The Black Piano: Reuniting With an Old Friend

Four good-sized men were paid a hefty fee to take our grand piano up the switchback stairs to a loft area that had never been used for anything but a home for an inversion table and weight bench, both long ago sold on Craigslist. As it turned out, not a single mover in Sacramento would risk trying to put this enormous instrument into place. So we hired a San Francisco company for this monumental task. The City is, after all, one of the nation’s most compact, vertical urban places in the world, so it is not unusual there for movers to shimmy large objects up narrow stairways.

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Legs, lid, keyboard – everything was taken apart and carefully carried, step by step, to our loft, to be reassembled and permanently set up, giving a little-used part of our home purpose at last. It took a full two hours of grunting, avoiding walls and communicating with one another for these guys to do this. And once it was set up, it was a thing of beauty to behold.

You see, this isn’t just any piano. It is a vintage Yamaha ebony grand piano brought all the way from Japan, back in the late ‘60s, when my father owned a piano store in the Midwest. This one was placed in our living room for all to use. One of the first dealers to merchandise Japanese pianos in Indiana, my father would brag about the Yamaha brand as if it were a well kept secret – pianos made so well that they didn’t even need tuning after weathering such a long trip across the Pacific and over land to Indiana. Soon the university in our town would buy a fleet of them – for its music building, its dormitories, and its performing arts center. And the windfall of profit my father made from this transaction provided our family its first trip to Europe, when I was only 13. So what this piano represents in my life is much more than a mere piece of furniture.

My father played the standards by ear, wowing his customers and wooing them with the promise of music in their homes. Mom was a trained pianist, could read music well and play it hauntingly beautifully — as if each musical phrase were a prayer. To add to all that, one of my brothers was so good at playing nearly anything he tried that he eventually became a well-known pianist on cruise ships, making a 30-year career from it, evoking sighs and loving envy from the rest of us. Whoever played this piano remarked on its amazing tone, its delicate touch and the pleasure they got from playing it, so I guess you could say that it carries with it the parties, family gatherings, and at-home concerts that so richly populated my youth.

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As for me? I had a good ear and could play a lot of things from memory, but was undisciplined with piano lessons, always trying to short-cut and rebelling at learning the basics. I loved playing, but resented how it came so easily to others in my family. Having discontinued piano lessons around age 8, I refused to take lessons again until I was older and could pay for them myself. This time, I would dictate to my piano teacher what I wanted to learn to play instead of being told. My goal was to learn to learn to play the intricate and syncopated musical phrases of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. It took me a full year to get to the score’s main theme, and there I stopped, admitting that 20 pages were enough to keep me therapeutically busy for the rest of my life, since I figured I was not all that great at it anyway.

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For a number of reasons, I all but abandoned the piano. College, travel and work got in my way, followed by having a life partner for 20 years who had little appreciation for my passion for music or writing, leaving me to believe I was not all that special after all. Sadly, it was not until I left him that I was able to cherish whatever skills lay untapped within me. Still, I saw piano-playing as something I would return to later – much later – in my life.

Losing Mom while she was still in her 60s was a sucker-punch no one in the family expected. Missing from our lives would be her care-taking, her intense sweetness, her sumptuous meals, the beautiful music she played on this special piano, and the reverence with which she would walk around our house on Holy Saturday with a candle in her hand at Easter time, singing the “Christ Has Risen” hymn over and over again after the clock struck midnight. Pop was lost without her and although he stuck around for seven more years, he would never be the same man again.

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Following Pop’s departure, my two brothers, in a moment of grace, decided to let me have our parents’ Yamaha grand piano when I remarried as a wedding gift; no gift in the world could have been more precious to me. And as my new husband and I moved from a rental home in the Bay Area to our own home in a Sacramento suburb, the piano became my most prized possession. At first, it occupied a huge space in our formal living room, leaving room only for a sofa and chair and robbing us of coffee table space because of how far it protruded into the center of the room.

When a plumbing flood forced us to evacuate and put all our furniture into storage, we carefully selected a mover that had a temperature-controlled facility for this beloved friend. And upon re-occupying a now partially remodeled space, we decided to use the loft as a music room in perpetuity, since we knew we would never leave this home, and the search began for a mover willing to take on the task.

Once the black piano was in place, I would sporadically sit down and play my oldies-but-goodies – Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” and a few other pieces that had become muscle memory over the years. But it wasn’t until last night that a paradigm shift took place in me that hurled me toward taking lessons again.

Please understand that I am not by nature a jumpy or nervous person. But last night was different. As I sat at my computer tapping out emails and editing client copy I was working on, I felt something missing – a void that pleaded with me to fill it. I called out to my husband, whose office is just down the hall from my own. “I’m all antsy,” I said. “I don’t know what to do with myself.” He suggested going to the gym and swimming laps, but I knew in my bones that that was not the answer.

Soon I found myself ascending the stairs that led to the loft – a place I visit only to prepare our home for guests. I turned on lights, grabbed a pile of sheet music from a nearby cabinet and sat down to play. I knew it would sound terrible – my sight-reading ability had atrophied and my fingers often missed important sharps and flats. But as I played old songs from my parents’ generation such as Misty, Makin’ Whoopee, Satin Doll and even a few classical pieces, I knew I had found my answer. The sheer pleasure of this long overdue act filled my soul and reminded me of the rich life and love of family that bears no price tag. It brought memories of my mother’s beaming smile and her high-pitched voice flooding back to me. At times I could picture her ensconced in the playing of Claude Debussy’s “Claire de Lune”, with its other-worldly chord progressions and delicate melody.

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Perhaps Oz’s Dorothy was right. All you really need in life is right in your own backyard — or in this case, up a flight of stairs. Because truly reuniting with my old friend, whose 88 black and white keys were begging to be touched, was transformative. And in the tradition of many who came before me, I will once again let music flow through my fingers, taking its therapy, memories, and smiles along for the ride.

Muncie (about to be) Revisited: Meaningful Reflections and Realistic Expectations

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The smell of our lawn just after a summer rain gives way to sunshine.

Buckled sidewalks in old parts of town where ancient trees reclaim their roots.

Stately brick buildings that look as if they had grown out of the ground long, long ago.

A vision of my father throwing stones in the White River, making them skip three times before they descend into green depths.

Family gatherings where immigrant friends and relatives speak English with heavy Greek accents.

All of these mental pictures define my Muncie, Indiana experience and crowd my memory with black and white snapshots in time. As I begin to think about revisiting Muncie in a few months, I know it will be an emotional experience for me. It will remind me of family members now long gone, make feelings surface I had long ago forgotten, and force me to feel a bit ashamed of my nearly constant preoccupation with escape during the twelve years I lived there from 1961 to 1973.

Those of you who knew me before I left Muncie knew I never completely felt a part of it, as my father had. I couldn’t understand why my dad had made the decision to move us there even though we visited there each summer from California. Kids simply don’t process much when trying to understand their parents’ motives, after all.

Our existence in Muncie during the time I lived there revolved around my father’s store on West Charles Street in Muncie’s downtown. Our lives were immersed in a sea of pianos and “home” organs, pretty popular at the time. You see, before we moved to Muncie, I never got to spend much time with my dad except for those summer treks to Muncie from San Francisco, when we piled into the 1955 Mercury, stopping along the way for photographs with Indians, to dip our feet in the Great Salt Lake, or to take a look down what seemed like thousands of feet from a single suspension bridge at the Royal Gorge. Dad worked a “corporate” job in sales in San Francisco, which kept him on the road much of the week, meeting with and entertaining clients. It was a treat when he was home, but I could see the toll his absences were taking on Mom, who felt increasingly irrelevant as my brothers and I stopped needing her every second. So when my father quit his job and announced we would be moving to Muncie, I didn’t know how to take it. What would it mean?

Through my 9-year old eyes, suddenly Muncie transformed from a family vacation destination (to visit my father’s family) into something much different. It took on a new persona that was both confusing and curious to me. It was a place where other people did not make Saturday night tacos, and a place where pizzas were not gooey. Instead, they were cut into tiny squares. I detected a sing-song-y quality to people’s voices with accents on different syllables than the ones I knew. Even words were different. A sofa became a “davenport” and a Coke was dubbed “pop.” Bell peppers were called “mangos”, no longer counted among the tropical fruits we knew about in California. One had to watch weather reports all week long in order to plan something for the weekend. There were no mountains to look at, no oceans to drive to, and bugs lit up on balmy summer nights.

Aside from the comparisons I made to our former life on the left coast, my parents did not make things any easier on me, their only daughter. They forbid me to talk to boys on the phone, attend proms, sleep over with girlfriends or even have a date during high school, thinking I would reject my hyphenated ethnic background and assimilate too much into the American melting pot. While they dearly loved this country and were proud of the sacrifices their own parents made to get here, our ethnic roots were something they never wanted my brothers and I to forget.

So I look back now and think about what those years in Muncie truly meant in the big scheme of things. How had they contributed to how I turned out, as well as how I would eventually raise my own child?

In the end, I have decided that Muncie was my life’s springboard, offering a foundation of both knowledge and security. Muncie schools lent a framework and guide to what lay ahead, Muncie citizens helped make my father a successful business owner, creating enough income for the grandchildren of immigrants with third grade educations to earn college degrees from the town’s beautiful university, and for my long-awaited escape to study abroad before getting that degree. It taught me the beauty and simplicity of small town life — the thrill of local teams’ sports victories and how a simple stroll through the downtown on a Friday night could cure any lousy week spent at school.

So as I visit Muncie this summer, despite the warnings of the locals on Facebook’s “Lost Muncie” page about how different it is now compared to when I left, I plan to let those thoughts I mentioned wash over me. I won’t go there with any focused expectations, and I won’t go looking for what has been replaced or destroyed. My dream is to try to see Muncie for the threads it wove into the fabric of my life, both colorful and meaningfully mundane. I plan to write about it when I am there and hope you will follow my blog if this interests you.

And I know I will be grateful for whatever role those twelve years played in what I consider to be an amazingly wonderful life.

The Cosmo Chronicles: An Important Life

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Chapter One
Based on a True Story
By Cosmo Kouremetis, Maker of Smiles

My story begins in Spokane, Washington. It’s hard to think about how far back I can remember, because I hear that dogs operate on instinct much of the time – even domesticated ones. I know my mom began pushing me out of her crate once I finished gulping from her, encouraging me not to poop where I ate from a very early age. Come to think of it, I hear that an expression about this has become popular among humans …

I realize, of course, that mine was not the first litter my mother gave birth to. But it may well have been, because she gave me all the training, clean-up licks, feeding and nuzzling I needed. Some bitches are just born to the task.

While it was always fun to pull on a brother’s ear or perform ninja attacks on a sleeping sister, it was even more gratifying to get my breeder’s attention, whose reactions could mean anything from a change of litter paper to a fresh, warm blanket being thrown into our enclosed birthplace. I heard her remark on how I (yes me!) was the first in my puppy family to seek out human love, pushing my face into her hand and wiggling my tiny butt until she picked me up. I continued in my quest to please the human giant and by the time I was 4 weeks old, I overheard her talking about me. “Oh. You got the photos of the little black and white boy that I emailed you?” she said into a small, handheld device. I looked around me. I was the only boy that fit that description.

It finally occurred to me why she had taken me from my siblings the day before and placed me on the deck in her backyard as she put something up to her face. She kept using baby talk to get me to stand still until finally she smiled, picked me up and dropped me back into my pen. She had taken my picture! I was being marketed to a little black device she talked to! Was I going to be taken care of by plastic? How would it feed me?

Fear swept through me for a moment. But as soon as my brother hit me with a blow to my solar plexus, all was good again. Playtime trumps fear of the unknown any day of the week.

A few more episodes ensued with my human telling the device about how big I might get, about my breeding (I am evidently of Indo-European descent, half Shihtsu and half Maltese), about how I am hypo-allergenic (what’s that?) and about how soon I could be spirited away by a new owner. Food, a place to poop and a warm bed were my priorities, but I had also come to appreciate gentle as well as playful human hands as well. Anyway — when I heard her repeatedly saying “eight weeks old” it sounded like a long time away calculated in dog years. So I had lots to time to figure out how I could make a seemingly inanimate object respond to caretaking me.

Then strange things began to happen. More pictures were taken and my breeder began using a name to get my attention. “Cosmo” – — she kept saying to me over and over again, as if I would exhibit some Pavlovian response to it. She also began isolating me at night to a crate all my own, her voice modulating, talking about some other humans that would soon arrive to take me away. I was relieved I would not become the property of what seemed to be an inanimate object.

Apart from a trip to the vet, however, nothing seemed to upset my daily agenda except for my mother occasionally grabbing me by the scruff of my neck when I misbehaved. Time passed and my 8-week birthday arrived. Some of my siblings began disappearing and one day the doorbell rang in the middle of day – not a common occurrence in my world. Soon two humans appeared and began visually taking a survey of all of us. They ooohed and aaaahed as one of my half-brothers, a pure white version of me, scooted and jumped up to grab their attention. Pffft! Show-off. When I looked over at them again, however, I could see their attention was focused on me most of the time. And after few minutes we were all taken out into the back yard.

Somehow I could tell that this was a test. So I frolicked a bit, squatted to pee (I hadn’t learned to raise my leg yet) and then headed over to the biggest human I could find and jumped into his lap. Just like my dad, he had a black and white goatee, so I felt eminently comfortable with this man who seemed to melt the moment I focused my attentions on him. The other human with the higher-pitched voice played with my half-brother for a while, some communication passed between the couple and my breeder, and then we all went back inside.

Before I knew it, my half brother and I were shoved into a plastic crate with a baby blanket inside and then placed in the middle of a huge object with round rubber elements holding it up. Our world was about to change drastically.

How the Words You Use Brand You

It seems I must have established the reputation of a grammar-Nazi on Facebook and elsewhere because out of the blue, I was informed of today’s celebration of National Grammar Day by Grammarly.com’s PR rep and blogger, Allison VanNest. Her timely email told of Grammarly’s and real estate giant Redfin’s collaboration on a few articles about how good grammar and proper word usage are just as key in helping real estate professionals market properties as the well-taken photographs of the properties they hope to sell.

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The lessons taught here, however, are just as important to the average business person or entrepreneur; if you can’t describe your service or products with well-placed, well thought-out, descriptive wording, people will gloss over your listing or ad and move on in a keystroke minute. So I encourage you to pay special attention to how “spell-check” is not always your friend. If you rely on it, be prepared to look just as dumb as if your iPhone’s or iPad’s texting word-assumption function had messed with your messages.

“On the job, professionals with fewer grammar errors tend to achieve higher positions,” says VanNest. “Their writing is demonstrative of the credibility, professionalism and accuracy observable in their work.” She goes on to say that even in one’s personal life, better spelling and grammar can even earn dates with others who appreciate a person who cares enough to articulate well.

As I have written about previously, your words precede you (either badly or well written), but few high-ticket industries are affected by words than the real estate industry: the industry for which I wrote copy and content in great volume when I first began writing for a living. I agree with VanNest that there is a “sweet spot” for the length of any product or service description. Somewhere around 50 words is long enough to articulate something but short enough to keep the average ADHD-like online reader’s attention. “Beyond public opinion, Redfin looked deeper into listings across its platform and found that homes with descriptions of around 50 words are, indeed, more likely to sell within 90 days,” says VanNest. “What’s more, they also tend to sell for higher than list price.”

But do spelling and grammar matter to these same prospects? You bet. Redfin found that as many as 43.4 percent of survey respondents would be much less inclined to tour a home when the listing is fraught with spelling or grammar errors. I had to laugh when reading some of the egregious errors Redfin uncovered when doing its research, where agents describe a property as a real germ, just had received fresh pain and carpet or offered great curve appeal. But even the most commonly made errors can confuse readers, such as the misuse of loose and lose; their, there and they’re; affect and effect and a host of others, the article states.

Pet peeves of mine regarding real estate listing descriptions go well beyond grammar, however, to the real estate agent’s word usage as well. Small kitchens magically become efficient when they are really just – small. A tiny backyard is instantly an intimate and private oasis (which reminds me of the movie American Beauty where Annette Bening’s real estate agent character was chastised by open house lookers for an ugly backyard pool having been described as lagoon-like when it was just an ugly, outdated cement hole in the ground). And what’s with the overuse the words amazing and great at every turn? Are there no other words in the English language that can be substituted? Online thesauruses are easy to use and may mean the difference between a sale and a lost opportunity.

So what do readers truly want when looking at real estate listing descriptions both online and in print fliers? Honesty. No, it doesn’t have to be brutal honesty, such as “property was invaded by vandals before foreclosure”, but it should highlight the property’s good points without overinflating them and play down its detractors without overt mendacity as well.

The bottom line is that real estate agents, like others in business, lose credibility when being cavalier about the grammar and word usage they employ to sell their products or services. All it takes is that first impression and you can kiss a potential prospect goodbye, because you have just established yourself as a person who does not care enough to sound professional – the only reason consumers seek out experts to begin with.

I wish you a happy National Grammar Day. And to those of you who follow me in social media and breathe huge, frustrated sighs whenever I post a Grammarly cartoon or saying, just keep sighing — because I don’t intend to stop trying to elevate the level of writing on the Internet by impressing upon you the importance of high quality communication any time soon. My bad.

A postscript: I have gone back to this post and fixed typos six times so far. Goes to show you that even a professional writer is not immune to errors and often “glosses over” what her eyes don’t want to see. ALWAYS get someone to proof your work!

Why I Network

I am a freelance writer. You may not know many of us throughout the course of your life, because we are the people behind the scenes — quietly tapping away in home offices in front of huge iMac screens with old t-shirts on. We take occasional breaks to pet the dog, get the mail or play on Facebook just to stay sane.

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I think of our lot as the “writing mercenaries” who take on the word jobs others don’t want to deal with, don’t have time to deal with or simply know they can’t do. This can take the form of creating web site content, ghostwriting blogs that demonstrate a business person’s expertise, filling out an application for a major personal or industry award, writing a bio or profile that will be plastered all over the Internet – or even crafting an engaging cover letter for academic opportunities.

So you may ask – why would an introverted person like me (and most of us are, or we wouldn’t be making love to a word processor all day) join a business network where insurance types, financial folk, real estate and mortgage consultants, and lots of independent business people gather, exchange ideas, refer friends to one another and attend events?

Well first of all, it gets me out of my element. Applying makeup, wearing an outfit not designed for a yoga pose and adding a social smile to my face can work wonders for my workweek. Whenever I take the time to attend one of my twice-monthly morning networking meetings, it reminds me that there are others out there who need it too; others who are willing to talk openly about their challenges, their successes and even demonstrate their wisdom by admitting to the mistakes they made along the way.

When I attended my first mega-business-networking event about 12 years ago, I will admit a high level of discomfort. While it appeared some people were having a good time with folks they already knew, I also witnessed people walking up to complete strangers and throwing business cards at one another, making small talk that smacked of insincerity even though it might have been entirely enthusiastic. As a stranger in a strange land, I could have “learned” the etiquette of their networking. I just had no desire to because the entire experience intimidated me.

Fast forward to the group I am now a part of and know I have found my networking home. I may not be the expert glad-hander, but this self-imposed exercise helps me stretch my boundaries outside the four walls of my creative space. So what, you may ask, was the key in all this? Belonging to a networking group with chapters that specialize in smaller groups, uses technology instead of paper and print to exchange information, and promotes one-on-one time between its members not just for business referrals, but for friendships as well is a good fit for me.

I now understand networking to be similar to a lot of other things in life – the more you put into it, the more you get out of it, as long as you stay the course and don’t expect distinct numbers from it. Being branded as a potential friend and talented writer is meaningful to me, whether or not I make money off this effort.

Funny thing. It’s when you have that attitude, good things begin to happen anyway.

Go figure. See ya. Gotta go to a mixer.

A Memorable Opening Act for Jay Leno

Several years back, my husband George and I had to have one of our occasional Vegas trip fixes. For the few days we are there for these romps, we enjoy a nice hotel room, (usually at the Mirage), eat portion sizes we kick ourselves over, play craps, shop (well I do…) and head home feeling great. But this time was different. This time we attended a Jay Leno performance right in our hotel and my husband became part of the show. I will explain.

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While as baby boomers, we maintain that the “Tonight Show” was never the same without Johnny Carson and never saw Jay Leno (or anyone else) worthy of taking the mantle that was passed on to him, we always enjoyed Leno’s fast-talking stand-up routines, his appeal as the kind of guy we would want to sit across from in a restaurant, and his love of exotic cars. So when we called the Mirage front desk to get tickets to his stand-up act in the hotel, we were a little disappointed our seats were just – average. When we lined up to pick up those tickets at will-call, however, we asked if any better seats were to be had and – voila! – we were able to pay a few bucks more and sit front and center, three rows back.

Most big names like Leno have an opening act and this show was no different. A quartet of doo-wop singers named the “Alley Cats” took the stage. My husband and I love doo-wop and we sing in a choral group as well, so to us this was a great way to lead into the main act.

After the Alley Cats did a few numbers, they began recruiting women, one by one, to get up on stage to make part of their act, singing to them, being pseudo amorous with them and evoking laughs from the crowd as their husbands looked on. Their show wound up with a few more famous 60s songs and then they made a request. “At this point in the show, we ask you all to point out a guy in the audience you think might want to come up here and sing with us,” one of them said, and a spotlight began searching the crowd. Being so close to the stage, I kept pointing to George, thinking – what are the chances? “You – the guy with the plaid shirt!” I looked around me. George’s shirt was patterned but not plaid, so the guy in front of us said “Me?” And they said – “No, the guy behind you with the great head of hair.” The spotlight fell on George, my firefighter husband who usually likes no attention to be paid to him. He looked over at me with daggers in his eyes, but acknowledged being chosen.

As George made his way to the stage, a member of the group explained that they were going to teach George what to sing and how to move as they sang the do-wop version of “Blue Moon” — a song many of us used to sing along with on the radio as the Marcel Brothers or the Delltones crooned in the background. The idea, of course, was to find a man who would try desperately to play along but be so bad at performing with the group, it would become the best part of the show. What the audience – nor the Alley Cats — did not know, however, was that George could sing and George could definitely dance.

The first lesson was making sure George knew the ”bombombabong – a dangadang dang” part and the second lesson was swaying his hips and arms along with the group as they sang it. It looked like George had passed the test and the song began. What ensued was George not missing a note, a beat, a word or a movement as the group performed the number. The crowd roared. One of the surprised singers (after acknowledging my husband was not what they expected) shook George’s hand and told him to meet one of them in the lobby for a free CD for his efforts. The act ended and Jay Leno appeared, said something like “how about that guy?” and proceeded to be funny as hell, able to say things he couldn’t on a nightly TV show. We loved it.

The next day, wherever we went in the hotel, people would walk up to us having recognized George from the night before. “You’re the ringer from the Leno show last night, right?” several asked, thinking George was planted in the audience and was really a part of the show all along. When they learned (or finally believed) that this was not the case, they congratulated him on his performance. It was a trip we won’t forget and will forever serve as my husband’s fifteen minutes of fame.

Of course, I think Jay would say George was a hard act to follow.

Facebook Relationship Disconnects: Should I Care?

Yesterday many of us who have been Facebook aficionados for a while were treated to a “lookback” video, complete with background music, dating back to when we first became members. It featured our most popular posts, some of our “moments” and a number of the photos we shared with our friends, family and/or the public, and we had the option of sharing the ego-stroking mini-movies on our timelines.

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All day long, people shared their cute little videos and by the end of the day, it got old. After all, how self-absorbed are we to think others would go through (in my case) hundreds of postings and play ours? I think you’d have to be some kind of MySpace adolescent to assume that kind of rock star status.

My own FB settings are fairly private, but because of the volume of connections I have after more than five decades of life and six years on Facebook, I somehow landed a pretty high Klout score without even trying (what that gets me I am clueless about, but I like the number). What strikes me about all this, however, is how all this attention on Facebook doesn’t necessarily translate into the kind of face-to-face friendliness I would expect when seeing some of the folks who are consistent at commenting on and “liking” my posts. And so I ponder the reasons for this supposed disconnect.

All I can come up with are these:

(1) People already know so much about me, they have nothing to inquire or comment on when they see me in person. No reason to engage.
(2) Their personalities are radically different in person than the ones they show me in social media, or
(3) I am just not as approachable in person as I am online. That could be because the reality of me is not as appealing as the semi-fantasy created by Facebook or – worse yet – they think I am intimidating in some way.

I am not trying to start a rant here, but I do notice less of a willingness to interact on the parts of a number of people I would really like to get to know better that are already regular Facebook players, and I don’t know how to bridge that gap.

Okay, I will be the first to admit that Facebook shows some of the best of my interests and nature and does not account for the facets of my personality (such as remembering peoples’ names) that are less than desirable. But it does make me stop and wonder why this medium of social media does not always aid in face-to-face social interaction when all signs online are telling me the opposite.

Your thoughts? I would love to your theories and see if any of this applies to you! In the meantime, happy Facebooking!

Making Massage a Habit Instead of a Luxury

In my parents’ generation, people who paid personal trainers to get them into shape, had routine facials or indulged in routine massages were celebrities. You saw them being guided or pampered in movies or magazines and heaved huge, envious sighs, as if you just wanted to jump into their skin.

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Today it’s more a matter of fitting these “luxuries” into our schedules. But are they truly luxuries any more? Studies have shown that regular exercise is a must as we age and that many of us don’t do it properly or get the kind of motivation we need without someone spurring us on. And the verdict is also in on how routine skin care at the hands of a professional esthetician can help minimize the aging process – something we all rail against past the age of 35 when that first laugh line magically appears.

But what about massage? Do you go to a massage therapist only when someone gives you a gift certificate or when you have achy muscles? Is it an event you plan only when going to a luxury hotel spa, where you’re willing to pay three times what you would for a local expert just for the memory of the elegant surroundings? Okay, I’ll do that too when I am somewhere on a special weekend. Still, it doesn’t stop me from going for a regular therapeutic massage once a month and, of course, I ALWAYS need it. Why? Because I have learned that the benefits of regular massage are off-the-charts surprising. Kevin, my friendly massage therapist, is a lifer; this means he is passionate about and a constant student of massage in all its intricacies. My heart skips a beat each time I go to book my monthly massage with him because I know my massage will be different every time — depending on my needs or the state of my health — and that I will walk out of there in a state of delightful suspended animation (why don’t these guys just factor in an hour’s snooze on the table when it’s over? After all, it’s their fault we are so relaxed…).

Regardless of the adjectives we use to describe massage (pampering, rejuvenating, therapeutic) or the reasons we look for it (a luxurious treat, stress relief, pain management), massage therapy and body care can be a powerful ally in any healthcare regimen.

Regular massage not only improves the condition of the body’s largest organ—the skin; it also lessens and relieves stress, anxiety and depression, it enhances and boosts the immune system, releases endorphins for pain management, improves concentration and memory and enhances sleep quality.

I don’t know about you, but getting help with all that doesn’t sound like a luxury. Can I cut down on my Starbucks visits, buy one less item at the mall or opt out of drinks with the girls for a once-monthly massage therapy session? You betcha. It all depends on how much I value this body that has one chance to go around in life. And I think mine has been pretty good to me so far.

Neither Christmas Traditions (nor Moms) Are Perfect

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The older I have become, the more I began unconsciously drawing parallels to my mom at the same age. The scariest part was comparing the state of my health to hers, which began becoming problematic by her sixth decade. Fortunately, I seem to have inherited my father’s family’s genes in that regard. Others flashbacks to mom occur when offering motherly direction to my grown daughter, perpetually second-guessing myself. But the most recent revelation happened after using one of my mom’s recipes for a batch of Greek cookies a family member requested at Christmas time.

The amount of butter, flour and sugar (moms also believed heartily in Crisco the last time she made these) for this recipe seemed to differ with every cookie recipe I encountered. “Ah,” I told myself. “But Mom’s koulourakia were the most beautiful cookies ever.” So I defaulted to the recipe she had tapped out on her electric typewriter on the family business stationery at least 30 years before.

As I added sugar to the huge bowl, creaming the butter mixture that would eventually receive buckets of flour to make it into roll-worthy dough, I smiled inwardly. Mom was always trying to improve on her culinary results with every holiday that came along. Earlier that day, I had boasted on Facebook about making these traditional cookies using a stock photo to show my friends and family how the final product was supposed to turn out. So the pressure was on. The prize, while admittedly delicious, was trays of relatively flat cookies – you could call them the relaxed, yoga edition of a centuries-old Greek holiday treat. I also admitted on Facebook a few hours later that they reminded me of a scene out the movie Betelgeuse – where the bewildered recently-deceased young couple makes their way to their purgatory facilitator’s desk and on the way see flattened-out people going by on clothes lines. My cookies should be up on that line.

What I now realize is that while Mom’s talents lie primarily in the tangible results of her culinary efforts, she wasn’t great at writing down every detail, even if she tried to do so for posterity. Old country recipes are not given to express wording. A “pinch” of this and a “dollop” of that really have no measurement, after all. Next time, I plan to take every recipe for these cookies that I can find and see if I can gain a happy medium and perhaps they will turn out like the picture I prematurely posted.

But cooking isn’t the only thing for which I had canonized my mom. She was the sweetest person, the most fashionable lady, the most fervent believer, the most doting mother, the exceedingly organized, the outrageously loving yiayia, the most meticulous housekeeper – and on and on. It takes time for a daughter to find herself in all the shadow-casting such a woman can create. In time, I have had to learn to appreciate my own gifts and in the end, may not be giving the same advice to my own daughter that my mother gave to me on a host of matters. Different eras, different realities and different generational viewpoints can take their toll on even the most saintly of maternal memories. While I can take stock in the profound meaning and purpose Mom found in serving her family, I have always been free to enjoy other lifetime pursuits beyond hearth and home.

True, I’ll never be able to follow her domestic act, but I can create as much warmth in my home. And while I now realize she was not perfect after all, I can only hope that my own daughter, instead of putting me on some kind of pedestal, eventually understands that we all just do the best we can while we’re here.

May your holiday season be filled with the love of family and the wonderful traditions handed down from parent to child. We are not put on this earth to be anyone but ourselves. And as that dapper angel, played by Cary Grant, says in The Bishop’s Wife (my favorite Christmas movie of all time), “We all come from our own little planets. That’s why we’re all different. That’s what makes life interesting.”

Life’s Surprises: How Fame Can Skip a Generation

Like a typical mother, I could peacock about my daughter’s success in the corporate world she created for herself. But as a professional writer, I’d rather talk about how there is no doubt in my mind that she is about to become a best-selling author. So this will be a cryptic, rather “representational” account of how we might come to influence our children who often improve on their parents’ talents, even though we would love to claim that talent sprung forth from the DNA supplied by their forebearers.

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It happened once before, this generational capping of parental talent. My father, who grew up learning to play piano by ear, never thought much about capitalizing on his natural musical talent. He went through much of his young adult years working for others, opening a downtown flower shop in a small town, co-owning a theater in a San Francisco suburb just before TV hit its stride, and working for a major beer company for ten years, rising up the ladder until he was on the road more than he was home. It was then that he hit an emotional wall, because he knew if he stayed longer, he would become one of “them” – the men who spent most of their week doing the sometimes immoral bidding of their corporate bosses and returning home on weekends to attend church with their families.

One day this father of three took a huge leap and quit his corporate job. When that day came and his philandering boss asked him why he would give up such a promising career, he asked this boss if he sincerely wanted an answer, to which his boss nodded his head. “Because I am afraid if I stay, I will become just like you.” And he walked out. Or so he said.

Dad realized at that point he would have to start at the bottom – somewhere. So he took a position as a salesperson at a piano store near our home. There, he used his piano-playing talents in tandem with his salesmanship to outsell even the owners of the business. It was then that he realized he needed to open his own store. So he schlepped his family back East, where he had grown up, to launch a piano store, engaging the entire family to help run the business. My mother became the accountant and ordered the sheet music, my brothers repaired and delivered instruments and I – well, as the only girl, I was ordered to dust the pianos and clean the store’s tiny restroom. Ugh. But my father was immensely proud of his business success, the fruits of which sent us all to college, afforded us trips to Europe and provided security for my parents.

Naturally, there is a back story. One of my two brothers, who had taken piano lessons with me when we were small, had had little patience to learn to read music and eventually abandoned learning piano in the traditional way early on. Instead, he would listen to what he was supposed to play and then find all the notes on his own as he sat down the piano, driving his piano teacher – and me — crazy. When given free rein to sit down in the family music store on days it was closed, this brother worked incessantly on developing that skill. He mastered arpeggios, discovering close harmonies and perfecting musical runs – all learned by ear after listening to reel-to-reel recordings of music he wanted to learn to play.

As we became adults and moved back to the San Francisco Bay area, my brothers and I all gravitated to doing things we loved, and music figured prominently in that dream for my talented brother. But he also knew that musicians generally starved if performing professionally was their dream, so it would be a while before he found a way to parlay his talents into a full-blown career. One day, however, he became a featured pianist on a well-known cruise line after having sent them a sample audio tape. His familiarity with the music of our parents’ generation all the way to the present day had impressed the line’s musical director. Soon, he was getting booked by some of the most prestigious cruise lines in the travel business. That was 27 years ago and he is still at it, traveling the world doing what he loves. In the past, he would occasionally take our parents on these cruises, where my father would sit slack-jawed, watching his son play music my dad could only dream of ever performing in his lifetime. And so my dad’s secret aspirations became realized in his son’s career, making it even sweeter than if he had realized this success on his own.

So it is with the daughter I mentioned here. I did not discover that I could make a (mostly modest) livelihood as a writer until mid-life, but I knew there was nothing else that could be remotely as gratifying. Because of a dearth of initiative to take paths few women took at the time, however (along with both the happy and sad obstacles life threw in my way), I would remain limited as to where I could go with it. As a mom, however, I recognized my daughter’s love of words from the time she was tiny. We had read books together until she was in her teens, longer than most parents used reading as a “bonding” practice. “Someday you will discover the joy of writing things people will want to read and it will make you feel very fulfilled,” I told her, like some kind of maternal soothsayer. Of course, she reacted to me with youthful denial, the way many young people do, defining that adage about how parents magically and suddenly become brilliant as their children get older.

I won’t go into how it all came about, but my daughter became a success in business at a very young age, eventually making the front pages of newspapers, magazines and being interviewed by experts regarding her precocious success. One day she called me. “I am going to write a book!” she said, excitedly. My heart leaped, as she explained how brutally honest she intended to be as she recounted her path to this new reality. My community college drop-out, who got most of her business savvy by reading books and observing others, wanted to help other young women who had special talents realize their own dreams.

And so the day will soon arrive that her book, being published by a well-known New York publisher, will hit both cyber-bookshelves as well as real ones. It is indeed heartening to read about all the pent-up demand for this personal story to be told. I feel privileged to have read through her initial drafts of the book and given her my thoughts, but there is little I would change. And like my father, I sit here slack-jawed, feeling even more joy in my daughter’s success than my own. She tells me now that writing her first book is just as — if not more— exciting than running her business.

Yes. Life can be amazingly sweet.