A stage and a man with no voice

The note read “I lost my voice. You’re number three.”

Frank, the k-jay smiled his broad toothy grin as he sashayed back up to the stage. Gone were the days of him shooting me a look laced with small steel blades. Last time he had hugged me as we began waving goodbye. Christmas lights twinkled in the background and in the foreground a girl shimmied and swayed her hips while rapping along with Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott. I sipped my grapefruit sparkler and waited. A group of young hipsters made the space between the stage and my table into a dance floor, letting their hips show solidarity with the performer. In my hands, I held the fat book of songs listed by artist, thumbing my way from AC/DC to Yes! Hoots and hollers commenced as the rapper’s song died down. She welcomed the next performer, a regular named Chrissy, up onto the stage.

“Frank, what did you pick for me this time, hmm?”

Her face congealed into an expression of intensity accented by dramatic eyebrows. She dipped down into the low notes and scooped up to match the high notes of this Kelly Clarkson standard. Behind her, lights flashed as if in collusion. She stood her ground, looked out at the audience, at us, to the blue screen perched high above the plot of tables filled by an office holiday party, singing along.

A friendly face showed her ID to the bouncer, waved and waltzed into the main room. Elizabeth arrived hours after our celebratory lunch led into this celebratory evening outing.

She asked, “Do you know what you’re going to sing yet?”
“I put in a song already. I’ve never sung it here before…”

Kelly Clarkson finished her song and as the audience cheered, she bellowed, “Coco, come on up!”

I scooted my way to the stage, two parts indecision and one part sheer moxie as strains of Lindsay Buckingham on guitar began to wash over me. Verse one into “The Chain” down solid and then came the guitar solo, a mere 23 bar measure break.

Let’s just say this chain is not meant for karaoke.

A few more friends, Kenny and Alan, found their way into the room and the party officially had kicked off. As soon as I saw Alan enter the bar, I walked the song request up to Frank while a man sang a spirited version of the Artist Formerly Known as Prince’s “Raspberry Beret.” Followed by another regular, an older Asian man best known for selecting Old Blue Eyes songs. Tonight he opted for a John Lennon tribute and sang “Imagine.”

Before long, Alan and “Coco” meandered their way onto stage and into the arms of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time after Time.” His rich tenor welcomed my mezzo voice as we hit the chorus in harmony and musical gesticulations. At the close of the song, we began whispering “Time after time” all well rehearsed from years of practice. Beyond the gratification of time spent with friends came the joy of surrendering to a melody and then working into a harmony. There is something so scintillating about singing.

In a time quite far from the present and not so distant in the past, this stage had been my stomping ground. Walking to the bathroom, I waved my hellos to regulars seated at the far end of the bar away from the people we lovingly had called “the tourists.” Back in the day, we would get off work and head over to karaoke, knowing if we showed up early enough we could sneak in a few extra songs before the hipsters arrived. Tiffany would croon her soulful selections of jazzy R&B while the other Tiffany would ready her latest Chaka Khan performance of “To the Limit.” Frank would sometimes grab the mic and sing.

We knew Frank to be very discriminating in his affections. If he liked you and your performance, he might turn on the “flames” to the sides of the stage, small orange-hued banners that lit up from inside and would sizzle up from small fans at their base, just like flames. If he really liked you and the song’s rhythm made people want to move, he would turn on the strobe light and pulsing colored lights above. He could just as easily try to help the inebriated work their way back into a tempo that had gone awry or roll his eyes at the group of girls who only knew two lines in the chorus of “Real Slim Shady” and fell mute the rest of the song. Frank is the k-jay king.

And in this kingdom of karaoke, there was a little bit of everything. A twenty-something shyly walked on stage and stayed glued to his small plot of stage, eyes never leaving the television prompter. His version of “You Say It Best When You Say Nothing at All” really said it all. Adele seemed to be the singer most emulated in a place usually clogged by Journey and 80s songs. Two hipsters sang “I’ll Be There” and mocked the song but showed singing chops even in their mockery. Kenny described singer A as a “karaoke shark” and sure enough, her version of “Rolling in the Deep” later on got the bar’s attention. A couple sang “I’ve Got You Babe” in a pitchy duet with a force of confidence.

After the bust of “The Chain” earlier on, I held up two other songs and let Frank decide. Coco made a reappearance on stage in the guise of Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason” and much later, because Frank is the quintessential k-jay, was called up for a song I hadn’t turned in but he remembered as the other song I’d been considering.

Up, onto the stage Coco became Ann Wilson as a synthesizer streamed overhead. Sinking into the first verse of “Alone,” I became the coquette toying with the heartstrings of the audience and then in time for the chorus, I let go of the audience, wailing. By the end and the final bridge of “alones” I found myself happily alone as I do every time the song nears this point- my voice, the synthesizer, the pull of a five letter word punching the air and then slowly tapering into a ribbon blown away by the quieting wind.

We noshed on gluten free gingerbread cake with chili infused chocolate frosting. We drank another round or three before the evening culminated in friends going separate directions. A taco truck emerged from the darkness out front and my rumbling belly soon found satiation in a shared chicken burrito. Onto “Strangelove” by Depeche Mode and Alan’s opus of “Open Arms” only later to hear Alan say he’d been “out-Journeyed” by a man who blew us away with his rendition of “When You Love a Woman.”

Children sing without the pretension of perfection and at some point this came naturally for most of us. Under the guise of Girl Scouts or Disney films, even tone-deaf singing was smiled upon. It occurs to me now, that beyond church or temple, the shower or the car, there is no forum for letting a song rip right out of you acceptably. Try singing out the lyrics to “Deejay Got Us Falling in Love Again” when you’re walking down the sidewalk in the financial district. You might get a few or more likely a lot of sour looks.

In the karaoke underworld, it’s a different story.

You go for the gusto because you can. You check your inhibitions at the door. You sing the sad F.M. song because it’s what your soul is beckoning to hear aloud. You can almost hear the karaoke stage raise its anthem: “Give me your pitchy, your tone-deaf, your passionate. Give me your jilted auditions, unrealized dreams and bad days. Give into the moment, the music and melodic imperative.”  Sometimes that verve of karaoke, that joy of living in the moment translates to the kitchen. Sometimes, you hanker for something that’s equal parts pragmatic and party-inducing but doesn’t really belong on a typical dinner plate. And in those moments, consider making meatballs in blackberry sage glaze, while listening to something that gets you singing along with great abandon.

meatballs in blackberry sage glaze

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Redo’s and Reckonings

The sun is hiding like a child playing hide and go seek. These mornings, darkness greets my lumbering body coercing its way from sleep. Along the linoleum floor in the kitchen, my feet pad and slap, as my arm reaches for the light switch.

It is morning. It is night.

Darkness stands like two bookends to each day and the sunlight has become the book I’m reading voraciously. In a week I will stumble into the yawning maw of another year. It befuddles me in the way that only the end of the year creep can. I’m doing a dance with a buddha’s hand, a different one, mind you than the one who invited me onto the floor.

We survey each other. The end I’d planned for it is not the one I’m planning to tackle after all. Sometimes it’s important to change course or let the food continue revealing and inspiring.

In poetry, the poem is often found in revision. At times, the initial poem ends up being a pre-write only, an exercise for getting at the main thing itself. Sometimes all that remains of an initial poem is a single strong line or the solid bits, underlined scraps and pieces strewn throughout. Sometimes it involves starting from the end of the poem and writing backwards. Does that make the initial poem a failure- not at all. It is a necessary thing and the departure from the original is just as important as the initial stab.

The buddha’s hand and I survey each other and I now understand what I had originally planned no longer serves.

Instead, I wait. We continue the dance.

I put the poem in the drawer for a day or two and then pull it back out, reading it again with eyes that bring a new day’s light and the two bookends of darkness as filters.

buddha's hand

Foibles and first batches

Failure.

The waiting mouth of the open trash can or compost bin.

We’ve all been there. We don’t like to linger in this location often or tell people we’ve visited it even on occasion. Nope, this destination is for other people, right? I’m right there with you. Failing is not something I want to be known for. Samuel Beckett once admonished to “fail again, fail better” and I’ve taken those words to heart. It’s the fear of failure that sometimes stops us from trying to accomplish the exciting and oft-perceived impossible. To tackle the impossible and make it to the other side- that is worth a fail or two along the way.

Take jam.

I am enamored of it.  The alchemy and chemistry of sugar, water, lemon juice and fruit bubbling down into a thickened burbling consistency quickens my pulse. In our house, we treat jam like a guest and give it its just desserts. A smear of jam on a thick crusty slice of levain bread with a pat of unsalted organic butter kind of makes me want to swoon. So it’s no great leap to consider the possibilities of making jam from scratch as something worth trying out.

In my head, before I’d even begun the process I imagined myself standing with a wooden spoon in hand, stirring a simmering pot. Those cooked down spoonfuls of condensed fruit would be something special. Rows of jam jars glistening from the kitchen light hitting them upon opening the pantry would be reminders of joy sequestered for the days ahead.

Let’s start at the beginning. Let’s start at the first batch.

A few weeks ago, I shared a recipe for Morado Jam. Walking by a neighborhood bodega, these concord grapes surprised me. Those orbs of bright flavored childhood captivated me from my spot on the sidewalk. Upon leaving the store and tucked into my Strand bookstore canvas bag, I began scheming how to make the most of their precious existence, began mulling how I might extend their life beyond this week and into the future. A basket of figs and a glass of Pinot later, it all came together delightfully in a mish-mash of purple flavors and textures stewing in a heavy pot on the stove top. The first batch filled my kitchen with a heady aroma of figs infusing the flavors of grapes. It made me stop and inhale slowly. After checking temperatures and spooning a tad bit onto the salad plate in the freezer, and notably without a context of what to look for really, I began pouring the jam into the glass jars waiting eagerly on the wire rack. After removing them from the canner, they looked sloopy. When cooled, the liquid sloshed around slowly but that give I’d been looking for had not come. I saved the first batch with the advice of a friend whose expertise in such things was much appreciated. I saved them with pectin.

The second batch thickened into its own purple brocade and I felt ready to give out these jewels, excited about the outcropping of fruit tended by my own hand. We trekked across the city, off to a party in the East Bay. Beck brought a six pack of Ranger IPA and I went armed with a jar of jam. Once we arrived, an elaborate spread was being prepared. Dips from a local Russian market spooned out into small wooden bowls sat next to a plate of tiny slices of pumpernickel.  On the cheese platter sat several artisan cheeses from the farmer’s market next to an oozing slice of honeycomb and two jars of artisan jam. Do you see where this is going?

The host and birthday boy of discerning palate received the homemade jam and hugged me, welcoming us into his apartment. I thought he would keep the jam to enjoy for later, so when he plopped the small jam jar next to the two jars of artisan made jam, I didn’t sweat it. One of the guests decided to try my jam and cracked the seal of the lid, emitting that pleasant popping sound. She stuck a clear plastic knife in the jar and it came up empty. She tried again. Round and round she swirled the knife, much to my rising chagrin and the words “maybe we need a metal knife for this one.” She scooped out a section of jam and nibbled on her cracker quietly.

Uh oh.

I tried to make a subtle beeline for that small jar of purple jam as subtly as I could as guests talked on about working in the Bay Area and Occupy. Up, out of the honey soaked plate, I pulled the jam jar and began mixing it with the metal knife. I probably looked strange to anyone checking out the cheese plate. I wanted to impress the host, his palate, his guests.

Off to twitter I went and sent a private message to a friend who runs an artisan jam company in Florida. I’d given her a jar of jam recently at a conference and she’d remarked the previous week, “I cracked open the Fig this morning, YUM!!! Really tasty with my crusty sourdough bread, thanks so much again for sharing!!” In my private response to her, I thanked her for her comment and asked if she was just being nice. What I’d tasted seemed more like candy than jam. She revealed a great truth:

“The flavor was excellent, it was overcooked in terms of texture, but it was made with love! That’s what’s most important.”

Failure in the kitchen shouldn’t keep us out of it. If anything, I’m comforted by the image of Julia Child in the movie “Julie and Julia” getting frustrated with onion chopping at school and then another scene that shows her with a mountain of onions to chop until she can get this skill down cold. Even the best chefs you could ever imagine have failed at some point in the kitchen. It happens. Then you move on and try again until you’ve mastered whatever feat or food is your teacher in that moment. Failure can lead giving up, but it can also lead to tenacity and that is a worthy personal descriptor. This foible has piqued my desire to try and then try again. To “fail better” next time. I’m just getting started with jam.

And this time I’ve got an extra hand and that same tenacious drive. This time I’m making Buddha’s Hand Marmalade.

buddhas hand

On Ice Slides and a Proper Celebration

“Let’s do it again!”

Sometimes you give in. Sometimes you don’t. I looked behind me, up the tall sturdy ice slide from which we had promptly whizzed to the bottom and I politely declined.

The guides had been very kind and quite firm: “Keep your arms and legs inside the sled. You will be going fast and this is for your safety.” The drop in front of us plummeted many stories down. I gulped and channeled the same ferocity and courage reserved for roller coasters. My mouth opened and said, “yes” when my younger cousin Michael declared he wanted to slide down the notorious ice slide. Our moms both looked at him and looked at me. It was decided in a moment’s earshot of the squeals of delight shooting down.

This particular December, we’d journeyed up to Quebec to truly experience Christmas decked out in snow, and adorned in ice crystals. In Montreal, we explored the underground city and became familiar with the barista at a local coffee shop where we would order hot chocolate and linger, listening to the lilt of French slip into English with such ease.

Michael and I had taken upon ourselves to make proper snow angels wherever we found unmarred and pristine patches of fresh snow. Our moms watched on, happy to see their kids happy. While it could easily and often be said, everything is bigger in Texas, we had never encountered so much snow or a similar kind of cold that seeps into the core of your being. During that trip I became a walking presence with two eyes barely discernible from the scarf wrapped around my neck, my mouth, my ears and under an ear flapped toboggan. A horse carriage ride around town was its own sweet torture.

A few days later, we packed up and headed for Quebec City by train. Once we arrived, we checked into our hotel and got settled. I slid the curtain back, entranced in the environs as a view of the St. Lawrence river showed massive chunks of ice lazily drifting down the river. I sat transfixed at the frozen beauty. Not far from the hotel, a formidable ice slide stood as sentinel as if beckoning the adventure seekers. Michael spotted it and I knew one thing now on his agenda in Quebec City.

When given an opportunity to reckon with an ice slide that towers above you into the sky, you don’t say no. The guides had been very kind and firm, but inside my head as they drilled down to keep our legs and arms inside, I considered the poor person who had not heeded that bit of counsel and perhaps severed a foot or hand. My overactive imagination psyched me out by the time we had climbed the stairs to stand at the top and peer down below, two crows clad in black ready to alight, our moms mere specks against the austere white backdrop.

At the front, Michael eagerly crawled onto the sled and I manned the rear with arms wrapped tightly around his waist and legs tucked like vices around our shivering bodies. When they tipped the sled forward and released it, two things came to mind: sheer terror and exhiliration. Those two make interesting bedfellows. The wind slapped my face under its scarved and hooded appearance, pushing my skin like fingers molding clay. Michael screamed in delight, our song of victory and conquest. Before we knew it, we found ourselves at the bottom of the slide. I played the part of the brave older child- the teenager, as our moms pressed in asking about the harrowing experience and describing their view of the drop. From his mouth came the words:

“Let’s do it again!”

I promptly and ever so casually said no and we began our short trek back to the hotel. Along the way, a small hut accosted us with the smells of coffee and maple mingling together. The moms ordered up cups of hot coffee. Michael and I celebrated our adventure with fresh out-of-the-oven Beaver Tails. If you’ve ever had a Maple Glazed doughnut, it is a mere shadow of the goodness of that hot piece of flat fried dough slathered in a steaming maple glaze. I chewed slowly, letting each bite warm me up and savoring the tantalizing flavor. My tongue pushed the glaze down into my mouth, tearing off a bit of dough. If ice slides involve a beaver tail, I’m in.

And if I might have my say on holiday desserts to conjure up maple memories, I’d have to give in and cut a small slice of Maple Custard Pie. If I close my eyes, I might see a sled and hear squeals in the far distance.

maple cream pie

Poetry Corner: Honeycomb by Carol Frost

honeycomb by carol frost

This time it started with bees.

We were hunkered down in the Great Hall listening to poet and faculty member, Carol Frost, share a few poems from her newly released book “The Queen’s Desertion.” As she began to read the apiary poems, I found myself transfixed and caught like a fly in the spider’s carefully crafted web of a really good metaphor. With head cocked, as I find myself when deeply engrossed in a writer’s words, I visualized the bees lost and wandering and could see a shadow of the mother in the emotional crevasse of the daughter’s language. I bought the book and pored over its contents finding myself coming back to the bee poems and thinking about what it means to lose one’s way.

At the time and far away, I watched a different scenario playing out in a different state but with many similarities to note: the quizzical expressions, the mindless repetitions of subject matter, the growing confusion with the world around. As this played out the times I happened to be inTexas, I found the transformation beguiling in the worst possible way. It reminded me of a room in which a person is locked without a key. It reminded me of bees far from home, disoriented and unable to find their way back.

I never had a chance to study directly under Carol Frost, but her work continues to teach me about the lyrical beauty of language as well as the opportunities available through syntax. The bee poems first recorded in “The Queen’s Desertion” became fully realized in “Honeycomb,” her most recent collection with its raw emotional under-girding of loss upon loss. At points, you get sick of the bees but even their repetition reflects back on the nagging reality of alzheimer’s and is an effective device. Frost asks “Is it so terrible to outlive the mind?” in her poem “Abandoned bee boxes piled on each other at meadow end…” As a reader you sense the frustration of being unable to change the situation unfolding.

And that is the universal appeal of a collection of poems centered on alzheimer’s. She questions what is valuable in “She wears geegaws from relatives” wondering if “Old, did Helen wear diadems? / Did she know glass from diamonds?” Here, she juxtaposes the classical figure of Helen from the Iliad with her mother, wondering if she too had difficulty ascribing value from jewels to the commonplace. Frost queries the life being lived now and what it means to make the most of it. “We feed her chocolate because / she likes chocolate and she / forgets” – the small moments of sweetness contrast strongly against the pervasive bitterness of a situation that knows one end.

Reckoning with alzheimer’s resembles the grieving process and includes denial, loss, anger, and depression. To come to grips with what is impossibly difficult in the beginning to accept, for all involved in “Pearly, flying hair” she states “She is dancing. We won’t say / she’s dying.” Occasionally, Frost speaks of couching the situation as a “little problem with time and space.” This denial, this staving off of the final prognosis is wrenching. As a reader, you feel the frustration of loss which she depicts well in describing what it is to lose one word only to be followed by another – “[h]oneycomb, goddess, death, fate and the human heart, / they lived in her until too many words / flew like birds”. You feel the despair and deepening rift for both daughter and mother throughout the collection. In “I remember the psychiatrist’s exam-” the reader is brought into the room as the psychiatrist asks the mother to draw a clock. Through a simple task, the extent of forgetfulness is uncovered leaving her mother exposed to the glare of what no longer exists. Frost describes it as a “dark, cruel / moment when she found out- / mind a papery hive sliced / open, herself furious.” This suggestion of the asp comes up again later in the collection and serves as a good point of reference for anger.

The asp plays an interesting sub-character to the bees. Nearing the end of the collection, this image crops up in the poem “She saw that the tortured dream wrestled to the floor”. In it, the poet reckons with her mother experiencing “punishment / for hallucination” and tries to reconcile with where the fantasies came from. Against the current of queries from her brother, the poet, in her “quiet, reprimanding” pits a “yellow asp stinging the black heart.” This uses the same colors of the bees but the asp has a different connotation. Set up against trying to understand hallucination, she knows the truth and it stings.

Signature Frost style for me includes deeply lyrical poetry, references to classical literature or art, experimentation with syntax and using the title as the first line in the poem. These are evident in “Honeycomb” but the taut narrative keeps the pages turning. Her use of ellipsis hints at the dragging on of time and days in the nursing home in “(For the ones” where “clocks are wound…. / The last hour is a song or wound….” Several times, she employs double colons to confer a sexuality and frustration. In “If her falling to quiet” reads “of flowers:: to rain” Again, the reader finds in the afterword, “sea and grasses mingled:: / there was no hell after all / but a lull before it began over:: flesh lying alone:” When encountering death, it is not so strange to question life- both what it means and what it now must look like. The afterword is particularly powerful in accomplishing that sense of loss. Where there once were two colons, there is now only one and Frost continues breaching the line “flesh lying alone:” with single colons, showing life does go on and fits into the world in “the grace of waves, of stars, and remotest isles.”

“Honeycomb” features Frost at her finest with writing that is strong and evocative. The reader feels a certain sense of voyeurism in tender moments of her mother’s degeneration, coming to grips with what is: a daughter encapsulating what sets the days apart, a mother declining into Lethe orStyx, comforted in the poem “What makes her quiet”, a doll.

So “Now, now, / let her rock her doll.”

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