An American in Paris

Place_des_VosgesWhenever I visit Paris, I want to be a tourist. I want to fall in love. I want to be enchanted. I want magic and romance and art and a big crusty baguette. I crave the silvery slanted light that seeps over the horizon in late morning and clings to the edges of the city until sunset. If I’m not actually in the Eiffel Tower I want to be staring at it from a distance, watching, in the early evening, as it sparkles like the world’s largest bottle of champagne.

I know Parisian food can be overpriced, French fashion can be overrated, and snootiness often underscores daily life. I know the political situation in France leaves much to be desired; racism and the nationalistic tendencies of some citizens pull on the frayed sleeves of others. I know these things, but still I cannot look away from the golden patina of the city itself. The city glows. I walk through Paris in my somber black clothes, like I’m trying to absorb a bit of the city’s smoldering blush. If only.

I’ve been to Paris seven times. Here are some jumbled notes from those visits :

1977: Pittsburgh to Paris

My college roommate, Debra, and I attend Chatham College for women, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We have been in London on a study trip for the last six weeks and feel a strong desire to visit Paris. Who knows when we’ll be this close again? Between the two of us we have twenty four dollars. Off we go. Allez!

In Paris, we stay in a hotel with a bidet in the room and a toilet down the hall. We think the bidet is a place to wash our undies (that’s one way of looking at it). So we dutifully rinse our panties and socks in the bidet every night, impressed by French plumbing. Madame, a stout woman with a severe face and a demi-beard, serves chocolate croissants for breakfast. I drink hot milk from a bowl and pretend I’m sophisticated. I feel far away from Pittsburgh.

We go sightseeing. We can’t afford admission to any of the museums, so we stay outside, shivering in the Jardin des Tuileries, and eating chocolate crêpes made with Nestlé Quik. We stare at the Eiffel Tower. We walk a thousand kilometers because the Metro scares us. Hiking through Paris can be a pleasure, but Deb insists on wearing red cowboy boots with five-inch stiletto heels. She bought them in London and hobbles through Paris looking like a Monroeville Mall hooker out for une aventure française. We say “ooh-la-la” and sing Jacques Brel songs until a smarmy man wearing tight pants and several earrings tries to grab Deb’s ass. In a rare act of physical revenge—I’ve always been a wimp—I punch the little guy in the nose and we run away, no easy thing in those cowboy boots. For many decades, Debra will claim I saved her life. Merci beaucoup.

Debra almost gets arrested when we pay tribute at the tomb of the unknown soldier under the Arc de Triomph and she inadvertently tramples on the tomb. Teetering on those red boots while attempting to take a snapshot of moi, she has backed up and stepped right onto the poor soldier’s grave, the spikes of her heels firmly planted over the commemorative plaque. A Gendarme in a spiffy blue suit—don’t we just love their hats?— screams, “Attention!” at her, along with other French invectives we don’t understand. I suspect he’s saying, “Get the fuck off the grave you idiot,” but who knows? When Deb attempts to flee, her stilettos catch between two cobblestones. Stuck! Eventually she frees herself and we exit the Arc stage left, our heads bowed in shame. A flame burns next to the tomb. We’re lucky she doesn’t catch on fire.

That night we pool our remaining funds and visit the Folies Bergère. We are seated in the last row—quite a climb with those red boots—right next to two American soldiers from the South Side of Pittsburgh, our hometown. “Wait till yinz guys see the babes,” they say, in perfect Pittsburghese. “Foxy!” I’m discovering that people from Pittsburgh lurk everywhere, even in block Y of a topless Parisian cabaret. Slack-jawed, we gawk at the naked dancers as they hang, upside down, from the bejeweled ceiling. We don’t have this kind of thing in Pittsburgh; certainly not on the South Side. Deb decides we need to add feathers to our college girl wardrobe when we get back home, something I’m sure will be a big hit at our feminist school. We eat several more Nestlé Quik chocolate crêpes and head back to London the next day.

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2003: Circus, Circus

We live outside of Cologne, Germany, skipping distance from Paris on the Thalys, a high speed train that whisks us through Belgium and into Paris in four and a half hours. Our daughter, Julia, is six; our son, Curtis, is nine. Short on cash, but desperate to get away for a weekend, we’ve booked a seedy hotel room above a Chinese restaurant next to the Gare Saint-Lazare. As transplanted New Yorkers, we should know better than to stay next to a train station, but we’ve booked late, we’re strapped for cash, and it’s Easter vacation, so we’re lucky to find anything at all.

We eat baguette sandwiches at the Tuileries, engage in a spirited conversation with a French pharmacist when one of the kids gets sick, walk up Montmartre to Sacre Coeur, listen to a cellist playing Mozart next to the cathedral steps, check out the gargoyles at Notre Dame, and spend many hours looking for an affordable restaurant for a family of four. We dodge pickpockets and dance between the raindrops. It drizzles almost constantly. I love Paris in the springtime, when it—oh, never mind.

Julia and I attend a free fashion show at Galeries Lafayette, presented under a stained glass dome on the top floor of the store. She laughs through the entire program, amused by the flashy ready-to-wear costumes, and charmed by haughty models who every now and then break character and smile at her. During the finale, when the models glide over the catwalk sporting bridal gowns that resemble spun sugar, Julia says, “Mommy, this is just like the circus.”

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The Galeries Lafayette stained glass ceiling.

 

We visit a small park for children that features an amusement park, a dusty playground, and a petting zoo. While waiting in line for croissants, we meet a Chinese American family from Los Angeles. The kids ride together on a dangerous looking roller coaster that threatens to derail at every turn. John and I drink coffee and chat with the parents. They are staying in the Hilton, close to the Eiffel Tower. I think about the firetrap where we’re lodging and vow never to return to Paris until we can afford a decent place to stay. They leave the park in a taxi; we walk to the Metro. We promise to stay in touch, but we won’t.

We take the kids for a boat ride on the Seine. Look at those bridges! Julia pretends to pilot the boat. Curtis pretends he is traveling without parents.

We eat chocolate crêpes made with Nestlé Quik.

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Julia with Notre Mom

 

2005: Room with a View

Girls’ Weekend! Julia and I stay in a charming little hotel on Montmartre; a step up from our 2003 train station rat-hole. We have to walk up a steep hill to get to our digs, but it’s worth the climb. From our room, if we lean out the window and swivel our heads just the right way, we can see the Eiffel Tower. We drop our bags and head right over there, stopping for mousse au chocolat on the way. We climb to the second level of the tower and stay for two hours, watching the sun poke through storm clouds, spotlighting various landmarks. From our steely perch we plan the next two days; where we’ll go, what we’ll see. I’m determined my daughter will love Paris, that she’ll speak a little French some day, that she’ll soak up Parisian art and beauty and claim it as her own.

We visit the Louvre and Musée D’Orsay. We go to the Rodin garden and tour Notre Dame. Julia is nine years old and takes in the architecture and culture like a seasoned pro. She plans all of our trips on the Metro, circling stops on a paper map with a pink magic marker. After a day of non-stop tourist activity, she sleeps soundly in our little hotel room.

I discover we can go to Disneyland Paris on the train—for the bargain price of ninety euros, including train ticket and admission for both of us to the park. I’m not keen on confusing Paris with Disneyland, but our girl is nine years old and if not now, when? I don’t tell her where we’re going. We get off the train, she sees the pink castle, and doesn’t stop laughing the entire day. Mickey Mouse, it turns out, exudes even more charm when he speaks French. Goofy is another story, but you can’t have everything. We avoid the souvenir stands, eat lunch in the Pirates of the Caribbean restaurant—Jul is a little scared of the pirate waiter, who wears an eye patch—and watch French Tinkerbell descend from the Magic Kingdom castle. Is it my imagination, or is Tinkerbell wearing red lipstick? We take the train back to Paris, all the while singing “It’s a Small World” in French (Le monde est petit, après tout).

In a quaint restaurant in Montmartre Julia orders the children’s hot dog special, served with a kid-friendly combination of Roquefort cheese and sauteed onions. My American daughter scrapes off the goop, shrugs her shoulders, and says, “C’est la vie.”

2007: Marais, Meurice, Monet

Julia and I arrive in the Marais to meet up with our dear American friends, Carole and Emilio, who have rented a lovely little apartment in Paris’s most charming district. We stay in a hotel across the street.

All of us are on a tight budget, we go for long walks and boast about our ability to visit Paris without spending a fortune. The weather, for once, plays along, and we walk for hours. We ride on a Ferris wheel, people watch, and drink chilled white wine in the Tuileries. Julia needs a restroom, so we stroll into the Meurice Hotel. Carole, Julia, and I go to the ladies’ room, or the Queen’s Potty, as Jul calls it. We spend a bit of time in there, lounging and lolling about in velvet chairs, splashing cool water on our faces, repairing our lipstick and powdering our shiny faces. When we emerge from the Queen’s Potty, Emilio, who occasionally thinks of himself as Thurston Howell III, has snagged us a table in the bar.

“Emilio,” says Carole. “We can’t do this. It’s really expensive here.”

“Ah, come on, you only live once,” he says. Emilio is wearing an ivory linen blazer. He looks like he was born in this hotel.

I stay out of the fray—I’m too impressed by the hand painted ceiling and the jazz duo serenading us as we take our seats.

“You’ll be sorry,” says Carole.

The appropriately grumpy waiter takes our order. After consulting a menu (one without prices), Carole and I go all-in and request champagne with crushed rose petals. Not to be outdone, Emilio orders a mint julep, which seems a little odd for Paris, but he’s paying, so mint julep it is. Julia orders a 7-Up.

“We do not have the 7-Up,” says the sneering waiter. “What we have is like the 7-Up, but it is not the 7-Up.”

He brings a tray of olives.

“Do you like olives?” Carole asks Julia.

“Not really,” says Julia, who is still recovering from the 2005 Roquefort cheese incident.

“Well you better learn, because we have to eat everything they give us. At these prices we’ll have to skip dinner.”

Mademoiselle eats about thirty olives. The bill comes—130 euros for four drinks. And that’s with fake 7-Up.

The next day we take a bus to Giverny and visit the Monet gardens. We see Claude’s water lilies—the ones he planted and painted, the Japanese bridge he built and recreated on canvas, the cathedral at Rouen. I feel like I’m standing right in the middle of a Monet painting. It moves me to tears.

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Julia, standing on Monet’s Japanese Bridge in Giverny.

 

2009: Fusion Gypsy-Jazz Guitar, Toile du Jouy, and Bronchitis

I am finally in a five-star Parisian hotel with my husband, John. He will perform tomorrow night with Biréli Lagrène and the WDR Big Band. Sadly, John has a bad case of bronchitis and can do nothing but stay in the hotel room and try to get better before this evening’s sound-check and performance. So much for our romantic weekend.

What to do. I hate to leave John suffering and hacking away alone in our suite, but I don’t get to Paris very often, I’m here for the first time since 1977 without kids, and I don’t particularly want to waste a day in a dark room watching CNN weather reports or French game shows. Nor does John want me to hang around. He wants to sleep. So I head to the fabric markets and stare longingly at bolts of toile de jouy, decorating, in my mind, the Parisian flat I’ll never own. I buy nothing, but I entertain myself for hours by running my fingers over the cloth. I consider heading over to the Meurice for the crushed rose-petal champagne cocktail, but show restraint and drink Sauvignon Blanc with my lunch. I walk. The wind chills me, but I go for a boat ride—the ultimate tourist activity. Strangely, I enjoy being alone in the City of Love. I should do this more often.

I arrive back at the hotel just in time for the concert. Birelli, the genius guitarist, sounds great; so does John. A little bronchitis can’t stop a good jazz musician. The next day John and I arrange a trip a deux to the pharmacy, where we snag a grab bag of specialty medications with instructions we don’t understand. We eat extremely spicy Indian food, which John can’t taste, but I assure him it’s delicious even though my head is on fire. We travel back home on the train. We’ve booked our tickets separately, so he sits in first class with the band. I ride in coach, fall asleep, and dream about bridges and fabric.

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2010: Les Garçons

I travel with two sixteen year old boys to Paris—my son, Curtis, and his South African friend, Chris. We sit in different parts of the train and stay in separate hotel rooms, but, since I’m the gal with the money, we meet for meals. I spy on them at various tourist attractions, and, with the help of a cell phone and Chris’s bright red scarf, I spot them in the Eiffel Tower, high up on the second level, as I sit in an outdoor bar on the bank of the Seine. I wave to the boys and one of them waves the scarf. There’s something beautiful about this, but I’m not sure what it is. The Eiffel Tower reminds me of a teenage boy—tall and strong, but delicate somehow. Fragile, robust, stretching up, up, and away.

Eifel

2015: Free the Girls

As often as I’ve been in Paris, I’ve never performed here. Until now. I’ve been invited to present my Piano Girl concert program for the AAWE, an American women’s organization, at Reid Hall, part of the Columbia University Global Center in the Montparnasse district. My concert will benefit “Free the Girls,” a program that rehabilitates  victims of human trafficking and prostitution.

Julia has come along with me. She has recently spent some time here alone, but this is our first Paris trip together since the 7-Up episode at the Meurice. The Thalys trip now takes only three hours from Cologne—the railroad officials have upgraded that pesky Belgian stretch—and we arrive at our hosts’ apartment in no time at all.

Deborah and John, Americans who have lived in Paris for over fifteen years, reside in a huge old Parisian apartment in the 17th Arrondissement. It’s one of those big places with a tiny elevator, high ceilings, velvet sofas, and a gazillion books. French shabby chic. I could move in and not change a thing.

Our friend Sallie lives in the Marais. She takes Julia and me to lunch at her favorite bistro. Julia’s hot-dog days are long behind her—she has been a vegetarian for eight years, so we eat braised vegetables, salad, and a pear and almond cake for dessert. Sallie takes us on a tour of the Marais, starting at the Place des Vosges. The sun shines and we see pale green buds on the trees. The Marais has become a tourist attraction in recent years, but Sallie knows her way around. She shows us secret pathways leading into hidden gardens, down winding streets, and past historic half-timber homes.

On this trip I try, as I always do, to speak a little French. I give up. There’s always next time.

Rounding the corner in the Marais, eight military policemen, in full riot gear and carrying machine guns, march past us, patrolling the neighborhood. Their presence is a result of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and subsequent siege at a Jewish supermarket. Later that evening, Deborah shows me photos of soldiers at her synagogue, in the days following the attacks.

“The soldiers are still patrolling,” she says, as she rolls her homemade chocolate truffles, one by one, in powdered sugar.

I have grown up here, without meaning to. Every time I return, I’m a little further along on my trek through adulthood. I’ve gotten lost in back streets, struggled with the language, and learned to negotiate Paris both with and without money. I’ve traveled here with a red-booted friend, with curious children, nonchalant teenagers, and a handsome (but coughing) husband; as a teenager, as a mom, as a wife, as an artist. I’ve watched parades and concerts and street performers and now, soldiers. I’ve been cold and wet and exhausted and hungry in Paris; anxious and sad; startled and astounded, amused and elated. Never once have I been bored.

Paris remains a place of beauty. Man-made beauty, with extremely good lighting. Really, the city is a wonder.

I play my concert. We raise money for “Free the Girls.” Julia sings. I play some more and tell a few stories. Applause. We take a bow. The audience’s warm embrace scrapes the chill off the early spring day. After so many decades of getting to know the City of Light, maybe now it knows me, just a little. Time for a chocolate crêpe.

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Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.

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Photos provided by Carole Delgado and Julia Goldsby

The Apricot Tree

An Excerpt from Goldsby’s book Waltz of the Asparagus People [Bass Lion Publishing]

©2011 Robin Meloy Goldsby

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Go right at the rotary and take the third exit, says Kate, the uppity British voice of our navigation system.

“What rotary? Where?”

“Like you can even call this a rotary,” says John. We’re in Villefranche sur Saône, France, a bit north of Lyon, searching for the home of Jean Auray, the award-winning luthier who has agreed to build John’s new double bass. Any good musician will tell you that a quality instrument is the extension of an artist’s soul, and John is looking to expand his soulfulness. Throughout his career he has dreamed of finding a bass that’s comfortable to play, with a warm, clear, punchy sound and consistent tone across its entire range.

Monsieur Auray’s home and workshop must be around here somewhere; Kate just needs to find it. We’re packed into our midsized car with two very tall teenage kids and the bass John currently plays, a factory-made German instrument built after World War II. Building the new bass will take the better part of a year and several meetings requiring trips from Cologne to Lyon, a drive that typically takes six hours. Today, with the French autoroute traffic, a break for lunch at a French Ikea, and numerous rest stops, it has taken us a bit longer. We’re a little cranky.

“Just about there!” I shout toward the back seats. Silence. With John’s German bass packed between the two kids, I cannot see them. For all I know Curtis and Julia jumped out of the car somewhere around Nancy.

“Mom, I’m thirsty,” says a muffled voice.

“Me too.”

“Just a few more minutes,” I say.

“They’ve got some nerve calling this a traffic circle,” says John. “It’s more like a triangle. Wait, that’s the third exit!”

“No it’s not, it’s the fourth. There wasn’t a third.”

“How can there be a fourth if there wasn’t a third?”

Take the third exit, says Kate. She is agitated by the French traffic regulations, or lack of them.

We drive around in a triangle-circle for a few minutes while we huff and mutter and blame each other for being lost.

Take the third exit, says Kate.

“Perhaps this is the French idea of a circle.”

“Maybe it was the best they could do at the time. You know, ancient city and all that.”

“Non,” says my husband, who is now speaking in a French accent, quite a party trick for a boy from Kentucky. “They were sick of the circle. They had a better idea. It is like a circle, only not a circle. It is a circle with corners.”

“Isn’t that called an intersection?” says Curtis from the back seat.

Please take the third exit, says Kate, using the tone of voice she assumes right before she resorts to the silent treatment.

“There, that’s it!” I yell.

“That’s a brick wall,” says John.

“Okay! Then take this one! Here!”

“This is not an exit, this is a driveway. It’s very French. The highway looks like the driveway, and the driveway looks like—”

“Look out!” I yell as we swerve to avoid hitting a lorry that’s entering the triangle.

“Don’t overreact! Everything is fine. Stay calm.” Bass players are known for statements like this.

The French word for car crash is carambolage; it’s one of my favorite words, but I’d prefer not to use it today. Out of options, we exit the rotary on the same road we used to enter it, drive two blocks, perform the demi-tour—the French version of the U-turn—and miraculously find ourselves at 888 route de Riottier, the exact address of Monsieur Auray’s workshop.

You have reached your destination, says Kate. Bonne journée.

“Mon Dieu!” says John.

“Are you sure this is it?” I ask. I climb out of the car and brush baguette crumbs from my jacket. I had envisioned something quainter, perhaps a small chateau with hand-carved dwarves lining a cobblestone walkway leading to an antique oak door. But this place looks like the stark entrance to a French fort. No dwarves here. Later I will discover that many homes in Lyon are bleak on the outside but glorious once you get inside—it’s a style that goes back hundreds of years.

The back doors to the car open, and the kids tumble out and unfold themselves into upright positions. They remind me of pop-up tents. I do believe they’ve grown since the last rest stop.

“Isn’t this exciting?” I say.

“It looks like a jail,” says Curtis. “Do you think they have drinks at this place?”

“Look,” says Julia. “Pigeons!”

We park in front of a tiny plaque with Monsieur’s name and logo on it, and ring the bell.

We wait. John rings again. We can’t hear the bell ringing, so we’re not sure if it’s working. We wait some more.

“It is like a doorbell, only not a doorbell,” says John. He’s wound up, and I can understand why. He’s about to meet the man who will devote the next six months of his life to creating the bass of his dreams. I’m not so excited, mainly because we have just driven 800 kilometers and we’re standing in an alleyway in front of a cement shack. Maybe this is an elaborate French ruse.

John first met Jean Auray in 2008, at a bass convention in Paris. He played several of Jean’s instruments, one after another, and realized he had found a great luthier—an artisan who matched and even surpassed the work of many legendary bass makers. John’s search for an older instrument that would fit his needs was replaced with the thrill of having a new bass built to his specifications.

Monsieur Auray finally opens the door to his workshop and shouts out—in broken English—a few hearty words of welcome. We respond in broken French. We make introductions. He invites us inside. The chill of winter slips away as we walk into a carpenter’s golden oasis of wood and warmth. What a difference from the outside of the building. We climb a long curvy staircase, and it occurs to me that every bass-related business we’ve visited is up a flight or two of stairs. The place smells a little like a forest and a lot like varnish. A fine coating of sawdust covers every surface, and I’m reminded this isn’t a showroom, but a workshop. A heap of curlicue wood shavings is piled under the table, as if someone scalped Pinocchio and left the trimmings on the floor.

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Madame Auray, a beautiful Englishwoman who was raised in Paris, greets us and serves coffee and biscuits. Her first name is Juliet. She is rail-thin and moves through the workshop like a nimble-footed cat. She picks up odd scraps of paper and used coffee cups while she talks to me and chats with the kids in both English and French. Curtis and Julia are learning French at school, but they’re shy about using it. I spent years speaking French in Haiti, but I sound like a cavewoman. Juliet glides back and forth between the two languages, making tiny corrections, introducing new words to us, and making sure John and Jean understand each other. In just sixty minutes of observing her, I know she’s the quintessential multitasking artist’s wife—interpreter, soother of the bruised ego, mother, mind reader, and bottle washer. I suspect she’s also the family accountant.

A wooden lion’s head with a menacing face—the topmost ornament of a bass that Auray is building for another musician—stands guard over the room. While John talks to Jean, I wander around the workshop with Juliet and peek into its attached rooms. Auray builds his own instruments, but he also repairs and sells other basses. The workshop has several smaller rooms attached to the main space, each one holding basses waiting to be repaired, basses that have been rescued from abusive homes, and a few basses that will never be played again but hold sentimental value. Even the basses with cracked bodies, rutted fingerboards, split seams, and broken tailpieces seem dignified. I hear the passion in Jean’s voice as he describes his craft. Even though I don’t understand much of his French, I know he agrees with me. The bass—strong and feminine and such an intimate part of my husband’s life—might be the most physically beautiful of all musical instruments.

John has chosen the Auray bass for its lush sound—clear and round and bottom-rich, perfect for a jazz musician. In addition, the Auray is compact and transportable, with a nontraditional removable neck. The flight case for the Auray bass, called the Nanoo, is still oversized according to airline regulations, but most carriers will take it. They won’t be happy about it, but they’ll take it.

“Never say you are traveling with the bass,” says Jean. “Say it is the cello-bass.”

“Cello-bass?” It is like a cello, but not a cello. I wonder what the baggage handlers will have to say about this.

“I will modify your bass with the removable neck, but first I must obtain the concept of your sound.” Jean’s favorite English words are modify and obtain; they are fancy words for his limited vocabulary, and he uses them with gusto. Fine-boned and handsome, Jean has thick dark hair, fluttering hands, and intense blue eyes, the kind of eyes that take in too much at once and make snap judgments—usually correct—about people and art and music. I get the feeling we’re being scoped out, interviewed and evaluated as potential adoptive parents for one of his bass children, and that one false move, one ugly American moment, and we’ll be back on the autoroute, squashed in the car with the collapsible kids, arguing with Kate, modifying our plans, and trying to obtain another luthier.

“Now we must obtain the measurements,” he says.

Curtis, Julia, and I sit in the corner with Juliet, eating our cookies and looking at pictures of other Auray basses.

John unpacks his older bass. Though it’s a nonpedigreed instrument, it has a nice voice that records well. It’s important for him to have a second bass that feels like this one, but with a more consistent tone.

“This is the sound I like,” John says, as he plays several passages. Jean cocks his head to one side, leans into the music, and smiles.

“Oui,” he says. “It sounds very beautiful. Only the new bass, the modified bass, perhaps she will be just as good. Perhaps she will be better.”

“Oui, oui,” says John. “I hope so.”

“This I think is not a problem,” says Jean. Both men are smiling. The challenge has been accepted, and if all goes well, both of them will win.

I walk over to Jean’s worktable and look through a large window. The soft browns and grays of the Lyon winter make a perfect backdrop for the aged tree in the center of the garden, whose twisted trunk and gnarled limbs stretch toward the corners of the stone terrace. There’s a song about this tree, and if I stand here long enough, I’m sure I’ll hear it.

“Oh,” says Monsieur. “You see the apricot tree!”

“It’s amazing,” I say. “Beautiful and ugly all at once.”

“Oui,” he says. “This is why we chose this place. For the tree.”

We are in the home of an artist. Who needs the dwarves?

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**

John has been traveling the world with bass in tow for the last three decades. At the airport, some people point and stare and him. Others jump out of his way, hoping to avoid being run over by what looks like a coffin on wheels. Many feel obligated to make some sort of comment, which they obviously find clever at the moment. “You should have played the flute” tends to top the list.

There have never been any hard rules for bassists flying with their instruments. Sometimes there’s an extra charge of, say, 250 dollars. Sometimes it costs half of that. Sometimes it’s free. Sometimes they won’t take the bass at all.

One summer day in 1998 I’m put in charge of prechecking John’s bass from Cologne to London—no small task for a woman with fragile wrists and, as a professional pianist, a genuine fear of finger injuries.

“Don’t actually let them see the bass,” John says, doing that chop-chop thing with his hands that guys do when they’re giving instructions. “Park it really far away from the ticket counter, in a corner somewhere, and gesture toward it with large sweeping arm movements. Distract them—like a magician or hypnotist. And once you’re checked in, tip the porter really well so he wheels the bass out of sight before they change their minds.”

On the appointed day I park illegally outside of the airport terminal, unload the bass with the help of a janitor who has stepped outside for a smoke, and heave and push my way toward the British Airways check-in counter.

A woman wearing a giant backpack and pushing twins in a stroller the size of a Lexus SUV stops to open the door for me. “Wow,” she says. “And I thought I had it bad.”

“I should have played the flute,” I say.

I park the bass about twenty yards away from the counter—halfway behind a large pillar—and get in line.

Determined to use my Girl Power to get the job done, I’m wearing a black miniskirt and too much eyeliner. Turns out the check-in person is also using her Girl Power to keep refrigerator-sized objects out of the baggage hold.

“Checking any luggage today?” she says.

“Yes,” I say, using large sweeping arm movements, as previously instructed, and gesturing in the general direction of the bass.

“My God. What is that?”

“It’s a double bass.”

“Does that mean you’re checking two of them?”

“No. Just one. It’s a musical instrument.”

“Oh. A musical instrument.”

“Right. A musical instrument.”

Silence. She looks at her computer monitor. “Let’s see. On our list of accepted musical instruments, I have ‘small bassoon’—it’s obviously not that—”

“No, it’s not.”

“Banjo?”

“No.”

“Bass trombone, cello, or contrabassoon?”

“Uh, no.”

“Clarinet, French horn, flute?”

“No, no, no.”

“Guitar, oboe, saxophone, or trumpet?”

“Uh—”

“Viola in a rectangular case? Violin in a shaped case? Now, which one of the instruments on the list is yours? It looks like a bass tuba to me. Or is it one of those things they play in orchestras?”

Silence. Blank stare. It’s a standoff.

“It’s a double bass,” I say again. “It’s also called a contrabass or a bass violin.”

“Contrabassoon? That’s on the list.”

“No. Contrabass. Bassoon is a reed instrument.”

Silence.

“You blow through a reed instrument. Like this.”

Silence.

“The contrabass is a string instrument. With, you know, strings.”

More silence. She checks her computer monitor again. “Not on the list,” she says.

“Okay, some people call it an acoustic upright bass. Come on. It has to be somewhere on the list.”

A sneer, a sly smile, more silence.

“So sorry. It’s not on the list.”

“Bass tuba wasn’t on the list either, but you were willing to take it.

“No I wasn’t.”

“Yes you were.”

“No I wasn’t.”

I’m starting to sweat. “Okay then, can we just say it’s a contrabassoon?”

“So sorry, you’ve already told me it’s a double bass, and double bass is not on our list of accepted instruments.”

“Please. Can’t you make an exception?”

“No way, no how,” she says. “That—whatever it is—is huge. One could sleep in there.”

“Trust me, you wouldn’t want to,” I say. “You know, it’s really much smaller than it looks.”

“No. So sorry.”

“Look, I know it’s big, but this is really important. It’s not even my instrument. I’m checking it for my husband. He has a concert in London tomorrow.”

“Well, then, he should know better.”

“Please,”

“NO. So sorry.”

I cry, I plead, I demand to speak to the manager. It turns out she is the manager. I even attempt a casual bribe, flashing a few bank notes with that I’d-give-anything look. But nothing works. Loading the bass back into the car and driving it home is bad enough. Having to admit to my husband, who is returning from a gig in Switzerland later that night, that I’ve failed is worse.

We don’t blame the check-in people. No one teaches them about the double bass at airline school, where they are busy learning about exit-row safety procedures and gluten-free meals.

Another time a confused counter woman with a sympathetic smile decides the double bass is worth two overweight charges plus two oversize charges, a total of 300 dollars. She doesn’t tag it properly, and just as John and I are boarding the plane, airport security pages him and sends him to the tarmac. In front of several scowling orange-suited baggage goons wearing padded headphones, he unpacks the bass from the fiberglass trunk and strips off the soft cover. While they poke around and search through the flight case, he does what any respectable bassist would do. He plays.

“What did you play?” I ask when he finally boards the plane.

“‘Giant Steps,’” he says. “But they didn’t smile or anything. Maybe they’re not John Coltrane fans. They never even took off their ear protectors.” But we watch them load the bass onto the plane, so he must have done something right.

There have been missed flights and missing basses. How an airline could temporarily misplace a trunk the size of a Manhattan studio apartment is beyond me, but it has happened. We have logged many hours in the baggage area designated for weird luggage—the airport black hole where the orange-suit guys deliver tranquilized puppies in kennels, racing bikes in cardboard boxes, and musical instruments too big for the conveyor belt. The bass always comes off the plane last.

**

DSC03518

Several months into the bass-building project, Jean Auray sends us a photo of the curved part of the bass body resting on his worktable. The instrument, raw and relaxed, looks like a sensual and satisfied woman lying on her side, contemplating the casual miracle of the French spring. The apricot tree, flaunting green shoots that will soon burst open and protect the garden from the summer heat, peers back at the bass through the workshop window. If the bass is a woman, then this particular tree is most certainly a man.

“Wood,” Jean writes, “has an intelligence of its own and amazing qualities. One just needs to listen and treat it with respect, while understanding its strengths and weaknesses. Wood is elastic, but it’s solid and reactive, and capable of many sounds.”

Just like a good musician.

By the time an Auray bass is finished, Jean has shaved, carved, and sanded away eighty percent of the wood. This process—bringing the instrument to life—typically takes about 400 hours. The wood must rest and dry for at least a week after each adjustment so the bass can recover.

In France, even the musical instruments get vacations.

I glance at the photo again. Under the protective gaze of the apricot tree, the half-finished bass seems to anticipate the capable hands of the French artisan and the American musician. If all goes well, they’ll transform her from a silent piece of wood into an instrument that sings.

We wait. We receive more photos.

Two months later, Jean writes: “She played her first notes this afternoon. I think you will like her.”

Six months after our initial meeting with M. Auray, the bass is ready. Our son is on an exchange trip to South Africa and our daughter is visiting a friend in Sicily, so John and I travel as a duo to Lyon. It’s a leisurely trip, romantic even. We have just celebrated our eighteenth anniversary. That’s a lot of bass. But I guess I can’t get enough.
We arrive at Jean’s studio, climb the now familiar steps to his workshop, and watch as he removes the finished bass from its soft cover. I’m not quite sure what to look at—the bass, the bass maker, or the bass player. All three seem locked together and suspended in the noonish August light, an impressionist painting of human accomplishment and expectation. John takes the instrument and begins to play. To a musician, this is surely one of life’s most beautiful moments.

“Ah, yes,” John says.

“Oui,” says Jean.

I listen. This bass will age like a good relationship. It will open up, respond to its partner’s touch, and give back everything it gets. I choke back a few tears and accompany Juliet to her kitchen to help prepare the afternoon meal. Jean and John stay in the workshop to talk and make minor adjustments.

This is the first time I’ve been inside the Auray living quarters. On our previous visit we were confined to the workshop. The house, on the other side of a large garage area used to store aging wood, looks like the place I dreamed of finding when I was eighteen and reading about the French countryside. It’s an artisan’s paradise, with handcrafted kitchen counters and cabinets, an old dining table, and scarred wooden floors. In spite of the heat, the living room is comfortable and airy, with stacks of books in the corners and a cat curled on a threadbare antique chair.

Juliet tosses a salad while I slice a baguette. She tells me about her grown children, and I talk about Curtis and Julia. When the men join us, we sit together, drink wine, and dine on melon with prosciutto, quenelles, cheese, and a sausage from a local boucherie. Slow food, slow talk, slow music. This is the way I want to live.

“I must go feed the pigeon,” Jean says after the two-hour meal. “He fell from the sky and landed in front of our door.”

“When did this happen?” I ask. I wonder if it’s one of the pigeons Julia spotted six months ago.

“Yesterday,” he says. “On the thirteenth. We have named him Treize.” Jean grabs an eyedropper from a drawer. “I think Treize will be with us for a while. Right now he lives in a modified box, but soon I will be conducting the exercise class for him. I will throw him in the air, and he will fly. But maybe he will stay awhile and live in the apricot tree.”

Pigeon

“If I were Treize I would never leave this place,” I say.

We tour the garden, see the pond where Jean likes to swim in the afternoons after he has finished his day’s work, and retreat to the workshop where John learns how to dismantle the bass and pack it into the Nanoo flight case.

“Remember,” says Jean. “At the airport you should call her the cello-bass.”

We’re not flying today, we’re driving, and we must leave if we want to miss the autoroute traffic. John begins packing the instrument into the Nanoo for the trip home. Before he closes the case, Jean Auray rests his hand on the bass for a moment.

“It must be hard to say goodbye,” I say.

“I like to start anew again and again,” says Jean. “It’s my way of moving forward, not to get in a rut, a kind of challenge in the face of time—”

“I will take care of her,” says John.

“Please,” says Jean.

As we drive away, Jean stands by the front door, waving. It’s a sight I will never forget, the luthier releasing his work of art into the wild.

The transfer from one artist to the other is complete.

Turn right at the next intersection, says Kate.

“Turn that thing off,” says John. “I know where I’m going.”

P2230232

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.

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The Krankenhaus Blues

Hospital_Bed

The right side of my abdomen throbs. It’s not a stabbing pain, but more of a low-grade annoyance I’ve been living with for the past three days. I’m functioning just fine—I even played twelve hours of piano gigs over the weekend, but I can’t stand up straight without feeling like a family of five is throwing a grill party in my intestinal tract. Right now they’re tossing more coals on the fire.

Our doctor’s office is a five-minute walk from home. Hobbling over to see her is no big deal, assuming I can still hobble. I call at 8:00 a.m. and she sees me at 8:30. After a minimal amount of belly tapping and prodding—this woman could have a career as a conga player—she tells me she suspects appendicitis and insists I go immediately to the hospital, or the Krankenhaus, as it’s called here in Germany.

I love the word Krankenhaus. It’s right up there with Kaiserschnitt (C-section) and Dudelsack (bagpipes) on my list of German words that sound exactly right.

“Should I call the Krankenwagon?” the good doctor asks.

“No!” I say. “My husband is home. He’ll take me. He drives faster than a Krankenwagen anyway.”

“Okay. But don’t waste any time. You need to go immediately.”

I leave her office and, glancing over my shoulder to make sure the doctor isn’t looking, head into the local grocery store. My son will leave for a semester abroad in California in a few days, and his friends will throw a farewell party for him tomorrow. It’s a German tradition for the honoree to take a cake or some sort of treat with him to the shindig. Curtis has requested my brownies.

“What did the doctor say?” asks John when I arrive home with a sack of eggs and dark chocolate.

“Not good. She thinks it’s my appendix. I’ve got to go to the Krankenhaus right away. But first I have to bake these brownies for Curtis.”

“Really? You have appendicitis and you’re going to waste an hour baking brownies?”

“I’ve had this pain for three days. I played four piano gigs feeling like this, one of which included the world’s longest Lionel Richie medley. Another hour won’t make a difference.”

I have been baking brownies for both Curtis and Julia for over twenty years. I’m not much of a baker, but my brownies are the shiznit, as the kids like to say. Julia, the younger of the two, has already left home for nine months; right now she is in Seoul, Korea. Now it’s time for Curtis to jump on the Empty Nest Express. Knowing my son will be gone in just a few days, this final culinary favor takes on new meaning. I’m a fool—risking peritonitis for a Betty Crocker moment, but I’m hardly the first mother to bake a cake for her son when she’s not feeling up to par. My sister once baked a coconut cream pie for her son’s birthday while recovering from a hernia operation. I have another friend who made three-dozen artisanal cupcakes (with rainbow-sparkle icing) while attached to a heart monitor. Of course, her son was three, not twenty-one, but still. You never get over this mother thing. Or at least I hope you don’t.

Here’s what I figure: Your nest can’t be empty if your heart is full. Bake the damn brownies. Show the love. Melt the chocolate.

“I could bake the brownies,” says John.

“Yeah, you could,” I say. “But this is my job.”

I start the brownie batter. My appendix doesn’t burst while melting the butter or beating the eggs. The scent of dark chocolate wafts through the house while I pack an overnight bag. I take the brownies out of the oven.

I’ve baked a good batch.

We head for the Krankenhaus.

Brownies

***

I answer a bunch of questions and go through a battery of tests, the results of which prove inconclusive. No elevated white blood cell count, no fever, no sign of anything dangerous during the ultrasound procedure, which goes on forever and hurts like hell. But the pain persists, and my lower abdomen is rigid and bloated, even though I did not eat any of the brownies, I swear. I see three or four different doctors, starting with the emergency room resident and moving my way up to the chief of surgery. Together they decide to check me into the Krankenhaus for a few days of starvation, bothersome tests, and, possibly, an appendectomy. Our insurance entitles me to a private room, but the Krankenhaus is full today, so I have to take what I can get. What I get is a double room with a triple-sized woman named Patrizia Parrott. Pat is enormous, the size of one of those poor people you see on American reality TV shows.

Because of Patrizia’s double-wide hospital bed, my humble single-wide has been shoved to one side of the suite, right up against the washroom door. I notice a crane next to Pat’s night table, and I panic a little when I spot the potty chair, parked conveniently next to the dining table. The Feng Shui masters would not be pleased. Pat sighs and groans and crams Brötchen into her mouth, all the while issuing instructions to the overworked aide and flipping through the channels on the TV suspended over the two beds.

“Well,” whispers John. “Every patient’s worst roommate nightmare.”

I try to stay chipper, but I’ve been here for five minutes and the racket coming from Pat’s side of the room rattles me—coughing and belching and other unmentionable sounds. Good thing I brought my noise-canceling headphones.

“I kind of feel sorry for you,” says John.

It occurs to me that the last place anyone should have a roommate is in a hospital. Humans do not exhibit their best qualities when faced with failing health. Who decided that having two sick people three feet away from each other would be a wise idea? Mister Rogers or Charlie Rose could be in the next bed and I would still be cranky about sharing my space.

“Try not to talk to Patrizia,” John whispers, in English. We are out in the corridor, while Pat has a sponge bath. “Trust me on this. She seems kind of bossy. If she gets a chance she’ll start giving you orders. Look how she treats these poor nurses. Put on your headphones. You can always smile at her.”

He has a point. I have no desire to spend the next few days as Pat’s nimble go-fer. Or changing her channels. And I am terrified of Pat’s potty-chair. And the crane.

On the other hand, maybe I should help out a bit. I’m not really sick. I feel a bit like a Krankenhaus fraud. Aside from the dull throb in my right side, there’s not much wrong with me at all. Maybe I shouldn’t be here.

“So, do you need anything?” John asks, just as Pat, finished with her bath, demands more bologna from the woman working the dinner wagon.

“I’m really hungry,” I say. A rolling buffet on a cart rolls right past me.

“Sorry, honey,” says the food Frau, checking her chart. “Nothing for you but tea and water.”

Pat requests another Brötchen, this time with Nutella. I’m not sure what’s wrong with her, but it’s certainly not her appetite.

“Young man,” Patrizia Parrott says to John in German. “Can you open the window for me?”

John, polite as always, opens the window and then scoots out of the room before he receives further instructions. I say goodnight to Patrizia Parrott, put on my headphones, open my book, and prepare for a long night.

 ***

Sometime around two in the morning Pat begins chomping on cookies and chips she has stashed in a locker next to her bed. I can’t see her very well, but I can hear her; the crinkling of  bags, the rattle of  packages, the tentative chewing and sputtering one associates with illicit junk food consumption. I can’t recline with my bulky noise-canceling headphones, and I don’t have any earplugs, so I accept my fate and lie there in a semi-hallucinogenic state. It wouldn’t be so bad if I weren’t so hungry. I smell Twix bars and salt and vinegar chips and consider breaking my silence and asking for a tiny bite of something, anything. I’m a healthy eater, but I’m bored, I’m famished, and I’m sleeping two feet away from a woman with a serious eating disorder and a very large clandestine stash of junk food. Come on, Pat, toss a bag of Cheetos in my direction.

The last time I was in a hospital was to give birth, two decades ago. I drift in and out of sleep and wonder if I’ve become one of those half-crazy, washed-up moms who gets sick to distract herself from an “empty nest,” a term I’ve come to loathe. Maybe I’m not really sick. Maybe I’m making myself sick because I’m worried sick. It has never occurred to me that I might actually miss my kids when they leave; I’ve always thought I might become more of who I used to be once they were gone. Perhaps that’s the problem. Better to check into the hospital than tune into my own dread.

Maybe that pain in my side stems from the pain in my heart. Maybe the act of saying goodbye to my adult children has jumbled my well being.

The waving hand, the failing heart, the empty nest, the bursting appendix.

Edna St. Vincent Millay could have dined on this for decades.

If only I could dine right now. I try to ignore Pat’s crunching sounds, close my eyes and drift into a hunger-fueled sleep.

Nest

***

The next morning: no water, no tea, no justice. Pat eats the German version of a Denny’s Lumberjack Special while I gaze longingly at my empty water pitcher. I’m scheduled for an ultrasound and CT at ten.

The German word for appendix is Blinddarm. Blind is blind. Darm translates to “intestine.” The blind intestine.

Was blind, but now I see.

Herr Dr. Stanayotolopolous, who has an extension on his name tag to accommodate the extra letters in his name, performs the procedure. He pokes around for twenty minutes while I wonder if ultrasound gel can be used for erotic purposes. He asks me to hold my breath about a dozen times. This makes me dizzy.

“He is very hard to find,” he says.

“Who is?”

“The appendix. Der Blinddarm.”

It seems appropriate that something shaped like a Blinddarm should carry a masculine article.

In an effort to impress Dr. Stanayotolopolous with my knowledge of all things Greek, I tell him I once lived in Astoria, Queens. He grunts in response. I shall keep my opinions about spanakopita and baklava to myself. Why can’t I stop thinking about food?

“Ah! There he is!” Dr. Stanayotolopolous swivels the screen around so I can see the swirled mess. Somewhere in all that fuzzy stuff is my appendix.

“He is sub-acute,” he says.

I like this term, sub-acute. It describes my mood.

“So this means surgery?” I ask.

“No. There are new studies. The British Medical Journal says fifty percent of sub-acute appendicitis patients will heal on their own.”

“And the other fifty percent?”

“They need the operation.”

“So what do I do?”

“Talk to the surgeon.”

He walks away, leaving the nurse to de-gel me.

“Can I eat something now?” I ask.

“Probably,” she says. “But only broth and other clear liquids. They might operate tomorrow.”

 ***

I return to my room just as two nurses prepare Pat for the crane. I still don’t know what ails her, and I’m not about to ask. Time for Pat to use that potty chair. To get there she needs the crane. Do I need to see this? No. But it’s like watching a slow motion accident unfold—I can’t turn away. The crane, an electrical human hoisting system attached to a heavy anchor, has a harness that goes around Pat’s mid-section. The machine whirs as Pat begins to levitate, an activity that does not please her.

As the crane heaves Pat to an upright position I wonder how many Oreos a woman has to eat before she notices she needs a winch to help her stand up.

“Lunch!”

Pat, sniping and groaning as the crane transports her to her final destination—the potty chair—scolds the nurse for not finishing the procedure before lunchtime. My pity for Pat evaporates when I hear her insult one of the workers.

“We’re having goulash today,” Pat yells, suspended midair. Both Peter Pan and Divine come to mind. “I need to use the toilet before it gets cold.”

“We’ll warm the toilet seat for you,” says the nurse.

“No. The goulash—warm the goulash” says Pat. The nurse prepares to lower her onto the potty chair.

“Lunch, Frau Goldsby!” says the food Frau.

Rather than eat while Pat uses the potty chair—I have to draw a line somewhere—I decide to take my chances with the Marlboro gang in the lounge. The food Frau follows me with her cart.

“Here you go, dear,” she says. “I know you’re on a vegan diet, so we prepared special broth just for you.”

My mouth waters at the thought of food. I’m tired of my bad attitude. Maybe the food will help. Broth. Ahhhh, liquid gold. I haven’t eaten for thirty-six hours and I shake with anticipation as I remove the lid from the bowl. It’s chicken broth.

“But this is chicken!” I say.

“Yes,” she says, beaming with pride. “Vegan chicken! We took all the chicken meat and skin out of it. It’s just the broth. It’s vegan.”

She’s a pleasant woman with happy eyes and I’m too exhausted to argue with her, plus the smoke drifting in from the terrace nauseates me. Some lunch this is. Vegan chicken broth with a hint of nicotine.

I used to be a smoker, but that doesn’t stop me from casting a scornful glance at the patients puffing away on the balcony attached to the lounge. Every time the door opens a blast of freezing air and a cloud of smoke hits me. If you are in your pajamas, in a wheelchair, and attached to an IV pole, you probably shouldn’t be lighting up.

What’s the matter with me? I don’t like myself  today. I’m angry, out of sorts, and taking it out on stout stealth-eaters and gray-faced smokers. I need a drink. I wander the hallway for thirty minutes yearning for vodka—that’s a clear liquid, right? I settle for a cup of chamomile tea.

***

“There’s a hair in my Veal Parmesan!” yells Pat.

Two days go by.

The food Frau, the aides, the nurses, the crane expert and the potty chair woman treat Pat with respect, although I catch them muttering to themselves when they turn away from her. Whatever they pay these workers, it’s not nearly enough. I’m growing less tolerant of Pat by the hour. If I were in charge of that crane and had the likes of Pat screaming at me about keeping her lunch warm, I’d be tempted to leave her hanging there, with a plate of Schnitzel just out of reach.

I maintain my silence, put on my headphones, and try to come to terms with my lack of compassion for a woman who is clearly in a wretched situation. How can she live like this? Maybe she’s lonely and fills herself with food to chase away the emptiness. Does she have grown children? Is her empty nest lined with candy wrappers? Did she ever have a nest at all? How did she end up here, and how will she ever go home? Maybe Pat was once middle-aged, semi-vibrant, reasonably thin, with kids who needed her. Maybe Pat used to be like me. Maybe I’m turning into Pat. Maybe you start with appendicitis and, before you know it, you need a crane. Maybe I am losing my mind. If I could just eat something, I’d feel better. Everything in this room revolves around food, and I’m still not allowed to eat.

Patrizia Parrott yells: “I need a cookie!” I am tempted to shout Polly wanna cracker? but I resist. That would be cruel.

“More pudding!” she shouts.

My daughter Skypes from Korea to see how I’m doing. My son calls from home to thank me for the brownies. My husband drops off some instant miso powder for my next broth meal. I’m grateful for any contact at all with my misplaced real life. I’m dizzy from hunger. I still have a pain in my side. I want to go home.

The head surgeon, after reviewing test results, schedules  surgery for the morning. I’m too weak to argue, and at this point, I’m actually looking forward to anesthesia. Five hours—an entire morning—without Pat. And after surgery, I’ll be able to eat. Who needs this stupid appendix anyway?

Pat rips open a Beefi, the local version of jerky. I will not call her Fat Pat. I will not.

When the nurse asks if I want a sleeping pill, I shout out a resounding yes. Tonight I dream of food and departing children and cranes.

Hands

***

I awaken the next morning feeling light-headed and a little strange. It takes me a few minutes to realize the pain in my side is gone. I press on my stomach, and there’s nothing—not a stab or a stitch or a spasm. Hallelujah.

John arrives at the crack of dawn, just in time to watch Pat inhale her daily loaf of bread. The surgical team squeezes into the room and surrounds my bed. It’s a teaching hospital, so a half dozen doctors and trainees gather around my belly. I feel like a Thanksgiving turkey or an Easter ham.

“How are you today?” asks the surgeon.

“The pain is gone!” I say.

“Your stomach is no longer rigid. This feels like the stomach of a completely different patient.”

It does not escape me that, for the first time in many years, I have an audience of six young-ish men staring at my naked torso with admiration. Maybe the starvation diet served its purpose.

The surgeon presses harder and invites another doctor to have a poke. I sense Pat’s judgmental eye on me as the doctors confer. I hear Pat chewing. There’s a privacy curtain in the center of the room, but Pat’s double-wide puts her way past the center mark. Even if we pulled the curtain she would still be on my side. I feel like her head is in my lap.

“No surgery,” he says. “The inflammation is gone. You need more tests, Frau Goldsby, just to rule out anything else, but you can schedule those next week, as an outpatient.

Dr. Stanayotolopolous was right. I healed, on my own, motivated by desperation, hunger, and the ever-present smell of Doritos coming from Pat’s side of the room.

“Can I go home?” I squeak. “Can I eat? Please?”

“Yes. Have some breakfast, wait an hour, and see how you’re feeling. Then you can leave.”

I pull down my nightgown while John rushes out to find the food Frau. The doctors file out, consulting their clipboards. So much for my audience.

Now that I’m leaving it seems safe to talk to Pat. I feel guilty for not being kinder to her. I had a chance to be compassionate, but, caught up in my Hunger Games drama, I blew it.

“So, I’ll pack my things,” I say to Pat. “It was nice meeting you. I hope you feel better soon.”

“You’re not the only one going home,” Pat says, between bites of apple. “I’ll be leaving the day after tomorrow. My son is coming to fetch me.”

“How many children do you have?” I ask.

“Three. They don’t live around here. They are good boys. They visit when they can. Two of them are doctors. The third is a lawyer. He’s the baby. He’s thirty-six. They kept me very busy when they were little.”

“Do you miss them?” I ask.

“I never stop missing them,” she says. “I carry them with me, everywhere I go. Maybe that’s why I weigh so much.” She laughs, just a little. “Here. Take an apple with you. You might get hungry on the ride home.”

“Thanks,” I say.

“You were a good roommate,” she says. “You were quiet. I like that. I need my rest. The last woman who was here never shut up.”

The suite fills with the sound of Pat’s labored breathing. I feel unbearably sad. For her. For me. For every mother in the world who bakes farewell brownies for a departing child; for every super-mom has-been who eats too much, smokes too much, drinks too much, hoping to fill empty space; for every woman who re-feathers her nest, restructures her days, re-imagines her life—not because she wants to, but because her options have dwindled.

Little birds fly away. That’s the way it works.

Maybe if I eat something I’ll feel better.

 ***

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.

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Purple Blue Hibiscus

Hibiscus

Chalk’s Airline

In business since 1926

We’ve never had an accident!

“What do you mean, you’re not flying today?” I say. The Chalk’s Airline counter man at the Opa-Locka Airport looks out the window and squints at the bright white sky.

“I have to be there by tonight,” I say. “It’s crucial.”

I’m trying to get a flight to Cat Cay, a private island in the Bahamas. Don Brockett has booked me to play there for two weeks. Don, his wife Leslie, and the other performers are flying into Miami on a private jet from Pittsburgh. There is no airstrip on Cat Cay, so Don and his entourage will be picked up by one of the island yachts and transported over to the island. Because I’m coming from Haiti I’ll have to take a commercial seaplane over to Cat. I’ve never flown on a seaplane before, and I’m a little nervous about it.

“These winds are blowin’ way too high for us,” says Counter-man. “No way we can fly safely in this weather. Can’t land a seaplane on water this choppy. Nope.”

“Oh, no,” I say. “Well then, I’ll just have to take a boat or something. Is there a charter service in the area?”

“Yep. But you won’t be able to take a boat either. They got the warning flags up. No go, Miss. Not today, anyway. You come back tomorrow. Things’ll be calmer then.”

“But I have to get there tonight!”

“You got an emergency or something?”

I don’t know how to answer this question. Most people would not consider a piano gig an emergency. But Don Brockett expects me to be there on time to play the job.

“Yes,” I say. “Yes, it’s an emergency. To me it is, anyway.”

“Talk to that fat guy over at the phone booth. He’s got an emergency on the same island, and he said something about chartering a helicopter. A chopper can fly easier in this weather than a seaplane.”

“Thanks!” I say. I look across the room. A morbidly obese man wearing a natty blue blazer and freshly pressed chinos is hanging up the phone. Wow. I had no idea Brooks Brothers made clothing that large.

“Hi,” I say. “I’m Robin Meloy. I understand you’re trying to get to Cat Cay this afternoon.”

“I’m Billy Berg,” he says. He gives me the once-over, as if he’s being hit on by the local Opa-Locka hooker. We shake hands. He’s got fat on his knuckles, and his palms are cold and clammy. Normally I would run the other way, but Billy Berg is my only hope for a flight. I give him my most seductive damsel-in-distress smile.

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Berg,” I say. “Some weather, huh? Did you have any luck with the helicopter?”

“The commercial services won’t fly,” he says. I detect a New York accent. “But I found an emergency rescue helicopter to take me. Why?”

“Do you think I could come along? See, I’m a pianist and I’m supposed to play on Cat Cay tonight for a party hosted by the president of the island association.”

Billy Berg’s teeny-tiny eyes, surrounded by great mounds of cheek and forehead fat, light up.

“I mean, I’ll be glad to pay my share of the flight.”

“My dear,” says Billy Berg. “It would be a pleasure to have your company. I’m applying for membership on the island, and I’m sure the president will be thrilled to have me deliver his pianist in a helicopter.” He claps his chubby hands with delight.

Funny what people will do to get where they want to go.

We walk, or rather we’re blown, over to the helicopter terminal, where a pilot wearing a bright-orange suit waits for us. I’m right behind Billy, using him as a windscreen. The helicopter is tiny, with lots of open space where the doors should be. It’s a rescue vehicle, equipped to carry stretchers. A worker named Vicki runs out of the terminal, trying to look official. That’s an odd thing about Florida. None of the officials looks very official. You can’t wear a kelly-green blazer and expect people to take you seriously.

“Uh-oh,” she says when she spots Billy Berg. “You’re gonna have to weigh in.”

I don’t know what Billy weighs, but I weigh 120 pounds and the pilot weighs at least 170. She instructs me to sit on the same side as the pilot. Then she piles all the luggage on our side as well.

“Gotta balance this baby or she’ll tip right over. Here’s your life jacket,” she says. “Put it on. Now.”

“Now?” I say.

“You never know. Better to be prepared.”

Billy Berg and I slide the big yellow life jackets over our heads. I buckle mine around my waist. Billy slips his waist straps into the pockets of his navy blazer. I’m fascinated by his blazer. There’s enough lightweight wool gabardine in that one jacket to outfit the entire freshman class at Brown.

“Now look,” says Vicki. “In the event of an emergency, uh, water landing, you will unbuckle your seat belt, jump out, then pull the cord. Repeat after me, unbuckle, jump out, pull cord.”

“Unbuckle, jump out, pull cord,” Billy Berg and I squeak. We sound like the Alvin and the Chipmunks.

“Again. Unbuckle, jump out, pull cord.”

“Unbuckle, jump out, pull cord.”

“Again. Unbuckle, jump out, pull cord.”

“Unbuckle, jump out, pull cord.”

         Alright already.

Vicki makes us practice jumping out of the helicopter, but I think she’s really checking to see if Billy Berg can fit through the passenger-side exit.

“I can’t swim,” says Billy Berg as he heaves his way through the opening. He lands delicately on his Gucci-loafered feet. “Maybe I should call my wife before we leave. If this chopper goes down and I’m found dead, washed up next to a blond piano player, she’ll think I was up to no good. Are we anywhere near the Bermuda Triangle?”

“Let’s go!” says the pilot. “Wind is pickin’ up.” Vicki straps us in, and up, up, and away we go—the fat man, the piano player, and the emergency rescue pilot in the orange suit. As soon as we’re up in the air, I relax. The flight is smooth and graceful—beautiful, even. Billy Berg white-knuckles the strap hanging down from the roof. He yells at me from the front passenger seat, but with all the helicopter racket, I can’t hear a thing.

helicopter

 ***

Cat Cay is fifty nautical miles from Miami. The island has a spacious marina and hosts some of the largest yachts in the U.S. Registry. Membership on the island is determined by a board of directors that meets six times a year. Once an individual is “selected” for membership, he must pay a $25,000 initiation fee along with a $10,000 annual membership payment. Splendidly appointed rental housing is available only for members and sponsored guests. That’s what I am, a sponsored guest. Or maybe I’m hired help. Either way, I’m an outsider.

There are no automobiles permitted on Cat Cay, and most of the guests transport themselves in golf carts. There aren’t very many places to go: the Cone Bar for drinks, the Victoria Restaurant for more drinks, and then, if you’re feeling like a drink, the Nauticat Restaurant and Lounge, Bu’s Bar, or the Haigh House Bar for a nightcap. Most of the members of the Cat Cay Club are WASP-y Republican high-society types, the owners of big homes, big businesses, and big bar tabs.

We’ve been hired to keep the president’s guests entertained for two weeks. I play cocktail piano whenever there’s a piano handy—on yachts, in the restaurant, in the bars, at private homes. We’re scheduled to perform one big theatrical cabaret show at a sit-down dinner for seventy guests later in the week and do a couple of numbers with the Lester Lanin Orchestra out of New York at a big hula-dula dinner dance at the end of the two weeks. For the rest of our stay on the island, we’re expected to show up everywhere and be entertaining.

These people are lovely, really they are. Considering we’re a ragtag bunch of struggling-artist Democrats with several homosexuals in our ranks, I think we fit in quite nicely. But I can’t shake the feeling that we’re here as token bohemians—gypsies paid to titillate imaginations without threatening notions of the way things should be. Our group doesn’t drink nearly as much as they do, but we follow the dress code and show up—with cautious enthusiasm and carefully coordinated resort wear—to every gin-and-tonic pool party, champagne brunch, and Bloody Mary breakfast our hosts offer. We tell amusing anecdotes, conduct sing-alongs, and allow the rich right-wing titans of industry to think they’re being given a privileged peek into our flamboyant artistic lives. It’s hard work.

To blow off steam, we go out and race around in the golf carts.

Dave and I, tired of driving from bar to bar to pool to bar, go exploring. Dave is Don Brockett’s assistant, a handsome young man with a hearty sense of adventure and a great wardrobe. We commandeer a golf cart and drive past Windsor Downs, the pristine golf course; the tennis courts; and the Olympic-sized swimming pool. We come to a long path lined on both sides with purple hibiscus, drive past a couple of sheds that hide the garbage bins from the delicate eyes of the island members, onto a dirt trail, through thick jungle vegetation, and into a clearing.

“Vultures!!! Holy shit, Dave. We need to get out of here, fast. Those birds look like vultures.”

vulture

“Oh, my God,” says Dave. “ I thought vultures only lived in Africa. There must be a thousand of them.” Actually there are about fifty, but that’s still a lot of vultures.

In his hurry to get away from the menacing flock of birds, Dave mistakes the golf cart reverse gear for forward. We lurch up onto a big boulder and hover over the ground, our wheels spinning as the vultures begin to surround the golf cart. We look like Fred and Wilma Flintstone, out for a drive in Death Valley.

“This is excellent, Dave,” I say, trying not to panic. “We’re going to be pecked to bits by vultures. This is supposed to be a luxury island. We’re here for two weeks, and now look at us. Stranded on a rock with giant birds of death threatening to eat our eyeballs. Nice work.”

“I didn’t do it on purpose. You try driving this thing. It’s bad enough that I have to drive on the left. These damn foreigners. Why can’t they drive on the right like everyone else?”

“Dave, we’re on a path in the woods. Not a four-lane highway. And we’re down here with a bunch of Americans, for God’s sake.”

“Okay. Sor-ry. Maybe we should call for help.”

“Are you kidding? We’re on the ass end of the island and it’s cocktail hour. No one will hear us. I think I’m scheduled to play for dinner tonight. But they’ll be so squished by then, they’ll never notice I’m missing.”

”Here’s the way I see it,” says Dave as he smooths out the wrinkles in his white linen pants. Dave can be very analytical when necessary. I’m surprised he doesn’t take out a notebook and start making lists of pros and cons. “We can sit here and rot and wait for an inebriated CEO to find our bones, or we can get out of the cart, get it down off this boulder, and try to drive it back to Bu’s Bar.”

“I’m not getting out of this cart, Dave.” The vultures stare, just waiting for one of us to make a move.

“Think this through, Robin. Vultures don’t eat live people, just dead ones. We’re still alive. They won’t be interested in us. Plus I heard the club is serving grouper for dinner tonight. And key lime pie. And if we don’t get back soon, we’ll miss it.”

That convinces me. I jump down out of the cart.

“Shoo, shoo, shoo!!!” I say. The vultures just stand there like lawn ornaments in a George Romero zombie film.

“Shoo, shoo, shoo!!!” I say again. The birds cock their heads, unimpressed by my flailing arms. Dave shoves the cart off the rock. We zip out of there, race into Bu’s Bar, and tell the bleary-eyed crowd about the vultures.

“You never know what you’ll run into if you stray too far from the golf course,” says the president of the island association. His speech is slurred and he’s wearing bright yellow pants with little lizards embroidered on them. He winks at me. “The world can be a dangerous place. How about a little drinky-poo?”

“Ahhh,” whispers the Bahamian barman. “I see you meet our island turkeys. Dey live back there. Wild turkeys. Dey could fly away, but dey too dumb.”

***

Martini1

The golf cart gets us into lots of trouble. Our third night on the island we’re scheduled to attend a cocktail party at the president’s house. Dave and I drive the cart over to Don and Leslie’s beachfront apartment. The cart is designed for six passengers, but we can squeeze seven onboard. Don, wearing a snappy pair of Nantucket-red pants and a sailor-cloth shirt that laces up the front, lumbers out to the cart with Leslie, who is dressed in a batik-print caftan. Barb Russell, David Pressau, and Danny Herman run across the manicured lawn and jump onto the rear-facing back seat. We’re ready to go. Dave, once again intending to drive backward, shifts the cart into forward, hits the gas, and knocks Barb, David, and Danny onto the gravel driveway.

“Jesus Christ, Dave,” says Don, growling. “You don’t know how to drive this thing. This is a car for big babies in diaper-pants—how could you screw it up? Let me drive, for God’s sake.”

We change places, with Don grumbling and David and Danny brushing away the dirt from their evening clothes.

“I’ll be right back,” says Barb. “I gotta get a Band-Aid.”

“We’ll be late for the president’s cocktails,” says Don.

“Fuck the president, my knee is bleeding,” says Barb.

“You know, we finally get a job where they don’t make us come in the back door, and we’re late,” says Don.

“Yeah, well, being treated like a guest is hard work,” says Danny. “Can’t we just eat sandwiches in the employee cafeteria or something?”

“The employee cafeteria is on Bimini.” says Don.

Barb hobbles back to the cart.

“Okay, Don, are you straight on this forward and reverse shit?” she asks.

“Nothing to worry about, Milady. I’m at the helm,” says Don. We pull out of the parking bay and drive 200 yards to the president’s house.

It’s a beautiful home, right on the beach, surrounded by palm trees, exotic bushes, and peachy flowers that complement the dusky Bahamian sky. Our hostess, the First Lady of Cat Cay, stands in front of the garage door awaiting our arrival. She’s wearing a lemon-yellow Bill Blass sleeveless evening gown, and she looks stunning.

“Don, Leslie, kids!” she says, doing the queen’s wave with one hand and balancing a highball glass with the other. “How delightful that you’re here!”

“Okay, kids, everybody wave and smile!” Don whispers. “Leslie, get a picture of the First Lady.”

“Hiiiiiiiii!” we all say, in unison as Don pulls up to the garage door.

“Don’t park here. Park out by the charger,” says the First Lady. “That way you can tank up your cart while you’re at the party!”

“No problem,” says Don. “Hey, love that dress! Is that a Bill Bla—”

He throws the cart into gear and hits the gas pedal, but instead of reversing, we lunge forward, pinning our hostess to the garage door and throwing David, Danny, and Barb back onto the driveway.

Barb, who is picking gravel out of her knees for the second time in ten minutes, says, “Now might be an excellent time to get that picture of the First Lady, Leslie.”

I uncover my eyes, and there is our gracious hostess, stuck between the cart and the garage door. Amazingly, she’s not injured, but she’s trapped, with the headlights of the car pressing into her Blass-clad thighs. She has a smile frozen on her face and her hand remains in a waving position.

“Maybe somebody should go get the president,” says Don. “We need to unpin his wife.”

The First Lady, regaining control of the situation, sips her drink. “Don’t worry,” she says. “This happens all the time.”

“What drug is she takin’?” says Barb. “I want some.”

“Maybe I should just move the golf cart,” says Don.

“NOOOO!” we scream in unison. “Get her out of there first.”

The president rounds the corner. “Don, Leslie, kids! So nice to see you!!! Hey everybody, the kids are here! Now what’s this I hear about you pinning my wife to the garage door? Heh, heh, heh . . .”

“Hello dear,” says the First Lady with a girlish laugh. “Just a little, uh, problem with the gearshift thingy. Perhaps you could get me unstuck so I can serve the cheese ball.” A crowd gathers in the driveway.

“Anyone got a Band-Aid?” says Barb. Everyone laughs.

“What I need is a drink,” I say.

“No problem!” say three men at once as they run off to fetch a vodka and soda.

The president, Dave, and Danny push the golf cart back and free the First Lady.

“My goodness, that was exciting!” she says as she limps over to the terrace.

“Are you okay?” Leslie asks.

“Oh, I am fine, fine, fine. But I could use another drink.”

“What’s she drinkin’?” says Barb. “Get me one.”

“I’ll just park the golf cart,” says Don.

         Silence.

We all turn around to watch. Barb dives into the bushes.

Don, looking back over his shoulder, shifts the car into forward and drives through the garage door, putting a large hole in the white wooden paneling.

Everyone laughs. They think we’ve staged the whole thing.

“You kids are just a riot!” says the president.

I meet and greet and go to the living room, take a slug of my vodka, and begin playing the white piano.

***

Martini2

Doctor Love and the Bahama Cats, a Bahamian band from Bimini, has been shipped over to play with Dave and me as we welcome weekend guests who are just arriving in their yachts and seaplanes. We do one number together, “All Day All Night Maryanne” in the key of F, with the following lyrics:

 

         Welcome, welcome, to Cat Cay!

         President’s weekend’s gonna be,

         Time of great frivolity,

         Thanks to the Pres and the First Lady.

         Golfin’, swimmin’, fishin’ too

         Whatever is your whim,

         Maybe if the sun’s too hot,

         You’ll take a little swim,

         Drink a Cat Cay cocktail or

         Whatever is your choice,

         It’s president’s weekend party now,

         Come join us with your voice,

         Everybody now!

         Welcome, welcome to Cat Cay!

 

Dave and I have rehearsed this song with Doctor Love and the Bahama Cats. Last night, for two hours, we fiddled with the arrangement and sang it through with the band about fifty times. Now we’re in position on our little stage next to the immigration desk. The first plane arrives, and Don gives me the cue to start.

“Okay, guys, let’s go!” I say. I count off the tune.

“Hey lady, what we playing?” says Doctor Love.

Doctor Love and the Bahama Cats are stoned out of their minds.

“‘Maryanne’ in F,” I say.

“Who’s Maryanne?”

“The song! ‘All Day All Night Maryanne!’”

“Oh, yeah, we know dat.”

“So could we play it? Now? Please, Doctor Love.”

The first pink-and-green-clad ladies are ushered past us. A waiter hands each of them a cocktail and they stand there, in the blazing sun, with expectant smiles on their smooth faces, waiting for us to do something.

I count off again.

         You know, says Voice of Doom. There is nothing worse than snapping your fingers and saying one, two, one, two, three, four, and having a band just stare at you. Look at them! They have NO CLUE what they’re supposed to play. What kind of a musical director do you think you are?

“What kind of intro you want, lady?”

“The one we rehearsed last night would be nice,” I say. “Never mind, just play the song. In F.”

“Sounds better in G.”

“FINE. Just play it.”

Doctor Love takes a big swig from his rum-filled Coke can and plays. The Cats play along. Dave and I, dressed in flowered shirts and silly straw hats, do our little song-and-dance routine, and everyone starts to feel the Island Spirit.

“So why do they call you Doctor Love?” I ask as we sit relaxing after our afternoon gig.

“Why you tink?” says Doctor Love.

“Because you’re, uh, romantic?” I really sound like a twit sometimes.

“Oh, dat is true,” he says. “But I am also de fahder of twenny-two children, each one wid a diff’rent woman.”

I manage to resist Doctor Love’s charms in spite of his good looks and gleaming, gold-toothed smile. His band performs on Cat Cay several times during the week. Doctor Love and the Cats make a living playing for rich white folks who want a touch of island flavor added to their parties. They’re quite good—when they lay off the weed for a couple of hours.

 ***

fox trot

We’re invited to a big pool party. There are flowers and candles floating in the water, torches on the beach, and huge tables of food that everyone—except for us—pretty much ignores. At the far end of the pool is a large animal roasting on a spit. Dave and Danny and I balance oversized plates on our laps as we perch on the diving board with our feet dangling over the candlelit water.

“Long way from Pittsburgh,” says Danny.

“Yeah,” I say. “A long way from anywhere.”

“Anywhere real,” says Dave, licking his fingers.

“I saw one of those pig-on-a-spit things in Pittsburgh one time,” says Danny. “At a Tamburitzan festival at the Civic Arena. I think they cook stuff like that in Poland or Yugoslavia or one of those countries.”

“I think this one here is a goat.”

“Goat, pig, doesn’t matter. You cook something on a spit and dump enough sauce on it, it all tastes the same.”

“Look at Don and Leslie.” They’re holding hands and walking down to the beach. Making an escape from the party, no doubt. There is a full moon low in the sky behind them.

We’re quiet for a moment.

“I wonder how long it will be before someone falls in the pool.” I look around at the men in their jewel-colored dinner jackets and the women in their designer evening wear. They foxtrot around the edges of the water while Doctor Love and the Bahama Cats serenade them.

“Oh, my God,” says Dave. “Listen.”

“What?” I say. “That’s the same song these guys have been playing all week.”

“No.” says Dave. “Listen to the words.”

Doctor Love’s song is called “Sell That Pussy.” And that’s the tame part of the lyric. It’s probably the raunchiest tune I’ve ever heard. But it’s catchy.

“Hi, kids!” says the First Lady as she cavorts past the diving board. “Isn’t island life just fabulous?”

All I can hear is Doctor Love singing sell that pussy, sell that pussy, sell that pussy.

“Fab-u-lous!” yell Dave and Danny in unison. They get up, stretch, and mambo back to the buffet.

The invited guests don’t notice the lyric to the song. Or if they do, they ignore it. They frolic around the pool, a cotillion of madras jackets and Lily Pulitzer prints, swirling and swaying under the starlit sky as if they’re the lucky ones. The band is on one side of me, the guests on the other. I’m perched on a diving board over the deep end of an azure pool, not quite sure where I belong. The song ends. I look over at the band. Doctor Love nods, smiles, and toasts me with his Coke can.

sunset

***

Excerpt from Piano Girl: A Memoir [Backbeat Books]

Used by permission

©2005 Robin Meloy Goldsby, All Rights Reserved

Love Note to a German Castle: Farewell Schloss Lerbach

It’s New Year’s Eve, 2014. I’m playing the piano at Schloss Lerbach—the same procedure as every year. I’ve been performing here for almost fourteen years. Tonight will be the last time—the castle, in its current incarnation as a hotel, will close after this evening’s celebration. Three weeks ago, just fourteen days before Christmas, eighty hotel workers, myself included, lost their jobs. But there’s a party going on here right now. Our guests—titans of industry, beautiful people with nothing to prove, lovers, families, and boisterous  buffoons gather in the main hall. Parts of Lerbach are almost 800 years old. Some of the guests seem equally ancient. Tonight looks like the German version of Downton Abbey, with an unusually high percentage of women playing the Maggie Smith role. Draped in mink and satin and sequins and silk, they glide from one end of the hall to the other, clinking glasses, sipping champagne, and nibbling on mysterious gourmet tidbits. The black and white granite floor serves as a five-star chessboard for their social strategies. My colleagues, professional and gracious right to the end, coast along with them. There’s a silent pact among us—it might be the end of an era, but we’re going out with style.

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In front of Schloss Lerbach. Photo by My-Linh Kunst

 

I observe my young co-workers from my seat at the grand piano as they smile and nod and make nice-nice with guests they have known for years. It’s difficult to see the evening unfold without wondering why in the world such a beautiful place is closing.

“A little quail and tomato mousse, Frau Falswick-Weiss?” says a tuxedo-clad server to a stout woman wearing emerald green velvet.

“Why not?” she says as she pops a ruby-red square into her ruby-red mouth. “One last time.”

The owners of the castle and the current hotel management company could not come to terms on a lease renewal. That’s the diplomatic version of why we’re forced to close. My version? The negotiations were a big game of “chicken” and everyone lost. But what do I know? I’m a pianist, not Donald Trump, although I did work for him at one point.

Even the food seems to sparkle tonight. Shimmering dresses, jewelry, crystal, and candlelight twinkle in the golden glow of the Murano glass chandeliers. At the same time, a haze descends over the lobby. Has the Ghost of Lerbach  returned to remind us that the end is near? No, it’s just the midnight dance band —Upper Class, featuring Go-Go!—warming up the smoke machine.

In a few hours we’ll say goodbye. It’s just a gig I tell myself over and over and over again. Nothing more, nothing less. But still, I will miss these fine people, this noble place, this plush cushion of elegance that has softened my middle-aged landing in a foreign country. I slip into my next song, a piece I wrote called “December,” and try not to look back.

I’m not sure when I fell in love with Lerbach. It started as an infatuation—an impulse decision to go back to work after swearing off hotel piano gigs forever. I had played for fifteen years in Manhattan “luxury” hotels. After a decade and a half of performing background music for demanding tourists in big white sneakers, slightly-sleazy conventioneers and their margarita-slurping buddies, the rich, the homeless, the hookers, the haunted, the up-and-coming, the down and out—I was tired. I was tired of breakfast buffets on top of the piano, F&B managers who didn’t know the difference between a can of lard and a Steinway, and the way life seemed to be passing me by, one chorus of “Misty” at a time. I tried to get lost in the music during those years. Instead I just got lost. I moved to Germany with my husband. Clean start, full heart. I had babies. I had the  privilege of staying home for five years to take care of them. I played the piano for myself and never once thought about returning to hotel piano work.

One fateful night my bassist husband, John, played a jazz trio concert at Schloss Lerbach. I walked into the main hall of the castle, saw the grand piano sitting there, took one look at the guests, the fireplace, the winding staircase, and the shaft of light slanting through the tall windows, and I was smitten. “Well. Maybe I could play here,” I said to John. He introduced me to the director, and a year later—poof—I landed the job. Seems like yesterday or a million years ago; I can’t decide.

Image

My Colleagues

Right from the start Lerbach proved itself different from any gig I’ve ever had. If you play a solo piano job in a hotel, you have a lot of time to observe what makes the place tick (or, in many cases, tock). After a few years of playing every weekend at Lerbach, I figured out its secret. Respect. In such a small house, we all knew each other, worked together, and treasured our various contributions. Piano music created a warm and welcoming atmosphere in the main hall. I knew it; so did everyone else. The director of the hotel was in the lobby with me every night. He heard me play; he saw me work. I wasn’t just another expense on his balance sheet; I was part of his team, making an artistic statement that attracted customers. Because I had the respect of my peers I began to trust myself more and doubt myself less.

Little by little I got sucked in—the place became a second home to me. Working in a five-star hotel means mastering the art of smoke and mirror magic; creating elegance out of thin air and candlelight, enchanting guests with food too pretty to eat, wine they’ll never forget, and music that helps them remember. My colleagues and I have held hands and laughed and cried together. Even though many of my friends left the hotel long ago, I swear I sense their champagne-sipping spirits in the lobby tonight. They are all here with me as I play my last songs. This comforts me.

I sit at the piano tonight and  faces from the past fourteen years flash through my mind—a  Ken Burns slideshow of my extended castle-family. I will never forget our elegant Maître, Monsieur Thomann, pushing the stinky French-cheese wagon through the lobby every evening at 8:15—the only man I know who looks good in a pink suit; Rawi, the Sri Lankan valet, arranging flowers on my piano every weekend, using leftover petals from the arrangements of departing brides; lovely Andrea, raising the bar for graciousness and good humor during her many years at the castle; Sabine, the Front Desk Manager, asking me to name one of the black Ninja swans swimming on the little lake; Dieter Müller, world-renowned chef, taking time during the busy weekend dinner service to cook for dogs waiting for their owners behind the front desk; three sommeliers—the flashiest guys in the hotel industry—Silvio Nitzsche, Thomas Sommer, and Peter Müller—teaching me that every good Riesling, just like every good song, should tell a story; Benedikt Jaschke, now at the Adlon, who worked with me to initiate both a children’s Christmas program and a concert series—turning the castle into a cultural sanctuary for the residents of Bergisch Gladbach; Christian Siegling, Christina Esser, Thomas Tritschler, Nils Henkel—the housekeepers, the service staff, the banquet team, the kitchen guys and gals, the many apprentices who have been trained at the castle over the years—I raise a glass to all of you.

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With former Lerbach Director Christian Siegling and Michelin Star Chef, Nils Henkel.

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With Andrea (Goetze) Aldrup

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With Sommelier Thomas Sommer and his wife, Marcia.

The Guests

We’ve greeted international guests and local guests—couples from around the block and couples from Oslo and Israel and Russia and Spain. Wandering gourmets, galloping gourmands, and staggering oenophiles. Fashionistas and fops, foolhardy fellows on the fast track to fame; intellectuals and artists, poets and painters, interpretive dancers and Brazilian football stars—celebrities of all sorts, including  has-beens and wannabees, have drifted through the Lerbach lobby like glamorous dust particles suspended in moonlight. Tonight is no exception.

I’ve adored all of them, even the half-blind Lamborghini-driving wine enthusiast who used to make me play “Fly Me to the Moon” while he sat at the piano and wept. I marveled at the white-haired Professor who routinely checked two women into the hotel at the same time (three separate rooms) and kept them a secret from each other, turning the hotel into a Moliere-inspired, door-slamming French farce. I felt a particular fondness for Frau V., a woman in her eighties whose husband had been dead for twenty years. She arrived at the castle every Christmas and carried a silver-framed photo of him that she would place on my piano so he could be part of the celebration. Frau V., bejeweled, beloved, and bewildered, had a beehive hair-do so high that one of my colleagues thought her husband might still be alive and hiding there. I admired the Arabian princess who stayed with us for months and presented me with a chunk of gold the size of my thumb when she left. She still sends me a Christmas card every year.

I’ve written many stories over the years about Lerbach in my Piano Girl books—favorites include the tale of Herr Klingball, the ninety-year old who wanted to hear nothing but the Titanic theme; the diva bride who replaced my picture on the cover of my CD with a photo of herself, and then distributed the CD to eighty of her closest friends; Uncle Wilhelm and his two-hour speech; the relentless Wheelchair Guy and the piano crash that almost took off my leg; the rape of the Indian Runner Duck on the Lerbach pond; the Valentine’s Day visit from one of Germany’s most infamous porn stars. There are many more stories to write. I’ll get to them someday.

Leifhelm-SHL-Chef-s-Table-2013-054

The Piano

It kills me to say goodbye to this piano—over the course of a decade and a half, a woman can really get attached to her instrument. I’m on the Steinway Artist Roster, but, sadly, very few hotels can afford a Steinway. Yamaha, with a sales force that rivals the Green Bay Packers offensive line, has infiltrated almost every hotel I’ve worked in over the years. Generally, they are solid pianos. My Lerbach Yamaha C5 is a winner. It sits next to an open fireplace, unfazed by heat and blasts of cold air coming from three different directions. It is shoved and jostled on a regular basis when moved from the main hall into our banquet and concert room. In an episode I call the “Barenboim Bounce,” the poor Yamaha was dropped on the staircase when eleven kitchen workers attempted to carry it upstairs and into a suite for the Maestro, the day before he arrived at the castle. The Maestro’s manager wanted nothing to do with the Yamaha and had a Steinway delivered to his suite. Back down came the Yamaha. The piano, I am told, only bounced once, but still. Battle scars in the hotel business are common place—we all have them. Aside from a chunk of wood missing from the casing (artfully disguised with a few deft strokes of black magic marker), the piano survived the bounce, just like the rest of us. The carpet on the staircase did not fare as well.

Over the past four years I’ve served as Artistic Director of the Lerbach “Concerts in the Castle” series. Powerful musicians, including Benyamin Nuss, Martin Sasse, Gerald Clayton, Hubert Nuss, Thomas Weber, Barbara Nussbaum, Thomas Rückert, Michael Sorg, and Michael Abene have played this workhorse piano. Still, I think of it as mine. And it’s not. I’ve played well over 2000 jobs here, but the piano doesn’t belong to me. I have kept it tuned and pimped and well turned out. When tonight is over, I’ll probably never see it or play it again.  As hard as I’m trying to remain stoic, my eyes well up when I think about leaving it behind. My fingerprints are on this piano.

It’s just a piano. It’s just a gig. Right.

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The piano in the main hall of Schloss Lerbach. Photo by My-Linh Kunst.

 

Close to Midnight

“You’ll lose every gig you ever have,” my father said to me in 1976, when I began my career as a hotel pianist. “Don’t take it personally.” Ultimately, he was right. Over the years I have been replaced by the F&B director’s girlfriend, a table for two, and, after seven years of playing at the Marriott Marquis, by a player-piano and a mannequin that looked like a crash-test dummy in a tuxedo (I’m still not over that one). Call me paranoid, but I have never felt any amount of job security on any gig I’ve had. I take some comfort in knowing I wasn’t fired or replaced at Lerbach—I closed the joint. I’m going down with the ship, just like one of those Titanic musicians. Good thing I know the song. My heart will go on, and all that.

I look around the room on this festive night. The fake glee and forced fun wears me down. I am fifty-seven years old. Part of me thinks that this could be my swan song, as far as the hotel Piano Girl thing goes. I play concerts, compose music, make recordings, and write books. Maybe that’s enough. I claim my fourteen years at Lerbach as a victory—it’s almost unheard of to have a freelance piano engagement last so long. Part of me wants to jump up and yell “Hallelujah!” Part of me is determined to find another job that will be just as good, or better. Part of me wants to take a nap—saying goodbye can be exhausting, especially when you’re trying not to cry. Part of me wants to collect all these different parts of me and glue them back together in a new and unusual way. Piano Girl Jigsaw. That could be fun.

At 11:15 I play my last song, “Somewhere in Time,” which, according to my journal, happens to be the very first song I played at this hotel way back in 2001. I am secretly hoping for dozens of white roses, a standing ovation, a gold medal, or a purple heart, but no one presents me with anything. I hear chatter and clinking glasses. In a way, it’s exactly like my first job here. I’ve come full circle. As I’ve learned over the course of my career—first gigs and last gigs don’t matter much. It’s what happens in between that counts.

I close the fallboard over the keys of the instrument and place my hands on the polished ebony, almost overwhelmed by a feeling of gratitude—to the piano, my colleagues, our guests, and the bizarre magic we’ve made together. Look! Just look at what we’ve created! It took me a long time to find the beauty in my music, but this place—in all its whacky wonder—encouraged me to do just that. A funny thing happens when you finally find beauty in yourself—all of the sudden you see it all around you, wherever you go. It’s here tonight, for sure, and I’m carrying it with me when I walk out the castle door.

Two weeks ago, when I told my eighteen-year old daughter Lerbach was closing, she burst into tears. “They can’t close,” she said. “I grew up there.”

“Me, too,” I said.

Upper Class—featuring Go-Go!—takes over. The smoke machine cranks up; the guests start doing the rich-person lizard dance. My husband is waiting outside for me in the circular driveway, engine revved, anxious to whisk me away before the midnight fireworks start.

I grab a permanent marker and sign the inside of the piano. Robin Meloy Goldsby, I write. 2001-2015. Maybe someone, even if it’s just the Ghost of Lerbach, will remember the music.

I touch the piano one last time, put on my coat, open the door, and walk to the car.

It’s just a gig. It’s just a gig. It’s just a gig.

As we drive through the park, I look out the window to get one last glance at Schloss Lerbach. A thick veil of fog has dropped over the castle, and I can’t see a thing. It doesn’t matter. I’ll always remember what’s there.

Lerbacher Winter

 

 ***

Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl: A Memoir; Rhythm: A Novel; and Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl. Four of her piano albums—Songs from the Castle, Waltz of the Asparagus People, Magnolia, and December—were inspired by her adventures at Schloss Lerbach.

Robin will begin playing at another five star hotel beginning this summer. Stay tuned for details. Sign up here for my  newsletter, featuring a new essay every month, concert appearances, and all-things Goldsby.

Stopping Traffic: Valentines’ Day at Schloss Lerbach

 

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It’s Valentine’s Day, another one of those holidays made popular by greeting-card companies. I’m driving to my lunchtime piano job at Schlosshotel Lerbach and thinking about Hallmark Cards. My sister, Randy, has a bad reaction to any Hallmark store. There’s something about the smell of the paper that causes her to have intestinal cramps. She’ll pick out a card, and before she even pays for it, she’ll have to race to the nearest ladies’ room, not always an easy jaunt in an American mega-mall. I have a similar reaction to the smell of auto-supply stores, but I think that’s fairly common among women.

For me, Valentine’s Day conjures elementary-school memories of shoe boxes decorated with tinfoil, pastel-colored ribbons, and paper doilies; lacy cards with dopey-looking angels and chubby cupids; and suspicious sentiments printed on dime-sized pieces of heart-shaped candy. Be mine. Love you. You’re sweet. Forever yours.

I’ve always worked on Valentine’s Day, just like I’ve always worked on Mother’s Day, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and just about every other major secular and religious holiday. I don’t complain. I show up and play the piano, happy to have the work, even happier that I don’t have to sit around at home waiting for presents and cards bought at stores that cause lower-tract distress.

Today I’ve dug my red gown out of the back of my closet and squeezed myself into it. I’m grateful it still fits. I don’t usually wear red, and I usually don’t wear full-length gowns at lunchtime, but if there’s a holiday that calls for excess, it’s this one. I’ve been told the brasserie at the castle is fully booked.

As usual I’ve left the house with just enough time to get to Lerbach. I can make it from my front door to the piano bench in exactly twenty-six minutes, as long as there are no traffic disruptions. I’m listening to Lang Lang play a Chopin nocturne on a Valentine’s Day radio program called Classics for Lovers. I’ve turned on my GPS system to see what Kate has to say about the route I’ve been driving for the past eight years. Maybe she knows a shortcut.

Traffic disruption ahead! Caution. Traffic disruption ahead! Kate sounds a little out of sorts. Her boyfriend probably gave her a Dust Buster as a Valentine’s Day gift. And what kind of traffic disruption could there be? I’m on a two-lane highway that winds through a nature reserve. I’ve run into parades and flea markets in some of the villages, but here?

Traffic disruption! says Kate. I’m about to turn her off when I round the bend and see two riderless horses coming toward me. Side by side, they amble right down the center of the road. A dozen cars creep along behind the horses, waiting for a chance to pass.

There’s something sad about the horses. They’re wearing saddles and they seem confused or lost. But I don’t know, maybe they’re happy. With horses it’s so hard to tell. Maybe they’re thinking, Let’s make a run for it—it’s our only chance! Why isn’t anyone doing anything? Surely someone will help. A man in the car behind the horses honks his horn, which seems like a bad idea. The horses look frightened.

Searching for an alternate route, says Kate. But it’s too late to turn around.

I pull to the side of the road. With Lang Lang still emoting from the radio, I get out of the car. My gown has one of those extra-long skirts with a small train attached to it. It looks good at the piano, but it’s a pain to walk in, especially on asphalt. The shoes aren’t helping. I make that kiss-kiss noise that works on most animals, and the horses allow me to approach them.

From the car they appeared manageable, but up close they’re huge. They’re chestnut brown with white faces, pointed ears, and twitching hooves. They check me out and do not look pleased. Unlike my daughter, I don’t have the best track record with large animals. Maybe they don’t like my gown. I wonder if horses react to red the way bulls do.

Kiss-kiss. Now what? Reins. Think reins. I let go of my skirt and grab the reins of each horse.

Kiss-kiss.

Shit. The horses turn sideways and block both lanes of traffic. The first horse is starting to back up into the other horse, whose nostrils are doing that thing that makes him look like the problem animal in The Horse Whisperer. The honking man hits the horn again. I try to channel Robert Redford.

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“Okay, boys,” I say to the horses. “Help me out here.” Kiss-kiss.

It works. They calm down. I tug on the reins and lead the horses toward the side of the road. One of them steps on the tail of my skirt. I’m wearing red velvet backless shoes, and I lose one of them when I stumble. I can’t reach down to pick it up without letting go of the reins, so I keep going, one shoe off, one shoe on, kiss-kissing my way to the curb.

Good. We’ve reached the side of the road. But I need a plan. I look down at the hoof print on my red gown. I look up at horsey nostrils. I look over my shoulder as the traffic begins to creep by. Dozens of drivers gawk at me as if this entire incident is my fault. I’m shocked that no one offers to help me. Where’s that Valentine’s Day spirit?

One of the horses chooses this moment to tinkle. I kick my skirt to the side to make sure it’s out of harm’s way. I decide to let him finish his business before we make our next move.

Wow. That’s a lot of tinkle.

Honk-honk. Some people are shaking their heads in disgust, while others are waving and laughing as they drive by.

This is one way to get an audience.

My shoe is in the middle of the road, and two cars in a row drive over it.

“Nice horsies,” I say. There’s a narrow grassy ridge by the curb and a bike path on the other side of it. If I can get the horses onto the bike path, they’ll at least be away from the automobile traffic.

Kiss-kiss. I slide out of my other shoe—if there’s anything worse than walking in high heels, it’s walking in one high heel—and we climb over the little hill that’s between us and the bike path.

“Come on, boys, you can do it,” I say. They get ahead of me and pull me over the ridge with them. At last we’re on the bike path. I look back at the highway, where my Mazda sits with the door open. The radio is blasting away—Lang Lang is now playing a Rachmaninoff piano concerto. Note to self: Rachmaninoff is way too frantic for Valentine’s Day. The other vehicles scoot around my car. My poor shoe. In Germany we have insurance for just about everything. I wonder if I’ll be able to file a claim for one shoe.

Should I just release the horses on the bike path and hope for the best? I wonder what time it is. I will surely be late for work. Now what? I’m standing barefoot on a bike path in a red evening gown at high noon with two very large horses looking at me as if I have all the answers. I’ll bet even Hallmark doesn’t have a card for this.

The lyrics to “Beast of Burden” run through my mind. I spot a pole about 100 meters down the bike path. It might be good enough for a hitching post.

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“Okay, fellows, let’s go.” They trust me. Off we plod toward the pole. Once we get there I throw the reins over the wooden post, which is chest height and painted black and white.

Stay,” I say. I’m aware that neither of these animals understands English, but I’m certain if I switch to German the confidence will seep out of my voice and the horses, sensing my panic, will take off at a gallop and drag me back into the middle of the road. I pat them on their very soft noses and wish them luck. Then I head back up the bike path toward my car. I’m shocked to notice how cold it is. Freezing, in fact.

I pick up the shoe I had kicked off by the side of the road and watch as the cars, one by one, continue to run over the other shoe, which lies squashed—Piano Girl roadkill—in the middle of the highway. Finally there’s a lull in the traffic, so I look both ways, grab my flattened shoe, and jump back into my car. My feet are numb and I can hardly feel the gas and brake pedals.

Drive straight ahead, says Kate. The traffic obstruction has been eliminated.

I’ll say. I turn off Lang Lang, turn off Kate, crank the heater, and drive up the road to the spot where I’ve tied up the horses. I roll down the window and go kiss-kiss. The horses are together; they’ll be fine. They look, I don’t know, settled. The car behind me honks. As I pull away, I spot two puzzled-looking young women in riding clothes emerging from the forest, holding hands and racing toward the animals.

Luckily I have my spare gold dress-up sandals in the back of the car, so I won’t have to play for a three-course champagne lunch barefoot, not that anyone would care. My coworkers are so busy they don’t even notice I’m late, nor do they see the hoof print on my evening gown. I start, of course, with “My Funny Valentine,” even though most of my audience won’t recognize the song. But what can I do? It’s a seasonal piece and it’s now or never.

“You okay, Robin?” asks Herr Schröder, the manager. “You look a little stressed.”

“Horse,” I say.

“Herr Schröder!” says a waiter. “The Northcott-Sampson party has just arrived.”

“Did you say horse?” he asks me.

“Horses, actually. Two of them.”

“Hold on a second,” he says, and rushes off to greet the Northcott-Sampsons.

I swivel around on my piano bench to face the restaurant crowd and see lots of middle-aged couples—women with cotton-candy hair drinking rosé champagne, accompanied by men with thinning hair who are also drinking rosé champagne but would rather be drinking beer. Several senior couples top off the crowd, including Frau and Herr Severins, who are in their eighties and manage to show up at the castle once a month. For them, each day really is Valentine’s Day. They’ve coordinated their outfits to suit the occasion. She is wearing a red silky dress. He has on a red tie.

I’ve almost forgotten about the horses. We’re coasting along at a relaxed champagne-lunch tempo when the manager tells me that Buttercup Blondeau, a well-known porn queen, will be joining us at any moment.

“For lunch?” I say.

“What else?” says Herr Schröder.

Buttercup (possibly not her real name) is one of those porn stars on the radar of most mainstream German citizens. A crossover artist in the truest sense, she has broken away from pure porn and appears regularly as a hostess on a popular television program about love, love, love. She shows up in tabloids, society magazines, at fancy parties, and political events. She’s a porn-industry success story—a cultural icon.

On Valentine’s Day? She’s coming here on Valentine’s Day?” I ask. I know there’s something’s wrong with this, but I can’t figure out what.

I’m playing “All the Things You Are.”

“She’s coming with a date,” says Herr Schröder. “She’s in love. What, just because she’s a porn star she’s not allowed to be in love? Au contraire. Look! He arranged to have a rose waiting for her on the table. Let me tell you, he’s one lucky guy!” I glance at the one empty table in the restaurant.

“Here she is now,” says Herr Schröder.

Well. Buttercup Blondeau, ready for her close-up, poses in the restaurant’s entrance like she’s waiting for the waiters to carry her to her table. If she stands there a second longer, I’m sure they’ll comply. Ms. Blondeau, who has the most extreme body imaginable—water-balloon breasts and a waist the circumference of a coffee cup—has been decanted into a black cashmere minidress. It’s a good dress, an expensive dress, but there’s no hiding the real Buttercup. Her makeup looks classy, but she has porn-queen bed-head platinum hair and big puffy lips. I try, really I do, not to think about those lips.

“Have you ever seen one of her films?” I ask Herr Schröder.

“Who, me?” he says. He rushes to greet Ms. Blondeau.

I hold my breath as she enters the room and realize that I’m playing the Lion King song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” A tune from a Disney movie probably isn’t the best entrance music for a film star whose recent releases include classics like Pass the Butter, Dodgeballs, and Bride of Spankenstein, but I continue playing. Everything around me shifts into silent mode. At Schlosshotel Lerbach I’ve played for European queens and Arabian princesses, Brazilian football players, and American film stars. But Buttercup is the first celebrity to bring the castle to a complete standstill. Wow.

I don’t even hear a fork clink on a plate. The men stare at Buttercup. The women glare at the men. Buttercup’s date, a handsome manboy with broad shoulders and biceps bulging through his suit coat, follows behind her. Right before she slides into her seat, he kisses her—I mean seriously kisses her—while grabbing her ample derriere. I’m playing in the key of D, and I hit an A-flat instead of an A-natural, the ultimate wrong note.

Herr Schröder looks at me and raises one eyebrow.

Gradually, after Buttercup sits down and crosses her very long legs—a spectacle that causes gasping at a nearby table—things return to normal. The guests eat and drink and chat, but I know they’re sneaking glances at Buttercup. Heck, I’m doing it myself. You can’t not look at this woman. I don’t know how she can breathe in that dress, or walk in those shoes, or negotiate her way through life with breasts that large. I feel a little sorry for her, but I admire her too. I wonder if she likes music or if she enjoys reading. I wonder about her hobbies. Gardening? Scrabble? Twister?

I begin playing “A Time for Us,” the theme from that sixties Romeo and Juliet movie.

An apprentice waiter, probably the same age as Buttercup’s date, walks past her table, steals a look at her, trips over his own feet, and almost drops a tray of empty wine glasses. The glasses clink together and wobble, but nothing breaks.

Love songs, love songs, nothing but love songs. My thoughts drift back to the horses. I hope they’re okay. I wonder if Buttercup is kind to animals. I’d like to see her leading a horse down a highway in those shoes.

I play “Wave.”

Later, Buttercup and her date get up to visit the dessert buffet, just as Herr and Frau Severins are leaving. “Auf Wiedersehen, Frau Goldsby!” says Frau Severins as she passes the piano. She bends down and whispers in my ear, “Interesting crowd you have here today.”

I start to answer but Frau Severins is now focused on her husband. He’s staring—open-mouthed—as Buttercup and the date make out like teenagers right in front of the dessert table. The date grabs Buttercup’s bottom again—who can blame him?—as she leans over, dangerously close to spilling body parts into the crème brulée. Not that I’ve ever watched a porn film—who, me?—but I can imagine this looks a lot like the beginning of a scene straight out of Buttercup Boffs Bielefeld.

Frau Severins grabs her husband’s arm and hauls him out of the brasserie. Buttercup and her date, still hot and bothered, dish out their desserts and sashay back to their table for two, all the while groping and gushing and making goo-goo sounds at each other.

Lunch is over. Usually on an occasion like this, guests linger over coffee and sweets. But today there’s a Buttercup-induced mass exodus. The other women in the restaurant, tired of competing for attention with an authentic pornography princess, wrangle their men and lead them to the safety zone—away from the crème brulée, away from the booze, the breasts, the eye candy, and the fun. As they’re perp-walked out of the brasserie, the men remind me of the horses. They’re a little happy that someone has taken the reins and a little sad to be reminded of where they belong.

Buttercup makes a solo pass by the dessert buffet for a plate of berries and cream. When she gets to the piano she stops and smiles at me. She’s older than I thought, maybe even my age.

“Thank you for your lovely music,” she says. “I can only imagine how hard it is to play for people who aren’t always listening. But you really made this day special for my friend and me. I love that Disney song you played when I came in—I’m a huge Disney fan.”

“Thank you,” I respond. “Sorry about that wrong note.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” she says. “It’s not always easy being an artist.”

“That’s the truth,” I say. I guess she would know. “It’s so nice that you could come today—I mean that you could show up and eat—I mean . . . it’s so nice to meet you. Thank you for being here, and I wish you a wonderful Valentine’s Day.”

She smiles, fluffs her hair, and says, “Same to you.”

I play “Beauty and the Beast” and call it a day.

Valentine

 

***

“Stopping Traffic” is an excerpt from Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl

©2011 Robin Meloy Goldsby, All Rights Reserved

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Enough

In the early eighties, I was living in New York City, wondering if it was remotely possible to have it all. Judith, my long-suffering therapist, said to me: “A career, marriage, and family? You can have it all. You just can’t have it all at the same time.”

Discouraging words in 1984, especially since I didn’t have anything, let alone everything. I was divorced, dating two completely inappropriate guys—one of them married, a compulsive gambler, and twenty-three years my senior; the other sneaky, smart, and movie star handsome. I almost married the handsome guy for his real estate, but found out that while he was seeing me, he was also dating a man-boy named Steve. My so-called career consisted of dashing from one five-star Manhattan hotel to another, playing the piano for chiropractor conventions and drunken delegates to the Toy Fair, and occasionally being cast in an off-off-awful Broadway show, with a script written by someone just as depressed as I was. I tried to have it all; instead I had nothing, except for a closet full of black evening gowns and a nice cat named Lucky. New York City, back then, was an artistic hamster wheel for people like me. The more we suffered, the better we fared, at least in our own minds. None of it mattered, because no one cared. Round and round and round we went, gritting our teeth, drinking over-priced white wine, and assuring each other that we were having so much fun.

Three decades later I’m shocked to find I do have it all—in a circus juggler, European plate-spinner kind of way. A musical marriage to the world’s best (and most appropriate) guy, two brave and funny kids, and, yes, a career. In many ways, Judith was right all those years ago—a woman’s life is one of compartmentalization. Most working mothers wear so many hats we could work as quick-change artists for the finest London milliner. Over the course of one day we might be chefs, taxi-drivers, glamor girls, math experts, IT queens, bartenders, craft masters, gardeners, toilet cleaners, laundry mavens, and soothers of broken spirits (sometimes our own). And that’s just in our down time, before we’ve started whipping up the crème brulée, toasting the goat cheese for the roasted beet salad, and heading to the office (in my case, the piano).

It’s hard to make a living while you’re trying to make a life.

Judith was also wrong in a way—occasionally it is possible, for one ephemeral moment, to watch various components of a life—career, family, personal values—collide and morph into a genuine feeling of roundness that produces a gorgeous boom of affirmation. I experienced one of these moments recently.

Geneva, Switzerland, November 3, 2014: The United Nations

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Mountains. Alps, actually. And a lake. My flight from Düsseldorf circles the airport and prepares to land. From my airplane porthole, Geneva offers itself to me with an touch of arrogance, like a well-endowed woman so certain of her powerful beauty that she only needs to strike a pose to soak up admiring stares. The words to Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” float through my mind. I don’t know if lyricist Mitchell Parish ever visited Geneva, but I like to think he did.

I am headed to the United Nations—the Palais des Nations­—to perform a song I was commissioned to write with my daughter, Julia. The piece, called “Maybe It’s You,” is the theme song for the NGO Beijing+20 UN ECE Regional Review, an international forum on the status of women. The event will be attended by over 700 of the world’s most influential and politically-active women. At the closing ceremony I’m going to play this song on the piano for them. And my daughter will sing.

I’m familiar with the United Nations in New York, and I thought that the Geneva branch would pale in comparison—sort of the European hillbilly cousin to the real thing. But when my train arrives outside the Palais I am stunned by the scope and beauty of the grounds. Julia, who has worked as a UN intern for the past week, runs outside the gate to greet me. She has been serving as a Youth Ambassador for FAWCO, a UN-accredited NGO, for the last five months, and I haven’t seen much of her. We wrote the song back in May, before she left on her travels. Julia is eighteen. Wearing a chic business suit she bought at Swiss Zara—the “UN intern look” she calls it—she bounds across the big square where we’ve arranged to meet, and escorts me through a security gauntlet to get me inside where the first general meeting is taking place.

We hold hands as we walk a long distance from the entrance to the main hall. I try to catch up on everything I’ve missed about each her. But the UN, with its audacious history, high ceilings, and glorious artwork, puts our personal conversation on hold. We stride through magnificent corridors.

Act/Advance/Achieve/Women’s Rights. Music will be the tiniest part of the equation. This is a serious conference on human rights for women and girls. We’ll learn about slavery, genital mutilation, the sale of girls for marriage, domestic violence; we’ll learn about our lack of reproductive rights, lack of equal education, lack of gender equality in the workplace. We’ll learn about how much we’re lacking, when it comes to human rights. And we’ll learn about the heroes trying to change things for the better, step by step.

“Look, Mom. Look at the way we’re walking. You can’t help it. When you’re in here you start walking like you’re important. Sort of like the principal of my high school, except faster. I call it the Important Walk.”

I know exactly what she means. It’s silly. I have been here for about twelve minutes and I am already feeling important, that the world respects my opinion. I haven’t done or said anything at all, but  because they let me through the front door I find that my head is higher, my shoulders are back. I am taller. We enter the Plenary Hall. Seven hundred women, wearing earpieces, sit at desks and listen to a panel discussion called: Women’s Rights: A Power to Create Change. I grab an earpiece and listen in.

The let’s make the world a better place energy is palpable in the hall. It’s contagious and waves of inspiration wash over me. It’s hard to believe that Julia and I, with our theme song, are part of this meaningful forum. Half of me feels overwhelmed, a little freaked out by the magnitude of the event; the other half feels ready. I feel important. As I will learn over the next three days, far too many women and girls in the world never get the chance to feel important. Maybe that’s the point of this conference. We’re important. We count. Every single one of us.

“Isn’t this the best thing ever?” Julia says.

I can’t answer because I am fighting back tears. That’s what feeling important can do to a fifty-seven year old woman. It can make her cry. I’ve lived a privileged first-world hamster-wheel life, but still, I’ve been waiting a long time for this. It is one thing to be acknowledged by my family and friends for being a good mom, or to hear the applause of a generous audience after a successful concert. It’s quite another to know that the world’s policy makers are listening to the concerns of mothers, working women, and girls. My concerns. My daughter’s concerns. Whether the world community will act on our concerns remains to be seen. But at least they’re taking notes. It’s a start.

Flags

November 4th, Sound Check

A perfect Steinway B had been delivered to the UN the day before the conference began. It now sits in the front of the Plenary Hall, close the speaker’s dais. The participants’ desks surround the piano in a “U” shape.

We are scheduled to meet with the head technician at 12:30 for a sound check while the conference attendees are having lunch. I’m worried about the sound situation—it’s a huge room and a technical nightmare. Every single desk has a headset and controls that allow the listener to switch from English to French to Spanish to Russian. It’s an amazing device, and an amusing distraction when bored—wow, wonder how this lady sounds in Russian. Here’s the thing—there is no “live” amplification in the room. You absolutely need the earpiece to hear what’s going on. How they are going to get around this for our song concerns me. But it’s the United Nations, so they must know what they’re doing.

The IT coordinator, Valerie, meets us at the appointed time. Smart and funny, she is also beautiful—a tall woman with long white hair and no make-up. She’s both Bohemian and elegant. But right now she has bad news, which she delivers in a Bohemian, yet elegant, way.

“There is no microphone,” she says. “There is no live amplification in the room.”

“What?” I say. “This can’t be.”

She calls the head technician to the floor. There is much shrugging of shoulders and use of the word “compliqué,” and I begin to understand that we are screwed. I suggest we bring in an outside sound crew. Valerie is willing, but the union technician won’t allow it—“a security nightmare,” he says. Plus the outside system would cause feedback on the 700 earpieces at the individual desks. I imagine the sound of 700 earpieces squealing all at once.

One would think this might have come up in pre-conference technical planning, but for whatever reason it didn’t. Merde. I know a losing battle when I hear one, especially when it’s in French, so I smile and say: “We’ll make it work.”

“We will?” says Julia. “How?”

“You’ll have to sing acoustically.”

“For seven hundred people? Are you nuts?”

Oui.”

“Well that’s stupid,” she says. “But I can do it. I’ll have to channel Aretha or something.”

I am very proud of my daughter right now. As the snarky sound guy sneaks away, Valerie apologizes a thousand times. We assure her that we will make the best of the situation.

“Of course,” she says. “This is what women know how to do. We make things work.”

We do a sound check even though there is nothing to check. The room is very bouncy and bright and performing unplugged might actually work. There’s no choice. If everyone listens, we’ll be heard—sort of the theme for the entire week. I wonder if the interpreters in the booth upstairs will translate Julia’s words as she performs. I wonder if they will sing along. In Russian.

Non Sound Check

Non Sound Check

November 5th, Show Time

Julia and I are staying outside Geneva in the elegant lakeside villa of former FAWCO President, Kathleen Simon, along with eight other FAWCO members and Kathleen’s good-humored husband, Andrew. Ten women staying in one residence, all of whom need to eat breakfast, shower, and dress for the day so we can leave at 7:30 sharp. The whoosh of blow driers, the gurgle of a designer coffee machine, the mingled scents of L’Oreal hairspray and Jo Malone perfume greet me as I round the corner into Kathleen’s kitchen. The irony of this scene—a gaggle of privileged women lining up for their organic morning beverages so they can adequately hydrate themselves before a dead serious meeting about the perils of being a woman in Sub-Saharan Africa—does not escape me. We are ten upper-middle class western women, decked out in cashmere and silk, off for a day of talk about saving those less fortunate. Yes, we have beautiful homes and enviable wardrobes; but we also have big hearts, working brains, and the desire to spend our time, energy, and extra cash doing whatever we can to make a difference. Maybe guilt has guided us here. Maybe we are saving ourselves.

Reeling from the previous day’s roundtable discussions—Women and Poverty, The Girl Child, Human Rights and Migrant Women, Violence Against Women—we’re ready to head to the UN for more, more, more. Julia and I are dressed for our performance at noon. We’re wearing coordinated black and white dresses and I’m hoping no one says we look like the Olsen Twins. I’m nervous about technical issues—is it really possible to sing acoustically for 700 people? Julia is worried about her panty hose, which seem to be slipping down. Crotch sag—any woman will tell you it’s a major drag. All this women’s rights stuff is important, indeed, but really, someone needs to invent suspenders to hold up our tights.

Oh wait; maybe we should just wear pants.

There is no backstage in the Plenary Hall—the space isn’t set up for theatrical events or concerts (UN, The Musical!)—so we sit at a front-row desk, close to the Steinway, and wait for our cue to perform. We whisper back and forth to each other as the former President of Finland gives a speech. I admit it, I’m a little nervous. I’ve played my share of state dinners, but this is different.

“Are you drinking enough water?” I ask Julia, who complained about a sore throat this morning, no doubt the result of the stadium singing she did yesterday at the non-sound check.

Oui,” she says.

“Are you warmed up?”

Oui.”

Do you remember the form of the song?

Oui, oui, oui.”

“Don’t forget the third verse.”

“Mom.”

“And to repeat the refrain three times at the end.”

“Mom. I am fine. Calm down. I just wish my tights would stay up. They’re halfway down my butt. This is making me nuts. I should have worn pants.”

Right.

Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, NGO CSW Geneva President, winds up the conference with a lovely speech about diversity. I have practiced saying her name over the last three days and now I can do it without stuttering. Nyaradzayi commands attention; she is strong and funny and controls this huge crowd with her rich voice and compelling speech. She calls several women to the stage—a ninety-year old delegate, a disabled women in a wheel chair, a female member of the Roma community, a Muslim woman, a Jewish woman, a token man, and then—big surprise to me—Julia, who at eighteen is the youngest delegate at the conference. She is also the tallest, although that doesn’t count. There Julia stands, front and center, smiling and representing her generation. For what must be the twentieth time since this conference started, I cry. And this is unfortunate timing, because we are on, now.

Simone Ovart, Forum Co-chair, moderates this part of the ceremony and begins introducing us in French. I wipe the mascara smudges off my cheeks and listen. I had provided a brief description of the two us in English, which was successfully translated into French. I sit at the Steinway, attempting to understand Madame Ovart—I don’t have a headset at the piano, so I can only hear the French, a very elegant way to be introduced. She finishes her brief words about me and tucks into Julia’s introduction. I glance at the FAWCO delegation sitting several rows back, listening—with their earpieces—to the simultaneous English translation of the French translation of the original English version. C’est compliqué. The FAWCO women burst out laughing at something they’ve heard. Later I will find out that the translator said that Julia received her PhD at the age of eighteen. Wow. Dr. Julia. And she can sing, too. I glance over at her and she looks completely relaxed. She looks focused. She also looks like she is trying very hard not to tug on her panty hose.

I take a breath and play an A major triad—an axis of wonder in a working mom’s world. Performing for these 700 women is like sliding into a warm bath. Dr. Julia and I are safe here with this audience. They support us, inspire us, and carry us as far as we need to go, which isn’t too far, since we’re only performing one song, but still I am glad they’re along for the ride. I play the piano, because that’s my job, but I listen to my daughter have her moment of importance, because that’s my job, too. I am a musician; I am a mother; I am a human being who cares about the status of women everywhere. And today I get to be all of these things at once. I can have it all at the same time. If this only happens once in my lifetime, it’s enough.

By the end of the song Julia has most of the women on their feet and clapping and singing along. The applause rings out and will echo in my heart for weeks to come. We hug dozens of our sisters and grab our coats. Then, bypassing the hamster wheel and still doing the Important Walk, we dash into the cold Geneva rain and think about flying home.

proxy

See the “Maybe It’s You” UN video here.

 

Maybe It’s You

©2014 Robin & Julia Goldsby, Bass Lion Music (BMI)

You’re as bright as the morning sunshine,

And you light up the day,

You’re as cool as a summer wind,

And you chase the rain away,

So look at me,

You are strong,

Look at me,

You are beautiful.

You can crash through the highest ceiling,

And you do it with grace,

Slaying dragons with words of kindness,

Putting peace in its place.

So look at me,

You are bold

Look at me,

You are wonderful.

Maybe it’s you,

You’re the one who’s gonna make it,

You—standing up tall and proud,

Maybe it’s you,

You can give it; you can take it,

And rise above the roaring crowd.

You are brave,

You are fighting for a change,

You’ll save,

The life you want to live—

You’re the queen of your private kingdom,

And you’re nobody’s bride,

Education is your salvation,

With your sisters by your side,

Look at me,

You are brave,

You are powerful.

Maybe it’s you,

You’re the one who’s gonna make it,

You—standing up tall and proud,

Maybe it’s you,

You can give it; you can take it,

And rise above the roaring crowd.

Rise above the roaring crowd . . .

FAWCO Youth Ambassador Julia Goldsby with the FAWCO Delegation to the NGO Beijing+20 UN ECE Forum in Geneva, Switzerland.

FAWCO Youth Ambassador Julia Goldsby with the FAWCO Delegation to the NGO Beijing+20 UN ECE Forum in Geneva, Switzerland.

Many thanks to the women who rise above the roaring crowd on a daily basis: Kathleen Simon, My-Linh Kunst, Monica Jubayli, Maggie Palu, Sara von Moos, Sallie Chaballier, Laurie Richardson, Paula Daeppen, Johanna Dishongh, Suzanne Wheeler, Valerie Bichelmeier, and Vera Weill-Hall—the FAWCO delegates to the UN conference.

You lift me up, you do.

Photos and video by My-Linh Kunst, Maggie Palu, and Johanna Dishongh.

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.

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All I Want for Christmas

 1966: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh

On Christmas morning I sit with my brother and sister on the top step of a long staircase leading down to the living room. Cloaked in fuzzy red pajamas, we squash our little rinkies together on a narrow swath of Williamsburg blue shag carpeting, agonizing over whether or not Santa has shown up. We have been sitting here for an hour, waiting for the house to wake up around us.

“I know Santa came. I heard sleigh bells.”

“I heard reindeer.”

“I heard Mr. Wilson coming home from church, or somewhere.” Mr. Wilson is our neighbor. We are intrigued by him, because he works during the day, unlike our father the drummer, who works at night.

Holding hands, we wait for Dad to announce that Santa has indeed found his way to Mt. Washington and, despite our lack of a working fireplace, has somehow managed to squeeze through the vent over the stove and grace our living room with a smattering of toys, stiff new clothes, and yule cheer. The vent over the stove is good for two things—it lets bats fly into our house during the summer months and it allows Santa Claus to show up every year with a big bag of toys.

The suspense is almost unbearable. My mother makes coffee in the kitchen—we can hear the pop-gurgle-pop of the percolator. Dad prances around downstairs and pretends to trip over an empty plate of cookies.

“Santa ate the cookies,” he yells. “He was here! Come on down!”

We shriek and tumble down the stairs. I knock my sister and brother against the wall. We bounce off the pine-trimmed banister, and land like a three-headed elf in a heap by the nativity scene.

“Pick up Joseph and Mary,” says my mother. “And get the cat out of the tree!”

It’s perfect, like every year.

Our grandmothers, Della and Laura, having spent the night in the family room, have already settled into one of the Ethan Allen sofas, their hair cranked for Christmas, their make-up in place. They’re sporting velour robes with matching plush slippers in festive colors, and both of them are recovering from copious amounts of Irish coffee consumed the night before. With delicate plates balanced on their grandmotherly laps, they laugh and beam at us. Everyone says Christmas is for kids, but today the grandmothers in attendance are having more fun than any of us. Aunt Pinky is also here. She wears sequined reindeer antlers and a little red plastic nose.

“Rudolph!” we shout.

The twinkle lights dance, the perfume of cinnamon rolls wafts through the house, holiday music (Bing! Sammy! Frank!) plays on the Hi-Fi. Decades before Martha Stewart teaches us how to French-braid holly branches and make wreathes out of miniature peanut-butter cups, my mother pounds out holiday-themed parties with the expertise of a Santaland Express caterer. A working woman with three kids, she decks the halls and calls the shots, if not effortlessly, then with a huge dose of conviction. Last night, for Christmas Eve dinner, she made a tabletop Christmas tree out of six dozen boiled jumbo-shrimp, stuck into a Styrofoam tree-shaped form with tinsel-covered toothpicks. She decorated it with green and red vegetable garlands. It was a huge success. Stripey the cat made several attempts, one of them successful, at attacking the shrimp tree. Holidays are hard on cats. Last year he walked across the pumpkin pie, leaving paw prints in the filling. My mother covered it with Cool Whip and no one knew the difference.

Cat

But none of this matters. Today it’s all about presents. Two weeks ago, we made our wish lists and traveled downtown to visit a bloated and ruddy-faced Santa at the Joseph Horne department store. Santa repeated our wishes loudly, a style that might have been the result of too much bourbon, but had the benefit of letting our parents hear exactly what we wanted.

On Christmas morning, despite our better instincts and under the watchful eye of the Good Manners Police, we open our presents like civilized human beings. We go around the room and take turns unpacking our gifts. Our grandmothers spend ages unwrapping their presents—carefully folding the metallic paper and coiling the ribbons and placing them in a neat pile for recycling. One grandma gets a blue scarf, the other a green scarf. Great. When is my turn? Daddy gets some Old Spice. Mom gets a cheese cutter from my sister and a Chia Pet from Aunt Pinky.

Finally. I dive into the little pile of gifts at my feet.

I get a Spirograph. Just what I wanted! Not nearly as dangerous as the Twister game I received last year. I also receive a Dippity Glass craft kit for making “glass” flowers by dipping wire forms into vats of neon-colored toxic chemicals. I will make dozens of these ghastly plastic creations—quite possibly destroying half of my brain cells in the process—and peddle them door to door in my neighborhood. Dippity Glass might be a health hazard, but I prefer it to last year’s Rock Tumbler.

I am nine years old, but I still believe in Santa. I receive, direct from the North Pole fashion workshop—most certainly under the supervision of an elf named Mr. Larry and his team of very short assistants—a pair of orange crushed-velvet pants. Wow! In the coming months I will  make glass flowers and psychedelic Spirograph designs while dressed like a prepubescent Ann-Margret.

I carefully stash away my new loot and eat a cinnamon roll, then wonder whether these particular gifts are something I really want. Perhaps I would have preferred Chemistry Lab, Jr.? Or the Barbie Hair Coloring Station? But every girl needs a Spirograph and a pair of crushed velvet pants, right? I’m just not sure about the color of the pants. Maybe red would be better than orange. Or purple. But now I’m stuck with the orange. For the first time I’m starting to question the things I wish for. I am growing up and I don’t even know it.

2014, Cologne, Germany

Cologne

The Western Pennsylvania holiday tableau seared in my memory seems like a distant fantasy. As a parent I’ve tried over the years to make our holidays at home memorable. But we are an American expatriate family living in Germany, and there’s no possible way to recreate the half-silly half-wonderful traditions I knew as a child. This is a country that, for better or worse, does not sell Libby’s canned pumpkin. Santa, more often than not, is played by a skinny Turkish guy at a furniture warehouse. And if you do run into Santa at a kids’ party, he is likely to be accompanied by a very scary guy named Knecht Ruprecht who wears a black hood, carries a bag of ashes, and threatens to beat children with a big stick if they haven’t behaved. Plus Santa isn’t even called Santa. He is Sankt Niklaus, and he shows up on the night of December 5th and fills the scrubbed and polished boots of children with candy and gifts. Where’s Rudolph when you need him? Probably hiding from the guy with the stick.

Some of the German traditions—most of them involving marzipan—are lovely, but they make me feel unbalanced, out of sync, a little lonely. Our two children, now adults, have celebrated each Christmas with us in a quiet way. In an attempt to shield our kids from the evil Knecht, we told them that American Santa was in charge of their Christmas. We made sure American Santa called our house each year. Played by various English-speaking male friends and family members, Santa spoke through a paper towel tube in a big booming voice. Ho-ho-ho. We’ve invented our own traditions. Without grandmothers or aunts to help with the cooking and good cheer quotient, we’ve had to improvise a lot, even for a family of musicians. We’ve never attended a midnight Christmas Eve candlelight service, although once on Christmas Eve we went to the circus. One year I made spaghetti for Christmas dinner, another time we had vegetarian schnitzel. We’ve never had a shrimp tree, a pie, or a Chia Pet. But we have managed to have surprise bunny rabbits, wooden train sets, adventures with icing, and fun with gingerbread. With limited resources we managed to grant a few of the wishes on the kids’ lists. I hope that’s what they remember—that for a short time in their crazy expat lives, a few of their wishes came true. Mainly, I hope they remember they have been lucky. They grew up safe and warm and happy. And loved.

I stopped making wish lists decades ago, for obvious reasons. When you enter the parenting profession, you start granting wishes instead of making them. Besides, desires can be devious. I have what I need, I have what I want, I want what I have. But his year I’ve decided to give the list another try. If Santa has a mental health workshop, he might be tempted to send me directly to the multiple personality department, so diverse are the things I long for. Some of them are shameful, some are idealistic, some are simple, most of them are, well, complicated. Here goes:

The American in Europe Wish List

  1. A huge box of Arm & Hammer baking soda. I will clean everything with it—my teeth, the sink, the inside of my Nikes.
  2. A Target store in Germany.
  3. Pre-made pie crusts. I don’t eat pie, but I would enjoy knowing I could bake a pie quickly if I had a ready made crust. I have an aversion to rolling pins.
  4. Speed Stick, by Mennen (it smells really nice when my husband wears it).
  5. A visit from my sister on Christmas. We are still thin. Our rinkies will fit nicely onto one of the steps leading to the living room. If my brother joins us, all bets are off. He can have his own step.

The Healthy Woman Wish List

  1. Energy. Ready, GO, GO, GO.
  2. Balanced hormones. Really, I do not want to throw myself off a bridge just because the diesel-Frau cashier at a German supermarket is rude.
  3. A fit body that would look good in orange crushed-velvet hiphuggers if the hormonal balance thing doesn’t work out and I decide to find my inner (and outer) Ann-Marget.
  4. A few nights of uninterrupted sleep. The experts say this is impossible once you have had children, but I am out to prove them wrong.
  5. Peace of mind. A friend of mine, who is dying, recently gave me the best advice ever. Speaking of life in general, he said: “Don’t worry too much.”

The World Citizen Wish List

  1. A safe return for those kidnapped Nigerian girls.
  2. Adequate funding for Médicins Sans Frontieres as they continue to battle chaos and tragedy everywhere. The same for medica mondiale liberia.
  3. An end to human trafficking. Here’s a place to start: Free the Girls—the FAWCO Target Project.
  4. Clean water for everyone.
  5. Equal opportunities for women and girls (yes, USA, this means you, too).
  6. More energy (see above) to try and do my part to help.
  7. Gun control. Finally. No more murdered school children.

The Material Girl Wish List

  1. A black VW Eos convertible. After a lifetime of being the drummer’s daughter and the bassist’s wife, I long to scoot around the countryside in a little (!) car that’s not meant for transporting large musical instruments.
  2. A trip to South Africa, before I’m too old to recover from the long flight.
  3. A small apartment in Manhattan, while I’m still young enough to run away from trouble.
  4. A cottage somewhere, anywhere, right on the beach (occasional sunshine would be welcome, which doesn’t entirely rule out the North Sea).
  5. Any fashion item that comes from Hermes (yes, scarves count).

The Realistic Working Mom Wish List

  1. Two new pairs of black cashmere socks.
  2. A black cashmere turtleneck sweater.
  3. A new electric toothbrush.
  4. Homemade cards from my kids.
  5. Some gluten free cookies.
  6. A really loose cotton nightgown. White. No Schnick-schnack.

The Confused Mom Wish List

  1. Continued opportunities for my kids to get out there and see the world.
  2. More opportunities for them to stay at home.

The Working Musician Wish List

  1. An iPad preloaded with large-print lead sheets to every song ever written in the history of music.
  2. The chance to write music for a meaningful film. Documentary would be just fine.
  3. The opportunity to write the lyric to a hit tune (one I could live with) that would pay for my kids’ college years. I can do ooh, baby baby as well as the next guy, but I can also do better. And my rhymes are clean. None of this lady-baby stuff.
  4. A separate music studio (within walking distance of my home) with a Macbook, a Steinway, and a couch so I could take naps now and then. A mattress under the piano would also work.
  5. One perfect song played perfectly one time for one perfect audience.

Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, and a joyful December to you and your loved ones. May a few of your wishes come true. Fly away home. If you’re with people who love you, you’re more than halfway there.

Bird in Santa Hat

Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl, Rhythm, and Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl. Sign up for Robin’s newsletter and you’ll receive a brand new essay every month, delivered directly to your inbox.

Mister President (from Waltz of the Asparagus People)

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Olives, Almonds, and Sauvignon Blanc: The Musician’s Guide to Losing (and Finding) Those Last Five Pounds

Considering I’ve spent most of my adult life playing the piano in a cocktail lounge, it’s amazing I’m not (yet) an obese alcoholic with salt stains on my fingers and a pickled liver. I have stared down more bowls of smoked almonds and wasabi nuts than most people do in a lifetime.  If I had the cash equivalent of every drink purchased for me by the lounge lizards and dapper dandies drifting through the world’s cocktail caves and five-star hotels, I’d be able to retire right now. A glass of the good champagne served at the hotel where I currently work costs forty-five dollars. Over the last twelve years I may have sipped the champagne equivalent of a brand new BMW.

Champagne

I’m not complaining.  I think too much about diet and nutrition. If you want to know anything at all about any diet ever invented in the history of food, just ask me. I could be practicing the piano, composing music, or working on another book, but no, I’m busy boning up on the virtues of yam chips, and wondering if pomegranate juice would be a nice mixer for vodka.

I’m addicted to diet stories. Makeover! Is any word in the style lexicon more full of promise? Give me a good makeover article and you’ve got me in the palm of your chubby little hand. At the doctor’s office I will pick up a glossy magazine, skirt over intelligent political commentaries about subjects I care about, and go right for the three-page spread telling me how Becky from Buffalo lost twenty pounds in twenty days by eating ham loaf and asparagus (Becky is now working in the shoe department at Target and loves her new “thinner” life).

I am not now, nor have I ever been fat. But, even at my skinniest—I looked like a zipper—I was still trying to lose those “stubborn last five pounds,” a phrase you’ll read a thousand times if you’ve got your nose in a diet book. They are indeed stubborn, those last five pounds, especially if they’re located in the fantasy part of your brain.

Over five decades I’ve lost and gained those same five pounds about four times a year. No matter where in the world I go, they hunt me down, stalkers on the prowl, never far away. I lose them; they find me again—rightfully so, since they belong to me. I try to give them away, but just like my old evening gowns and sparkling gig shoes from 1985—no one seems to want them.

Road trips, evil catering, unidentifiable bar food, vending machine Twix bars, buffalo wings, airplane pretzels, stale ham sandwiches, chocolate donuts, and, yes, those community bowls of goldfish crackers—as a musician I’ve survived most of these things. For better or worse, here are some of my favorite diet phases, many of them career-related.  Some diets were intentional; some were accidental. Most of them didn’t work. Proceed with caution. Or you can just skip to the end and save yourself some trouble.

1973: Eighteen Eggs in Thirty Minutes

I am sixteen years old and spend a lot of time playing the piano. My sister, Randy, is fifteen and likes to dance. Tonight we perch at the kitchen table, forks at the ready. Grandma Curtis, a youthful seventy-five, happily slings hash for the two of us. I promise to play “The Theme from Love Story” for her after dinner. Maybe Randy will do some interpretive dancing. Grandma hovers over a large skillet, scrambling eggs.

Randy and I have discovered a diet book on our mother’s bookcase called Martinis and Whipped Cream. We know nothing about martinis, but we do like whipped cream. We also think we need to be skinny, since we both spend a lot of time onstage. Tonight’s Martinis and Whipped Cream diet dinner features scrambled eggs cooked in butter, as many of them as we can eat. We’ve just arrived home from swim team practice and—after 120 laps of breaststroke—we’re famished. Between the two of us we consume eighteen eggs in thirty minutes.

Grandma keeps saying things like: “Girls these days sure can chow down. Do you think the chlorine in the pool is making you extra hungry?  Do you want a nice salad and a piece of bread with those eggs?”

“NO!” we scream in unison, a synchronized, carb-deprived, desperate diet-duo, lifting our utensils in unison.

At least the eggs are affordable. Tomorrow night’s dinner calls for unlimited pork chops.  Both of us are constipated for two weeks, but we each manage to lose ten pounds. We look svelte in our South Hills High School tank suits, even though we are weak and dazed. I watch my sister attempt to swim the 200 Meter Butterfly and by the end of the race only her thumbs are breaking the water’s surface.

“Never again,” we say. We go off the diet, eat a piece of toast, and regain all the weight we’ve lost.  We start winning our swim events again. And we swear off whipped cream forever. Martinis, well, that’s another story.

Shopping List:

Two dozen eggs, plus an extra dozen, just in case

One grandmother who doesn’t ask questions

1976: The Nantucket Diet

Ah, the Bicentennial Year. Two hundred years of American independence and what better way to celebrate? I leave my parents’ home (roast chicken dinners and chipped ham sandwiches for lunch) and head to the land of lobster, quahog chowder, and curly fries from The Brotherhood of Thieves. But this is not what I am eating on Nantucket. Lobster is too expensive and I’m trying to save money for college. I play the piano at a bar that caters to rich yachtsmen, salty first mates, and the occasional gay guy. While waiting for my tube top to slip down in the middle of my snappy Carole King medley, the sailors buy me drinks made with scotch and amaretto and Kahlua. For solid food, I rely on bluefish. I hate bluefish, but this is what my boyfriend reels in every day from the shores of Madaket and ‘Sconset and this is what we eat. I wrap it in aluminum foil and we cook it outside on the hibachi. I try not to choke on the bones.

Once in awhile, a sun-baked friend of mine named Peg—the manager of the Sweet Shop on Main Street—uses her key and flashlight for midnight raids on the ice cream counter. She takes me with her. A former Coppertone swimsuit model, Peg refuses to eat anything but vanilla ice cream with strawberry sauce. I can’t think of anything more glamorous than being a Coppertone model, so I do the same. It helps me forget about the bluefish bones and the sailors.

I do not lose weight or gain weight on this diet. The balance of alcohol, fish, and ice cream must be the key to good health and glowing skin. I forget that I am eighteen, sand-blasted, surf-struck, and love-stupid. I could eat (or not eat) anything and still look good. But I am too young to appreciate this.

 Shopping List:

Bluefish (see if you can find someone to gut them for you)

Cheap vanilla ice cream

Smucker’s Strawberry Preserves

Scotch

Coppertone SPF O

1979: The St. Louis Blues Diet

I live at the Chase Park Plaza for six weeks while performing in the hotel’s small theater on the ground floor. Our hotel rooms are luxurious, but we eat our meals in the  doom-and-gloom employee cafeteria, where several coughing, sneezing, mucous-spewing adults have been hired to serve our food. Hot dogs are the favored main course, served alongside unidentifiable vegetables.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” I say to the soup monger in the white hat, just as she wipes her nose on her sleeve. “What is the vegetable today?”

“That be squash,” she grunts. “It always be squash. Squash, squash, squash. Do you want some goddamn squash? If not, GET OUT OF THE GODDAMN SQUASH LINE!” Steam rises around her head and she looks at me, one yellowish eye askew, like she might stab me with her squash scooper.

Every vegetable is squash. Every hot dog is a vessel for typhoid, or worse.  Every meal is a trauma.

If one of us makes it to the table with an actual tray of food, the Head Hobbit—a man named Hank—sits down with us and purposefully coughs with his mouth uncovered, spraying us with God knows what. We duck under our napkins.

Hack, hack, hack.

Once Hank blows his nose on the table. We flee, convinced hotel management has hired Hank to prevent us from eating their free food. It’s hard to lose weight in a five star hotel, but our cast—grossed out and fearing for our lives—collectively drops about sixty pounds. Ken, our cross-dressing male lead (who stays in the hotel’s Joan Crawford Suite) begins ordering meat loaf dinners from room service. We follow suit, hoping that the  staff in the “real” kitchen practices better hygiene. We spend all our wages on fifteen dollar Ruben sandwiches and Welsh Rarebit. We lose our money and regain the weight. Plus some. Ah, the circle of life.

Shopping List:

Hot dogs (the older the better)

Squash (beaten to death)

Dirty person to cough on your food

 

 1980: The Stripper Diet

“The ships on her hips made my heart skip a beat . . .”

There’s nothing like taking your clothes off nightly in front of 1500 people to make those “last stubborn five pounds” seem like they’re super-glued to your hips. I am acting and dancing in a squeaky clean, but scantily costumed, show called Peaches and Bananas. Coached by both Tempest Storm and Ann Corio, I’m the featured stripper in the program. I play classical piano and stand up to disrobe while singing “Hard Hearted Hannah.” I also play a chorus on the flute. Note to the aspiring performer: If wearing a bikini, it can be challenging to suck in your stomach while playing a wind instrument. Better to stick with the guitar—full belly coverage, and no huffing and puffing.

For six months I strip at a dinner theater outside of Boston. Fast food not only pads my butt, but saves my butt late at night when I can’t find or afford anything decent to eat. Because I’m dancing in eight shows a week, I’m in good shape, in spite of these last five pounds. Along with the rest of the cast—assorted actors, dancers, and ancient Burlesque comedians from New York, I’m sleeping eight to a room in a sleazy motel located next to Radio Shack, sharing bath towels and leftover Chinese shrimp-fried rice with chorus girls and tap-dancing young men. It’s winter, and to keep the old rice “fresh,” we stash it in a box on the windowsill. We breakfast daily on Dunkin’ Donuts glazed crullers and coffee with four packs of sugar and non-dairy creamer. We drink cheap wine between shows. Sometimes we splurge on vodka and add sugar and non-dairy creamer (stolen from DD) to create a Bailey’s Irish Cream effect. It’s not very effective.

The show moves to Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and bruises begin to appear on my limbs. If I press on my skin, a blue fleck develops within an hour.  My arms look like road maps of places I never intended to visit. I can’t afford a doctor so I go to a Woonsocket pharmacist. He tells me I have a vitamin C deficiency. Unless the pickles on a Whopper count, I haven’t eaten a fresh vegetable or piece of fruit in months. In another few weeks I’ll  have Rhode Island’s first reported case of modern-day scurvy.

I swear off crullers and fried rice, which is easy because Peaches and Bananas closes—who wants to see a bruised piano-playing stripper, anyway? I move back to New York City where I can buy a mango for a pittance and a bag of spinach for even less. To pay the bills between show-biz gigs, I take a job as an exercise instructor at an Elaine Powers Figure Salon. But that’s another story.

 Shopping List:

A bag of Dunkin’ Donuts crullers (the kind with icing)

Cold shrimp-fried rice (as much MSG as possible)

Sugar packets and non-dairy creamer (as many as you can stuff in your pockets)

Coffee and really cheap vodka

1986: The Unhappy Piano Girl Diet

I am playing two or three gigs a day in Manhattan. A serial dater with no real hope of ever finding Mr. Right, Mr. Wrong, or even Mr. Single, I go on a lot of dinner dates but never really eat much dinner. When I’m working—pretty much all the time—I live on white wine, smoked almonds, and Valium. At my low point (in more ways than one) I weigh 105 pounds, about twenty pounds less than normal for my 5’8″ inch frame.

No. I am not anorexic. I just forget to eat.

I finally have enough money to buy decent food—no more crullers!—but I don’t care about eating. I’ve lost those stubborn five pounds but I’m too miserable to enjoy their departure. T-t-t-timing.

Sometimes after work I go to a fancy sushi place and force myself to order a nice meal. This works out well until the Japanese chef—a guy whose name sounds like Homo (even though I’m sure it’s not) starts sending out “special treats” along with my dinner. One treat features something that looks like crocodile testicles. He might be interested in me in a romantic way but I don’t think I can date a man named Homo who serves me eel brains and doesn’t speak English. I stop visiting his restaurant when he starts showing up at my piano with roses.

I find a sushi-to-go joint and cart the tuna rolls home with me, where I watch Oprah re-runs about losing weight.

This diet is very effective but not much fun.

 Shopping List:

Why bother?

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1990: Shaken, Stirred, Whatever

This is where the martinis come in, along with a good man. I have one, now. He plays the bass. We drink; we laugh; we love. Best diet. Ever.  Occasionally we eat dinner.

Shopping List:

Absolut Vodka

Olives

Nice lingerie

 

1992: The “Having My Baby” Diet

I’m pregnant and happy but not gaining much weight. I’ve been a vegetarian for a year and I’m determined to stick with it. I’m repulsed by red meat, I’m not allowed to eat sushi, and the chicken/salmonella thing freaks me out. That leaves pork (the other white meat), but I’m not interested—Wilbur and all that.

Between piano gigs I eat egg salad sandwiches on onion bagels and consume buckets of soba noodle soup. I can’t seem to get enough orange juice—I drink it by the gallon. I give up smoked almonds and white wine. Finally, in my seventh month, people notice I’m pregnant.  In fact, it looks as if a jazz quintet has taken up residence under my black chiffon Piano Girl tent dress.

One of my husband’s musician friends expresses concern that I’m not gaining enough weight. He becomes almost hostile when John tells him I’m a vegetarian. I don’t really understand it, but some people get weird when you tell them you don’t eat meat.

I gain twenty pounds. Our son is born, weighing over eleven pounds and setting a six-year record at NYU Medical Center, where one of the overworked nurses refers to him as King Kong.

“Well,” says John. “Good thing you didn’t eat the steak.”

 Shopping List:

Egg salad from Zabar’s

Onion bagels (also from Zabar’s—see if you can get a volume discount)

Soba noodles (with mystery broth that could possibly be vegetarian, but don’t ask questions)

Orange juice (buy stock in Tropicana)

1994: The Nothing but Cheese Diet

I move to Germany and find myself in the land of cheese. I’m still a vegetarian, so the cheese solution seems obvious. The cheese in Europe is nothing like what we have in America—the stuff here actually tastes good. I find myself buying huge chunks of Parmesan and eating shards of it for dinner, along with salad and crusty French baguette. There’s a place down the road from me that makes its own goat milk cheese with an herbed crust. I can’t stop.

I should mention that European chocolate also plays a supporting role in this nutritional phase of my life. Those last five pounds not only find me again, they bring along some of their friends and have a party. I score a job playing the piano at a German castle, home of a Michelin-starred restaurant. The bar snacks are heavenly. The wine is divine. I am doomed.

Shopping List:

Cheese (but only if you’re on this side of the Atlantic)

An occasional grape

2008: The Wagon # 36 Diet

After a decade and a half of my cheese, wine, and coffee diet, I develop stomach problems. One incident, involving two hours on a grimy floor next to a toilet bowl in a long distance train from Berlin to Cologne, my roiling stomach feeling every rumble, grumble, and swerve the train makes, almost kills me. For 120 minutes, I shiver in the tiny restroom, staring at a sign that tells me I am in Wagon #36.

Then there’s the Barfing Fairy Event, which occurs during the run of a children’s musical I wrote. I’m wearing wings, a tulle skirt, a Dolly Parton wig, and rubber boots. It’s not possible to look cute while tossing one’s cookies, but I come close.

Another harrowing heaving episode takes place while I’m playing Music for Lovers at a Valentine’s Day dinner at a German castle.  I start the evening in good shape, but ten minutes into my second set (right in the middle of “All the Things You Are,” which absolutely no one recognizes) I find myself racing through the restaurant—dodging goo-goo eyed couples sitting at tables strewn with rose petals—desperately trying to reach the ladies’ room. I make it, but barely. I quit early and stagger into the parking lot. Somehow I survive the drive home. My beautiful red chiffon dress does not fare as well.

What’s that line in The Devil Wears Prada? “I’m one stomach flu away from my perfect dress size.”  I am one stomach flu away from being dead. I honestly believe I’m suffering from multiple episodes of the Noro virus and there’s nothing I can do about it. At least the five pounds are gone. But I am constantly nauseated and fearful of the next siege.

Enough. I visit a doctor. She tells me an inconvenient truth: I haven’t had twenty-four cases of stomach flu in the last nine months.  It turns out the things I’ve been eating and drinking have trashed my tummy. If I want to feel better, if I want to get my head out of the toilet, I have to makeover my diet. Makeover!—my favorite word. But this makeover sounds more like serving a life sentence in Food Prison. No meat, no problem—but no cheese, no eggs, no coffee, no wine, no sugar? No fun.  Evidently  I have to do this if I want to stay out of Wagon #36.

I embark on a vegan diet and regain my health.  I feel so much better so quickly that it’s surprisingly simple to stick with the program. But I wouldn’t have gotten this far if I hadn’t gotten sick first.

Shopping List:

Costumes appropriate for dramatic dashes to the toilet (avoid long scarves and shawls)

Acid producing foods  (pretty much anything you enjoy)

A high-speed train on a bumpy track

As much coffee as you can consume, topped off with a wine chaser.

Rubber boots

2013: The Silver Lining Cookbook

I stick to my vegan plan. Maybe it’s because I feel great, maybe it’s my refusal to ever again bow down to the porcelain queen, maybe it’s my fear of ending up on a train to nowhere with an upset stomach. For whatever reason, I’m still on the program. Honestly, it doesn’t really feel like a diet anymore, which may be the whole point.

I learn how to cook the kind of food that keeps me healthy. I’m not weak or dazed; I don’t have bruises; I’m never nauseated. My weight remains stable, which I find slightly disconcerting, as if I’ve been robbed of one of modern life’s most amusing themes. My friends talk about their latest diet adventures and I want to jump into the conversation, but there’s nothing exciting to report about brown rice and broccoli.

I have friends who fast, friends who drink tree juice, and friends who think bread comes from the devil’s bakery. I have friends who go on the Paleo program, forgetting that cavemen not only ate meat, they also went out and walked for weeks trying to find an animal for dinner. I know people who have gone on raw food diets, people who swear by kale, and people who drink shakes that taste like raspberry Kaopectate. I have thin friends who think they’re fat, and fat friends who think they’re thin. It’s a crazy world.

Frankly, I feel a little left out. I’ve been living on vegetables, whole grains, and tofu for so long that I forget what it’s like to tackle a new diet program, the thrill (!) that comes with the promise of a complete body makeover in fourteen days. Food for thought: women who diet all the time are the ones most likely to be overweight. It took me decades to figure this out.

My accomplice in the Great Egg Diet, my sister, Randy, wouldn’t touch an egg these days if I held a squash scooper to her head. She owns and runs a restaurant called Randita’s Organic Vegan Cafe, a name that simultaneously intrigues people and scares the seitan out of them. She believes in tasty, organic, non-GMO food, humane treatment of animals, and a plant-based diet for a healthy lifestyle. Who can argue with that? Go, Randy. Her husband, Dale, plays the guitar at Randita’s on weekends. Live music, healthy food, not a processed smoked almond or martini in sight. Maybe I’ll get a gig there someday.

My husband follows a vegan diet. My daughter is a vegetarian. My son (King Kong) is a lanky young man who, given a choice, would go for the cruller and the shrimp-fried rice every time. Yes, I cook meat for him. I serve cheese and yogurt to my daughter. Sometimes my husband and I feel like short-order cooks, but we do our best to keep everyone happy.

I don’t believe in being militant about food. Basically, if I’m halfway sober and in my right mind, I’ve always eaten what I need, when I need it. Sometimes I need a martini, a cruller, or a block of cheese. Sometimes I don’t.

Right now, I need to be healthy.

As for those last five pounds—they’re not up for discussion anymore. I feel great; I’m a normal weight, and, at this point in my happy life, there’s nothing left to lose or gain.

Shopping List:

Vegetables

Fruits

Whole grains

Organic soy products

Wine, every once in awhile (just because)

***

Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl, Rhythm, and Waltz of the Asparagus People.