King of Kings

Lovely to see so many members of the press corps here today. I know how busy you are covering Omicron, Ghislaine, and Harry and Meghan’s Christmas plans. Allow me to introduce myself: I am the great Plinka Kochovitch, award-winning director of such spectacles as Fauci: The Musical and the current Metropolitan production of the woodland animal opera Thistles and Whistles. As director of this year’s Nativity Scene on the White House Lawn I’ve faced my greatest casting challenge to date. 

We treasure your audition reels and want to assure you we took everyone’s submissions seriously. It wasn’t easy to plod through endless footage (with terrible lighting and garbled audio) of those of you interested in playing Baby Jesus, but we’re glad we did, even though most of you look ridiculous in swaddled rags. Who knew that by accepting candidates of all faiths, races, genders, and questionable values we’d receive reels from so many diverse corners of the world? Who knew? I knew, because I am the great Plinka Kochovitch and multi-culti controversial casting is my bag, swaddles be damned.

I automatically eliminated unsavory deposed dictators and convicted felons from my short list of candidates, because even though Baby Doc Duvalier and Martha Stewart might be perfect for Dancing with the Stars, I bristle at the idea of seeing them as Mary and Joseph. We will, however, be calling Martha for on set catering. It gets prettying frigging cold on the White House lawn and we hear her mulled wine recipe with essence of swaddle and finely ground reindeer antlers might be just the thing to keep our performers warm. Baby Doc is welcome to contribute to our Patreon page—we still have a few associate producer slots open. Baby, if you’re listening, have your thugs call my thugs.

I’m also sorry to say that cartoonish political figures have been struck from our final casting. In spite of rumors that Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene might be playing the lead roles of M&J, I can confidently say that the parts have been assigned to applicants with a little more gravitas. But should I eliminate all right wing extremists and guttersnipes from the hottest holy show in town? No! To show political fairness and balance in my casting, both Marge and Matt, along with Steve Bannon and the Kushners, are being considered for smaller roles as stable animals, although PETA has filed a protest, so no guarantees—we’ll need to see how they look in sheep, ass, and camel costumes.

Mitch McConnell, who auditioned for the role of Baby Jesus, has instead been assigned the part of the Innkeeper, where he’ll get to shout “No room at the inn!” as often as he desires. Casting Mitch as the Innkeeper is one of my most Plinka-inspired decisions. This is why I get the big bucks. His understudy? Joe Manchin, of course!

I know this won’t settle well with the Tiger King crowd, but I’ve decided not to cast Carole F***ing Baskin as Mary. In spite of her long, brittle hair, she looks super cute in a floral crown. She also volunteered to bring her own collection of tigers for the stable tableau. Instant wow effect! But I, the great Plinka, must listen to my instincts and protect my cast from mauling. Also, Carole is a bit long in the tooth to play a virgin, plus our catering budget does not include funding for horse meat. Those big cats, I’m told, can get very hungry.

Mary, I have decided, will be played by the inspirational, age-appropriate, and sacrifice-savvy Greta Thunberg. That’s if we can get her here on time—energy neutral boats from Sweden at this time of year tend to take awhile and there’s that pesky frostbite issue to consider. Still it’s worth a try.

Joseph will be played by Nancy Pelosi, because, frankly, I need someone responsible in this role and she’s the most adult person I know. 

The Three Wise (Wo)Men will be played by Oprah, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Angela Merkel. They will bear gifts of compassion, intelligence, and homemade Apfelkuchen. Liz Cheney will understudy all three roles.

The parts of the Shepherds (love the hooks) go to the Kardashians, because they know how to rock bulky shepherd clothing in shitty earth tones. It’s a shame to cover those hair extensions with shepherd hats but I’m thinking French braids? Note to costumer: I’m also hoping for long slits in the robes and padded ass inserts so one of them can balance a bottle of mead on her butt. The shepherds’ hooks can be used to drag Mitch off set if he gets carried away with his Innkeeper role.

We had almost as many applicants for angels as we did for Baby Jesus. The obvious choice, for me, was to delegate this fun but daunting task to Ru Paul. If anyone can work a sequined angel costume while suspended midair over a drab stable, it’s a drag queen. Note to Rue: I’m so hoping Aquaria and Kim Chi are available. Costumer: Let’s go with a rainbow theme for the angels this year. I’m so sick of the all-white look.

And now the big news! The finalists for Baby Jesus: Gaga, Malala, and Billy Porter. It’s unusual for me, the great Plinka, to be indecisive, but while stewing over this critical decision I had an epiphany that made my indecisiveness worthwhile. The role of Baby Jesus will be played by all of you. Inside the manger, placed at an appropriate angle, will be a large mirror. As you stroll past our beautifully staged nativity scene, listening to the squawks of restless stable animals and braying Mitch, shielding your eyes from the angelic rainbow strobe lights, and brushing Kardashian shepherd glitter from the shoulders of your best LL Bean parka, you’ll gaze into the mirrored manger and see—drumroll please— yourself. Jesus would have loved this, I think. You are him; you are her; you are them. King of kings. Lord of lords. Now get out there, darling, create positive change, and alter the course of humanity. No pressure. Baby steps count. Hallelujah.

Billy, Malala, and Gaga have agreed to join forces and play the Star of Wonder, shedding a brilliant, golden glow on all of you. Trust me, the great Plinka, you’ll need good lighting when you see yourself in that mirror.

Questions? 

***

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist and popular solo piano streaming artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl;  Rhythm: A Novel and Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. New from Backbeat Books: Piano Girl Playbook: Notes on a Musical Life

Wake Up, Santa!

Illustration by Julia Meloy Goldsby

In 1972 I won the coveted role of the talking Christmas tree at South Hills Village in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a classic suburban shopping mall whose other highlights were fast food French fries, soft pretzels, and Florsheim shoes.

I called myself “Tanya Baum” and spoke with a Hogan’s Heroes German accent. The kids were a little scared of me — I was a blabbering Christmas tree, after all —  but I cracked myself up, which I had discovered was the secret to success in just about any job. 

I made twenty-five bucks for crawling inside the tree suit and yelling seasonal greetings at kids for a couple of hours. My Tanya was a little nasty, she had a slight prison matron edge to her, softened by her coat of fake blue spruce and tinsel. I flicked her lights on and off with hand controls. I could see how much I was scaring everyone by looking through the angel on the top of Tanya’s head.

I got the gig because my dad was the bandleader of a jazz-comedy group called The Steel City Stompers, a popular trio in Pittsburgh with Dad on drums, Ray Defade on saxophone, and pianist Bookie Brown. All three of them sang. 

For years, Dad ran the McDonald’s sponsored “Wake Up Santa” breakfast at South Hills Village,  “Wake Up Santa” became popular after several failed attempts at having Daredevil Santa skydive into the mall parking lot, an annual disaster that once culminated in Santa crash-landing in a tree next to a gas station two miles down the road, where he was rescued by a crane, untangled from his parachute, and transported to the hospital by ambulance. Daredevil Santa wasn’t very good at judging wind currents. Or maybe it was Rudolph’s fault—when all else fails, blame the damn reindeer. The shopping mall officials decided it was  safer to place Santa in a comfy bed onstage inside the mall, with Dad’s band, Tanya Baum, and hundreds of Egg McMuffin-stuffed screaming children yelling for Santa to get the hell up. Apparently, nothing says “Christmas” quite like a snoring Santa refusing to wake up for the holidays.

Santa was played by a stout guy named Tony, who—during the rest of the year—worked as a manager of the shopping mall Baskin & Robbins ice cream shop.  A few years into the Santa gig Tony started hitting the booze, and who could blame him? As a matter of fact, so did Bookie, the pianist in Dad’s band. Bookie, who eventually joined that elite group of juiced-up stride piano players in the sky, had a really LOUD voice. We called him the Acoustic Miracle, because his voice could penetrate any crowd without amplification. With a deep and guttural timbre, he growled his way through songs, announcements, and the occasional prayer. Dad had to turn Bookie’s microphone volume down to minus-two when Bookie was drinking, because you could never be sure what he might blurt or bray across the room. Even Bookie’s whisper had legs.

At one of our annual “Wake Up Santa” events, after we jumped on Santa’s bed, played a trumpet in his ear, slapped him in the face with a wet wash rag (a child’s suggestion), smacked him in the stomach with a pillow (another child’s suggestion—the kids never, ever suggested anything gentle), and tickled his feet with reindeer antlers, Bookie raised his hand—and his voice—and said he had an idea.

“Yes, Grandpa Bookie?” asked Dad with a palpable amount of exasperation and  trepidation, “What’s your idea?”

Bookie, it seemed, had been imbibing with Santa at the local derelict bar down the road. Pre-breakfast holiday cheer. Who needs eggnog when you can have your Maker’s Mark, straight up?

“SANTA, YOU ASSHOLE!” slurred Bookie, in a stentorian tone. “If you don’t wake up, we’re gonna shoot you with the reindeer gun.”

Keep in mind—this was Pittsburgh in 1972. 

Dad, sharp-witted but slightly hard of hearing from years of slamming the drums, put down his microphone, looked right into my angel-head eyes, raised one eyebrow and said: “Did Bookie just say what I think he said? Did he just call Santa an asshole and threaten to use a reindeer gun?”

Jawohl!” said my Tanya Baum, because I took pride in my ability to stay in character. Dad and Ray were horrified, even though most of the parents and kids in the audience laughed. Nervous laughter, but laughter, nonetheless.

“Jesus Christ,” muttered Dad. “Okay kids, never mind Grandpa Bookie—now it’s time for ‘Deck the Halls.’ Bookie, get back to the piano! NOW! Stick out your tongue on the fa-la-la part. And look, kids! Grandpa Bookie is gonna wear the elf hat. Maybe that will wake up Santa.”

This was the last year we played for the “Wake Up, Santa!” breakfast. Not because Grandpa Bookie called Santa an asshole and threatened to shoot him, but because my father, at one point in the show, made fun of the McDonald’s breakfast buffet—all you can eat for two dollars. One bite and that’s all you can eat— and insulted the scary, big-lipped floppy-footed Ronald McDonald clown, played by a local bartender unironically named Jerry Error. In his day job, Jerry often poured bourbon for Grandpa Bookie and Santa.

“Check out Ronald McDonald,” said Dad to the kids after a rousing rendition of “Jingle Bells,” pointing at Jerry Error, who kept tripping over his clown shoes while trying to perform some kind of holiday jig.  “South Hills Village must be missing its idiot.”

“Jawohl!” I yelled. “Merry Christmas!”

**

Tanya Baum was the sanest part of that show. 

         Forty-five years later I wonder if Santa is still at the mall—sleeping off an early morning bourbon buzz, oblivious to the innocent but violent threats of little kids, and the earsplitting rants of tipsy piano players. The jesting, jabs, and slapstick brutality seemed slightly amusing in 1972. By 2018 these shenanigans will cease to be funny, especially if Santa, the pianist, or an outraged, unhinged parent—or a child for that matter—might actually be packing heat.

I’m sure the live music is gone, even if Ronald McDonald is still stomping around. Maybe the mall has gone back to the skydiving Santa theme, just to keep things edgy. Or maybe Santa now sits in a throne and kids come to perch on his lap while nymphs (or are they elves?) in red velveteen mini-skirts and thigh-high white boots dance to Mariah Carey Christmas songs blaring from speakers covered in plastic holly. Or maybe they blast Santa out of cannon—I’ve read about places doing that. That’s one way to wake up Santa, even if he’s drunk.

**

Pittsburgh, I came to discover, did not have a monopoly on Christmas insanity. 

         Thirty years after “Wake-Up Santa!”,  my daughter, Julia, was enrolled at a Montessori kindergarten in Germany, and every Christmas, the parents at the kindergarten performed a holiday play for the kids—a civilized, kinder-friendly policy that took pressure off the youngsters and placed it squarely on the sloped shoulders of the parents (moms). Appalled by the lack of suitable holiday plays for kids—most of the material in circulation was scary, religious, or inappropriately both—I sagely decided to write a musical. Come on, Germany—let’s have some holiday fun! Good tidings and cheer!

I needed to attract other parents (moms) to take part in the musical, so my cast of characters included a bunch of whacky fairies, since fairies are cute, entertaining, and provide multiple costume opportunities for those of us longing to relive our prom queen days. I also had access to an adorable rabbit costume with floppy ears, so I added a giant bunny to the cast, along with a narrator dressed as a tree. Tanya Baum, it would seem, was now part of my DNA.

 We had several disabled kids at the kindergarten, so I put the head fairy in a wheelchair, because it seemed like the Christian thing to do.  Fairies and a rabbit may not have been traditionally Christian but they screamed “enchanted forrest,” which is very German. I’m not Christian or German, but I know a thing or two about playing to the crowd.

I needed a plot. Remembering my days with Drunk Santa at the Pittsburgh shopping mall, I decided a snoring, sleeping fairy might be a good starting point. I named her Fatigue. The plot: Fatigue’s fairy sisters—Faxana, Flip, Faloona, and (my favorite) Farteena—spend thirty minutes trying to wake her so they can all fly home together for the winter holidays. They tickle her, yell, use magic wands that don’t work, and try to shock her awake with the smell of a dead fish. Nothing works. Finally, a giant, orphaned rabbit, named Hobo, joins them and wakes up Fatigue with a kiss on the nose. They sing a song and invite Hobo home with them for the holidays. The end.

Basically, Hobo and the Forest Fairies was a fancy-dress, bourbon-free version of “Wake Up, Santa!”

Amazingly, like our disabled lead fairy, the show itself had wheels. Over the course of several years, it was produced as a radio play by Germany’s largest radio/television conglomerate, released as an audio CD, then, and eventually staged as an annual holiday musical at a German castle. What started out as a slap-dash shoe-string budget musical for a bunch of really cute kids turned into a small fairy empire.

The live, professional production of the show debuted in 2009 at Schlosshotel Lerbach, where I was also the house pianist and artistic director of a concert series. To keep costs down and maintain control over my script, I cast myself as Flip the Fairy, a Barbie-blond with good intentions and a brain the size of a cranberry. I wore a prom gown, lavender rubber boots, and a huge wig that made me look more like a country-western has-been than a fairy. 

Julia, who had grown into a relaxed, well-adjusted teenager—in spite of her wand-toting mother—played Fatigue, the snoring, sleeping fairy. My biggest concern during the five-year run of the musical was that she would literally fall asleep onstage. Each year she seemed to skate closer to the edge as the novelty of playing the snoring fairy wore off. 

The show, of course, was in German. Wach auf! means wake up. But my American accent made wach auf sound like fuck off, not a phrase most parents want to hear in a children’s musical.

“Fuck off!” I yelled at our sleeping Fatigue during one of our dress rehearsals. “Fuck off!”

“Mom!” Julia said, sitting up and using her stern teenager voice. “I know you’re really into your role and everything, but you can’t yell fuck off in a play for five-year-olds.”

         Our musical director (the tree) needed to put on his tree suit in front of the kids, because, understandably, the kids freaked out if a mighty oak entered the room and began singing a sensitive ballad. My shrill, slightly sharp, Beverly Sills version of “Silent Night” and the cartwheeling giant rabbit caused more than one child to burst into tears. But the kids loved the magic wands—one of the wands was a Star Wars laser sword—and they flipped over the huge rubber fish and stuffed alligator. And they particularly loved Fatigue, who was already asleep onstage, snoring away, when the kids entered the theater. Some of the kids poked at her and wondered out loud if she might be dead. Julia was actually quite a good actress. 

We had hecklers, and worse. One time a kid in the audience gave me the finger and bit me on the knee during our rendition of the “Stank Fish Tango.” Another time a little girl–who had eaten too many of the complimentary butter cookies—exited stage left and threw-up directly in our entrance/exit path. Sometimes the kids hooted and hollered; sometimes they remained eerily silent.

After each performance our motley crew of fairies — Faxanna, Flip, Flop, Faloona, and Farteena — stood in the castle hall and greeted our guests, most them the same age that Julia was when I wrote the play for her kindergarten. Our run, which lasted long enough to get my daughter through high school without hating me, ended in 2014 when the castle closed. Good timing—my sixtieth birthday was looming, and I was a bit long in the tooth for a fairy costume. I enjoyed tulle as much as the next gal, but the Dolly Parton wig was like having a squirrel on my head and did nothing to help my hot flashes. Also, I had my career and reputation to consider. The fairy thing was taking over. And I really didn’t want to be known as Robin Goldsby, Menopausal Fairy.

Now I look back on that show as both harrowing and full of joy—an American holiday tradition that I swiped and re-invented for myself and my daughter because I didn’t much like the existing models. Festivus for the rest of us!

I cried when I got rid of the costumes. I had seven sets of feather wings and nowhere to fly, so out they went, along with the lavender rain boots. But I saved the rubber fish, because I figured  “Stank Fish Tango” might one day find a place in my act. You never know. Two years after our last performance, a German mother told me wistfully: “Farteena was my favorite fairy. I think of her so often. What a beautiful name.”

**

There is no stopping Christmas. 

          “Robin,” says Mr. B, the Food and Beverage manager of the five-star hotel where I currently play the piano. “We have a big problem. Santa is stuck in the snow.”

It’s December 2017. I am huddled, freezing in my parked car in Honrath, waiting for the  RB25 train to arrive and whisk me off to Excelsior Hotel Ernst. I’m scheduled to play tea-time piano for a group of civilized adults. In another area of the hotel, thirty excited kids and their parents are arriving for a children’s tea with Santa. But Santa, defying all odds,  is stuck in the snow.

“How is that even possible?” I yell. “He’s Santa! He can’t get stuck in the snow!”

“I don’t know,” says Mr. B. “It makes no sense. But he’s stuck. Can’t get his car out to get to the train.”

I happen to know that the actor playing Santa, a corpulent celebrity named Manfred, lives in my neighborhood, and I am not stuck in the snow, so how can he be stuck in the snow? I don’t want to get Santa in trouble, so I say nothing. Besides, maybe he really is stuck; I live in the valley and he lives high on the hill, two apparently different ecosystems. Sometimes it’s downright tropical in the valley when the hill people are scraping ice off their windshields.

“Do you have any ideas?” asks Mr. B. “We have all these kids coming and they are going to be very disappointed if Santa doesn’t show up. We certainly can’t tell them Santa is stuck in the snow.”

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

 “Who has the Santa suit?” I ask.

“We have it here at the hotel.”

“Good. I know what to do. Move the piano into the ballroom and find an employee to play Santa.”

“No one wants to play Santa,” he says. “They are shy. Plus, they are all too skinny.”

“Get Patrick the waiter,” I say. “He has acting training.”

“But he is the skinniest of all of them.”

“Doesn’t matter. We can stuff him. We also need a bed or a large chair. Someplace onstage where he can sleep.”

Obviously, my entire life revolves around one plot.

On the train ride into town—about thirty minutes—I plan the program. My husband sends me music—over my phone— to a dozen German children’s Christmas songs, all of which, like most Bob Dylan tunes, have three chords and four hundred verses. I stop at the Christmas market and pick up a couple of elf hats, race into the hotel, get Mr. B to print out the music so I can actually see it, and assemble the skeptical banquet team for a panicked talk-through. I tell them that Emergency Santa (Patrick) will be asleep on his giant chair and that we, with the help of the kids, will spend thirty minutes singing and trying to wake him up in time for Christmas.

Ten minutes till show time. I can hear the kids buzzing and jostling for position on the other side of the door.

Movie-star handsome Patrick, my Emergency Santa, might be slightly hungover from the night before, but he’s more than willing to help. Plucked from obscurity to step in for Stuck Santa, Patrick, in his skinny black jeans, looks like he stepped out of a Prada advertisement. Or at least he does until he puts on the red suit. The banquet director stuffs numerous pillows into his jacket and adjusts his fluffy white beard.

“You can do this Patrick,” I say, switching to a Firm Director Voice. “We are going to sing the Santa song, and then you stagger by the window and yawn, like you can hardly manage to carry that big ass sack of toys. This is no time for subtlety. You are exhausted. Wiped out. Can barely keep your damn eyes open. Enter the room, stumble over to the Santa throne and fall asleep. Snore into the microphone as loudly as you can. We will spend the next thirty minutes trying to wake you up. It might get rough—kids can be brutal—but stay asleep no matter what. Until the kiss. Then you wake up.”

Patrick tries to sip coffee through his Santa beard and stares at me like I have reindeer poo on my head.

“You sure this is going to work? I mean, have you done this before?” he asks.

I place my hands on his shoulders, look into his twinkling eyes, and say: “Trust me, Patrick. I’ve been in the “Wake Up Santa” business for forty-five years. It never fails. Wach auf, Santa!

“Ha!” says Patrick. “With your accent it sounds like fuck off, Santa.”

“Exactly,” I say. “Go with it.”

The kids enter the room. I put on my elf hat and play the piano. They sing along and eat cookies. I play the Santa song and Patrick, the world’s skinniest Santa, wobbles, teeters, and lurches past the window.

“Oh no,” I say to the kids. “Santa looks very tired. I wonder what could be wrong.”

Right on cue, the ballroom door creaks open and Patrick, going for gold with his portrayal of a drained and weary Santa, moans and crawls—crawls!—to the stage, dragging his overloaded bundle of toys behind him.

Best Emergency Santa ever.

Wach auf!

Along with a couple of banquet waiters, I drag Santa into his chair. He snores like a drunken elf. We do everything we can think of to wake him. We sing. We yell. We tempt him with over-priced macarons and tap on his head with pinecones from the expensive centerpieces. We get parents to do the reindeer dance. Volunteers from the audience don the elf hat and jostle Santa, to no avail. I really wish I had thought to bring the rubber fish.

Finally, after we reach the thirty-minute mark—the longest half hour of my life—I suggest a kiss and a sweet little boy puts on the hat. Smooch! Santa wakes up. The children cheer. This might be a decidedly upscale group of privileged European children, but really, at this moment they seem identical to their Pittsburgh shopping mall and Montessori kindergarten colleagues.

Kids are kids. Fun is fun.

Ho-ho-ho. Santa might have gotten stuck in the snow, but Emergency Santa, one pillow shy of a proper jelly-belly, has saved the day. After the show, Patrick returns to his glass-polishing post in the kitchen, I return to my Steinway in the posh lounge, and the kids, high on chocolate and sugared tea, head into the winter wonderland, clutching swag bags of candy and small toys.

On his way out, the little boy who kissed Santa asks my permission to keep his cheap, felt elf-hat.

“Of course,” I say. “It’s yours—the holiday chapeau! You saved Christmas for all of us.”

“Look,” he says, pointing outside. “It’s snowing! Santa is going to have a great trip around the globe this year. He loves snow!”

“Yes,” I say. “Let’s hope he doesn’t get stuck.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” says the boy. “Santa would never get stuck in the snow.”

***

An excerpt from Goldsby’s newest book, Piano Girl Playbook: Notes on a Musical Life. Courtesy of Backbeat Books.

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist and popular solo piano streaming artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl;  Rhythm: A Novel and Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. New from Backbeat Books: Piano Girl Playbook: Notes on a Musical Life

When I’m Sixty-Four

Robin Goldsby, in her dressing room at Buckingham Palace in 2017. Photo by Julia Goldsby.

Another song lyric comes true. I shouldn’t be surprised that sixty-four sneaked up on me, but since I’ve spent most of the last three decades assuming I’m still thirty-two, the idea that I’m a year away from taking my musician union pension seems a little extreme. In honor of this milestone, I’ve composed a list of sixty-four discoveries I’ve made in the last year.

  1. Inanimate objects (such as plastic wrap, coat hangers and electrical cables) are capable of attack. 
  2. There are more idiots in the world than one would hope.
  3. There are more kind people in the world than one would expect.
  4. Your breasts get bigger as you age, but so does everything else.
  5. Underwear costs more than shoes.
  6. Lingerie salespeople will try to convince you to buy a smaller size bra for “comfort and support.” Don’t listen to them or you will end up with underwire-induced rib fractures, especially if you spend a lot of time sitting on a piano bench. 
  7. Spanx (the 21st Century girdle) make you feel (and look) like a human sausage. 
  8. A good marriage depends on trust, but relies heavily on laughter.
  9. Nothing beats tomato soup and grilled cheese (even if it’s vegan).
  10. Jackie O had it right. Big black sunglasses are the ultimate fashion accessory.
  11. Reciting the details of a complicated Will Smith movie plot will put your partner into a stupor.
  12. Restful sleep determines your ability to get through the day without slapping anyone (including Will Smith or yourself).
  13. It’s possible to fall going up the stairs.
  14. Nothing hurts quite as much as broken toe. 
  15. No one looks good when their feet hurt.
  16. Hunger and bloat are flipsides of the same coin.
  17. Your kids will either leave home at age eighteen or live in your basement until they’re forty. Either way, you’ll be worried.
  18. No one looks good in beaded fringe. Except maybe Tina Turner or the drag queen Kim Chi, but you’re not them.
  19. You probably don’t need two cars. You might not even need one.
  20. Autumn leaves might be pretty, but they can also make you sad.
  21. Autumn leaves, once they drift by your window and land on your front steps, are slippery (see #13).
  22. The ocean never loses its appeal, even if you suffer from fear of fish.
  23. Your own kids are now older than you are (in your head).
  24. Your doctors all look like they’re fifteen.
  25. Some of your kids’ friends are now doctors and lawyers, which is disconcerting because you remember their muddy hands and chocolate-smeared faces.
  26. You really miss those chocolate-smeared faces.
  27. Your children work in fields that didn’t exist when you were their age.
  28. One activity a day is plenty. Dinner at home does not count as an activity, unless you have guests.
  29. Embrace positive change, even if it means rethinking your pronouns.
  30. You can never have too many pairs of stretchy black pants.
  31. Fruit flies were sent to this earth by the devil herself.
  32. If you think you see a big mouse, it is likely a rat.
  33. Women leaders are better for the world.
  34. As much as you might hope it to be so, The Squid Games is not the heartwarming Netflix sequel to My Octopus Teacher.
  35. Privilege breeds arrogance; arrogance leads to indifference; indifference destroys the planet.
  36. A compassionate person always wins, even when she loses.
  37. If you must get dressed up, wear pajamas with bling. 
  38. No one looks good in plaid, except maybe a very buff logger and you’re not good with a chainsaw. Yet.
  39. Pick one vetted charity organization and support it any way you can. If you don’t have cash, donate time and create awareness.
  40. Be nice to restaurant service people. Tip well. You want these people on your side. `
  41. Visit your friends whenever you can. They (or you) might not be around forever. 
  42. Fruit flies will be around forever.
  43. Turn off the TV or the computer. Read a book, even a trashy one.
  44. Magnesium and Vitamin D supplements solve all kinds of problems.
  45. Go for a walk, even if it’s raining and you forgot your umbrella.
  46. Keep your eyes on your own paper.
  47. Maintain an anti-clutter policy on your kitchen counter.
  48. Have your piano tuned.
  49. Black patent oxfords look hip with just about any outfit.
  50. Tell people you love how much you love them. Often.
  51. Buy local. 
  52. Go to a concert.
  53. Support your local non-chain restaurant.
  54. Always avoid the Balkan platter, unless it’s the specialty of your local restaurant.
  55. If you’re freaked out by the climate crisis, stop buying factory-farmed animal products and anything packaged in plastic (see #1). 
  56. Ask for help when you need it.
  57. Help others when you can.
  58. Dance, especially if someone is watching.
  59. Be aware that the “advanced beginner’s course” is likely more advanced than beginner.
  60. Learn to love root vegetables and naps.
  61. Carole F. Baskin is probably guilty of feeding her husband to the tigers.
  62. Laugh, cry, craugh.
  63. Every day is your best day. Ready, steady, go.
  64. Remember that intermission is over. It’s the second act of your life, sister. Onward.

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist and popular solo piano streaming artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl;  Rhythm: A Novel and Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. New from Backbeat Books: Piano Girl Playbook: Notes on a Musical Life

Running on Empty

I stopped drinking a year ago. Those of you familiar with my tales of debauchery and hijinks from the piano lounge might find it hard to believe that I could soldier through a five-hour solo piano gig without a glass of Sancerre on the little marble table next to the Steinway. But here we are—Piano Girl 2.0, steady and secure in my newfound sobriety. Hold the sauvignon blanc. Pass the lemongrass-infused green tea, please. Shoot me now.

Every evening when six o’clock rolls around and I’m sipping ginger-ale, I wonder if I’ve made the right call. What fun is this? If I’m at work, I’m heading into my last set of music. If I’m home, I’m thinking about dinner prep. Both activities—transitions from one part of the day to another—have historically (or hysterically) been cocktail triggers for me. Wow, my brain says—time to soften my focus and loosen things up a bit. Nothing wrong with this plan, in principle. Soft focus is good. No focus, not so much. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized I need my wits about me to make sense of things that used to be second nature—playing the piano without sounding like an idiot, for instance. Or writing. Or dicing fresh ginger into impossibly small pieces. Or getting through the evening without bursting into tears at least twice. 

Why did I quit? Two years ago, my husband, John, was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Nutrition became a big part of his recovery plan. No more alcohol. Alcohol turns to sugar and cancer loves sugar. John had stopped drinking a few months before he received his diagnosis, almost as if his body knew there was trouble down the pike. It took me a year of drinking/not drinking to get onboard, but the self-discipline sobriety ship has sailed and I’m content to be a passenger, even if I’m slightly bewildered about where the damn ship is heading. But at least, I’m  focused.

Following the onset of the cancer crisis, we, like all of you, experienced the paralyzing shock of Pandemic: Season One. I decided I would strive to come out of the lockdown healthier than I was before it started. This meant staying away from the potato-chip couch and finally bailing on the booze. I was never a mean drunk, a happy drunk, or a fall-down black-out drunk—I was more of a sleepy drinker. I could easily knock back half a bottle of good wine every evening before falling into a grape-induced fitful slumber. I was one of those women who, when asked by a doctor if I drank, routinely responded: “Oh, not really, just a glass of wine with dinner once or twice a week.” 

Doctors, listen up! The “one glass with dinner” lie has been propagated for so long by so many that it’s widely accepted as truth. I don’t know a single drinking person who only has one four-ounce glass of wine with her meal once or twice a week. And if you want the two-glass buzz, forget drinking with dinner. You need to drink before you eat. Six o’clock always worked for me.

I remember my two grandmothers showing up one New Year’s Eve to babysit for my sister, brother, and me so my mom could go to my dad’s gig at a Pittsburgh nightclub. Mom told both grandmothers they could each have one drink. After she left, Della and Laura slinked into the kitchen and found the biggest glass receptacles in the overhead cabinets—a flower vase and an ice bucket—and made their cocktails following my mother’s “just one” instructions. In their defense, my sister and I had prepared a two-hour Sammy Davis, Jr. lip-syncing extravaganza for them, so I’m sure they required sustenance.

Over the years, I’ve worked alongside award-winning sommeliers in Europe’s best houses, playing piano for people willing to pay a king’s ransom for a simple bottle of wine. In former times, some of that elixir—sent to the piano by a generous guest—would be my beverage of choice for the evening. Surrounded by shadowy elegance, flickering candlelight, and eccentric service staff who occasionally tossed rose petals on the piano, how could I resist a glass or two of overpriced swill? 

One of my favorite sommeliers, a lovely man named Silvio Nitzsche, once told me that the enjoyment of wine depended less on the wine’s quality and more on ambience and company—that the key to savoring a bottle of the good stuff is to drink it in a beautiful place with someone you love. I’m now hoping that same philosophy applies to sparkling water with lime.

Here’s a story: On one of my private party piano gigs in a German castle, a gold-toothed corpulent client—complete with a Versace-clad supermodel hanging from his arm—decided he liked my rendition of “Let It Be.” 

He boomed: “You play ‘Leet Eeet Bee.’”

This man was used to getting what he wanted. I’ve never responded well to rudeness and my trained-seal days are well behind me, but he also slapped a hundred euros on the piano. So I smiled and played the tune, the Piano Girl equivalent of balancing a ball on one’s nose. The “Leet Eet Bee” request happened five more times, each time accompanied by dwindling amounts of cash. Eventually, the guests left for dinner in a room attached to the main hall. My gig was over. The sommelier ran to the piano with a glass of viscous red wine and said, “This is from the guy with the gold teeth. He wants to hear “Let It Be.’”

“Again?”

“Again.”

“Forget it,” I say. I already played it six times and I’m finished for the evening. I like Paul McCartney as much as the next boomer, but enough is enough.”

“No, no, no,” said the sommelier. “This wine! It’s eighteen hundred euros for a bottle. He sent it as a gift. ‘Leet Eet Bee.’ You have to play eet and drink eet.”

I drank the wine, even though I had already inhaled two lesser glasses of white wine that someone else had sent to the piano. Being a wine idiot, I did not recognize the greatness of this blood-colored, slightly smoky wine. I could always distinguish the difference between bad and good wine, but the disparity between good and great escaped me. I was also terrible with remembering the names of wines I had enjoyed over the years, perhaps due to that soft focus issue I mentioned earlier. By the time I decided I liked a particular wine, I was too far in the bag to commit its name to memory. I don’t think this is mentioned in the average twelve-step program, but I suspect that an inability to recall what one is drinking might be an early warning sign that one should not be drinking so much.

At this point in my adventure with the stout McCartney fan, I had consumed more money in wine than my salary for the entire weekend, a financial slap in the face for any musician, especially one with college bound children.

How can I leave all these fond memories behind, you might ask? I’m not sure if alcohol is really such an integral part of our fun-loving adult lives or if we’ve all been brainwashed to believe that it’s impossible to have a good time (or a bad time) without it.

Here’s a typical scene from almost any current television program—a coatless, borderline-anorexic woman busts through her luxury high-rise apartment door, beelines to the fridge, grabs an open bottle of wine and pours it into a glass that might as well be a bucket (Della and Laura would approve). She kicks off her Jimmy Choos, then walks around her bookless home—decorated in shades of taupe—and cries, laughs, craughs. It almost doesn’t matter, because she has her wine.

The drinking culture is everywhere. At tacky weddings and big deal birthdays and lovely christenings and tearful funerals. At rowdy athletic events and classical concerts and high-school graduations. If we’re not being offered a cocktail, a glass of Prosecco, a beer, or an Aperol Spritz, we’re seeing ads for booze or sexy scenes in films that involve cut glass tumblers and bottomless bottles of Scotch. 

We meet each other for drinks, toast our friends, and reminisce about the time–forty years ago—when Susie (perhaps not her real name), had too many tequila shots, stripped to her knickers, did the alligator dance on the bar, and boffed the bartender after last call. How funny was that? Or how about the time she got so drunk she mistook the candleholder for a wine glass and burned her nose with scalding wax when she attempted to drink from it? 

That Susie, what a party girl.  

I used to think that alcohol defined my life. I’m writing about it, so I guess, in some ways, it still does. Even in an essay about giving up alcohol, here I am making my drinking life sound funny and glamorous. It was, sometimes. Is there anything more hopeful than a martini glass holding the promise of the evening ahead? The sensory accessories that accompany the consumption of alcohol are almost as seductive as the alcohol itself—the fluted shape of a crystal glass, the floral perfume of an artisanal gin, the fragile stem of the glass between your pulsing fingers, the rhythm of the cocktail shaker, the ice-cold slice of silver as the vodka slides down your throat. And don’t get me started on olives.

The truth? I didn’t feel good when I was drinking. That simple.

A life after sixty is one of sacrifice, but not without rewards. I’ve given up smoking and dairy and meat and wheat and I’m healthier as a result. I’ve given up inappropriate men and toxic relationships and gained a beautiful marriage and a circle of loyal friends for whom I would die. I’ve watched my kids amble away from home but have reaped the rewards of their steadfast devotion to their father and me. Sacrificing things I thought I couldn’t live without has paid off in unexpected ways.

I assumed the world would be boring without booze. But serenity, it turns out, is not my enemy. I try to meditate, I treasure the lack of drama in my life, I wander—still bewildered but clearheaded—through the chaos of midlife knowing I’m at peace with myself. I miss the idea of “Susie,” but not enough to revisit her memory in real time.

These days I pull myself together at six o’clock, pour some Pellegrino into a festive wine glass, add some lemons, or if I’m in an exotic mood, a berry or two, and toast my husband knowing that I’ll sleep well and awaken feeling even-tempered, rested, and possibly a little boring.

I’m almost sixty-four. Boring is so much better than it’s cracked up to be. 

A wellness preacher, I am not—I’m not suggesting that anyone else stop drinking. My career as a cocktail pianist depends on people’s willingness to show up, sip something delicious, and be transported to another plane by music and beverage. I realize that substituting Kombucha for vodka at cocktail hour requires mental gymnastics; I also realize that there are millions of mid-life women just like me, who don’t necessarily need a detox trip to Betty Ford, but might benefit from an attitude readjustment. Those of us in the addict-lite category only need to step away from the corkscrew long enough to realize that life can be pretty wonderful without wine, especially once the fog clears. 

Serendipitous timing! Just as I was giving up alcohol, I had a cocktail named after me—a pretty big achievement for someone who has been playing in cocktail lounges for forty-five years. The drink, called “The Goldsby,” involves Ruinart Champagne, peach brandy, bitters, and a sprinkling of edible gold dust. Bam! It’s served at Excelsior Hotel Ernst—the hotel where I play the piano—in a retro bowl-shaped crystal Champagne coupe. It’s the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen and even though I’m not tempted to drink one, I’m thinking about ordering the Goldsby just so I can sit on the chic leather banquette at the hotel and balance it in my hand. I do so love a good prop. 

“Maybe the barman can concoct a virgin Goldsby,” I say to my husband. 

“A virgin Goldsby?” says John. “Good luck with that.”

Perhaps an empty glass would do. But I’m not giving up the gold dust. 

***

Photo by Vecteezy

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist and popular solo piano streaming artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl;  Rhythm: A Novel and Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. New from Backbeat Books: Piano Girl Playbook: Notes on a Musical Life

Swamp Rats and Other Thoughts

Pandemic fun fact: The giant swamp rat (also known as a nutria), formerly a resident of boggy parts of South America, now inhabits European city ponds and other small waterways. The revolting rodent boasts a beaver’s brawny body without its slapstick paddle tail. Instead, the swamp rat has a spiny, naked tail, the type seen in horror films about grisly devils with horns and pitchforks. If that’s not bad enough, the swamp rat, about the size of a Dachshund, sports buckish, bright orange teeth. I’ve seen videos of Cologne families with small children, likely bored with Disney Plus and hankering for a fun-fun-fun pandemic outing, feeding cookies to these creatures. 

In Cologne, an extra-hefty swamp rat named Theo rules one of the popular city parks. A pandemic mascot, so to speak.

Photo by TJ Darmstadt, taken at his own risk

They’ve become a problem in the USA, too. In the state of Louisiana, government officials are currently paying six bucks for every swamp rat you can shoot. Here, we feed them cookies.

I do like the name Theo, though.

If biscuit-stuffed swamp rats inhabit our lesser bodies of water, I shudder to think of the colossal critters swimming in the Rhine. 

Speaking of swimming, how I pine for a good splash party, though perhaps not in the Rhine. I miss the pool, but I can’t imagine entering a germ-filled public locker room ever again. Maybe someday I’ll find a pristine, private body of water, devoid of rodents, noxious viruses, and anything else that sucks the life out of women and small children. Maybe I’ll stick with my bathtub.

I’ve invented a new word. Craughing. It’s crying and laughing at the same time. My friend Peg says that Craughing also might be a town in Western Pennsylvania.

Does Interval Fasting work? Let’s give it a try.

Declutter! I’m all in.

But first, a little hand scrubbing with my new lavender scented soap that smells suspiciously like vomit.

I’m thinking about Wayne, a regular piano lounge customer of mine at the Manhattan Grand Hyatt several decades ago. He showed up most nights and sipped a gin martini (straight up, three olives, side of flavored rocks). Wayne was a nice guy who had obvious OCD issues—he insisted on sitting on the same barstool night after night and was known to arrange his uneaten smoked almonds so that they all faced the same direction in the nut bowl. He left the bar every five minutes to go to the men’s room. We thought he suffered from a spastic colon, but a Hyatt employee named Samson—a reliable source of information when it came to scoping out the scene in the men’s room, a place that hosted a fair amount of nefarious activity—told us Wayne was in there constantly scrubbing his hands. Poor Wayne was a germaphobe, years ahead of his time, which, considering the toxic condition of Manhattan and the Grand Hyatt in the eighties, may have been wise.

That’s me now. I am Wayne.

Out damned spot! Out, I say. This soap smells truly vile. 

I’ve taken to composing music in E minor. It’s the only key that currently feels right to me. 

“Waltz for Theo”—a little tune for the next album.

I do so love a good costume drama. Did you watch Bridgerton? I did, and I am bothered by the heaving bosoms, not because I find them unsanitary, sexist, or offensive, but because, after watching a few episodes, I made a serious attempt to make my own bosom heave and failed miserably. Even if I crank my breasts up to my chin, I can’t get the heaving thing happening. I think there’s something wrong with me.

Also, my arms are too short in comparison to my long torso. After I pointed this out to my ape-limbed family, they started calling me T-Rex Goldsby. 

T-Rex Goldsby, from Craughing, PA. (Note to self: Good song title, medium shuffle, “Hard Hearted Hanna” groove.)

And my eyebrows are disappearing.

Let’s discuss pedicures. I think often of Howard Hughes and his long, curling toenails. I am not Howard. Yet.

Hands up if you hate your own cooking! 

I’m not craughing; you’re craughing.

Word of the year: efficacy. A fancy way of saying this shit works.

I have a recurring nightmare that I’ve been cast in the next season of Bridgerton, and I get fired on the first day because of my non-heaving bosom, lack of brow, long toenails, and T-Rex arms.

Most overused media phrase: “shots in arms.” As opposed to what? Shots in necks?

I would gladly accept a shot in the neck if the EU could get it together to offer one. Or as the Brits say, a jab. A jab in the neck. Where do I sign up?

My daughter, whose default setting has always been cheerful, is applying to film school. She showed me her audition package. Dystopia, depression, loneliness—that’s what’s on her mind, and who can blame her? She’s a mirror, not a megaphone, and this is how she sees the world—a moment in time that seems to be lasting a thousand years, characterized by masked faces, jabs in arms, and swamp rats.

One of those swamp rats (not Theo) recently killed a dog. A small dog, but still.

“You watch,” Julia says. “Upcoming headline: Rat Eats Kid.”

In a year jampacked with outrageous stories, this would not be so outrageous.

I’ve gotten used to everyone looking like a robber. We moved to a new place in January, and I’m afraid when I finally see my neighbors without their masks, they will have buckish, bright orange teeth and I will be frightened.

Maybe I could toss them some cookies.

Call it age, call it Corona, but I’ve grown tired of aiming for the stars, so now I’m aiming for less carbs. In a world hellbent on winning big, looming large, and finishing first, the pandemic has taught me that I’m okay with losing ground as long as I can circle my wagons so tightly that I’m touching virtual noses with members of my squad.

Some members of the squad might be getting a tad bitchy.

I could eat that chocolate donut now, but I really should wait another eighteen hours. Interval fasting!

I struggle to find anything new, profound, or earth shaking to put forth through music or words. So I spit-shine what I already know—and those things, when I’m lucky, seem trifling and evanescent—like fireflies on a stagnant lake, petite reminders of diminishing hope in a world grown bleak and blue. 

Anyone want some popcorn?

“Bleak and Blue.” (Note to self: Good song title. Maybe E minor. Submit to Billie Eilish.)

Fuck interval fasting. 

Is this a good time for a facelift? 

In spite of my cushioned pandemic experience, I’m crushed by the desperation we’ve all witnessed over the past year. Is this a wake-up call to start paying attention to each other again? Not with likes and follows and clicks and comments, but with actual human contact. A phone call, a postcard, a letter—hell at this point even an email seems old-fashioned and quaint, texting fools that we’ve all become. 

Cashew butter! Such fun.

I miss wearing lipstick.

I miss wearing real clothes.

I miss seeing smiles, grins, smirks, uplifting expressions of surprise or humor or run-of-the-mill good cheer.  

I miss you.

I hate E minor.

Does anyone make gluten-free vegan pot brownies?

Swamp rats. Seriously?

Why does everyone on Netflix have sex on desks and kitchen counters?

Flirting is difficult without eyebrows.

I’m tired of feeling grateful.

Because I miss you. 

Why does everyone on Instagram have access to better filters?

Why is my dermatologist fourteen years old?

Why do I only know twelve and a half of my 3,000 Facebook friends?

Why does Twitter feel like screaming into an empty paper-towel tube?

Is there a musician alive who successfully uses Linked-In?

Should I Tik? Or Tok? And if I’m older than fourteen is it okay to participate? Would my dermatologist approve?

Why can’t I heave my bosom?

I. Miss. You.

I loathe the term “new normal,” but by all accounts, that’s what we’re got. We’re raising a generation of kids (Lil’ Waynes in training) who might spend the rest of their lives obsessively scrubbing their angry red mitts; young adults grieving their stunted careers and nonexistent social lives; millions of weary moms who have given up their jobs to make sure their six-year-olds don’t play with machetes and rifles when they should be doing their math homework; trampled down, forlorn and forgetful seniors who felt neglected and unjustly sequestered before the pandemic even began; and the rest of us—the empty-nest middle agers tilting into our best years without the questionable rewards of family reunions, holidays abroad, or leisurely cocktail hours with like-minded friends. 

I admit it. I’m sad. 

Here’s to the ladies who lunch—how I’d love to sit around a table with two or three of my favorite friends. We could cry; we could laugh; we could craugh. We could toss baguette crumbs and stale Fig Newtons to the swamp rats. Or shoot them (not Theo). 

A year ago, at the beginning of the siege, I took some heat for calling a pangolin “butt-ugly.” With the recent appearance of the European swamp rat, it’s clear to me that our less-cute animal friends now rule the world. They probably think we’re the ugly ones.

Low-grade depression is a drag. It gnaws on your soul with buckish, bright orange teeth.

Buck up! Put on some pants. More popcorn. Let’s reorganize that shoe rack one more time. 

Who’s zoomin’ who?

This is the second spring in a row that I’ve bought every tulip in Holland in an attempt to cheer myself up. Despite its ballerina elegance, even a perfect red-headed tulip—when it ages and drapes itself over the edge of a crystal vase—resembles both a drunken comedian and a benzodiazepine overdose candidate.

A wilting tulip is the Lucille Ball of the botanical world. Even when it’s half-dead, I smile. Tulips are the only flowers that can make me craugh.

I miss you.  

I would hug you if I could, but my short arms can’t reach that far.

photo by Andreas Biesenbach

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl;  Rhythm: A Novel and Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Stay tuned! Coming in May from Backbeat Books: Piano Girl Playbook: Notes on a Musical Life

Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. If you’re a Spotify fan, go here to listen. NEW! Check out the Piano Girl Podcast. Stories, music, fun. Do you play the piano? Have a look at Robin’s solo piano sheet music here, including her popular arrangement of the Pachelbel Canon in D.

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas 2020

Photo by Eric Parker

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a critter was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of normalcy danced in their heads;
And me in my ‘kerchief, and John in his cap,
Had just snuggled down for a long winter’s nap,

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
With Trump on the loose I expected a scene ,
I hadn’t slept soundly since 2016.

The moon on the breast of election day snow,
Gave a tangerine luster to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a glimmer of promise, diminishing fear,

With a little old driver, so raring to go,
Forget about Nicholas, this must be St. Joe.
More rapid than eagles his soldiers they came,
And he cheered, and he shouted, and called them by name;

“Now, Kamala! Stacey! Pelosi and Jill!
Ginsburg! And Yellen! My god, what a thrill! To crash through the ceiling! On top of the wall!
Let’s dash away madness, let’s dash away all!”

These women as as bright as the star studded  sky, They’ll carry us onward and with them we’ll fly, 
The house and the senate they’ll turn the night blue,
A sled full of hope, and Pete Buttigieg too.

I heard, in a twinkling, the playing of notes,
The prancing and dancing of millions of votes .
As I bobbed to the music, and spun all around,
From the chimney St. Joe he appeared with a bound.

He was dressed up for winter, from head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A troubled campaign it had taken its toll,
But he looked like a rocker who’s ready to roll.

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And his hair was as white as the whitest of snow; Let’s do this he shouted! Our future, how merry!
The Paris Accord in the hands of John Kerry!

Joe spoke to me firmly, he gritted his teeth, The challenges circled his head like a wreath,
We’ve got a real mess on our hands this is true, So what do you think that John Lewis would do?

Good trouble, O’biden, you wonderful elf!
I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know we had little to dread;

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
He filled up his cabinet; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, to the White House he rose;

Joe sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him proclaim, as he drove out of sight,
HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO ALL, AND NOW LET’S GET IT RIGHT!

**

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl;  Rhythm: A Novel and Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. If you’re a Spotify fan, go here to listen. NEW! Check out the Piano Girl Podcast. Stories, music, fun. Do you play the piano? Have a look at Robin’s solo piano sheet music here, including her popular arrangement of the Pachelbel Canon in D.

Thanksgiving: Keep the Cat off the Pie

photo by Andres Bertens

During his presidency, Abraham Lincoln declared November 26th  a “national day of thanksgiving.” The holiday, meant for reflection, gratitude, and fasting—evolved over the centuries into an occasion set aside for mainlining gravy, combat shopping, and the televised spectacle of muscle-bound adult men trying to kill each other on a football field, cheered on by young women in silver fringed bikinis and go-go boots.

Some of us still recognize the day for what it is, although this year, restricted from travel and super-spreader soirées, we’re forced to dig deeper to muster a little warm and fuzzy thanksgiving-ness.  I’ve been living in Europe for twenty-six years, and although I haven’t exactly gone native, living in a land devoid of most American traditions—good luck finding a proper turkey or baton twirler in Germany—has made me cherish the ones I’ve left behind. I confess to experiencing a twinge of remorse every year when Thanksgiving rolls around, but that has more to do with missing my family than it does with cornbread, turkey wattles, or cornucopia centerpieces. 

I was a Thanksgiving baby. My mother went into labor around 1 a.m. on November 25th, 1957, an inconvenient date for Mom, who had been determined to have one last peaceful Thanksgiving dinner at home before all hell (and water) broke loose. 

Sixty-three years ago, Thanksgiving was a hectic time in the music business. When Dad, a  jazz drummer, got Mom’s emergency call, he was preparing to start the last set of his Monday night gig at Pittsburgh’s Point View Hotel—a grandly named venue that was basically a saloon with a couple of rental rooms upstairs. He raced from the payphone back to the bandstand and tossed his sticks to Hershey Cohen, a brilliant trumpet player with a debilitating stutter. Hershey, as luck would have it, was a drummer wannabe.

“Hershey!” shouted Dad. “You’re on!” Hershey tried to argue, but his speech impediment—combined with the paralyzing fear of having to sit in for one of the region’s best drummers— prevented him from getting the words out. By the time Hershey managed to say said n-n-n-no, Dad was home. It was 2 a.m. and my mother was sitting on a towel, her packed hospital bag at her side.

“Let’s go!” she said. “Let’s get this show on the road!”

“I left Hershey in the lurch! The poor band! Poor Hershey! What will they do?” said Dad.

“What about me?” said Mom.

“I have to change clothes,” said Dad.

“What about me?”

“I can’t show up at the hospital dressed like a jazz musician. What would they think? What should I wear? The green or the blue cardigan?”

Eventually, they arrived at the hospital where Mom spent seventeen hours in labor. Dad kept going home and changing clothes. In 1957 men were shunned from the labor and delivery area—where all the fun was happening— which left him little to do but wait, contemplate his next costume change, and worry about his Point View Hotel gig on Tuesday night. He dreaded returning to the bandstand empty handed—what, no baby?— but at the rate things were progressing (or not), he was facing the jazz guy walk of shame. What—no cigars? I arrived at 8 p.m., which left him just enough time to buy a round of drinks for friends at a bar next door to the hospital, go home and change clothes again, and head back to the Point View. In keeping with family tradition, he never missed a night of work.  

I was two days old when I attended my first turkey dinner at Southside Hospital—back then women routinely stayed in the hospital for five days after giving birth. I recently asked Mom, who has always had an odd affinity for institutional food, about her Thanksgiving dinner that year. She said: “The meal was excellent!” 

*****

I’ve never been big on holidays that glorify the misdeeds of our forefathers. It has been reported that settlers in my hometown of Pittsburgh—on Thanksgiving of all days!—attempted to poison Indigenous People with smallpox infested blankets, an early iteration of biological warfare and the ultimate Christian slap-in-the-face thank you gift. Pittsburgh has gotten its hospitality chops together since that unfortunate incident, unless of course, you’re visiting from Cleveland during football season.

As a kid, before I knew about the poison blankets, I was fond of the fantasy kumbaya Pilgrim story—even if the Pilgrim outfits and hymns were a little on the austere side. My father joked that our ancestors were the lounge act on the Mayflower. Pilgrims: The Musical! How my ancestors got from Plymouth Rock to Pittsburgh, I’m not sure—perhaps with the Priscilla Standish Trio (featuring Lil’ Humility Alden on fife), but I can pretty much guarantee they were not cloaked in white bibs, cone hats, and buckled shoes when they arrived. 

Every year, with my brother and sister, I watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on television, silently judging the marching bands and majorettes in their feathered hats and shiny tights. The floats and balloons weren’t so interesting to me, but I loved the drumlines, the choreographed trombone players of the Grambling State University Marching Band, the way the piccolo trill slashed through the blast of the brass section, and the ear-splitting peal of the glockenspiel.

Oh, to learn how to twirl a cymbal. 

Forget the Pilgrims! I longed to be part of that Macy’s parade, a marcher, flag bearer, majorette, a prancing elf or a glittering fairy or one of Santa’s fake-fur-clad helpers. Every Thanksgiving during the sixties and early seventies, I lolled on the Ethan Allen sofa, one ear tuned to whatever piece the featured college band was playing, the other taking in the sounds of Mom and Grandma Curtis preparing the dinner. They broiled and basted; they polished and pressed; they stirred and chopped and vacuumed and mopped until the meal was ready, the house was spotless, and the entire neighborhood smelled like a Pepperidge Farms spa with croutons soaking in a hot tub of butter, onions, celery, and turkey fat. 

My mother made excellent pies. Stripey the cat thought so, too. No store-bought pie crusts in our kitchen, but homemade masterpieces that involved chilled butter, shortening, Grandma Rawsthorne’s secret-weapon multi-generational aluminum pie pans, and a big dusty mess in the kitchen.  One year, Stripey leapt to the counter and, as cats do, walked across a pumpkin pie, an hour before guests were due to arrive. Without missing a beat, mom reached into the fridge, grabbed a spray can of whipped cream, covered the incriminating paw prints with an inch of white fluff, and swore me to secrecy. In her defense, Stripey’s catwalk happened a decade before our awareness of toxoplasmosis, so her cover-up was hardly a bioterrorism act on the level of the smallpox blankets, but still. She could have offed the entire family, which may have been exactly what Stripey had in mind. 

Every Thanksgiving, following cocktails and some sort of fancy nut-covered cheeseball served with Triscuits, we hovered over the table in our small dining room and listened to Grandma Rawsthorne, musical director of Haven Heights Methodist Church, sing: 

Be present at our table, Lord,

Be here and everywhere adored,

These mercies bless and grant that we,

May feast in paradise with thee.

Really, her booming contralto voice was a miracle. In show biz terms, she was a tough act to follow. But Mom outdid herself year after year—the dinner was always lovely and traditional: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, greenish beans, cranberry sauce, three kinds of pie (one with paw prints). Left to my own devices, I would have eaten all of the mashed potatoes. Those potatoes were heavenly.

Certain members of my family professed unreasonable enthusiasm for a casserole referred to lovingly as “scalloped oysters.” This culinary nightmare, upheld by my dear Uncle Billy and Aunt Jean as a true gourmet delight, featured a quart of raw fresh oysters, cream,  milk, butter, and saltine crackers. Even Stripey stayed away. 

“Fine,” said Uncle Billy. “More scalloped oysters for the rest of us.”

We gave thanks, we took another serving of something we didn’t need, and, up to our cone hats and white bibs in stuffing and mincemeat, pushed away from the table, certain that next year and the next and the next, we’d all be back for more.

We should have seen it coming, but we didn’t. One by one, we began to die, to bend with age, to move away, to drift—bulky with the burden of newborns and in-law obligations—to other family units. But back then, our original family clung together, watched parades, ate the damn scalloped oysters, told pilgrim and turkey jokes. Maybe we even gave thanks, in a tipsy, lucky-us kind of way. Maybe we were naïve or blissfully ignorant. Maybe we were happy. 

What I would give to sit at my mom’s Thanksgiving table one last time.

This year my birthday falls on Thanksgiving Day, just as Abraham Lincoln intended. Like so many Americans in this time of plague and paucity, I’ll be forgoing festivities, but my recollections of family and friends will sustain and nurture me. To a ravenous woman, even a modest meal is a feast.

In the late nineties, ruminating over Thanksgivings lost, my Aunt Pinky and I wrote a cringe-worthy halfway-ironic country-western song (complete with a bastardized lady-baby rhyme) that made us laugh and cry all at once. 

There’s always someone missing at the table,

Always someone who ain’t able,

To pick up the Thanksgiving ladle,

And pour on the gravy of life.

Oh, the gravy of life.

I still think in the right hands this could be a hit. If only Grandma Rawsthorne could show up to sing it. We would put Pilgrim buckles on our tap shoes and take the show on the road. Dad could be in charge of costume changes. Hershey could sub on drums. Mom and Grandma Curtis could cater the tour. Scalloped oysters for the band, and buckets of gravy for anyone else who’s hungry for love and mashed potatoes, perhaps not in that order. 

Gravy: The Musical! Maybe not this year, but the next and the next and the next.

Too Close for Comfort

Humans have a voracious desire to reach out and touch the people they meet. They hug, kiss, shake, hug again; they pass love, respect, and germs back and forth like a bowl of cool-ranch Doritos at a July 4th party. Greetings have always been unsettling. Anyone who has fallen victim to the Christian “side hug” (a graceless embrace that begins like a normal hug but ends with a surprising shove to the side to avoid genital contact) will affirm that it takes two to tango when it comes to proper greeting etiquette. How many times have I banged noses with an enthusiastic greeter who goes left instead of right with the European kiss-kiss? Or had my delicate Piano Girl fingers crushed by the vice-like grimy grip of a hulk wannabe who uses all his strength to shake my hand? Saying a proper hello has always been weird, but in 2020, it has gotten ever so much worse. 

The greeting playbook has been rewritten, my friends, and our options are limited. 

I’m not a fan of the fist bump. President Obama—King of Cool—has always gotten away with fist bumping, but the mortals among us are best advised to avoid it. I will raise my fist for other issues—to threaten a punch in the nose, to protest for peace—but a greeting is not one of them. Plus, those germs still land on one’s fist, right? What if I have the urge to lick my fist later in the day? Or rub my eyes like a baby? Or try to do that party trick where I put my entire fist in my mouth? And is my hand sanitizer, the one currently causing my cuticles to peel and bleed, really strong enough to kill the deadly contagions that have been loitering on the other guy’s knuckles? Sorry, but unless I meet Obama, no fist bumping. 

The elbow touch, a close relative of the side hug, might be somewhat effective, but when I see a bunch of old Caucasian guys touching elbows, I always think they’re about to break into an awkward white-person soul shake, and that the next thing on the agenda will be snapping fingers (on one and three), hip thrusts, butt bashing, and Trump-inspired lizard dance moves. Let’s not go there. 

For a short while, the toe tap seemed popular. I call it kicking. The first time this happened to me—during an encounter with a banquet waiter while playing a piano job at a fancy-pants castle wedding—I couldn’t fathom why a member of the service staff was kicking me. Kicking, in polite circles outside of the prison yard, has never been an acceptable greeting. How are you, darling? Bam! In retrospect, I think the waiter was aiming for the toe of my leopard-skin pumps but missed and hit my lower leg. He presented me with a glass of fine champagne after the assault, but my shin remained sore for days. That’s no way to greet a lady.

There’s always the Jeffrey Toobin Zoom wave-wank, but most of us aren’t brave enough to appear anywhere in public without pants, especially while discussing the upcoming erection election. There but for the grace of Zoom go all of us. 

Who’s zoomin’ who, anyway?

Here’s my suggestion: Let’s all agree to bow. Bow, as in bend from the waist—not bow as in playing a string instrument arco, although that too could be an interesting greeting if everyone agreed to play in tune. My husband, the double bass player, wrote a book once, which has become somewhat of a cult classic in the bass community. The title—Jazz Bowing Techniques for the Improvising Bassist—has caused some confusion over the years. Is that a bow in your quiver, or are you just happy to see me? Ask Jeffrey Toobin.

Some Asian cultures embrace the bow as a respectful form of greeting. I’ve gotten into a few bowing battles with Japanese fans (how low can you go?), and it can be a lot of fun, although somewhat distracting if one is, say, in the middle of performing a Satie Gymnopedie or a Gershwin standard on an instrument with questionable action. Still, bowing while playing is easier than trying to shake hands, bump fists, or touch elbows with an animated guest who doesn’t recognize that it takes two hands to play the piano. And I’d much rather be acknowledged with a bow than have someone kick my pedal foot out from under me or wave an unmentionable appendage at me when he thinks I’m not looking.  

Added bonus: Bowing can be executed from a distance and it functions nicely in both analog and digital settings. It’s an all-purpose way to say hello.

I like bowing. As a performer I’ve been doing it most of my life, usually to get someone to clap for me, present me with roses, or give me money. As a kid, fantasizing about thunderous applause and an audience who might actually like what I do, I used to practice bowing in the mirror. I’m good at it and you can be, too. There’s the throw-away nod, the nonchalant jazz-guy bow, the namby-pamby my-heart belongs-to-you chest pat, the Shakespearean current-call bow (complete with hand flourish and leg gymnastics), the deep diva-curtsy, the namaste prayer-hands dip, and the royal meet-the-prince bob. You can personalize your bow for each situation. Make it eccentric, business-like, comedic, or coy. Pratfalls are permitted if one is wearing heels or has a bad hip. Do keep your pants on.

And here’s the best part—no touching. You can send love into the world, or at least across the room, without bruising your shins, breaking your nose or fingers, suffering the indignity of the Christian side hug, exposing your private parts in front of an editorial team, or catching the frigging plague from someone who may have had her fist in her mouth seconds before meeting you. 

The cautious curtsy may become a permanent addition to my repertoire of standard greetings. I’ve always been a full-on hugger, but that’s over unless the huggee is part of my inner circle. Do my bows look ridiculous? Probably. But if you’re wearing a mask and standing at a distance, you can laugh yourself silly and I’ll never know. 

Nice to meet you. 

***

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl;  Rhythm: A Novel.  New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip.

Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. If you’re a Spotify fan, go here to listen. NEW! Listen to the Piano Girl Podcast. Stories, music, fun. Do you play the piano? Check out Robin’s solo piano sheet music here, including her popular arrangement of the Pachelbel Canon in D.

Concert in Candlelight: Home for the Holidays

Concert in Candlelight: Home for the Holidays: An Evening of Solo Piano Music and Stories by Robin Meloy Goldsby

Sunday, December 13th, 2020 at 6:30 PM

Excelsior Hotel Ernst, Cologne Germany

Presented in English and German

With special guest Heike Bänsch

The Concert in Candlelight tradition continues! Celebrate the Advent season with the brilliant pianist and author, Robin Meloy Goldsby. “Home for the Holidays” features Mrs. Goldsby’s unique arrangements of familiar holiday melodies, new compositions from her album, “Home & Away,” and charming stories about Christmas in Europe and the USA.

Come home for the holidays—and join Steinway Artist Robin Goldsby, along with German actress Heike Bänsch, for an evening full of light, reflection, love, and laughter.

The concert will be presented first, at 18:30. Following the program, guests will enjoy a champagne reception, followed by a three course gourmet meal accompanied by corresponding wines.

Price: €95— per person, includes the concert, a champagne reception, and dinner, wine, water, and coffee.

Space is limited. Please reserve early. Call +49 221 2701‬ for information. Also available with an overnight stay at the beautiful Excelsior Hotel Ernst.

Sea to Shining Sea

1972. As a teenager, I was keen on seeing the world outside the confines of Pittsburgh, PA—a fine city in the seventies for football (go Steelers), hockey (go Penguins) and Baseball (go Pirates). We had a symphony orchestra (go Mahler), a handful of respected universities, and a rich cultural heritage that rode on the flashy black and gold coattails of steel and oil barons, the savory scent of pierogi, and a peculiar Pittsburgh-ese dialect that caused most of us to sound like second-rate hillbillies crossed with Scottish nobility. 

My family took vacations whenever my parents could scrape together enough money to haul us from the Golden Triangle to the distant shores of Lake Erie, Lake Chautauqua, Conneaut Lake, Lake Geneva. Lake people, we were. Usually my musician father had some sort of gig that financed these trips—a “sing for your supper” strategy that I admired early on and would one day adopt for my own travel purposes.

During the seventies, Mom worked as an executive secretary for a major steel company. Dad, who had a respectable career as drummer, worked around the clock. Money was tight but we managed to live stylishly on a budget. One of my friends—also from a working-class background—thought we were rich because we had matching towels in our bathroom. At our Chatham Village home on Pittsburgh’s Mount Washington (pronounced Mahnt Worshingtahn) we had cocktail hour every evening and sat down to a home-cooked dinner together before Dad dashed out the door to one of his many gigs (sometimes two a night). We argued and laughed and knew we were protected by some dumb luck version of light skin, decent parenting, humor, and adequate public-school education. Back then we didn’t call it middle-class white privilege—but that’s exactly what it was.

One summer our parents announced we would take five weeks off and drive cross country in our beige Plymouth station wagon (which may have had wood paneling) to learn more about our beautiful country and to experience first-hand its abundance of glory. Purple mountains majesty, amber waves of grain, all that. Sea to shining sea. The trip, paid for by my mom’s small inheritance from my grandfather, was presented to the three kids in my family as the adventure of a lifetime. My parents could have used the money for a new car (without panels) or a cruise to nowhere for themselves, but, sensing, as most parents do, the silent ticking of the empty nest clock, they opted for one last family experience, a trip we might all remember.

No GPS, no seatbelts, no internet. We had an AAA Trip-Tick, a roof rack with suitcases strapped to it, and, thanks to dad (AKA Mr. Maps) a detailed plan of where we wanted to be and when.

I was fourteen at the time—head over heels in love with Mark Anthony Lazzaro, the sweet-talking handsome star of the South Hills High School football team. I had yard-long dirty blond hair, braces that gave me a headache, and a gilded, gauzy idea of the future that didn’t extend much beyond winning the next swim meet, showing up at cheerleading camp, or practicing my latest piano assignment—activities that would be impossible to accomplish during a five-week road trip.

Costume opportunity! I packed multiple sets of hot-pants with matching halter tops. I owned a few dresses called “sizzlers” with skirts so short they were sold with matching underpants. Along with a collection of swimsuits and one inappropriate slinky evening gown that I planned to wear in Las Vegas, that was the extent of my wardrobe. 

I have dozens of skewed recollections from that cross country trip. Almost half a century has slipped by since we piled into the car and— bouncing around like pubescent bean babies on the bench seat—set off to see the sights. Memories blur—but here are a few of them.

Heartbroken and missing Mark Anthony Lazzaro, I called him from a payphone somewhere in South Dakota. I had two dollars in change and intended to spend all of it on the call, but a giant bat flew into the phone booth. As much as I worshiped Mark Anthony Lazzaro, I wasn’t going to risk getting a bat tangled in in my hair, so I hung up on him while my sister, Badass Randy, sat in the car and laughed at me. Badass Randy has always adored bats.  

The Badlands (which might as well be called the Batlands) of South Dakota looked like the landscape of Mars. I whistled the theme song from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and roamed through the pitted landscape like an outlaw in a sizzler dress.

We stopped in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and took a cable car into the Grand Tetons. From high in the sky we saw a moose running free. We went on a riding trip and Dad got a horse named Thunder who refused to move.  I wrote to Mark Anthony Lazzaro every single day.

The wild buffalo of Wyoming—hundreds of them!—approached our car and snorted in the windows. We went to a state park for a picnic and a little baseball activity. Dad, forgetting my unique inability to throw or catch anything, threw a fastball at me that grazed the top of my mitt, smashed into my fashionable aviator prescription glasses, and sliced my eyebrow wide open. Blood, so much blood. Dad almost fainted but Mom stayed remarkably calm (she has always been good in medical emergencies). My brother took one look at me and screamed: “She’s blind!”  We staggered into a Jackson Hole ER and they stitched me up. 

Dad dragged us to see the location commemorating Custer’s Last Stand (more precisely known as The Battle of Little Bighorn) on the Crow Indian reservation in Montana.  If you ask any teenage girl what’s on her list of fabulous places to visit, the General Custer Memorial might take last place. I was sporting a large bandage on my forehead and, aside from the hot pants, looked like one of the wounded soldiers depicted in the museum mural. Mortifying. It was 1972, so we were insensitive but didn’t know it, walking the battle ground with Dad making inappropriate jokes about Chief Giant Eagle and his second in command, Walking Bass. To support the Crow community, we stayed in a chain hotel on the Crow reservation. It was a huge inn, with no guests, except for us. Bugs were everywhere and I remember being sad. We stopped making jokes.

We visited Yellowstone and had a snowball fight in our summer clothes. Dad, his fishing rod ever present, managed to catch a few trout, which some of us ate for dinner. 

We cruised into Utah so we could drive really fast on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Without seatbelts we hurtled across the flats at what seemed like 500 MPH. The white family on the white ground speeding into the white sky toward a white horizon. We felt like we were fleeing the earth. I was scared and my eyes hurt from the glare. 

We went to Great Salt Lake where we swam in stinking, viscous water with swarms of tiny insects circling our bobbing heads. Dad said “Float like a cork!” about one thousand times. We stopped to see the Mormon Tabernacle but visitors were not welcome.

One part of the trip involved a five-day rafting trip on the Green River that may have started in Idaho or Utah or Wyoming. Several buff, sun-polished young men with large biceps navigated the rubber rafts through red-stoned canyons, telling us when to hold on tight. During the course of the trip, I developed a crush on Davey the skipper and temporarily forgot about Mark Anthony Lazzaro. 

Sleeping “under the stars” was part of the river trip—an idea that has never appealed to me, mainly because of, well, bats. An unexpected August monsoon also meant that sleeping under the stars meant sleeping in the mud. I got my first period and spent most of it concerned that Davey would see the wedge of pads and paper towels I had jammed in my hot-pants. Davey, I’m guessing, never looked in my direction. 

Wounded eyebrow, first period, mud-sleeping. How much outdoor trauma could one fourteen-year-old girl take? On the day we were to travel through the white-water corridor appropriately called Hell’s Half Mile, Davey warned us the passage would be extremely dangerous due to the rainstorm and speed of the water. He advised us to strap ourselves down. Davey was in the middle of the raft with the oars. My brother and dad were up front with two other passengers. Badass Randy and I were in the back with our mother. Mom traversed the length of the raft making sure each of us was secure—tied to the boat with multiple ropes and secure knots. I rolled my one functioning eye and tried to flirt with Davey. 

Mom—in a classic move from the motherhood playbook—was so concerned about her kids, that she didn’t bother to secure her own position, choosing to hold onto a thin piece of twine that was attached a heavy metal box of frozen chicken. Hell’s Half Mile lived up to its name—scary rapids, huge bolders, and actual valleys in the water’s surface. Mom, clinging to her twine, catapulted into the water. At first, we laughed. But then we couldn’t find her. She was under the raft, her claw-like hand still clutching the twine, which was connected to the chicken anvil, which was jammed against my left foot. Just what I needed—more blood and a missing mother. Davey, who never seemed to panic, panicked. Somehow, he convinced Mom to let go. Eventually, on the other side of Hell’s Half Mile, he fished her out.

Hell’s Half Mile was a very long way from Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle.

I slept in the mud under the stars that night, a roll of Bounty paper towels wedged in my pants, my foot throbbing, and thought: People pay to do this? Fifty years later, my periods have stopped, but I still have a scar on my ankle from the chicken box. 

To my relief, we moved on to the West Coast. We visited the family of an FBI agent in San Francisco and he took us to lunch in Chinatown and spoke Mandarin to the waiters. In 1972 we didn’t have Chinese food in Pittsburgh,  and this seemed beyond exotic. We swam in the Pacific and visited Disneyland. I remember the Small World ride and that God-awful song. I also recall my devastation when I realized I was way too tall to ever play the part of Tinkerbell, Snow White, or any other Disney princess. If I wanted to work at Disney—which seemed a reasonable career choice to me at the time—my only hope was a gig in a Goofy Costume, or maybe playing the piccolo in one of the bands.

Next stop, Las Vegas. Badass Randy and I wore hooker dresses (electric blue and lime-green Spandex) to see performances of Sammy Davis, Jr., Gladys Knight and the Pips, Steve and Edye. We stayed for three days—probably two days too long—and I spent most of the time feeling fake-glamorous on a lounge chair next to the huge pool at the Stardust Hotel. Dad gave each of us a few dollars in quarters and we played the slot machines. I won ten bucks on my first try and quit. I spent the money calling Mark Anthony Lazzaro from a payphone in the Stardust lobby.

Obstinate, sunburned, and fed up with my family, I refused to get out of the car to see the Grand Canyon. I actually slept through the Painted Desert, or pretended to, because I didn’t want to look at rainbow colored sand or another cactus. I pitched a teen-queen fit when Dad checked us into a seedy motel—the last one with a vacancy in Seven Flags, Arizona—and there were hundreds of crickets in the beds. Crickets! “Harmless,” he said. He moved us to another town, into a cricket-free truck stop with a pool that featured its own family of frogs. Wildlife. It was everywhere.  

Other memories rise to the surface now and then: Hoover Dam, Lake Mead, Old Faithful, Lake Tahoe, Route 66, the Pacific Coast Highway, Yosemite, Wall Drug. Aside from the Chinese food and the damn frozen chicken on the rafting trip, I don’t really remember what we ate. I assume we stopped often at McDonalds. Plain hamburger, pickle and mustard, no fries, vanilla milkshake.

My parents were brave. Dad, determined to record our adventure, had purchased a Super-8 film camera before we left Pittsburgh. The first image in the film is one of my grandmother, her hand raised in a paralyzed, farewell salute—she didn’t understand the concept of a film camera, and posed like she would for a still photo.

I look back at the film now and marvel at our youthful selves, our ridiculous diving board shenanigans, my bandaged head, the buffalo. I keep returning to the start of the trip, the way my grandmother stood in the driveway, bidding farewell, attempting to stop time as the car rolls slowly away.

This land is our land. We saw potential and courage through the prism of privilege. We saw fruited plains, too many statues of white men, and manmade wonders built on the bent backs of immigrants. We crossed bridges and swam under the surface of emerald lakes. We hiked until our knees ached and rode weary horses over glittering, sunlit trails our ancestors had stolen from their rightful owners. We looked down from wind-whipped mountaintops and up from verdant fields into a sky that stretched to the stars and back. We watched waves crash against burning shores. Racism, intolerance, and ugliness were far from our minds.

I was an innocent teenage girl with a boyfriend, a good family, and a future.

I floated, like a cork.

****

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl;  Rhythm: A Novel.  New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip.

Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. If you’re a Spotify fan, go here to listen. NEW! Listen to the Piano Girl Podcast. Stories, music, fun. Do you play the piano? Check out Robin’s solo piano sheet music here, including her popular arrangement of the Pachelbel Canon in D.