Saturday, November 9, 2013

Preparing For the Future Is a Full-Time Job

            I was looking at my grandmother’s vanity the other day.  I use it for a make-up table, because we never did get the bathroom set up with good lighting and a countertop, and then I put a little rocking chair that I got at the dump for $5 in front of it because I meant to get a real little vanity chair but couldn’t find one.
            Next to the vanity is a big pink antique chair.  I don’t like the pink, and we were going to reupholster it, but Ed has resisted taking up upholstery as a hobby.  I would like him to learn upholstery and also auto mechanics, but he has steadfastly insisted on choosing his own hobbies.  Go figure.
            But the chair is looking better now, since my sister-in-law gave me a little lap quilt that has pink and black squares in it, and I hung that over the back of the chair.   Then I found a little pillow that has pink and black in it that says, “Too Much of A Good Thing is Simply Wonderful,” and then my mom gave me a big wooden red elephant to use as a side table, and now the whole corner looks pretty good, even if it is by accident, so when we do reupholster the chair the whole effect will be spoiled.
            And the vanity sits in front of the window because there’s a fake stained-glass window piece of plastic stuck to the window, which makes it so you can’t see into the neighbor’s bedroom, and I don’t like the plastic window covering so I put the vanity in front to hide it until I can peel it off or even replace the window.  But then I put the bed in that part of the attic because now that corner looks pretty cool.  So when I fix everything up the way I want it, I’ll have to put the bed back where it was, and I can’t really, because I have made a temporary walk-in closet with some IKEA cabinets and a laundry room clothes-hanger-upper-thingie where the bed used to be, until Ed can make a real walk-in closet.
            And this all makes me think of the Accademia Bridge in Venice, also known as “The temporary bridge.” You see, the old bridge fell down about 80 years ago, so they put up a temporary wooden one, and then it got a little rickety over the next 50 years, so they put up a second temporary one to look like the old temporary one, and now they want to replace it with a real stone bridge but there’s a lot of controversy about it because, you see, somehow the temporary one became a historical structure and now some people can’t bear the thought of changing it. Kind of like my bedroom.
            Anyway, this all has to do with preparing for the future.  You know that I used to always have a 20 year plan, until I noticed that I had to revise my plans really often, so the 20-year-plans became five-year-plans, and then those never worked out either.  Then I just came up with some general goals.  My general goals last year were:
  • Be a concert soprano again
  • Start up a jazz singing career
  • Become a writer
            Then I left the singing stuff by the door (forever!! Back of the hand to the forehead), except that last week I bumped into one of the leading chanteuses in Portland and it turned out, in a conversation over a vintage tie I was buying because it made me think of a book I was going to write, that we knew a lot of the same people and would I like to come to one of her salons and sing with some friends?  So then I started thinking about cabaret repertoire again.
            And then I almost got a job in educational software sales, and that made me start to think about working as a grant writer or a sales person or maybe a project manager, but then I signed up to write a novel in a month for the National Write a Novel in November marathon, and then a writing friend of mine asked for all my essays so she could show them to her publisher.  So by the end of November I will have written four books, if you count the children’s book and the fitness book.  And I have three more ready to start.
            This made me get serious about organizing my time.  So now I've decided that I will write from eight in the morning to noon, then spend the afternoons teaching voice or doing informational interviews or learning music.  That way, when the future gets here, I’ll be ready for it. 
            So maybe the vanity and the bathroom and the bedroom and the closet will have to stay the way they are, like the Accademia Bridge in Venice.  Because preparing for the future is a full-time job.  Even if you aren’t sure what the future’s going to be.  Go figure.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Wisdom Learned from Tom and Della

I can't believe I have never posted this before.  My parents are two of the wisest people I know.  Here is a compilation of their best bon mots for your own personal resource library.  If you nail it to the wall of the kitchen, you'll always have it available for handy reference.
Always look in the direction the car is moving.
If you clean up the kitchen as you go, it is clean when you are done cooking.

A slice of potato in the doughnut fryer cleans the fat, and you can eat the potato afterward.

Always carry a calculator and nail clippers in your pocket.

You can make a great fort out of a table, three chairs, two blankets and a sheet.

Iron the collar last.

Do not be afraid of butter when making a sauce.

Spend money on really good ingredients.

It is more important to spend time with friends than to sleep.

Spend money on ephemera, like trips to Europe.  It is worth getting a second job to have the money, too.

Play music loudly so everyone can hear and enjoy it.  You can do housework or just sit and listen.  It’s all right to insist that people stop and listen to the really good parts.

Reading is fun.  Poetry, history, recipes, short stories, novels, maps, science fiction, and comic books.

Opera is a good thing and it’s not just for stuffy rich people.

Magic is real, including ancient, arcane Egyptian practices, thiotimiline, and fairies.  How do you know elves don’t exist if you’ve never seen one?

You must eat pickled peaches at Thanksgiving.

It is worthwhile to spend three days making a special dish, like sauerbraten.

You can’t make enough potato pancakes or lefse.

Keep the water running when it’s below freezing outside.

Always keep your options open.

You don’t have to do something just because you’re good at it.

It is not hard to make homemade chocolate pudding.

Use the good dishes.

Cover the blueberry bushes with netting so you’ll get some blueberries.

Sing loudly.

It is always a good time to play the ukelele.

Grind the coffee beans the night before.

Lift from your knees.

Cooking is an end until itself.  It is recreational, social, and creates works of art.

It is important to spend chunks of time and money to gather friends for talk, food, and drink.  Do it often.

Be nicer to your spouse than anyone else you know.

Toothpaste will stop mosquito bites from itching.  Usually.

If you have hiccups, drinking a glass of water in a steady rhythm will make them go away.  Every time.

Don’t open the door to the dark room.  All the dark will leak out.

When playing gin rummy, discard the high cards first.  But sometimes you can panic your opponent into error by throwing a low card early.

Talk to your spouse a lot.  Make sure you spend a lot of time with him or her.

If you walk by a weed in your yard, pull it.

Be involved in your community, your street, your city, your state, and on the national level.  Make things better, no matter how busy you may be.  Stay informed.

Make friends with all kinds of people, all colors, ages, backgrounds, religions, nationalities, and professions.  Most people are good, kind, and interesting.

Learn new things – how to cook a complicated dish, deciphering land use regulations, a language so you can travel somewhere you’ve never been before.

Let go of things you don’t need.  Make room for something new.  Or just enjoy the empty space.

You don’t always need a coat.  Sometimes it’s okay to just be cold for a few minutes.

Pay attention to how you look.  It’s fun to dress up.

You can clear a stuffy nose by standing over a steaming kettle with a towel or a newspaper over your head.

Gargling with salt water eases a sore throat.

Write.  Stories, poetry, and letters.  Show them to people.

Sing to, and with, your children.  Sing harmony.

Share new recordings with your family.  Rock and roll, jazz, Sibelius violin concertos.  It doesn’t matter as long as you are excited about it.

Take pictures.

You don’t have to heat the whole house.  Light a fire or put on a sweater or go out for a walk to get warm.

Growing some of your own food is not that big a deal.

Camping is fun.  Keep a box stocked and ready go to.

Spray the tablecloth with water before you iron it.

It’s not a big deal to bake a birthday cake from scratch.  Black Midnight is the correct cake, although June birthdays may prefer strawberry pie.

If you use a lot of something, figure out how to get it wholesale.  Sometimes you can get others to go in on it with you.  This works for cheese, beef, wine, beach condos, and lots of other things.

Don’t bother with mixes or frozen food.  Food made from scratch tastes a lot better and usually it’s surprisingly easy to make.

Popcorn should be made in a pan, not a microwave.

Cold pizza makes an excellent breakfast.

So does popcorn.

Radishes and green onions are good with a little salt in the palm of your hand.

Sprinkle pepper on your buttermilk before you drink it.

Learn more than one language.

Recycle, even if it’s not convenient.

You don’t have to follow a recipe too closely.  Sometimes it’s okay to guess.

You can make up recipes.  It’s good to write them down.

You can design your own house or dress pattern.

If some things are in a routine, it gives you more brain space for the other things.

Don’t cook the eggs or the coffee too long or too fast.

You can choose how to live your life.  You are not stuck with what you did before or what your family or friends thought was normal or inevitable.

It’s okay to spend money on new cooking equipment.

The candle will stay in the holder if you drip wax in it first.

Antique furniture often costs less than furniture from Ikea, and it’ll last longer, too.  It already has!

What you cook at home usually tastes better than restaurant food.

The family eats together every night.

There should always be a candy bar on a shelf in the cupboard.  You can slice pieces off of it.

A batch of chocolate chip cookies makes anything better.

You don’t need a lot of champagne to make it flow in the streets.  Scraping it with your toe makes it go farther.

You must play a bagpipe recording really loudly on New Year’s Eve at midnight.  Open the door so the neighbors can share the experience with you, and to let the New Year in.

Ketchup is good on scrambled eggs.

Make your own syrup with brown and white sugar.

And my personal favorite…if the pasta sticks to the wall, it has cooked too long.

There.  If you nail this list to the wall, it will be  handy for reference, although you may eventually want to memorize it.  

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

I'm Not the Wreck of the Hesperus

Dr. Oz, say it ain't so!

I've just read my third article in a month about how many Americans think it would be a bad thing to live to be 120.

It'd be depressing because the world is going to hell.  You'd be old forever.  It's bad for society.  We're overpopulated!  The Baby Boomers and the Greatest Generation need to die off so the younger people can have their jobs.

All right.  I am fifty seven -- let's spell that out folks, f-f-f-f...can't do it.  All right.   Deep breath.  FIFTY SEVEN, and I'm starting to take this personally.

I agree that overpopulation is a problem.  I'm in the middle of writing a book where 90% of the human race dies off, and this tragedy, ironically, ushers in a new Golden Age.  Let's agree that there are two or three times as many human beings as the planet can sustain comfortably.

But I don't agree that my stubbornness about checking out causes overpopulation.  There are a lot of complex reasons why we have too many people on this planet.  From what I understand, it has to do with, among other things, a drop in infant mortality, a lack of options for women worldwide (I'm talking education and equal rights, folks), access to clean water and antibiotics.

Yes, a higher life expectancy is also a factor.  But maybe the answer to overpopulation is more complicated than lowering our expectations of how long we can live healthfully if we're interested in carrying on.   Could we educate women and allow them to work and give them the resources they need to control how many children they have?  And once children get here, can we be intelligent about how many resources they use?  I think it's ironic that this keeps coming up here in the United States, where five percent of the population uses 25% of the fossil fuel.  After all the fuss about Grandma and the alleged Death Panels, I don't understand why I'm now getting the message of "Here's your hat, what's your hurry?"

We need to stop working so younger people can have our jobs?  Really?  Have most thirty-year-olds mastered the skill sets that I have?  Amassed the experience, the wisdom?  I've lived three adult lives for their one.  They are doing different jobs, jobs that I outgrew a generation ago.  And all these jobs need to be done, because the more people there are in the world, the more people we need to take care of everybody -- we staff each other.  Living longer is only a problem if we decide to sit around for the last half of our lives and let other people take care of us.  If you're going to live to 120, why would you stop being productive at age 65?  Sit around for 50 years?  Please.

And why would an older person be a less valuable consumer, a less valuable volunteer, family member, counselor?  I assume that you'd get 50 more years of health and vigor with 50 more years of life.  I could understand a reluctance to sit around being spoon-fed Cream of Wheat for half a century.  But I don't think that's what we're talking about here.   The science of aging is exploding.  Researchers are completing large-scale studies that clearly show that what we think of as "aging" is actually just cumulative dis-use.  Eat well, move vigorously, stay connected and productive and you will double or triple your chances of living healthfully into your eighties and beyond, effectively extending middle age.  I know that I am more healthy and energetic than I was in my twenties and thirties.  And yes, I like walking four miles a day and lifting weights twice a week, and I don't miss ice-cream, much.

It's bad for society to have older human beings around?  In many parts of the world, it's understood that when you live a long time, you become wiser.  Your talents, skills and experience all create a nice synergy and the younger set tend to seek you out for advice.  The long-lived ones are considered to be a precious resource.

I don't know why this isn't the case in this country.  I've been bumping into age discrimination since I was in my early thirties -- I was trying to make a career as a performer at the time -- in my forties when I entered grad school and was told at one school "We're uncomfortable with older students" and faced blatant age discrimination at another -- into my fifties where I have to edit my resume very carefully to hide the fact that I'm old enough to still be mad at President Ford for pardoning Nixon.  I've been told that I'm "ageless," and that's nice, but why do I have to look younger than my years?  Why isn't it good to look my age?  Is there something wrong with it?  (I happen to think I look great.  Not for my age.   For me.)

Finally, the argument that it will be depressing because the world is going to hell in a handbasket...people, I have been depressed about the state of the world since I was a teenager.  Between the ages of six and sixteen, I lived through the 1960s and early 1970s.  My heroes were being assassinated, we witnessed riots and murders associated with according U.S. citizens civil rights, students were shot on the Kent State campus on their way to class, and we were just really beginning to be concerned about possible damage to the planet (Silent Spring was published in 1962, and then there was Carl Sagan and his writings on nuclear winter the year my first child was born).  I lived through the Vietnam War and the Cold War.  Even the advent of rock and roll couldn't disguise the fact that those were not happy times. 

It's never happy times, though.  My parents and grandparents lived through the Depression, the Dust Bowl and the first two World Wars, and I don't think those were a chuckle-a-minute years, although they made for some great stories.

The world, as I keep noticing despite all my best efforts, still isn't saved.  As a matter of fact, it seems to be getting messier.  But isn't it possible that people of my generation could be helpful in fixing it?  I read recently that on the whole, people of my generation are more concerned about the ecology of the planet Earth than the thirty-somethings demographic is.

If you're one of my age cohort or older, I want to say:  Depression, apathy, loneliness, being unproductive -- these problems aren't necessarily age-related.  You are not a number.  You have some control over how healthy and productive you are.  Don't let the wrinkles and gray hair scare you.  You didn't let pimples ruin your life, did you?  (Don't answer that.)  Jerome Hines made a comeback at the Met in his 80s.  The great Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad was 40 when she made her Met debut and recorded the definitive Isolde at the age of 63.  (In case you don't know, singing Wagner should qualify as an Olympic event).

If you are younger than I am, be aware that an accumulation of wisdom and knowledge, and comfort with yourself and the world, IS age-related.  Enjoy it as it comes.  Enjoy us, the long-lived ones.  Get to know us.  We're actually pretty cool.  Don't be afraid of us -- we're you, or at least, you're going to be us, pretty soon here.

And don't show us the door.  We've earned our right to be here.  And you need us.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


(I admit it’s a little late for my annual solstice post, but better late than never.)

I am sitting under a quilt in my living room, listening, as I have for the past forty years, to the Christmas Eve service broadcast (live!) from Kings College, Cambridge.  
“Adam lay ybounden, bounden in a bond; four thousand winter thought he not too long.  And all was for an apple, an apple that he took, as clerkes finden, written in their book.  Ne had the apple taken been, ne had never our ladie been heav’ne queen!  Blessed be the time that apple taken was, therefore we moun singen.  Deo Gracias!”

I've sung this ancient carol before, and I love listening to these Old English words in the candlelight.  As I sit in the pre-dawn dimness, I can see the congregation all those thousands of miles away in the English twilight.  I can hear them rustling and coughing in their seats. I see the adorable-looking boy sopranos in their starched cassocks and surplices.  (Although having been the choir mom for a men and boys’ choir, I know that this is “surface cute.”  The contraband magazines in their music folders are not the kind of reading material you expect pink-cheeked boy sopranos to be reading, until you realize that they are 12- and 13-year-old boys.)

But I get to thinking about the words of the carol.

“Blessed be the time that apple taken was, therefore we moun singen.  Deo Gracias!”


Isn’t that the “original sin” we keep hearing about?  Why was this apple-taking a good idea?

Because “Ne had the apple taken been, ne had never our ladie been heav’ne queen!”

Oh, that's right.  I forgot about that whole redemption thing.

Then I got to thinking about Sleeping Beauty.  (This follows…it’s  Christmas, right?   The magi brought gifts…we give presents on Christmas…the good fairies gave Briar Rose gifts of beauty, wit and musical abilities…good.  Glad you’re coming along with me on this.) 

Remember, Briar Rose’s parents didn’t invite the bad fairy to their new baby’s party?  So she got mad?  So when the good fairies gave her all the nice presents, she decided that the baby would prick her finger on a spindle and die when she was a teenager?  The last good fairy, you remember, was able to modify this gift a little bit…instead of dying, Rose would sleep for one hundred years, when a prince would wake her with a kiss.

(Scholars of Grimm’s fairy tales, if this isn’t EXACTLY the way you remember it, give me a break.  I’m not even going into how this story is constructed of bits and pieces from earlier myths and stories, including Brunnhilde.)

And of course, despite her worried parents burning every last spinning wheel in the kingdom (and just what did everybody do for clothes, in this pre-industrial age, with no spinning going on for fifteen years), Rose managed to find the only spindle in the entire kingdom – isn’t that just like a kid – and pricks her finger on it and falls asleep.  And so does everybody else.  The rose bushes grow up over the castle.

At this point in the story or the movie, everybody says, How Awful!

Well, no, think about this.  Because she falls asleep for a hundred years, Rose awakens in her own future.  (She’s kind of like an early cryogenic time traveler, if you read a lot of science fiction, which I do.)  She gets to take all her family and friends and culture with her.  And she is awakened by her true love, who wasn’t even born until at least 90 years after she fell asleep.

Boy, no wonder the bad fairy got so irritated -- Malicious Gift turns into Happily Ever After!

This brings me to extended life spans.  Apparently there is a lot of talk right now about new biotechnology that may extend the human life expectancy to 120, 150 or beyond.  Just how long would most people like to live?  David Ewing Duncan did a survey, and found that, although the majority of people he asked wanted to die around 80, a few wanted to live to 120.  They had things they wanted to get done that just wouldn’t fit into a normal life span.

That’s me.  I often feel like I wasted the first forty or so years of my life.  I’ve done a little bit of everything.  Directed one musical.  Sang in one major opera production.  Acted in one film, ran one choral program, directed one choir, sang with one symphony, acted in one play.   Jeez, just settle on something, anything.  Three bad marriages.  (Two beautiful children.)  Ran a pasta company, worked for a lot of non-profits, but I never felt like I stuck with anything long enough to really accomplish anything.  If I can live to be 120, maybe I’ll finally do something significant with my life.

And those three bad marriages really bother me.  What a waste of time!

But…wait.  Each of those marriages had a gift.  George, thank you for the gift of Mozart and the musical training and opening of horizons that came because I moved to Baltimore with you.  Paul, thank you for the gift of my beautiful daughter, and for that pasta business that turned me into a real foodie.  Tim, thank you for creating a situation that forced me to realize that I can choose to be happy, leaving unhappiness and abuse behind.

The last gift those three “failed” marriages gave me was, of course, the last twenty years of happiness with Ed.  I learned how to recognize a good man when I saw him, and how to gratefully accept a good life with him.

Sometimes it takes four thousand years for the exile from heaven to make sense. 

Sometimes you have to sleep, surrounded by thorns for a hundred years, before your real life can start.

Like my daffodil bulbs, sometimes you can't bloom until you've sat in the cold dark winter, waiting for the light to dawn.  And it always does.

Like I said, better late than never.  Welcome Yule!