Flying Home for Funerals

On the day I fly home for my brother’s memorial service, the boarding area at Frankfurt International Airport looks the set of a Broadway musical. Not a glitzy Hugh Jackman extravaganza with feathered chorus girls and a mirrored backdrop, but a bleak, throbbing production with a malfunctioning smoke machine, no singable melody, and an obtuse plot. In today’s cast of characters are a cheerless Balkan basketball team, several homeward-bound military families, backpacked German tourists, and assorted businesspeople. We’re all wearing some version of athletic-wear or pajamas, except for the businesspeople, who sport blazers over their yoga and jogging pants. 

Our flight is headed to Detroit, where most of us will shuffle or hustle through the terminal to snag flights to other cities. I’ll be connecting to Pittsburgh, home of the Steelers, the Pirates, the Penguins, and the Rawsthornes (my family).

A beer-bellied man in the departure lounge wears cargo shorts and a t-shirt that says “sex addict.” Like so much in the modern world, travel has become an exercise in maintaining one’s dignity—maybe respectable costuming would help. My eighty-eight-year-old mother tells me that passengers once dressed elegantly for air travel. A woman wore gloves and a hat that matched her travel ensemble; a man wore a suit (hard pants!) and real shoes. I do not pine for the days of stretch-less clothing and stiletto heels, but I reject the notion of dressing for a day trip to Sea World while on an international flight.

I spy a family of redheads: two parents with six children under the age of ten traveling with an enormous amount of carry-on luggage and a pair of those creepy, hairless cats. Animal lover that I am, I should call the kitties cute and leave it at that. Not cute. The kids, with their flaming halos and Bugs Bunny logo-shirts, are cute, but they might be trouble because all kids are trouble on long-haul flights. The parents look shell-shocked. Their combined airfare is at least 10K, and that’s without the cat tariff. Where are they going and why? A vacation? A travelling family band? I think not. Moving? 

Perhaps, like me, they are flying home for a funeral. The cats whine; the kids perch on top of suitcases stacked in a neat row on the lounge floor; the parents watch over the lot of them, resigned and slightly morose—an army of depressed Weasleys. 

My brother, Curtis Rawsthorne, was also a redhead of sorts; he had strawberry blond hair and blue eyes. He died in January at age fifty-nine. It is now June. We have scheduled the memorial six months after his death because my parents needed time to process their crushing grief. Every second person in our family had suffered a bout of Covid through the winter months. Plus Pittsburgh snowstorms, at their January finest had pummeled the not-so-Golden Triangle. Back in the heart of winter, June seemed like it would be a more fitting time to celebrate his life. Curtis was, in his youth, a boy of summer. Baseball, beaches, butterflies. 

And then there were two. With the death of our brother, my sister, Randy, and I are the leftover kids. Randy lives in Panama where she volunteers as a coral restoration scuba diver. After dealing with her own international flight trauma-drama, she will meet me at the memorial venue—a lovely country club where our brother worked in the kitchen—and the two of us, travel weary and bleary-eyed, will attempt to guide my parents through the aftermath of their tragedy. I’m not sure there’s enough love to help them through this, but we, the leftovers, shall try.

I hope I’m not sitting anywhere near those redheads. I’m not enthusiastic about a romper room rebellion halfway over the Atlantic. That sounds like a lack of compassion for the parents of small children, but I’ve paid my dues flying with my own unpredictable toddlers over the years. Who can ever forget the exploding diaper incident, or the time my eighteen-month-old son morphed into Robert DeNiro (think Cape Fear) on a flight to Frankfurt? I should have been banned from all European airports after that episode.  This time around, I’ve paid a goodly sum to sit in the Premium Peasant section of the plane—the area of economy seating reserved for those too thrifty to buy a seat in business class but upscale enough to want to pretend.

I’m an American living in Cologne, Germany. I’ve been overseas since 1994.  My inner circle of friends includes a dynamic, bad-ass group of international women. We came here for work and love, to escape political madness, to absorb European culture, to raise our families with an elevated quality of life. This works out beautifully, until someone we love grows ill and dies and we’re a million miles away.

Here’s what no one told us when we moved to a distant land clutching a big bag of youthful dreams for our future: One day, members of our original tribe—our oldest friends and family members—would begin to die, and we would be brought to our aging, creaking knees by the emotional distance we must travel to get back home. 

Expat Americans don’t have a franchise on travel woes, especially when it comes to bereavement flights. But it seems worse when flying home from overseas. Maybe it’s the ocean, the time change, or the jet lag—or maybe it’s the thud in our stomachs when a surly and suspicious American immigration officer looks at our US passports (and foreign residence permits) and says, insincerely, “Welcome home, ma’am.”  

I really hate that.  

Boarding begins. The long list of priority passengers makes me crazy. First class, business class, the Olympic-sounding gold-silver-bronze medallion travelers (good thing they’re all dressed in athletic clothing), the Sea-World bound self-proclaimed sex addict, families with small children and hairless cats, US military personnel (thank you for your service) and finally, the rest of us. The airline might as well call us the Great Unwashed—we hover in the lounge as an airline official attempts to convince us to gate-check our carry-on luggage, an action required because the medallion people and the redheads strolled onboard with a thousand small suitcases and large paper sacks. 

As I skulk into the long, gray, optimistically named “skyway”—the sloped tube that leads us onto the plane—I recall the time our toddler daughter threw herself on the floor and rolled her way to the plane’s door. We were running late, and my husband suggested she hurry. Those were the best old days, when our family boarded planes to reach a sun-kissed vacation, an overdue family reunion, or an exotic job opportunity. Days of wine and roses and diapers and new life and adventure. We rolled on dirty carpets without fear.

It seems like no one died back then. We concerned ourselves with births, education, making a living, creating art, seeing the world, drinking martinis, and dining in exotic European restaurants that featured olive trees, lavender, and gnarly French chefs who put bacon in the vegan salad. Our lives seemed glamorous and vital, peppered with nonchalance, as we bumbled our way through the world’s airports and train stations with too much luggage, a stroller, and (bonus points for difficulty) a double bass trunk the size of a Subzero refrigerator. We were glamorous and vital and delightfully confused. Now, in our mid-sixties, just when we have come to our senses and figured out how to live without unnecessary drama, our parents and siblings and friends are dying. WTF. 

My brother died before my parents, a tragedy that wasn’t in my midlife playbook. My friend Raquel says that being in your sixties is like being thirty-seven weeks pregnant—there’s no going back and anything can happen at any time. Anything can happen.

In the skyway, I stay six feet away from the person in front of me—leftover Covid regulations stick to me like gray hair on a black sweater—but the maskless man behind me breathes down my neck. It’s late morning and he smells like popcorn and stale beer. Maybe I should hit the ground and roll.

I don’t recall flying anywhere with my brother. We saw much of the USA from the bug-splattered windows of a wood-paneled Plymouth station wagon. We laughed at my dad’s jokes, squabbled over who got the window seats, and ate fast food hamburgers with extra pickles. My brother, the youngest in the family, was our golden boy. During one cross-country trip in 1973, Randy and I spent six weeks with him bouncing around (no seatbelts!) on the bench seat of that Plymouth. Like the redheads in the back of today’s plane, we never questioned our destination; we went along for the ride and counted on some fun along the way.

I fantasize about an airline that caters to those of us flying home for funerals. A flight of fancy, so to speak.

“Now boarding,” says Helen Mirren, our flight attendant and grief counselor for the day. “Now boarding all passengers who have recently lost family members or close friends. Everyone else, please step aside for the red-eyed Sorry People as we carry them onto the plane.” Helen would place us in beds with fluffy cashmere blankets and give us noise reduction headphones tuned to streaming platforms that play ocean sounds or Yo-Yo Ma interpretations of Bach Cello Suites or whatever music soothes us. 

“During our flight today, we offer fresh ginger tea along with light tranquilizers. Feel free to request your international comfort food of choice. This afternoon we suggest organic mac ‘n cheese and mashed potatoes, with adjustments made for dietary restrictions and allergies. Vanilla cake with just enough frosting will be served before landing.” 

Five-star luxury for fifty-star grief. None of this would help. Death is death is death. Eventually we lose everyone we care about. Or they lose us. It’s the economy-class tariff we pay for the first-class privilege of love.

Back to reality. I have an excellent seatmate—a handsome young man named Sebastian with a growing family and a thriving business. He’s physically fit and even smells good—no small thing for those of us who have occasionally been seated next to a sweating, man-spreading passenger with a stinking sack of greasy fast-food. Sebastian and I talk just enough—I tell him about my brother and he expresses his condolences—and then we return to our books and laptops. Premium Peasant class seems to be working out just fine.

My brother, who was both knowledgeable and curious about world politics, never visited me in Europe. Our lives and interests drifted further apart as decades passed—our shared history decanted into an annual restaurant visit arranged by my parents, who enjoyed seeing their three children together sharing a meal. 

During the flight I make my way to the rear of the plane to use the facilities, an act that requires confidence, hand sanitizer, and the ability to karate-kick the flush button with one leg while balancing on the other. Three of the redhead children writhe on the floor in front of the door to the toilet cabin. Making their own fun, they’re playing some sort of lizard game with toilet paper. They roll around on their bellies while growling “gotcha!” Someone is going to have to dip those kids in a vat of disinfectant upon arrival. The two cats, whose cages balance on the seats vacated by the squirming kids, are mewing rhythmically—a C-sharp feline metronomic wail. The parents, wearing sleep masks and earplugs, are comatose, and who can blame them?

I step over the squirming kids and return to the Premium Peasant section of the plane. I have organized the memorial program for my brother, a task that’s within my skill set, although not one that I’ve ever attempted with this much oversized baggage. I go over my eulogy and song list (I’ll be playing the piano as well as speaking) and glance again at the rundown for the thirty-minute program. It makes me sad—my brother’s life condensed to a thirty-minute program of storybook memories. Just enough frosting.

Fly the friendly skies. I look out the window. The buoyant cloud fluff and cottony wisps of light give the impression of peace, but the interior of the plane is far from tranquil. We are 300 humans—or souls as the airline industry likes to call us—slingshot from one continent to another, as some of us attempt to recapture and honor the lives we’ve left behind. I feel temporarily caged by my glorious, golden freedom to choose where I live and wounded by love, patriotism, and melancholy.

Distance and death do not pair well with grief and guilt. Expat grief is unique; we’re forced to face loss with an extra dose of grit to get where we need to go as quickly as we can. When someone we love dies, we crave the permanence of our roots, the comfort of shared history.

My European friends are my greatest sources of compassion and kindness, but they’ve never heard the distinctly American crack of my brother’s baseball bat at a Pittsburgh field on a sweltering August day, or experienced the unique way my brother, sister, and I laughed, danced, and squabbled our way through a popsicle-filled, pie-throwing, pool-splashing carefree Pittsburgh childhood during a decade when such a childhood was still possible.

Death is a cruel maestro. My brother’s death means I’ve lost another piece of my personal history to the Orchestra Invisible, my not-so-secret symphony of loved ones who call to me, one of the leftover children, from the mysterious place where songs are born.

This is not my first transatlantic funeral trip, and it won’t be my last. I’m still waiting for comfort food when the flight crew tells us to prepare for landing. I hope the redhead kids, the hairless cats, and the parents—especially the parents—are securely buckled in their seats. Arrivals, like departures, can be bumpy. The redhead family is still too young to know it, but anything can happen.

***

In loving memory of Goldsby’s brother, Curtis Rawsthorne.

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;  Rhythm: A Novel and Manhattan Road Trip.

New from Backbeat Books: Piano Girl Playbook: Notes on a Musical Life

Little Scraps of Paper

(In loving memory of Emilio Delgado.)

Kids and drunks have a lot in common. They’re brutally honest, totally unpredictable, and anxious to be noticed, even if it means jumping up and down on a red velvet seat and pouring the remains of a beverage down the collar of any guy who happens to be in fun’s way. With this in mind, it’s not such a stretch for me to go from lounge pianist to musical director of a touring Sesame Street show.

 I’ve done kids’ shows before, as an actor. I played Tanya Baum the Talking Christmas Tree at a “wake up Santa Claus” breakfast in Pittsburgh. And I’ve worn so many Easter Bunny costumes in department stores that it’s hard for me to go through the revolving doors of Bloomingdale’s without hopping. I once had a Valentine’s Day job at the Pittsburgh branch of Saks Fifth Avenue dressed as Cupid—I wore a red leotard with wings and ran around the store shooting foam-rubber arrows at customers with kids.

 In the late seventies I donned a full-body Winnie the Pooh suit and marched in a parade to greet Santa Claus as he parachuted into the parking lot of the South Hills Village shopping mall outside of Pittsburgh. As the official parade marshal, I was scheduled to ride in a big red fire truck in my Winnie the Pooh costume. Not surprisingly, there was a fire that day and the truck canceled. 

 “No problem,” I said to the promoter. “I can walk the parade route.” I didn’t want to disappoint all those kids. So I marched in front of an eighty-piece high school marching band. I started off strong, but the parade route was long. Very long. Those big steel Pooh boots got heavier and heavier as we neared our destination. I could see—but just barely—through the honey pot on the head of my costume. I heard Santa’s airplane circling around and around. It became increasingly difficult to put one foot in front of the other. I couldn’t get enough air. I still remember the sensation of the trombone slides nudging me in my back, getting closer and closer as I dragged my legs and tried to wave at the throngs of kids lining the mall parking-lot parade route. My vision grew dark around the edges and my ears started to ring. Next thing I knew, my knees were buckling and I was sinking to the concrete. I had hyperventilated and passed out, causing a high school marching-band pile-up behind me. The drum major and two women from the marketing office carried me back into the mall before they took off my Pooh head. 

 “You really should have gotten her out of the suit immediately,” said the doctor examining me. “It’s very dangerous to be in one of these costumes for more than fifteen minutes.”

 “Well,” said the promoter, who was nervously looking out of her office window. “We didn’t want the kids to know that Winnie isn’t real.

  “What?” said the doctor. “Better they should think Winnie is dead?”

Didn’t matter much. Santa missed his parachute target and got tangled in an oak tree at a gas station across the highway. It was a traumatic day for those kids. 

When Emilio Delgado—Luis on Sesame Street—calls to ask if I’m interested in being the musical director of his show, the first thing I ask is, “Do I have to wear a Muppet suit?” After my Winnie-the-Pooh fainting episode I’ve sworn I’ll never again wear another big furry costume with a twenty-pound head and lead boots. No way am I going to play the piano in a Cookie Monster outfit.

 “No!” says Emilio. “You’re thinking of the Sesame Street Live show. That’s the Muppet show. My show only involves Roscoe Orman—the guy who plays Gordon—and me. And you on piano, if you want the gig.”

“But you said musical director,” I say. “Is there a band involved?”

“No,” says Emilio. “You would just be directing yourself. And us.”

“Oh,” I say. “I think I could do that. What’s the tour schedule? I’ll have to take time off from my Marriott job.”

“We’ll go out maybe one weekend a month. Sometimes more, sometimes less. The money is good, and I’m sure we’ll be treated very well. There’s just one catch.”

Here we go. There’s always a catch. The last time someone told me there was a catch to a piano job, I’d ended up topless in a Boston dinner theater with policemen and attack dogs in the wings. 

 “We need you to warm up the audience before the show starts. You know, do a little stand-up comedy routine and then move over to the piano and get the kids singing.”

“Oh,” I say. “I can handle that.” I envision us in school classrooms, with thirty attentive children sitting with their sweet little hands folded neatly on their tiny desks.

One month later I find myself in Frankenmuth, Michigan, at the Frankenmuth Bavarian Festival, wearing an orange baseball cap and hightops, standing backstage getting ready to run out and tell jokes to 1,500 screaming children. Gordon and Luis are big stars. Kids have come from all over Michigan to get a chance to see them in person.

St. Louis, ca. 1987

I watch from the wings as three children leap onstage and play a game spitting ice cubes at each other. The first waves of doubt creep over me.

You’d be much better off in the bear suit, says Voice of Doom.

I run onstage and start the show.

As the daughter of a Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood musician, it’s ironic that I’m playing for a Sesame Street production. But though the two shows are completely opposite in their philosophies—one stimulating and aggressive, the other calming and gentle—they share a love of music and an awareness of the importance of music in a child’s development. 

Emilio Delgado and I attend the same acting class—two working professionals trying to better ourselves by studying the two-year course in the Sanford Meisner acting technique. We’re friends and acting partners, spending long hours together rehearsing impossible scenes, and doing acting exercises that tap our emotional resources and usually result in either fits of laughter or trails of tears.

 Emilio and his beautiful wife Carole come to my Marriott gigs or anywhere else I’m playing. They’re quite a pair, Emilio with his dashing Mexican good looks, and Carole, a lithe blond who can’t decide if she wants to be Margaret Mead or Lovey Howell. I turn on the TV in the morning and watch Emilio sing (as Luis) about the number “5.” I laugh out loud at his antics with Big Bird and his rendition of “La Bamba” with a herd of Muppet sheep singing baaaa, baaaaa, baaaaamba

But both Emilio and I want more from our careers. We want to be challenged, to be stimulated, to follow a more artistic path. So we torture ourselves in acting class trying to get out of our creative ruts. I don’t want to be just a piano player—I want to do modern American drama. He wants to do film. We end up doing Sesame Street Live with Gordon and Luis.

Pasting together a live kids’ show, especially for such large audiences, means scrapping our adult concepts of entertainment. We start from scratch, trying to remember what it’s like to be five years old. Being quiet and gentle and singing hushed songs about love and family values? Those things function brilliantly in a small classroom or on a television set. But in a theater packed with 2,000 spirited children and their stressed parents—no way.

My job at the beginning of the show is to get the kids to guess where Gordon and Luis are hiding. After we exhaust all the usual possibilities—under the kids’ seats, in their mothers’ purses, in their neighbor’s ear, I go into the audience with the microphone and ask for suggestions to get Gordon and Luis to come out of hiding. I have a notion that one of the kids will say “music!” But the kids have other things in mind.

“Gordon, if you don’t come out, I’m gonna rip my sister’s hair out.”

“Luis, if I don’t see you in one second I’m gonna slap Timmy in the face with a wet washrag.”

“Gordon, if you don’t show up, my Dad’s gonna sue you.”

“If you guys don’t get out here soon, I’m gonna kick this microphone girl in the knees.”

 “How about music, kids?” I say.

“It smells like sweat socks in here.”

“Gordon, I bet you’re on the potty!”

“Luis, come out or I’m gonna tell Santa you’re a jerk.”

“How about music, kids?” I say once again as I leap over to the piano. I get them clapping in time, tear into the Sesame Street theme song, and Gordon and Luis charge from the wings as the kids cheer and sing along. Many children wonder how Gordon and Luis have gotten out of the television set.

 In the beginning we try, we really do, to do a variety of music, alternating up-tempo audience participation sing-along and dance numbers with poignant ballads about love and sadness. The ballads are a disaster. Both Gordon and Luis have gorgeous voices, and there is a ton of great music from the television show that we would like to do. But the same thing happens every time Gordon or Luis try to sing something slow. Halfway through the song, members of the pint-sized audience get distracted. They crawl under their seats, hit their neighbors, and cry out of boredom. Every singer’s worst nightmare.

At a beautiful concert hall in Calgary, when Roscoe goes downstage to sing a wonderful ballad called “Family” there’s a huge ruckus in the first few rows. Roscoe sits on the edge of the stage for this number in his casual “get down on their level” pose. “There’s more than only one way for a family to be,” he sings in his deep baritone.

 Not even four bars into the song, a bucket of popcorn flies up into the air. Three or four kids start bawling. A mother drags a couple of the offenders up the aisle. Another kid screams, “Sing the doggie song!” and everyone claps and laughs. I see a tennis shoe soar through the light from the spotlight and land a dozen rows back. A ten-year-old boy jumps up and throws the shoe back where it came from. Three or four kids begin chasing each other up and down the aisles, trying to retrieve the shoe.

Really, it’s not all that different from the Atrium Lounge at the Marriott Marquis. 

 Through all the commotion, Roscoe maintains his concentration and continues singing, “You could have a brother, a sister, an aunt . . .”

 One of the silver helium balloons attached to our set gets loose and floats up to the ceiling of the theater. While continuing to pound my way through the ballad, I look out at the audience. Not a single eye is on Gordon as he forges ahead to the big dramatic ending of the song, “Oh, oh, family, family, family . . .” 

The audience has been hypnotized by the balloon, and they’re still sitting there, heads back, mouths open, looking at the ceiling when Roscoe finishes the piece. Luis and I have to force the audience to clap for him. We move on to “The Doggie Song.”

“Robin,” says Gordon after the show. “No more ballads for me. Did you see what happened out there?”

“Yeah,” I say. “Unbelievable. The chase thing with the shoe was terrible. And then they couldn’t stop watching that stupid balloon.”

“What balloon?” says Gordon. 

“The one everyone was watching while you were trying to sing.” 

“Oh, I didn’t even notice that. The whole time I was singing there was this little kid in the front row bugging me. He had scissors with him and he was cutting up little scraps of blue paper and putting them on my shoes. Then he started going after my shoelaces.”

“Oh. That must have been, uh, annoying.”

“Yeah. No more ballads. Enough is enough.”

Everyone has their limits.

It takes a few months of trial and error, but eventually we’ve got a nice show. We adjust to the constant buzz buzz buzz that lives inside theaters filled with preschoolers. There’s a lot of positive energy and power in these young audiences, and it’s a blessing to be part of it. I travel all over North America with Gordon and Luis. We’re quite a representative trio: the Mexican American, the African American, and the blond American. Gordon and Luis are swarmed at airports by starstruck stalker moms and their kids. They sign autographs and have their pictures taken with four-year-olds from Seattle to Atlanta. I stand off to the side and observe as the two men perform their public-television celebrity duties with grace and good humor. Then the three of us climb into an airplane and wing off to the next city, the next hall, the next zealous group of kids that will allow us, for sixty minutes, to share their fun. 

It’s an honest job, and I love every minute of it.

***

In loving memory of Emilio Delgado.

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. New from Backbeat Books: Piano Girl Playbook: Notes on a Musical Life

New music from Robin Goldsby:

Living Room, Volume 1

Living Room, Volume 2

The Boy Who Chased Butterflies

Randy, Curtis, and Robin

A tribute to my parents, Bob and Ann Rawsthorne, and in loving memory of my brother, Curtis Rawsthorne.

As a child, my brother, Curtis Rawsthorne, liked to chase insects, moths, and butterflies. I have an image of him on a random ridge of state park, sporting a blue swimsuit and giant sneakers, and carrying a large net on a long stick. Pre-pubescent, scrawny-chested, tow-headed, jutting elbows and knees, he stalked his prey—sneaking up on unsuspecting Monarchs, Painted Ladies, and Zebra Longwings. He looked like an insect himself during those years—a nine-year old human, net-toting version of a Praying Mantis, graceful in his awkwardness, laser-focused on his winged victims. During his butterfly years, he mounted a few of them and displayed them on the wall of his tiny bedroom, but most of the time he set them free. 

Curtis died of a heart attack on January 20, 2022, three weeks shy of his sixtieth birthday—leaving behind our elderly parents, my sister and myself and our adult children, an aunt who always had his back, a gaggle of cool cousins, and a group of work colleagues and friends who will miss him very much. Curtis was particularly close to my sister’s boys, the oldest of whom, Beau, found his body.

Curtis Rawsthorne had a vast amount of potential as a child—he accomplished many tricky things with a lot of style. He might have become a biologist, a drummer, a stand-up comedian, a motorcycle mechanic, or the Mayor of Pittsburgh. He might have morphed into a park ranger, a race car driver, a teacher, or writer of nature books. Instead, he became a baseball player. He was a talented pitcher who won almost every game he threw, using, I assume, that same single-mindedness and prowess that once guided his butterfly hobby. With his stellar record, he quickly became the fast-ball junk-throwing hero of the Little League Association in our community. 

My sister, Randy, and I logged hundreds of hours sitting on rickety benches at dusty ballfields watching Curtis pitch and listening to my mom yell at the umpire whenever he missed a strike call. Curtis climbed the ladder of Little League hierarchy, and the stakes grew with each game. No one cares much when you lose, but when you start to win, things change. Scouts, college coaches, and decision makers began to show up to watch him. The crowds grew more serious, the trash talk became harsher. I felt sorry for him in those days, even though he was winning. He was a sensitive boy in a brutally competitive field. At the time, I was a budding musician dealing with recitals and performances, so I knew about the perils of pressure and competition. He seemed to handle it better than I did. Or so I thought.

Curtis’s use of recreational drugs and alcohol probably started in high school. We attended the same Pittsburgh public school during the seventies, and drugs were rampant and largely ignored by most teachers and administrators. Kids will be kids, weed was weed, and alcohol was the “adult” drug that was both socially acceptable and almost legal for those barreling towards their twenty-first birthdays. The grown-ups around us drank, so why shouldn’t we—in our adolescent efforts to take adulthood by storm—also partake? Most of us dabbled with drugs (I count alcohol as a drug) and then pivoted back to the safety of our studies, our hobbies, our teenage romances. But my brother’s drug experimentation grabbed him in a different way.

Back when Curtis was strong and innocent and still wearing the daisy-chain crown of youthful promise, my dad worked endlessly with him on his pitching skills at the grassy field close to our house. I suspect Curtis’s 10,000 hours of throwing were logged well before his twelfth birthday. After his tumultuous and spectacular high school years, Curtis was accepted to Florida Southern College and off he went to baseball land. In some ways, he never returned. During his time there—maybe from constant athletic stress, loneliness, depression, or a simple teenage desire to party with his university friends, my talented little brother became officially ensnared in the bear trap of seventies/eighties drug culture. 

After graduating from college and a couple of failed try-outs in the major leagues, Curtis’s struggle put him on a wearisome circular path from which he could never really break free, causing my parents and everyone else who loved him decades of anguish. We had plenty of compassion and love for him—we even had plenty of cautious optimism during his many brave phases of recovery and sobriety—but the disease, it seemed, kept him from finding the right combination of compassion and love for himself.

I think back forty years, put myself in my parents’ shoes, and cry. Like most parents of college-bound kids, my folks sent their child away to follow a dream, with good intentions and elevated, but realistic, hopes for launching his life, knowing they had done their best to raise a decent human being while nurturing his natural talent. Instead, they watched helplessly as the claws of chemical imbalance begin to scratch away at the foundation of everything they had built together. I can’t imagine anything worse.

Here’s something worth knowing: My brother, sister, and I had great parents—strict enough, engaged, funny, and loving. They showed up every single time one of us had a triumph, a failure, an emotional breakdown, a divorce, a baby, a serious illness, a victory, an overdose. Over the decades they’ve given all three of their kids enough second, third, and eighteenth chances to fill a forgiveness basket the size of a concert hall, a baseball stadium, an open sky. If you had to define “unconditional love” for an unenlightened audience of orphans, Mom and Dad would be the poster parents. 

Addiction is something like metastatic cancer, a disease with which I’m familiar. Once it takes hold, it never goes away; it sits alert, a stealth nemesis ready to ooze into any defenseless empty space. With both metastatic cancer and addiction, the best one can hope for is a long period of remission, but proper choices must be made to kick that remission into start mode and maintain its fragile presence. But here’s the depressing part: even when informed decisions have been made, the disease can still come out of nowhere and broadside its victim and his family. It seems random and cruel and sad.

We can grow impatient and angry with the disease itself, but still love Curtis. He was more than his illness. So much more. My nephews will tell you that no one made them laugh harder; my father will spend the rest of his life remembering the love they shared for the great outdoors; my mother will always acknowledge his kindness and sensitivity.

Remission—or recovery—is the weedy garden where hope grows. Hope kept my parents believing in my brother, even when he didn’t believe in himself. Hope washed over them each of the many times he walked out of rehab, seemingly himself again, funny and curious, vocal about politics, loving and dedicated to healing himself and protecting his family. 

I’m not talking out of school here: Curtis was honest about his addiction and willing to share his history with anyone who took the time to listen. In another version of his life—the one with the happier ending—he might have excelled as a counselor for other people in recovery.

Some bad things happened over my brother’s four-decade juggle with survival—some of them almost funny in their awfulness, some of them truly horrific—but my family is now choosing to honor the memory of how he started out in life, his unfulfilled potential, his daily struggle to do the right thing. We choose to celebrate the times when he regained his courage, humor, and concern for the world around him. Even in his darkest moments, he recognized the love surrounding him. He may have died alone in his sleep—forty years of abuse had worn out his broken heart—but he knew he was loved. And that’s no small thing.

I’ve spent my entire adult life fearful he would die before my parents and now it has happened. Years ago, that fear caused a lot of bitterness on my part—rage at him for crushing my parents with worry, but also low-grade anger at my parents for continuing to support him on his revolving door journey through the gates of hell. The resentment diminished once I had my own teenagers and realized that I would do anything—anything—for my kids, just like my parents did everything for their son. They stood by him, my god, they stood by him. Mainly, they loved him.

My parents are coping as best they can—remembering wonderful and shiny things about their lost son while wading through the emotional sludge of death. In their exhausted eyes he’s still the kid with the fishing rod, the parade drum, the baseball glove. The kid who threw fast balls and knocked down so many milk cans at the amusement park pitching game that he was banned from playing because they ran out of prizes; the boy with shoulder-length hair who slid into home in a cloud of dust with determined eyes and a crooked grin a mile wide. 

Our recollections of him must no longer be clouded by his disease or our perception of it. We can choose our memories, so we do. 

Boy. Net. Butterfly. Free.

Curtis Rawsthorne with his parents, Bob & Ann

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. New from Backbeat Books: Piano Girl Playbook: Notes on a Musical Life

New music from Robin Goldsby: Living Room, Volume 1

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

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.