Friday, May 13, 2016

Battling My Fears (or, It's All in the Mind)

Last night, the demons caught up with me in the half-century race. The demons of the mind.

Here's what happened: I organized a practice session with musicians whom I have invited to perform with me later this month, at a house party. I had practiced to perfection my set list of tunes--singing and accompanying myself on guitar.
My repertoire of scribbled songsheets

Arrived at the practice, confident and bright. Began to play. And stumbled.

Clearly, I was thrown off by the presence of other people--even a couple of friends that I play with elsewhere. This time, though, it is MY performance at stake. I tried again; started over. Fingers failed to cooperate.
Practicing on Capitol Hill with Pearl on harp and Joel on accordion

What handicap is this, that has plagued me for five decades? The fear of making mistakes. Once upon a time, it destroyed any hope of a professional music or speaking career. (Did you know I studied violin, keyboards, classical guitar, and public relations?) Because there are no second chances in speeches, or in music.

Fortunately, writing is more forgiving--you can revise until you get it right! (That's why I prefer email to phone, FYI to my friends.)

Twenty years of delivering Toastmasters speeches, leading seminars over and over ... and over ... at work, and singing and playing with a group at Cajun jams have boosted confidence. But the verdict is in: still guilty.

Somewhere in the cell signalling sequence, being in front of an audience triggers "fight or flight." My grey cells haven't entirely adapted, even to years of practice.

Beyond public speaking and music, other threats abound. Venture beyond the four walls of my room, and it's a minefield. Some errors are hard to avoid, though fortunately rare in a carefully managed existence. Such as buying a house with hidden problems. (I only did this once, fortunately.)

Others are more frequent and more tangible: Wearing a shirt inside out, or socks that don't match. Losing a wallet. Not selling a stock before it crashes. Breaking a foot by stumbling on a curb.
Hmm, same color but not quite right

You know I am an adventuress (hence this blog). My closest friends know also that integral to all those adventures is driving myself hard, to the point of perfection. Why? To avoid the consequences of imperfection.

Psychologists are very familiar with this phenomenon. It is deeply rooted in childhood, left over from taking a beating for getting dirty or breaking a lamp. From hearing a hundred--or a hundred thousand?--times that my nose was too big and my legs too crooked. From being banished to the corner of a classroom for talking.

Maybe it is also embedded in genes. The odds, however, favor environment over evolution.

A logical plan of action, at this stage of life, is to stop racing the demons down the path of perfection. One option is to accept the inevitability of errors and let go of letting them bother me. A second option is to acknowledge and honor my limitations: Listen instead of speaking, and turn down invitations to lead.

Hmm. That sounds attractive! And easier! And that option logically leads to a simpler, less threatening mode of music: singing and playing guitar in my room, alone. Just as I have done, successfully outpacing the demons, for half a century.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Grabbing It While I Can Get It

A few months ago, when I was feeling blue because of some medical problem, a dear friend, Lisa, suggested going “shopping” online. “You’ll feel better!” she insisted. I took her advice, and it worked. I cheered up. I can’t remember what I ordered that day; however, I suspect it had something to do with svelte black leggings or a pair of size 9 Enzo Angiolinis, because clothes and shoes have long been known to be the magic elixirs for easing all sorts of womanly traumas and dramas.
My favorite flats. Please don't ask me how many pairs I have in my many times have I sung the blues???
Fast forward to May 5, 2016. Cinco de Mayo. What did you do to celebrate the Mexican tradition today?
I went shopping. This morning, I drove to Arlington to buy a used Martin backpacker guitar from my friend Terry. I was excited to find a high-quality mini-instrument that can be stowed in a plane’s overhead compartment and carried onboard for our sailing charter in Maine this fall. As you may recall, not playing guitar for many months--i.e., giving up a segment of my soul and losing my callouses--was one of the many little sacrifices I made for our Bahamas boat trip.
My new Martin, with full-size strings and a rich, deep tone--not bad for a skinny mini!
That was late morning, about 11:30 am. Later this evening, around 7:30 or so, I resumed shopping. I whipped open my laptop and, in quick succession, ordered a “little black dress” (females will know what I mean by that) from Lands' End, in size Small/Extra Tall; some homeopathic anti-inflammatory capsules from Amazon; three sets of Martin guitar strings, Bronze/Extra Light, for the new guitar; and several re-manufactured black ink cartridges for our Hewlett Packard printer, at one-fourth the price of new ink cartridges--a trick I learned from our neighbor Larry. 
Shopping--for anything, even a simple set of guitar strings, apparently--helps alleviate depression among women, as borne out repeatedly in the very latest controlled scientific studies. At least, it works for me!
Whew. A lot of acquisitions for one day. And to what did I attribute this sudden and intense interest in consecutive shopping sprees? Why, the blues, of course. Because this afternoon, around 4:00 pm, I went under the knife in the orthopedic surgeon’s office. That's enough to make anyone depressed!
Among the repercussions of breaking my foot a year and a half ago, I developed a bone spur and “scarred” ligaments. Today, we dealt with one of the two. The bone spur was shaved--in a technique that I won’t describe because it’s very scary! Hearing about it from the Doc left me feeling queasy and drove me to jam my fingers in my ears and cry out, “Don’t tell me any more! Just shut up and do it!” Even my partner, Pope, got squirrely when I told him. (Oh, by the way, Dr. Ferrell, I'm sorry about the screams; hope I didn't scare away any patients!)
Tonight, I am back on crutches, ice, and prescription narcotic pain-killers.  
Let's dispense with any critiques of the photo quality, ok? This selfie was an especially difficult one to capture--just you try it on crutches, under the influence of narcotics!

No zydeco-ing to Jesse Lege this weekend, I'm afraid. I'll be lucky if I can drive my stick shift, let alone waltz around a dance floor, in the next few weeks. Plus, this surgery followed a couple of other bodily traumas this week: a biopsy for a skin condition, and slicing the skin off my thumb while cutting vegetables. (Am I earning your sympathy yet?)
I could have postponed today's surgery; I didn't go into the appointment expecting anything traumatic, and the doctor gave me a choice: now or later. But I usually find that there's never a better time; there will always be a reason to postpone. And can you imagine what the anticipation would be like, once I had heard that breath-stopping description of the technique?
I don’t get a lot of sympathy at home. Despite his admirable qualities, which include gentleness, generosity, and being an excellent sailor and handyman, Pope is somewhat lacking in the ability to empathize, or feel another's pain. He says he doesn’t believe in whining; that everyone experiences pain, and that whining about it and seeking sympathy is like “grabbing” all the pain for yourself.

I don’t share that view, and am perfectly comfortable moaning and groaning and accepting all the warmth and caring and hugs and prayers that others are willing to share. I'm a whiner by nature. Just ask my friends.
 The door to my heart is wide open this week. Warm sentiments and good vibes welcomed within!

I assure you, however, that it's only for tonight. And maybe tomorrow. Dear readers, you have my solemn pledge that I am only "grabbing all the pain" for a brief moment and that I will not burden you with my whining and pleas for sympathy forever. In a day or so--promise--I will be ready and willing to hear your own tales of woe and suffering and to offer you my heartfelt love and caring. And loads of hugs.

I'll be sure to call you. Just as soon as these narcotic pain-killers kick in.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Spring Fling...or Bahamian Bust?

This blog post is not about me. I am not in the Bahamas. It is mostly about Pope and Albert, some tomato seedlings, and the way relationship can stretch and bend in certain circumstances, depending on the personalities.
First, let me just admit that I am a classic boat widow--that is, a spouse frequently left behind when a partner runs off to a spiritual soulmate of the floating variety.
Yes, it's true. Two weeks ago Pope left me a note on the kitchen table: "Went to see my mistress."  (That really is his handwriting. I am NOT making this up.) Fortunately, I know how to interpret his literary meanderings. He is not racing to burrow his nose into the breasts of a curvaceous blonde; no, he is racing to wrap his loving arms around the mast of a cold, hard hunk of fiberglass. He spent a lot of time with his mistress this winter. He worried about her endlessly, crying out her name in his sleep.
Echo II being slung back into the water after a long winter of repairs
The important point here is, Pope loves sailboats and sailing. He is currently in the sunny Bahamas for a Spring fling, crewing on someone else's boat. I, on the other hand, am enjoying nights out with the girls, wine parties, gym classes, yoga teacher training, Cajun music jams. Lonely widow?? Nah! So which of us is having the more delightful experience? Judge for yourself...
Amber joins other volunteer teachers in training workshop at Yoga in Daily Life USA, Alexandria, Virginia, March 2016
Remember our month in early 2014, holed up at the Rubis gas station dock in Nassau while our auxiliary engine was removed, refurbished, and reinstalled by Albert the diesel magician? Of course you do! Admit it--it was your favorite story; or maybe the only story that kept you from nodding off while slogging through my tiresome blog about misadventures in the Bahamas.
Bidding farewell to Echo II's auxiliary propulsion unit, January 2014; bye bye, see you in a month!
Albert the diesel magician in his shop, ordering essential parts from the US for Echo II, January 2014
Well, what goes around comes around! Is that the appropriate phrase here? Or is it DEJA VU??! As I write this, Pope is holed up at the Rubis gas station dock in Nassau, on a broke-down boat, while Albert the diesel magician is being solicited (skids greased with some Jameson whiskey, most likely) to take a gander at its internal mechanics. Will Pope and his skipper see other islands? Will they snorkel and swim, or even sail? TBD. Pope's latest email: "I have no idea how long we will be stuck here at the good ole Rubis station. Lots of problems."
Not a day older: Albert the diesel magician, still running his shop of miracles (and illusions) in Nassau, March 2016
Divine justice for running off to the islands without me? Poor planning, or poor maintenance? Or is Pope so attached to that old wooden fuel dock with its charter fishing boats and laid-back vibe that it serves as auxiliary soulmate? We did have a good time there in 2014; the gas station manager at the time, Daniel, shared his breakfast, joked with us, let us use the internet, and instructed his staff to unlock the toilet for us at all hours, on request.
Street view of our Nassau home away from home, January 2014
The infamous--and increasingly familiar--dock, January 2014; Echo II is the (only) mast on the left
Thus our respective activities in the Spring of 2016 continue to unfold. Now, about those tomato seedlings: while Pope shoots the breeze with Bahamian gas jockeys and Albert's assistants, day after day, with the potential for becoming week after week, he moans that his newly planted tomato, pepper, basil, and parsley seeds in the little brown pots in our front window could die without their "parent" to nurture and nourish them. His lament: "They need love. Without me they are screwed." Well, I can only do my best. Every day I water them, gaze fondly at them, puzzle over how to keep them alive, and even sing Cajun songs to them. As far as I can tell, they are not yet screwed.
As you have probably figured out by now, Pope and I have a strange yet wonderful relationship, able to endure interesting twists and turns that could never even be conceived of by normal people.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

In Search of a Steinway

Last weekend, I stood before an audience to introduce the third of four concerts by Lana Genc, a classical pianist visiting from Croatia for her first US performance tour. I had organized two of the concerts--publicity and all--at the Arts Club of Washington and An die Musik in Baltimore.
Lana played beautifully, coaxing melodic harmonies of Chopin and Bach from aging ivories, garnering compliments and swelling my heart with devotion and pride. She captivated audiences not only with music but also with smile, presence, grace and confidence.
(Photo by Chris Farmer)
I truly enjoyed supporting her efforts to make a splash on the US music scene. Together, we put her local performances on the map--on calendars, on flyers, on the internet, and into the consciousness of music fans. We attracted decent crowds in Washington, Baltimore, and Alexandria, Virginia.

Quite an accomplishment, given that, as of last November, the classical concert world was new to me--and Steinways are not easy to find. The realm of music, however, was old hat. I had been singing and strumming since 5 years old, when I first picked out "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" on a toy piano. Music was in my blood! Well, why not; my mother played accordion and organ and taught me to waltz in our living room.
Even classical composers were not complete strangers. I played violin in school orchestras, rising to the position of First Violin, and quitting only when public funding ended. (Marching band continued, of course.) Switching to organ--because there was one in our home--I discovered that my left and right hands were uncoordinated. Besides, I never could wrap my brain around that pesky treble clef--just where were those notes on the keyboard, anyway?
Fortunately, my uncle came to the rescue with a cheap guitar. I spent many enjoyable hours teaching myself to play scales and strum along with Peter, Paul and Mary. I babysat every Saturday to buy a decent $80 guitar, in 1973. I still have it.

In college, I skipped classes to practice "Stairway to Heaven" and "Time in a Bottle" with good-lookin' frat boys boasting names like Fast Eddie. I signed up for classical guitar class, which I barely passed because the final exam required playing in front of a crowd, and in those days I was way too shy.

By the time I got a full-time job, I had a good grounding in musical instruments. Like many a career professional, however, I gave up music for a long, long time. It wasn't until retirement that I picked up the old guitar and dug my harmonicas out of storage. Before long, I was singing in Cajun jams and getting coached in Piedmont-style blues.
When Lana--a fellow member of my international yoga organization, Yoga in Daily Life--contacted us about visiting our yoga center in Alexandria, I was ready to launch another musical adventure. And what an adventure it was! I learned about classical compositions and quality of pianos, attended a lovely embassy concert and reception, and got up close and personal with an accomplished professional. (Look at those right fingers flying.)
She never stopped practicing, nimble and sure: three hours a day on borrowed pianos, other times in her head, and in the car on the way to Baltimore.
My appreciation for classical composers and accomplished pianists grew enormously when I sat up close during a house concert, a few feet behind the keys. She referred to the historic piano, inherited from ancestors, as an "old gentleman" that required gentle nurturing--yet the old gentleman survived--and perhaps even grew stronger?--as she pounded out the strong riffs and chords. When Lana plays, she takes a deep breath and pours her soul into the music. At that distance, the power and glory of Rachmaninoff came through loud and clear!
Above all, I made a dear friend--a talented, lovely and loving woman who not only plays piano but practices yoga and meditation, who graced us with her presence on her journey to a higher world of consciousness, music and potential stardom.
(Photo by Chris Farmer)

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Classical Piano, Anyone?

Yes, it's true, I'm branching out. My latest volunteer project has been to arrange classical piano recitals for an acquaintance from Croatia. Lana Genc is a concert pianist visiting the United States this February to perform and attempt to gain exposure in the U.S. music scene. I have arranged two public concerts, Friday, February 26 in DC and Sunday, February 28 in Baltimore. Please attend and support Lana and my fledgling efforts as a musician's agent! Maybe someday I can get a paying gig!

She will also play concerts in New York City on Feb 17 and March 5-6, so let me know if you want those schedules--send me a note at aljones101 (at) hotmail (dot) com.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Weather Gods Roll the Dice

The car is buried. The front steps are stacked with a billion snowflakes. We are stocked up with food and drink and ready to party, alone in our, perhaps I mean womb. My thoughts drift to the courageous men and women who predicted all this. Until a few hours ago, a few doubts remained whether the blizzard would match expectations.

Being a TV weatherman, meteorologist, or both, must be among the most celebrated--and vilified--occupations in America. Who do we blame when scientists miscalculate and the forecast begins to look just a little bit shaky?

"Time to clear the front steps. I guess they had the prediction right for once," my partner Pope exclaimed as he glanced out the window at 4:27 pm. That's the kind of attitude that gets weather announcers in trouble!

In Washington, doubts or not, we prepared for the worst. Earlier today, as I traversed the heavily congested aisles of Safeway, I was bemused by the fact that certain shelves were emptier than others. Snack foods and hot dogs--well, that's to be expected. Soft drinks--wiped out. (Too bad, from a nutritional standpoint.) Pet food--good to know people are watching out for their four-footed friends.

Bottled water--the emptiness evoked visions of 2010's Snowmageddon. But no, to differentiate that blizzard from the impending 2016 experience, we've expanded our lexicon to predict Snowzilla (according to today's Washington Post). Which will prove to be worse?
Cooking oil--not a single bottle to be found. Can we anticipate fried chicken or stir fry on every table?
Ice cream--only a few pints remaining. Of course! Just what you need on a 20-degree day to cool your innards! (And how did they keep it from melting while they waited a half hour in line?)

Plenty of chicken, potatoes, and oranges still to go around. You know, the more nutritious stuff. Requires cleaning, peeling, and cooking.

At Yes! organic market on 8th Street, hundreds of crates of canned beans and tomatoes were delivered during the last two days. Firewood and bags of rock salt were stacked six feet high on the sidewalk. By 12:30 pm today, the line to purchase organic produce and wine wound twice around the aisles of the tiny store.
Three blocks away, traffic backed up in front of Frager's, Capitol Hill's only hardware store. So many cars circled the block, waiting to park, that even a fire engine couldn't get through.
On my walk home, I pondered the apprehension that weather announcers must feel as they stock up on their own provisions and gas up the four-wheel drive for tomorrow's slog to the studio. Will the weather gods roll the dice in favor of an accurate forecast? Or, with a wink of the eye and a crinkle of a smile, will they send Al Roker and Willard Scott to sit in the corner under a dunce cap as the clouds roll away in an unexpected direction? The anticipation is deafening (as will be the applause or critique).

At 1 pm (the forecasted storm "launch" time), I frowned and tightened my grip on my bag of yogurt, grapefruit, and multi-grain bread as I anxiously scanned the sky. Not a single flake visible in the atmosphere. No blizzard to whiten my outlook. All this worry and standing in lines for ... a false alarm? Could the gods be laughing at the poor, prosecuted forecasters in Washington, DC?

Then, at precisely 1:03 pm (according to the precision digital network of cell phone technology), a single snowflake drifted from the low-hanging clouds, meandering past my eager eyes on its way to the red brick sidewalk. Boom! It landed and stuck. At 1:07 pm, its sisters, brothers, and cousins launched an all-out rush to get to the party.

By the time Pope ventured out three and a half hours later to retrieve the shovel from under the front steps, an extended family of snowflakes had converged on our sidewalk: 8 branches, distant aunts and uncles, and casual acquaintances from far-flung locations. The party had indeed begun, and it looked like it could get crowded.
Weathermen and meteorologists, rest easy tonight. The weather gods rolled the dice and sent the blizzard you forecast. The nation will forgive the 7-minute delay in execution. Tomorrow, we will laud your foresight as the key to the thorough preparations that will ultimately mitigate the damage.

This time, you won the gamble.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Fueling the Economy: the All-American Shopping Experience

What exotic new gizmos are popping up at shopping centers all over the country? I hadn't been in a big mall like Tysons Corner for about 10 years. So, being a patriotic American committed to contributing to the economy, and because visitors from Croatia asked to go there, I launched  an exploratory expedition to the big mall in the suburbs, to see how I could help. Just before Christmas, naturally.
First techno-wonder encountered: a helpful robotic at the parking garage to tell you how many spaces are left. Plenty on this weekday! (To those of you who shop regularly, this is probably old hat. Congratulations, you are feeding the economy.)

Peeking into shop windows: oh, what strange and wondrous gadgets immediately caught my eye--and not in a good way!
When does a Christmas ornament make you feel ill? When it features the anti-Santa. Fortunately, one other politician was featured in the same series, somewhat mitigating the sinking feeling in my gut. Still...
Next stop: the Tesla showroom in the middle of the mall--the ultimate high-tech-mobile. (Hmm. The mall? What a strange and wondrous place to sell cars!) And what did my Croatian friends think? They could barely contain their excitement! It turns out the Tesla founder was born Croatian.
Much more down to earth (I.e. less expensive): glitter and glitz for your holiday table. Nothing that requires tech support. Now that Christsmas is past, stock up for next year. Deep discounts.
To round off an amazingly educational tour (by showing me what I've been missing at that American institution, the mall), I gawked at the very latest conveyor-belt/restaurant technology.  Who know how many hours that plate of raw fish has traveled this complicated circuit?
As the antidote to my day at the mall, I bid farewell to my foreign friends--who by then were out on the street, mesmerized by the dense conglomeration of tail-lights stuck in rush hour on Route 7--and headed home to cook up some organic greens in my simple and rustic townhouse.