May 28 2015

Rockin’ Together

I used to pay attention to new artists and new music. In a previous life I went to a lot of clubs and concerts, and learned about bands before they were big names. My college roommate – we both started out working in rock’n’roll radio – is still friends with musicians that most people onlyrecord_labels dream of meeting. I met my fair share of rockers, too, knowing I was one of a hundred hands they shook that night, but it was still a thrill for me to have even a quick conversation with someone I’d previously admired on the liner notes of a record album or CD case. (I’ve just dated myself here.)

When the kids came along it wasn’t that I succumbed to Baby Einstein soundtracks (okay, I did a little) but we all know what happens. Time gets sucked away from you with a young swaddled creature in your presence. Less time to nose around your hobbies and follow your personal interests when you’re changing diapers and pureeing sweet potatoes. Less interest in venturing out to a club to hear live music when you know you’ll be up at 6:00 in the morning feeding cheerios to a toddler. And then, it happens: you get out of practice, and you start just listening to the same old bands and artists you always listened to. Your music library gets stale.

I’m not totally stuck in the music of my past. De-facto’s sister occasionally prepares playlists with new(er) artists and sends them to us for Christmas or birthdays. Or when I visiting my old roommate it’s easy to find an unreleased single of a new band, or a pre-release of a favorite artist in her CD player. Another college friend is a curator of new music, and I visit his website, Fingertips, when I have time. When I have time being the operative phrase. Still, my music playlists are seriously outdated.

And then the inevitable happens: I discover a new band, a band that I really like, because of my daughter. My youngest daughter.

Buddy-roo would spend her entire afternoon on YouTube watching music videos if there weren’t a bit of homework discipline employed in this household. When she wants to actually buy a song, she has to get my permission (and my iTunes code) because we share a music library on all our devices. That way I get to listen to (and monitor) what she’s listening to. As you’d expect, she’s into One Direction, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, and I cheerfully encourage her to enjoy that music with her earbuds on, or in the tube_headedprivacy of her own room. But not all of the artists she wants to listen to make me cringe. For instance the hit single, Cool Kids, by a band called Echosmith. Very catchy. It inspired me to download the whole album.

A friend of mine runs a company called Bandsintown, a nifty app that scans your music library and pings you when the musicians you like are playing at a venue in your city. A few weeks ago, it pinged me with news that Echosmith was coming to Barcelona. Buddy-roo saw the notification, and begged me to buy tickets.

I had to think back, what and when was the first rock concert I attended? I was 17 when I went to see Jethro Tull. In a big arena. Buddy-roo is 11. The venue was a medium-sized club – just right for seeing up-and-coming bands. But would they even let her in?

It is a miracle that we survived before the Internet. Some quick clicking informed me that underage kids could attend the concert, if accompanied by a parent. The ticket price was palatable, the club close enough to walk to from our apartment. The show was even on a Friday night. No school to contend with the next day. So why not?

Buddy-roo watched me book the tickets and danced around the apartment in ecstasy for ten consecutive minutes after the transaction was completed. Hard to say what was better, her anticipation running up to the event, or actually watching her experience the show, last Friday, when we turned up in time to have a Fanta (okay I had a beer) at the bar before the band started.

When the band came on stage, the crowd raised their smartphones, forming a complex constellation of glowing mini-screens in place of the swarm of bic lighters we used to hold up in the air. Buddy-roo jumped up and down, cupping her hands over her face, reminiscent of images of young girls screeching at an early Beatle’s concert. Not that it was Buddy-roo’s first time in a rock club. One of her extra-curricular activities, when we lived in Paris, was a rock band school, and she performed with her band at the year-end concert. She’s seen live music before, part of the entertainment at the creativity conferences we drag her to. But this was the first time she got see one of her favorite bands, the real deal, live in concert.
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Short-pants stayed home. Not that she doesn’t love music – she’s a huge Neil Diamond fan, thanks to De-facto‘s influence (that didn’t come from me) – but she’s not much for crowds and loud music. She saw it as an opportunity for a quiet night to herself, and no doubt spent the bulk of the night reading, and playing word and math games on her iPad. De-facto came along with us to the concert, too, and sat on a banquette in the back of the club, watching Buddy-roo and I dance together closer to the stage. Not that he didn’t like the music. He did. And he was happy to discover this little club so close to home. But I think he wanted to give us a chance to share the music, mother and daughter. I don’t know how long she’ll be keen to go a concert with her mother, so I’ll rock it with her as long as I can.


Jun 11 2013

Smokin’ Cool

As we walked home from school, just the two of us, Buddy-roo reached out and took my hand.

“Mama,” she said, “Is there any kind of smoking that isn’t bad for you?”

We’d just passed a lycée, where a pack of high-school students huddled together outside the entrance. Nearly every one of them held a cigarette. The guys went for the pinched between the fingers hold, the girls held their arms out in that affected way that young smokers do, trying to look cool but looking, actually, a bit silly. We pass this school and these kids frequently, and I’ve made it a point to point out to Short-pants and Buddy-roo how not only is smoking bad for your health, but it looks really stoopid too.
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Her question required a moment to think about the best right answer.

“There is one kind of cigarette that some doctors prescribe to help sick people manage pain and nausea.” I deliberately avoided the word marijuana. “But it still has consequences to your health if you smoke it.”

Her facial expression was serious, almost worried.

“Why do you ask?” I said.

She hesitated, and then the words spilled out, the pitch and pace of her voice rising and quickening, bringing her to the verge of tears.

“Because I think it looks cool and I’m afraid I’m going to want to smoke and I know it’s bad for me and you’ll be mad at me if I do.”

I gulped, and then remarked, with praise, about her honesty and how I hoped she’d always feel that she could talk to me about anything, even if she knew it might make me angry. I told her it’s a choice she’ll have to make, but I hope she chooses not to, because it’s bad for you.

“Plus it makes you taste like an ashtray,” I said. “Can you imagine kissing an ashtray?”

She started to cry. My heart was breaking. I didn’t want to upset her. But I wanted to upset her.

“Listen, do you feel like lighting up right now?” I made the gesture of puffing on a cigarette.

She shook her head vehemently. “No, I’m too young.”

“Let’s not worry about this yet. Come talk to me when you get the urge to have a smoke.”

~ ~ ~

It was a gorgeous day, a scarcity in Paris since our bleak and wet winter stretched through the end of May. Despite the treasured sunshine, I spent the afternoon in a dark, windowless rock’n’roll club. One of Buddy-roo’s extra-curricular activities this term was the Park Slope Rock School. Every Thursday we’d take the Bus 69 to a further-flung arrondissement where I’d drop her at a real live recording studio for an hour and a half rehearsal with the members of her band. Two other mothers and I staked out a nearby café and it quickly became our practice to park ourselves there with a glass of wine until it was time to fetch our rock’n’roll kids. Last Saturday afternoon we all met up at the Bellevilleoise to hear the final concert.
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Nine bands performed, each had been assembled and nurtured by the director of the school, a hipster from Brooklyn and rock’n’roll magician. Though some of the older bands had played together for more than one semester, Buddy-roo’s ensemble was conceived only last February, and in just over three months they learned to play, compose and perform together. Each band did a cover and an original song that they’d written together. Each band really rocked. Buddy-roo’s group – they named themselves “Shut up!” – was one of the newer bands, so they opened the show. Though their performance wasn’t without a hiccup or two, from which they always recovered, it was stellar. Buddy-roo was the front singer of “Shut up!” and despite a few nerves at the start, she found her footing on stage and was at ease holding the microphone. And her moves, well, cool. Smokin’ cool.

I dressed for the occasion in jeans, a black T-shirt and black chucks, which is what I used to wear when I went to rock concerts. After college I worked for a radio station that promoted itself as the rock’n’roll air force, so I had some experience in this sort of venue. I don’t often go to these kinds of clubs anymore, though standing there at the bar, waiting for live music to start, I wondered why I don’t take better advantage of the music Paris has to offer. In those free, coveted days-before-motherhood, I went to see live shows all the time. That was long before the smoking ban, when clubs were hazy with cigarette smoke. I’d come home, strip off my clothes and hang them on the balcony to air out; the stale scent of smokey garments piled on the clothes chair was a poison you didn’t want to face the next day.

~ ~ ~

I loved smoking. My preferred brand of tobacco was Old Holdborn, and I used to roll my own cigarettes. I had many pleasant associations with smoking: that first one of the day, with my coffee, reading the paper; the cigarette to accompany an apéritif or the one to finish a meal; after writing several difficult paragraphs, pushing my chair back, rolling a cigarette and smoking it while reviewing my work. I loved pulling out a thin paper and reaching into the pouch, pinching the moist tobacco between my fingers, spreading it along the fold and getting that first edge to tuck in and rolling it evenly. Each cigarette a chance – a test – for the perfect roll.

The night I met De-facto I persuaded him to stick around and keep me company while I “had a smoke.” Even though he’s never been a smoker, he used the opportunity to charm me. He even indulged my not-heavy-but-more-than-I-reported habit without complaint, though I’m sure he was relieved when I stopped. I quit overnight. One afternoon the pink line red_lips_glistening_teethturned blue on the home pregnancy test. The next morning I dropped a nearly full pouch of tobacco in the bin. I haven’t had one since.

I do miss the deep inhale, the drawing back, pausing, letting go and pressing the smoke out of my lungs and mouth. I don’t miss the stale breath, the morning cough, or the yellow fingers. I like tasting things, and I started enjoying food more when I quit cigarettes. I hope I knew how to smoke, but I also wonder if I looked as stoopid as those high school girls in front of the lyceé, holding arm and palm upwards in their awkward smoking stance. I don’t know if I smoked to look cool. I know that it felt cool, the experience. But it wasn’t, really. I mean when you stand back and think about it, it’s an absurd habit.

I tell Short-pants and Buddy-roo they saved my life. That getting pregnant and having little people to care for made me want to be healthier. I didn’t want to expose them to the second-hand smoke, but having them also made me think about my mortality, and how it wouldn’t be a bad idea to eliminate the things that might shorten my capacity to watch my offspring grow up.

Even with my no-smoking messages, beaten into their heads from the start, I suspect they will want to experiment with tobacco, and possibly other things that one might inhale. I used to chastise my father for smoking, leaving pictures of people with cancer of the mouth next to his dinner plate. But then, later on, my militant stance went up in smoke. Who knows if Buddy-roo will bring it up with me again, when her adolescent peers start carrying cigarettes and her urge is stronger. I hope I can stay cool, and help her see how cool she already is without having to smoke.


Aug 19 2012

Street Music

It could be any summer afternoon – in fact it is every summer afternoon, just about lunchtime, when it starts. The morning street, empty and fresh, fills up with people. The locals, shoppers and tourists mix together and the neighborhood comes alive. In our garret apartment there is a gentle buzz from below: the background hum of people talking and laughing and the sounds of glasses and cutlery in use at the restaurant terrace beneath our windows. An occasional motorcycle or impatient car horn breaks the white noise. Otherwise, we cease to hear it.

Until it starts: the squawking tones of an alto saxophone in the hands of a not-so-polished street musician. The moment I hear the first notes of Bésame Mucho I groan. A beautiful Mexican love song, written by a young woman who claimed never to have kissed anyone before writing it, I used to love this song, especially the Beatles’ version. Now it grates on me.

His playlist is limited and predictable. Bésame Mucho is always followed by the same bleak song, a bad rendition of a brooding melody reminiscent of old eastern Europe. Once heard, the tune remains fixed in my head for the rest of the day. Equally annoying: its title escapes me. I’m left humming the song to myself, then wondering, what is the name of this damn song?

~ ~ ~

Paris offers a menu of street music to satisfy anyone, especially tourists. The locals are too busy getting somewhere; we skirt around the upturned hat filled with suggestive coins. One avoids, if possible, those places where the cacophony of competing musicians and encircling crowds impede swift passage. The streets beside the Pompidou Centre, for instance, and the Pont Saint-Louis, the bridge spanning from Île St. Louis to Île de la Cité with its view of the Seine and Notre Dame‘s flying buttresses, these are prime locations to circumvent if you’re in a hurry or not in the mood for live music.

An unregulated métier such as this attracts a broad range of talent, from established orchestral groups with CDs for sale to a soloist accompanying music from a portable boom box by playing only the tambourine. In the summer it becomes so commonplace to see a musician or an ensemble set up on the street that it’s easy to ignore them, though harder to evade the crowd they might attract. Occasionally, though, there’s a gem. An accomplished violinist stands under the arches of the arcades surrounding Place des Vosges, her concerto echoes hauntingly and any passerby is compelled to stop and listen and watch her sway back and forth as she plays. An acoustic guitarist sits in a shaded doorway strumming you back to your best childhood memories.

Buddy-roo likes the guitarists the best, and has befriended several, somehow managing to win their favor and on occasion, finagle a free CD. She knows I’m a sucker for a good musician, so as we approach one she’ll turn to gauge my reaction. If the music makes me smile, she’ll beg me for a coin, and run over to put it in whatever basket or hat has been laid out to receive such appreciative donations. Sometimes we’ll linger, getting our money’s worth. Buddy-roo will sway beside me, or do a little dance if she’s feeling inspired.

“How do you decide which ones to give money to?” Short-pants once asked. She knows I struggle with whether or not to give money to people on the street. If I do, it’s usually to street musicians. Among these performers I have standards: some measure of talent, authenticity, and stage presence will motivate me to open my change purse.

“The ones whose music moves me the most,” I told her, “and the ones who seem really dedicated, who work the hardest.”

“Do you think I could make money playing my viola in the street?”

“Only if you keep practicing.”

~ ~ ~

It was almost eight years ago, when every morning and night for six weeks straight, De-facto and I traipsed across the Pont Saint-Louis on our way to and from the metro that took us to the children’s hospital, where we’d sit beside Short-pants for hours, waiting and watching for one of her doctors to come by and answer our questions. Each night on the way home, I’d call my brother, a doctor, to report the medical updates and he’d put them in layman’s terms for us. Once, he was describing the difference between meningitis and encephalitis, his explanation barely audible over an accordion playing La Vie en Rose.

My brother, hearing the music, stopped. “This is too surreal,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said, “but it’s also my sanity.”

The accordion player was there on that bridge nearly every morning and almost every night. It was December, cold and windy. And it was dark, not like the summer when daylight stretches way behind the dinner hour and crowds congregate on that same bridge eating ice-cream and watching street performers. Some nights we were the only people in sight, passing him on the bridge as his keypad swelled in and out, like it was breathing. Any coins I had in my pocket were left in the basket beside him, his earnest and constant commitment inspired my own; his music, as schmaltzy as it was, gave me hope for her recovery.

~ ~ ~

On rue Charlot, a small storefront window displays reed instruments of every type: clarinets, oboes, saxophones and other members of the woodwind family, and some flutes for good measure. The proprietor is a gentle-souled, soft-spoken man with a long face, appropriately solemn to suit the tone of the instruments he tends. I pass by often and I rarely see customers in the store, but he’s always there, diligently repairing the pads of an aging oboe or restoring the glory to an antique silver flute.

Short-pants and I walked by the other day, as he was removing the shutters from the window to open the shop. I told her I wanted to stop at the store to talk to him. He corrected me, in English. “Not a store, it’s a workshop.”

It is a workshop. Not only is the front window packed with instruments he’s repaired and refurbished for resale, there is every kind of saxophone hanging from the ceiling against every wall. Machines with clamps and fan-belts from the mid-twentieth century collect dust. Canisters of tools – some of them resembling those of a dentist – sit atop every workspace. The clutter of instruments, equipment, antique metronomes and loose sheet music is covered with a fine layer of dust. It is part factory, part studio, part museum.

We’d just come from a café up the street. A musician there, this one a trumpeter – or trying to be – had taken it upon himself to entertain the customers on its terrace. He had a little boom box with him, providing a cheesy synthesizer accompaniment. The last song he played before he was shooed away by our annoyed waiter was the very same haunting tune the alto-saxophonist beneath my window always plays after Bésame Mucho, the ear worm I can’t name.

I stepped inside the woodwind workshop, cleared my throat and hummed the melody to the craftsmen. I asked him if he knew the title.

Right away he nodded. “Shostakovich, the second waltz.”

I knew he’d know it. I thanked him profusely for answering the riddle that had been plaguing me, and quietly left a two-euro coin on his desk before slipping out the door. I hummed that waltz all the way home. It sounded different when hummed through a smiling mouth, not as melancholy – it was nearly triumphant.


May 22 2012

Still Walking

Any journey starts long before you walk out the door with your suitcase – or backpack – in hand. So it may be hard to pinpoint exactly when my Camino started. Was it the moment I decided to walk it for my birthday? The first time I heard of it? When I first read about it? I remember that De-facto and I took a vacation in Spain and Portugal some years ago. Passing through Santiago, we parked the car and visited the enormous, opulent cathedral. We saw pilgrims, apparently finishing their walk, and I think I might have wondered how could they possibly make that journey. I’d never felt compelled to walk 800 km just to get to a church.

On that same trip, interesting to note, we ended up in the Basque city of Vitoria, where I witnessed my first Basque fiesta. A man sporting a metal bull costume – and it was spewing sparks – chased the children around the town square as they squealed with terrified delight, and I thought, isn’t that an odd ritual. Not even a year later I would meet the Fiesta Nazi and she would start chewing my ear off about another feria, in Pamplona, and soon something else I never thought of doing became something I do.

Also worth noting about that trip to Spain: while driving around, De-facto and I decided that we should start trying to have a child, as I was getting up in years and who knew how hard it would be or how long it would take to get pregnant. Short-pants was conceived within a month’s time.

~ ~ ~

Lately I’ve been trying to meditate. This was a regular part of my life, along with Yoga and Aikido, when I was in my late twenties. Of course we go through different phases and fascinations over the course of our lives, and the discipline I surprised myself with during those years slipped away in my thirties, and the time required for parenting hasn’t made it easy for me to take back those practices with any regularity, despite the fact that now more than ever they would do me good.

It was a David Lynch video that inspired me to try it once again, and ever so gently – no grand proclamations here – I am trying to set aside 15 or 20 minutes here and there each day to still my mind. I’m not very good at it; my mind chatters away. But I figure sitting still and breathing deeply for a few moments now and then certainly can’t hurt and is likely to be restorative in some fashion. This is easier to do in hotel rooms and airplanes, harder to accomplish with the hundred household tasks whispering at me while sitting in my living room, but I’ve managed to at least start a habit over the last month. On the Camino it’s a walking meditation most of the day, but nonetheless I take the time to sit still and deliberately meditate, thanks to all the churches along the way.

And aren’t there some Churches? Many so grand and gilded, I stand awestruck at the altar, impressed by the opulent beauty, disgusted by the power and wealth embedded in the bejeweled reredos. I see just as much beauty in plain, little village chapels, homey and welcoming, peaceful because of their simplicity. Like the one pictured here, empty and unused but for the crude stone altar plastered with handwritten notes and pictures and stones and private pleas from passing pilgrims.

Whether you are pious or politically opposed, there is one thing you cannot deny: when you are in a church, large or small, magnificent or modest, there is a thickness in the air, an invisible weight hanging, magnified by the silence or by the distinct echoes of prayerful footsteps on stone floors. Within the thick walls of an edifice that for centuries has been the repository for the prayers of believers, you can feel the faith that’s suspended there, even if you don’t share it. Like a thick velvet blanket it drapes around you, lowering upon your shoulders and pressing your awareness down, calm, and within. In a church, I can meditate in an instant.

~ ~ ~

In 2004, Oliver Schroer walked the Camino de Santiago, carrying his violin, making a musical pilgrimage. He recorded himself playing in 25 churches along the way. This very short film tells the story of his walk, and the music that came out of it.

A good friend of mine, who also happened to know Oliver, introduced me to his recording, Camino, several years ago. I heard only the opening bars of one song, and went immediately to iTunes to download it. It’s become classic Sunday morning music in my household, but useful also in the workshops I lead, when I want to create a mood that makes people stop and reflect on their experience. Each morning, while readying my pack, I hear this song in my mind and I’ll hum along out loud. Once, in one of those cool, darkened churches, I took out my earbuds and plugged them into my phone and listened to him bowing fiercely on his violin. Looking up at vaulted ceiling, I wondered if this was one the churches that hosted his beautiful music.

Sadly, Oliver Schroer died of a form of leukemia in 2008, a year before my mother was diagnosed with the the same disease. Wherever they’ve both ended up, I hope the music is as beautiful as what he created while he was here. And I hope my mother can hear it.

~ ~ ~

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When I go into a church, any church, I always move to the left side and up the aisle, taking a seat in a pew about 2/3 of the way toward the altar. This is where my father preferred to sit, at this 9:30 position within the congregation. It’s comforting to be there, at what has always felt like our place in church. I think of long sermons on summer mornings, the patch of blue sky visible out the side door of that church, beckoning, and my father beside me, ready with his crisp, ironed handkerchief the moment I succumbed to a pollen-induced sneezing attack.

I’m not especially religious, growing up in a multi-faith household where neither parent was pious. But my father appreciated the quiet and the lack of interruptions afforded during the church service, and told me this many times, as if he was giving me permission not to be devout, but rather encouraging me to be contemplative.

Which is harder and harder to do these days, in this world that commands us to rush and run about and measure our satisfaction and self-worth by the number of things we get done in any day, rather than by the clarity and quality of our thoughts and actions. On the Camino, I have the luxury of little to do, except to walk, and a lot to ponder. I like this pace. I want to keep this pace, to walk through life rather than speed through it. Apropos of this, it’s worth reading the transcript of a commencement speech given by Nipun Mehta – this link, incidentally, sent to me by a close friend of my parents, both of whom seem especially present with me at this moment on the Camino – advising the 2012 graduating class of the University of Pennsylvania, as they “walk on into a world that is increasingly aiming to move beyond the speed of thought…to remember the importance of traveling at the speed of thoughtfulness.”

When my Camino started, exactly, probably doesn’t matter as much as the fact that I’m on it now. That I started, that I left and returned, that I’m still at it. That every now and then I try to sit still and listen, for the quiet thoughts – or the lack of thoughts – and then, I lift my pack up on my back, look down the trail, content, under the heat of the sun or even in the pissing-down rain, to know this most basic of pleasures: I’m still walking.


Dec 10 2011

The Recovery

At dinner that night I glanced down at my watch to see that it was nearly half-eight. That’s 8:30 in the morning home in Paris. I’d meant to call the girls during their breakfast, to catch up in general but especially to wish Short-pants well for her viola recital that evening. I leapt up from the dinner table and rushed to the meeting room, where I’d left my computer. I punched the phone number into Skype, counting each hollow ring, one after the other, until our message machine picked up. I tried the babysitter’s number, too, her phone providing the same lonely sound with no answer either. She was probably already walking them to school.

So many times had I said out loud to my colleagues I must call the girls tonight so I reach them at breakfast. How hard can it be to remember one simple promise to myself? Pretty hard, apparently, as the dinner conversation with colleagues and clients – accompanied by a glass of wine – distracted me enough to miss the thin window of opportunity to talk with them. Another example in my list of failed parenting moments.

Except it was about to be Thursday for me, Wednesday for them, the day they get out of school at noon. So I figured I had still had a chance to wish Short-pants luck before her recital if I could just stay up until half-past midnight to call and reach them at lunchtime in Paris. But my eyes were drooping shut by eleven o’clock, I surrendered to sleep fast and heavy – as one does within the wake of jet-lag – but at least I’d set my alarm, which went off shortly before 1 am.

“Mama!” Buddy-roo’s enthusiasm at hearing my voice, instant reassurance that they hadn’t forgotten me.

“Hey,” I said, yawning and groggy. “How are you sweetie?”

“Mama, when are the Fisher Price toys going to get here?”

These old toys of mine were sent with the other things from my mother’s house, a shipment that left the states in October and has not yet cleared European customs. I assured her that I’d filled out all the paperwork and I was just waiting to be given a delivery date.

Her enthusiasm disappeared for the rest of the conversation: How are you doing? Fine. How was school? Good. Did you have fun at the birthday party last weekend? Yes. I opted not to ask about homework, as much of a chore this year as last. We dog her enough about it, that there’s nothing I can do from so far away to move things along. Best not to touch upon a sore subject.

“Can I talk to your sister?”

I heard the phone clunk down on the counter and the footsteps the followed as she ran off to get her sister. I desperately wanted to speak to Short-pants before her concert to let her know I was thinking about her, so that she’d tune her viola knowing that, even from far away, I was rooting for her. Mostly that she’d know she wasn’t forgotten. It’s hard enough, I think, to have an event like this that your parents cannot attend. Worse if it goes by without a crystal clear message that being absent doesn’t mean uninterested.

Short-pants came on the phone.

“Are you ready?”

“Yes, Mama,” she said, “I’ve practiced every night. I know it by heart.”

This conversation an echo of so many exchanges from my childhood. Within it I heard my father’s carefully chosen words to acknowledge preparedness over perfection. And her response, like mine probably was, couched with the intent to please. Add this moment to all the rest – good and bad – where you catch yourself parenting as you were parented.

As a young violist, just about Shortpants’ age, I remember my father once complimented me after an orchestra concert and I told him, with some embarrassment, that I’d actually lost my place during one of the pieces.

“What did you do?” he’d asked.

I told him how I’d faked it until I could find my place in the music and rejoin the rest of the orchestra. I remember his long fingers, pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose to adjust them as he summoned his thoughtful response.

“It’s not the fall,” he said, nodding, “it’s the recovery.”

This advice I’ve passed on to others, but I seem to forget to apply to myself.

Despite all the self-talk about how the kids are fine, they’re better adjusted because we’re not hovering over them all the time, how seeing us go away and return is good for their self-esteem, how they’ll be more independent as a result, the truth is I feel like shit about missing this recital. It was her first one ever, and I wasn’t there. I wish I could have beamed myself home, and that it wasn’t the babysitter and her family who’d be there clapping in the audience, but me and De-facto amongst the other proud parents.

I could hear Buddy-roo crying in the background, asking to have the phone back. I reminded Short-pants how much I love her and told her to break a leg, an odd turn of phrase to use, given that her broken leg at age four had its own complications. But she knew what I meant.

“Why do you have to be gone so long?” Buddy-roo asked, through tears. I told her it was because I had to go so far away. It was hard to console her, knowing I had still another full week before I could even say I’ll be home soon.

“When you get back home,” she said, “then will the Fisher Price toys come?”

I assured her they would.

“Okay,” she said, composing herself. I may have fallen from her good graces for being gone so long, but I think I know just how to make a full recovery.


Nov 18 2011

Bowing Again

I called first. Yes, the store was open all day, until six. Yes, they had archet d’alto. The woman on the phone – I learned later that her name was Odile – asked me a question that would save us both time: what was I willing to spend? We agreed on a range, which was even a bit less than I had expected to pay. I was glad to know I could get a good viola bow without breaking the bank. I am an amateur musician, so I do not need top-of-the-line. But I was once a decent violist, and mine is a fine enough instrument to merit a bow that will make it sing.

There is a feeling that accompanies you when you carry an instrument, a kind of musical legitimacy that is not only broadcast but that is confirmed within. Walking down the street with viola case in hand, I had a kind of visceral nostalgia – not just a memory, but a replay of the feelings of that long ago time, fierce and full-bodied; I could feel exactly what it was like to be at a rehearsal. The faces of all my orchestra friends right beside me, looking up at the conductor as he scratched his beard just before raising his arms and snapping the baton. Those boys I had a crush on, the ones in the horn section, I could see them all, under that one forever-flickering fluorescent light in the back of the rehearsal hall. I was right there again, with all the harmonies and hormones of my youth orchestra experience, all this just from holding the handle of my instrument case.

It’s been almost two years since my bow broke, ironically only a few months after taking my viola in to be totally refurbished after years of not playing it. Short-pants would practice for her lesson and I’d wish I could pull out my instrument and play, too. Sometimes the pieces she’s assigned have two parts and she’d beg me to play along with her. But without a bow, I could not draw any sound from my fiddle, so I would answer to myself that I must absolutely carve out a few hours the next week to go to a luthier and remedy the situation.

Weeks and months and much more than a year went by.

Last week, Short-pants was practicing a piece for her lesson, a simplified excerpt from the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. She was having a hard time staying in tune, partially, I determined, because she didn’t know the tune. I found a recording on YouTube, and sat her down to listen to it. This particular movement is one that almost always draws tears from me, which perplexed her.

“Mama, why are you crying?”

“Because it’s too beautiful,” I told her. I didn’t know what else to say. How do you explain the way music can move things around inside you?

~ ~ ~

Rue de Rome is lined with stores featuring cellos cases and hanging violins and other stringed instruments in their windows. I’m not sure how I would have known which store to go to had I not a specific recommendation from a friend who’s a violinist. One finds this often in Paris: an entire street dedicated to the same industry, be it stringed instruments or textiles or handbags. How one purveyor differentiates himself from another amongst so many is beyond me.

Odile had laid out six bows for me to try. She vigorously rosined each one while I tuned my instrument. I was worried about playing in front of her. I hadn’t played in a long time. Not only would the instrument be cold and closed, my fingers were rusty. I’d even forgotten to cut my nails. I knew this was silly. I shouldn’t care what this woman thinks of my playing, I told myself. It didn’t help, I was still self-conscious.

I picked up the first bow and positioned my fingers around the frog. I drew the bow across the open strings, just letting them ring. Then I started an old standard, Telemann’s Concerto in G, a piece that every violist has played at more than one recital. I lacked the nimbleness I once possessed; I stumbled through the sequences of eighth notes. No matter, I told myself, just listen to the sound.

“They are all somehow different,” she said, “and you can never explain why or how. You just feel it.”

How true. One bow seemed to make a sound more metallic, and another slid too swiftly across the strings. Another harbored some invisible inertia, even with more rosin it felt heavy, sluggish. The next one was good, okay, but it still didn’t feel like it fit me. And so on. I tried each bow, pushing aside the thought of anyone in earshot, immersing myself in the technical details of each bowing experience, analyzing it – but also feeling it – until I narrowed it down to two favorites.

Odile took my instrument and played for me with each bow to give me the experience of hearing them in use, not from beneath my chin but from a distance. Then she regarded my viola and asked if I liked those strings. And did I feel that the bridge was too high? I shrugged.

“Will you permit me?” I consented to new strings and the shaving-off of my bridge and watched her carry my viola up the stairs to the mezzanine where some artisan performed a magic fix. Fifteen minutes later, she handed my instrument back, and nodded at me to try the bows again.

There is a passage in the JC Bach’s Concerto in C Minor that uses all four strings in a cascading rhythm. With this in mind, I selected one of the bows, and let it fall back and forth on all the strings in long, heavy strokes.

“Push with your finger,” she coached me. I dug the bow into the string and used its entire length. The sound bellowed and danced around me, rich, voluptuous.

“Now try the same thing with the other bow.” I did as she commanded. I forgot that anyone else might be listening, but pressed myself into the notes, bonding with them, breathing them to life. So quickly was I lost in the music, even with my scruffy, out-of-practice sound. I was playing my viola again.

It was clear that the second bow was mine. Like Harry Potter’s wand had chosen him, I too had been selected. I ran my fingers along the polished wooden stick, pressed the taught horsehair up against my nose.

“Hello,” I whispered to it.

~ ~ ~

That night, Short-pants opened her music case and I opened mine, too.

“You got your bow!” she squealed in full delight.

I suggested we play the Beethoven piece; she could play the first part and I’d play the third, so our harmonies would be distinct. We rosined our bows in tandem, and sat side-by-side with bows poised upon the D-string. I looked over at her, prepared to start, except she raised her instrument and dipped it down, the way an accomplished musician knows to lead off an ensemble. We plunged in, stalled and restarted a few times, but soon found our way to be in sync. After only a few tries, we played the half-page of music together start to finish. De-facto and Buddy-roo applauded wildly. Short-pants beamed. And for all the reasons you can surely imagine, I smiled too, keenly aware of just how music can move things around inside you.


Nov 11 2011

In the Cloud

I want to be in the cloud. Not the up-there-in-the-ether-all-safe-and-stored-and-accessible-from-any-device cloud, I mean the creative cloud, the cloud of that fuzzy, I-don’t-know-but-something-might-be-emerging cloud, both thrilling and unnerving at once, the cloud of my imagination. I want to go there and stay there and live there, mindfully navigating life in a writerly way, a painterly way – even thought I don’t paint – or a musical way, any way that might be an artistic way.

Once upon a time I had my fingers in glue stick and construction paper, cutting out magazines and making and pasting creative little things. I wrote daily in my journal, I did multiple free-writes on the same prompt. I remember feeling perfectly capable of taking time, without the gnawing sense that I might be wasting it, time being that precious commodity that we all have exactly the same amount of but some people seem to use more industriously than others. Not that industry is the truest measure of contentment. I would like to do less.

I would like to tether myself to this cloud and move deliberately, through the potentially artistic moments of my day. Spooning a mountain of frothy milk into the coffee in my favorite mug with just the right swirl and then doing nothing but sitting and drinking it; handwriting funky postcards to far flung but not forgotten friends before opening email and RSS feeds to respond to the “urgent” news of the day. Drawing a flower on the steamed-up mirror after a unhurried hot shower – better yet a drawn-out bath – and taking the time to add detail to each of its pedals; sitting pensively on the barstool, imagining the life of the Asian woman with gray squared-off bangs sitting across from me at the café; stopping off at a bookstore on the way home to browse the stacks randomly, pulling titles off the shelves and reading paragraphs, just short snacks in a feast of enticing literature.

I want to mount those family pictures on the bathroom wall in that funky frame I found, produce that little film of my mother walking through the rooms of our old house, finish that scrapbook of Buddy-roo’s blessing before she realizes her sister’s is completed but hers – though its pieces are ready to go – has never been assembled. I want to read without being interrupted or without collapsing the book on my chest in utter exhaustion. I want to, when I’m feeling haunted by a passage in Shostakovich’s 5th symphony, sit down in that moment to listen to it with the Bose headphones I bought (an indulgence) to block out noise on long-haul flights when the real reason to own them is that they make everything seem alive and present and close around you.

I just want to live in a more artistic way.

I’ve decided to stop talking about being too busy. It’s a boring line of conversation, and frankly, everybody’s busy. It can’t be denied that I juggle a fair amount between work and children and De-facto and friends and the administration of our household. The latter being the most tedious, but I have not yet achieved the zensibility of regarding piles of paper-needing-attention and unwashed laundry and children’s toys and books strewn as anything but an aesthetic assault. I think back to when I lived alone – I’ve never been an everything-at-right-angles person, but it was easy to sustain some amount of sloppy kind of order in my surroundings, which permitted me to vault into the messy cloud of my own creativity without stopping at the toll booth to get there.

There is nobody standing over me insisting that I attend so diligently to the administrative details of my life (and my family’s). I had a dream that I simply stopped caring: No need to remember to stuff the little morning snack packs in their school cartables, no hounding them to straighten their rooms or finish their homework, no longer picking up the random empty glasses left on the floor behind by the couch. I let them leave all the drawers pulled out and cupboards wide open, the wet laundry festered in the machine because I couldn’t be troubled to hang it out or run it in the dryer, the furniture was no longer visible as every surface had been covered with blankets, princess costumes, doll clothes, train tracks, little bits of paper and plastic, and books left open face down to mark the page. In the dream I regarded it all with amusement, and simply joined them, unbothered by shoulds and oughts, basking single-mindedly in my unfettered imagination, up there, in the cloud.


Jul 16 2010

Running Rituals

The alarm goes off, but we have already been awakened by someone on the street buzzing our door to come up for the encierro. Our balcony overlooks Calle Estafeta, where we can see the bulls on the street below as they run by, so we extend invitations to various friends (and occasional strangers) to come up to watch the ritual running of the bulls. Our instructions are precise: come at the last possible moment, minutes before 7:00 when the street is blocked off for cleaning before the run begins at 8:00. The drop key, permanently tied to a long white string, is lowered through the stairwell to allow our guests to pass the locked door at the bottom of the five flights of stairs to our apartment. We usher them out to our balcony so they can watch the street as it’s prepared for the run, and we go back to bed. That extra twenty minutes of sleep can mean everything.

But before 8:00, we, too, must be up, dressed and ready to run. Not with the bulls, but between our living room, where we can see the bull-run on the television, and the balcony, where we charge out as the bulls turn the corner to run up our street. Their broad brown backs rush forward, the bells on the steers that accompany them make the soundtrack to their morning run. On a good day, the bulls are still packed together with the steers as they run toward the corrida, and a few skilled (or lucky) runners sprint ahead of them, just off to the side of their horns.

After the instant replay of the encierro and ensuing TV commentary, we rush our guests out the door and head to the Bar Txoko where many of the runners we know go to swap stories and drink ritual morning drink: Kaiku y Cognac, a sweet vanilla milk mixed with a double-shot of cognac. It so happens that the street cleaners choose that moment to clean the very patch of the Plaza de Castillo where we stand, so we are forever maneuvering our conversations around to accommodate the sweepers and hose-masters who are kindly cleaning up after the previous night’s party, only part of the party that goes on for nine days. These guys are the true heroes of the fiesta, constantly cleaning the streets of the gray goop that is a mixture of beer and wine and urine and puke that accumulates during the week.

A quick drive-by to greet the brothers Carmelo and Fermín at the newsstand where we buy a paper with the photographs of the previous day’s bullrun and bullfight, and then on to our breakfast club, a long table set up in the street where friends meet to eat greasy eggs or pochas or bull stew. Such nourishment can be acquired anywhere, but we always take it here to be in the company of a few very distinctive jota singers who serenade us with traditional Navarran ballads with poignant lyrics (like wishing to be an ivy vine in order to crawl up to your window just to watch you sleep).

The midday rituals have some variation, but might include a long meander through the city streets in search of the Gigantes, a troupe of eight giant figures that represent the kings and queens of the different continents of the world. This year I saw them no less than a half-dozen times, their towering figures turning side-to-side in an enchanting dance in step to the music of the high pitched txistulari pipers. The Gigantes are at least three times the size of the men who carry and spin them for hours every morning; occasionally you see the figures stop and appear to stand still in the street as the men slip out from under the robes and duck into a nearby bar for a rest and a drink. In the meantime, parents carry their toddlers up close to examine the clumps of pacifiers that dangle from the wrists of the giants. When Pamplonese children are ready to stop using their binkies, they give them up to the Gigantes. This is a ritual I find priceless; I can imagine the conversations between the child and parents as the fiesta approaches, the building up to the ceremonial hand-off of the prized pacifier, tying it to the enormous hand of their chosen Gigante. I had a fine childhood, but if I could do it over, I’d do it in Pamplona.

This is the moment that seems to have become a ritual for me, when I wonder why Short-pants and Buddy-roo and De-facto are not there with me, swallowed by the sea of white and red and music and magic. I have kept the fiesta San Fermín as my annual escape, but each year I wonder, how can I not share this with them? For how long should it remain my getaway with my girlfriends and my “Pamplona friends?”

The fiesta is embedded with rituals, those offered up by the proud Basque culture, the noble Taurino traditions, not to mention those that my friends and I have invented for ourselves in the years we’ve been attending. Like our Hemingwayesque ritual of taking two days in the green Navarran countryside just prior to the start of the fiesta, when my girlfriends and I stay at our favorite B&B. Here we slide into the Basque culture, nibbling our favorite asparagus and drinking homemade Patxaran. We retire early and sleep in, padding the sleep bank before the fiesta quickly depletes it. In the morning, we take over a table to create masterpieces of jewelry we bead together with small plastic bulls that have been borrowed from Tequila bottles from a Mexican Kmart. Our own spontaneous designs that every year we make, wear and give away: the running of the bull-earrings.

Each day in Pamplona, a brief afternoon nap rejuvenates us to make the run for sandwiches and cookies (and a chilled bottle of Rosado) to carry into the corrida for the post third bull snack. The bullfight itself is a remarkable ritual, a 3-act drama of skill, bravery and intimacy. Though I am far from an aficionada, there was one moment this year that moved me to tears: the matador raised his hand to stop his cuadrilla as they came to his aide. He knew he had done his work well, the bull was ready to die, and so he stood back with his hand raised, and waited for the bull to fall. It happened swiftly; a good death, with grace and honor, the kind we all hope for. It made me think of my mother, of course, how nobly she fought during the last year of her life, and the dignity of how she finally let go.

Each year I painfully extract myself from my friends and the festivities and leave to be with Short-pants to celebrate her birthday, which falls the day before the end of the fiesta. I could have gotten a pass this year, I suppose, having done my duty with the big party last month, except that I want to be with her on her birthday. As hard as it is to leave the fiesta early, the return is always a relief. This year was no exception: I was as glad as ever to see De-facto and the girls waiting for me at the train station, waving wildly when they spotted me.

“I missed you so much,” cried Short-pants, throwing her long arms around me. “Where did you get those white shoes?” said Buddy-roo, who notices everything, especially if it has to do with new items of clothing or jewelry.

Over the last few days, the final post-fiesta rituals have been enacted without fail: the detoxification, the redepositing of sleep in the bank; the gradual removal of those haggard circles under my eyes; the return to an exercise regime to address the abnormal number of carbohydrates consumed at the fiesta; the washing of the whites, which requires the special formula of
bleach and Coca-Cola (this tip given to us by a Spanish grandmother we met in the supermarket) to get that gray goop off the bottom of all my white jeans; the telling of stories (only mildly toned down) and the fierce expression of gratitude toward De-facto, who always lets me run just as far as I need.


Jan 4 2010

To the (Blue) Moon

Every Monday (and Thursday) the same familiar faces gather, parental brows furrowed with the end-of-the-day rush; a crowd of tall, coated strangers stand uncomfortably in a room with too few chairs. At 6:15, precisely, the torrent of children pours into the lobby of the conservatory, a parade of little people laden with black instrument cases and swollen school backpacks. I always crane my neck to look for Short-pants; vigilant for that precious moment, the very first instant when her searching eyes find me in the pack of parents. Her expression shifts in a nanosecond, from awkward to assured, leaving the realm of the unclaimed and taking her rightful place at my side. I never get tired of that look, or the zealous greeting that follows immediately: “Mama!”

Yesterday, her music teacher walked behind her, his hand barely on her shoulder. I couldn’t tell if this was by chance, or if he was accompanying her out of the class. When she called out to me, he smiled and raised his eyebrows, a warning, I suppose, that he was escorting her for a reason. He is celebrity-handsome, by the way, a blonde kind of creature who, were he not teaching music theory at the public conservatory, could as easily be modeling Calvin Klein underwear.

“I wanted to talk to you,” he said, “about your daughter. She was very nervous today.”

She was a bit flustered when I picked her up from school to take her to the conservatory. The frigid temperatures didn’t make playing in the school courtyard very pleasant; she’d gotten a chill after lunch and couldn’t shake it all afternoon. I explained this.

“Yes, that’s what she told me,” he said, “but she is very often a bit nervous and dans la lune.” (I’m translating this exchange from French to English, except for these few words, dans la lune, which mean, literally “on the moon” and figuratively, “in the clouds.”)

“It would help if you could work with her, between classes,” he said, “to be a bit less dans la lune.”

I understood exactly what he meant. He was telling me that Short-pants is easily flustered and a bit spaced out. Though she can be totally focused; she wrote and illustrated a 22-page hand-made book on how to make a Mandala, and worked at it tirelessly, without any prompting from us. But it’s true that often she has her head in the clouds, leaving her eye-glasses who-knows-where, reading four books at the same time, bookmarking them by leaving them spread eagled in every room of the house. It’s a little bit of a miracle that she gets out the door with all her belongings in the morning.

“Yes,” I said to him, “except she has so few years left to be dans la lune. It’s a pity to cut that connection while it’s still so strong.”

Oui, c’est dommage,” he acknowledged my point while standing firm: “but eventually, you must.”

Short-pants and I walked home without talking. It was too cold for words.

The much-heralded New Year’s Eve blue moon is waning, but the last few nights the sky has been so clear that I could see the unfiltered moon through the skylight, beaming in the girls’ rooftop bedroom, proud of its auspicious ranking. Tonight I stole upstairs and searched for that moon again – just a half-moon or even a sliver would be reassuring – but the cloud-cover lays a dark amber blanket over the city, hiding the moon from view. My heart is heavy, though it shouldn’t be. Short-pants is a resilient one. She’ll go to the moon if she wants to.

Photo Credit: Jean Paul Roux via Space Fellowship


Oct 2 2009

Da Capo

It’s not that I want to be the back-stage mom, nor am I so certain that my girls have special musical talent. It’s not even that I’m trying to establish a strong extra-curricular record so that they can get into an Ivy League school (I get a head-ache thinking about that). It’s that I want the sound of music in my house. I want my girls to be introduced to the world of performing arts. Whether they pursue any of these arts with passion or professional intent, that’s up to them. I’m just trying to orchestrate a little artistic exposure. Easier said than done.

At least I’m getting practiced at the art of the inscription. Regular readers of this blog may recall the debacle of last June, where I showed up early – but not early enough – for the registration at the conservatoire de musique. Given a placement of #53 on the list, my low expectations were realized when, at the end of the summer, I went to check the posting on the window to find that Buddy-roo had not been assigned to any of the initiation classes. Not for the solfège. Not for dance. Rien.

This is not a show stopper; there are other such schools in Paris, and ultimately I have managed to enroll Buddy-roo in a dance class at a nearby studio, but that’s another story.
music_stand
For an established student like Short-pants – she’s been in the conservatory system for two years so she’s guaranteed a place – the music track is a triad: theory, chorale + a musical instrument. The problem was her three classes were scheduled on three different days of the week, including a slot on Wednesday morning, which I’d indicated on all the forms I’d dutifully filled out that she had school and would not be available.

During the month of September, then, I made no less than four visits to the conservatory, each time to talk to someone in the bureau de scolarité about reorganizing the schedule. They weren’t terribly empathetic about why I wouldn’t want to schlep my daughter to the conservatoire on three separate occasions each week. I had to use my haute politesse to make a change putting two of the classes back-to-back on one day, easing our after-school travels. Once it was agreed upon, I still had to put it in writing, and then wait for the head administrator to phone me back to confirm the change.

The good news is I knew about the loophole that could get Buddy-roo started in the conservatory even if she wasn’t accepted for any of the traditional initiation classes. Last week, I had an aside with the chorale director who agreed to accept her, giving the registrar no choice but to enroll her. Once she’s in the system, it’s automatic to offer her a full-fledged space next year.

But yesterday the clincher: Short-pants’ first viola lesson. She’s chosen this lesser-known stringed instrument not because she’s so willing to play third fiddle, but because it happens to be what I played in my youth. I remember distinctly the day I asked her, very open-endedly, if she wanted to play an instrument. When she told me yes, the viola, I pressed her, “are you sure?” She beamed. So the viola it is.
alto
The teacher produced two half-sized instruments for her to try. My eyes welled up, with mushy parental pride and, admittedly, some nostalgia, when Short-pants held the shiny wooden instrument beneath her chin, and started plucking away at the strings.

“Do you have the certificate of insurance?” the teacher asked me as we packed up Short-pants’ new viola at the end of her lesson. Up until now nobody had mentioned anything about insurance. I was directed to the office of the director, who told me that I needed only to procure an insurance rider for renting a musical instrument, and then they’d hand it over.

Here’s where carrying an iPhone really comes in handy: I stepped outside, used my index finger, and quickly found my insurance agent on the phone. Not a problem, she said, I needed only to supply the make and the value. With that information, she could even have it ready for me in ten minutes. I walked back in and asked to see the director, again.

“But I do not have this information,” he said, meeting me in the lobby, refusing to invite me back into his office. He was starting to get mildly hysterical. I’d interrupted him and this is not something he could easily provide, how these rental instruments are nothing fancy, the insurance company shouldn’t need this kind of specific information.

I should mention that while all this was going on, I could hear Buddy-roo wailing in the hallway, “I changed my mind, I don’t want to go to chorale.” De-facto, who was accompanying her to her first class, attempted to calm her. Short-pants’ soothing voice was audible, too, “Don’t worry, “I’ll be in there with you.”

I noticed one of the guys at reception desk smirking into his lap, and took this is a cue to give up on the director. I knew I could call the viola teacher later, she’d get me the details I needed. Or I knew of other luthiers I could call to rent a viola on my own. I politely extracted myself from the discourse. When I turned around, the lobby was full of parents, staring at me. Could they feel my pain? I nodded around the circle of chairs, and walked outside.

Just last week, I remember thinking – rather smugly – that I’d finally organized all the school and extra-curricular details. After all the parent-teacher meetings, the trips to the conservatory, the dance studio, the doctor (health certificates needed), the messages back and forth to the teachers about schedules, acquiring the necessary books and notebooks and leotards and ballet slippers, figuring out with De-facto who picks up who and takes them where – it’d been a lot of work, sure, but I’d finally nailed it. Well, apparently not.

Who knew that being a mother meant being a personal assistant to two busy and sometimes temperamental executives?

An hour later, after a bit of fresh air and a restorative bière a la pression at a nearby café, I returned to retrieve my singing cherubs. The two of them skipped into the lobby, hand-in-hand, humming the remnants of a song they must have been singing together in the chorale.

When she saw me, Buddy-roo rushed into my arms. “I loved it!” she said, jubilant, “Can I come back next week?”

“Where’s my viola?” asked Short-pants.

Yeah, I’m working on it.