Category Archives: Living

In Memoriam

It wasn’t even on my mind until my necklace broke.

I got dressed this morning and finished off my outfit with a string of red beads that I salvaged from my Grandma Vivian’s jewelry box after the family had gone through it and divvied up all the nice, valuable pieces. I refused to let them throw out her cheaper, every day jewelry, and the necklace I had on this morning was just one of many mementos I took.

I was going about my business this morning when the necklace fell off my neck and red beads scattered across the floor and I remembered that Grandma died a few days before Easter ten years ago.

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I still miss her. I talk about her all the time. How when we lived just a few houses down from her and we’d ask her to make us French toast and she’d say “bring me an egg,” so my brother and I would walk down the road to her house cradling a single egg each in our hands. Or how she used to put words to the birdsongs when we would go walking in the park—one bird, she insisted, shouted “Go Redskins!” And she would always warn me about the trolls that guarded bridges.

I vividly remember one snow day I spent at her house. I built a snow man in the front yard and when she came to assess it, decided that it wasn’t quite special enough. Together we gathered branches of off a pine tree and used them to make a hula skirt. Then grandma added two pieces of pine cone to give our snow-hula-dancer a set of buck teeth. Then we went inside for a bowl of “macaroni soup” (that’s plain chicken broth with a few fat macaroni noodles floating in it.)

Grandma loved Tiny Tim songs and John Phillip Sousa marches. She loved Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, and would put on old cassette tapes of the show for long drives to Chincoteague. Grandma loved Chincoteague and took enormous pleasure in spotting the water birds, digging for clams in Tom’s Cove, and picking crabs for hours, coaxing every last little bit of sweet crabmeat from the shell.

When I was older, after our family had moved out to the rolling countryside of Loudoun County, I would often be delighted to come home from school to find Grandma’s Volvo parked in the driveway. I’d come in side and she’d be in the kitchen snacking on a grapefruit which she’d carefully peeled and pulled apart the segments, or maybe a thinly-sliced cucumber soaking in a bowl of vinegar. She took enormous pleasure in harassing our cats with brown paper bags or pieces of string.

One day when she was at the house I asked her if she had a stamp. She went rummaging in her purse to find one and pulled out an old business card. She showed it to me and told me the story of the first time she ever left her childhood home in North Dakota; she met a salesman on the train and spent some time chatting with him, and when he left he handed her his card. She wasn’t sure why she’d kept it all these years. And then she handed it to me. And I still have it.

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I miss Grandma.   I miss the sound of her scratchy voice singing, “Tea for two and two for tea! Me for you and you for me!” I miss the distinct shape of her salt and pepper hair. I miss her dismissing me over the phone as “a fountain of information,” when my apathetic teenage self didn’t know where my mother was or when she’d get home. I miss staying at home with her on a Saturday night watching Keeping up Appearances and As Time Goes By.

I gathered the red beads from grandma’s broken necklace off my office floor and put them in an envelope. Soon I’ll re-string them with a bit of thread and put them back in grandma’s old jewelry box (yes, I kept the box too) with her teardrop-shaped flower earrings, and her Smithsonian volunteer pin. I’ll think of her every time I wear her black knit wrap dress, or gaze on her favorite pair of alligator shoes which sit on a bookshelf in my living room, or spy on egrets in Chincoteague, or hear the Washington Post March, or eat a vinegary cucumber or . . .

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We are Living in a Material World and I am a Material Girl.

I once spent a summer at a yoga ashram in the French countryside trying to learn how to obtain a higher state of consciousness. (In spite of the absurdity of that statement, it is 100% true.)

To be clear, this was not Yoga ™

yoga (tm)

It was Yoga.

This is Swami Vishnu-Devananda.  He founded the organization that ran the ashram where I studied.

This is Swami Vishnu-Devananda. He founded the organization that ran the ashram where I studied.

While I was there, my fellow yogis and I spent our days doing yoga exercises, helping with chores around the ashram (they called it “karma yoga”  psh!), dining on bland vegetarian cuisine, participating in Hindu pujas, studying the Bhagavad Gita, and meditating.  There was a lot of talk about “detachment.”  That is, freeing oneself from the material world, possessions, stuff, etc.

Fo' realz.  This was me.

Fo’ realz. This was me.

I’m soooooo not into all that rubbish anymore.

In fact, for two or three weeks now, I’ve been waiting on a paycheck for the three Sundays I spent singing in a church whose teachings I found to be pretty offensive, and as one does while waiting for a windfall of money, I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with it.  I expect I’m not the only person who goes, I really want/need this thing, but I can’t have it.  But maybe when I get that money I’m waiting for, then I’ll buy it. But, then you find yourself saying that about so many things, that it would take five times the money you’re expecting to get to buy it all.

These are some of the things I want:

  1. A massage.  No really.
  2. A haircut.  Seriously, look at this mess. bad hair
  3. Some new clothes.  I hate all my clothes.  I hate my work clothes.  I hate my regular clothes.  I hate my fancy dress-up clothes.  I hate my underwear.  I hate my shoes. 
  4. A bicycle.  I’ve been thinking about this for, like, three years.
  5. A new iphone.  They make those things so that they will break as easily as possible.  The cracked screen on mine is not a good look.
  6. Books.  But then again, conversely . . .
  7. A flat screen TV.  Just a little one.  Just because I’m the last person on earth who has a big, clunky television.  It’s ugly and old and I want it gone.

 Here are some things that I actually need:

  1. Voice coaching.  For the uninitiated, this is a little different than my usual voice lessons.  Coaching focuses on music and language, rather than vocal technique.
  2. A renewed YAP Tracker subscription.  This is a service that provides audition listings for opera companies and Young Artist Programs.  It will be more important toward the end of the summer and the fall, but it’s good to be on top of it.
  3. To record some of my arias.  
  4. To pay down my student loan.  Ugh.
  5. To pay down my credit card.  Ugh. Ugh.

Here are some of the things I am most likely to spend money on now that I have it:

Wine.

My 2012 New Years Resolution: How’d I do? (Hint: Not that great . . .)

Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve made it to December 31.  This is the night that, as Neil Degrasse Tyson likes to point out, we humans have chosen arbitrarily to mark the end of another cycle around our sun.  It’s a time that we humans have also chosen arbitrarily to make attempts to better ourselves.

I’ve never successfully kept a New Years resolution for the full year.  One year I lost 30 pounds by my birthday in August, and every last one was back by Christmas.  Then, there was the year I decided to knit a sweater a month.  I don’t think I even completed one.

For 2012, I chose my resolution a little differently:  I decided to set a resolution that I knew I would enjoy keeping.  This time last year, I decided that, while there are so many arts and cultural goings-on here in Washington D.C., and the area surrounding it, and I often read about this exhibition, or that concert, I never go.

Why don’t I ever go to these events that I know I’d enjoy?  Because I spend all my money on opera tickets.

So for 2012, I resolved to “enjoy more art that is not opera.”  And I set the following criteria to define success for myself:

  1. See a ballet
  2. Attend a classical music concert that has no singing
  3. Attend a gallery exhibition
  4. See a play

As of today, December 31, 2012, I’m 2 for 2.  

I did see a play with my friend Millie and her husband.  A Neil Simon comedy set in a 1950’s television writers’ room. 

Then I saw Così Fan Tutte, Nabucco, and Werther presented by the Washington National Opera.  I went to New York and saw an opera live at the Met for the first time.  I saw my friend Michael’s trio of short operas Fallen Angels.  I saw friends star in local productions of Die Fledermaus, Trial by Jury, and The Sorcerer.  I attended a strange, minimalist performance art piece that was billed as an opera, starring certified barihunk Michael Mayes.  I saw probably half a dozen MetHD broadcasts, several radio broadcasts as well.  I even sang in a few operas myself!

Molly and a friend on Opera Night

Molly and a friend dressed for an evening at the opera.

Then, in December, I saw my friend Erica perform as a featured soloist in a choral concert that was held at the National Gallery of Art, which allowed me to (sort of) tic off the third criterion of my resolution.

So, if we take my resolution at purely face value, I suppose you could call it a success.  I did enjoy more art that is not opera.  I also enjoyed (and sometimes found myself unable to enjoy–I’m looking at you beautifully sung, but boring as hell Met Ernani) an enormous amount of opera.

But I still haven’t gotten out to the ballet, even though I am mesmerized by dancers and find their art to be utterly sublime.  Even though every time I see ads for the ballets being produced at the Kennedy Center I think, that looks fantastic!  And I still haven’t been to any orchestral or chamber music concerts even though there is such an abundance of them in this city.

So here’s what I’m going to do:  just carry those two over into 2013.  I’ve already decided that I need to enjoy more music that doesn’t include singers.   Some of that music will have to be enjoyed live and in person.  So here’s the 2013 resolution:

  1. Listen to more non-vocal classical music, and discuss it in the No Voices Allowed listening club.
  2. Attend a live concert of orchestral or chamber music.
  3. Go to the god damned ballet already!  Yeesh!

In Which I Spit on your Random Act of Kindness

When my alarm went off this morning, as it usually does around 6:30, my first thought when I opened my eyes was, shit, I don’t have any milk for coffee.

For most coffee drinkers, a lack of available milk would be a minor annoyance, but not for me.  Milk is essential to the coffee-drinking experience.  And, since coffee is essential to the life-tolerating experience, I got showered and dressed as coherently as I could in my pre-caffeine state, got in the car, and made a beeline to the Starbucks drive-through where I ordered a venti pumpkin spice latte (because, since I’m here, why not?) and a breakfast sandwich.

And then something unusual happened.

When I pulled up to the window, $10 bill in hand, the green-aproned woman handed me my coffee and explained, “The person in front of you paid for your order, if you want to keep it going you can, but you don’t have to.”

I smiled.  “Wow, uh, yeah I will, but wait . . .”  Something occurred to me.  I’m all for “random acts of kindness,” but if the person in the car behind me ordered two gallons of coffee for his 8:00 AM meeting, plus a venti triple Americano for himself, and a grande hot chocolate for his carpool buddy, then that’s going to be a problem.  “What is the bill for the next guy?” I sheepishly asked.

“$7.50”

Phew.  “Yeah, ok, I’ll pay for his.”   I handed over the $10 bill.

“It’ll be just a minute on your sandwich.”

While I waited, I smiled and thought to myself that the world really is a wonderful, kind, sunny place after all . . . and then there was one of those record screech sound effects in my head.  Something wasn’t quite right about the way the barrista said, “If you want to keep it going you can.”

Keep it going?

When she came back with my sandwich, I asked, “So how long has this chain been going?  Did the guy in front of me start it?”

“Actually, it’s been going on for a little while now.”  She told me.

Interesting.

As I drove off, sipping on my way-too-sweet pumpkin spice latte, I thought, What just happened?  Was this a beautiful example of a random act of kindness being payed forward (two Oprah phrases that I kind of hate) or something else?

Really, the only person who did anything especially kind was the first guy who decided it would be nice to buy a cup of coffee for the chick in line behind him.  That chick, having been unexpectedly relieved of paying the five bucks or so that she had already planned on spending, and perhaps feeling a bit awkward about accepting a gift from a stranger, decided she might as well spend that five bucks anyway on the person in line behind her.  And it continues, each person in this charitable drive-through line spending $5-$10 or so in a big caffeine-fueled circle jerk.

And one more thing.  This is not just any Starbucks.  This is a Starbucks in Loudoun County, Virginia.  A place where, according to the 2010 census, the median household income is around $115,000 per year.  It’s likely that the people in that drive-through didn’t really need a free cup of coffee.

This is all sounding very cynical.  All I’m trying to say is that, sometimes a “random act of kindness” doesn’t really accomplish anything, other than superficially making you feel good.  If you’ve got an extra five bucks to spend on coffee for a stranger, why not spend it on a sandwich for the homeless man outside, instead of the person who was already going to spend five bucks of their own?  If you want to provide a kindness, maybe you should take an hour and pop down to the Red Cross blood bank and give them a pint?  If you’ve got extra money that can be put to good use, perhaps you could loan it out at Kiva?

What happened at the Starbucks this morning, was a fascinating study in altruism and social pressure, not proof that humans are really and truly Good.  That proof lies elsewhere.

How to Not Suck at Beginning Things

(Like, say, an aria in an audition?)

Beginnings are hard.  It is way easier to continue something you’re already doing than to start doing something.  Finishing is a little harder than continuing, you know, completing something elegantly and at the right time, but not nearly as hard as starting.

Of course, I’m thinking about all this in relation to singing.  Every week I go into my voice lesson, and the first little notes I sing of the first little exercise I do are always wrong, wrong, wrong.  I inevitably have to sing the figure again, sometimes twice, before my teacher lets me take that half-step move up to the next one.  I find this extremely frustrating.  How can I possibly be a successful singer if I always have to ask for a do-over on my first phrase?

So, of course, when the next week rolls around, I resolve to get it right on the first one this time.  My teacher plays the chord on the piano.  I stand nice and tall.  Think about my resonance spot just below my nose.  Lift my soft palate.  Imagine the air traveling over my vocal folds, and seamlessly gliding along the roof of my mouth and out through the space between my two front teeth.  I then take a deep breath, keeping my ribs out and high and filling my lungs from the bottom-up, open my mouth and sing.*

And then my teacher corrects it and asks me to do it again.

She also brushes off my frustration.  This is a process!  You’re still so new at this.  You’ve come such a long way.

She’s right, but I can’t shrug the nagging thought that If I walk into an audition and bomb the first phrase, then they’ll write me off from the outset.  And of course, that thought begets anxiety, and anxiety begets horrible, humiliating singing, and we’re back to anxiety.

I do the same thing with writing, but at least when it comes to that, I can go back and fix my garbage beginning before anyone else ever sees it.  If only live singing worked that way!

Wait, can live singing work that way?

What if the beginning isn’t the beginning?  When I sit down to write something, I usually just start by banging it out all stream-of-consciousness and then go back and tidy it up.  In the practice room or in my voice lessons, I have to sing an exercise two or three times before I feel like I’m in the groove.

In performance, I usually spend ten or fifteen minutes “warming up” before going on stage to sing.  So, the first phrase I sing in front of an audience isn’t really the first phrase I sing. I have the time to get that crap beginning out of me before anyone else has to hear it.

Beginnings are hard.  Make sure there are no witnesses.

*What’s that you say?  I’m doin’ it wrong?  That’s nice.  Please note that that is not the point of all this.