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

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.

Emma

I’ve been thinking a lot about Emma González and the circumstances that plunged her into the bright, white spotlight reserved for America’s budding leaders, shooting stars, and civic heroes. I applaud her valor and admire her authenticity, but I mourn for the childhood she forfeited—the self-consumed teenage years snatched from her by shameful gun laws and a mentally-ill boy with access to a bullet-spraying machine.

When I was Emma’s age I stayed busy writing bad poetry and playing the piano. My most valued possessions included a mini-skirt, a maxi-coat, and a perfect black turtleneck (remember the dickie?). My hair was shiny and long. I obsessed over shoes. I poured baby oil and iodine on my alabaster skin and baked myself, summer after summer, in an attempt to look like the mahogany Coppertone girl, the one with the puppy yanking down her swimsuit. I wrote ooh baby, baby song lyrics about sunsets and a boy named Mark. I was deadly serious about my hobbies and passions and truly believed—like most teenagers—that the world’s eyes were judging me.

Emma González no longer has time to fret about tan lines, wardrobe issues, or the way the sun bounces on the horizon. Maybe she never did. On the day of the Margory Stoneman Douglas shooting, Emma was in the auditorium with dozens of other students when the fire alarm sounded. For two hours, she hid in the auditorium with classmates and friends—until police told students to vacate the building. Emma—faster than you can shout “we call BS—became an American activist and advocate for gun control, co-founding the advocacy group #NeverAgainMSD.

What happened to her childhood? Poof. Gone with the rhythmic, deadly clatter of a weapon designed for a killing field.

*****

It’s a myth that all kids love high school and enjoy an easy-breezy few years cheering for football teams, trying to get high, and attending proms.  In my early years of high school, I got bullied by the kind of mean girls who populate every generation: hard-edged, resting-bitch-faced, hormone-imbalanced strutters who stomp around the high school cafeteria like a Clearasil mafia. A gang of angry girls once dragged me down the steps by my hair because I lived in the wrong neighborhood. At least they weren’t packing heat. I’m sure, with access to a semi-automatic weapon, one of them might have considered shooting me—they hated me that much. Teenagers torture themselves in different ways. Part of me thought I deserved their disdain.

Whenever the shrill, adolescent voice of insecurity yelled my name, I took refuge at the piano. Composing a new piece of music and figuring out how to play it made me feel in control, confident, and capable. Not capable enough to stare down the NRA, like Emma, but skilled enough to brush off the strutters and regain a sense of purpose.

Emma is a creative writer. She also finds joy in astronomy. Before the shooting, her head might have been in the stars, but—because of her education—she knew how to confront a blank page, take the teen tornado blustering through her brain, and create an orderly, emotionally relevant statement. Catapulted to grief counselor and motivational speaker for a nation of despairing and determined young people, Emma used her writing skills to pull through the tragedy.

Emma is a hero. So are her teachers and parents for giving her the lessons, tools, and artistic freedom to cope.

The shooter had an AR-15, but, in the aftermath of killing, Emma showed up armed with her own artistic arsenal, one that has allowed her to challenge the previous generation’s apathy, the NRA, and the politicians bought and sold by the gun lobby. The MSD High School teenagers astound me. Facing a future smeared by horrific images blistered onto their developing brains, they refuse to give up, give in, or tolerate the sickening chaos that has become the new norm in our government. They have chosen their issue—reasonable limitations on the availability of semi-automatic death weapons to children. They’re facing the need for change by running toward the issue, head on. Run, kids, run.

It’s a different kind of race when unexpected hurdles include bleeding bodies of friends.

I guess the prom will have to wait.

*****

Teenagers like Emma—or your kids or mine—are generally known for rumpled bedrooms, disheveled backpacks, and illogical thinking. In a classic Opposite World scenario, our kids now make more sense than many adults. Our youth are not just marching and taking selfies; they’re collecting names and voting records of politicians controlled by the NRA, mobilizing young people to make a difference at the polls in November, and presenting calm, clearheaded arguments for gun control in high-pressure public forums and at nationally-televised press conferences. Virtuosic grace under pressure. Grief meets bravery meets action.

According to another activist—Congressman John Lewis—the MSD kids are making “good trouble.”

Chaos rules the capitol, whereas ordered, logical thinking guides the actions of MSD High School students—the ones who are still alive. Never underestimate the fortitude of a passionate, teenage survivor carrying the weight of her brothers and sisters on her narrow shoulders.

*****

Some thoughts about chaos and order: A pianist almost always begins with chaos. Before tackling a sonata, fugue, or showstopper from the Great American Songbook, before playing a bebop melody or creating a new-age cushion of sonic comfort, a pianist faces a mess of notes either on the page or in her head—some call them fly shit. The notes swim before her eyes and tease her ears, daring her to embrace mayhem and create beauty.

In an artist’s world, it’s critical to balance the mind’s creative bedlam with logical, systematic, strategic thinking. When starting a project, a composer, painter, poet, or journalist must tango with the disarray of her own imagination. Her over-taxed brain hosts flights of fancy and darkest desolation, joy and hysteria and anguish and confusion. Before she spills her emotional guts onto the blank screen, canvas, or music manuscript paper, she must calm her tormentors, restore order to her subconscious desires, and beat back the distractions and necessary interruptions of real life.

Emma González, at the age of eighteen, has the artist’s required skill set.

Is it too much to ask the same of our government?

The paucity of stability and civility in the United States—brought on by the muddled rants and hateful bombasts of our current president—distresses me. Regardless of political affiliation, most people agree that kindness and respect make progress possible. To move forward, encourage positive change, and save the planet for our children and grandchildren—we must value the kind of creative chaos that is followed by ordered, rational thinking.

Emma has that together. She might be our Malala, rising above ruins and illuminating the path.

I encourage the men and women running our country to take the chaos and necessary distractions cluttering their minds, study a page from the Emma playbook, organize their thoughts, and listen to themselves and each other.

Fact: Kids, in record numbers, are being shot on streets and in schools.  Responsible gun laws could stop many of these tragedies. Instead, our congress turns away. Our commander in chief stays occupied hurling big bags of flaming vitriol at anyone who doesn’t tow the fraying line. Forget—if you can—the firings, porn stars and playmates, or destructive policies; the president’s inability to act in an orderly and civilized manner has perpetuated an avalanche of rudeness, a hurricane of racism,  a wildfire of vulgarity, and a storm(y) front of discontent that seeps, like creeping damp, under our hip, upturned collars.

The shooting continues.

Right now, the government has a chance to heed the words and actions of the #NeverAgainMSD movement founded by Emma and her team of fellow students. Our congress has the opportunity to get one thing right: Stop selling weapons of mass destruction to teens.

I am behind you, Emma González. I wish my generation had been out in front of the gun issue so you could have savored a few more years of poetry, love beads, and hours spent gazing at the darkening sky. But now that you’ve been shoved centerstage, I encourage you to follow the artist’s way. Keep your head in the stars, but make sure you find your way back home to deliver your message. Six minutes of silence? We hear you. We need you. You are who we want to be when we grow up.

#Enough.

*****

Portrait of Emma by Steve Musgrove, graphic artist

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; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Newest book: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist, at Amazon, or from your favorite streaming channels.

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