15 Stones

We had a few minutes. Greta and I weaved our way through the maze that is Shadyside hospital in Pittsburgh. Outside, across from a large slowly rotating door, in “The Garden of Distinction”, we sat comfortably on a weathered wooden bench. Finally, after 48 hours of hospital air, a fresh August breeze filled our lungs.

It is a meditative rock garden. Greta spent little time reflecting upon her past two days, of course. Any thoughts of IV drips, nurses, needles, or pain most assuredly was there but didn’t require her attention. The focus was her art … Needing to express herself by creating something out of nothing.

And that she did.

I watched the process unfold. With no fancy pens or expensive supplies available at her patient, artistic insistence, stones warmed by a late August sun were just enough to give her all she needed.

Specifically chosen by shade, stones were placed in rows and columns – darker to lighter – 3×5 to finish. 15 stones. On the top rests, perhaps even now, a pebble man on a chair as this artistic piece was not dismantled upon our departure. As we left, she stopped a few paces down a pebbled path to pick up that pine cone to return and place it gently on the corner. “Now, it’s complete!”, may have been the phrase so happily smiling in her head at that moment? I can’t recall what she said then, but I’m aware she knew those 15 stones, a pebbled man, and a pine cone brought closure to a wonderful time in a garden.

Yesterday was hard. A day that was supposed to be full of smiles and music presented an empty stage and lots of tears instead. When the day nurse wrote 8/22 on the daily board, it was difficult to see in the context of medicines and dose schedules. August 22nd was not going to be wasted, however.

I asked Abbey, her very kind day nurse, if it was possible to go outside after Greta requested a meeting with sunshine and nature. She pleasantly agreed and made arrangements for us to begin our trek through the labyrinth that is Shadyside. (Full disclosure here, I wanted to head out the nearest exit with Greta and not come back …). Slowly we headed out of the room, down 7 floors, past the cafeteria, then the gift shop, a few short steps until reaching a long, majestic entrance/exit to the rotating door …

… Out to a small driveway – then to a very peaceful rock garden.

Something out of nothing. 15 stones. Art is there for us to interpret. She is an artist who created a small work of art – a man in a chair on top of 15 stones … with a pine cone. It remains there as evidence of her presence during a very difficult time. I have my private ideas about what this means to me and would encourage you to look at that picture to consider how a terminal cancer diagnosis would change your perspective.

Music is art as well. We lost yesterday’s chance. As an accompanist, I lost the opportunity to perform with one of the best vocalists ever. What I have, however, is something much better. Time in that garden.

During an afternoon when we should have been on stage in front of many friends, we sat alone among many stones in a meditative garden. I watched as she worked her artistry … I was accompanying her once again – just not how we planned.

All in all, I figure the day was a success after all. My ideas and thoughts about her little creation, again, will remain mostly private. What I can share, though, is this:

Appendix cancer took the concert away from her yesterday – 72 hours short of our goal. 15 stones may seem small and insignificant to many, however, to me they represent the rock star Greta will always be to me.

7 Floors Down

Directly below where I now sit is a cafeteria. Beside that eatery is a small, intimate little sitting area with one bench. I sat on that bench – seven floors down – recording a 4:06 video. This happened nearly two hours ago here, at Shadyside hospital in Pittsburgh, during a time when I should have been somewhere else …

Life isn’t all smiles. Greta and I should have been rehearsing final notes for our, “Smile: A musical journey through life and rare terminal cancer” concert. Instead, we are quietly singing our way around nurses, beeping IV pole stand monitors, and shuffling feet noises outside a very accomodating western PA hospital facility. It’s been a difficult past few days. Six months of planning. We fell a mere few days short.

There is no quit here. The concert has been postponed. For those among my readers who are unaware, here is the poster:

I sit here at 9:11 wondering, “why?”. It’s hard not to ask that question. Why so close, yet so unreachable? During a small window of opportunity this afternoon, we had a moment when Greta’s vocal, quiet beauty met my pianist eyes. That one word fell into our near conversational silence. We knew it. It remained unanswered as time drifted into a lull. Seventy-two hours is all. After six months of planning and rehearsing, life came down to seventy-two hours.

I sat on a small bench recording a video, not another smaller bench playing, “Silver Lining”, or “Rainbow Connection”. There will be no beauty in song tomorrow. No daisies on stage or train whistle to begin the concert with Doris Day’s rendition of, “Sentimental Journey” ending with Greta’s A-major 7th she loves so much. “Chase” – with her brother, Bump – and Donnie & Marie’s closing theme will both have to wait until we decide to reschedule. There is no quit. No give-up. Twenty-three songs and pieces Greta and I have accepted as part of our souls are, now, archived in our library of memories … for now.

Seven floors up from where I was, I now sit. Sad, but so glad Greta is receiving the care she needs.

“Why?” still remains unanswered and will be so. I don’t want an answer. One week earlier this concert had a chance. Even this past Wednesday, she had the spunk and energy to do a full hour interview at our local radio station. We had a window. Small as it was …

Life with appendix cancer isn’t what anyone expects or plans for at any time … anywhere. As I finish up this short post, I am so grateful for the opportunity to share a smile journey. It’s, simply, not the way Greta and I hoped to dance happy memories past your ears tomorrow.

Below is a replacement video for the livestream we planned for 2:00 tomorrow. May you find peace and wonderment in all your smiles – and please listen to your favorite music not only tomorrow afternoon, but always. “Smile, though your heart is breaking …”

https://www.dropbox.com/s/4bzudec914h2ils/0821211840.mp4?dl=0

The Eighth Note That Was

There aren’t many impromptu, rhythmic happenings in my life that aren’t unrehearsed these days. With a special vocal/piano concert less than two weeks away, every push of a key in “I’ll Be Seeing You’, vocalese in “How High The Moon”, and every solitary note in twenty-one other songs – for a program to benefit the Appendix Cancer Research Foundation – has been rehearsed. Yes, Ms. Greta and I have planned and charted a course … headed toward that “x” destination of August 22nd, 2021.

On a rough ocean of unpredictable high-c’s, on a rehearsal piano that won’t be used in the performance, we’ve managed to steer a wondrously magical musical ship through busy schedules, personal conflicts, and medical challenges. I can’t write, “all of that aside, however”, because as of this moment, we are still facing waves of complications. Business schedules don’t subside. Personalities continue as they have for decades … and cancer sucks.

I sat facing forward for a few minutes outside Sam’s Club yesterday. Sitting. A break from behind the grill as one young man, Tristan, welcomed the opportunity to work my business by himself. A short video call to Ms. Greta was in order as she was unable to be with me. This was our 6th fund-raiser outside Sam’s where Doug’s Dawgs has the opportunity to split profits 50/50 with ACPMP. I welcomed the break.

Indeed a short call as Tristan quickly drew a crowd – not of his own doing, of course. It was Sunday, and Sam’s Club. To date, we’ve raised over $1,600 dollars for ACPMP (with generous tips included) and my business is honored to be a part of such a rare, strange cancer … in a rare, strange way.

I’d rather not be raising money behind a hot dawg cart at all, to be frank … and, yes, pun intended. I’d much prefer to be planning and rehearsing a concert with a healthy, vibrant Ms. Greta. My choice would be to have appendix cancer not exist in the first place. As an extension of that thought, I’d like to have my mom in attendance on the 22nd instead of buried in a local hill under a heavy stone due to cancer.

Writing about this at 2:20 a.m., of course, is my choice … but, rehearsing a verse of “Silver Lining” right now would make these typing fingers a lot happier.

Not to be at the moment. I need to be satisfied with silence.

A few moments of quiet didn’t happen yesterday. Those don’t exist while working – even when a reliable, motivated young man takes the helm. I had two, maybe three, minutes of restful look ahead time to eat a slice of rubbery pizza and slosh down a swig of diet Pepsi. I did glance down for a second as a frequent customer sat his dawgs gently on the table to my right. That look down, actionable second – combined with the reflection from the sun’s angle – gave me an astonishing inhale … a note.

An eighth note. A simple quaver.

Prior to my being there, did a minor, invisible, café table spirit being decide it was my turn to receive a message from the great beyond? During my earlier bathroom break, did Nicholas Sparks secretly walk over to goo-up a blue metal table top for another “The Notebook” sequel? The note smudge was kinda cool. Under the circumstance of a concert that’s very close and becoming unpredictably familiar, I needed a reminder that life without musical notes helping to steer a ship in turbulent waters isn’t much of a life at all.

… At least for Ms. Greta and me, this is so true. We’ve rehearsed the notes. Many eighth notes were here for us, and will be again on the 22nd. Hopefully. They’ve been our delight (and struggle at times), but when all the engines are firing together, there’s no ship on the sea that compares. None.

The eighth note that was, truly. A simple, effortless reminder by innocent customers who had no idea a quaver was left behind in their wake. A note head, stem, and flag. Not sure this could have been planned – or rehearsed – any better.

Sometimes the most magical, short lyrical stories in your life can be the impromptu moments while sitting at a café table for two minutes. Keep your eyes open for the effortless note that may appear when you least expect it.

Don’t worry about the ocean, btw. As unpredictable as it is, we’re all riding in the ship together doing the best we can, right?

And cancer still sucks.

Slow Down and Feel Groovy

As a worn sidewalk caressed the bottom of my hurrying soles this morning, Simon & Garfunkel rested notes on my soul. I couldn’t get rid of them. You know what I mean. Every so often, darn lyrics songfully plant themselves in our brains and we can’t stop silently singing them over and over.

I was rushing around with too many errands draping off my to-do list. Clamors from passing cars and screaming kids were more annoying than I’m used to which indicated a higher level of stress coursing through my veins. I was searching for sounds of silence when another Artful Paul tune entered my space singing, ” Slow down, you move too fast. You got to make the morning last …”

… Not bad advice. Not bad at all.

Steps forward were slower, measured, and calm once those lyrics began to digest into my morning breaths. The previous two hours didn’t matter as much anymore. All the earlier run-arounds, bad news, and mail grabbing sat alone … beside me they were abandoned as I reclined against a kind tree for a spell. It’s not that I didn’t care about a good friend suddenly in the hospital, or a credit card bill, … I had to stop and “let the morning time drop all its petals on me”. Simple.

And so, I sung “Feelin’ Groovy” in my head for a bit while passers-by wondered why the right fingers and left hip – of a slightly off-centered, closed-eye guy in his 50’s – were happily grooving and snapping to inaudible sounds. Hard to pull off in public, I know, but completely necessary when life is a bit too much to handle. Yes, steps forward from those tree-leaning moments were un-hurried and peaceful.

Ten minutes back to a car two blocks away. Best guess, that distance took less than two minutes in my scurryful state earlier in the morning. “Just kickin’ down the cobblestones”, but not appreciating any of them, happened to be a state of mind I didn’t appreciate when jumping in and out of three businesses, two banks, a post office, a church, one café, and gas station. Filling time, I guess … “Gettin’ er done”, as some friends would say. In the groove of busyness, however, not really enjoying any of it.

Mundane, everyday, with tints of exhaustion and over-expectations of what I can actually handle was this morning. As one very respectful business owner once advised, “You can do anything you put your mind to, just not everything“.

Yep. Isn’t that most of us, though? We try to do so much … and in the midst of it all, we forget to feel groovy and enjoy ourselves. Trying to do everything all the time isn’t helping the situation we’re in – whatever life bubble that happens to be.

My plate is full. Simon & Garfunkel don’t know how full it is. To say, “I got no deeds to do, no promises to keep”, would be one heck of a whopper to tell at this point in my life … and one lyric line from “Feelin’ Groovy” that doesn’t jive up with my life. As the song Pete & repeated, that lyric laughed heartily. I get it.

You know what? Don’t care.

I had to make the morning last … and last it did. Once my steps strode easily, a pulse eased. The drive back from town? So much less, since frenetically jammed tension built up by sad news and work expectations were left in the soil by a tree. Since then, work-stuff with phone calls and expectations are still present. Those are being handled at a slower metronomic pace.

… Kinda like a sweet strumming guitar on stage.

Remember to slow down, please. There’s no better control over anything going on than your willingness to stop for a few minutes and feel groovy. Sounds silly, I know.

For me today, there wasn’t a lamppost to ask, “What’cha knowing?”. Perhaps for you, someday there will be. Ask away and get some answers if needed. I don’t have the answers to anything. All I know is slowing down was the best thing I could have done at 10:35 this morning on the corner of Allegheny and Union. Moving too fast over feet isn’t a good plan, overall.

You gotta make the morning last … and make it count for all the right reasons. Be that reason. Look for fun, feel groovy if at all possible, and keep those songs repeating in your head.

Rick, Michelle, and Table 10

I hope my point of view will ease your daily grind. At the very least, if Chet Baker has any influence on what I write, you’ll remember somewhere the sun is shining whenever the skies are blue. I know, just know, as Chet so aptly sings, “A heart, full of joy and gladness,
will always banish sadness and strife” in your life. If not forever, maybe for a few minutes.

It did last Friday night for me. “Silver Linings” painted my heavens a spectacular shade of musical wonderment. This comfortable musical couplet sang their cover songs, shoes off, voices on key and guitars well above average. To be expected. I’ve known and heard Rick and Michelle before last Friday night. They’re spectacular.

Skies were overcast when the text came thundering across my phone hours earlier. It was to be another musical experience – another event to set up around a stage to sell food-stuffs to attendees coming to hear a cover band play … outside. Aaand … another rain-out to cap off a few weeks of miserableness in what’s known as concession craziness – i.e., planning and preparing – over and over – only to get the notice of a cancellation of postponement due to wetness dropping down from the unforgiving dark skies.

Should be comfortable with the news, but I never am. There’s always hope the traffic signal colors I see creeping across my weather radar screens will stop short and disappear before the first downbeat. Unfortunately, most organizers have to make the call hours earlier – before sound checks and food trucks fill the airwaves and concrete. So, this was my Friday, day. The text arrived around 2:00 pm. Concert at 6:00, postponed until September.

The silver lining? I finally got to enjoy my musical self!

Table 10 was a surprisingly comfortable round corner conversational buffet. The banquet room at the U.S. Hotel in Hollidaysburg is a large, acoustically challenging room where – on any other occasion – steady, mature adults would sit sipping wine, eating hor d’oeuvres, and flapping about the day’s news. With cans of craft beer of which I didn’t indulge, great food, and conversations concerning matters of an adult nature, our table was unsteadily hilarious, immaturedly necessary,… and just what was needed.

Words among friends. Ah, yes. Even those I met for the first time. Connections were different. I knew this person … Who knew this one … Who didn’t know him, but knew of that one because of her … kinda thing going on. It didn’t take long for us to become comfortable with one another. Music and theater have that adhesiveness. Once folks realize the connection, it’s magic.

Hours of chair-scooting between the table next to us, in order to chat with friends I don’t see regularly, was a necessary pleasant surprise. On occasion, an acquaintance would stop over to gain a quick, “Hey, what’s up?”, or “Nice to see you …”. A former piano student approached to say, “Hi!”, and get caught up with life as I sipped my innocent Pepsi. All the while, a great friend and I were getting caught up as she sat to my left upon arriving late. Losing a husband recently is tough, so I assume a night away – among her very busy social schedule – was a pleasant exhale for her. Her gray skies are gonna clear up.

As all the chit-chat and frivolity was happening, Rick and Michelle continued onward. Lyrics floated above all the tables … Folks went about their own week-ending, calming conversations. I suspect our table 10 subject matter uniquely surpassed any limitations unconsciously plated on any other table that evening. With two confirmed witches and a crystal/wellness store proprietor in tow, our table was a-rockin’ with distinctive dialogue. Throw in a few discussions about bisexuality, shoe and fashion choices, blueberries, and weed, … I would’ve challenged you to find another table that night with greater color and flavor in their words.

Yep, it was a silver lining for me. I did Kristopherson my way into the hearts of those around me as I Shallow-ly dueted the chorus over top of clanging dishes removed every now and then. S’ok. I don’t fancy myself a singer, so having forks and glasses as an accompaniment was a nice go-along considering most weren’t listening, anyway. Maybe if I had the Bradley Cooper looks, Star is Born thing going on and Lady Gaga talent? …

It’s enough to say I had a really good time. A “Silver Linings” good time. It would not have happened if Rick and Michelle weren’t scheduled to play that evening, so here’s to them … and all the local musicians everywhere who go out and perform. You bring joy and happiness into our worlds – and our table 10’s. Even if we’re not paying full attention, our hearts are in the music passing through our ears. We are with your every pulse, every lyric, every smile.

I don’t want a lot of cancellations. My bills don’t need them. Chet can sing of silver linings all he wants, but the bank wants loans paid, regardless. Too many rainy days and Mondays will always get me down, Ms Karen Carpenter. These are the facts and figures in what I do for a living. However, for a Friday evening in the middle of a rainy stretch, I’ll take table 10 for a few hours. The friends, music, and conversation were my silver lining in an otherwise cloudy day.

Let’s take our calming cue from my happy human friends, Rick and Michelle. Ease your daily grind by tossing off your shoes once in a while and singing the chorus from your favorite rainy day song. Remember, when music floats above, skies are always blue.

Birthday for a Sister

Ordering online should not be so funny. But it is. Not to me, necessarily. There’s my high school friend, “Scott”, across from me chanelling movie actor accents and lines, his mother encouraging the shenanigans, and my dear friend sitting three cushions away to my right. She is ordering our dinners as I type. Commentary from the living room gallery continues to be, well, funny.

I do find this to be entertaining. “Not to me, necessarily.”, wasn’t meant to be dismissive. Chicken parmesan with a side of asparagus, some kind of soup I would never order, and a discussed cold steak salad on the very talkative menu this evening. The banter between two very close siblings I find exhaustingly affable and engaging. These two are really special. Both laughing their way through this snapshot in time. Mom of the two sitting not so quietly off to the side, picking her spots to correct my occasional grammar mistakes when I find the moments to speak. Yes, it has been the slip of, “Can I…?”, instead of, “May I…?” out of my non-thinking ahead mouth here.

Across, in my view is a stunning, large portrait I have yet to ask about … as the dialogue continues back and forth concerning tabs, menus, and “longhorn” alliterations. My ears and eyes collect data so much more than any other senses here … now. Jim Gaffigan and obscure movie lines tickle about and I sit here enjoying all the love between a brother and sister … and mother. Not mine, but theirs. I’m an outsider visiting on a birthday weekend. Sitting on an unfamiliar couch with settings strange to my want-to-engage personality. The impenetrable bond between a sister and brother is uniquely theirs. I’m laughing inside, all the while so much admiring the unspoken giggling youth they are re-living every second. Mom reclines back, She is taking it all in. Her son and daughter. So infrequently together, yet here they are, chuckling and hand-holding their words through an app. designed to frustrate even the most tolerant of hungry siblings.

I see myself twitching about here … possibly unable to continue writing as the ordering saga may be coming to a close. As time and opportunity present themselves, I will proceed here… Demands are high. “Scott” has been designated the task of driving 15 minutes for pick-up and he’s escorting the grammar-corrector which, fortunately, affords me the opportunity to freely speak my mind. The birthday girl has requested an audience to reminiscently roam about her childhood home, so I will abandon this post for now. More to come …

Morning after. No time to continue last night as the festive atmosphere hung around without the chance for my tapping into this phone.

Our meals arrived, but not without incident. The horrors of no bread and fries, as ordered, mandated another trip back to Longhorn for the already distressed “Scott”. (As an aside here, I refer to my friend in quotes because it is his real name, however, he is identified by a nickname … very much a literary license being used here).

This starchy mis-step required two additional phone usages from two separate cell devices. One, a vocal urge from a mother. The other an attempted text. I casually sat back, enjoying the one-sided conversation heard an earshot away. I assumed the offering of a free desert on the next visit wasn’t an acceptable replacement as mom’s voice raised to a higher level previously unknown to me. A brotherly text came in, “I’m in the lot. Now what?”. “Mom talked to them. Go inside.”, my friend replied back. Fixed upon his return. Ah, the perils of a large, multi-state restaurant worker looking at a sticker that says, “fries”, and thinking, “I’ll put asparagus inside. They’ll never notice.” Ugh.

It was a delightful meal, nonetheless. A bit of music trivia played along the way as I, the master of who-holds-the-cards-with-the-answers controls the game, dutifully discharged my OCD – not without some criticism from inpatient players to my right and left, I must add … A sounding board of critically friendly, yet somewhat understandable, banter ensued from those hungry for the correct answers who didn’t balance up to an acceptable level of who’s who in musical trivia. I say, in retrospect, “He who controls the cards, controls the flow and rules of the game … regardless of whose birthday it is. Period.”… Also, I am grateful my meal was paid for prior to assuming the role of trivia dictator-in-chief, otherwise, my financial situation would be $15 dollars less at this time.

We escorted our full selves to the living room. A room quieted with shelves full of pictures and books built into a wall broken only by a stone fireplace irreplaceable in the heart of my friend. She lives in memories pasted gently behind many clear pages in tens of binders carefully labeled by event and year. Volumes of books stand in back of framed photographs. Brother and sister, side by side, always … even in many captured moments. This is an evening for them. A visiting brother, home.

Back home to see his sister. A room for living. A birthday. A mom off to the side, again, resting her eyes on her two children. Seeing a daughter connect with her brother during a time when they needed to be together – laughing, giggling, attaching their youthful spirits to their current adulting world – she had joy. I noticed a slow camera phone picture taken as Scott played his guitar for his sister. Mom is still a bit tech-savy. She needed that moment captured. It will remain in her soul more than in the digital world.

I sat beside, yet removed from time. Presents were opened. Songs sung between a brother and sister crossed my air as I sat on a sofa between them. An accomplished guitarist and song writer, Scott played for hours as his sister sunk into his every note. Invisible was I. Truly ok because I closed my eyes and entered into their world of music as it should be. An added connection on top of a love deeper than I knew upon entering this unknown home hours earlier.

It is no longer unknown. I know that love because I have a sister of my own. She is special to me. We cry together. We’ve experienced a life together. She’s musical. I’m musical. Our mom is no longer here to deliciously serve a no-bake cheesecake like my dear friend’s mom did close to 10:30 that evening (with fresh strawberries and blueberries, I may add). The family of three I spent time with, as a distant fourth, has a special bond … and a trio of special people. It was a birthday for a sister with limited time, but a timeless experience for me.

They hugged each other, as siblings do, when the evening ended hours later. I watched and admired. No more words are necessary.

Life has returned to whatever normal is for all of us. A brother is back to his life out-of-state. A sister continues her maze through a rare, known cancer path that will, ultimately, silence the music in her life. A mom lives – simply. Know a lot, she does. Mostly, that her two children love each other so much.

Me? Well, I did finally ask about that stunningly large portrait on the wall. It was designed and done by, yes, my dear friend. A gifted artist is she. A thumb and fingerprints self-portrait done in ink, from what I recall. Not surprising myself here, I found it to be engaging and worth my attention. To be proud, she mentioned it won first prize – winning that award over a local artist who then recognized her talent.

Art, music, and a birthday. Life is just nice sometimes. We should have birthdays for sisters all the time.

Still Music to Me

There is a time in life when one needs to write about something very important in his life. Now is my time to write about music.

I certainly can’t know what is a “very important” in your life. Too many possibilities to venture a near guess. Faith, family, career, pet, health …? We’d need an afternoon over subtle mugs of warm tea and pleasant conversation for me to understand your life’s targeted importance. As individual as we are, so are our focused attentions and interests.

I love music. It is my connection to life. It is where deep connections are made with those I adore. The space around me when I sit at my piano is happily hallowed – where all of the surrounding mistakes of present day slings and arrows can’t reach me. While listening to music, an invisible cloak of safety surrounds my unsettled reasoning of the day … protecting all my insecurities. There is no equal to music’s magic.

I’m not the best at it. Humility comes with ten fingers that not only miss my mom, but also at least a small percentage of notes expected to be accurately executed one at a time always falling on the floor – unfulfilled. Chopin, Bach, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, … all of them most likely understanding my hearted attempts to carry forward their genius, but coming up a few strides short of the Sibelius Finnish line. They understand, I’m sure. Very few can achieve perfection. Those that do, do. Lang Lang, young Evren Ozel from Minnesota, and blind jazz pianist phenom Matthew Whitaker to name some amazing musicians surrounding our lives.

I mention my imperfections because we have them, right? I love music because it always reminds me I am not perfect. I am, humbly, better than the average pianist … and I know the limits within my skill set.

Within those limits are the connections I make to others as a musician. The over-arching category here for a musician is “artist” and what you see scrawled on walls about town is, for the most part, true: “Artists are kinda weird” … Especially those of us who think a bit outside the normal box of ideas. Our corners aren’t quite square, perhaps, and we don’t look at the world quite the same as most.

My mom was a weirdo, laughingly so. This is why I miss her – even as an older kinda-weird guy. She didn’t give me many sane, common sense ideas on how to be a normal, adjusted human. Her world was fun, frolic, and games. “Be nice and everything will always work out for you …”, she spoke repeatedly wondering if I had any pianistic, musical ideas floating around in my skull. As long as there existed Trivial Pursuit, a deck of Pinochle cards in the game cabinet, and an in-tune piano somewhere near, her brain was in Edenic paradise.

She’s not here anymore. I am … and I’m still a musician struggling with connections to other special musicians, sometimes – because they’re off-beat weird, too, having the same problems in life. I make mistakes in missing those communicative notes between us just like I can’t hit all the keys. Very few can, right? Communication is really, really, hard when the music isn’t there … when only words replace beautiful melodies and arching orchestral crescendos.

This is why music is so powerful … so special to me. Why that space is. Just is.

There is no equal to an eyes closed listening of Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, Tim Minchin’s “Carry You”, or Cold Play’s “Fix You” covered by Straight No Chaser – all of which I listened to, again, before writing this entry tonight. I needed a shield around my irrationality of the day. Another cold day in February when connections weren’t as hopeful as I had hoped for, and abnormal wasn’t as normal as I am accustomed to – even as a weird musician type.

You know your “very important” in life. I hope this not only includes a “thing” like, maybe, music, but also really cool people with whom you can make a connection. You’re not going to hit all the right note or keys. Do the best you can to make what you do your best effort, anyway. If you’re struggling with what to do, call me and we’ll meet up for tea and conversation.

That is, if you can put up with a little bit of kinda-weirdness for an hour or two.

Horatio, Valentina, Nobuyuki, Evgeny, and I

I don’t own the rights to those pictures, nor do I have any idea how these artists do what they do with their hands.

Allow me to amend that last sentence. I know exactly how they play (exception below) – being a pianist myself. Chopin, Liszt, Mozart, Scriabin? … Name the composer or era, and I either dabbled with the piece or listened to it masterfully played by an artist. Horowitz was my go-to early on. Later on, Misha Dichter, Andras Schiff, and Awadagin Pratt gracefully entertained my ears during lonely evenings. So much talent. So much skill beyond my level.

I’ve played some difficult pieces in concert. The Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24, chief among them. For me, four months of concentrated, dutiful practicing culminated in a long, wonderful concert including Scarlatti, Beethoven, and Chopin – filling my heart with exhaustive pleasure once the last note fell on the stage. I was empty. Marvelous.

The title above was uncomfortable to type. I don’t belong in the company of those masters, humbly so. They are my peers, yet they know not how their music affects me when I watch … and listen. I know their skill. I know the how. Ten fingers, eighty-eight keys. The unknown to me is how Nobuyuki’s blindness does not interfere at all in his ability to execute flawless technique. As well, Valentina’s ease at the end of her long frame is so graceful and effortless. Evgeny was, simply, a child prodigy whose encore pieces are, alone, worth the price of admission. Horatio’s back story as poor Cuban immigrant draws me in. These four artists don’t know me, but we have a bond. Music. Specifically, a black and white adherence to what is good in the world.

The goodness comes when I need it. Be it a young man gently placing a 33-LP of Horowitz’s Chopin Ballade in G-Minor on his Technics turntable for the twentieth time, or a pandemically fatigued man who hasn’t written a blog post in nearly two weeks, piano music played by the masters always … always … fills my time, soul, and need for exhales. YouTubing through my mom’s earbuds with notable fancies the past fourteen days has been refreshing and a nice respite away from words.

I hope you have a go-to.

I have a person in my life now. A go-to musician who is in the midst of a major life struggle. We have a music-bond that, hopefully, will develop into a beneficial endeavor soon. Like, real soon. Yesterday, we took the first step in planning a set list of happy songs I’m so excited to start working on behind my Baldwin sitting quietly off to my left. She has a beautiful voice and a personality to match. I’m very familiar with her crazy family and, strangely, some of her zany friends, so placing all the pieces together for a concert shouldn’t be a complicated puzzle. I am a solo artist at times, but enjoy my role as an accompanist more … so this will be my absolute joy to walk with her along this path.

This is hometown, not international fame and fortune. This is music as it is for most of us. We’re not prodigies or folks who do acrobatic finger hopping for the masses. Our role is to sit back and enjoy their effortless skill when we need it … as I have lately.

To some of you, a novel. Perhaps a walk, painting, cooking, … maybe even writing. Whatever your go-to, be glad in it. Embrace it. Love it.

I adore my friends above even though they don’t know me. Of the four, Nobuyuki impresses the holy freak out of me. I just don’t know how he does it. With all my facilities intact, I can’t come close to his execution. Here’s a 4 minute treat for your eyes and ears:

With that, I’ll leave you to enjoy what’s pleasured my minutes the past two weeks.

They, among the few geniuses, are what makes my world happy when I need their music. Go-to it today and always, my friends.

Welcome Back, Mom

I’ve been at this a short time. Since October of 2019, to be more precise. Millions of other bloggers dutifully write words of greater depth on this day and have done similar, marvelous posts on days going back further than that. Year over year, they tell their individual stories. I walk along side some of them as they silently speak of their beautiful journeys. They are we-blog folks. Simple people who have something special to say on a particular day.

At the time of this post, there are an estimated 500 million blogs. Logging on the web, back in 1994, was a portal for Justin Hall and Peter Merholz who became quasi-household names to all the bloggers yet to come. Pioneers are they. The former considered the “founding father” of personal blogging and the latter who coined the term, “blog”. Technological credits aside – available for anyone willing to do the additional research – I’m simply amazed – after fifteen months of experimental digitry on my Dell keyboard and Samsung phone, primitive observational photographic skills, and basic grasp of grammar rules – I have followers of one kind or another. Either through email or a simple follow button, there are those of you out there in the blogosphere who enjoy reading my words.

We don’t say “thank-you” enough these days. Out of half-a BILLION blogs, you’ve chosen this one to read. Thank-you.

…and thank you, 2021. What for? Returning a little bit of normal to me I thought I lost months ago during a tempestuous, emotional 2020.

We didn’t lose mom in 2020. She died in 2012. Part of what she left behind was her music. Not just all the piano music I get a chance to play, but also her iPod Shuffle and various other devices with music downloaded she listened to while undergoing chemo treatments. I’m not sure my siblings, or my dad, miss mom the same way I do. We’re all different. We mourn her loss differently – even eight years, four days later. Pianistic connections are hard to let go between a son and mother. Duets played side by side, deeply felt, are not easily let go – and shouldn’t be. Remembering hearts entwined, while playing thousands of pinochle hands on cold winter evenings, trump this sad feeling of not having her around to help me deal with her absence across the table from me.

Facing another year without someone like her is hard. If you’re sitting with me, you know the fondness without the company of that person. A mom, dad, son, daughter, friend …they’re all so uniquely important to us. A memory just isn’t enough most times. We can pretend a sign from above is enough – and it is for the moment. But when that person is no longer here in person to give us a hug, or tell us they love us no matter what, we feel less-full, less-complete. Holidays, especially, are tough. Mom’s cookies. Dad’s Christmas traditions … all so important to us, right?

Here is 2021. Geesh, are we glad it’s here, or what? The election season was anfractuous. Yes, anfractuous, and as of this day, still hasn’t settled into a direct line toward a calm inauguration. The pandemic, of course, virtually split everything into parts previously unknown for a century. Racial tensions pulled apart our country. What a mess we were … and continue to be. How about we simply acknowledge a lot happened we weren’t too happy about and, privately, mourn our losses? If you suffered a tragedy, please accept my sincere condolences. 2020 wasn’t kind. “Happy New Year!”, I guess.

Mom didn’t need to be alive for any of this. It’s fortunate she isn’t around. There are too many people to hug and not enough time in the day for her. Distancing away from her family would be too much – as it is for so many other families – and not being able to be her wouldn’t be any kind of life.

Cancer sucks. The day she died, however, was one of my best days. I’ve said this since that sad March day in 2012. My biggest crutch in life was kicked out from under me. I had to grow up and become an adult on that very day. Losing her earbuds last year still hurt, however. Listening to music through her ears since she died was one of my connections. When they went missing, I lost a part of my mom. Last year took so much from so many, yet misplacing a simple pair of earbuds, to me, was living the 14th floor of UPMC Altoona’s palliative care wing all over again.

The connection was lost. I lost a small part of mom. Efforts to find failed. Drawers, closets, cars, clothes, etc … nowhere to be found. With regret and sadness, I gave up. Times of late night music sessions only for my ears silenced. I didn’t want to buy a replacement. There was no other. I know this sounds goofy, perhaps a bit featherbrained, but tickle my fancy and go with the emotional-logic here: there IS no emotional-logic. Replacing the earbuds meant I was, in a mystifying way, replacing my dear mom.

I don’t believe in signs from above. If there’s a divine being up there, I think there’s a better way to send us signals than birds and cloud shapes. I don’t know what I don’t know, so I’m always open to learning, however. Whatever urged these wonderful little earbud-dies of mom’s to show back up in my life yesterday … thank-you. Yes, they were jammed under the sofa … no surprise there because I probably hobbled them under there a while back flirting around doing something else.

As I type, for the first time in months, music flows again through my ears. Mom lives again. I’m listening to the top hits of 2020. Everything’s back to normal. Kinda. Still have a way to go because hanging close by are six masks and a schedule adjusted for semi-lockdowns and virtual teaching.

I’m thankful and grateful I can write along with my 500 million friends … and have something special to say on this particular day. Unique, to me, of course because of all the problems in the world lately, I may have been the only one who lost his earbuds within the past 6 months. Small in comparison to others’ tremendous losses this past year, my experience was, nevertheless, real to me … and heartfelt.

As I close, “Memories” by Maroon 5 finishes up on the playlist. Again, no pointing upward or sideways to a divine interventionist. I’m simply going to stop typing, sit back, and listen to the words. Thankful, for one last time, mom is talking to me again. Welcome, 2021.

Elsa and ‘Bones

Frozen in time are memories of Mr. McGee lumbering into the bandroom with that predictable scowl on his face. I don’t blame him, knowing what I know being, now, the age he was back then. Having to listen and direct a hoodlum bunch of blowing junior high quasi-instrumentalists – day after bad note day – had to get on his nerves. A collective group of teenaged tooters divided into the usual sections: woodwinds, brass, and percussion.

Sitting on the row in the top tier of the room, immediately inside the door from which he entered, we were the trombone section. Two Daves, a Jim, and I with a smattering of underclassmen. Four ninth-graders resting at the top of the middle school world who first spied Mr. McGee on any given day. Dave, the principle trombonist on the end, had the best seat, I was second, Jim … then Dave #2. One music stand per two slidey bones, four players, …. and one really good time. We were friends.

Dave to my left was always the better negotiator of chair order to that point, although I knew soon I was going to swing around him – which I did the following year. Music was too much in my bones (yes, pun intended) and he didn’t have the passion I did. Mr. McGee recognized this early on, but didn’t do much the change the status quo, so I went along with the plan. Why not, right? Too many other bothersome things in junior high to stumble over than fight about being 1st or 2nd in a band instrument section.

Roughly 10 years later, Mr. McGee fell ill and reached out to me. He was unable to return to that same outdated bandroom for an extended time and wondered if I’d be available to step in as a long-term substitute. After all, as a graduate and qualified K-12 music educator, it seemed the perfect opportunity. Politely declining, I stepped aside due to other career obligations and thanked him for the chance to walk through that same door he did years prior. He died shortly thereafter. The teacher who did accept the substitute position was eventually hired full-time and had a wonderful career.

Life is wonderful. Opportunities not taken are still excellent … just sometimes for others. I went on to do other things I am so wonderfully glad I was able to do – and continue to do.

This is about Dave #1 … and frozen moments. Mr. McGee walking sternly, yet exhaustively, into that bandroom is a still moment I can see today in my left peripheral vision. In that view is Dave sitting beside me. He will always be there.

Imagine my surprise when, with both eyes, I saw his profile picture a few years ago on Facebook when he accepted my 40-years later formal friend request. Those are definitely frozen moments. The, “Oh, man is this really him/her after all these years?” times that repeat over and over following reunion inspired requests. Yes, this was Dave’s overly dark beard, bushy eye brows, deep brown, tan skin and at- peace personality shining through his small smile.

With all those nice qualities, it’s not surprising his new puppy, frozen in time above, is in his care … or, that her name is ELSA. She is second in charge in his home behind an older canine sibling. I’m taking an immediate liking to Elsa and her apparent position seeing as how she’s “second chair” in the ‘bone section. The family is out of state, so I won’t have any opportunity to commiserate with my young puppy pal-ette of similar emotional coloring, but I can sympathize with her plight from afar.

Being 2nd isn’t a bad position. I’m behind my sister, yet ahead of my brother. Seconding, one could argue, is just as important as proposing a motion. Going for seconds is a compliment to the chef and minutes don’t exist without sixty little divisions within them. Great symphonies need relaxing, beautiful 2nd movements and what historical significance would there be between Washington and Jefferson if Adams was out picking apples instead of presiding as President?

Certainly Elsa didn’t choose to harm Anna in the movie. Kristoff steps in to help Anna find Elsa, eventually breaking the spell cast upon Arendelle. Elsa #2, becomes #1 with the help of an unlikely cast of melty characters.

Our Elsa above simply melts our hearts. No movie necessary. Look at that face.

It’s our cast of characters – unlikely or not – who get us through life … our Mr. McGees long since passed, or Daves popping up with cute puppies on social media. These folks melt away the frost on our frozen memories we may have forgotten.

It’s been some time since I’ve reminisced about those junior high, wool uniform band days. For all of Mr. McGee’s faults, he did a pretty good job of corralling a goofy bunch of late 70’s kids into a semi-large, old, non-acoustic beat up old band room from the 40’s.

As for Dave, I think he’s retired military who enjoys his cars. I doubt he plays his trombone much – if at all. Since I’ve been active in music my whole life, it’s probably about time to challenge him to a friendly head-to-head audition. Not that I’m holding a grudge or anything … we should just put to rest who was the better of the two back when Mr. McGee walked into our lives every other day.

Turns out, I kinda miss Mr. McGee’s attitude. It was real, … authentic. Qualities not seen too much these days. Almost frozen in the past.

Unless you’re the puppy, Elsa. Then you have genuine in spades.