Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

Finding consolation in a console

My parents have embarked on a major downsizing project, an exercise in sorting through both the tangible stuff and the memories that have accumulated in the house they’ve lived in for the past 45 years.

That house, a center-hall colonial, may seem like standard-issue suburbia– half-brick/half-siding with four bedrooms and two baths upstairs, family room, kitchen, living room, dining room and powder room on the main level, and a basement — but it’s really a family treasure chest in disguise. And boy, has that house worn some disguises.

Built in 1972, the house made its debut in Orange Hunt Estates clad in pale green siding with forest green shutters, its second-story overhang propped up with a set of square, pale green pillars. The front door opened into a foyer covered in whitish wallpaper with an ornate floral pattern in olive green and gold. If you left that jungle and headed to the left, you entered the family room, which welcomed you by rolling out the multi-colored shag carpet, with patches in various shades of brown, black, rust and mustard. That carpet not only camouflaged a multitude of spills but tolerated years of me and my siblings horsing around, playing board games with our friends, building card houses, watching sitcoms on our rabbit ear-antennae’d TV when we were allowed to (which was infrequently), and tearing open presents on Christmas morning.

A mustard-colored recliner Archie Bunker would have envied sat in one corner of the family room, complemented by a hanging lamp whose shade, as I recall, was white with multi-colored spots. Dad liked to read The Washington Post in that chair, and all of us liked to curl up there when it was vacant. The pièce de résistance in the family room, furniture-wise, was a sofa covered in an off-white nubby fabric patterned with vertical green stripes of varying widths. The sofa lent itself to naps, in part because it was the most comfortable piece of furniture in the history of furniture but also because the color scheme in that room made you want to lie down and close your eyes in self-defense. I don’t remember Mom spending a whole lot of quality time in either the recliner or on the sofa, probably because she was too busy making sure we kids didn’t kill ourselves or each other, but I digress.

If you’d headed right instead of left when you walked through the front door in 1972, you’d have found yourself in the living room. It also had a shaggy carpet, but in a neutral monochrome to let everybody know that it had some class. An octagonal wood combination table/cabinet sat on that carpet, flanked by two wingback chairs that, in a decorative leitmotif, bore the same green-and-gold floral pattern as the foyer wallpaper. In case you’re wondering what lived inside the octagon, Mom and Dad stored the liquor there. With four kids spanning eight years, I can understand their wanting ready access to booze.

The living room led to the dining room, whose early decor I don’t really remember because of a glorious console stereo that sat against one wall and stood out from everything else. Six feet of wooden chic, the console held a turntable, an AM/FM radio, and a whole lot more. That console was Christmas, giving us the smooth sounds of Johnny Mathis’s “Winter Wonderland” while we decorated a tree we’d cut down at a farm in the Virginia countryside. The console let our family follow Barry Manilow on countless musical trips to the hottest spot north of Havana and comforted us with the knowledge that Barry couldn’t smile without us. When Barry and Johnny weren’t hogging up the rotation, Simon and Garfunkel and Billy Joel made regular appearances on the turntable, too. Then the ’80s came and the console gave us Hooked On Classics, because it knew the only thing that could make Beethoven’s Fifth sound sound better was a disco beat.

 

The house changed disguises over time: wallpaper came down in favor of neutral paint, the incomparable green-striped couch was swapped for something bluer and prettier but not quite as comfortable, the shag carpet made way for plush brown in the family room and a nice Persian rug in the living room, and the square columns yielded to round white ones. We also got a piano, which meant the console stereo was stereo3relegated to the basement. But that didn’t stop it from cranking out the songs we lived by, songs that made us dance, sweat, swoon and laugh. Long after new-fangled technology like boomboxes, CD players and shelf systems had arrived and doomed the console to obsolescence, I still regarded it as a monument to my family’s happiness and never tired of seeing it.

The minute I realized Mom and Dad were serious about downsizing, I lay claim to that console, and I moved it into my house last weekend. It lives in the basement, just like it did my parents’ house, and it’s still home to songs by Sinatra, the Kingston Trio, and the Village People, as well as soundtracks from the Muppet Movie, Grease and Annie, and albums like Free to Be You and Me and The Stranger.

Sure, it needs a new needle and hasn’t cranked out any tunes in a while, but that console can still crank out dozens of happy memories just by keeping me company. If that’s not a family treasure, I don’t know what is.

We didn’t shoot our eyes out, but…

As an antidote to a macabre few days that claimed George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds in rapid succession, I figured I’d write a wrap-up of the Yank Christmas.

Before I do that, though, I understand why lots of people are shaking their fists at 2016 and yelling, “ENOUGH!” It’s been a Sith Lord of a year for many people in many respects. Losing in a twelve-month period those three luminaries, as well as the likes of Gene Wilder, David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali, and John Glenn — people who dreamed and dared, who lived with sometimes painful authenticity, whose music, characters and sheer bravery inspired many of us during adolescence and upon whom we were counting to keep us company at least through middle age — has felt for some like insults heaped atop injury. I get it. If you ask me, the most constructive thing we can do is treat 2016 as a cast-iron-skillet-to-forehead reminder not to be complacent, not to take who and what we have for granted, and to be humble. (That last one could be very important for the President-Elect, not that anything can penetrate that forcefield of hair.)

Where was I? Oh right, the holiday wrap-up.

We who celebrated Christmas have had six days to tunnel our way out of the discarded wrapping paper avalanche, which means many of us are now in the process of completing the Retail Circle of Life by exchanging the “thoughtful” gifts we got for stuff we actually wanted.

I got to skip that process, because my Christmas featured everything I wanted: family, friends, love and laughter.

It began at my sister Lynne’s house. I spent the night there on Christmas Eve because, as one of the Roommates pointed out, I’ve done that since 2011 –when I was living in their basement because I was getting divorced –and it is now tradition. Those two sure know how to make lemonade from lemons. At 12 and 14, the kids don’t believe in Santa Claus but nevertheless get excited about Christmas because they know they still have a shot at getting something other than clothes. Even Buddy, the family dog, seemed excited. (Then again, Buddy views projectile vomiting as a festive occasion, so his excitement bar is set low.)

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Before (and tell me this isn’t a thing of beauty).

My parents live fifteen miles away from Lynne and always come on Christmas morning to join in the festivities. In years past, they arrived at Lynne’s house by 6 a.m. so as not to miss a minute of gift-opening action. The Roommates felt magnanimous this year and agreed to move the start time all the way back to 7. Mom and Dad showed up right on time and, like the Three Wise Men, came bearing gifts. Because not all hosts enjoy frankincense and myrrh, Mom instead brought three homemade pies: pumpkin, chocolate, and apple. All three could have done duty as Gourmet cover models, but Mom’s apple pie – a cinnamon-spiced, double-crusted, exquisite creature with lumps in just the right places- won the pageant. Mom put the beauty queen on the sideboard in my sister’s dining room, a suitably dignified place for it to bide its time until dinner that night.

They came into the family room and the gift-opening frenzy got underway. We were maybe thirty minutes into the festivities when we heard a loud thump from another room.

“Buddy!” Lynne shouted.

I made a beeline for the kitchen. Buddy tends to hang out where the food lives, so I figured that’s where he’d gone. Nothing.

The other half of the search party, my brother-in-law Paul, had headed for the dining room. There, he caught Buddy paying homage to A Christmas Story and doing his best imitation of the Bumpus Hounds on my mother’s beautiful apple pie.

For a tense moment, no one knew what to do. But then we all got dressed, hopped in the car and headed to a Chinese restaurant. Just kidding. We all looked at Mom, and she shrugged it off because her grandchildren, even the furry ones, get a pass for pretty much everything.

Buddy calls this "a good start."

After, or as Buddy calls it, “a good start.”

After we’d all committed to eat around the Buddy spots, the gift melee resumed and I opened a bag that held an R2D2 apron – a wink to my recent road trip – that I wore for the rest of the day.

I kept it on when I paid a visit to a dear friend whose mom passed away right after Thanksgiving. To maximize the effect, I had also conscripted my parents and made them hold up a “These are not the droids you’re looking for” sign. Our cheer bomb also came loaded with a plate of Mom’s incomparable Christmas cookies, and for at least a few minutes, my friend smiled. 15747358_10211426162756066_4574908933500634748_n

From there, the three of us went to see my friends Dave and Donna. I’ve known them since the fall of 1998, when Dave and I were first year law students at George Mason University. Circumstance drew us together – he’s wheelchair-bound and I was assigned to be his notetaker – and it’s been my enduring good fortune to count the two of them and their three kids among my closest friends ever since. Somewhere along the way, I became a part of their Christmas tradition. I show up, have a beverage, play a few Christmas carols on their piano, and then go on my merry way. I don’t remember how or why it started, but I’m glad it did. I’m also a little surprised, considering some of the things that have gone spectacularly awry when I’ve visited. Their three kids, who were wearing footie pajamas when I first met them back in 1998, are now all grown and launched, and all three were in residence when my parents and I knocked on the door last Sunday. Dave was in particularly high spirits because, in a nod to his Swedish heritage, Dave’s son had made a gigantic batch of a wine-based beverage called Glögg, a compound word formed by the union of “glue” and “slog.” Actually, I rather liked the stuff. And truth be told, even though it seemed to make my fingers stick to the ivories when the time came for the annual mini-concert, it’s really more like paint thinner than glue.

From there our fearsome threesome went back to Lynne’s house for Christmas dinner with the Roommates, my brother-in-law, and two people who long ago transcended the “friend” category and are full-on family. The nine of us spent the next five hours telling stories, laughing ’til our sides hurt, and assaulting the eardrums of innocent bystanders with a sing-along that featured Christmas carols and such old standards as “You Light Up My Life” and Barry Manilow’s “Mandy.” It was enough to make you beg for Glögg.

I hope your holiday was, if not as loud, at least as merry. And may the Force be with you as you head into 2017.

 

 

Barry Manilow: still the hippest man on the planet (and those are still his original hips)

My “I’ve Gone Further For Less” file was getting a little thin, so I decided to beef it up last week by flying to Seattle for a Barry Manilow concert.

My dear friend Michelle happens to be a Fanilow too and she lives in Seattle, so it all made sense. Besides, I always enjoy visiting the Pacific Northwest because it’s the only place on Earth where I appear to have a tan. But really, it was all about Barry.

Regular readers know that my love affair with Mr. Mandy dates back to my earliest memories and has almost never wavered. I say “almost” because Barry presided over my only karaoke disaster to date, which took place in 1999 at my sister Lynne’s 30th birthday party. I love Lynne dearly, but you know those buckets people are always carrying tunes in? Well, let’s just say that hers has a perpetual hole in the bottom. For reasons I still can’t explain, I agreed to take the stage with Lynne and to convert “I Can’t Smile Without You” to a duet. As boos rained all over us, an audience member offered us money to give the stage back and pointed out that, whether or not I could smile without Lynne, I should definitely consider singing without her.

Despite that setback, Barry and I somehow made it through the rain and I could hardly wait to see him again. As Michelle and I were finding our seats at the Key Arena last Wednesday night, she mentioned this tour might be Barry’s last. He’d recently had hip surgery, and let’s face it: he ain’t getting any younger.

When we sat down and found out that Barry’s opening act was a smooth jazz musician named Dave Koz, it sure sounded like a death knell to me.

I love music and find some redeeming quality in most genres, but not smooth jazz. I’m sorry, but I just have to say it: smooth jazz is a musical sociopath that lays ruthless waste to every song that was ever worth hearing. Don’t believe me? Before Barry took the stage, smooth jazz mowed down the Beatles’ “Got To Get You Into My Life.” Then it decimated “Let It Go,” though I think we can all agree that was a mercy killing. Don’t get me wrong: Dave’s an incredibly talented musician. I just wish he’d lend his talents to regular old bumpy jazz.

Fortunately, my worries that the opening act spelled doom were unfounded. Barry delivered such a gem, it’s hard to believe that he’s 72. So is the average Fanilow from the looks of things, but that didn’t stop one of them from tossing on stage a pair of white underwear of such enormity that I mistook it for a sail.

Speaking of sailing, Barry had a steady hand at the helm as he steered us through wave after wave of emotion and cheese. He set us atop a crest with “It’s a Miracle,” dashed us on the rocks of heartbreak with “Weekend in New England,” and then set us down gently with “Somewhere in the Night.”

When he sang “I Write the Songs,” backed up by the entire glowstick-waving audience and a gigantic gospel choir, I thought he might be bringing us home. But no, he wasn’t going to let us leave the Key Arena without stopping at the hottest spot north of Havana. And for all four minutes of that glorious encore, we were young and we had each other: Who could ask for more?

No swan song is complete without a confetti cannon!

Glow sticks, confetti cannons and granny panties: Barry’s goin’ out in style.

 

I Love Barry Manilow and I’m Not Ashamed to Admit It

Music isn’t just something I hear in the background while I’m busy doing other stuff.  For me, as for many people, it’s the cement that adheres memories to my brain, a time machine that’s capable of launching me backwards five, ten, thirty years with just a few notes. In recognition of music’s emotional power, Philippa (my writing partner, podcast cohost and all around accomplice) and I decided to compile a list of the songs that make up the soundtrack of our lives. I’m limiting myself to 15, and I present the first seven today. Don’t judge me.

  1. Copacabana” by Barry Manilow. I hold my mother completely responsible for this.  I grew up hearing Barry croon from the console stereo while Mom cleaned the house.  Long before I had any idea what the Merengue or the Cha-Cha cha was, I was well aware of a showgirl named Lola’s ability to do them and the fact that those skills somehow got her boyfriend shot. (From this song I inferred that dancing was a life-threatening pursuit, which I think explains my utter failure at ballet as a child. Adult, too, come to think of it. But that’s another story.)  Though only “Copacabana” rates a berth on my list, I picked up Barry’s entire repertoire by osmosis, as did my siblings.  My brother and I figured this out as teenagers when we happened to be out somewhere together and “Mandy” began to play.  The lyrics came flying out of the two of us automatically and completely by rote, sort of like the Nicene Creed during Sunday Mass.

    The hottest spot north of Havana…

  2. What a Fool Believes,” by the Doobie Brothers. This was one of the first singles I purchased, if not the very first.   “What a Fool Believes” was a radio staple in 1980, which means I heard it several times a week as various swimming moms drove our carpool to and from practice in the mornings.  (Same with “My Baby Takes the Morning Train” –officially known as “9 to 5” –by Sheena Easton, but that song just didn’t stick with me the same way.) Never mind that I could barely decipher a single word Michael McDonald sang and had no idea what the song was about.
  3. Through the Years,” by Kenny Rogers.  It just now occurs to me that, given my affinity for Barry Manilow, the Doobie Brothers, and Kenny Rogers, even as a child I must have known I was destined to spend large chunks of my life in a dentist’s chair.  Anyway, when I was ten or eleven, my best friend Liz and I became die-hard Kenny Rogers fans.  Do not ask me how or why, because I really have no idea.  Liz and I also thought we wanted to become architects, so we would sit in her room, reading Home magazine and drawing elaborate floor plans on graph paper while belting out Kenny’s greatest hits.  “Through the Years” was our piece de resistance and we sang it with gusto even though the combined total of years Liz and I had gone through was 22.  Our biggest trial and tribulation at that time was probably the fact that we were listening to Kenny Rogers instead of cultivating a taste for Ozzy Osbourne, like most normal kids our age.
  4. Take On Me” by A-ha. The opening riff of this song hooked me the first time I heard it. It earned a permanent spot on my life’s soundtrack because of the role it played at a pool party one night during the summer after eighth grade.  Earlier in the school year, I had developed a major crush on a very cute drummer named Dave.  At the pool party, the gods of adolescent love granted me the favor of plopping Dave on the lounge chair next to me, and we talked for most of the night.  He seemed Interested in me, a development I regarded as a near-miracle because my head was encased in a full suite of orthodontic armor.  The day after that pool party, Dave rode his bike to my parents’ house, a distance of five or six miles one way, to ask me out on a date.  I was stunned, but somehow managed to say “yes.”  We went on only one date, Dave and I, and it was a double date with my sister and her boyfriend (someone had to drive, after all).  He then moved on to someone else.  If love were a bullpen, I had been a mere setup pitcher, but I still claim that episode as a minor triumph. And the braces are off now. Just sayin’.
  5. 1999” by Prince.  As much as I love nearly all of Prince’s music, only this song makes the list for two reasons.  First, I distinctly remember hearing it at the first dance I ever went to, held in the cafeteria of Lake Braddock Secondary School.  It was the fall of 1983, and when “1999” came on, I wanted desperately to dance to it.  But, like many eighth graders, my dancing shoes were weighed down by a total lack of self-confidence.  Instead of dancing, I clung to the cafeteria wall like mold.  Sixteen years later, dancing redemption arrived.  It was December 31, 1999, and I was ringing in the landmark year at a hotel party in Richmond featuring my favorite band at the time—Pat McGee– and my favorite people both then and now: My best friend and my siblings. Nothing could have kept me off the floor that night.
  6. Sweet Child of Mine,” by Guns N’ Roses. In August of 1999, we celebrated my sister Lynne’s 30th birthday at a sports bar in Reston that happened to feature karaoke on certain nights.  My closest friend, Michelle, and my sister’s then-boyfriend, now husband, Paul, were also in attendance.  The two of them got along okay but weren’t each other’s preferred company.  Yet, after Lynne and I got booed off the stage for our joint rendition of “I Can’t Smile Without You” (by, who else, Barry Manilow), the unlikely duo of Michelle and Paul took the stage and delivered a surprisingly respectable rendition of “Sweet Child of Mine” by Guns ‘N’ Roses.  And just last summer, when Michelle was visiting from Seattle, she and Paul reprised their classic and performed it for my birthday, only this time with customized lyrics and a title– “Wheat Child of Mine”–that honored my longstanding nickname. Weird Al would have been proud. Axl Rose, perhaps not.
  7. Hey Nineteen,” by Steely Dan. This song evokes the best date of my entire life.  The date took place in the summer of 2000, not in a fancy restaurant or exotic locale, but on the front porch of my then-boyfriend’s house in a small, coastal North Carolina town.  The whole thing was completely unplanned.  It was late afternoon and he had just opened a bottle of red for us to enjoy on the porch.  For background, he put on a mix that skewed heavily towards classic rock.  It cycled to “Hey, Nineteen,” a song I’d heard a few times but paid little attention to beyond bobbing my head to the beat.  For whatever reason, I listened closely to the lyrics that time.  I had gotten caught up in the singer’s lament about having nothing in common with his nineteen year-old girlfriend—she didn’t even know who Aretha Franklin was, which is grounds for dumping all by itself if you ask me– when the instrumental kicked in.  It would have been a very generic and thoroughly uneventful instrumental, except that the lead singer busted in and said, with no trace of humor whatsoever, “Skate a little lower now,” causing me and my boyfriend to split our sides laughing.  We spent the rest of the evening picking through our music, finding lesser-known songs we wanted the other person to hear and delighting in explaining why. I don’t remember what we had for dinner, if we even had dinner. I just know it was, and still is, the best date I ever had.

Tune back in tomorrow for the rest of the list, and start building your own in the meantime!