Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

Go ahead, make 2017 a year of forward-looking statements

I feel kinda sorry for 2017. Two thousand sixteen is a tough act to follow, and I don’t mean that in a good way. In a year when the proverbial stage desperately needed some Shakespeare, it got Charlie Sheen’s one-man show instead. This disappointing, laborious spectacle left audiences so hostile, exhausted and disgusted that no year in its right mind would want to take the stage after that. But 2017 is here, so we in the crowd might as well do what we can to help the newcomer succeed. How do we do it? The answer is simple: we give ourselves something to look forward to, every day, every week and every month.

Psychologists have long viewed the anticipation of a positive experience as a key to happiness. That’s great news, because we can choose to create positive anticipation, and that in turn means maintaining some control over our happiness no matter what presidencies, er, events are happening around us. Anyone who’s ever planned a vacation knows intuitively that looking forward to it gives you a boost long before you pack your bags. And, as a 2014 New York Times article points out, anticipating something great, and savoring that anticipation, not only increases the chances that the experience itself will be good but helps counteract any negativity that ensues if it doesn’t live up to the hype.

So let’s start off 2017 in a way that Wall Street would hate: by making tons of forward-looking statements. Here’s what I’m already looking forward to this year…

… by the day:

  • Sweating: I make a point of exercising nearly every day. Swimming, running, and going to boot camp not only make me feel good physically but also do wonders for my mental health, creativity, and overall outlook. That makes it pretty easy to get out of bed in the morning.
  • Reading a book: I wind down every day by reading at least a few pages of a book. It settles my mind and helps my writing. And if I wake up for long stretches in the middle of the night, as I am wont to do, reading eases my frustration.
  • My neighbors: I live in a great ‘hood, on a great street, where we all know each other, look out for each other – these unbelievable people shoveled me out from Snowzilla when I sprained my wrist last year – and enjoy the occasional front lawn happy hour. I see at least one of my neighbors pretty much every day, sometimes for only a moment as I drive past, but even just the exchange of a friendly wave makes me smile.
  • My family: Not a day goes by without one or more members of Team Yank calling, texting or emailing to say “hi,” send a photo or share a hilarious story. Many of their communications do all three.
  • My friends: My pals are fun, interesting, talented people who enrich my life every day in some way, including by sweating next to me, introducing me to cool places like Costa Rica, or keeping me apprised of such crucial current events as the dates of Barry Manilow’s farewell tour.
  • Music: I always find joy in music, whether I’m making it or just listening to it.

…by the week:

  • The podcast: it’s one of the most fun things I do, hands-down. The combination of hanging out with Philippa and talking about dating adds up to a whole lot of laughter.
  • Writing: not always one of the most fun things I do, but it makes me more engaged in my world, and that’s a great thing. Besides, I’m close to having a first draft of my second book, and I want to cross that finish line.
  • Walks with friends: my pal Bud and I do our best to take weekly walks together, even when it’s cold. I love the exercise, the camaraderie and the laughter.
  • Tuesdays with Larry: my comedy partner and I get together pretty much every week to throw around new material. Sometimes we get absolutely nothing done, but even those fails are successes, because we’re always laughing.
  • More meet-ups: My hike with the Capital Area Hiking Club was a rousing success, so I’m gonna try to do more meet-ups. It’s a great way to try new things, or to meet new people while doing stuff I already enjoy.

…by the month (presented in fragments because these aren’t yet fully formed):

  • January: Going to see Wicked with Mom, Lynne and Emily; taking a trip to NYC with my great friend, LC, and both of our moms; the Women’s March; taking Dad to lose a bunch of money at the new casino at National Harbor; resuming standup comedy stints.
  • February: L.J.‘s birthday; trip to Atlanta to see him, my sister-in-law, and the kiddos. More standup.
  • March: A Joe Bonamassa concert with two people I adore; UVA basketball and March Madness; the official arrival of Spring; the National Cherry Blossom Festival, and maybe even actual cherry blossoms!
  • April: Mom’s birthday; my parents’ anniversary; cherry blossoms! (And maybe the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler?) another chance to reprise my role as the neighborhood Easter Bunny; Opening Day for Major League Baseball!
  • May: Mother’s Day; Memorial Day = cookouts, outdoor swimming, front lawn happy hours, outdoor concerts, etc.
  • June: Father’s Day; a landmark birthday for my sister Suzi; my nephew J.J.’s graduation, followed by a two-week graduation trip with JJ to celebrate said graduation (the burden I carry as his aunt).
  • July: Celebratory graduation trip, cont’d!
  • August: The Yank family reunion; Lynne’s birthday; Dad’s birthday.
  • September: Steve Martin and Martin Short at Wolf Trap. (ALERT: I bought two tickets, so those who are interested in being my plus-one should start lobbying now!)
  • October: Hikes to enjoy the fall foliage; another chance to judge the neighborhood Halloween costume contest.
  • November: YANKSGIVING!!!!!
  • December: Star Wars Episode VIII! I don’t know how I’ll top 2016’s “I’ve gone further for less” Rogue One experience, but if I have to go to Hawaii to see Episode VIII, so be it.

Whaddya know, the same things that make me happy every day – family, friends, exercise, outdoors, laughter, and music – pop up regularly in my weekly and monthly lists, too. Another cool thing? I know the list will only grow.

Try making your own list and I bet you’ll not only make the same discoveries but find that the simple act of making the list sets a perfect stage for 2017. Happy New Year, everyone!

RIP, Prince: In this life, we’re on our own

Prince was right: life is just a party and parties weren’t meant to last. But he had hosted one of the most impressive, inspiring, weird, imaginative, wonderful, come-as-you-are parties this world will ever see, and it should have lasted far longer than 57 years. 

On Thursday afternoon, I had given a talk about careers to my nephews’ marketing class at Glen Allen High School (now there’s a tough room). The looks on the kids’ faces, the questions they asked, the undercurrents that ran between them, all of it left me reflecting on how difficult the high school years can be and how I’d never want to repeat them. That thought was at the front of my mind when I glanced at my phone and saw that a friend had tweeted the news of Prince’s passing. I couldn’t bring myself to absorb the words, no matter how many times I read them.

Like millions of people, I was a Prince fan. I appreciated him as a true musical genius, a prodigy, a prolific and never-derivative creator, a gifted songwriter, a bender of genres, a guitar virtuoso who mastered literally dozens of other instruments, and a possessor of one of the highest talent-per-pound ratios of all time.

Music lost a titan when Prince died. And I lost someone who wrote in indelible ink on the pages of my adolescence.

My first concrete Prince memory was formed in 1984, when I was a terribly un-cool seventh grader at Lake Braddock Secondary School. A school dance loomed large, and though I wanted to go (or at least wanted to want to go), the knowledge that I didn’t know how to dance terrified me. It wasn’t the kind of thing I could admit to my mother, and she couldn’t have done a thing about it anyway. Mom was, and is, a fantastic dancer, but she knew dances like the Twist and the Mashed Potato. I couldn’t see the Mashed Potato playing a role in my first middle school dance unless I happened to trample an errant tater tot on the cafeteria floor.

My then-best friend, Liz, must have had similar fears because we somehow wound up deciding to confront them by practicing some dance moves with her sister and her mom in their living room. Despite the safety of the environment, I hesitated to move. And then “Let’s Go Crazy” –a dance commandment if ever there were one –came on and I was heeding it before I even knew what I was doing. For four glorious minutes, I rose above my self-consciousness and felt cool. That’s what Prince’s music was: a force strong enough to make even the most awkward teenager let go of the walls to which she clung and let loose on a dance floor. And that’s who Prince was: someone who could make anyone feel cool, even if only for four minutes at a time. He wore his weird on the outside, issuing the world an invitation to treat uniqueness as a source of pride rather than shame. Long before he wrote a lyric that’s now comically dated about not needing to watch “Dynasty” to have an attitude, his music, his unclassifiable and ever-changing aesthetic, and his very purpleness had made that point with eloquence. 

After reading the news, I got into my car last Thursday, turned on the radio and was greeted by a barrage of Prince songs. I wasn’t ready for it. Complex, emotional, evocative, and passionate, Prince’s music was all about life and living, and in that moment, I couldn’t access any of that. All I had was numbness. I lasted only seconds before I turned it off. I needed comfort, so I turned to Shel, an incomparable friend, the biggest Prince fan I’ve ever met, and the person who made it possible for me to see him live three electrifying times. (She also gave me this fantastic door decoration.)

prince

Shel was taking it harder than I was and understood perfectly my unwillingness to approach Prince’s music in a state of emotional paralysis. That music is so remarkable, funky, and resplendent that I didn’t want to hear it until I could bring it some of the joy it deserved.

On instinct, I reached out to my brother next. I didn’t remember ever talking to him about Prince–L.J. is four years my junior so his adolescence probably featured a different soundtrack — but music affects the two of us in such similar ways and to such a deep extent that I felt certain he would get it. I sent a one-line text: “I’m heartbroken about Prince.”

“Me too…This hits me harder than it should,” he wrote.

For the next two days, I kneaded this sense of loss I didn’t entirely understand. I traded texts with Shel and L.J., and that helped. My brother put it well when, after watching Prince’s star turn with the Muppets, he noted that only Prince could write a song about breakfast that would top the charts musically. Though otherworldly in so many ways, Prince somehow belonged everywhere he went, whether it was the set of the Muppets, a rain-soaked stage at the Super Bowl, or the interviewee chair on “Larry King Live.”

While riding the stationary bike at the gym on Saturday and still unable to immerse myself in Prince’s music, I re-watched that Larry King interview from 1999. Prince made a comment that he didn’t like to look back or reminisce, and that really stuck with me. Though I enjoy thinking about the future and have a healthy sense of optimism, I love to reminisce and re-live. How could someone who’s produced such musical brilliance as “1999” not want to gaze back on it in wonderment? The answer hit me while I was out walking the next day: for a creative genius of Prince’s magnitude, maybe the idea of an apex didn’t even exist. Maybe he, unlike most of us, never felt tempted to scan the past and freeze it on achievements and moments of perfection because he knew he had plenty ahead of him. Prince was nowhere near done and he wasn’t ever going to be done. Death simply stopped him, and I’m still having trouble accepting that. 

I think I need to feel sorry for myself for a few more days. And maybe then I’ll be able to act my age, not my shoe size.

A true friend is one who’s still your fan even after you’ve gone all fan-girl

Everyone has a concert buddy, and mine is my friend “Tom.”

We met as awkward seventh graders at Lake Braddock Secondary School and bonded over music and writing. Both of us were words nerds who wrote for the school paper (though I skewed far more heavily in the nerd direction than Tom ever did) and played instruments in our spare time. Tom played the bass in a rock band, whereas I played piano someplace slightly less hip: the pit orchestra for school musicals.

After we graduated in 1989, we stayed in touch through reunions and Facebook. The latter helped us reconnect in person last December.

We caught up on all the life we hadn’t posted about on Facebook. Our old bond was not only intact but stronger, and it still included music. Neither of us plays our instruments as regularly as we once did, but we still know how to appreciate music. And though we listen carefully and critically, Tom and I can find something to enjoy in just about any live performance. This makes us natural partners for shows that might not interest other people.

Last winter, Tom invited me to see Stanley Clarke, a renowned bassist, at the Birchmere in Alexandria. I had never thought of bassists as headliners, but I have such faith in Tom’s taste in music that his proclamation that Stanley was a musical god among men was all it took for me to want to hear the gospel. Two hours with Stanley and his incredible trio proved that he’s a gifted bassist in the way that Shakespeare knew a few things about iambic pentameter. I was converted and ready to evangelize.

In April, I bought tickets to see Phil Vassar, one of my favorite performers, at the Hylton Arts Center in Manassas. I invited Tom and he accepted immediately, though he didn’t know who Phil was. A few days before the show, I won passes for a meet-and-greet. I asked Tom if he was up for it and got an enthusiastic, “Hell yes!” He knew it would make me happy, so of course he was happy to do it.

A few days before the concert, I emailed Tom with the crazy idea of giving Phil a copy of my book. Never before had I considered doing anything so utterly fan-girl, but Phil had played a brief, yet important, role in my life at a crucial time and I wanted him to know. I waited for Tom to tell me it was a terrible idea. My friend is a straight-shooter, plus his background in security put him in a good position to assess how Phil might react to my gift. Tom liked my plan and thought I could pull it off without seeming like a stalker.

A few hours before the concert, I typed up a letter to include with the book:

Dear Phil,

I’m sure fans give you strange things all the time, so I hope you’ll bear with me while I give you some backstory.

Your music won me over the moment I first heard “That’s When I Love You” on WMZQ in 2001. Not a fan of country music at the time, I was listening to that station only because my then-boyfriend –possibly the least likely person on Planet Earth to belt out those lyrics—kept his car radio perpetually tuned to it. That song led me to buy your debut album, whose piano-heavy tracks planted the seeds of my long-term addiction to your particular brand of country.

When I started going to your shows, I was blown away not just by the way you would tear up the piano, but also by the amount of humor and personality you brought to the stage. I came away impressed with your musicality and moved by what your performance seems to say about your approach to life: respond with resilience and humor.

When I turned 40 in June of 2011, my marriage was heaving its last gasps, so I didn’t have much of a celebration. By September, I had moved out and initiated divorce proceedings, leading my entire family to conspire and stage a surprise 40th birthday do-over at the Ram’s Head Tavern. Your show was the centerpiece, and it couldn’t have been more perfect. My family members strolled in one at a time, the arrival of each person putting a smile on my face and sending a tear of joy down my cheek. I spent a glorious night with the people I love, doing something I love, and I cherish that memory.

As my way of saying thank you for the gift of your music, I hope you enjoy this collection of humor essays. If I got them right, they embody the same spirit I hear in your music.

Thanks again for being a consistent bright spot.

I stuck the letter and book in a gift bag and drove off to meet Tom. When I picked him up, I learned he’d studied up on Phil’s music before the concert. Some people do that to enhance their enjoyment of the show, but knowing Tom, he did it to enhance my enjoyment of the show. He didn’t want to stand there just bobbing his head, he wanted to sing along with me, because if something matters to one of Tom’s friends, it matters to him.

As we stood in line for the post-show meet-and-greet, we learned it would include a photo op.

“I’ll hold your purse and take the picture,” Tom said.

When handed a purse, your average man will react as if you’ve asked him to hold a norovirus. But Tom volunteered to throw himself on the purse grenade so I would have clear path to executing my plan.

When the moment came, I handed my purse and phone to Tom. I gave the gift bag to Phil, who opened it as I explained what it was. He received it politely, meaning he did not discard it as I stood there, nor did he seek a restraining order.

Such was my state of shock that I nearly allowed Tom to take the photo, which would have meant he wasn’t in it. Fortunately, Phil was paying attention and got one of his bandmates to snap the shot. That photo of me, Phil and Tom is one of my all-time favorites.

What stands out in my memory about that night wasn’t the music or the meet-and-greet, though. More than anything I remember how hard my friend worked, in ways great and small, not only to share in my happiness but to grow it.

Tom’s generosity of spirit is especially remarkable considering he has long struggled with depression (one of the things I learned when we got together last December). He has sought help in every form imaginable, but his brain chemistry continues to do its damnedest to rob him of hope and purpose. He battles the crushing pain of his illness daily, and always with courage and grace.

He sometimes posts on Facebook when the pain becomes intolerable, as it has in recent weeks. He reaches out when all he wants to do is crawl inward, which shows astounding bravery, strength, and selflessness. By sharing his story, Tom gives the people who love him a chance to remind him, and he lets others in the grip of depression know they’re not alone.

Tom wrote a Facebook post yesterday about feeling hopeless. It drew an immediate, heartfelt outpouring of support from the many people who know Tom’s presence in our world changes it for the better. We know he brings incredible joy to the people in his life. We know he matters.

We can’t change the wiring of his brain or fight this horrible battle for him, but we can stand with him, and we can thank him for letting us.

So thank you, Tom, for giving us a chance to show up for you, as you do for all of us.

Love,

Your Fan Club

Clap along, ’cause I feel like a room without a roof

While driving home from brunch today, I had the radio tuned to a pop station and Pharrell Williams’s “Happy” came on. I know a lot of people view the song as a Williams sell-out (they have a point) and still others see it as pop dreck (they also have a point), but the music complements the lyrics perfectly, and I couldn’t help but like it the first time I heard it.

Maybe my affection for it stems from the fact that my two year-old nephew who adores it requested it nightly when I was staying at Camp Wipe Me in August. The minute one of his parents put him in the high chair and started to get his dinner together, he would ask for the song. Recognizing that the space between seating and eating for toddlers is brief but highly combustible, I defaulted to clown mode and danced around the kitchen by way of diversion. And when I say I danced, I don’t mean one of those cute little foot-shuffle/head-bob routines. I brought out the big guns: I did the swim, featuring all four strokes and occcasional deep submersion. My version of dry land backstroke required me to take exaggerated steps backwards while flailing my arms and prompted my brother to say, “Whoa, Aunt Wheat-you might hurt yourself!”  My nephew found my backstroke funny and my brother’s comment funnier, so he  felt the need to repeat it every time I took to the dance floor after that. Now I can’t hear “Happy” without picturing my favorite two-year old expressing concern that I might sustain a dance injury.

Maybe I like “Happy” because the lyrics reflect an outlook I try to have as often as possible. A good friend often tells me I’m “wired happy.”  Maybe he’s right, because when I feel down, my immediate reaction is to fight it. It’s not a learned response; it’s automatic. I exercise, play the piano, spend time with friends or go on a hike, and those techniques usually produce results. But my innate happy wiring, which I assume is just an accident of birth, took a real hit as a result of my marriage. That was the first time I encountered someone who hurt me not unintentionally (which happens in close relationships, no matter how hard both people try) but on purpose. The idea that the person who was supposed to love me most wanted to hurt me injected me with a fear I had never known. For a while, that fear made it hard for me to feel happy without looking over my shoulder.

It took some time for me to find my normal and to accept that it had been re-calibrated by the knowledge I gained from the experience I had. One of the things that experience taught me was to enjoy the happy wherever I could find it, for however long it lasted. The time I’ve spent with two year-old nephew taught me the very same lesson but in a far, far nicer classroom where these lyrics are required reading:

It might seem crazy what I’m about to say
Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break
I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space
With the air, like I don’t care baby by the way

Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do

Whenever I hear Pharrell sing those words, or my nephew attempt to, I bop along and think, “Yep, I do feel like happiness is the truth.”

 

How could I possibly top Barry Manilow? With a little Van Halen, that’s how.

Tomorrow, Philippa and I have the honor of hosting a live episode of our podcast at noon as part of the DC Arts Center’s 25th Anniversary celebration. Not only that, but The Sweater Set, an amazingly talented musical duo, will be joining us to perform a few numbers and chat about the importance of music in our lives.  That got me and Philippa thinking about which songs make up the soundtrack of our lives.  I posted the first seven songs here, and now that you’ve finally managed to dislodge them from your brain, here are the rest. Mwahahahaha…

8.  “Gonna Make You Sweat,” by C+C Music Factory. This song was released in December of 1990, when I was a second year student at the University of Virginia.  No UVA party was complete without it.  Since songs weren’t quite as disposable then as they are now, I heard “Gonna Make You Sweat” no fewer than 14,932 times between its release and my graduation in 1993. I happened to hear it on XM radio this morning while driving to work.  Suddenly, instead of plodding along Route 50, I was at the Delta Sig house on Rugby Road, singing, “Everybody dance now!” and busting out my best moves even though stale beer had effectively Superglued my shoes to the  dance floor.

9. “Jump,” by Van Halen. The second I heard the opening synth chords, I loved this song, but that’s not why it’s on this list. It’s here because it reminds me of the summer of 1984, when my brother’s Little League baseball team won first the local all-stars, then state, and then went to Florida for a regional tournament. “Jump” was one of their warm-up tunes, and then it became their anthem. In 2002, it became mine thanks to a friend who put it on a mix tape I listened to while training to run in the inaugural D.C. Marathon. I ran that race with a Walkman radio—MP3 players were in their infancy and I tend to acquire technology in its geriatric phase—and, somewhere around Mile 10, the classic rock station just happened to play “Jump,” resulting in my fastest one mile split of the race. No matter where I am, what I’m doing or what my mood is, whenever I hear that song, it sends my spirits soaring.

10.  “Message in a Bottle” by the Police. Sometime in the mid- to late 1990s, my entire family piled into our brown minivan (a major upgrade from the two-tone green giant of a van we used to have) to go to Philadelphia for a funeral.  We had barely left my parents’ development when my sisters and I asked Dad to tune the radio to the classic rock station. Dad has never found much use for any music that came after 1963, but if we asked him to deliver us from the oldies, he usually gave in.  He would tune in our station and then tune us out.  On this particular day, we were approaching the Woodrow Wilson Bridge when “Message in a Bottle” came on. We sang along until we neared the end of the song, where Sting’s only message, bottled or otherwise, is “sending out an SOS.”  He sings the phrase over and over and over again for about thirty seconds straight. About 25 seconds into this loop, my father erupted with, “DON’T THEY KNOW ANY OTHER G*&-D*&^NED WORDS?!? TURN THAT S*&^% OFF!”  Silence reigned in the car for a moment, and then the all of us passengers exploded with laughter.  We got the message loud and clear, Dad! To this day, not a one of us can hear this song without cracking up.

11. “You Learn,” by Alanis Morissette. I disliked every song on “Jagged Little Pill,” Alanis’s megahit album, with one exception:  “You Learn.” I liked the music and the laid-back beat.  One afternoon in the summer of 1996, the song was playing on my portable radio at the immigration court where I worked as an interpreter –a euphemism for “clerk who happens to speak Spanish”– when our receptionist buzzed my desk to let me know that someone named Mr. Pearson was waiting to see me. I was grateful for the interruption, because I spent most of my days in that job doing mindless paperwork and reflecting on my life.  (At 25, my resume included two degrees I was proud of and one broken engagement that embarrassed me. Not getting married was absolutely the right decision, but I was ashamed of how poorly I handled it. I waited too long and I wasn’t honest enough, two things guaranteed to make a bad situation worse.  Thoughts that the Universe was going to send me into spinsterhood as punishment for my awful behavior plagued my days.) I frequently got visitors at the court, and they were almost always lawyers who had questions about their cases.  I strode through the door and into the waiting area, where I laid eyes on a very handsome, blonde and blue-eyed lawyer I’d seen in court earlier that day.

“Mr. Pearson?” I said, my optimism surely visible.  He nodded and laughed. “How can I help you?” I asked. I would have been happy to talk to him about anything, including inane immigration forms.

“Um, I was wondering if you’d want to go to dinner with me,” he said.  When I regained consciousness, I said yes, and we went on to date for quite a while. After that, “You Learn” became what my sister Suzi referred to as an omen song. Whenever I heard it, good things seemed to follow.  The song is so old by now that, if I do hear it in the wild, I’m gonna sprint to the nearest lottery retailer.

12.  “The Way You Look Tonight,” by Frank Sinatra. This song vaulted itself on to my list the night of my grandmother’s 75th birthday party in the fall of 1996. Of the many things Nana loved in life, dancing and high heels ranked way up there, and I remember her twirling around that night in her high heels and an elegant party dress (and perfectly coiffed hair, of course, because Nana’s hair was always perfect). I can’t recall whether she and my father danced to this song, or whether it supplied the background music for the celebratory slide show we put on that night, but it really doesn’t matter. I just know that hearing “The Way You Look Tonight” conjures up a vision of Nana, radiant and happy, and that vision always produces a huge smile, along with a few tears.

13.  Violin Concerto No. 4 (“Winter”), by Antonio Vivaldi.  From 1998-2002, I was working full-time and attending law school at night, and “Winter” somehow became the one piece capable of motivating me to get off my rear and write a paper.  Any time I hear it, I see myself in my one bedroom condo in Alexandria, sitting at the beautiful study desk my parents gave me and typing about the Rule Against Perpetuities or some other terribly important legal principle that I probably still don’t understand, while my cat snoozed obnoxiously on my lap.

14.  “Love on the Rocks,” by Sara Bareilles. A friend of mine gave me “Little Voice,” Sara Bareilles’s debut album, just before I went on a road trip to the Northern Neck of Virginia in the summer of 2007.  I stuck it in the CD player the minute I hit a wide-open stretch of Route 17.  I immediately loved the bluesy, piano-heavy backdrop of “Love on the Rocks,” but what really hooked me was the line: “Here’s a simplification of everything we’re going through/You plus me is bad news.” As it turns out, I was at that very moment trying to shake off the overtures of a man I was quite attracted to but who was noncommittal and, objectively, not good for me.  Sara’s equation, and the follow-up line—“my friend says I look better without you”– pretty much summed it up.  But hey, I didn’t go to law school to get bogged down with annoying math, so I ignored it and learned the hard way instead.

Sara Bareilles knew how it added up, even if I didn’t.

15.  “Knee Deep” by the Zac Brown Band. When I left my husband in July of 2011, my life was in free fall, but I wasn’t.  The hands of friends and family reached out by the dozens to catch me before I could even ask, and help came in all sorts of ways.  For example, my brother and sister-in-law, who live in Georgia, made their presence felt with music.  They sent me a care package that included a mix CD they dubbed “Songs You Love But Are Embarrassed To Admit It.” (Clearly they had no idea my CD collection already included “Glam Rock I” and “Glam Rock II: The Glam Strikes Back.”) My very favorite song on this hilarious mix is “Knee Deep,” which features the lines: “Cause now I’m/Knee deep in the water somewhere/Got the blue sky breeze blowing wind through my hair/Only worry in the world is the tide gonna reach my chair.” My mind grabbed those lines and held on to them for dear life, picturing the day when high tide would top my list of cares. Like “Jump,” it became an anthem. Whenever I felt like I was faltering, I’d cue up “Knee Deep,” smile in the general direction of my future, and keep pressing forward.

What songs make up the soundtrack of your life?

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!

Recipe for success

I mentioned yesterday that I went to West Pittston, PA, for the funeral of my father’s aunt.

Being there was important to me because Aunt Carmella and her family were always wonderful to our family, and also because I wanted to lend moral support to my parents, especially my dad.

Stoicism is a trait I sometimes admire and always lack, so when I say “lend moral support to my parents” in the context of a funeral, I really mean “cry in their general vicinity.”

Funerals always make me lose my composure, regardless of my connection to the deceased.  I think it’s because they touch off an emotional chain reaction.  Any funeral makes me think of every funeral I’ve ever attended, which in turn reminds me of every loved one I’ve ever lost.

The momentum of my sadness builds when I see pain on my parents’ face, and any hope I have of containing the mounting wave of sorrow evaporates as soon as the music starts.

Inspirational music as a genre doesn’t move me, yet every single song sent tears down my cheeks yesterday.  It didn’t matter whether it was sung well or even a “good” song as religious music goes.

As you can imagine, I was grateful when the time came for the priest to give his sermon.  I figured it would give me an opportunity to detach the Kleenex that had grafted itself to my nose.

The priest gave the first hint that his might not be your standard sermon when he stepped down from the altar and walked right up to Aunt Carmella’s family, which was seated in the front row.  He proceeded to engage them, and the rest of the congregation, in dialogue in the way I’ve often seen standup comedians do, but never a man of the cloth.

“So I heard your mom made the best meatballs,” he said to Carmella’s children, “and that nobody else could make ‘em like her. Is that right?”  For Italian women of my aunt’s era, there are few higher honors than being awarded a culinary superlative.

Meatballs: A staple of the Italian diet.

As Carmella’s son and daughter were nodding, a hand shot up a few rows in front of me and my parents and an elderly female voice said, “I can!”

Every crowd has a heckler.

“Then if they ever let priests get married, would ya marry me?”  he said, without skipping a beat.  Like any seasoned pro, he just wove it into his material and kept right on going.

“Though I’m Polish,” he said, “I know how central food is to the Italian culture.”  The mention of edible food was the perfect point of departure for a discussion about nourishing the soul.  The road of his sermon stretched out clear and wide before us.  Or so I thought.

“But I have to say one thing: You guys stole our perogies and rebranded them as ‘ravioli.’ I’m just sayin’. ”

Which came first: The perogi or the ravioli?

So brilliant were his lines and delivery that I’m not convinced the higher calling was this guy’s calling after all.

But he did segue into a broader and thought-provoking discussion of the recipe by which my great aunt lived her life.  Like so many of her generation, Carmella didn’t live for “me” or “I.”  She lived for family, above all else.  And she didn’t talk about it or expect praise for it, she just did it.

This meant, among other things, abandoning her own schooling after tenth grade to take care of her brothers and sisters when their mother died.  No doubt that decision was tough for Carmella, a woman who prized education above most things, but she didn’t hesitate to make it.

“The recipe for Carmella’s life,” the priest said to her family in closing, “is one that you must share.”

Having known my great aunt, I agree.  I also hope this priest shares his recipe for funeral services.