are carrying on full-throated conversations across the big round tables. I’m not proud to admit that at this point I crank up the volume just to see if anyone in the audience will explode.
Finally I sing my last song, congratulate the award winners and much to my surprise, a phalanx of people gather in front of the stage, asking for business cards and telling me how fabulous I am.
One moment I suck, the next moment I don’t. That afternoon was a turning point for me because I really got that blame and praise are two sides of the same coin and moving targets at that. I can figure that at any given moment some of my audience like what I do, some don’t, some could care less and alas these opinions can change like the weather. Of course I prefer praise to blame, but both are rather tenuous and built on the shifting sands of personal opinion and preferences and points of view. Here today, gone tomorrow…
Ultimately my job as a musician is to share what I love and the rest is none of my business. Well in a perfect world, maybe. But in the face of rejection or “dying” on stage, it takes tremendous courage for all of us to be true to ourselves, moment to moment, to be who we really are and let the chips fall where they will fall.
But on the other hand, we don’t exist in a vacuum either. We are connected to each other in big inexplicable ways and our behavior is contagious.
I have no answers. A dear friend reminds me that “life is a mystery to be lived, not solved.”
So let’s sing…
Variety Night is Sunday, October 17, 2010 from 8:00 to 10:00 P.M. My set begins at 8:30. Boulevard Music is located at 4316 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230, which is near the corner of Culver and Sepulveda Blvds. (310) 398-2583. Tickets are $4.00 No reservations necessary, just show up. There is street parking, coffee shops and restaurants nearby. I look forward to seeing you.
October 9, 2010 — All In A Name
It all began in May when a gaggle of eager senior citizens gathered for our very first Ukulele for Beginners Class at the Culver City Senior Center. We introduced ourselves and our ukuleles, went over the body parts (of our ukuleles of course), learned to hold our little puppies close to our hearts and played our first song, “Row Row Row Your Boat,” because it has only one chord and alas you can strum all four strings of the uke without doing anything with your left hand and it sounds so sweet. We got our first taste of “uke joy” that very day.
The class was supposed to last only two months, but it became apparent, almost from the get-go, that we couldn’t stop ourselves. We were having too much fun.
So what do we call ourselves now that we are an official group? In the spirit of simplicity and a sense of place, we agreed on the CC Strummers. Of course the “CC” stands for Culver City but our resourceful group did not stop there. The first key we learned to play in was “C.” In fact all you need is one finger to form a “C” chord and we like it so much we’ll do it again. CC that!
We also agreed that “CC” stands for Cute and Cuddly. Maybe we are talking about our ukuleles and maybe we are talking about ourselves. Or maybe it’s “C.” All the above.
Because now you can see and hear us on our brand new music video which we have posted on YouTube.
In just a few months we have gone from Rowing our Boat to playing and singing Nat King Cole’s jazz classic, “L-O-V-E.” In fact the title of our music video is “CC Strummers Do L-O-V-E,” which I thought was particularly catchy.
I set up our own account on YouTube and was stunned that in all the world, from New Zealand to New York, no one had snagged the name “CC Strummers.” So I did! It’s especially fortuitous when the YouTube channel name is actually who we are!
I posted our video last Monday and by the time we met Thursday for class, it had already gotten 75 views! Ray, who always takes his front row seat, confessed he had logged on 10 times. Lou reported that his family members declared he is a virtuoso! And so it goes.
This class is about having fun AND learning to play an instrument AND making music together. In the words of the great teacher, Shirley Orlando, of Island Bazaar, learning to play the ukulele is “hit and miss.” We hit a few chords, we miss a few chords and whatever happens is okay. The important thing is that we are here together, at this moment, in this place, practicing joy.
September 27, 2010 — Row Row Row Your Boat
“What is reality, anyway?
Just a collective hunch.” Lily Tomlin (from “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe”)
When my friend is away on vacation, I step in to do music therapy with her client, a woman with Alzheimer’s disease. I sing for groups of people with dementia but working one-on-one with a person who has lost the story of her life, well that is a whole different experience. It is personal and intimate and I’m learning to swim with her, in her ocean, not mine.
Many times, I have witnessed how music and rhythm can open a window to memories and emotions. This process is deep and mysterious and primordial. The chattering mind has nothing to do with it. Sure the effect is temporary. But everything is temporary.
News Flash! We’re all just passing through.
So twice a week I visit “Jane” in her high-rise apartment for our hour of singing and tapping and clapping along. Her caregiver helps her onto a cushy chair then reaches for the small box of make-up and jewelry behind the dining room table where we are sitting and carefully applies lipstick and blush to Jane’s face. Not that Jane needs much help. This woman, who is ninety-something, is stunningly beautiful. Her wedding picture, a snapshot in time of the ebullient couple beginning their long life together, sits on the bookcase behind her. My guess is that Jane always took pride in her appearance and why should that change now?
As the caregiver drapes a long strand of green beads around her neck, sets out a glass of cranberry juice along with a tambourine, I perch my mini-keyboard on the table. My fluke ukulele, with its flat bottom, sits within easy reach next to a vase of freshly cut flowers.
We begin with a big hug! I wrap my arms around her until she takes a deep breath, a kind of heave-ho. We do several “hug” breaks like this throughout the hour and I seriously believe that these touchy-touchy moments are as healing as the music. They certainly are for me. I am filled up by her hugs. For a brief moment she becomes the grandmother I didn’t have.
I sit as close to her as possible so my tapping foot rests on her foot or against her chair because I want her to feel the rhythm in her body. We human beings are drums after all. Our hearts “buh-buh” away. It never ceases to amaze me how something as basic the “thud thud thud” of a percussive instrument can transport us–body, mind and heart–to some ancient and quiet place inside.
Sometimes Jane is so submerged in her world that she doesn’t speak or sing, but she will lightly tap the tambourine. On rare occasions she can’t even do that, so I keep a keyboard base line going with my left hand and hold her hand with my right and together we move to the music. I trust life and I trust the body and I trust that something is registering with Jane even when she doesn’t show it.
Then there are times she suddenly “appears” and literally bursts out singing. I swear they can hear her down to the busy street below. She finishes a song with a rousing high note, takes a deep breath and sings the note again. “Row Row Row Your Boat” is one of her favorites. Actually she doesn’t really sing the official words to any song but rather belts out a chorus of nonsense syllables punctuated by a real word or phrase here and there. And this is good enough. One day she may respond to the keyboard and a few days later, the ukulele will lead her out of the fog and back to the present. Her excitement is self-generated and we sing a song over and over and over again. When we finish, her smile lights the room. “That was a good one,” she says. I applaud like a happy child and hold her hand.
But mostly her sentences make no sense at all. At least to me. In the beginning, I would soldier on anyway, grabbing a real word like “house,” from the gibberish, and ask her something like “did you live there?” Well that didn’t work. Now when she talks I just smile big and say “yes.” That’s all. “Yes, yes, yes!”
I can’t begin to know what’s happening in her head, but I know how “yes” feels to me and I hope that my saying “yes” means that I’m bearing witness to her experience at this very moment, without an agenda to change or fix anything.
And who is to say that her experience is any less real than mine anyway. Perhaps the difference is that she alone inhabits her world, along with the images and thoughts that are conjured up in her consciousness.
But I share my world, my so-called reality, with millions of others. We have agreed to call “a toaster a toaster.” But does that make it real, or true? There was a time everyone agreed the earth was flat. We know how that turned out.
So working with Jane helps me feel a little more comfortable with the whole mystery of it all. The threads of her past are disappearing—the people she loved and lost, the places she called home, the events big and small that brought her joy or scared the hell out of her—going, going, gone.
But something remains and I can feel it when I see her beautiful face and I can feel it when we hug and I can even feel it when she is completely lost in the disease. It’s a gossamer presence, a song that is Jane’s and Jane’s alone. And I trust that this is what we really are.
September 18, 2010 — The Wine Country Ukulele Festival — Being There
It’s a big word with too many syllables, but “egalitarian” is what the ukulele community is all about. There is no rigid hierarchy between the headliners—the virtuoso players and performers—and the rest of us. We wear jeans and love the ukulele. I feel this connection in the virtual world of the internet where we hook up with each other on ukulele bulletin boards and social networks. But at the Wine Country Ukulele Festival in St. Helena, California, the virtual world meets brick and mortar reality!
Moments after my husband and I arrive Saturday morning at Beringer’s Vineyard Winery, folks are nodding “hello” and calling us by name. I’m thinking “who are you, nice person?” Oh-oh, you are a Facebook friend? A YouTube friend? This festival is the intersection between modern technology and a neighborhood block party. Finally I begin putting names and faces together and it’s like meeting old friends again. For the first time.
And so it goes throughout the day.
But first I get to do my thing on the Promenade Stage. Only a couple days before my friend “The Dominator” invites me to play backup with him during his set. Please don’t get the wrong idea about a man who calls himself “Dominator.” It’s not what you think. Dominic is a monster player who posts miles and miles of tablature arrangements online, for free, so others can play his stuff too.
The night before our performance, we meet in his room at the ol’ Calistoga Village Inn and jam on the songs I will be playing. Now here is the thing: I have worked as a solo artist my whole life, because that’s just the way it happened, so rarely do I have the opportunity to play with other musicians, and when I do, it’s like I’m rolling in chocolate because it’s just too yummy.
His songs are new and unfamiliar to me and I have to think and play in ways that stretch me as a musician. As I recall, it is the great Russian composer Rachmaninoff who said that music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music. There is always something new to learn, no matter what we do, and working in collaboration with others is “the ukulele way.”
In the picture to the right, Dom and I are playing the fun Hawaiian song “Opihi Man,” along with two mystery hotties (in the black teeshirts) from Santa Cruz. Opihi, a saltwater snail, is a rare and expensive delicacy in Hawaii. It takes a brave man, with a sharp knife and uncanny balance, to pry them off the rocks before the next wave slams to shore. It’s dangerous work and that’s why we don’t find opihi at Trader Joe’s.
Of course my husband and I bring the video camera, along with bottles of water, business cards and bags of almonds, but I forget to pack the tripod, which is why the YouTube videos I posted from my set look a little shaky. Craig has to hold ‘er steady for thirty minutes. Hey folks, this is life, unedited. You can check out my songs “It’s Easy To Play The Ukulele” and the theme from The Andy Griffith Show “The Fishing Hole” on YouTube.
Let it be known that we are a Two-Ukulele family and Craig gets his turn later on. He is a hugely talented musician, playing jazz and lush chord melodies. Not the kind of stuff one expects to hear on the uke. Our styles are as different as opihi and giraffes, which is why, in order to preserve our marriage, we don’t play together. That said, this summer, after years together, we finally put our artistic differences aside long enough to work on one arrangement together. Oh my God, are we finally growing up?
So after lunch, we get cozy in a quiet gazebo away from the action and begin to play that one song, “Watch What Happens.” By the time we finish, an enthusiastic circle of people has gathered around us, smiling and applauding our efforts. The moment is heartwarming and especially nice because Craig and I get to share it together.
At the end of the day, we’re hot, tired and goofy gleeful, as we head back to the Calistoga Village Inn where we discover it is teeming with ukulele players and they have formed a spontaneous group jam out back by the mineral pools. There is the sassy contingent from Island Bazaar in Huntington Beach and a raft of Northern California players. As more and more join in, we pull up extra chairs and chaise lounges. Some of us perch precariously close to the edge of the pools or just decide to ditch the uke and soak instead. The air is warm and sweet, the stars are big enough to snatch from the sky and it’s one lovely moment after another.
Just then, Dominic’s wife, Joanne, flies through the gate, wearing a bathing suit and the big fluffy towel over her arm that she picked up at the front desk for her dunk in the mineral pool.
“You won’t believe what the desk clerk just told me?”
“What? What did he say?” Whooee, this is getting exciting…
He said, “You k-n-o-w what they’re d-o-i-n-g back there, don’t you?”
Apparently she doesn’t look like she is one of us and he feels compelled to warn her, or at least prepare her for the shock of seeing a small village of musicians singing and playing the ukulele version of “She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain.”
We all enjoy a good laugh over that one but nevertheless there is something telling in the clerk’s remarks. Though perspectives are changing, the ukulele is still seen by many as something you buy at “Toys ‘R Us” and those who play are relegated to the bell curve of “wack-a-doo.” But that’s not my experience at all and while we’re at it, ask financial wizard and longtime ukulele aficionado Warren Buffet to strum a tune for you…because he can.
Playing the uke is not so much about ego (I mean, come on—the thing looks like a puppy) but rather expressing the joy of being with one another and making music together, one song at a time.
September 14, 2010 — The Wine Country Ukulele Festival — Getting There
Where do I begin? Our trip to the Wine Country Ukulele Festival is a whirlwind of sights — vast stretches of exquisitely trimmed vineyards that wind through the bucolic Napa Valley of California and up up up the mountainsides. And sounds — dulcet tones arising from every nook and cranny where hundreds of people with ukuleles gather under trees, on lawns, benches and in gazebos, workshops and performances, in groups of one to several dozen. This is what “joy” sounds like.
And big surprises too!
So many that it will take another blog to share all the goodies. But let it be said, ukulele players are the sweetest people in the world and I’m not kidding when I tell you there is a global community that embraces this instrument and we are enormously supportive of each other, no matter where we live or how well we play.
Craig and I leave a couple days early because last Thursday was our wedding anniversary and why not celebrate by driving Interstate 5 through the San Joaquin Valley. I’ve heard people liken this excursion to a slow death by roasting, but we stop at the clean travel centers, buy chips and soda and are delighted by the cashier near the cutoff to Bakersfield who invites us back on Sunday afternoon to see “the famous country singer” who will be performing by the fish and tackle department. We have never heard of this singer but then again we don’t live in Bakersfield.
We arrive at the Calistoga Village Inn late in the afternoon. You have to know that Napa Valley is the high rent district but this place is off the beaten path and kind of creaky. I prefer “funky” and altogether charming. And affordable. We love it. They have three geothermal mineral pools in the back. One is warm, one is warmer and the last one, well throw some veggies in and a chicken or two and you’ll have soup in about ten minutes…
We need to scope out a nice restaurant for our anniversary dinner and what better place to learn the lay of the land than at the two-room Calistoga Public Library where the librarian introduces us to Jack, the man who knows everything about everything in town. He rises from his chair, looking every bit like an elderly Big Bird, towering over my 6’3” husband. He has a big generous smile and gives us the rundown on the restaurants, who owns them, what kind of food they serve, what’s good, what’s not. Then he invites us to his house on Saturday night for his monthly mystery evening party that he gives for neighbors and friends.
“But Jack, you don’t even know us,” I sputter.
“Well you’re not carrying an axe are you, so I think you’re okay.” We decide then and there that Calistoga people are really cool.
Craig has a way of smelling out the local breakfast hangouts and he finds Cafe Sarafornia the next morning. Our waitress, the one with the thick chestnut-brown braid that swings over her butt, tells us about her five acre ranch nearby where she grows grapes and how the neighbors all pitch in and help each other through harvest and grape crushing and how it’s really hard for her to go to Santa Rosa because, oh my, it’s just too big. At 165,000 people, Santa Rosa is the largest city in Wine Country.
I live in Los Angeles. The local shopping mall here in Culver City is probably the size of Santa Rosa (okay I’m exaggerating a little), but I’ve lived in a small town too and I get what she is saying. I remember the “stillness” in the land and the air and the trees. It’s quiet enough to remember the mystery and wonder of it all. Sure the same stillness is everywhere, including Los Angeles, but let’s face it, the noise and all the whoopee-doo stuff, that’s what grabs my attention these days in the big city. Visiting places like Napa Valley helps me remember, again, what stars feel like when I look into the sky.
The next morning, another waitress at Café Sarafornia shows us the picture on her cellphone where she is standing next to the breakfast menu posted on the café wall. It’s written in Japanese. Like, huh?
Well do you remember the movie “Sideways”? It came out a few years ago and is the story of a couple guys who take a road trip to the Santa Inez Valley in search of wine and women and of course things don’t turn out the way they’re supposed to. Last year, big boys with money decide to remake the movie in Japanese with Japanese actors. They film in Napa Valley and the female lead plays a waitress at…drum roll…Café Serafornia. Our waitress, Sally, who lets us in before the café opens so we can have a cup of coffee, plays an extra in the movie. Basically she portrays herself, serving dishes of eggs and hash browns to actor-customers, take after take after take. Apparently the movie was a blockbuster back home. Now Japanese tourists stop by Cafe Serafornia for pictures and ask Sally for her autograph.
You never know in this world.
Coming next: If you’re going to do a ukulele festival, do it at the beautiful Beringer’s Vineyard Winery in St. Helena
September 4, 2010 — The Wine Country Ukulele Festival
Next week we’re off to the vineyards in Northern California for the annual Wine Country Ukulele Festival, Saturday, September 11 through Sunday, September 12. The Promenade Stage will be “ukulele central” for a galaxy of performers who will entertain both days. I snagged the early bird slot: Saturday at 11:15 A.M.
This is pretty darned exciting. I’ve entertained in many different places–behind a hedge, standing on a table, in the middle of a parking lot and a meadow, on big stages and small, in a kitchen, restaurant booth and the crammed waiting area at Nate and Al’s Deli in Beverly Hills. But I’ve never played at a ukulele festival. So whooo-whooo!
The whole extravaganza takes place at the Beringer Vineyards Winery in St. Helena. It doesn’t occur to me to use the words “wine” and “ukulele” in the same sentence, but apparently it will be a very “joyful” event and I figure people will be so pleasantly buzzed that I could stand on the stage with a grass skirt, coconut bra and sing “Stairway to Heaven” and we’d all be happy.
Beautiful Northern California was my home for two years. I went to Humboldt State University, behind the redwood curtain, a few miles north of Eureka.
Speaking of Eureka, let’s put it this way, the number one cash crop in Humboldt County is NOT tourism. Apparently they grow the best marijuana in the universe in those damp misty hills. Not that I would know. Actually I didn’t find out until years later, long after I graduated. Yes I missed the whole party. I often wondered how some students seemed to handle the stresses of college life with such grace. I ate cake, put on thirty pounds and yelled at people who yanked my clothes out of the dryer before they were done. My dorm mates took long walks through the redwood forests and returned with big smiles on their faces. And I thought they were just having sex…
I did get drunk. Once. It happened at the house of my La Raza History professor. He threw an end-of-the-semester party for his students. On a large ornate table were plates of delicious homemade guacamole, chips and a huge bowl of frothy Sangria wine with various fruity things floating on the surface. The concoction tasted like fancy Hawaiian Punch so I helped myself at the trough. Several times. The last thing I remember is smearing guacamole across the front of my white sweater because apparently I could not locate my mouth.
It’s a short drive on the interstate from his home in Eureka to the campus and I would say one of the luckiest breaks in my life is that my drunk girlfriend and I made it back without killing someone or ourselves or getting hauled off to jail.
However I did want to die the next morning.
Somehow I managed to drag my body up the slippery wet steps to La Raza class. Everything looked kind of gray and tasted like wine and smelled like an old bar. Oh, that’s me. The prof asked if I was okay and made some allusion to “the guacamole thing.” There were a few chuckles in the room.
I decided then and there that drinking is not for me.
Ironically, I learned how to be a good entertainer singing in bars, piano bars, and often customers offered to buy me drinks. I’d smile sweetly and ask for cranberry juice. “You’re no fun,” they’d say.
So those wine tasting tables at the big ukulele festival will be wasted on me. This time it’s all about the music!
August 23, 2010 — No Bugs M’Lady
One more tale from the North Shore…
Grace, the bass player, picks us up in her jeep en route to the music jam near Ha’ena, along the gorgeous road that dead ends at the majestic Na Pali coast on the north shore of Kaua’i.
We’re heading to Dave’s house and thankfully Grace is driving because we’d never find his place on our own as it’s located on a blind curve and partially obscured by curtains of tropical vegetation.
“Oh, a spider house,” I purr. That’s my nickname for a home that is built on stilts. In fact Dave’s house doesn’t start until the second floor, but he’s turned the covered ground level into the band rehearsal plaza, complete with speakers, amplifier, comfy chairs and a communal music stand.
It’s lush, jungle-like and damp in these parts, but not as soppy as Mount Wai’ale’ale, the volcano a few ridges over that is the wettest spot on earth.
“How long does your equipment last in this weather,” I ask Dave.
“About three years.” But that’s only half the story. Apparently geckos are attracted to amplifiers too. It’s not the music. Amps are toasty and an appealing hideaway for love-making. Dave has pried open a crackly amp only to find two geckos, fried and preserved in their final love tryst. The only gecko I know is in the Geico Insurance commercials and I’m pretty sure that little guy is neutered…
Both my husband and I are strumming our ukuleles, Dave plays a tiple, which looks like a small guitar but is tuned like a uke and sounds festive and sparkly. Bruce adds his excellent lead guitar and petite Grace is playing the big electric bass. We jam our way through their songbook of 60’s rock which includes a bounty of Bob Dylan and Elvis tunes.
Everybody stops as Dave quickly sets down his tiple and runs in front of me towards the biggest mo-fo bug I have ever seen in my life. I hear the word “centipede” and think of a cuddly caterpillar, butterfly-bound, but apparently that is not how things work around here. In the jungle. This bug is about 8 inches long, pudgy-thick and from my vantage point, looks like it has a thousand legs as it scurries across the cement floor towards my husband.
Dave is a big man with big feet and he stomps the thing over and over again. I’m speechless. At home, I’m the one who captures each bee that flies into our condo through the open screen door. I trap it against the wall with a Dixie cup, cover the opening with an index card and release it back into the wilds of Culver City. Furthermore, my idea of “doing jungle” is running my hand over the bamboo cutting boards at Bed Bath and Beyond.
After the initial stomping, the centipede is only momentarily stunned so Dave grabs a kayak paddle off the wall and begins whacking the hell out of it some more.
“You can’t kill them. Cut them up into little pieces and they’re still alive,” Grace calmly chimes in as Dave scoops up the squirming remains and dumps it in the backyard, which is basically the beach.
“Are they like, poisonous?” I ask, once I find my voice again.
“If one bites you, you won’t die, but you’ll wish you were dead because it hurts so damned bad,” Bruce laughs.
Dave soon returns, picks up his tiple and we play “Love Me Tender.”
August 18, 2010 — Hunting Wild Boar On Kaua’i
There is big mojo on the north shore of Kaua’i, which is why my husband and I return again and again. You can see a thousand shades of green in the trees and taro fields. Just count them.
The island-fresh air is a healing balm as I breathe in and out. In the summertime, Hanalei Bay, an undulating palette of turquoise and azure, is calm and warm. After it rains, waterfalls appear like silver ribbons unfurling down the tall mountains that wrap around Hanalei Valley.
And of course, there are the people of the north shore. We stay at Beach Bums Bungalow, a lovely studio apartment built over the garage that belongs to Jill & Steve Landis who are transplants from Long Beach, California. She is a teacher turned successful romance novelist and is so cute you want to pinch her cheek. Steve is a teacher turned actor, slack-key guitar player and is one buff “sixty-something” who just won First Prize with his paddling team of “older fellas” beating out the favorites from O’ahu and the Big Island in the State Championship Race.
They have a giant avocado tree in their backyard that produces fruit the size of a small chicken. We did our food shopping at the Big Save in Hanalei’s Ching Young Village and a bag of tortilla chips took us through several big bowls of homemade guacamole. Did I mention the papayas that I snagged at the local Farmers Market? Four beauties for five bucks and they are fresh off the tree. Are you tasting the sweetness. Just a little?
Over the years Jill and Steve have welcomed us into their Kaua’i family of friends and that’s how we met Uncle Pat and Auntie Bev.
Pat and Bev have been married forever and live with their extended family in an area on the island that is reserved for native Hawaiians. In this economy, especially, they are struggling, so on weekends, Pat, his friends and the hunting dogs head off to some secret wilderness on the island and hunt wild boar. I’m such a city girl. My idea of hunting is catching the early shift at Trader Joes. As Pat describes a recent hunt, it’s like I’m watching a National Geographic special on cable. He mentions the words, “juggler vein,” several times and informs us that his dogs have GPS hooked onto their collars just in case the boar drags them off into the jungle, which apparently happened last week.
“Wild boars are very healthy and delicious. If they get sick, they know what plants to eat to get well. They eat stones too.” Bev adds.
“Stones! They eat stones???” Suddenly a childhood memory tumbles out of my mouth:
“Oh my God, I used to eat paper bags!” Everyone looks at me like I’m fricking nuts. Which of course I am.
“Yeah, when I was little. I helped my mom carry the grocery bags from the market and nibbled at the serrated tops on the way home. I wonder what disease I was staving off. Maybe family dysfunction. Is that a disease?”
They had no answer.
Pat did three tours in Viet Nam and hasn’t worked since. He’s a walking medical miracle, lifting his shirt and proudly showing off his battle scars. His chest and belly look like a road construction zone and imbedded near his right shoulder are a pacemaker AND a defibrillator which fires if his pulse goes over 138 beats per minute, which apparently happens often (I mean considering hunting boar and all that). When it does happens someone yells “Pat is down” and administers nitroglycerin.
When we walked into the backyard, I put my arms around his waist and said “Pat you are SO tall!” “No you are short,” he laughed. We’re both right.
He was 6’8” until the auto accident when their car was smashed by a tour bus in front of the famous Coco Palms (yes, where Elvis filmed ‘Blue Hawaii’), and he lost 2 inches after the spine operations. But he’s like the Ever-Ready Bunny, plugging along, and I like him very much.
Bev, who comes from a family of famous Hawaiian musicians and songwriters, carries on the local traditions and indigenous music. On the island of Kaua’i, she teaches hula and music in classes that include mostly non-Hawaiians now. Beverly also sings with that exquisite Hawaiian falsetto style and plays the ukulele with extraordinary skill. Over the years, I’ve watched her perform and tried to figure out what the hell she is doing on the uke. Well this time, I bought a lesson with the master herself and that’s when she and Pat showed up at the “Tiki Lounge” (also known as the carport at Beach Bums Bungalow).
As Bev and I played through several songs together, she unraveled the mysteries of her island strums. I will not forget her joyous laugh and warm generosity of spirit. I feel like a musical archeologist, mining for strands of technique that have grown indigenous in Kaua’i and are new discoveries for me.
As a musician, I bring “my story” to each performance. That includes my big-city-girl aesthetic, my connections with family and friends, what I value and don’t. It all plays out in my music and now I can add a little bit of Kaua’i to the mix. I will never play like Bev, but what is important is to be true to who I am.
Isn’t that the work of a lifetime? To finally feel comfortable in our own skin?
August 14, 2010 — We Didn’t Crash!
For me, vacation starts the moment the taxi arrives to take us to the airport and doesn’t end until another taxi delivers us back to our front door. It helps that we fly Hawaiian Airlines. With their lilac/pink-lit interiors, luau music piped through the speakers, wahine flight attendants who wear big flowers in their hair and the sweet aroma of plumeria wafting through the cabin, we’re already falling under the spell of aloha. Our flight to Honolulu is sublime.
That said vacations don’t always go as planned, in fact they rarely do. We never know what will happen next, really, whether we stick to the same square mile of “home” or venture forth.
I guess dem big airplanes are like airborne buses these days, roaring along the gigantic freeways in the sky. We take Flight “HA1” from LAX to Honolulu, which immediately is relieved of its passengers and cargo, then restocked, reloaded and gussied up for the return flight. Ah the circle of life, at least in the airline-industry world. The engines barely stop whizzing before new passengers buckle in and prepare for the flight, now called “HA2,” back to Los Angeles.
So we expect to see our beautiful airplane at the gate waiting for us when we arrive at the airport in Honolulu, refreshed from our vacation and ready (almost) to go home. Instead, there is a big sad empty space and a flashing sign that indicates the incoming flight has been delayed a couple hours so our flight back to LA is also delayed. I ask the nice lady at the desk “is there a problem with the plane?” Her response includes these words: “something mechanical.” Do you wonder what that means? I wonder what that means.
But right on time, two hours late, the plane arrives from its first leg. My fellow passengers applaud and I soon forget (or go into denial) about this mechanical stuff even though I press my face against the big window peering eye-level into the cockpit where a mechanic is poking around. I watch the captain do a walk-about on the tarmac, checking the tires, perusing the engines, but we are soon buckled into our seats and I’m doing my usual ritual of memorizing where the nearest exit is.
At the airport in Honolulu, the plane taxies for what feels like forever, as if it’s on a scenic tour, past rivers and golf courses. My husband comments “are we driving home?” Finally it’s our turn to take off.
But you know something is wrong when the plane should be moving and it’s not. Like isn’t it time for him to put the pedal to the metal? What we hear instead is the crackle of the intercom and the captain reporting there is a warning light and he’d rather be safe than sorry so we’re going back to the terminal. That’s when he makes a sharp U-Turn, big-plane style, on a teeny-weeny circular road, right off the runway. I bet the captain can parallel park an eighteen-wheel semi too.
We fidget in our seats as the mechanics in their elevator trucks surround the plane and the flight attendants move quickly, very quickly, through the cabin. We learn later that this “warning light” business probably caused the initial delay out of Los Angeles and the captain is having no part of it again.
All this waiting makes people want to go to the bathroom. Have you noticed? And the lines get longer in front of the lavatories. But soon we are solemnly filing out of the airplane and returning to Gate 27, The Holding Pen, as a sweet-faced Hawaiian Airlines manager updates us every few minutes over the intercom. I’m happy to say that my fellow travelers are pretty well-behaved, albeit concerned and frustrated. Finally we are told a new plane is ready, but a fresh crew won’t arrive for five hours. The dinner vouchers help soothe us, although a palpable groan fills the hall when it is reported the $15 gift certificate will not cover alcoholic beverages.
My husband and I become intimately acquainted with the bustling food court at the airport. I love freebies and am embracing this whole thing as a grand adventure (after all, we are still on vacation). This sort of equanimity is not always my default, but we have just spent over a week on Kaua’i and that will change your attitude or else your innards are made of cardboard.
Later the staff of Hawaiian Airlines offers us more apologies, water, juice and $200 travel vouchers per passenger. The weary travelers break into spontaneous applause as the three-man cockpit crew rolls in an hour before take-off. By then our disparate group of some 250 people has already bonded in mysterious ways, after all, we have been hanging together for several hours now. Strangers talk and laugh together, others stretch out on the floor, as if they are home and don’t care who sees their ass hanging out of their shorts. The younger ones plug their assorted techno toys into the wall sockets, creating small Wi-Fi enclaves.
When the plane actually lifts into the air, we applaud again. Later the captain announces that those with a window seat can view the Perseid meteor shower tonight. That would be me! I set up my own dark-out curtain with the blanket wrapped around the window as I watch shooting stars streak across the black sky. The best way to view this annual event is to get out of the city. Talk about good timing…
By 7:00 A.M. my husband and I are watching the dazzling array of bags drop onto Carousel #1 at LAX and we are hopeful ours will soon appear too, just as the baggage manager had promised back in Honolulu, but a woman standing to my left groans on. Her nasally voice sounds like she does helium inhalers.
“I better get my bag. I can’t stand it if something else goes wrong. I mean nothing has gone right with this flight.”
Yes we’re all exhausted, haven’t slept for over 24 hours and are pissed off because our plans are shredded like confetti and some people have missed connecting flights, but let’s look at the big picture here…
“Hey our plane didn’t frickin’ crash and I would say that’s a good thing.” My retort is oozing passive-aggressive niceness. She nods in agreement and without missing a beat, continues to bitch until her suitcase slides down the chute.
Here’s the way I see it. These aircraft have millions of parts that have to work together “just so” and stuff wears out, wires short circuit, spark plugs fizzle and frankly it’s a long way down from 38,000 feet. This time I’m damned grateful our pilot erred on the side of caution. We arrived safely, so did our luggage and with those nifty travel vouchers in hand, my husband and I are already planning our next trip to the land of aloha.
July 28, 2010 — Variety, Vaudeville & Va-Va-Va Voom
Forget the “June Gloom” in July, it’s been quite an exciting month for me in my famously bifurcated career. Besides entertaining my beloved senior citizens and teaching a ukulele class for beginners, I put on my “singer-songwriter-hat” and did three concerts du jour.
It was all ukulele and fun at Island Bazaar in Huntington Beach where I was part of their first ever Ukulele Variety Show. Folks, it was a sell-out (and then some) which is why the powers-that-be had fingers crossed the fire department wouldn’t show up. Variety means there’s a little something for everybody. Maybe vaudeville is back! Don’t believe me? Just spend an hour on YouTube…
Gary Mandell’s extra fine Boulevard Music Summer Festival in Culver City hosted another cavalcade of acoustic acts, ten minutes at a time and it was a blast to be the only chick uke player. Folks in the audience set up tents, lounge chairs, laid towels on the grass and with their coolers of food and exciting drink enjoyed a whole afternoon of music. There were enough eclectic acts to sate the senses. Despair not; acoustic music is alive and well. (Check out accousticmusic.com)
But for every yin, there’s a yang and this July, I was “yanging” at The Kahnmanpalooza Comedy Show in Long Beach. Yes variety reigned supreme here too. The guys sang about boobs, butts and relationship issues (which involve boobs and butts). I was the only girl in this land of “mook” humor and opened the show with my rather tame (in comparison) set of humorous originals. One might wonder why I was even there since my stuff is relatively PG, but apparently several of my goofy songs are played in these comedy circles, which is news to me.
But I found out.
Take “Dino-Mike,” a tousled-haired cutie-pie in ragged jeans who followed my set with a song about a particular body function issue: Apparently he (or someone very much like him) can’t pee in the men’s room when someone else is in there too. The next day, when we “friended” each other on Facebook, I told him this has happened to me (in the ladies room, that is). It’s nice to know I’m not the only one! What a relief. (No pun). Then this adorable twenty-something said he’s been listening to my comedy album (“Cali Rose Gets Goofy”) for years. YEARS! And knew every word to “It’s A P.M.S. Kind of Day.” Did I see him singing along at the show?
But my husband captured this very performance on video, which I posted on “You-Vaudeville-Tube” so you can sing along too, just like Dino-Mike. Bet you’ve been waiting all day to do that.
Thank you for supporting my work and live music everywhere, after all, variety IS the spice of life.
July 5, 2010 — South Pacific
The husband and I had a wingding of a fight a couple days ago. It happens. Or it better happen because I don’t think it’s possible to live with someone without a “blow-up” now and then. If you don’t agree with me, well, how are things going for you in fantasyland?
So, I need to get the hell out of the house and why not spend the afternoon at the theater by myself, alone, with two thousand other people. I end up downtown, at the Ahmanson, for the matinee performance of “South Pacific.” Eventually I locate the ticket booth and cross my fingers. Yes there is a Hot Tix for one and I gleefully shove a crisp twenty-dollar bill through the slot in the glass window. I’m in!
It’s a long show so I do a quick pit stop before climbing the stairs to the next level where I show my ticket to the usher. He points upward to another set of stairs. “Oh, okay,” I chirp. The baby-faced usher at the top directs me still higher. “Oh-oh, more stairs?” Apparently my seat is located halfway to heaven. Back row, center, to be exact.
That’s what binoculars are for. Ever prepared, I am carrying my father’s old Bushnell’s. Good enough for planets, good enough for “stars.” Fortunately my view of the stage (the very little stage from this altitude) is unobstructed by heads or big hair or hats. My husband and I are really busy and we don’t make time to go to the movies or, dare I say, the theater or concerts, so this is an extraordinary event for me, from any view.
When the orchestra begins the overture, that magnificent Rodgers and Hammerstein score — Bali Ha’i, Some Enchanted Evening, Younger Than Springtime, Happy Talk, This Nearly Was Mine, I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair, There Is Nothing Like a Dame — I get all teary and don’t stop dripping for the next three hours.
I grew up on this kind of music and can feel the cells in my body open like buttercups open to the sun. It’s funny… Even though I am a professional musician, sometimes I forget the power of music in my own life. But here I am and here it is, resonating as if this building is a great big drum and I forget where the chair ends and my body begins.
From the pit musicians and the sign language guy and gal who act out the entire libretto perched on their stools near the stage to the jaw-dropping performances, I know how lucky I am to be here, breathing the same air as these talented people who have put in their 10,000 hours or so of practice and rehearsal and sweat to grow into consummate artists.
At the end of the show, Emile de Becque, the mysterious Frenchman, and Ensign Nellie Forbush, the “hick” nurse from Little Rock, grasp hands beneath the dinner table. This gesture signals that she has risen above the prejudices of her southern upbringing to embrace her “soon-to-be” family, in all its ethnic diversity. (Wow, it only takes three hours to overcome early childhood conditioning!) And it is mighty good news that Emile actually survives his potentially suicidal mission to rid the islands of enemy militia. It does appear he will soon get laid, I might add.
The music rises to a glorious crescendo as folds of Polynesian bamboo curtains unfurl to the stage floor. There is thunderous applause as we rise to our feet, whooping and whistling. By now my face is awash with tears and I’m asking myself one more time “why don’t I wear waterproof mascara?”
South Pacific is based on James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific.” After the cast members take their final bows the last paragraph of his book is projected onto the bamboo curtains that now rest on the stage. Squinting through tears and mascara I am left only with a sense of what he has written — something about how all the events of our lives, the people, the stories, the history, eventually fade into the mists of memory until they disappear forever.
Much lip service is paid to “being here now” but I need look no farther than my own life to see how much has already disappeared. After I get home from the show, my husband and I kiss and make up. We don’t know how long we have together or anyone has together and there is no time to waste on anger or petty resentment. We are surrounded by mist. And music.
June 29, 2010 — Living Aloha At Island Bazaar
Would you like to take a mini-vacation to Hawaii without boarding a plane or a really big boat? Well there is an island oasis right in the middle of Surf City, USA where four entertaining ukulele artists will enchant the kanes and wahines (guys and gals) of SoCal. It all happens Saturday evening, July 10, 2010 at 8:00 P.M.
I’m talking about the world-famous Island Bazaar in Huntington Beach and am tickled to be part of the line-up for their first-ever Ukulele Variety Concert. The rocking, frolicking night includes Ukulele Bartt (who has the greatest hair in the ukulele kingdom), Pat Enos (who is a beloved player and performer) and King Kukulele (who keeps the little ones and big ones laughing and singing along at Disneyland). I’ll be strumming and singing and telling my wacky stories too.
Island Bazaar is located at 16582 Gothard St., Suite #R, Huntington Beach, CA 92647. Parking is plentiful and free. Tickets are $20 and you can order by phone at 714-843-9350. I’ve been told this concert is getting “buzz” and I’m not talking bees. They are expecting a sell-out crowd, so you may want to buy tickets, like now…
All this horn-tooting aside, I want to tell you about Island Bazaar. It is the love and passion of Shirley Orlando and Danno and Beach Bum Tom and several others who invest their heart and soul in this very special place. You can taste “aloha spirit” the minute you step in the front door. Ukuleles of every size and color and design hang from the walls. If ukes could smile, they’d be grinning like Cheshire Cats. Colorful Hawaiian doo-dads beckon the visitor to “touch me, touch me.” It feels like home.
Those of you who follow my blogs know how I rhapsodize over the power of the ukulele to bring people together. There are several groups at Island Bazaar that play and perform in the community. Last year Shirley invited me to be a “guest artist” at their Thursday Ukulele Jam where I got to share a few songs. But the real joy of the evening was playing along with these lovely people as they rehearsed for an upcoming show. Shirley is a force of nature as she leads us from chord to chord, strum to strum, ever the cheerleader and coach.
That evening was a real turning point for me, although I didn’t know it at the time. A few months later when an opportunity suddenly arose for me to teach beginning ukulele to senior citizens in Culver City, I said “yes, yes, yes,” because I saw Shirley do it and while I know I have tons to learn about teaching the ukulele, the joy of that evening is what stays with me and that is what I try to share with my students.
So Shirley and her crew will move the racks of ukes to the back of the store, set up a hundred chairs, or so, facing the stage and prepare for the big show! I thank her for supporting live music in this YouTube Age and for supporting local artists, like myself. Please join us for this special evening of aloha, music and fun!
June 13, 2010 — Making Mistakes
Ukulele For Beginners
Culver City Senior Center
The class was supposed to end at the end of June, but damn it, we’re having too much fun to stop now. I tell my students there is no graduation, so get over it. When it comes to playing a musical instrument, there’s always more to learn. So we’re going to keep on strumming!
Time to get started with a new song, the great Nat King Cole classic, “L-O-V-E.” They make it through with gleeful smiles and almost sonorous tones. Suddenly these words burst from my lips: “We’re going to do this song in a show!”
“Next year, maybe…” comes the reply.
“Uh-uh, this year!” I retort, a second or two before realizing the depth of commitment I just made.
Perhaps it’s human nature that we need an end goal to work towards. My father was a writer and his creativity burst into full bloom as deadlines approached. I don’t want to put that kind of pressure on anyone, especially senior citizens who have never played music, except on the radio, but just the idea, the scent of something exciting like singing and playing for other people, is a game changer.
So I decide to try something radical. We revisit our first two-chord song, “Polly Wolly Doodle,” playing and singing through it a couple times. Then I ask them to turn their music over so they can’t see the words or chords. We’re going to play this song BY EAR. You’d think I asked them to steal a car.
“Relax my lovelies. There are only two choices. C, G7, C, G7! Now make lots of mistakes!” I want them to begin to feel the chord changes in their bodies.
When I goof up at a gig, I tell the people in the audience “that was jazz.” Ha Ha Ha! I recount this story before we begin because I am hopeful that sharing my musician tricks will buoy their spirits. Thankfully, the ukulele is a very forgiving instrument. Even if you are just in the ballpark or even the ballpark parking lot, it still sounds pretty good.
These feisty seniors get through it, the song actually resembles “Polly Wolly Doodle” and of course they make lots of mistakes. I am so proud of them I’m jumping up and down now.
The marvelous jazz singer and pianist Betty Bryant is in my class. Her son gave her a ukulele for Mother’s Day and she’s determined to learn a few songs but struggles with that dreaded G7 chord like most of the others. After we run “Polly Wolly Doodle” into the ground, she shares her music trick with us. When she hits a “wrong” note on the piano, she goes out of her way to make the same mistake three more times so the audience will think it’s part of the arrangement. Isn’t that wonderful?
“Charm, rather than perfection.” That’s my motto.
At the end of class, Betty rises to her feet with palpable pride and announces she’s a grandma! Twins! Look at the picture of the baby girl and boy she copped from her Facebook page. This beautiful woman has waited 80 years to become a first time grandmother. There is much oo-ing and ah-ing. It’s a display of shared joy that is known only within the secret society of grandparents.
Our lives are such a mixed bag, aren’t they? The oil is spilling in the Gulf of Mexico and we have our own mini-catastrophes and losses that spew and roil and change everything. We learn a fun song to play and sing. We welcome new babies into our world. We make mistakes, tons of mistakes, but somehow the earth keeps spinning ’round the sun.
All is well, even when it’s not.
May 28, 2010 — Harry Rocks
It’s still May and every year around this time, I entertain for the Volunteer Luncheon at a very special senior community in San Pedro. The building itself, inside and out, is lovely. Much thought has gone into design and color and ambience. There’s whimsy too! Hanging just to the right of a hand-painted wall-to-ceiling fresco of a quaint Italian village scene is this sign: “Home of Pick Pockets and Loose Women.”
“Loose women? Pick Pockets? I had no idea,” I declare to a charming silver-haired resident standing nearby. “Dear, it’s about time you know the truth about us,” she giggles and tiptoes away. Volunteers gather for their pre-show celebration. There are slices of sticky coffee cake, fresh fruit and enough cappuccino to keep the entire population of this beachfront town buzzing into June.
Members of the staff have worked here for years and consider this retirement home just that, home, and the residents, the families, the visitors and the volunteers are regarded as cherished members of the family.
Volunteers teach Spanish (very s-l-o-w-l-y), bring four-legged smoochy dogs to pet, they sew on buttons and give beloved garments from the 1970’s another year of life, they lead sing-a-longs and mini-church services.
And then there is Harry, looking every bit like a Christmas elf with his sly smile and slightly crooked posture. Harry plays the violin–very well–and has a hot date with the retirement home crowd every Tuesday afternoon as he captivates them with sweet music and a little soft shoe. He also has a steady gig at the local pub. Pretty impressive, I would say. Harry is 97 years old.
Harry always attends the Volunteer Luncheon and happily accepts his box of cookies, raffle prize and heartfelt thanks for a job well done. But this year, we put Harry to work. He has to earn his damned cookies by playing violin with me! I’ll tell you friends, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” on piano and Stradivarius!
When I grab the ukulele, it’s time for Harry and me to get up close and personal. Hey it’s just like Las Vegas: “What happens in San Pedro, stays in San Pedro.” Harry is up for a quick chorography mish-mash and suddenly we are swinging our hips in unison to “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” A little bump here, a big grind there. No script. No rehearsal. We’re like two kids in the sandbox. Never mind that I’m dodging Harry’s crazy bow that flies this way and that. He’s the fiddler on the roof…er…rug. But it’s glorious fun, no one is hurt during filming and the ladies in the front row are almost purring.
After the show Harry shoves off quickly. He’s a busy man, after all, and his parking meter is about to run out. Oh yes, Harry drives…
Playing an instrument is good medicine for our bodies and hearts and minds. And if we’re really lucky, we get to share our music with others. Doing that has kept Harry young, effervescent and I might add, a little wild. I’ve heard it said that in the end, what really matters is that we have loved well. For me, love looks just like Harry!
May 11, 2010 — Ukulele For Beginners–Lesson One
I pull into the parking lot at the Culver City Senior Center and unload the giant canvas bag my husband gave me a few birthdays back. It’s personalized with my name embroidered in maroon script (just in case I forget who I am), and stuffed to the gills with extra ukuleles and handouts for everyone.
It’s our first class, “Ukulele For Beginners,” and I figure ten people will show up because ten people have already phoned me to ask a few questions and probably make sure I’m not a crazy person.
I tape the “UKULELE” sign to the door, arrange the handouts and ukuleles on a long desk at the front of the classroom and wait.
“Oh God, what if no one shows up? What if everyone in the neighborhood shows up? What if a plane crashes into the roof?” I’m sorry about that last one but this is how I think sometimes, especially when I’m nervous, which I am, because doing this “teacher thing” is new and scary and I might add, exciting.
Suddenly ten people arrive.
And they keep coming, bearing ukuleles of all sizes and shapes. 25 eager senior citizens in all. The chairs fill up, I run out of handouts and when we began, everyone is staring at me.
Maybe because I am the only one standing up? Oh-oh, it’s because I’m the teacher…
Well this is rather un-nerving, so I begin by telling them about the wacky dream I had this morning: The class has gathered early, not in the classroom, but in my bedroom (is that Freud on line two?). They are waiting for me to wake up and begin the class, already. I am terrified as I leap out of bed, looking ever so frightful in my ragged teeshirt and tired old pajama bottoms. What’s more, I have to pee. At that point, fortunately, I really do wake up.
I’ve had dreams like this for a long time. Same theme, different setting and I suspect it has something to do with fear—that I’m not prepared or up to the job or good enough. Sound familiar?
I share this with you because I suspect this fear is epidemic in our culture. It’s not just me. In fact, I bet there are people in the class today who are afraid too—afraid that they will never “get it” or “keep up” and be able to play a real musical instrument. And what about the arthritic fingers and the memory that resembles swiss cheese?
But you know what? We all do the best we can.
By the end of the class those dear people are strumming ukuleles that are pretty much in tune (well good enough), playing a one-chord song (“Row Row Row Your Boat”) AND singing along. It is beautiful to see and outstanding to hear. The smiles on their faces would melt butter.
Learning to play an instrument, at any age, is good for our mind, body, spirit and this class made a believer out of me! The ukulele is like puppy. You want to hold it. You want to pet it…er…I mean strum it and like magic a “C6” chord appears without doing much of anything and suddenly we are playing and singing together.
There are so many nasties in this world and we need all the ukulele players we can get to pump ‘dem good vibes back into the air.
So when are you going to learn to play the uke?
April 26, 2010 — Teaching Ukulele and The Andy Griffith Show
Years ago, my treasured music mentor and dear friend, Bill Wyckoff, told me that he didn’t really learn about the guitar until he began teaching students how to play jazz. At age eighty-something he can still play rings around 99% of the guitar-playing population. The truth is, we really begin to “get it” when we have to explain the what, where, why, when and how of “it” to someone else.
Bill understands and appreciates the benefit of sharing his experience with others. “Paying it forward,” so to speak. For me, desire to do this too and the opportunity to actually “do it” have suddenly merged into one delicious confection, right here in my own backyard.
I will be teaching Ukulele For Beginners at the Culver City Senior Center every Thursday morning, from 10:00 to 11:00 A.M. in May and June (we meet eight times). Just show up. No reservations necessary and are you ready for this? Are you sitting down? Each session is only three bucks!
There are some “restrictions” though, so this isn’t exactly a three-for-all. You have to be 50 years or older, a member of the C.C. Senior Center and don’t forget to B.Y.O.U. (Bring Your Own Ukulele).
We will start from the very beginning, like learning the anatomy and physiology of thy uke, holding your baby, strumming, what is a chord anyway, rhythm, melody, and quick as a wink, how to play and sing a song.
I am passionate about this little instrument. It makes “happy” and inspires a sense of “community.” The uke is fun to play by yourself but even more fun to play with other people. The good news is that it’s not difficult to learn the basics so we can play and sing in no time.
The first class begins Thursday, May 6, so be there or be square. The center is located at 4095 Overland Ave, Culver City, CA 90232, which is the northwest corner of Overland & Culver Blvds. Their phone is 310-253-6700.
And speaking of the Andy Griffith Show…
Last week I did a really fun show for the Culver City Historical Society but such a presentation, for serious “history buffs,” called for some scholarly research. Several nights I abandoned my husband for Google (don’t feel bad because he abandons me for Facebook) and uncovered the most interesting stories and songs that are home-grown musical gems.
“Like what, you ask?”
One of my favorite tunes to sing and play on the ukulele is “The Fishing Hole” from The Andy Griffith Show (which today is my preferred viewing option to “the evening news”). Fortunately this song has words because my whistling will clear a room.
I actually know people who speak wistfully of retiring someday, moving to Mayberry and, well, fishing. Okay, we all know that “Mayberry” is a state of mind. But geographically speaking, Mayberry IS Culver City. Yes, the show was filmed at Desilu Studios (which today is Culver Studios, right across the street from Trader Joes). Many of the outdoor scenes were shot at Forty Acres, the present-day eastern, industrial tract of Culver City.
I find this altogether thrilling.
So look at it this way: You can learn how to play the ukulele in Mayberry! Does it get any better than that?
April 19, 2010 — Cali Rose Gets “Historical” This Wednesday!
Culver City, home of the game shows Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, the old Desilu Studios and of course, MGM, where the Munchins welcomed Dorothy to the Land of Oz, Fred and Ginger tapped across the sound stages and Gene Kelly did his best as an American in Paris… Yes “that” Culver City is also “my” home. I’ve lived here for umptity-ump-ump years, so I guess I’m feeling a bit historical too.
That said I will be doing a free show this Wednesday night, April 21, 2010 at 7:30 P.M., for the Culver City Historical Society AND the public is invited.
Singing and accompanying myself on the keyboard and ukulele, I will draw on the music “From The Heart of Screenland,” which is how Culver City sees itself. Eat that, Hollywood…
Please join us in the Multi-Purpose Room in the Veterans Memorial Building at 4117 Overland Ave in Culver City. Enter through the back of the building near the parking lot (which is also free).
You know me… The hour show will be fun with lots of songs, stories and audience participation. Did I mention IT’S FREE!!!! Everyone is invited; no reservations are necessary (just show up) and I look forward to seeing you.
March 13, 2010 — Railroad Randy and Miss Wong
I met “Railroad Randy” at a piano bar gig in Santa Monica, long before personal computers and cell phones. We became instant friends and he’d drive to wherever I was playing, near or far, to have a drink and enjoy the music and what, I hope, is my irreverent humor. “Like attracts like,” of course, and Railroad Randy is pretty irreverent himself.
He was, is, and will always be an Amtrak guy and worked as a mechanic on those behemoth train engines until he retired last year. One evening during a break at my Embassy Suites gig in El Segundo, R.R. confided that he had installed a real, honest-to-god train whistle under the hood of his car. Like, isn’t that against the law? I thought it was bunch of hooey and dared him to blast the thing. His sneaky, satisfied grin kind of scared me.
After the gig, he followed me home. Going north on Sepulveda we entered the long tunnel, which above, is the south runway of L.A. International Airport and damned if he didn’t blast that train whistle, which echoed and reverberated along the cement innards of the tunnel with ear-piercing ferocity for what felt like eternity. I nearly leaped out of my skin and can only imagine the other drivers were scared back to their previous lives. At least I had a sense of what was coming. As if that helped…
As often happens, Railroad Randy and I lost touch over the years, but we reconnected this week over a couple Grand Slam Specials at Denny’s. There was much catching up to do—a divorce (his), kids growing up and getting married (his), driving & railroad trips to 49 states (his). Frankly, my life seems dull in comparison.
Then he tells me about Anna May Wong.
“Whooze that”? I ask.
Railroad Randy happened to catch the last part of a PBS series on Chinese-Americans and became mesmerized, no, obsessed, with Miss Wong who was born right here in 1905. She became the first Chinese American movie star and the first Asian American to enjoy international acclaim.
He Googled and researched and networked. He learned that she is buried in a cemetery near downtown L.A. and every Thursday, rain, shine or freeway gridlock, he drives to that cemetery and sweeps the broken twigs and dirt from her gravesite and carefully arranges the gifts of endearment–framed pictures, flowers–left by strangers.
R.R. isn’t Chinese and his rabid interest in a historical figure, an Asian woman, makes no sense. Some of his friends think he’s off his rocker. But I don’t.
We are swimming in mystery, you and me and Railroad Randy. A few of us actually have the courage to act on that, even when it appears we’ve fallen into the deep end. My friend is honoring, in word and deed, an inexplicable connection. And maybe, just maybe, when something that mysterious rocks our world, we’re really connecting with some deeper mystery in ourselves.
I say “swim on Railroad Randy!”
February 16 , 2010 — Tap is Back!
One of my friends is a talented dancer, director and choreographer with a hit show on her hands, “The Marvelous Wonderettes.” She has won awards and accolades for her work, but what Janet Miller really loves is hanging with her peeps in North Hollywood, California. So in the spirit of good fun and wickedly aerobic exercise, she is offering her internationally famous “Tap Is Back” class for us regular folks.
When I received her email invitation, memories of my first (and only) tap dancing class came flooding back…in vivid Technicolor and Lucas Sound.
Those of you who are familiar with my blogs know that I’m not “athletically-inclined” and would do everything humanly possible to ditch the mandatory P.E. classes that were the law of the land when I attended Santa Monica College. Yes kids, there was a time you had to take physical education in junior college.
On the short list of acceptable alternatives to the dreaded softball class I am slated to take is “Tap Dancing for Beginners.” So I ride my bicycle to the original Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, when it was still a street, with cars and sidewalks. Nestled between Newberry’s and Sol’s Fabric is a small store that sells ballet shoes, tutus and of course those nifty black patent leather taps.
We start off nice and easy at my junior college tap class: Heel, toe, brush brush. Good Lord! I can actually do that. But I have to practice and there are no rooms at the school to do the requisite grunt work. My only option is the linoleum floor in the small kitchen of my upstairs studio apartment. I am mindful of my neighbor below and make every effort to heel/toe when she isn’t home. But I learn quickly that I’m not a good judge of her daily regime. She pounds her ceiling with the end of a broomstick to register her displeasure. At first it scares the hell out of me but after that it’s just plain demoralizing.
Suffice it to say, I don’t last very long in my tap class. The day we learn to “Shuffle Off To Buffalo,” I shuffle out the door, hang up my patent leathers and sadly transfer into softball class. The teams are already picked and the women are playing. With my first turn at bat, it becomes abundantly clear that I will make a mighty fine bench warmer. I swing furiously at that white thing hurling my way, but it just keeps going, pitch after pitch. Then they hand me a mitt, send me to right field and watch in horror as the fly ball drops at my feet. I do pick it up and throw it to the pitcher, but unfortunately the ball lands in the bleachers. I’m happy to report that no one is injured.
I’m legally blind in my left eye and softball class is just another example of how life experience meets physical limitation, head-on. I have no excuse for having two left feet, but cockeyed depth perception is another matter altogether. Thankfully playing the piano and ukulele does not involve hitting balls with a stick.
That said, if I lived closer to “NoHo” and had my Monday nights free, I would sign up for tap in a minute. One of the blessings of getting older is that I don’t take myself nor others quite so personally. I think if I took Janet’s class, I’d fall on my ass, I’d tap right when everyone else tapped left and my “Shuffle Off To Buffalo” would look more like a real buffalo galloping across the Great Plains. But I don’t care. That’s the big difference between then and now. I would stick it out, by golly, and have a really really really good time.
February 4, 2010 — “Almost” A Winner
The Hawaiian Music Awards just announced the winners today and alas, I’m a winner only in my own mind, which is where it counts anyway, kids!
Congratulations to the group “Don Tiki” which won in “my” category “Best Adult Contemporary Album” and to all the winners and nominated artists.
Well I’m a little disappointed, but I’m sure this will pass within the next 24-hour news cycle, just like everything else.
My immensely talented producer, Rick Cunha–a man who is old school and treasures music that is honest and real–gave me some good advice. He said that once UPS delivers the boxes of CD’s to my front door, I have to let them go, so they can find their own way in the world. Sure we promote our stuff and toot our own horns, but mystery prevails. No one ever knows what’s going to happen, even five minutes from now.
I never expected to be nominated for a Hawaiian Music Award and alas this brief journey has exposed my music to a brand new audience. Who would have “thunk” that?
But here’s the big kahuna for me: I received many warm emails from you, supporting my work. I heard from people all over the world who enjoy my music and cast their votes as well. Feeling part of a community, be it local or global, is what it’s all about for me and I thank you being there.
February 1, 2010 — Pumping Iron — Part 2
A few months ago I blogged about my ongoing travails with chronic back pain and I was not in a good mood. As you recall, a friend of a friend suggested I see a new chiropractor whose “drug of choice” is exercise, of all things. I just want to get whacked and go home. But no-o-o-o. He escorts me into his office gym and puts me on an exercise regime that will strengthen those slumbering back muscles.
One of the exercises is vintage Jack Lalanne: The chin-up. When I wrote you last, I had successfully hung from the bar…for five seconds. This may not sound like a lot, but I’ve never hung by my hands, ever, so it’s quite an accomplishment. The Doc encourages me like an Olympic coach. “You’ll be doing a chin up in a few weeks!” Rah! Rah! Rah!
Well, it’s been several months now and progress is slow, but steady. I’m able to hoist my body a whopping two inches. Since all you map readers know that an inch equals one mile (wink wink), two inches is halfway to heaven in my world.
But I’ve found another way to eyeball that damned chin-up bar and call it “Cali’s Monkey Chin-Up.” I climb my big feet up the non-skid surface on the wall and lift my body towards the ceiling. It’s thrilling for me and rather impressive when seen from afar. One woman, who was striding on the treadmill at the opposite end of our humble condo gym, remarked how agile I am. I’m not used to getting compliments for “being fit” so I’m taking that one to the gym bank.
I am happy to report the back pain has vanished. Poof! It took three weeks of earnest and relentless work, mind you. Come hell or high water, I pumped iron every other day for a whopping twenty minutes a session and right now I feel SO good.
For someone who would find every which way to weasel out of P.E., exercising thirty minutes a day has become a top priority. I mix it up with weights, treadmill, walking, dancing, yoga. I’m doing it for my health, for my life. I want to sing and play until I’m an old lady because old ladies rock.
Speaking of gigs, picture this: Last month I wheel my gear into the ornate mirrored elevator at the retirement home in Santa Monica and push the “lobby” button. No one else is in the elevator so of course, I check myself out in the mirror. I’m wearing a sleeveless pink blouse and in the dim, diffuse light notice a big lump on my upper arm.
“Oh my God, it’s a tumor. I’m dying.” (I’m all about catastrophic thinking). In a panic, I grab at the thing and realize it’s no tumor.
“Whoa! It’s my biceps.” A muscle??!! The only way to confirm this surprising possibility is to grope my other arm.
“Oh my God, there’s a biceps there too.” All those monkey chin-ups, thoracic kyphosis rows, dumbbell step-ups and squats, incline bench presses and barbell Romanian deadlifts are paying off. I’m feelin’ pretty in pink!
Many of you shared your “chin up” and back-pain stories with me. Thank you for adding your voices to the familiar refrain of being human: We have bodies. They feel good and sometimes they don’t. They keep our head off the ground. And they are wisdom and strength made visible…………………
January 19, 2010 — Vote! Vote! Vote!
Just on a wild whim, as in “what the hell do I have to lose?” I submitted my new ukulele CD, “Are You Having Any Fun?” to the fine folks at the Hawaii Music Awards, under the category, Adult Contemporary. My husband had a good laugh over that one. “You mean you’re an adult?” he guffawed.
Well, surprise surprise, I am one of five “adults” who made the final list of nominees! Sure, maybe they received only five CD’s for this category; I don’t know and I don’t care because, hooray! There’s my picture and ain’t this fun! When we make a CD, post a blog, come up with a new recipe for chicken thighs or do whatever, that is an expression of what we are, we hope it finds its way and brings a little blessing into the world. So whatever happens at the big Awards Show in O’ahu, I’m thrilled that my work is getting out there.
That said, you and you and you and you decide who wins because the Hawaii Music Awards is essentially an online voting proposition. I don’t want to say it’s a popularity contest because that brings back horrible memories from high school. But let’s face it, all the nominated artists are notifying their tribes and saying “pick me, puleeeeese.” Anyone and everyone with an email address can vote.
There are many talented artists nominated in multiple categories, so please vote your favorites. My category appears first (for “Adult,” I guess) and my CD is at the top of the page. Boy did I get lucky. You can vote in as few or as many categories as your want. After you have voted, scroll down to bottom of the page to “submit vote” on the left side and follow the prompts so your vote counts! The website is www.hawaiimusicawards.com and voting ends at the end of January.
I congratulate all of the artists who entered and all of us who remain faithful to what we do and who we are.
January 8, 2010 — Getting Sick & Getting Well
Our precious bodies…can’t live with them, can’t live without them. I began 2010 throwing up, thank you. It’s a mystery what prickly little bug or viral vermin or foul food dropped-kicked me into the abyss of sickness. Or maybe after a very busy month of shows, my body plotted its crash and burn to coincide with New Year’s Eve. Don’t know.
But that didn’t stop me from doing my New Year’s Eve gig, either because I really believe “the show must go on” or I’m an idiot. My sweet husband insisted we go to the emergency room and I insisted he drive me to the gig. I’ve been doing this New Year’s show at the beautiful retirement home in Rancho Palos Verdes every year since 1998 and I wasn’t about to leave these dear people in the lurch. Try finding an entertainer for New Years Eve…ON New Year’s Eve.
So my husband chauffeured, loaded and unloaded gear and propped me on the stool in front of the keyboard where I commenced to croak my way through the show. (Yes I tried to keep everyone at arm’s length). Thankfully we celebrated New Years at 9:00 P.M. with New York, via CNN, which was projected onto the big screen behind me as we watched the crystal ball drop in Times Square and counted down with the East Coast revelers. We blew our horns, rattled our shakers, kissed and clinked the plastic glasses of champagne and Martinelli’s Sparking Apple Cider. By 9:10 everyone had gone to bed.
I am happy to say that my sterling record of having never thrown up in front of my audience remains intact. Mind you, I’ve done almost everything else in front of an audience (use your imagination please), but not that. How did I manage this miracle? I conveniently hurled just before the show and just afterwards, at 9:11 P.M. to be exact.
The next three days I spent in bed. Fortunately my husband is a teacher and was home on Christmas break so he could ply me with water, Gatorade, Progresso Chicken and Rice and delicious hot and sour soup from the local Chinese. Slowly, slowly I’m getting better.
That said, there is something wildly regenerative about being sick, at least for me. I know that sounds crazy, but here goes. A sick body reminds me who is boss. My mind (which thinks it’s the boss) is into “planning” and “doing” but a lot of good that does when the body can’t move, huh. While my thoughts zoom into the future or rehash the past, the body is always right here and when I get sick, I have a chance to be here too. I really pay attention to the so-called little things that I tend to blow off the rest of the time and let me tell you, they are monumentally grand.
I remember what a miracle it is just to be alive (even with a sick body), what a joy to hear the crows squawking outside the window or be able to change the channel on the T.V. with a remote control because I have opposable thumbs and fingers that work. Good golly is there anything better than peeing, when you really have to pee? Come on, you know what I’m talking about.
Our precious bodies! Here’s a New Year’s toast to them and you.