Thursday, June 18, 2015

Letting go of money (and an old friend) in Italy.

I’ve honed cheap-skatery to a fine edge. I re-use foil and Ziploc bags, self-administer haircuts, pedicures and even Brazilians – attaining a Jedi-level of self-grooming. Heck, I’d even drill my own teeth if I could, and have occasionally been known to file my own choppers when rough.

It pains me to spend money, so a month-long trip to Italy with my husband Dave to celebrate his retirement promised to be a little excruciating. Not that we’d be living like senators, mind you; we got a cheap flight and Dave had chosen reasonable Airbnb rooms with kitchens so I could cook some of our meals. Also, we’d be taking public transport whenever we could.

No, it was all the unanticipated extras that made me wince: cab fares, toilet fares, and paying for water (water!) in restaurants. It was also the sad realization that even though the Euro was down, it was still worth more than a dollar, so a €30 dinner was actually $33.73.

When we arrived in Florence, known for its well-crafted and inexpensive leather goods, I’d reached a Scrooge McDuck level of frugality – at least in my head. A well-deserved leather jacket and briefcase for Dave and beautiful saddlebag purse for me brought no joy, only Eyeore-like thoughts. “We can’t afford this.” “We’re pillaging our emergency fund.” “We’ll bounce our checking account.”

I put a good face on it and tried to enjoy the rich chaos of Rome, lushness of Florence and quirkiness of Venice, but by the time I got to the gritty city of Naples, I knew my attitude stunk and could use a change of clothes. It took the death of a friend to shame me out of my pinch-faced parsimony.

Andy Jones was a new acquaintance. A jazz-loving, energetic man who had just celebrated his 88th birthday, he sparkled with vitality and optimism. He still worked as a greeting card salesman and began every day with 1,000 sit-ups (you read that right) and a seven-mile walk. He gave away his old suits, not to divest himself of possessions, but so he could buy new ones in hopes of impressing the ladies.

We thought Andy would live forever. There is a Japanese word that describes him exactly –  “genki.” Roughly translated, it means enthusiastic, energetic, lively – game, ready to go. That was Andy Jones.

He found our group of friends through a shared love of music, and we spent many Friday nights circled around the piano, singing songs from the Great American Songbook – Andy’s favorite genre. He went from being shy and requesting songs, to singing them with gusto.

We loved getting to know Andy and looked forward to many more gatherings. When Dave learned on Facebook he had passed away of a heart attack, we were both stunned. And here we were in Italy, unable to attend the funeral and filled with sadness.

An inescapable truth of Rome is how impermanent we all are. The ruins of Italy have far outlasted the life spans of their creators by thousands of years. The many statues and monuments are for people long-gone and mostly forgotten. The cosmic clock stops for no one – not the citizens of ancient Rome, not Andy, certainly not for me.

Andy Jones wrung every drop of juice out of his 88 years, why wouldn’t I do the same? Here I am in Italy with the man I love. We’re both in good health, and have an emergency fund to plunder. How about I buy some expensive gifts and that sexy dress from Florence? Or, fully enjoy the vertiginous views from The Path of the Gods over the Amalfi Coast; bask in romantic, peach-colored sunsets over the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, and ogle over Michelangelo’s David? Must I be the Grinch Who Stole Our Italian Vacation? I couldn’t think of a single reason why I should and, I’ll bet, Andy couldn’t have either.

The heavy chains of miserliness fell from my shoulders. I didn’t look at the bills anymore or question Dave’s purchases and decisions to use a cab instead of walking. Best of all, I could finally drink in the richness of Italy with abandon – mind you, with €5 bottles of wine.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The night Captain Fantastic gave me a voice.

The Chrysler station wagon smelled of cigarettes, beer and spoiled milk. It always did on hot humid nights. My older brother Greg was driving, and he and his friends were playing that stupid game of repeating exactly what each other said a split second after saying it. It was like being in an echo chamber full of morons and it was irritating.

That summer of 1975 was big for Elton John. He had released Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and the breakout single Someone Saved My Life Tonight was playing on the radio. A miserable and lonely 14 year-old, I identified with the world-weary, but hope-filled lyrics and passionately sang along, oblivious to the snickers around me:

I never realized the passing hours
Of evening showers
A slip noose hanging, in my darkest dreams
I'm strangled by your haunted social scene
Just a pawn out-played by a dominating queen
It's four o'clock in the morning
Damn it! Listen to me good
I'm sleeping with myself tonight
Saved in time, thank god my music's still alive

As he’d done so many times before, my brother snapped the volume off, leaving my voice exposed in the now-quiet car. In the past, I’d sheepishly clam up, unconfident in my own voice. Not this time. Those stirring lyrics – hearing my own voice above the mocking – gave me courage to sing with unexpected strength:

Someone saved my life tonight sugar bear
You almost had your hooks in me, didn't you dear
You nearly had me roped and tied
Altar-bound, hypnotized
Sweet freedom whispered in my ear
You're a butterfly
And butterflies are free to fly
Fly away, high away, bye bye

The laughter had stopped, and Greg turned the radio back on.

That night was the beginning of finding my voice – a process that still continues. Sometimes that voice is quieted by soul-crushing failure, a negative review or disapproval from others. But magically, the mere act of speaking out – singing, saying or writing what seems true – blasts open the timid doors of my heart and I’m free to fly.

Someone saved my life that night. Turns out, it was me.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Money-smart, marriage-smart.

My husband and I left the room after two hours, spent, hungry and light-headed. Had we been arguing, engaging in “afternoon delight,” or working out? Nope. Just talking about money. We joked that we were “divorce-proofing” our marriage.

I wasn’t always money-smart. My family didn’t buy lottery tickets, but we somehow believed money would magically appear. Budgeting was for the bourgeoisie. My father spent as he wished, while my mother fretted, saved and arranged deck chairs as their ship slowly sank. Though they recovered financially, I was imprinted by their mixed messages.

I was a math-phobic child. Multiplication tables caused me to blank out with fear. I failed math every year of high school, then barely passed it in the summer make-up. My math illiteracy led to an avoidance of anything financial.

In my first marriage I was frugal, but like my parents, mostly ignorant about the state of our finances. My then-husband would tell me cash was low and not to spend until a check cleared. Instead, I would hear “The apocalypse is coming. Buy cereal, toiletries and paper towels,” and overdraw our account.

I regularly engaged in financial infidelity – hiding purchases and misrepresenting my income. Yet, we rarely argued. Discussions about money were off-limits. Clearly, I had baggage I wasn’t ready to unpack.

Money avoidance was only one of our issues, but a clear metaphor for lack of intimacy and transparency in other areas. For 25 years we arranged deck chairs on our own sinking barge. In 2006, I jumped ship to a new life.

My first act of financial transformation was preparing a budget for the divorce lawyers. I was terrified to find out my true fiscal state, and wrangled a girlfriend to walk me through this basic skill. Money-wise, I felt like that kid who kept failing math.

As the numbers tallied up, I was stunned to find that a modest apartment, saving for both retirement and a down payment for a house were actually affordable. Expenses that didn’t matter anymore were gleefully slashed, like cable TV or a new car – making room for such luxuries as hair foiling, eating out and vacations. This math was fun!

After the divorce I started dating and developed a checklist of desired attributes. He didn’t need to be rich, but his finances couldn’t be a hot mess – that was my old life.

My new boyfriend Dave and I had many wonderful things in common, but some not so lovely. We shared a fear of money and a checkered financial history. Aside from a small car loan, I had wrangled the debt goose, but Dave still had money troubles  – a good deal of debt and an upside-down mortgage. Though most of the debt was due to his late wife’s illness, his balance sheet was a yellow flag to me.

It wasn’t romantic, but some of our early discussions were about finances. Turns out, my new love was naturally frugal, but didn’t like to say no to his significant other – a recipe for money problems. I was a spender, and splurged when fearing scarcity – often on useless items or impulse buys.

Instead of pre-marital counseling, we took a budgeting class together. We unearthed our inner money nerds and worked on changing bad habits – excruciating at first. The angriest we ever got with each other was in structuring our debt repayment. Outmatched, we hired a financial coach with Solomon-like wisdom to referee. Secure we were on the same page financially, we became one in the eyes of God, the law, and our bank account.

By tightening our belts, living in a cheap apartment and driving beater cars, we were debt-free in three years. Five years later, we are now on our way to paying off our simple home and securing a bright financial future. We still make mistakes, “forget” to mention purchases and impulse-buy on occasion, but quickly right the vessel.

Dave and I trust each other and don’t have secrets; it’s the basis of intimacy. Full-disclosure financially has also required us both to put our oars in the water and pull in the same direction – good for any couple. And that’s a ship neither of us are likely to jump.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Getting naked: My road to emotional and physical intimacy.

I’m going to get naked with you, sharing the one secret that gave me a life of emotional and physical intimacy. Getting there was the scariest thing I ever did, and you won’t believe how simple it was.
First, some background:
I had three older brothers and two younger sisters in a lively Irish-Catholic family on Grand Island, New York. My parents loved each other, but bickered all the time. If Dad said the couch was red, Mom corrected, that no, it was rust. They could bicker over anything.
Mom’s world consisted of emotions, beauty, family and charity. Dad’s was reason, ideas, facts, perfection and competence. Logic and force of personality won out and my father frequently had the upper hand, unless memory was involved. Then my mother won.
Our family dinners were fun and energizing, but sometimes resembled a blood sport – eat or be eaten, wit being the coin of the realm. Mom stayed on the sidelines, not suited for battle – rarely a participant.                                          
Like a baby mouse imprinted with her mother’s scent, I adopted their style; it was more important to be right than happy.
At 20, I married a man much like my father, blazingly intelligent, quick, cutting and defensive. We reenacted my parent’s dynamic in many ways, but I vowed not to be vulnerable like my mother. I dressed in Levi’s and plaid shirts, cut my hair short, gained weight and hid any sign of femininity.
I appeared asexual, but more important, learned to cover sadness, concerns and anger, acting like one of the boys. Being tough and invulnerable, I couldn’t be hurt.
Once, five months pregnant with our second child I camped for a week in Algonquin, Canada, with my husband. I carried a heavy pack, portaged through the woods and slept on a thin foam pad. It was only after days of trying to sleep on tangled roots and rocks that I discovered all the other couples had air mattresses. Such amenities were for sissies.
My androgyny affected our sex life; very little of it and it was not good. I joked that there was only three subjects my husband and I could not discuss: sex, money and chores.
I needed more. Just as blocked arteries develop other pathways to deliver blood to the heart, I developed alternate routes to receive love – I built up a bank of friends who loved me, mostly female, occasionally male – all platonic. I would have said I was happy, justifying the creative financing of my love bank.
But deep inside, was a woman wanting out – a soft-hearted, delicate creature who wanted to be cherished by one man. Eventually, through the magic of therapy, good friends and re-discovering musical gifts, I reclaimed much of my femininity, but it was too late for us. After 25 years, we divorced.
At 46, I faced a brand new future, a future I could choose.
I created a vision statement for my new life. It described the house I’d live in, kind of music on the stereo, paintings on the wall and, of course, the man who would share it with me: he would be smart, funny, hospitable, sensuous, and above all, kind. And we would be intimate, whatever that meant.
I dated 18 men in one crazy year, then, took a sabbatical. At the end of it, there was Dave. He matched the man I’d pictured in all the key ways, but, closest to my heart – was kind.  I’d found my ideal mate and I was terrified. So terrified, a latent case of colitis kicked into high gear. I was touching on deep fears and my body was objecting.
I had not seen intimacy between my parents, had not experienced it with my ex, yet that is what I desperately wanted in my new life. How could we create this?
We started with one basic rule, we would be kind to each other – literally, a zero-tolerance for unkindness, and it had to start with me.
How did this play out?
We didn’t allow blaming. For anything. Ever. Especially when driving or discussing money. No criticism was permitted. If we had a beef, we either sat on it or discussed it as a thing we might solve together. Sarcasm was also barred at the door – including that ominous fourth horseman of divorce: eye-rolling behind each other’s backs. We argued and sometimes heatedly, but never hit below the belt. Public putdowns were forbidden too.
We were patient with each other, listening without jumping in, even when a story took so long, one could picture cows wandering in and out of the pauses. We created an environment where we could be ourselves without criticism or judgment.
Most frightening for me, we admitted fears, cried in front of each other, shared hopes, budding dreams, and let down our guard. Slowly, I reprogrammed that baby mouse for a life of love instead of one of conflict and competition.
Do you know what happens in a relationship where both people can be vulnerable and truly themselves? When you know your tender bodies and souls will be cherished and not ridiculed?
You have a lot of really great sex.
Dave and I will be married for five years this October, and they have been the happiest years of my life. Over time, I learned to relax with both emotional and physical intimacy and my colitis went away, but we’ve had our hard times too. It’s then that kindness kick in – the touchstone we always return to when we’ve lost our way.
Ultimately, intimacy had to begin with me. I had to let go of a lifetime of defensive tactics, unconscious behaviors and a pathological need to be right. I could expect kindness in my life and marriage when that’s all I allowed myself to give.
And I discovered that when you remove arguing, anger, blame, bickering, sarcasm, insults, criticism, pickiness and fault finding from a marriage ... all that’s left is love.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Losing (and finding) my voice.

The symptoms started last summer vacation in Colorado. In the car practicing scales, my voice cracked – a common enough occurrence for a 14 year-old boy, but never me. The more I sang, the more hoarse my voice became. It was terrifying.

I was 52, had left a good job in marketing to be a jazz singer only a year and a half prior – and now this. As always, I jumped to worst-case scenario and cried on my husband Dave’s shoulder that night. “Will you still love me if I can’t sing?” I half-seriously asked him. More important, I wondered how much I’d love myself if I couldn’t sing.

Googling “vocal problems, hoarseness, perimenopause,” I discovered women often experience a loss, changing or lowering of their voice at mid-life. Opera singers, in particular, age out and quietly retreat from public performance, avoiding the public humiliation – often, only in their forties.

A life-long singer, I had taken my voice for granted, wondering instead if age or looks would be the determining factors in success (heck, even those few extra pounds), all the while not realizing my entire career rested on two tiny vibrating pieces of tissue less than an inch long. Talk about feeling vulnerable.

Of immediate concern, was my rapidly approaching debut at the Lewiston Jazz Festival. How ironic would it be that after years of applying to the festival, my first performance there would be diminished or, God forbid, even cancelled?

The more I researched, gastric reflux (a common malady of menopause) appeared to be the direct cause of my problems. Simply, stomach acids were frying my vocal cords and affecting their ability to vibrate properly and produce sound.

The next morning, I hit the pharmacy and started taking Prilosec – which belongs to a group of drugs called proton pump inhibitors (PPI’s) or acid-reducers. Within days, the vocal cracking stopped. My range returned, and the relief was as big as the surrounding Rockies.

My performance at the Jazz Festival was a success, but vocal problems continued to dog me. Again, I turned to the internet to research my condition. In addition to preventing reflux by not eating large or late-in-the-day meals, modifying a number of habits would keep my voice limber: avoiding caffeine, alcohol and decongestants and raising the head of my bed six inches.

Just how important was it to keep singing? I even gave up my beloved red wine. And, as averse as I am to medication, hormone replacement therapy soon joined my medication regime.

Finally, having exhausted self-diagnosing, I visited an otolaryngologist. He confirmed reflux, but to great relief, my vocal cords were only irritated, not permanently damaged. It also turned out (in danger of having doctor creds removed), I had been taking Prilosec incorrectly.

So, I’m singing again. The range is back and doesn’t skip. And yet … this is not voice I had in my thirties and forties. It’s not quite as lush or round. It sounds (gasp!) older. I hear the difference in my recently-recorded CD and am not entirely happy.

These days, I have to work much harder to maintain vocal fluidity and limberness. The passage from chest voice to head voice is not as easily navigated. I have to sing every single day to maintain tone and flexibility.

And yet, there is something I did not have in my thirties and forties – vulnerability and connection. These songs have been lived, revealing both broken hearts and simmering passions.

Now 53, I also believably project sensuality and playfulness. I take myself less seriously and am more confident. I’m not sacrificing the message of the song to attain perfect tone – the phrasing is more conversational. You also hear that on the CD.

This last year has seen the death of a number of friends, most of whom were artists. The world is the lesser for it. I wish I could hear just one more of their songs or see another of their paintings. Yet, here I am, alive, sometimes tempted to stop sharing my gifts out of vanity or perfectionism.

Funny, when singing, my flaws and limitations are forgotten. In that moment, I am a conduit for God or Spirit. I’m lost in the song, creating joy, and often (especially with the elderly) making someone’s day. My audiences connect, and through the music, buried emotions are unearthed. My work matters.

Yes, I am an older woman with an older voice, but I have a compelling story to tell and hearts to touch. Until my audiences stop listening, I’ll keep singing.  

Thursday, March 13, 2014

My Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal.

The first time I did it, I was 11 years old. The local SPCA shelter was low on money and was forced to euthanize the overflow of puppies and kitties. It just about broke my heart. Something had to be done. So, we put on a show.
I envisioned a vaudeville extravaganza with corny skits, music, and written-out parts for the available cast – my two sisters and a couple of our best friends. Even our flea-ridden, mangy collie Kingboy would have a walk-on role.

We canvassed the neighborhood, selling flimsy paper tickets for 75 cents each that Dad had photocopied at work, baked cookies and made lemonade. We hung up a clothesline and pinned an old brocade curtain on it. Any available fold-up chairs were wrangled from the neighbors and lined up hopefully in our garage.

After one whole week of rehearsal – largely consisting of me telling everyone what to do and pitching fits when they WOULD NOT follow my directions – we were ready for the hoards of Harvey Road theatergoers.
And you know what? They came: mothers, fathers, squalling toddlers – even that new black family down the street (exotic for Grand Island) we’d welcomed with a cake. Everyone came with money in their pockets expecting fun, but knowing they were supporting something larger than themselves.
They clapped and listened appreciatively to our overwrought dramas in that hot, fly filled garage. They bought the overpriced brownies and Kool-Aid because five raggedy kids and a reluctant dog wanted to do something big and help something worthy.
I’m doing it again. I’ve put together a crack team of musicians and we’ve recorded a wonderful CD. We’re going to release it at a big party for a really great cause – The Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP). And boy, are they audacious too. They believe that with education and service they can grow and bring healthy food to the West Side of Buffalo.
The tickets aren’t cheap ($20 presale), but all of the proceeds and a percentage of the CD sales will go to MAP. We’d like to buy them a walk in cooler for their fresh, locally-grown produce.
Please join us on Friday, March 28 at 7:00pm at Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Buffalo. We’ve upgraded the cookies and lemonade to wine, desserts and appetizers. Instead of five awkward kids you’ll see some of Buffalo’s best jazz musicians. Kingboy the collie won’t be there, but if you’ll come, we promise you one hell of a show.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Finding a blue sky in Buffalo.

Painting, Phil Durgan

Can we agree that this Buffalo winter has been a real humdinger? Misery for most, heaven for some, what we haven’t seen are many blue sky days. This has made the shooting of my album cover, “Here Beneath the Blue,” a near impossibility.

I had pictured me standing, relaxed arms wide open, under a brilliant, clear blue sky. However, glamour shots in 20° weather with icy howling winds don’t portray the laid back vibe I’m shooting for. Streaming eyes, nose and flailing hair might be fine for a metal band, not classic jazz.

Friends suggested Photoshopping me into an idyllic background – dependent only on a good shot and mad editing skills. While I’m at it, why not copy/paste a 20 lb. slimmer body on me, put a margarita in my hand with a nearby pool boy and call it a day?

No, desperate times lead to desperate measures. Somehow, I’d create my own blue sky; that is to say, hire an artist to paint a blue sky behind me while I posed happily beneath it.

Luckily, I know a few wonderful painters and was able to line up the talented abstract artist, Phil Durgan to be my performance painter. I supplied him with a thumbnail sketch of my vision and we were on our way!

What to wear for my cover – sexy, vulnerable, spiritual or slinky? Ask an expert. Last night I met with BFF and style maven Pamela Sieracki who shopped my closet for five potentially awesome outfits. She combined fabrics and colors like the designer she is and advised me against my own “What Not To Wear” disasters.

In two days, the photo shoot will be a coordination effort worthy of D-day: first, my hair will be cut and styled by Michele Ruffino of R Salon. Then, my face will be painted, troweled, and airbrushed by Hollywood makeup artist, Dani Weiser.

Next, it’s off to the indoor loft apartment/future French bistro owned by the generous Paul and Sandra Wilkins. It has the distressed brick look I’m hoping for, plus lots of natural light. Phil will arrive on site with his partially finished canvas and painting supplies to set up a live backdrop to my posing.

Then, it’s time for my photographer, Marc Murphy to work his magic with existing light and my thoroughly natural, hey-I-look-this-good-everyday, appearance. If all goes as planned, I’ll look happy and open – here beneath the blue. Just like in real life, when blue skies in Buffalo are not cooperating, we create our own.