It's Like Therapy

Sometimes an off-hand comment can really bring things into focus. I was chatting with C. after tonight's Vintage Vaudeville Cabaret rehearsal. She'd had a pretty bad day. Her dad was taken to the hospital, and though it was "only" dehydration, her family didn't know that right away. C. mentioned that coming to the rehearsal and being among friends was a great relief. "It's like therapy" she said. That got me thinking about my now 10+ years of performing with the Real Dream Cabaret and the Vintage Vaudeville Cabaret. Why do I do it? Goodness knows I'm not particularly talented, though I work the "comic relief" angle to mask my shortcomings. But here's the thing: I don't even enjoy it. I get no joy from it. Every second I spend on stage feels like I'm drowning (off key), and when my performance is over I run off the stage and find something fried to eat. So again, why do I do it? C. answered the question for me. It's like therapy. Not the performing part... the before part. Working with an insanely eclectic group to plan a show, figuring out how to carve out my little three minutes, practicing, rehearsing, seeing the shocked look on co-workers' faces when they learn I'm going to be in a show ("but you're so..." they stammer, then fall silent as they realize there's no good way to end that sentence), the flurry of e-mails, feeling the crackle in the air as the big day approaches, being part of something unique. That part really is golden. Too bad the actual performing part has to go and ruin everything!

Maybe I'm being too tough on the performing part. When I'm brave/stupid/focused enough to drop the little walls we all build around ourselves, to really lose myself in the performance and not care about how I look or what people think or the many ways I fall short, I can reach a "zone" and put on a decent act. This has happened exactly twice, but I think I'm getting better at it. After the first VVC show last July, people were cheering Jhen and I in the parking lot and it wasn't the usual "pity praise" - they really liked our act. Of course the opposite is true. If I cling to those walls and worry more about what people think of my act than the act itself, I'll wind up alone on stage, drenched in sweat, with Tony Conrad throwing boxes of Jell-O at my forehead (interesting fact about Tony Conrad - he has very good aim).

So what's the point of all this? Be brave. Or rather, don't be afraid. Put yourself out there. People will like you a lot more than you think they will. Maybe they already do, and you just haven't noticed yet. This weekend I hit the stage with Jhen and Lindsay, and we're going to bring down the *censored* house. We may not be perfect and we may not be on key and we might botch the lyrics here and there, but we're going to be amazing nonetheless. And we're going to have fun doing it!


Update on the Update

In my perhaps excessively thorough description below of the plants in my garden, I left out one of the rising stars... Monique, the Arkansas Blue Star. I left her out intentionally because she hasn't yet hit her stride, but then I realized she's probably going to be the most interesting plant of them all. It starts out in spring looking, well, it's nice enough I suppose but not really an attention grabber. Mine has seven or eight stems of wispy slim leaves. The overall effect is almost too delicate; you can't help but be afraid that the first strong breeze will carry it away. Then in late spring tiny blue flowers appear at the ends of the stems. Again, the effect is nice enough but just a bit too delicate. Then fall arrives and everything changes. The wispy leaves thicken and the entire plant turns the most beautiful shade of copper brown you've ever seen. The photos I've seen of groupings in autumn look magical. I'm already kicking myself for only getting one plant.

Which leads to another topic. Dayum, plants are expensive. I love Urban Roots, and you can't beat the convenience of a garden center 2 blocks from your home. And I love the interesting, unusual plants I always seem to find there. But I can't always swing their prices. I dislike going to Home Depot with its vast but uninteresting selection, but I can't argue with their prices. Hopefully now that the framework plants are in I can treat myself to an Urban Roots trip every once in a while.

Garden Update

I know many of you are probably losing sleep wondering how my little garden is doing. As you will no doubt recall, I started planting my front yard again this year after an unfortunate 2012 lawn mowing accident that was a direct result of my not saying "No, don't mow those pretty plants down. Just do the grass." Live and learn, that's what I always say. Anyway, I'm already to the point where I can take another look at some of the choices I've made (type of plant and/or its location) to see what course corrections need to be made. Sure, there are some tweaks I'm going to need to make but overall the news is pretty good. I'm liking what I see.

As I've said before in my garden posts, foliage is what sells me (or doesn't) on a plant, and everything I've planted so far has interesting, attractive foliage. I like the low-key flowers of perennial plants, and I can always put out a pot or a window box with showier blossoms if I want some drama. I'm also trying to avoid the same old plants you see in everyone's garden, though I couldn't resist a pair of Euonymus. Ok, enough rambling - let's take the tour!

Number 1 in the photo above is Euphorbia Ascot Rainbow from Urban Roots. This is an interesting plant because it's a combination of spiky foliage stems (you can see them on the bottom of the plant in the photo) and taller, flowery stems. Mine has fewer flower stems than the one in the photo, making it look almost like two separate plants fighting for a single space. I also like the "wild but not too wild" appearance and shape, which works perfectly with my little garden. The flower stems are floppy but the foliage is growing strong, so I think this plant will be very happy where it is for a long time.

Number 2 are the pair of Euonymus I mentioned earlier, from Home Depot. Pretty much everyone in my neighborhood has at least one, but I couldn't resist. The foliage is so pretty and again, they look just wild enough. I have them flanking the Euphorbia so it's a mad riot of yellows and greens. The Euonymus are growing strongly as well, so I think this grouping is likely to stay where it is.

Number 3 is my surprise find of the year... Geum Fire Storm from Urban Roots. Mine isn't flowering this year but the foliage is full and robust, so I think it will end up looking bigger than the one in the photo. I can't wait to see all those pretty orange flowers. This is, happily, another plant that seems very happy where it is.

Last but not least is another concession to convention, the Astilbe from Home Depot. On paper, the Astilbe is the perfect plant for me. Interesting foliage, interesting flower, easy to grow. But for some reason this one just isn't working for me. I realize now it's in the wrong spot for one thing, so a move is definitely in its future. It might also need a brother or sister to make a grouping. We'll see!


It's All About the Zones

This photograph of my front porch, taken this morning, isn't likely to impress anyone blessed with even the most basic gardening skills, but to me it represents a huge change in the way I think about plants. A few years ago I began planting my front yard, and in my enthusiasm I made a mistake which I'll bet a lot of beginners make: I was working without a plan. I'd be at Urban Roots or Home Depot and I'd see a plant I liked, and as long as it met my simple checklist of criteria (perennial, interesting foliage, and cheap) I'd buy it, with no thought to the overall effect. For a while, it worked. I guess maybe "my taste" was enough of a unifying factor, and I've never really been a fan of rigidity in gardens anyway. For one magic moment about four years ago, everything achieved a spectacular equilibrium. The plants were lush and thriving, and there was something interesting in every square inch without it all competing for your attention. But gardens are not snapshots frozen in time, and so this beautiful state of balance lasted about a week before everything just started to look overgrown and silly. A better gardener than I could have easily reined it back in, but I just didn't know what to do. That's when fate stepped in. I hired a guy from Craig's List to mow the tiny lawn and clear out the weeds along my driveway fence. I neglected to include "and don't mow my garden down" and so I returned home from work one day to fine my garden completely gone... mowed right down to the bare dirt. Ornamental grasses? Gone. Astilbe? Gone. Chocolate Snakeroot? Gone. Nothing but a small rectangle of naked dirt. I was very upset, and in fact I didn't plant anything last summer, leaving the ground bare and keeping the grass along the street trimmed neatly. This year I decided to try again. While browsing at Urban Roots I found myself falling back into that same way of thinking, so I stopped myself cold, went home, and made a plan. Nothing elaborate, just breaking the small rectangle into three zones, and assigning an ideal height to each zone. No matter how much I may love a plant or how right the price may be, if there's no room in a zone with the right height, no sale. My height restrictions are on the tough side, because my yard is so small, so it may well take all summer to get first plantings in. That's ok, because even now with only a few things in the ground, the proportions just look right. Mother nature will take care of the rest!


Stories of My Life

The first Story Night is scheduled for July 5, and suddenly something that seemed like a fun idea has turned into a source of "what if it sucks?" anxiety. What if nobody comes? What if too many people come? What if nobody wants to share a story? What if everyone wants to share a story? What if the stories are boring? What if there's an earthquake and we're all trapped in the back room at Rust Belt Books? Ok, that's just being ridiculous. Of course the stories won't be boring. Story Night started out as pretty much what this blog was intended to be: a response to diminishing importance of telling stories in our 140-character-limited society. I was lucky to grow up with not one but two amazing storytellers that I spent time with on a regular basis. One was my grandmother Carocci, the other was my grandmother Amato's best friend, Edith. It only now occurs to me that they were sort of the yin and yang of storytelling. There wasn't much to Edith's stories... an unruly customer at the supermarket where she was a cashier, or an argument she had with her husband. But she could wring every drop of humor, drama ad suspense out of an argument over who should go check the mail. It didn't really matter what the stories were even about. We knew we'd end up laughing until the tears rolled on those endless summer evenings on my grandparents' patio. My brother and I would sip our Kool-Aid, and he, younger than I and not really interested in adult conversation, would wait patiently for me to lose interest and go play cards with him. Poor David... it hardly ever happened. My grandmother Carocci, on the other hand, well, she didn't need to be as entertaining as Edith because her stories had all the humor and drama and suspense in the world. There's no need to embellish a story about your hellion triplet cousins Winton, Quinton and Clinton.



If you were to express my life in terms of a mathematical equation, it would be x = (y-1) where x is equal to the number of plates I'm able to keep spinning at any given time and y is equal to the number of plates. There's always that -1 plate that stops spinning and falls to the floor, shattering to pieces. ~ I was in Syracuse for Christmas, and my parents kept telling me to get on the road because a storm was coming. I had my my eye on the storm, but I wasn't really worried. Up to a foot of snow over the course of 24 hours didn't seem all that bad, especially since I'd be home an hour or so into the snow window. Unfortunately, I was forgetting something very important... my tires. I had a vague knowledge that my tires weren't in good shape, in the sort of "I should get new tires one of these days" kind of way. I'm pretty good about checking my tire inflation before a trip, but it had been a long time since I'd checked the tread. Big mistake. Bald may be beautiful, but not when it comes to your front tires in late December. ~ I hit the Thruway and all was well until I hit the Finger Lakes, and suddenly snow was swirling everywhere and visibility was poor. No big deal. I slowed down and mentally added an hour to my arrival time. But there was more than just the poor visibility... my car was handling strangely despite the fact that there was hardly any snow on the road. I was worried, and without really thinking my options through I got off the Thruway at Geneva. I don't know what I was planning... maybe to pick up Route 5 and take the long (but stress-free) way home. ~ I soon realized I was in more trouble than I thought as I navigated the slightly hilly terrain of Geneva. Despite there only being a dusting of snow on the roads, I got stuck no less than seven times in Geneva without even making it to Route 5 or anything resembling a highway. Each time, I managed to get loose after a few minutes of rocking the car, but I realized even the slightest incline was more than I would be able to handle, and there was no way I was getting anywhere without an incline. I really started to worry. ~ A pick-up truck with a plow pulled up next to me, and the driver asked if I was ok. I said I was trying to get to Buffalo and he laughed... "you are not going to Buffalo tonight." He offered to plow me a space, and I said thank you even though the idea of leaving my car on the road in a strange city overnight wasn't very appealing. But I didn't really have much choice, did I? Except that it turns out I heard him wrong. He was offering to plow me a path to a Days Inn a couple of blocks away, a route that was thankfully incline-free. And that's what he did... he plowed me a path to the Inn and then cleared out a parking spot for me right by the door. I fumbled through my pockets and rustled up $14 dollars in crumpled bills. I offered him the cash, wishing I had more, and he refused. "Merry Christmas" he said and drove away. If my nerves weren't already stretched to the limit I'd have gotten his license number to at least try and send him a thank you card, but instead I just stood there watching him drive away and thinking how wonderful people can be just when you need them the most. ~ I must have been a sight when I walked into the Days Inn lobby, coming in out of a blizzard in shorts and a turtleneck, with no luggage and a slightly maniacal look on my face. "I guess I need a room." The clerk gave me a fantastic deal on a room, and after hearing my plight pointed out the Monroe Muffler (and TIRE!) store just across the street. I'm pretty sure I head angels singing as she mentioned that they can come get my car and drop it off when they're done. I went to my room, turned on cable, called work to tell them I wasn't going to be in the next morning, and buried myself in the warm pile of pillows and sheets and blankets. It was actually a pleasant way to spend an evening. ~ The next morning brought a good news / bad news mix of information. The bad news was that Monroe Muffler (and TIRE!) is really Monroe Muffler (and TIRE except for the size I need), but the good news was that the sky - and the roads - were clear as a bell. And the kicker? I was actually on Route 5. With cautious optimism I set out on Route 5 for home, keeping my eyes peeled for a tire store. The three I found all gave me the same story - we don't have your size in stock. I kept driving and made it to Buffalo in the early afternoon. ~ So far my story has been one of making the absolute wrong choice at nearly every opportunity, and my run of poor decisions was alas not yet ended. Instead of heading right to a tire store I went to work, got a few projects done, and went home. Turning onto my street, in just about an eighth inch of slush, I got stuck again. No incline, no ice, just an eighth inch of slush on a curve, and it was too much for me. I rocked and shoveled and rocked again, and finally made it out of the curve. I parked in front of my house, wondering if I'd be able to get out of the spot the next day to buy tires. ~ For the second time, the morning brought good news and bad. The good news was that it was a clear, sunny day and the roads were excellent. The bad news was that Dunn Tire didn't have my size (what the hell is it with my car?). The man called another store, which did have my size, and I set out for the Main and Transit location. An hour and a half later, I had new tires that 1. had treads and 2. didn't cost an arm and a leg. The great Christmas Fiasco of 2012 had finally come to a close.


On the northern edge of Buffalo there's an imposing marble building perched atop a grassy hill; a hill that slopes gently down to a small lake ringed with trees. It's a beautiful spot, quiet and drenched in history, and I often find myself there on that specific sort of sunny day when you have a lot of thinking to do. The building houses our local historical society, but it was built as a pavilion for the Pan American Exposition of 1901 by an architect who clearly looked to the Parthenon for inspiration. The gardens and lake are part of an extensive city-wide park system designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, and President McKinley was assassinated while attending the Exposition only yards (and a hundred years or so) from where I stand. On the steps leading up to the portico sits a bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln. He is portrayed at rest, legs crossed, a leathery portfolio of legal papers in his lap. His expression is thoughtful, and his gaze looks down over the lake, past the Japanese Garden and the interstate to the city beyond. The statue is life-sized, and, apart from the color, very realistic. I always half expect him to turn his head and start talking to me. There's a sort of "when worlds collide" feeling to the spot, filled as it is with the contradictions and overlaps of history. It's secluded and serene, yet the low hum of city traffic is never completely absent. The neoclassical facade, itself homage to a still earlier time, can't quite block the overpasses and guardrails and traffic lights from my view. This spot always helps me recognize the repetitive, cyclical nature of life, and what I like best is the reminder that we're surrounded by history, our own, our family's, our nation's. Countless dozens of generations before us have dealt with the same struggles and catastrophes and triumphs and desires and joys and losses and victories as we have, and countless dozens more will follow in our footsteps. I think it's critical that we study history in order to understand how those who came before us solved their problems, or, if they couldn't, why not? Lincoln struggled with a nation fractured to a degree we can only imagine, and yet somehow it eventually worked out ok. Seeing his face, calm, serious yes, but unlined by worry or fear, gives me hope that we'll figure out a way to do the same. (this is a reprint from way back in 2008)