HAPPY BIRTHDAY OSCAR

I arrive at my gigs with a list of this month’s famous birthday people and events. I will wrap each one around a song. It’s March and one of the notables is Oscar Ferdinand Mayer. He was born March 29, 1859. The guy liked meat. I bet he ate a lot of it. And he lived to be 95 years old. Hooray for hot dogs!

We are sitting in a circle at my music therapy session, the memory care folks and me. I mention the name “Oscar Mayer” and watch their eyes glint in happy recognition. My eyes are glinting too. I tell them about the lunches my mother made for me when I was a kid. She poured slices of bologna and Velveeta cheese onto a pane of aluminum foil, rolled it like a mini-duffle bag and sent me off to school. No avocado toast, no carrots or celery. Not an apple or orange slice in sight.

I’m lucky I’m still alive.

That said, when I’m feeling all gunky about the state of the world, do you think I reach for tofu? Or lettuce? Or even chocolate? Are you kidding? I run to Sprouts, stand in the meat deli line and ask for half a pound of bologna. And then this happens: The deli lady appears with lovely folded slices on a pane of plastic, lays the whole thing on the scale and usually the weight is a little over. “Oh that’s okay!” I chirp. Food therapy is close at hand.

So the memory care folks and I launch into the iconic Oscar Mayer jingle.

Oh I wish I were an Oscar Meyer Wiener. That is what I’d truly like to be…

I’m here to tell you that a well-written commercial jingle is like Velcro in our brains. The gusto-factor has kicked in and everyone is singing and swaying along after the first line.

We continue…

Cause if I were an Oscar Meyer Wiener…

She is sitting next me. I’ll call her “Sparky.” She is a human spark plug, a walking-talking firecracker. But she couples her joie de vivre with a rare and indefatigable equanimity, even in the face of the challenges that are a constant her life. The woman is laser-sharp, feisty and ever protective of those around her. Including me. “Cali, did you sign your invoice. We want you to come back.”

In a voice that slices through the ragtag chorus in the room, she sings the final line of the jingle.

“Everyone would take a bite of me.”

Let me introduce you to “Big Bad Bob…”

“That’s so F–ked Up,” he bellows. Some of the ladies in the room roll their eyes. They are familiar with his colorful language. I silently admire his verb substitutions. But Sparky is undeterred and sings her line again.

“Everyone would take a bite of me.”

I love it when stuff like this happens… A sudden burst of spontaneity and irreverence. Maybe this is what I love most about my work–when I am willing to let go of my own agenda, just a little, and trust this moment to lead us somewhere unexpected. And let me tell you, the rewards are bountiful. Surprising. Joyful. Scary. Deeply moving. Letting go can crack open our hearts.

The actual last line of the Oscar Mayer jingle is everyone would be in love with me. I sing it to Sparky and this is how I read the expression on her sweet face.

“Come on Cali, that sucks.”

“Sparky,” I exclaim, “I like your version better and it makes a whole lot more sense.” So we sing it again. Even Big Bad Bob joins in.

Oh I wish I were an Oscar Mayer Wiener. That is what I’d truly like to be.
Cause if I were an Oscar Mayer Wiener. Everyone would take a bite of me.

Yes we may love bologna or cucumber and watercress sandwiches. But when we take a bite, well that’s a whole different picnic.

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CLICK HERE to read about songwriter Richard Trentlage and the story behind his famous Oscar Mayer jingle. Guess what, he played a banjo-ukulele!

UKULELE IS GOOD MEDICINE

Vineet (grad student volunteer taking the selfie). Back row to front: CC Strummers: Michael, Ed, Vicki, Mollie, Nancy, Cali and Jenna (our Music Therapist) at U.C.L.A. Mattel Children’s Hospital

What is it about the ukulele? This sweet little musical instrument that makes you feel so good. When you hear it. When you play it.

We “oo” and “ah” when we watch a great guitar player or violin virtuoso, piano, sax… “Wow, look at that.” We are grateful spectators.

There are ukulele virtuosos too but that is not what this story is about because the ukulele, more than any instrument I can think of, finds YOU. With its four tinkly strings, it invites you to join the party. Because you can. The ukulele is for “civilians.” For people who have never thought of themselves as “musical.” With this instrument you can experience the utter joy and deep mystery that comes with being THE ONE who is making music.

The ukulele turns spectators into participants and when we keep on strumming, something magical happens. A community appears. Out of nowhere… I have seen this again and again. At my gigs. In my classes. There is just something non-threatening and goofy and sweet happening with this instrument. It is not about rivalry. It is about sharing. It’s about “being human.” Together. That means the whole circus of being human. The triumphs. The travails. The hello’s. The goodbye’s.

The CC Strummers and I “take our community on the road.” Every other month we visit The U.C.L.A. Mattel Children’s Hospital. The music therapist tells us that some of the kids we meet…well…they won’t make it. Room after room we breathe in the truth that hangs over all of us: It’s a short life even when we live long.

So we make music. That’s what we do. We play a song or two, sometimes we teach a kid or mom and dad how to strum along then we give them the ukulele with a tuner and songbook. There are no words to describe what this means to them. What it means to us. Several CC Strummers have come close when they say it’s “life-changing.”

I put together a short video of our trips to Mattel.  It includes kids, parents and our “Carpool Ukulele” where we rehearse as we drive north on Westwood Boulevard towards U.C.L.A.

And you can do something like this too.  First of all we partnered with The Ukulele Kids Club which donates ukes to pediatric hospitals around the United States. When we sent them our first check they asked if we had a hospital we’d like to designate. The CC Strummers are close to Westwood so we contacted U.C.L.A. and waited several months for them to get funding to begin a Music Therapy program. But it happened! And from that moment on things started moving very fast. With the help of the music therapist whom I swear is an angel incarnate, we brought the ukulele to the intensive care unit at Mattel.

Doing something like this changes you. Our entire group has been transformed because we are all part of this journey whether we step foot into the hospital or not. It goes back to that “community” thing. As of August 2017, we have donated over $1000 to The Ukulele Kids Club. That’s a lot of ukuleles… And a lot of smiles.

Please watch the video by CLICKING HERE and you will see what I mean. This instrument is powerful medicine! For the kids, the families, the staff. For us. It is a gift that keeps on giving.

Resources:
The Ukulele Kids Club
Mattel Childrens Hospital Music Therapy Department

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We recently lost a member of The CC Strummers Family. Raymond. He joined us the first time we visited Mattel and brought a strong, tender and very sweet presence to those kids that day. We miss him.

Raymond, Cali, Michael, Rose & Jenna

POLICE PURSUIT

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

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

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

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

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

Not so easy with my mother…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is true? All the above, of course.

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

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