Saturday, February 24, 2007

Days that shape a life -- day four

The final entry in this particular subject -- it's the longest...


Day four: August 9, 2005

I’m not sure I know exactly how this day has changed my life, but I know it did. I was working my night-job, as I did 6 nights a week. (Because of working 2 jobs, 75-hours a week, the entire summer, I had 3 days off. Tuesdays were never days off, but some Tuesday nights I had off...this wasn't one of them.) Per usual, I had the closing shift at the restaurant. However, it wasn't a busy night, so there wasn't anyone in the dining room when we stopped seating at 9 o'clock, so I could get my cleaning done and be out of there by 9:30...kind of. I had the dining room clean and was punched out at 9:40, but when I went to the bar to say goodbye to Craig, the owner, he started talking and just said, "sit down; have a drink with me." So I did. He started talking and telling me about his life. He led a fascinating life that led him to own a restaurant. He went to law school because he was a huge nerd and loved to study and it made sense to him as a scholar. He loved law school but hated being a lawyer. So he only did that for a few years, but kept up (and still keeps up) his license. He then went into the world of finance and stocks and whatnot, and somehow did quite well for himself.

After 15 years of that, he decided on a whim, "I want to own a restaurant." So he managed to convince his wife of that and, boom, they owned a restaurant. Her family's Sicilian recipes, his management skills, a loan, and there you go: Italian restaurant on Cape Cod. But on this particular night, Craig was asking me all about my life and my music. He was trying to convince me to work for him full-time and give up music school. He knew it was a futile attempt, but he wanted to plant some seeds and ideas in my head about life and how to go about things. He told me about challenges he's faced and said that when he goes to reunions, if someone says that they have a life of "no problems at all," he thinks "how sad." To Craig, life isn't worth living unless there is some sort of conflict or adversity to overcome.

I guess that is something that has changed the way I look at things and helped fuel my desire to be uncomfortable in my own music and learning. I want to have problems so I can get out of them and grow. But I digress.

I knew the restaurant was in financial troubles, but I never said anything about it. Craig looked at me, knowing I knew, though, and with a fire and passion oozing from him, told me that "No matter what anyone says, I'm going to make this work. I will do everything in my power to be a success in whatever I do, and this is no different." Much like Mark, who 13 months earlier, sat and ate dinner with me on my last night working for him and said "I'm telling you my life story so you don't make the same mistakes I did," Craig had decided to take me under his wing and give me mentor-like advice on how to live life. He told me that, regardless of what people told me about my passions and my music, to keep doing do whatever I could to make it work and be happy with it, but the first time I realize I'm unhappy, get out, and don't let someone make me second-guess myself. That if I become unhappy, it isn't jumping ship, it's being honest with myself.

He then repeated that he was going to do whatever it took to keep the place open. Less than a week later, the restaurant closed. It was that Saturday. I go in, and the head waitress looks at me. “Wow...didn't think you'd show up today." she thought I wouldn't be there because I had to call in the day before because I couldn't walk. (I had some scar tissue floating around in my knee that got into a bad place that made me swell up and not be able to walk. It still happens every now and then.) I looked at her and said, "I wouldn't miss my last day!" She looked at me, her face dropped, and she somberly said, "it's all of our last day." They'd decided the night before that they didn't have enough money to keep the place open through the weekend.

The last day was a great night. It was bitter-sweet. We were so busy that the bar ran out of glasses. Craig was drinking a gin and tonic out of a mason jar. I couldn't bear to leave. I stayed until almost midnight, despite the fact that I was going off-cape right from work and wouldn't get to where I was going until 2 in the morning because of how late I stayed. Craig came up to me before I left. As I was standing there, at the kitchen door about to hop into my car, we stopped and shook hands. We had an intense silence, and then we hugged. A large, sweaty embrace. We had both been running around like maniacs -- him acting all happy, me getting things closed and running glassware between the bar and the kitchen -- and also serving alcoholic beverage one-after-another to Ginny, Craig's wife and 51% owner of the business. (She didn't like me at the start of the summer, but I quickly won her over and was one of 4 people on staff she actually liked...) After we hugged, he looked at me, with either a tear or a bead of sweat streaming down from his eye. (Hard to tell, but if it wasn't a tear, he was definitely fighting off tears.) He looked at me and said, "I meant EVERY word I said to you the other night. Don't forget any of it." I looked and said, in a mild whisper, "I know. And I won't."

We had a party the next week of all the employees who were on staff the night the place closed -- minus a few who couldn't make it. While Craig and I had no notable interactions that night beyond the fun personal interactions that we all had, as friends not co-workers, the notable experience of that night was the Chef's last words. As Rob left, he looks at us and goes, "Drive fast, take chances." and left.

So I guess there you have it -- the four days that have changed my life.

I know it is slightly oversimplified and juvenile to narrow down life to four acute experiences, and I always feel silly when I place such superlative labels on anything so finite, but it seems accurate in many ways. I'd like to think that looking at these four small pictures has helped me look at the big picture in a new, better light.

And since I can't seem to find a closing fitting for the content, I'm just going to end with a quotation from a show I once liked, but it got worse as it became more popular, "Judging Amy."

"Never wear fire for a hat... I haven't any idea what it means. I read it in a bathroom stall once and it stuck with me."

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Days that Shaped Me -- day three

Day three: May 8, 2004:

It was my last Saturday of spending all day at New England Conservatory in and out of prep school classes and ensembles. I loved those Saturdays; I got to spend a day studying music exclusively, play with great musicians and friends -- one of which being Jeremy Udden, and explore great areas of Boston. I knew that area back and forth, including side-streets, alleys, and of course, cheap (and good) Thai restaurants. This day was a spectacular day in May, and like every other that year, I had a 2-hour break between my compositional styles and analysis class and my ensemble. Some days I would go to the library, some I would people-watch at the Prudential, some I would sit and people watch in restaurants or sitting on the sidewalk, and some I would just walk. (Of course, most I would walk to my used record store guy and check out his selection. I definitely spent at least $800 there in the 3 years I went to him.)

This was a day when I had no money and nowhere to be, so I just walked. It was my last walk in that area, so I was going to make the most of it. I walked very far and for quite a while, but at the end of my walk, I saw something that changed me: I saw a homeless man, trying to hide from public sight, with a small stuffed-animal in his pocket. Me, being the eternal six-year-old, immediately thought of my own teddy bear. I thought of how if I were to lose every worldly possession of mine, my teddy bear would stay with me. This man -- this smelly, disgusting, homeless man whose street-mates I would see every week and do my best to ignore -- had suddenly become human to me. (This prompted me to write one of my favorite pieces of writing, not because it's written well, but because of the emotion it still evokes in me. I brought this writing into work and my then manager, now mentor, Mark, read it. He looked at me and said, "how old are you, again?" "Just shy of 18-and-a-half." "You're unlike any 18-and-a-half year old I've ever met. Stay that way." If I think of it, I may post this piece on the blog in the future.) I felt completely helpless. I had no idea what to do or how I could change the world. I still hope that one day, I find a way to actually make a difference beyond the usual...taking my leftovers in restaurants and giving them to homeless men on the street, buying a coffee for someone cold and begging...

Maybe one day…

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The days that shaped me -- day two

Part 2 of a 4 part post


Day two: September 16, 2001:

That day itself was not hard, but it lead to the most emotionally difficult few months of my life. It was the day my friend Nat died of a brain tumor...4 months shy of his 16th Birthday. I've been a part of my camp community for MANY years now. I started at age 6 as this pipsqueak of a camper, and here I am, just got my contract for year 16 in the mail, now running the archery program. The way the camp works is from ages 13-17, you're a Junior Counselor -- you tread the line between camper and counselor, helping in activities and learning the fundamentals of teaching each activity. (Well, theoretically. There are some JCs who didn't really do much learning, and some counselors and activities who didn't really teach how to teach.) The 40 of us were a very close-knit group. (They still are, perennially, a very close group.) Nat had been part of the camp community for 5 or 6 years, so we all knew him. He wasn't the most well liked person -- he was kind of annoying at times -- but I always got along with him. In January of 2001, we all got a letter home saying that our fellow JC had been diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Not stated in the letter, but upon talking to the camp director, I found out that the family wasn't optimistic, even at that early stage, and that his only goal was to make it back to camp for one last summer. He did. It was the most inspiring summer of my life. It started without Nat there. On the first (or second…my memory is kinda spotty at times) day, we voted on "captains of the corps." This was an honor the overnight camp had been doing for years, but the day camp had never done. (And we only did it for one more summer, realized it didn’t work for our format, and never did it again.) I was voted captain along with another decade-plus camper who has been a counselor for a number of years now. I essentially was a liaison between the JCs and the administration. (Theoretically speaking.) If JCs had something bad to say, they told me, and I passed it along, as one cohesive unit as opposed to just one person's opinion. I also helped run events and was generally looked upon as one of the emotional leaders of the group. (Practically, it was a position that didn’t do much…)

Once Nat came to camp, he came for 2 days a week. The other days, he was in and out of hospitals in Boston and DC trying the latest treatments and surgeries. Nat made it through camp, but his condition declined rapidly thereafter. I was among the first JC to be notified of Nat's passing, and I took it upon myself to personally call every JC and let them know. In retrospect, that was a really dumb thing for a just-shy-of-16 year old to do, but it was something very important in my own grieving process. I needed to feel needed in order to be okay with myself. There were times after that where it hit me that I hadn’t really grieved. But time healed me, as it does everything.


Coming soon: Day 3

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The days that shaped me -- day one

Blog entries aren't supposed to be 2,800 words, so I'm going to post the blog I just wrote in pieces over the next week. These are the four days in my life that have made me who I am today. Dare I say it, the most important four days of my life.


It's funny the turn my life has taken; writing used to be one of the most important things to me. I used to stay up nights, with either notebook or computer in hand, sitting at my desk starring out into the world, writing whatever came to mind. It used to be about the process more than the words. In some ways, it still is, but I've replaced that process with the musical composition process. In the end, it's really the same pouring of consciousness and emotion onto a page. Only now, it's done in pencil and with only 7 letters -- and takes a lot longer for a lot less workable material. (But I guess that fits with my never-ending desire to make myself as uncomfortable as possible.)

I've lately been trying to put my finger on the moment when this all changed -- the moment that my life shifted from music to language and back to music again. I haven't been able to figure out anything even close to that, but I have been able to find specific days that changed my life...

Day one: Late 2000:

I don't remember the exact date, but it was a Wed. in late 2000...November or December. My piano teacher's old teacher had just died and he returned from the funeral and was nostalgic himself. I walked in and he just looked at me and said, "sit down and press record." (He had his students bring tape recorders and record the lesson because, smartly, he realized that not everything would stick and being able to listen to the lesson later in the week -- even if only once -- would help tremendously. Every time I go home, I dig up my old tapes and listen to a couple of them...I've come a long way as a musician, thankfully.) So I sat down and he started giving me a speech about "will" in music. He told me that "it" was all about making music your own and, what he called "will." He said that in the end, it didn't matter about notes, but the intention behind the notes and the emotion and feeling that goes into each one. He was giving me this speech because he said that he saw I was on the fence. Even though I was merely a high school Freshman, it was then that I had to make a decision about my life and whether I wanted music. He pointed out that one week, I would come in and be completely enthralled with the music and show that I wanted it for my entire life, and then the next I would come in and it was just something I did. Something I was good at, yes, and loved, but not something I wanted to DO.

Before he was done with his speech, I made the decision right then and there that I was going to dedicate my life -- at least until it didn't make any more sense -- to music. I haven't regretted that decision yet. I realize that for music to be my entire life, it will take AMAZING luck, along with hard work and talent. But since that speech, I have only grown more and more passionate about my music and more committed to my decision. That speech changed the course of my life. I credit that speech for why I'm where I am today.


Day two coming in a few days.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

This question is the beginning of the end. It’s the question she had to ask before she was leaving me for the night, as she does every night after our routine convenient-store run to get a bagel, a beverage, perhaps some pudding, maybe another snack…

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I used to be able to answer that question. Now you ask me, and if you actually want to know, I’ll tell you for a half-hour about the doubts I have in life. I’ll tell you that all I know is that I want to be happy and make a difference in the world. I’ll tell you how I want to do music, but I have an escape route planned. I tell you that I want to do music, but every time I have a class with a bad teacher, I call home and say, “I want to teach, because I know I can do better.” I tell you that I’d be just as happy teaching as I would composing. That I could wake up and look at myself in the mirror okay not feeling like I’m betraying my life’s work.

I’ll tell you about the fears I have and the doubts I have about myself. I’ll tell you that as much talent as I have and as much as I compose and arrange and as much praise as I get, I don’t think I’m as good as everyone else does. I’ll tell you that I’m a fraud and the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning is the will to work and keep people from finding out that I am, in fact, a fraud.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I want to be eight-and-a-half. I want to see the world as I did back then. I want to get the simple joys out of life that I once could, but seem to have lost. I want to contribute. I want to have an unfeigned and indefatigable cheer that is contagious and makes those around me smile.

When I was eight-and-a-half, I could answer that question without a pause. Without doubt or fear or worry that I may not succeed. I could tell you that I wanted to spend my life in music. Yes, I wanted to be a famous pianist, but I have since realized that I don’t have the sheer abilities to do that but do have what it takes to be an arranger/composer. But I could tell you, no less, that I wanted to do music.

Now? I want to be eight-and-a-half.

The eight-and-a-half year-old in me lives. My teddy bear still means the world to me. I occasionally get a new stuffed animal and hug it as if it were the greatest thing to happen to me in my life. When I get depressed, I’ll buy myself a new toy car and play with it for days on end until I’m back to feeling (closer to) my age.

Hell – I still watch the Muppets on a daily basis. Kermit the Frog is a role-model to me.

All my teachers have such faith in me that I, myself, do not have. I’m getting better at it. But I will always have that backup plan. I will always have an escape route. I will always, as my drivers’ ed. teacher used to instruct, “leave myself an out.” I’ve never had to use one yet, but it’s there.

So, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I want to be eight-and-a-half years-old.