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.

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.

Air



this hopeful breath may be our last,
aghast, inhale the asphalt sky,
we breathe the ashes of our past.
 
we seek for now an outstretched fist,
persist, resist, we reason why,
this hopeful breath may be our last.
 
as concrete burns through thickened skin,
the din of silence will not lie,
we breathe the ashes of our past.
 
to suffer now and curse the pain,
the stain that spreads from dread, we cry
this hopeful breath may be our last.
 
revenge the muted dead and rage,
assuage our hate before we die,
we breathe the ashes of our past.
 
behold the blades of shredded light,
as night drops in to say goodbye,
this hopeful breath may be our last,
we breathe the ashes of our past.

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 musicians.

We Are the Musicians

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a pianist and the author of Piano Girl (Backbeat Books). She has appeared on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland. 

We are the crooners, the head-bangers, concert stage artists, beer hall grinders, swinging jazz trios, choir accompanists, big band soldiers, guitar-strumming folksingers, hotel ambient players, Broadway pit veterans. We are the buskers, boppers, and bewildered career performers currently pivoting on the precipice of a new era. 

Professional freelance musicians face an uncertain future. Even if society returns to its fast-paced tempo, we will likely encounter closed venues, germophobic fans, and a beaten down audience with no disposable income to afford the luxury of an evening out.

Like it wasn’t already difficult enough to make a living as a musician.     

The overabundance of free content online gives the general impression that we happily share our art form because we love what we do. That’s partially correct, but it’s not the whole story. We might play to challenge ourselves, unbreak our broken hearts, or carve out a corner of harmony in a dissonant world. But we also play to pay the bills.  

Check out the richness of the artist livestream menu and you’ll see everything from desperation to generosity, often served up as a combination of both. Some of us dabble in monetizing the livestream market because we have families to feed, mortgages to pay, children to clothe and educate. Others showcase their talents in exchange for applause and recognition, or to stay on the radar of a general public that has the attention span of a fruit fly. Some of us don’t need the money (yet) or the praise but crave the human connection we make when performing for a live audience. 

It turns out that most of us have been living on the edge for a very long time, even those who seem successful. A busy touring musician, one who relies on live performances to make her living, can suffer the sting of a season’s cancellations and hang in there financially for a few months. Maybe the A-listers can hold out for a few years. Maybe. The lucky among us have tenured teaching positions or full-time orchestra contracts to cushion the blow, at least for the time being. But those of us without a regular paycheck are now scrambling for every dollar—relying on the virtual tip jar, a GoFundMe campaign, a Patreon house of cards, or the benevolence of strangers who have the resources, good taste, and compassion to understand that live music delivers a vital link to our own humanity. 

We create art, we compose soaring melodies and intricate bass lines that paint acoustic portraits of empathy, beauty, ugliness, and grace. This ability separates us from a every other form of life on the planet. Last time I checked, a troop of macaques, gregarious as they might be, were unable to perform or appreciate a Mozart string quartet, a burning version of “Cherokee,” or a choral version of the seemingly never-ending verses of a Dylan tune. 

Is music essential? Yes, no, maybe. Depends who you ask. Music has never been essential for keeping people alive, but it has always been essential for helping us feel alive.  Live music connects us in an impeccably human way. We use our 10,000 hours of practice (20,000 for the over-achievers among us) to tap into universal emotions, shout out the inequities of society, bask in our loneliness, celebrate freedom or recovery or victory, knock down walls or poke holes in plexiglass ceilings, to remember, to dream, to keep moving forward. That’s what live music does—sometimes, but not always. When it’s magical, it’s magical

We get it. Musicians are not essential like frontline medical workers, sanitation employees, or people who bravely go to work every day so that the rest of us can purchase toilet paper, cake ingredients, or a jug of vodka. The truly essential workers are the brave folks who ensure that musicians can stay home, practice, and dream of a time when we might return to the handful of venues that have weathered the Corona storm. 

So what do we do while all this weathering is going on? Any level of musician can click “Go Live” and open themselves up to a worldwide audience. We can livestream to our heart’s desire. But truth be told, our hearts aren’t much in it. At least, not yet. Now what? Pivot, some might say. Come on, we’re good at this. Musicians are experts at pivoting, sidestepping, and leaping through flaming hoops. Most of us have been fired and hired more times in year than most people are in a lifetime.

Quarantine? No problem. We’re accustomed to solitude; we actually enjoy lonely hours in a practice studio immersed in musical challenges large and small. We know about the dark hole of unemployment, the downward spiral of uncertainty, the futility of shining an aural sliver of light into a boomy, gloomy world. We’re well-equipped to fight the creeping sense of worthlessness that raises its dissonant voice every now and then.  Will we really be defeated by a virus that may have been caused by a horseshoe bat, or a butt-ugly pangolin, or a biological warfare lab? Not likely.

Right now, we’re scuffling to support our families, just like you and everyone else. We are angry, unsettled, scared, sleeping poorly, and making do with ramen noodles and day-old banana bread. But in the middle of all this, some musicians are rising—tossing online bouquets of song to the outstretched hands of you, our sequestered sisters and brothers, our treasured audience that lives on in our wildest, happiest dreams. 

I think about the Titanic band, the most famous group of anonymous musicians in the history of anonymous musicians, and how they played through their repertoire of popular songs as the ship slowly sank into icy water. Those eight courageous players, all of whom set sail on the Titanic as second-class passengers, played until the very end, providing a real-life real-death sound track that has been romanticized for decades.

Let’s name the musicians, shall we? Theodore Ronald Brailey, Roger Marie Bricoux, John Frederick Clarke, Wallace Hartley, John Law Hume, Georges Alexandre Krins, Percy Cornelius Taylor, John Wesley Woodward. They ranged in age from twenty to thirty-three years old. Why did they keep playing as the ship went down? Was it a sense of duty, the genuine desire to calm passengers being lowered into lifeboats and bring peace to those—like themselves—left stranded on deck? Or did they keep playing because they hoped the denizens of society (the ones in the lifeboats) would recognize artistry in the face of calamity? Maybe they thought that rescue—even for those in steerage class—was a possibility, that the next gig on the next ship was right on the other side of that pesky iceberg. 

Musicians have always been ridiculous optimists. We have to be.

The family of one of the Titanic musicians, months after the tragedy, received a bill from the shipping company, asking them to pay for the rental of his uniform. 

Even in the most turbulent times, even when faced with an iceberg of daunting proportions, musicians continue to believe that if we do what we do well, eventually someone will pay us. There’s not yet a clear business model as to how we’ll make a living during this mess—or even on the other side of it—but we are resourceful. The vast Internet is full of unchartered opportunity to monetize what we do and still find a connection to our audience.

Maybe we’re part of an unwelcome digital Darwinian experiment. Some of us—those too old-school, tired, or jaded to learn new technologies—will drop out, find another way to make a living, or spend the rest of our lives reminiscing about the good old days. But some of us will conquer the livestream, the interactive concert, the sponsorship scheme. Most of us will hope for redemption and muster the courage to keep playing while the ship sinks, because it’s what we do best.

Is our collective virtual tip jar half full or half empty? Do we even own a fucking tip jar? 

My last gig was March 15th, at Excelsior Hotel Ernst in Cologne, Germany where I’ve been performing for the last five years. As usual, I played solo piano music for a grateful audience of guests of all ages, most of them enjoying one last outing a few hours before the enforcement of Angela Merkel’s lockdown orders. I played music from my Magnolia album along with a few standards and closed the set with Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes.” We already seemed nostalgic for something we knew was slipping away—the chance to gather, listen to music, remember, forget, drift. My guests were strangers to me, but for the three hours we spent together that afternoon, we bonded. Maybe it was even a little magical.

I could have played the Titanic theme, but I didn’t.

When I covered the Steinway and left the hotel, part of me knew that I was likely walking away from a joyful forty-five-year career in live music, one that has grounded me, given me wings, and provided a livelihood for my family. But the survivor part of me, the Pollyanna Piano Girl who has never lost faith in the ability of music to unite hearts and minds, resorted to talking out loud to the piano. 

“Don’t worry,” I said, “I’ll be back.”  

**
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.

Now Boarding

Earlier today, I attended my mother-in-law’s funeral. Right now, I’m sitting in a Louisville airport lounge waiting to board my Delta flight to Atlanta, connecting to Charleston. Bloody Mary or ginger-ale? I’ve got a concert to play in Charleston in a few days, and jet lag has slapped me silly. I feel slightly stoned (jet lag is one of the only chemical-free highs), a little lonely, and relieved that I’ve made it this far on three hours of sleep. I get foot cramps when I fly, and often wake out of a deep slumber and dance the midnight tango to make them go away. Last night was such a night.

Yesterday’s fifteen-hour flight odyssey from Germany to Kentucky culminated in an overnight stay at a Louisville hotel overlooking the viscous water flooding the banks of the Ohio River, a surprisingly nutritious (quinoa and veggies) breakfast in a restaurant called the Whiskey Corner, and a perilous Uber ride with Chuck the driver to the Southern Baptist church where my mother-in-law’s service took place. Visitation, open casket, a spray of pink flowers to match her suit jacket, an enthusiastic choir, and a compassionate crowd of well-wishers and family friends—a classic Baptist funeral befitting a preacher’s wife, with all the bells and whistles.

Due to my husband’s recent illness and subsequent inability to handle a transatlantic flight at this point in his recovery, I volunteered to show up at the church as the Designated Mourner on his behalf. It was an easy call, since I knew I would be stateside for my concerts. I’ve read about Chinese funeral rituals where strangers are hired to sit in the second pew and sob loudly, but that wasn’t my gig today. No sobbing. Instead, I played the Pachelbel Canon in D, which is evidently the only piece in my repertoire that anyone wants to hear. Vineyard weddings, formal funerals, baptism lunches, cocktail lounge birthday shindigs, formal concert halls, Buckingham Palace—I’ve performed the piece in just about every venue imaginable. I even played it outdoors on a stage in a park while my audience watched silent fireworks. My mother-in-law once referred to the Pachelbel Canon as the Taco Bell Canon. I like that. Music for the people. Soothing, reliable, familiar. Maybe that’s what Johann Pachelbel intended. I was honored to play it one more time, for her.

It was a good-sized house for the funeral of a ninety-seven-year old woman, who had, by the time she died, lost her husband and most of her church friends. She lived a charmed life, protected by her God and well taken care of by her brave husband and loyal daughters. She slipped away the way most of us would prefer to exit this world—in her sleep. At the funeral, we sang her favorite hymns, listened to glossy stories about her century of exemplary life choices, and recited some prayers, the faded words of which seemed both appropriate and sad.

Note: All songs in the Baptist hymnal are written in keys for male singers. 

The preacher invited each of us to stand and say a few words, so I did, because, as Designated Mourner, I thought my husband would want me to do so. I thanked her for raising a son who had become a loving husband, engaged father, a man who knows how to respect women. His mother might have happily played the part of the southern belle, but her accidental feminist edge occasionally revealed itself.

She first met Julia, our daughter, when Julia was thirteen months old. We had taken the long flight from Germany to Kentucky to present our precious child to her grandmother. I was distracted when we got out of the car because our four-year old son, cranky and hungry after the long trip, had just called his baby sister an asshole. He couldn’t pronounce it properly and said “sasshole,” but it was clear enough what he meant. Not exactly a good way to make a positive impression on one’s prim and proper Baptist grandmother.  

“Why,” my mom-in-law said, in her charming Louisville accent, ignoring the sasshole comment and its perpetrator. “Julia looks just like me.”

“Oh, yes, I guess she does,” I replied. “Bless your heart.”

“But look, Robin, she does have your feet.” 

She turned out to be half right. Julia, now twenty-three, looks very much like her beautiful grandmother, but she does not have my feet. 

At the funeral service I played a decent improvisation of the Canon in D on a freshly tuned Steinway with a squeaky pedal and exited stage left. I picked up my suitcase and drove in a procession with our niece and nephew to Cave Hill Cemetery. 

Our nephew helped carry the casket to the grave and I wept, not as the Designated Mourner, but as myself. I wept for her grandchildren, for my husband’s loss of his mother, for the trajectory of age and the oblivious way we march into the chasm of finality. One day you’re making French toast for your family, your kid is calling everyone a sasshole, and the future—with its endless opportunities to make good trouble—stretches out before you like an interminable game of hide and seek. The next day, it’s a spray of pink roses, a couple of hymns that no woman with a normal voice can sing, and a hundred resonating farewells. 

She was buried next to her husband, and within spitting distance of Colonel Sanders. Muhammed Ali’s grave is also close by; she’s in good Louisville company. She believed in a heaven that features angels, a healed body, and a God who will always look out for her. May she be right. May the Canon in D be heaven’s soundtrack. 

She was loved. 

The air felt cold enough to break me in two, but the defiant sun shone fiercely on the end of an era. 

**

People hover in the lounge, waiting for a chance to board the commuter jet—I’m sure it will be one of those planes with a dripping ceiling and seats with two and a half inches of legroom. Boarding begins for the privileged few. We, the great unwashed, stand patiently and listen to the over-worked gate attendant recite his endless list of elite pre-boarders—first class, business class, active military (thank you for your service), families with small children, disabled, economy premium, non-active military (thank you for your service) platinum card, gold card, silver card, bronze card, and more military (thank you for your service).

No one, and I mean no one, boards the plane in any of these categories.

“We’re pleased to announce a complimentary gate check of your cabin baggage today. Free of charge, we will gladly check your carry-on suitcase right here at the gate, and you can pick it up when you disembark in Atlanta.”

Does anyone fall for this? No. 

“All other passengers may now board the plane.” 

Finally. Like a pack of defeated, economy-class sassholes, we, the other passengers—also the only passengers—drag our weary selves onto the plane. No one thanks us for our service.

Drip, drip, drop.

I ask a flight attendant about the dripping ceiling. I’ve encountered this on other domestic flights in the USA.  I’m reassured that the drip is normal—a flaw in the air conditioning system. It’s February. In a few weeks all flights will be cancelled due to CoVid 19. We settle in, naively assuming that the perks and privileges of our peripatetic lives will go on forever, uninterrupted by disease, death, and the destruction of our planet.   

The canned music on the plane, the calming pre-flight playlist that’s usually accompanied by static and security announcements, drones on for a few moments before I realize I’m hearing the Canon in D. Not my recording, but a soulless midi-synth-string interpretation intended to soothe our nerves as we prepare for flight. They’re making an effort. I hear the sound of a fake cello and drift off to sleep, right before the plane lifts into the air.