Saturday, December 11, 2010

Second Thoughts About the Closet

A few more thoughts about this closet idea.

Last week I wrote about getting organized enough to actually accomplish something. The key seems to be “Don’t store things until it’s time to throw them away.”

I collect wrinkled clothes in a hamper, then they’re in the way so I put them in a box, then the box is sitting in the corner of the bedroom for too long so it goes in the closet, and eight years later I unpack it and there’s Ed’s dress shirt.

I collect bills in a pile, then put them in a shoebox, then stuff it in the closet (usually because people are coming over and I want things to look neat), and years later I find the box and throw it away. (I do SO pay bills, it’s just that sometimes I wait for the yellow envelope to come.)

And then there’s the aging-food-in-the-refrigerator-until-it’s-time-to-throw-it-away-system.

So there is a little pattern here. Collect the most important resources in your life – food, clothing, electricity-phone-water-insurance – and put them in the closet until they’re out-of-date and unusable and it’s time to throw them away.

That’s a complicated idea, or maybe it’s just that it’s always hard for me to think about the truth. I like self-delusion as much as the next person, so it’s taken me a long time to start to think about this. Until “halfway through my first century,” is how I believe I put it last week, and you want to talk about self-delusion?

I’m starting to think that this goes deeper than storing food, clothing and shelter until it’s time to throw it out.

When my laryngologist told me that my vocal structure was broken, perhaps permanently, and that I might never sing again, I really did laugh and say to him, “At one point that would have been devastating news, but not at this point in my life. I don’t use my voice anymore anyway.”

I loved teaching fifth grade. I loved conducting choirs. When I lost my job in the public schools, I dove into being a housewife as if picking up other people’s messes and doing their thinking for them was a noble profession and made up for losing the joy of helping people find their true selves and expressing them fully.

After years of writing in hardbound journals and filing them in a bookcase in my attic, I stopped. I couldn’t find the time.

(Maybe it was in a box in the closet?)

No. Not time, exactly, but I have been storing something away in the closet, in a box, until it had aged enough to be thrown away.


My voice. My singing, writing, conducting and teaching. How many times have I said to myself, “I’m getting older now. I need to get ready to retire – although I’m not sure from what. It’s time to become contented with a smaller life.”

Have a small day tomorrow, and a smaller day the next day.

I read yesterday that the ancient Celts and Teutons believed in a great wheel of time, which they called Houl – a wheel that alternately threw its light toward the world and then away from it. For twelve days at winter Solstice, this Houl – now we call it Yule -- stood still before casting light onto the earth again.

Maybe it’s time for me to climb out of the box. As Woody Guthrie sang, “When you find me in the mailbox, cut the string and let me out!”

It’s time to let myself out of the back closet. Time to catch a ride on that Ferris wheel and ride back into the light. Publish the stories, conduct the choir, take this show on the road.

Welcome Yule!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

On Getting Oh-Oh-Organized

Sometimes your heart’s desire is hiding in plain sight, especially when your heart’s desire is Time, or The Ability to Think Clearly.

I didn’t know this. I thought it was hiding in The Perfect List. Or the perfect calendar app or tickler file or the perfect PDA. I just needed to slice up my day a little more precisely. Maybe get Bluetooth for driving or…not my favorite but seems to be the default…don’t sleep as much.

But halfway through my first century, I think I have finally figured something out. Sometimes it’s not finding more time. Sometimes it’s going with the flow, or more accurately, going with what really works for you. Don’t argue with yourself. You’ll lose. Find out what you want and then give it to yourself. It’s OK. You’ll be a lot happier and, by extension, so will all the people around you.

When I couldn’t get any writing time, I blamed housework. Then my husband started doing the laundry and vacuuming. OK, that wasn’t it. Then I blamed my inability to schedule in writing time. Fine. Put it on the calendar. OK, months of dithering, Solitaire-playing and e-mailing later, that wasn’t it.

Then I noticed that the only days that I actually wrote, happily, for hours, were days when I didn’t have to get up and feed everybody and make sure they had their lunches and homework and then cleaned up the kitchen. When I just reached over, BEFORE I PUT A TOE OUT OF BED, and picked up first my journal and then my netbook, I wrote for four or five hours before I knew what hit me.

So I don’t get up in the mornings anymore. I just write. And it’s surprising how much more gusto I have for the laundry and errands when I have already given myself my work time. Ed and the kids get themselves ready for school and work.

(What a great sentence! “I don’t get up in the mornings anymore.” Chortle!)

This plays out in all kinds of ways. Take ironing.

I’m not a big ironer. When we unpacked the last box, three years after we moved into this house, guess what was in it?


It had been in that box for three different moves. Boy, was Ed happy to find his dress shirt! (“Well, I’ve been making do…”)

We iron when we find something wrinkled in the closet that we want to wear right now. (Or not!) So no more ironing box. This doesn’t save time, exactly, but now there’s room where the box was sitting in my closet for other things, like the clothes that have been piled on the chair.

Paying bills.

My way of paying bills is to put them in a pile, hopefully one pile in one place. Although if they start to look messy, I might sweep them into a shoebox and put them in the closet and then, of course, you have to start another pile when more bills come. They always do. After awhile the envelopes change color and then you know that you really do have to pay them this time. But it’s stressful, you know, and sometimes the ol' adrenal glands need a break.

So this month I took all my old bills and set up auto bill pay with my bank and then threw the bills away. Case closed.

And I’m of the food-aging school. That’s where you have a big refrigerator and you keep food until it’s aged, fermented or ripened until it’s time to throw it out. So when my last refrigerator died, I bought a really small refrigerator. I mean, about 10 cubic feet, the kind that uses a nickel-ninety-eight to run for a year and that makes your friends laugh at you.

Now I don’t have room to age the food, and I can skip the bi-monthly go-through-the-refrigerator-and-toss-half-of-what’s-in-there job. That saves time, and our grocery bills have gone down by a surprising amount.

So now:

I feel satisfied with what I’ve been able to create each day;
My bills are paid on time and I don’t even think about it;
I have room in my closet and my refrigerator and more money in my account;
I don't get stressed out much any more.

Without a new calendar app, or talking on the phone in the car all the time, or by getting More Efficient.

Just by going with my flow.

Maybe now I’ll play a game of Solitaire.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A Solid Mouthful of Christmas

That’s what our friend Hugo calls it, but really it’s just my chocolate fruitcake. I invented it in Baltimore in 1981. All my friends had warned me about fruitcake, but like the rebellious brat I was, I ignored them because during my senior year at Peabody, I found a recipe for chocolate fruitcake and how could that not be good? It waaaaas. That first fruitcake was heart-meltingly delicious, full of home-candied dried fruit and toasted nuts and rum and so chocolatey, complicated, soft and sweet. Yuuuuuuuuuummm.

Like many voice students at Peabody, I paid my rent by singing in a church choir. So for me, Christmas meant performing in what seemed like dozens of church and church-related programs. The Advent concert. The annual rendition of Schubert’s Ave Maria for the Men’s Club at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Roland Park. (The pay was a bottle of sherry in a gold box. I drank the sherry and made Christmas ornaments out of the gold box.) Christmas at St. David’s itself was a huge production – as paid choristers, my friends and I sang the Christmas Eve services, including the midnight Mass, gathered in my apartment afterwards about 2:00 a.m., ate potluck around my three-foot-tall, listing-to-one-side tree that I’d decorated in sherry bottle cardboard and popcorn, sang some more, and got back to the church by 7:00 a.m. to rehearse before the 8:00 and 11:00 morning services. Hey, who needs sleep when you’re twenty-two, eh?

So the year after I graduated, I decided I would make my new fruitcake for the all-night party. I’d prove to the world (at least to my friends) that fruitcake can be good. It’d start a whole new tradition.

After two hours of looking through every cooking magazine and scrap of paper I had in my recipe box (I have recipe boxes like other people have tax files), I had to admit that I had lost the recipe. Oh no! Now what’ll I do?

I’ll just re-create it. How hard could it be?

That was twenty-nine years ago. Thank goodness for the 1959 version of the Betty Crocker cookbook, because that’s where the basic recipe came from. Cooking is chemistry and you can’t just guess at ratios for leavening to liquid and flour. Then I started tinkering with the add-ins. The first few versions established that I like dried papaya and pineapple, more for the stained-glass window look than anything else, and that little dried green bits of citron were right out. By 1985 I was in a groove, the proportions and types of fruit and macerating liquid and nuts fairly well set, although the recipe was still scribbled (in pen!) in the margins of Betty’s fruitcake page. (I didn’t claim the recipe for my own and move it out of the cookbook until well into the computer age when I typed it out on my Mac Mini sometime in the late 1990s.)

But as I only made the cake once a year, tweaking just one or two ingredients each time, changes were slow to come. Each year I went through the same laborious process. Re-read the fruitcake story in Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory. Make the pilgrimage to Sheridan Fruit to buy dried fruit and nuts in bulk. (Although when I was in grad school, I cheated and bought bags of pre-chopped fruit from Trader Joe’s. I still feel bad about that.) Dice and snip until my hands seize up and then warm the fruit gently in orange juice or rum and let it all sit for a day or three. Chop the nuts. Prepare the pans (this can take a couple of hours, but luckily I married a man a third of the way into my Fruitcake Life who took on this part of the job). Finally, finally make the cake itself, and this is where I kept trying to achieve the Perfect Chocolate Fruitcake Flavor. Some years I would come tantalizingly close to the intense chocolatey-ness I remembered, but then the cake wouldn’t quite stay together. Then I’d back off the chocolate the following year and get a more traditionally solid fruitcake, still okay but just…not…quite…right…

I made fruitcake through three divorces, two children, a Master’s degree, careers in singing and teaching, years as a private school administrator and grant writer and housewife-and-mother. I made fruitcake during the last years of the Cold War and in the days following 9/11 and through melting arctic and Antarctic poles and the disappearing ozone layer. Maybe the world didn’t get better each year, but the fruitcake did.

Last month, I read Truman Capote aloud to my children, my high-school-Junior son and my 27-year-old daughter. The three of us decided upon the ingredients for this year’s cake, dried apricots, cherries, and papaya. (They wanted hazelnuts, not almonds, but I forgot and in the actual baking, put in almonds instead. They are good children and forgave me.) Rum, instant espresso powder, and LOTS of chocolate. Maybe if we use chocolate extract to bump up the chocolate index, it won’t make the cake fall apart like the chocolate chips did that time. No pineapple this year and definitely no dried blueberries. The dried blueberries had been a little strange.

The next day, son Robin and I rode our bikes four miles each way to Sheridan Fruit to buy the fruit and nuts. We got a little lost because of the construction along 99 East, but we got there after overshooting and backtracking twice. And it cost more than I expected because of the bulk Jelly Belly display. You must suffer for your fruitcake. We stopped at the liquor store on the way home and bought a pint of rum, too.

The ingredients went into the dried fruit cupboard, stored inside a springform pan, which means don’t touch, this means you, this is the fruitcake stuff. Everybody in my family respects the fruitcake stuff.

Three weeks later, anxious weeks for my husband Ed who really, really believes that fruitcake should be made in August so it will age and doesn’t want to face the fact that I ALWAYS make fruitcake during the last week of November, I got started. Two days before Thanksgiving, I started chopping, macerating, sniffing and gloating. I love the fruit preparation part. Then the fruit sat in a covered dish out in “Fred,” our name for the uninsulated enclosed porch just off the kitchen that doubles as a second refrigerator, while we got through Thanksgiving Day and the aftermath. Two pumpkin pies, three types of cranberry sauce, two versions of stuffing, one for those who want to court E.coli and a non-fat casserole version, and two kinds of gravy. Fruitcake had to wait.

But finally, finally, the night after Thanksgiving, Ed prepared the pans with Crisco and parchment paper while I melted chocolate in the double boiler. It took awhile, because we had to decide how many fruitcakes and what size to make. You can’t give fruitcake to just anybody. Some people will not appreciate it and it will be wasted. We do have a few friends and family members who ask plaintively each year if they’re going to get one. Hugo, of course, gets one because of the time at the pub sing when I gave him a piece and he sighed blissfully, with that accent from his native England, “Now THAT’S a solid mouthful of Christmas!” And we have to make sure that we have enough. There’s the tree decorating evening, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to get through, and what if we run out?

Then I had to find the recipe. There’s tension about this, too, because I printed out my recipe a few years ago and now there are multiple copies floating around. Sometimes you can’t find the one with last year’s notes on it and you have to proceed without knowing what worked and didn’t work last year. To my chagrin, this turned out to be one of those years. Oh well. I’m sure the 2007 fruitcake was good enough, although I remember last year’s as being pretty good. Have faith in the process and forge ahead. This year, I added another tablespoon of cocoa and some chocolate extract, a new addition. I beat the batter until it fluffed up and changed color, a new procedure. Now we’re getting risky. (I can hear Han Solo shouting at Luke Skywalker, “Great, kid! Don’t get cocky!”) Hey, I’ve been making this thing for three-fifths of my life, I can take chances if I want to. Poured the batter over the precious fruit and nuts and called the family for the traditional stir. You must stir the fruitcake batter and make a wish for the coming year. While we were stirring, I stared at an eight-ounce package of Valrhona mini chocolate chips that I’d bought at DeLaurenti’s, a specialty food store in Seattle. THAT would make it chocolatey enough, you bet. Should I put it in? Robin, who works off-and-on as a prep chef in a high-end Italian restaurant, said decisively, NO. His sister Elizabeth, who has ten years on him and who as a prospective actress has more reason to live it up when she can, said yes yes YES. I decided that you can over-think things and dumped the whole container in.

Then I filled one good-sized loaf pan, two middle-sized pans, two small-ish pans and three really cute baby pans that I found at the dump last summer. (Don’t ask.) I put them all in a slow oven along with a big pan of hot water, and settled down with a timer and a bunch of West Wing episodes.

Ed tuned his melodeon. The cats duked it out for each other’s food. The kids went out for garlic fries and peanut-butter-marshmallow milkshakes and then came back to watch some Buffy. It takes a long time to bake fruitcake, and you have to keep checking them because there’s no going back. I usually use up half a box of toothpicks.

At eleven o’clock at night, when I was so tired that I couldn’t remember why I was still conscious, kind of like childbirth, the last fruitcake came out of the oven. The smallest cake had been out for two hours at that point, and was ready for the taste test.

It slid right out of the pan, a good start. The parchment paper peeled off easily, no damage there. No burned edges. The cake looked almost like it had been steamed, softer than in previous years but my finger didn’t leave an indentation when I poked it. Good and solid. It smelled like Christmas. Carefully, I sawed off a slice. I’m alone in the kitchen and it’s MY fruitcake. I put the piece in my mouth.


That’s it.

After twenty-nine years, that’s IT.

I took Ed a piece. Yuuum. Robin and Elizabeth. Yeeeeesss.

This is the best ever, Mom.

So I will not hug this recipe close to me anymore. It is time to send my Fruitcake Child out into the world. My friends, here is my Christmas gift to you. May it bring you as much joy as it has brought me.

A Solid Mouthful of Christmas Fruitcake

You can change up the kinds of fruit and nuts and liquid, heaven knows I did. But this is the latest version and as far as I’m concerned, the best.

The reading of Truman Capote and the pilgrimage to a bulk store for dried fruit can be dispensed with, I suppose, but it just won’t be the same.

Plan on doing the work over several days, and allow four hours for the baking itself.

Step One

Prepare six cups of chopped dried fruit by cooking it over extreme low heat, preferably in a cast iron Dutch oven in two cups of liquid. Although I have included dried pineapple and golden raisins in the past, I recommend this combination:

2 cups dried apricots, diced
2 cups dried Bing cherries, snipped in half
½ cup candied orange peel
2 cups dried papaya, diced
A pint of rum. I like Bacardi’s Gold. Glug glug glug!
A cinnamon stick. This is to be removed after the simmering.

Stir it when you think of it, or when you want to inhale the Christmas smell. After it’s simmered for awhile (one to four hours, say), turn off the heat and let it sit. A day or two is fine. It sat three days this year, but it was out in “Fred,” so that was all right.

Chop a cup, cup-and-a-half of toasted nuts: hazelnuts, almonds, pecans, whatever you like. Put them aside. Once the fruit is done macerating, stir the nuts into the fruit mixture.

Step Two

Prepare the pans. This can be one big tube pan or several smaller loaf pans. If you have batter left over, you can even make cupcakes. Grease the pans with Crisco (I know, I know. Just do it…) and line them with parchment paper. When I line loaf pans, I just use one strip to cover the long axis of the pan and leave bunny ears hanging out on both sides. Then grease the paper. When Ed lines the tube pan, he uses Scotch tape to affix the paper to the inner tube part. Somehow, he does it so the tape is not in contact with the batter. I don’t want to know how.

Step Three

Pre-heat the oven to 300 degrees.

Cream together:

1 cup shortening
2 cups packed brown sugar
4 ounces of melted semi-sweet chocolate (I like Ghirardelli’s 60%, but really any baking chocolate will work)
4 tablespoons cocoa

Beat in:

6 large eggs

Add and beat in:

1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon cardamom, if you have any.

Add and beat in:

3 cups WHITE flour. Don’t get all crunchy and sincere and use whole wheat flour. It will not work. Trust me, I know.

Add and beat in until the batter gets fluffy and changes color from dark to light brown, scraping the sides of the bowl from time to time:

2/3 cup apricot preserves
1 tablespoon rum extract
1 tablespoon chocolate extract
1 tablespoon instant espresso powder

Stir the batter into the fruit and nut mixture, and then stir in:

8 ounces of bittersweet, mini chocolate chips.

Really. Elizabeth says to do it and it worked out for us this year.

Make sure everyone in the family stirs it for luck in the coming year. Wishes made at this time have a better chance of coming true than wishes made at other times, except for birthday candle wishes.

Step Four

Boil water in a kettle. Then pour this hot water into a large lasagna-type pan. While you are waiting for the water to boil, pour the batter into prepared pans. Put the hot water pan on the bottom rack of the oven and the cakes on a rack above it.

Get out your timer and a box of toothpicks. The length of time that fruitcakes bake is much more art than science and you will have to rely upon your Curious Nose as much as upon the timer. I’ve found that fruitcakes bake for these approximate durations, but don’t blame the results on me if you get all precise and just use a timer for these treasures instead of paying attention.

Tube pan: four hours
Nine inch loaf pans: 2 ½ - 3 hours
Seven inch loaf pans: 1 ½ - 2 hours
Little pans: About 1 – ½ hours
Really cute tiny pans and cupcakes: I once had an oven that baked them in 45 minutes flat. My oven this year takes more like an hour, maybe even an hour and a quarter.

Check them with toothpicks before you take them out. The toothpick should come out clean when the cake is done, but it might not because of the sticky fruit or if you hit a pocket of chocolate chips. Check it twice.

The cakes will look dry around the edges and should have pulled away from the ends of the pan a tiny bit. Don’t let them brown though.

They should smell like heaven. You can carry one around the house and give everybody a sniff. This always makes me feel like a pre-Christian priestess with a votive offering. Or maybe I’m just being a bit braggy.

As you take out each installment, put the pans on cooling racks. Don’t take the cakes out of the pans, no matter how Curious you are, until they’ve sat for 15 minutes or so. The first tiny one can be a tester, that’s okay. And besides, you need to know if the parchment paper will peel off cleanly, right? Use a serrated knife to slice those first warm, fragile pieces. Be patient and slow in your slicing.

I like to loosen the parchment paper on all the cakes before I go to bed for the night, just to make sure it will not cement itself permanently to the cake, although I’m sure it wouldn’t. Pretty sure, anyway.

Once the cakes have cooled thoroughly (the tube pan will need to sit all night, and I sometimes get all 1950s and invert it on an old-fashioned glass Coke bottle or even a wine bottle), you can peel off the paper and wrap them in aluminum foil. Some years I wrap them in cheese cloth first and douse them in brandy or rum before wrapping them up – this is on the rare occasion that I actually do make them in August or September.

Put them somewhere cool for a month or so to age and meld. Mine used to sit in the cellar until we insulated it. Now we put them in “Fred.” Somewhere that stays above freezing but below fifty degrees would be ideal. Keep an eye on them. Sometimes one of the smaller ones will disappear.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Do What Nancy Says

So. The reason I went for a vocal assessment in the first place is that Nancy told me to do it.

Nancy is my voice teacher. You have no idea how proud I am to be able to say that. She taught the best and the most committed vocal students for decades, on both the West and East coasts. She’s sent more students to the Met finals, including the soprano who won the National Metropolitan Opera competition. She’s won it herself, and has sung at the White House, and when she goes to New York for a week there are students lined up to work with her. When she came out of retirement last year to teach a limited schedule, I was waiting outside on her stoop, panting.

And Nancy’s from Texas, and has a wicked sense of humor, and a realistic sense of who she is, and you do what Nancy says.

When you study with Nancy, you work with her accompanist, who happens to be a friend of mine. Signe and I have been friends for 35 years and, from time to time, have shared an almost telepathic bond. I once dropped an entire page and a half in a recital and there she was, right with me, even though the music was impossibly modern. We’ve seen each other through some pretty tough stuff. Signe plays like the pianist angels in heaven play. Not only does she play Brahms so that you want to sink onto the floor and sob aloud, she is probably the best accompanist I’ve ever seen. No matter how good you are, if you are singing with Signe, it makes you better.

So these two women, working together at the height of their powers, are my mentors and friends, in a very powerful Cosmic Sense. I see them at least once a week.

And as much as I love them and as much as I know they love me, I’ve felt a little guilty about taking up very much of their time. Because I’m in my fifties now, and even with the Big Arytenoid Scare of ‘10, I’m still not sure that I’m entirely behind this singing thing, and I’m going to be a club singer anyway so I don’t exactly need to be coached by the A Team. I’ve heard Nancy’s students, we gather in master classes fairly regularly, and they’re top-notch. They study with her because they are preparing for serious performing careers.

(I don’t feel very guilty. It’s akin to how you feel when you get away with eating half of your mom’s warm chocolate chip cookies, right off the cooling rack. Should have saved more for your brother, but ha! You got to them first.)

Last week, Nancy told me to prepare three or four jazz standards for my next lesson. I gathered 35 songs and prepared five of them. Overachiever! Double ha! See, I learned my lesson! I’m rolling on wheels now! New career as a club singer, three gold dresses and all! Who knows where this will end – I might stop biting my nails and get a manicure! I might even pop for the hair highlights! I’m relieved of the high wire act of concert singing, there’s no way I could do that now anyway. It’s a young person’s game, everybody says so. You can’t even take part in competitions, one of the main routes into the singing game, after the age of 35 – and I am way, way past my mid-thirties.

I have to admit to a tiny bit of trepidation because Nancy pointed a bony finger at me last Sunday and made me sing in the master class (not really, she just said in her warm, casual way, “Buh-ray-un-duh, you’re on after Claire,” but I’m telling you what it felt like), and I sang surprisingly well, and she came over to me later and said, “You have one of the great voices,” and I thought for a fleeting moment, is she really going to let me get away with just singing club songs or is there a little more Handel in my future? But then I thought, Nah.

Well. Four days later I brought in my list of 35 songs and five prepared pieces and we didn’t even glance at them. Signe was there. I’m always so happy to see Signe. But it usually means that Nancy has some repertoire that she’d like you to see. And it’s not going to be Stormy Weather.

She proceeded to introduce me to some of the most difficult, melismatic (think Queen of the Night on steroids) music I’ve ever seen. Bach arias about coffee, now that’s kind of funny! But it’s in a really problematic part of my voice and how many sixteenth notes are there on this page? Then some lovely 20th century Italian arias written in the antique style, okay, that’s fine.

Then she unfurled a piece of music and balanced it on the piano rack. It’s so old, it doesn’t have a title page anymore. Bits are crumbling off the brown edges of the score. I’ve never heard of this composer. He sounds like he’s from Japan or some Arabic country or Brooklyn or something. It’s a very non-standard size, even stranger looking than French music (French music publishers have never heard of 8 ½ by 11). I’m looking at sixteenth notes, thirty-second notes, sixty-fourth notes. I don’t think I could even play the melodic line. Call that a melodic line? Signe starts to play it for me.

I can tell that when these notes are translated into the human voice, the effect will be otherworldly. The piano is a percussive instrument and vocal music, even when played by the most skilled and intuitive of pianists, can’t have the same effect on the listener as when it is sung, but I’m getting chills. What is this? There’s something about it that makes me think it’s Spanish, there’s that exotic blend of Mediterranean and Arabic that you find only in Spanish music, but I’m not sure.

Nobody has this music. It’s more than a collector’s item, it’s like finding the buried treasure on Neahkahnie Mountain off the Oregon Coast. It’s like being given the Mystic Black Diamond of Koh-ih-Noor or the ruby slippers. It’s impossibly difficult. I know that I said I would do what Nancy says, said it in front of a half-dozen of the best singers I know, but I just can’t do this!

Nancy is laughing. She has the warmest smile in the world. I have to disappoint her. “Nancy. I can’t sing this!” “Yayus, you can! You have NO IDEA what you’ll be able to do.” And Signe adds, “I can hear it now.”

It’s like going to a doctor because you have balance problems and she prescribes learning how to walk a high wire, because if you survive that, you won’t have balance problems anymore.

No, this is what it’s like. It’s like rowing out on the New York harbor in the middle of the night to have a once-in-a-lifetime view of the Statue of Liberty. You’re bobbing around out there in the dark, looking up at the green bronze giantess a thousand feet away, thinking deep thoughts. Suddenly her terrifyingly Athene-like head turns and she looks sternly at you. Her lamp ignites and the flame shoots straight up into the sky. The arm holding the lamp sweeps down in your direction and points the lamp right at you like a searchlight. You’re blinded, just like when you’re standing on the stage of the Hult Center and can’t even see the front row of the audience.

Like Charlie Brown, I scream, “AUGH!!”

So this music is sitting in my living room, waiting for me to go make copies of it. Signe is going to make a recording of the melody, both fast and slow, for practice purposes. I have my little tasks lined up. If I learn to sing this, there won’t be much of anything I can’t sing.

At the last master class, I told Nancy that I was fifty-four, just as if she didn’t know it, just so she would know that she shouldn’t waste her time on me. And she said, “Perfect timing!”

I guess it is.

Lights. Camera. Action.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Getting Old As My Mother

George Harrison was a genius.

The first time I heard him sing this line, I thought I knew what it meant. Ha! That was twenty years ago. What did I know?

I fell into sudden, uncontrollable weeping the other morning because I tried to say the words, “I’m getting old now and I’m afraid of dying,” and I could hear my mother’s voice saying the exact same sentence a few years ago.

A close friend told me that I was getting more harsh with him, being critical and snippy, and that it was hurting his feelings and more than that, wearing him down, after a close and foundational friendship that’s lasted a couple of decades. I wasn’t even aware. I’ve struggled all my life with my shoot-from-the-hip manner, working to temper it with empathy and slowed reflexes, and can point proudly to a warm circle of friends and students as proof that I’ve succeeded, but apparently the closer you are to a person the easier it is to let yourself be…a natural bitch? I don’t want to be this person.

I remember my mother saying, “I don’t want to be this person.”

Yes, and I remember saying to myself, “I don’t even think she’s aware when she’s being critical and harsh.”

I would say yikes, but that’s being funny and this isn’t funny.

If you don’t want to be happy, don’t tell my husband what your heart’s desire is. (This works for me, our children, and the friends who’ve tried it – I don’t know if it would work for you, but it might.) Because the minute he knows what your heart’s desire is, he starts trying to figure out how to get it for you.

A year ago, I wrote that if I had just a year to live, I’d get enough sleep. Well, that wasn’t rocket science. I sleep more now. Several days ago I wrote about my perfect day, the one where the first action of every Endless Day was to pick up a hardbound journal and start writing. I swore that if I ever retired (this is defined, for me, as nobody needing to eat in the morning) I’d have mornings like this. Boy, I thought, this would be heaven, but then I thought that probably I’d get to the actual heaven before I felt that I didn’t have to get up and make breakfast for everybody. For the past week now, Ed has brought me coffee and oatmeal, our kids have gotten themselves out the door, and I’ve been writing, learning new songs, and building a web page…from six in the morning until about noon. Then I get up.

Yep, it’s heaven. But it’s confusing. I do have a list of goals, wouldn’t know how to go through a day without one, but Ed pointed out that the list is too long to finish in a day or a month and I shouldn’t worry too much about a timeline. After a lifetime of breaking goals down into tasks and creating a scope and sequence of work, and scheduling the tasks into little fifteen minute increments in my calendar, it feels funny to swim from thought to concept to essay, to these lyrics and that jazz arrangement. Yesterday I spent half an hour on a website entitled, “The Fifty Most Sexy Women Over Fifty.” It’s important. I want to be a club singer and have to believe that I’m not all washed up. Then I went to Red Light, a local consignment store and bought three really tight gold dresses for $68. Then I came home and sang along with a bluesy accompaniment to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and put together a list of songs for a coaching session.

This is my job now?

I’d like to say that I haven’t been so snippy in the last few days and that I’m more tuned into what’s coming out of my mouth. I can say that I’m trying. And as much as it hurts, it’s good that I have friends who will tell me that I’m hurting them. I’d like to think that the harshness comes from a place of disappointment and feeling like it’s too late to create a life that fits – and that when I’m given the chance to live that life, the sharp edges will melt away. Last night I heard myself saying, “This was a great day.” I don’t say that very often.

Working on it, working on it. In the meantime, just in case they don’t all know it already, and while I still can, this is what I want to say to those closest and dearest to me, especially my mother,

I wish you shelter from the storm
A cozy fire to keep you warm
But most of all, when snowflakes fall
I wish you love.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Endless Day

Lately I’ve been trying to figure out what it is I want out of life. I’ve had a little extra time to think, and realized that I would have a better chance of getting what I wanted if I only knew what “it” was, so I’ve been asking myself, “What do I WANT?”

And I’ve come to the conclusion that what I really want is the Endless Day. Not the Never-Ending Day, that’s different. The Never-Ending Day, even for a Lady of Leisure like myself, is full of making breakfast, lunch and dinner for four people, shopping, planning, cleaning the bathroom, writing (but somehow that doesn’t count because then I don’t have time to sell anything), coaching voice students, listening to and learning music (that doesn’t count, either, if I don’t then perform it), paying bills, checking e-mail, working out, doing laundry, raking leaves, pulling weeds from between little rocks, planting garlic, manipulating my son into doing his homework and then remembering to turn it in.

In contrast, the Endless Day goes like this: Wake up. Drink coffee while writing with a fountain pen in a large hardcover journal. Read until starvation forces me out of the bedroom. Eat breakfast. Read some more and think about taking a nap, maybe really taking a little one but probably not. Get dressed. Take a walk, maybe to a place that has more coffee and probably a newspaper. Listen to music on the stereo.

The whole day goes like that – read, write, eat, nap, walk, read some more. It would be even more perfect if I didn’t have to waste time sleeping at night. I suppose it would be okay to start talking to people, nice people, people I like, after the first day and a half or so.

I was looking at this description of The Endless Day and realizing just how out of it I apparently am. This isn’t how life is lived any more. There’s too much interaction with the real world in my Day. We’re talking about writing with a pen that you hold in your hand, books that have weight and are held in the lap, feet hitting pavement, not a treadmill.

More and more lately, I’ll arrange to spend time with a friend and we will sit or walk while my friend bends their face close to … a small electronic device that has everything interesting in the entire world in it. We’ll be in Disneyland or a restaurant and the most interesting thing is to check the weather on the iPhone, or find a review of a record or a restaurant, or check e-mail, or take a picture and post it on Facebook so their seventy-two friends can share this moment. Another friend has got a game room with a ping-pong table – but it’s covered with laundry, because the kids are playing ping pong on the Wii. The nearby used book store doesn’t purchase children’s books anymore. There’s not very much call for them. Kids either don’t read or they want a Kindle.

I like to sit and listen to records with friends – remember that? Sounds like something you’d do after the taffy pull. But there’s something about having the same sound waves washing over skin, drumming into hearts, and your eyes meeting.

So they can keep their little fifteen-inch back-lit world. I’ll keep the rest of it, the impact of my feet on pavement or trail, the long views, the hand holding the chopping knife, Pete Seeger’s voice vibrating the length of the living room, the warmth of my husband’s hand, the weight of the book in my lap. Especially if I can have it all for an Endless Day.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Angels in Portland

I'm a rationalist. You can tell that some of my ancestors are from Iowa -- show me, who did the study, was it peer-reviewed, was there a control, were the subjects self-selected? I don't believe in miracles.

So here's the thing. On September 20th, I went in for a vocal assessment and saw a devastating video of my vocal structure and heard the words, "There's nothing I can do." I cried for a week. After two weeks of blank grieving, I asked my walking buddy, "When will I feel better?" (I'm also impatient with all natural processes.) She answered, "When you start a course of treatment."

All right. A Plan. I need A List! Now we're in business. I made appointments: naturopath, acupuncturist, speech pathologist, voice coach. I took homeopathic remedies and researched food sensitivities and did the vocal equivalent of physical therapy exercises. For two more weeks.

On October 18, I watched a new video of my larynx. Absolutely no pathology to be seen. We're looking at a textbook-perfect larynx. I hear the words, "The nerves have regenerated."

In less than a month.

As Emily Litella of Saturday Night Live would say, "Never mind!"

What do I do with this?

Be fearful that life seems so random, both the good and the bad?

Give thanks (thank you. THANK YOU)for a gift that I never appreciated before?

Be ashamed that I created a big hoo-ha and it turned out to be a big nothing?

Notice the love and support that came from friends, family, and strangers? That was a lesson, all in itself.

Make plans to use my voice (My Voice!!) in every style and venue that I ever craved to try?

Wonder who's pulling the strings? Sometimes I think there really are small snickering household gods who like to kick my booty and make me pay attention. They live behind the woodstove, they listen from behind the siding. Or is there really a Bigger Plan?

Yes to all of the above. In the meantime...

I'm going to get a Handel on this. Then I'm going to fly me to the moon and sing among the stars.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Crackles and Pops

One of my earliest memories is singing the entire score to the Wizard of Oz, over and over again, and being so pleased with myself. I knew that I was singing it right and well and beautifully. My mother probably about lost her mind. I think I was four or five.

It was the beginning of a long life of singing in choirs, and shows, and recitals, and opera choruses, and the occasional mainstage production, and churches. From time to time, I’ve paid my bills as a singer and I’ve had a few nice successes. My college degree is in vocal performance.

But recently I lost my voice. Well, I haven’t lost my voice, but I’ve lost my Voice.

I thought it was post nasal drip, or vocal abuse from too much teaching/talking/singing/shouting, or not singing high notes correctly, or allergies.

The gravel in my speaking voice wouldn’t go away, my singing voice felt stiff, there were hisses and stops and starts in the voice that weren’t there before. So I went to see a friend who is a leading laryngologist here in town.

And after a relatively uncomfortable encounter involving a camera down my throat, what’s the news? Nerve damage, most likely caused by a virus that I didn’t even notice at the time, to the arytenoid cartilage – not the vocal folds themselves – causing the vocal cords to close asymmetrically. Yeah, yeah, what’s that mean? It means that my vocal cords don’t vibrate at the same frequency and they aren’t in contact all along their length as they vibrate. Air escapes and creates holes in the voice. It feels and sounds like being on the edge of laryngitis. Except that it’s permanent.

The gravelly voice and the stiffness and the crackles and pops in my singing voice are permanent.

What? Excuse me, WHAT?

My doctor says that nerves can regenerate to some extent over the year following the damage, and that exercising a muscle weakened by nerve damage can help to prevent further loss of function and perhaps even help me to modify how I create sound, thus allowing me to keep some useful singing function – he doesn’t know. I can come back in a year and he’ll look and we’ll see.

In one season, I’ve gone from being too much of a soloist to sing in a chorus to being not good enough to sing in a chorus.

I’ve lost my fluid, solid, beautiful voice that I have had since before I could speak. Every time I talk and it’s gravelly and I feel like apologizing for the scratchiness, I realize that it’s the way it is now. It’s structural. I saw it on the doctor’s TV screen.

It never occurred to me to be grateful for my voice. Greta Garbo-like, I’ve reclined on my Chaise of Life, back of the hand to my forehead, and bemoaned the Burden of a Gift that I Don’t Know What To Do With, or Why Didn’t I Do More With It, or What Shall I Do Now? The artistic version of White Man’s Burden. Cry me a river!

But I’ve never stopped and been thankful for a lovely voice that did pretty much whatever I asked it to do. It was part of me, one of my quirky talents, like my ability to read a thousand words a minute or make up a new recipe on the fly or see the one typo on a page at a glance.

So a lifetime of “near misses” with a singing career (my friend Sally says, “What’s a near miss? You were a featured soloist on the stage of the Hult Center, singing to 2,000 people for God’s sake!”) is over. I don’t have to feel badly any more that I didn’t do more with my talent. As Cat Stevens sang, “And if I ever lose my mouth, all my teeth, north and south, oh if I ever lose my mouth, or if…I won’t have to talk.”

It makes me think of other near misses. The eight-year teaching career that never really quite took off (again, what’s a near miss? Four years of teaching fifth grade, two of teaching music, two years of temping and substitute teaching…). My life as a Development Officer (yeah, yeah, I was never vice president of a college but I did raise a million dollars and made a world-class fencing facility in Portland, Oregon possible). I agree, at this late date, I could reset my definition of what’s a near miss. Still, they feel like near misses to me. I wanted to be the BEST at something. I thought that singing might be it.

I guess what bothers me most is that this and that happens, and plans go aft agley. Life is so goddamned RANDOM.

It’s not that the world is a dangerous place. It’s that it’s such a RANDOM place. And some random happens that’s not good.

And some random happens that’s terrific, like my blissful marriage to the Best Man in the World and being the mother of the Best Two Kids in the World, our overall good health, good friends, Ed finding a job he likes through the most unlikely sequence of events you can imagine, all of four of us enjoying intelligence, optimism (modesty, let’s not forget modesty), and stubbornness.

Last year, when I was hesitating over what to plant where and what if things don’t come up? …my friends and fellow gardeners David and Linda let me in on their philosophy of gardening. “Just plant a bunch of stuff, Brenda. Some things will come up and some things don’t.”

Just keep digging, just keep getting dirt under my nails, just keep planting. Ya get dirty. Some things come up and some things don’t.

And maybe I’ll take a few days to cry me a river.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


I remember, once, watching the front yard ripple like a wave heading for shore – except it was heading for the living room in which I stood. Then the earthquake met the leading edge of the house and the sound of a freight train filled my ears, and I could hear my mother’s dishes and my father’s cathode ray tube collection crashing to the floor in the dining room. I wanted to sprout wings and fly. Get away, get away!

It’s dangerous out there.

I felt almost the same way today, reading the New York Times. I quit watching the news years ago, when I realized just how incomplete and slanted and “watch the birdie!” it was. Besides, it was really depressing. And I may have to start spooning the print news out into more easily digestible portions, too. Really. Arizona’s new immigration laws, the Birthers, a far-right conservative who isn’t re-elected because he’s not conservative enough. They say that one of the ways to be most at risk to be manipulated by others is to be governed by fear and uncertainty. Well, a lot of us must be scared and uncertain, because a few noisy angry people are having an outsize effect on the rest of the country. Tea Partiers “taking back our country”? It’s my country too, and I don’t want you to have it.

I used to say to myself that when the Homeland Security Act and the far-right made my beautiful home too threatening to live in, that I might take a break and go live in Canada for awhile. Or Europe. But now we’re looking at the collapse of countries, and perhaps of whole regional economic systems. Global warming – yes, I know we like to call it climate change, but it’s global warming, folks – as well as unwatched aging nuclear stores and computer systems – threaten us all.

Jeez, it's not just dangerous out there -- the whole GLOBE is perilous.

And for most people, always has been and always will be. As I sit here, harrowed up with angst about Apocalypse Sometime Soon, I need to remember that for the majority of people on the planet, clean water is a hard-to-come-by luxury and one good meal a day is all you can hope for. That students are walking ten miles to get to a school with no books. They’re not living in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s just home.

It’s a beautiful day. I live in a neighborhood just south of Portland, Oregon, and my city sits down and across a little river, and I can walk to a bluff and admire it from afar. I planted spinach and carrots yesterday. I’ve got a fortune in leeks growing in one garden bed, and the garlic is coming on. The farmer’s market meets today, about five blocks from my house. Today is a good day to be alive.

But I see the earthquake rippling toward us. In times like these, when I see the ground rushing up toward us and I can no longer say, like the guy whose parachute didn’t open, “So far, so good,” it’s taking some mulling over – how do I continue to live with hope and purpose? J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the popular “Lord of the Rings” and a survivor of the First World War, once wrote that the English shared a common attitude – being essentially cheerful people, they can stay happy as long as despair can be postponed. (And, presumably, maintaining a stiff upper lip even when it can’t.)

Meanwhile, I plant my raspberries and asparagus and the new apple tree, teach my daughter how to drive a stick shift and my son how to write a five-paragraph essay – and prepare to enjoy the fruit of my labors for the next forty years or so.

Yes, it’s a dangerous planet, but it’s the only one we’ve got. And it’s home.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

World Warming

This just in: I'm fifty-three.

No, now, really, this is serious. I know I keep harping on it, but what a shock!

It happened suddenly, too -- kind of like a car accident, which also just happened last week. One minute you're driving at a steady pace down Southeast Ash and the next minute a van has crashed into you and your car doesn't look the same anymore.

I mean, one minute you're forty-three and going back to school and everyone tells you look thirty and the next you're fifty-three and you tell people so and they don't even bother to remonstrate politely. They just say, "Oh."

I know what happened. I was really fat for years and wouldn't look in the mirror or let anybody take a picture of me. So then I lost a lot of weight and I had to look in the mirror to buy clothes that fit and people started taking pictures again and jeez, the face I see in the mirror, well, SUDDENLY it's a -- middle-aged -- face. And you know the saying that fat plumps out your wrinkles and thin people wrinkle more than fat people? It's true.

Now, I wouldn't care if these outward changes weren't accompanied by some inward changes. Well, some things go along with the territory, like how many pairs of glasses do I need now? Readers, computer/piano/dicing onions glasses, distance glasses, bifocals, and then just accepting blurry for awhile because I read for two hours and it will take my eyes two hours to be able to focus on that tree, even with my new glasses on? If you're over fifty you're laughing ruefully, and you over there, yes you, just wait. You'll see!

Or not!

Anyway. Inward changes. The part that didn't change inside is the just-out-of-college part, the me who knows all the slang and is really cool and a little whacky and quirky and energetic and knows obscure topical references that only a few other cool people know, like Klaus Nomi and Eddie Izzard stand-up routines. (Yes, I know these are '80s references.) So this whacky quirky college student is where? Behind the fifty-three-year-old face.

My daughter says that my college-student self is shining through my fifty-three-year-old face and that's what makes me so cool. Aw.

What I notice most though, is that I don't want to set the world on fire anymore.

Big one. Because up to this last year, I wanted to change the world in a big way. Be a famous opera singer or do original research into the nature of sleep or stop global warming or nuclear proliferation or at least inspire classroom after classroom of kids to change the world for me.

But now?

Not so much.

Besides, I kinda feel like I've been changing the world all along. But in quiet, subtle ways.

There's a sidewalk between a middle school and a popular shopping center that's there purely because of my advocacy.

A church has an organ, in part because of my service on a committee.

Several of my friends have jobs they like because I connected some dots.

Dozens of kids are more confident and excited about themselves as learners because of me.

My son loves Star Trek, Mozart and Italian cooking because of me. My daughter is discovering herself as an actress because of me.

Oh, that's right, these two vital warmhearted people are in the world because of me!

But is that setting the world on fire?


Do I still have opportunities to try?

Yes! Yes, I do. And I see Hillarie Clinton and Gail Collins and Nancy Pelosi and I hear all about how we get a second wind in our fifties and you know, right now I'm using my second wind to garden and cook and take eight-mile walks and spend time with friends and sit and write and maybe read a book. Because it's more than 25 years since I've had time to do these things. I've been running for the train, catching hold by my fingertips and hoisting myself aboard since forever, and setting the world on fire looks like too much damn work. It's a big world.

I think I'll just warm it up a little.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Angels in Pocatello

I was very proud of my car, that first year in Baltimore. I had no idea of its gas mileage, its reliability, or even the true number on the odometer. Those things were not important. As a matter of fact I had never really thought about them as factors in the purchase of a car. Irrelevancies like licenses and insurance never came to mind either. The car was important because I owned it; none of my friends owned a car. It ran.

This car was a true work of art. Above a dirty mottled and graying green body, its formerly vinyl top rusted into a convincing facsimile of a coral reef. The less said about the body the better…I had learned to park by the crash method. (Into brick walls, not other cars.) It didn’t have a muffler, unless you counted the coffee can that I’d wired to the exhaust pipe with a coat hanger. Listening to it start up at seven a.m. on Sunday mornings was a religious experience: ka-POW! whum whum whum…It had to warm up for ten minutes before it would go anywhere.

One warm and humid June morning, my friend Laura and my husband Ralph and I emptied the contents of the car into the neighborhood dumpster, and got in to drive to Portland, Oregon, 3,200 miles away. We planned to do this in two days and seven hours, fifteen minutes less than our previous best. We were well provisioned: A bag of hard-boiled eggs, two loaves of bread, a dozen apples, Snickers bars, and enough money for gas and coffee. The coffee was the only weakness in the plan. We made stops for only one reason – for gas. Any other out-of-car experiences necessarily occurred within the ten minutes it took to fill up the car, pay for the gas, and pull out of the gas station. Ding ding!

We were used to these trips. We made them at least once a year to visit family, celebrate holidays, and to earn some money over the summer. They were, for the most part, uneventful, though from time to time we made unplanned side trips. Once, Laura and I got too interested in a conversation in German and ended up traveling 300 miles toward Texas at 2:00 in the morning. And there was one late evening that had a sort of nightmare quality where Greeley, Colorado kept showing up in the headlights no matter what we did. These were unusual events, however. It’s hard to get lost when most of the trip consists of pointing the car west and then trying not to fall asleep while driving towards North Platte. (It didn’t seem to matter if we did drive off the road in Nebraska – the surrounding countryside was just as flat as the road.)

We were passing Pocatello, Idaho, practically in Portland’s back yard, and feeling that fatal end-of-trip lassitude that comes too early in a journey of this kind. As we watched Pocatello float past us at 75 mph, I said, “God, I’m glad I don’t live in Pocatello.”

Whang whang whang CRASH!

At the time, we didn’t know what had happened. We found ourselves standing on the gravel shoulder of the highway, staring at our smoking car while cars full of westbound travelers whizzed by. As we stood there, speechless, a Jeep pulled up behind us. Out of it jumped a short, muscular man, who threw himself under our car for a brief inspection, leaped to his feet, and pointed to his car. “Get in.”

We got in.

Thinking about ax murderers, highwaymen who prey on helpless music students, and other shady characters, I asked him his name and where we were going.

He was George de Tillot and he was taking us, along with a large potted plant, as a gift to his wife. (We learned later that he had been one of the few French aviators to survive World War II and that his name was really pronounced duh-tee-YOH, but since this was Idaho it was now dee-tillut.)

The double-wide mobile home lived on an acre of dust and was kept company by a large RV, a boat, and a sedan. As we pulled up, Arletta deTillot opened the door. “Look what I’ve brought you!” her husband shouted as he handed her the plant and gave her a resounding kiss. She took one look at us and disappeared into the house, only to reappear a few minutes later with a stack of linens.

As Laura and I made up our beds in the RV (we had been segregated by gender, first thing) and Ralph supposedly was doing the same thing in the house, we speculated about our condition. Are they crazy? Can we trust them? It looks clean. They seem nice. We had been given instructions to make up our beds and then come into the house to wash and have drinks before dinner. Dazedly, dutifully, we finished our beds and presented ourselves for pre-dinner talk.

The talk, over beer, sodas, and bourbon, was about the car. The chief of police was a friend of George’s. George had called him and asked him not to tow the car, it was not abandoned. He, George, would take care of it. Then he had called the mechanic in town (another friend) and asked him to tow the car to his garage and call him with an estimate of the damage. These things would all be done very soon. We had nothing to worry about. We were their guests until the car would be fixed.

I don’t recall any questions about who we were and what we did and why we were so far from home. Gently, in conversation that continued over dinner (meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and peas), and then in the living room over coffee, they extracted the particulars from us. Laura and Brenda are music students. Ralph is a concert pianist. We are traveling from Baltimore to visit our families in Oregon. No, we don’t have a credit card. Actually, we have no money at all – just enough to get to Portland.

They repeated, you have nothing to worry about. Go to bed, get some sleep. Tomorrow we’ll see what the mechanic has to say, and you can do some sightseeing around Pocatello (!). Ralph, our piano is your piano – we would be pleased if you would take this opportunity to practice your regular hours.

Off we went to bed, not much more informed than we had been about who these delightful people were, but no longer worried that they were relatives of Norman Bates.

The next day, we learned that the car was seriously damaged. Something called the “universal bolt” had “sheared off,” and we were lucky that the entire drive train of the car hadn’t ripped through the body and killed us all. How much would it cost to repair? Oh, impossible to tell…it will take several days…don’t worry about it.

Several days! We can’t stay here several days!

Of course you can. Do you have calls you wish to make? We will lend you our car, so you can drive around and look at things. We will be happy to have such distinguished musical guests. You can give us a concert your last night here, to pay for your room and board. We will pay for the car’s repairs, and you can pay us back when you can.

But George, we don’t have any money. We don’t know when we can pay you back.

That is not a worry. Let me tell you a little story.

I believe in angels. Long ago, I was an aviator, flying for France. Most of us were killed in that war. I had many…experiences. I was lucky to live. When I needed help, people helped me. They refused any payment or obligation, and would only say that I must pass on what I had received. After the war, when I came to America and married Arletta, we decided that we would always help people who needed help. So you are not the first, you see. This is a good location. People fall off the highway all the time.

But George! You trust perfect strangers in your house, with your car! Isn’t it dangerous? Don’t you worry about people stealing from you?

How can they steal? We are giving! One couple did take our car once. We never saw them again. But year after year, dozens of people, only one bad lot…we are blessed. We have friends all over the world now.

George, how can we ever repay you?

I will tell you exactly how to repay me. Pass it on. Help others. And when you drive through Pocatello again, you must stop and visit and play for us.

We sat over our cups of coffee, looking at the angel in jeans and a plaid shirt.

That’s about all. The car was repaired, I don’t know how. George’s friend must have rebuilt the engine. We did add a muffler, greatly diminishing the drama of Sunday mornings. The car ran fine for several trips after that, trips that always included a visit to Pocatello and our angels, until the day Ralph drove the car west, away from Baltimore, and me.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

We'll Never Get Out of This Alive

I read once that we die of the ills that our age is heir to. In other words, we’ll die of whatever is going around, and lucky for us that it probably won’t be the Black Death or being stoned as a witch. So how afraid can I be of the swine flu, AIDS, radon gas, antibiotic resistant staph? Should I be afraid of flying? (I have been, ever since Reagan broke the back of the traffic controllers’ union.) I took nuclear winter off my list when my American history professor notified me that the Cold War had been over for some years now. Now I worry about stuff like heart disease and cancer, and sometimes surviving the traffic on I-5 during rush hour.

And I have some friends struggling with serious health issues, so worrying about myself seems laughable when my health issues are more along the lines of “No, you can’t eat ice cream every day and expect to stay a reasonable weight.” I’ve even lost some friends to heart disease and cancer recently, which is not only a sad thing but also alarming – I get nervous when people die in their fifties or, God forbid, in their forties. What’s the deal with people dying? He was so young…she was so young…

What I tend to forget is that death is imminent for everybody, depending on how you define imminent. Sometime in the next fifty years, I’ll be dead. That’s pretty soon. I make a lot of long term plans, always have, and fifty years is just the other side of long-term. I had to change my retirement plans so I wouldn’t be out of money and unemployed at the age of 100. Heck, I have a plan to go to Italy to celebrate my 100th birthday, it IS a milestone birthday, although I’m having a hard time getting takers for people to go with me. But even I have to admit that I probably don’t need to make a financial plan for after 106 or so.

Then there are the charms of aging. I have lovely neighbors in their late 90s, retired educators, who are helping me think about what advanced old age can be like if you plan well, stay healthy, and are very lucky. It still looks like hell. And even if I am the luckiest of all and die in my sleep at the same moment with my sweetie, hand in hand, at the age of 106 after having done everything I wanted to do…it’s…still…a world without me anymore.

Now, dying is worth worrying about. It’d be crazy talk to say it isn’t. The thought of not being part of the warp and woof of our family and our friends’ lives is certainly worth concern and maybe even some planning. Children count on us. Spouses and friends. I find, though, that I fear death for itself, not just for the effect my death would have on others. I know that the concept that I won’t be around, forever meddling in the world, is a powerful one that propels me to take all kinds of rash actions.

But the little thought has been creeping into my head lately that maybe the fear of not existing anymore…is maybe a fear that I don’t need to keep. Of all the certainties that life has for us, death is the most certain. Soon or late, we end, and we are remembered or not. We began, too, and had the same amount of consciousness before coming into the world as we presumably will when we leave it. I don’t spend any time thinking about my fate BEFORE my life. Why worry about after?

A friend came over for breakfast this morning and asked me why I wanted to spend my work life in a little box when I could do so much more. She pointed out that we shouldn’t waste any time being miserable, if we can help it. Whether we have ten days, ten years or more, it’s a finite amount of time. So if we want to contribute something lasting to the world, accomplish something specific, have some fun or even get enough sleep, we need to hold the awareness that there is a limited amount of time in which to act.

And maybe that’s what ultimately bothers us about death. Finite isn’t a concept we Americans like. We want to think that we can have it all, if we can afford it. Life, however, does come with an expiration date.

When I was younger, I got around the time limit by carrying on parallel lives. For three memorable years, I was a concert soprano, voice teacher, owner of a pasta business, mother of a young child, a church soloist and a corporate secretary. I don’t recommend it, but it did make the three years seem longer. I spent four years once attending college full-time, working full-time as a college administrator (that’s how I paid for the college), and holding two, no, three part-time jobs. This may have been a bad idea, even if it meant I graduated debt-free.

Now I realize that a time limit can be helpful. Who said that it focuses your mind wonderfully to know you’ll be hanged in the morning? I do pay more attention now, and I stopped feeling smug about multi-tasking on the macro level, even before I recovered from the chronic fatigue. It is permissible to do just one (or maybe two or three, okay?) things at once?

And we do control, to some degree, how much we limit ourselves in other ways. Because, you know, being alive is the discrepancy. It’s the odd state we happen to be in. For most of human history, we weren’t here! Most of the billions of people in the world right now aren’t affected by us, either. The corollary of that is, we are HERE, affecting the few people we affect -- NOW. So all we have to do is live HERE and NOW.

Not easy. I’m the one with the fifty-year plan, remember? But I also need to remember that I’ll never get out of this alive.

So this is it. Here and now.

Live it up!

The Back Half of the Game

I live and vacation in Oregon, and I like walking on the beach that stretches from Neahkahnie to Nehalem Bay State Park. When the tide is out, it’s possible to walk for eight miles in one direction, thanks to a long sand spit and Oregon’s beach law that says nobody owns the beaches. But the tide never seems to be out in December, and since we live in a part of the Pacific Northwest where we get rain pretty much every day from October to June, it’s a startling coincidence if the sun comes out during low tide. And we live above the 45th parallel, so that means no matter what you had planned, if there’s a sun break (we call them “sun breaks”), get out there while the getting’s good because the sun is above the horizon for maybe eight hours altogether near the turn of the year.

So there I was, walking south toward the winter sun. I had decided to walk 5,000 steps and then turn around – about two and a half miles each way, a good walk on level hard-packed sand. The white foam on the waves reflected brilliantly. That, and the salty wind in my face, made me squint. The awareness of Neahkahnie Mountain behind me made a nice comfortable psychological backrest. I talk to myself when I walk, when I’m not singing arias from La Traviata, and as I walked I flipped through different ways of looking at being in my fifties. (I’m constantly bumping into this fact and getting surprised all over again.)

I reached 5,000 steps and turned around, toward the mountain. And suddenly the ocean turned blue. I had been looking at hard brilliance, walking toward the sun, but now the sun and the wind were at my back and the giant green mountain was before me. I was halfway through my walk, heading home.

And just at that moment, at that halfway point when the world surprised me by becoming even more unbearably beautiful, I had a wonderful realization – I am just halfway through my adult life. I’m not near-elderly, as the federal government likes to call people in their mid-fifties. I’ve been an adult for thirty years and with any luck, I’ll be an adult for at least another thirty. And this thirty years will be the thirty years in which I know who I am, in which I have good friends, in which I know how to take care of my emotional and physical health – all a huge improvement over the first thirty years.

So I’m heading into the back half of the game. Heading home, toward the mountain, wind at my back, sea and sky blue. I’m just starting the best part of my adult life.

I intend to enjoy every bit of it.

Thoughts on the Day After the Shortest Day


That’s it. That’s possibly the most important idea that human language has captured.

I always thought life was a checklist. You make the list. You do the things on the list. You check them off and they’re done. I coach vocal technique and I’m constantly trying to figure out ways to get my students to automatically, naturally, relax their throats. One way is to tell them to imagine, especially around the holidays, that “Everything is done!” The student instantly emits a blissful sigh from a visibly relaxed throat and jaw.

The problem is that there is always more to put on the list. Sometimes I’m not employed in a full-time job, either on purpose or because of some misadventure on the universe’s part or an odd combination of the two, and my check-off list is always just about as long. My mother has been retired for over twenty years and HER check-off list is as long as mine. When there isn’t a 45-hour-a-week job involved in the mix, though, the check-off list has more, shall we say, optional things in it, like friends and house maintenance, and it spans a longer period of time. I start doing things in advance. I’ve always done this, always the first teacher in the building to have my grades done, for example, but when I’m not so slammed for time I tend to do my Christmas shopping in September, so it’ll be done. My idea of nirvana is to get everything done. In advance.

And…then what?

Exactly. And.

My brother always says, When everything is done, you’ll be dead. A smart guy, my brother, and as a long-time John Lennon fan, he is more able to Let It Be than most people.

I’m not much for process. I’d like to be. I’d like to live in the moment and smell the flowers and all those things. But I seem to always be looking at the end. What’s the long-range plan? What’s my mission statement and how will I get there in twenty years? How are today’s tasks building toward a life structure that I envisioned five years ago? Earlier this year I wrote a list (a list, a list!) of things I would do when I retire. At the top of the list was, “Get enough sleep.” And the funny thing is, I’m self-employed. And I’m the second income. And there’s no reason not to get enough sleep. Except I have this list…

And what’s on the list? I’m always either looking for a job or changing careers. This being me, I’m doing both right now, and since I can’t just choose a life direction and head there, I’ve got three career changes going on. I’ve been working on a career change to teaching for ten years, so now I have six licenses, covering an age range from Early Childhood to Middle School and a range of subjects that is conservatively Pretty Much Everything – and I’m working on getting an acting career going, and oh yes, there’s that writing thing. So networking, rehearsals, coaching, writing a blog. Actually, my biggest job at the moment is being the Keeper of the Keys for our household and we’re just coming off a year of renovation and smoke damage, plus we have a teenage son. So most items on the list have to do with scheduling, procurement, quality assurance, and inventory control of homework, clothing and food. We unexpectedly made a couple dozen friends this year and, never having done anything like that before, we were surprised at how much time it takes to have friends, kind of like what happens when you get a boyfriend or have a baby. And I’m putting off really settling into my fifties, so that takes time for working out, walking, and choosing food wisely. I used to schedule in non-motorized transportation time, because that’s a two-fer -- saving the earth and my health – but it took too long.

And I need to add more Saving the Earth stuff to my list. Yesterday I read in Time magazine that the Himalayan glaciers are melting. Three billion people literally depend on that glacier melt for their lives. The same article stated that many climatologists believe that we’re looking at the extreme edge of the envelope for global warming, and much faster than anyone anticipated – you can see the changes, year by year, with the human eye. You don’t even read about the “Great Die-off,” also known as the biggest extinction rate since the dinosaurs, or the deterioration of the ozone layer any more. Seems that we’ve run out of brain space for the number of planet-sized disasters we’ve created as a species.

But it might not be that bad. A friend of mine says that it’s not the planet we need to worry about. It’s ourselves. This big ol’ planet has healed itself, or changed to sustain different kinds of life, several times. Evolutionary niches will always be filled anew, if you wait long enough. It’s just that the Earth doesn’t much care if we’re one of those species being sustained or filling the niches, and I don’t think my descendants are guaranteed a seat in the theater to see what does fill those spaces in another couple million years.

So maybe I don’t like the process that we’re in, this particular epoch. Or maybe the flowers need to be sniffed now while they’re still there.

Martin Luther said, If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant my little apple tree. And who was it who said that jobs worth doing couldn’t be accomplished in one lifetime? As I mosey toward certain death (actually, in my twenties it felt like moseying – thirty years on it feels more like sliding and soon it may feel like hurtling), I’m becoming more aware that I will have to leave some jobs to others. (Although I’ve already picked out two candidates for my husband’s next wife, women I approve of and who will treat him well. There are two so he’ll have a choice.) I never did get that job of Empress of the World, so the task of delegating some of the bigger jobs is going more slowly than I’d like, the bigger jobs being things like achieving universal health care, outlawing meanness, and nuclear disarmament.

Today, the day after the winter solstice, is the first day of the new solar year – this morning, as Susan Cooper wrote in her beautiful poem “The Shortest Day,” the new year’s sunshine blazed awake. As the Earth continues in its accustomed path around the sun, our hemisphere will be tilting toward radiance more and more for the next six months. Instead of the days darkening and shortening, they will brighten and lengthen, as they have every year for the past billion years or so.

I will never finish everything on my list.

(Can I take a nap then, and read a non-improving book, and take the time to walk to the store?)

We’ll keep working on those jobs, daily and eternal, and when we’re done with our part, other people will pick up what we were doing.

And that’s the way it is.