Singing Out, Singing In

There’s nothing like a jaunt in a time machine to kick off the weekend right.

No, Doc Brown didn’t park the DeLorean in my driveway. The TARDIS from Doctor Who hasn’t made a pit stop on the Front Range. And while I’d have to clean out the basement to be sure, I’m reasonably confident that there’s no Victorian wonder-machine of gears and wheels waiting in the furnace room courtesy of H.G. Wells.

No worries. I’ve got something better yet.

It’s called Virtuosity.

***

Helplessly hoping, her harlequin hovers

Nearby, awaiting a word …  

Virtuosity, as the name might suggest, is a virtual choir, an online singing group organized by Stephen Ross of the Face Vocal Band. Like many others of its kind, it’s a pandemic creation, born from people who shared two common qualities:

  1. They really wanted to sing together for fun.
  2. They really didn’t want to share a virus-laden airflow.

The result is a musical Rube Goldberg machine, with a lot of moving parts adding up to a surprising result. You basically learn the song (with some online coaching), practice, record yourself at home 37 bazillion times until you’re no longer disgusted with your own performance, send the video to the director and then wait while he merges everybody’s video into one coherent and even compelling performance.

It should never work. But it does … brilliantly.

The main trick – well, besides learning to be kind to yourself as you work out the kinks – is that there can be quite a delay between preparation and performance. But even that’s more of a feature than a bug. It means that when you cue up the latest song – in this case, a cover of “Helplessly Hoping” by Crosby, Stills and Nash – you’re not just hearing music. You’re hearing memories.

That’s where the time machine comes in.

On Friday, it took me back to the March blizzard that overlapped our recording dates. For many of us, that added up to a lot of extra takes, thanks to the sudden roar of snow blowers in the background or the THUMP of drifts sliding off the roof and onto the soundtrack.

Months from now, it’ll probably take me back even farther –  not just to piled-up snowstorms, but to the pandemic itself and the weirdness of trying to live apart from the world while being a part of it at the same time.

It’s a memory brought back to life. And that’s powerful.

I know, I know. Most of us feel like we don’t especially want to remember these times. We’ve shredded the 2020 calendar, buried the mask in the just-in-case back pocket, and set about trying to look forward instead of back. I sympathize, I really do.

Some memories are painful. Or uncomfortable. Or even toxic. Every day, we see headlines generated by memories that are years or even centuries old, pain left unredressed, wounds that never found a chance of healing.

But memory can build, too. It can teach, strengthen, reassure. It’s the sudden laugh that lightens the darkness, the glimpse of hope in the midst of insanity. It’s the reminder that “Yes, we’ve made it through before and we can again.”

When those memories are wrapped in an experience – a song, a story, a journey of the mind or the body – they endure. And when it’s a shared experience … well, that’s the sort of memory that builds communities up instead of tears them down.

I hope we all find some memories worth keeping from this. Maybe even worth learning from.

You could even call it note-worthy.

Harmony of Hope

As music poured from the speakers, Missy danced. And squirmed. And smiled.

How could she not? Her favorites, the Face Vocal Band, were back on the microphone.

Well, in a way.

Like everyone else, Boulder County’s own a cappella rock band had been pushed off the concert stage and into shelter by COVID-19. And like so many performers, they were finding a work-around  – a periodic livestream that mixed behind-the-scenes commentary and familiar videos, each time culminating in the debut of a brand new piece.

By itself, that would be more than enough to keep the flame burning in the hearts of the Face-ful followers. But on Friday night, Face cheated.

It’s really not fair to bring in magic, too.

“From now on … these eyes will not be blinded by the lights …”

The tune would be familiar to many: the showstopping “From Now On” from the movie musical “The Greatest Showman.” Face was supposed to be bringing that song to Carnegie Hall, backed by a mighty community chorus. Instead, they were bringing it to the world, voices stitched together from a myriad of homes as band, chorus, and fans united in the only way they could.

At any time, it would have been a beautiful song. But at this time – blended with images of joy, hope and togetherness from the families of their fans everywhere – it did more than sing. It resonated. And as the hook repeated over and over, I realized for a moment that sometimes life really does have a soundtrack:

“And we will come back home, and we will come back home, home again …”

Isn’t that what we’re all waiting for?

OK, put like that, it might sound a little strange. After all, we’re all spending a lot more time at home lately than any of us had planned on. Some are climbing the walls while others are bunking down in introverted peace, but surely all of us are looking to the day when home can be a base instead of a world. Aren’t we?

Well, yes and no.

Sure, most of us want the front door to open again for something that isn’t a weekly grocery trip. But home is more than a living space. It’s a mental space. It’s a life that we know and recognize, a state of mind where we know how things fit and where we belong.

That home has been distant for quite a while now. We want it back. And we sometimes fear how little of it may remain, how much may have changed beyond recognition.

I can’t claim a gift of prophecy. I don’t know what the far end of this looks like any more than you do. But I suspect we’ll keep more than we think.

And that’s because we’ve already kept more than we know.

When everything familiar is taken away, it puts the essentials in a spotlight. There’s time to see what’s really important and what was just noise.

Maybe that’s why, even in the midst of so much isolation, we’re still finding ways to be together.

I’m not blindly optimistic. I know there’s anger and debate and contention – I do have a social media account, after all. But I’m constantly struck by how many people are doing so much to add a little beauty, humor and hope to the world. Not because they’re ignoring the situation – is it ignoring the darkness to light a candle?- but because it’s what we do. As friends. As neighbors. As people.

We help. We listen. We howl in the night. And yes, sometimes we sing.

And through all of it, we heal.

Yes. We will come back home again. Not unchanged. But not alone. And when we do – that will truly be a time to dance.

Missy is ready.

You can see it in her Face.

All is Calm

The words began 200 years ago. They continue to whisper today.

Silent night, holy night,

All is calm, all is bright …

It’s the quietest of Christmas carols and perhaps the best-loved. Simple and pure, there’s almost no way to do it wrong. Whether it’s being sung by a single voice on a street corner, a massive choir on stage, or an old recording of John Denver and the Muppets, the heart comes through, tender and mild, warm and unforgettable.

As you might guess, I’ve got a soft spot for this one, and not just because it was the first carol I would whisper to myself as a kid after going to bed on Christmas Eve. (When you’re a child at Christmas, you stay awake however you can, and for me, that meant quietly pouring out every verse of every Christmas song and carol I had ever learned.) It’s a song born of need, a simple tune against a troubled moment.

The story that’s often told, though never quite verified, is that Father Joseph Mohr asked his friend Franz Gruber to set a poem of his to music for voice and guitar, since the church’s organ was broken and couldn’t be repaired in time for the Christmas Eve mass. What is known is that when Mohr’s poem and Gruber’s tune were created in 1818, they came at a truly dark time for Austria.

Writer Dave Heller of Florida State University notes that just two years before, in 1816, the eruption of Mount Tambora had created the “Year Without a Summer” – plunging temperatures across the Northern Hemisphere caused by the massive amounts of material ejected into the atmosphere, killing crops and herds and kicking off the worst famine of the 19th century. Add to that the devastation of the recently-ended Napoleonic Wars, and Austria – like much of Europe – was in dire straits.

Mohr wrote the poem in the midst of that. Gruber created his music in 1818, when it was still fresh. And somehow, the simple song has endured long after the memory of war and starvation has faded.

In a time of grief, it became a lasting song of joy.

That may seem a strange word to choose. Of all the Advent virtues, “Silent Night” is usually most associated with peace, and that’s not wrong. The notes rock and cradle the listener, a moment of calm in a turbulent world. It doesn’t shout with exultation like “Joy to the World,” or march with purpose like “God Rest, Ye Merry Gentlemen,” or run a treadmill in your brain until you scream like “The Little Drummer Boy.”

But there’s more to joy than smiles and excitement. Joy isn’t dependent on circumstance. It does what it can with what it has. If what it has is a broken organ, it reaches for a guitar and a voice to create its beauty. If what it has is a land and a world that’s become shell-shocked,  it finds the tools of quiet, comfort and reassurance to lift spirits up.

It can be the bonfire against the sky – but it’s also the candle in the night. The pinpoints of colored light in the cold of winter. The song where no song should be.

And whether it’s 1818 or 2018, it’s still something that gives strength to the wounded spirit. And to a weary world.

We still need that sort of quiet joy. Maybe to face a holiday with an empty chair at the table. Maybe to survive a world still torn by anger and fear. Maybe just to keep it together for one more moment, one more step, when life is tired and at its lowest.

One more time. It’s still there. Even in the darkness.

All is calm. All is bright.

And at the end of a silent night, morning waits on the other side.

One in a Gillion

One In a Gillion

 

Inspiration hit as soon as Gil saw the old flood photographs. Caught in the moment, he hurried to the piano and struck up his latest composition:

Going on a flood trip,

We grabbed a surfboard,

Surfed all the buildings …

Not bad for 7 years old, right?

It’s been a while since Mister Gil visited this space. That’s because it’s been a while since Mister Gil visited Colorado. My young nephew is a denizen of Washington State these days, which makes random drop-bys about as common as a Seattle Mariners World Series win. But recently, lightning struck – his parents were back in town for a reunion, which meant Gil would be staying the night with us.

Which meant, in turn, that I would be discovering Gil’s many, many talents.

Such as improvisational piano.

And kitchen dancing. (“Uptown Funk” remains a favorite.)

And ciphers of many sorts.

And spur-of-the-moment jokes and puns. (Well, he is my nephew.)

And card games. (I’ve grown rather fond of “Garbage.”)

And … well, anything else he puts his mind to, really. It doesn’t matter if he’s done it before. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t even matter if he’s heard of it before. If it can be managed by an 7-year-old’s hands, feet, or imagination, Gil will give it a try.

I’d call it a fearlessness, except Gil doesn’t know there’s anything to be brave about. It’s just all stuff to try. In that, he’s wiser than a lot of adults, including his uncle.

Down in the kitchen, I have recipes that I want to learn to make one day.

In our guest room is a guitar that I keep meaning to get back to.

Of course, there are the beginner’s drawing tools in my desk drawer. Not to mention the novel that I really will get going on one of these days – promise.

It’s easy to plead time, or exhaustion, or any of a dozen other reasons. Sometimes they’re even legitimate. But for many of us, I think the gap between a Mister Gil and grown-ups like Uncle Scott comes down to two simpler things – habit and focus.

Habit is the behavioral version of Newton’s First Law: we tend to keep doing what we’re used to doing. At 7, Gil is used to doing … well, everything. But the rest of us have comfortable skills, useful routines, boundaries. Talents at rest tend to remain at rest.

And that, in turn, is largely a product of focus.

Have you ever asked a very young child what they want to be when they grow up? Odds are you’ve heard something like “I want to be a firefighter … and a doctor … and a princess … and a tree.” And somewhere along the line, we encourage them to pick something, to find what they’re good at, to concentrate on that so their skill will grow and expand.

By itself, that’s not a bad thing. Every skill needs concentration and discipline if it’s to develop, and no one has time to master absolutely everything. But too often, a corollary comes with it. If a skill doesn’t come easy, or if it’s one we’ve not tried, we learn to draw sharp borders.

“Oh, I can’t do that.”

“I’m no good at that.”

“That’s not my thing.”

No one has to like everything, of course. But like a child in front of an unfamiliar dinner, we’re often too unsure of what we’re seeing to risk a new taste.

It’s OK to try.

It’s OK to learn something you won’t master.

It’s OK to dabble, to play, even to discover you’re not good at something … and that you enjoy it anyway.

That, too, is a joy.

By the time this sees print, Gil will be back in Washington. But I think he’s left a little bit of that fearless discovery behind. All I know is, I’m going to have to dust off that guitar pretty soon.

After all, “Flood Surfing” won’t play itself.

With Everything On It

“Go, ahead, honey,” Heather told Missy. “Show him your card.”

Eagerly, Missy reached out and handed me her latest creation. The sheet of computer paper that it had once been could barely be seen. From corner to corner and edge to edge of the page stretched a sea of foam stickers – no, a wave of them, piled high and crammed tight.

Valentine’s Day had already come and gone, so Missy had grabbed for the package of Easter “foamies” instead and applied it generously. Squadrons of rabbits squeezed for room among armies of eggs and forests of grass. Somewhere beneath, a magazine page had been glued to the page, its image all but invisible beneath the huddled masses.

It was the finest example of Everything Art that I had ever seen.

Our disabled ward Missy, who is my age physically but often much younger in spirit, likes to express herself in a number of media. She’ll paint like it’s going out of style and slice up pictures for her collages until no magazine in the house is safe. But the quintessential Missy artistic style may be “Everything Art”: cram the page with everything you can reach that will stick to it, until the picture you’re creating has nearly become a sculpture.

Everything Art is somewhat tricky to display. Because many of the pieces are stuck to other pieces rather than to the page, hanging it on the wall means some of it may begin to slide and fall. Lying it on a flat surface has a better survival rate, but even so, Everything Art has an ephemeral nature akin to ice sculpture or painting with light – the beauty you see today is not guaranteed to last, so study it well while you have it.

Fragile. Unusual. Undeniably drawing the eye. And most of all, enthusiastic with absolutely nothing held back.

Oh, yes. This couldn’t be more Missy if it tried.

As regular readers may remember, Missy tends to approach life without filters. A bite of a delicious dessert may raise a cheer that echoes across a restaurant. Music exists to be turned up to 11, or even 15. Her smile lights a room as easily as her temper can shake it, and new discoveries produce a lot of excited conversations afterward –with or without words.

Yes, she can be quiet, even stealthy when she has mischief in mind. But even then, she’s fully engaged, just in a different way. She wears herself openly and she gives what she has to everything she does, whether it’s dancing with hands high in the air or waiting at her favorite bay window for someone’s return.

It’s life as Everything Art.

Most of us have learned to hold back a bit. Sometimes to keep from exhausting ourselves too soon. Sometimes out of concern what others might say. There are many good reasons and many less-good ones, some arising from forethought, some from fear or remembered pain.

But every day, Missy reminds me how good it can be to release the restraints. Not to hurt or overwhelm someone else, but just to honestly engage with the world, in joy and wonder and curiosity.

To let down the barriers and see what’s beyond the wall.

To live.

Sure, there’s a place for care and caution. But living under guard can be tiring. As the old words go, there’s a time for every purpose under heaven – and that includes a time to let go and dive in.

Because sometimes, life is too short not to grab all the foamies.

 

All About That Face

Missy twisted and turned, her hands in the air, her face brilliant with delight. Her knees bent to the rhythm, then straightened, then bent again.

“Yeah!!” she called out, laughing and bouncing as the energized voices of the Face Vocal Band – Colorado’s own a cappella rock band – powered their way to a close. Stopping was unthinkable, sitting down impossible.

“All right, Miss!”

Regular readers of this column know that our disabled ward Missy – eight months younger than me physically, but younger still in mind and spirit – will dance at any excuse or none. She’s the original crank-it-to-11 fan, capable of blowing the speakers off a car stereo with just one cut from a John Denver CD. She’s rocked it to the Bee Gees, to Michael Jackson, to a department store recording of the Hallelujah Chorus.

But since we first moved in with her four years ago, a cappella seems to have zoomed to the top of her list. Face holds down the top spot, whether it’s live in concert at the fairgrounds or over and over again on a DVD never made for ritual abuse. But there’s room for more, discovered on old recordings and through the magic of YouTube. The Nylons. Pentatonix. Straight No Chaser. If it’s got all voices, no instruments and a beat that can’t be stopped, Missy is all in.

I can’t say I blame her. After all, this is fuel for my own personal Wayback Machine.

Back in high school – never mind when – I sang in the Longmont High School men’s chorus. The crew met at the what-time-is-this-class hour of 7 o’clock in the morning, an hour at which basses rumble and tenors gasp. (If you’ve never heard a teenage tenor trying to get his voice started at 7 a.m., I encourage you to watch … but don’t try to swallow any carbonated liquids while you do, please.)

We sang whatever the fertile mind of Mr. Harrison could come up with, from show tunes to cowboy songs. But the best ones, for my money anyway, were the a cappella bits. Mind you, I sang bass, so that usually meant my vocal line was something like “Doo doo, da doo doo, da doo doo, whoa, whoa, whoooa” or some similarly deathless lyric. But it didn’t matter.

This was magic. This was music. This was creating something fun and spectacular with nothing more than what you had inside.

There’s no rush to match it.

You don’t have to be a singer to get it. Any talent, loosed into the world without restraint, will hit a similar vein. One man’s sculpture is another woman’s martial arts is another person’s passion for old cars. No brakes but your own enthusiasm, no limits but your own perseverance.

It’s exciting. Addictive, even.

And maybe that’s some of what speaks to Missy.

Her world is often a silent one, even a little mysterious to someone who doesn’t know her well. But rev up her enthusiasms – for dancing, for bowling, for art or a good story – and she’s a woman transformed. How much more so when her transformation is ignited by someone else’s?

It’s more than imitation. To this day, Missy’s musical tastes don’t perfectly match with mine or Heather’s. It’s something that reaches the core, some alchemy of voices unchained meeting a spirit unrestrained.

How can you beat that? Why would you even try?

So tune the tenors. Strike up the bass. Get that vocal percussion going. Missy’s revved and ready to rock.

Trust me. You’ll never have a more Face-ful fan.

Shall We Dance?

Missy’s finger unerringly found Feb. 27 on the calendar. Then her hand went to her collar, tugging it up and out at an angle – her signal for getting dressed up.

“I want to go,” she said firmly.

This one didn’t require an expert in Missy Charades to figure out. Once again, we would be off to the prom.

The prom, in this case, is the “Shine” dance for the disabled, currently held every other year at Flatirons Community Church in Lafayette. It’s a huge night in every sense, inviting hundreds of people to don their best clothes and then eat, play games and – of course – dance until the floor wears out.

For Missy, this is an experience just short of heaven. After all, it combines some of her favorite things in the world. It’s peoplewatching on a massive scale. It’s dressing up for your friends (and especially, in the case of Missy the Flirt, for the guys who can be greeted with a shy smile and a “Hi …”) It’s music cranked up past 11 and freedom to move with all the energy and enthusiasm you can muster.

And this year, it’s something else as well. By some odd coincidence of the calendar, Shine falls on my birthday this year.

That couldn’t be more appropriate. Because being with Missy these last four years and seeing the world through her eyes has been a gift beyond compare, for both me and my wife Heather.

Better still – to see how many people can truly see her.  That’s not always a given for the developmentally disabled.

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: We have a gift of invisibility that would put J.R.R. Tolkien’s magic ring to shame. But it’s almost never used on ourselves. Instead, we grant the “gift” to anyone whose presence is too uncomfortable for us to bear.

That could be the disabled. It could be the homeless. It could be anyone we don’t know how to approach – or that we fear might approach us, as though misfortune were somehow contagious.

Maybe that’s part of it. Maybe it’s too strong a reminder that all our gifts are temporary, from the money in our banks to the thoughts in our heads. That at any moment, something could happen that resets our entire existence.

It’s a scary thought to look in the face. No one could deny that. But when it keeps us from looking others in the face as well, it’s gone too far.

Those others look back. They know. And they understand more than you would ever guess.

Certainly Missy does.

And thankfully, blessedly, she’s been lucky enough to be surrounded by people that understand her.  Friends and relatives and neighbors who know the balance needed, how to make accommodations without treating her like a pet or a doll. Because of that, she has a life – and a social calendar! – that still makes me blink.

Bowling. Softball. Swimming. Trips downtown. Always among friends, always with someone who gets a look of recognition and a brilliant smile in return.

I count myself lucky to get a lot of those looks.  And to truly see the spirited, mischievous person behind those dancing green eyes.

And when that means escorting her on her big night – well, strike up the band and never mind the crowds.

Our partner’s ready.

It’s time to dance.

This New Guitar

I twisted the peg, checked the tone. Way too low.

“Other direction, Rochat,” I muttered as I begin to reverse the tuning on the guitar. Better … better … perfect.

I smiled. Only 70 zillion steps to go.

Music’s never been a stranger to Casa Rochat, but it usually involves 88 keys and some desperate scrambling to turn a page without losing the rhythm or my sheet music. But this Christmas, Heather and Missy decided they were going to expand my repertoire a bit. Which is how I wound up with an acoustic guitar under the tree.
A guitar!

There has always been something about a guitar that sounds like home to me. Like a lot of Colorado kids born in the ’70s, I grew up listening to my parents’ John Denver albums, which probably set the pattern. That got reinforced by a lot of friends and relatives, especially acting buddies who would break out their six-string at a cast party. Often we’d play together, piano and guitar, chiming out folk songs or oldies or anything else we could think of.

When music became more available online, I adapted so many chord sheets that I began to joke about playing “rhythm piano.” And so, over the years, I began to think about chasing those warm, familiar sounds myself.

Easy to talk about, of course. Everyone’s got one of those friendly, fuzzy dreams from writing the next big bestseller to climbing the Fourteeners. They’re fun to bring up and cool to contemplate. But turning them into reality … well, that’s a different animal.

That’s work.

Or at least, that’s the attitude most of us take toward it.

Two attitudes, really. The first is to get disappointed when a new task doesn’t yield success right away. “I can’t draw Longs Peak on the first attempt, therefore I can’t draw.” “I tried auditioning and I didn’t get Prince Hamlet, so I’m done.”

The second … well, the second is viewing it as work in the first place.

Granted, to any objective bystander, work is exactly what it is. But most of us aren’t objective about what we do. Mark Twain hit it right on the money in “Tom Sawyer” when he pointed out that “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

I write. A lot. I read about writing a lot. Even when I read for pleasure, I catch myself breaking down the structure and style, like an architect studying a blueprint. It’s effort at times, but it’s not really work. It’s just what I do, how I think, who I am.

At least, until I break into a sort of writing I’ve not done before. Then the sweat comes and the doubt begins. The reflexes aren’t trained, the expectations aren’t familiar, and the work, so second-nature at other times, becomes visible, even awkward.

Arguably, I’m doing exactly the same thing. But my mind doesn’t know that yet. It sees work, and lots of it; a mountain to be climbed rather than a view to be discovered.

If I turned that around, I’d probably have half a dozen novels by now.

Turn it around and there’s a freedom. This isn’t school. Nobody’s making me write a book or learn guitar or become a kitchen virtuoso. This is something I can choose to do or not do, to my own satisfaction or disappointment.

Terrifying? Sometimes. But also attractive. And somewhere, buried beneath the surface of the work, a lot of fun.

We discover that on so many other things we love. Why be surprised to find it again?

And so, this year, I’m strumming. Not as a resolution, forced by the change of the year. But as a dream that can finally be real – and real fun – with some time and effort and joy.

And maybe, in the chords, I’ll even hear an echo of a distant time and a Rocky Mountain tenor.

Take me home.

Out of Tune

Dear Unexpected Visitor,

I’m sorry I couldn’t meet you face to face when you stopped by the house earlier. I know how these impulsive visits can be; no one ever seems to be available when you walk up the driveway.

Of course, considering you left the driveway with my wife’s iPod, maybe you weren’t so disappointed after all.

Your timing, I must say, was excellent. By the time I saw the glove compartment ajar and the arm rest open, you were long gone. Since that was the only item missing, I’m guessing you didn’t have a lot of time to linger; cluttered cars are such a pain to search, aren’t they?

Out of curiosity, was it the Stone Age electronics that attracted you, or the old nail polish stains? Heather and I have a bet.

It’s quite an accomplishment, you know. Thirty years ago, it would have taken at least a pickup truck to get away with a few thousand tracks worth of music. Now you can just slip the whole library in your pocket without even thinking about it.

Oh, sorry about the “Desperado” recording, by the way. That Eagles album never really transferred well.

I’ll admit, I was a bit hot when I found you’d been and gone before I could say “Hi.” Or maybe “Hey!” There’s a certain sense of violation involved. And frustration at the time needed to rebuild the collection. And of course, disappointment by Missy, our disabled ward who likes her tunes loud, constant and rapidly changing.

(You don’t know Missy? Nice young lady. Lot of people like her. No, I don’t expect to make introductions any time soon.)

But you know something? You got the raw end of the deal.

What you got was a piece of metal and plastic worth maybe $20, tops. (I mean, an iPod without a touch screen? Come on!) Maybe you got a little bit of puzzlement, too, if you fired it up and discovered meditation rhythms, medieval hymns and the theme to the cartoon “Arthur” among the more conventional tunes.

But Heather, Missy and I – we have the memories.

I still have the vision of Missy cranking the Hallelujah Chorus as far as she could – in July.

I remember the device’s seeming psychic qualities, popping up John Lennon’s “I’m So Tired” on the day after the time change, or Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” in a Graduation Day parking lot.

And since Heather was the one who loaded it all, I could always count on a surprise or two if I hit “random” – though including “Adventure Time” and the Brady Bunch in the mix was really low.

Those are the real treasures.

So yeah, if you want to just bring the iPod back where you found it and set it on the stoop, I’d love it, especially for Missy’s sake. But if your generosity doesn’t extend that far – well, I’m not going to let you hold my mind hostage over it. Just do me a favor and at least crank the tunes before hitting the pawnshop, OK?

May I suggest starting with “Folsom Prison Blues?”

Little Drummer Girl

No doubt about it. Riley has got the beat.

I can hear it when my 2-year old niece visits, pounding away at her toy drums.

I can see it when I play the piano and her eyes grow wide, right before she starts bouncing herself along to the rhythm.

We’ve even noticed it during an otherwise unremarkable Nickelodeon children’s program. When a band of puppets jumped into a song, Riley did the same, banging two toys together, right on the beat.

Did Gene Krupa start out like this?

I know, every uncle thinks their nephew or niece is a genius. (Well – except for the ones who grow up to produce campaign ads. But I mustn’t poke at tragedies.) Still, something special and wonderful does seem to happen when Riley and music are in a room together. It’s delightful to watch, thrilling to contemplate.

Especially when I start to wonder: Did I have anything to do with this?

As some of you might remember, I first met Riley when she was about two hours old. My wife Heather had been in the room when she was born and called me in as soon as the family was ready for visitors.

I’m not sure why I did it. But that first moment I held my niece, I softly sang to her. It was the first time anyone had sung to her outside the womb.

 

Like a baby when it is sleeping,

In its loving mother’s arms,

What a newborn baby dreams is a mystery …

 

That set a pattern. It was a rare time we ever came together when I didn’t sing, often to help lull her to sleep.

 

Train whistle blowing,

Makes a sleepy noise,

Underneath their blankets,

Roll all the girls and boys … .

 

I was hardly the only one, of course. And soon, Riley had music of her own, whether it was her own efforts of “Old MacDonald” (“Ya, ya, yo!”), or half-remembered scraps of the theme song from the cartoon Caillou. Like the lady with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes, it seems that she shall have music wherever she goes.

And like a hiker in the Rockies, I still ask myself “Did I start that snowball? Or would the avalanche have come anyway?”

Maybe the answer’s a bit of both. Maybe a talent or a passion waits inside all of us, but we need each other to find the key.

I started reading at age 2 1/2. No small feat. But for the 30 months prior to that (and many years afterward), I was surrounded by books and family members who loved to read them, both to me and for their own pleasure.

The fuel was there, waiting for a spark.

Many lives can tell similar stories. Albert Einstein had his childhood curiosity triggered at age four or five by the movement of a compass his father showed him. A stuttering James Earl Jones had a teacher who insisted he read a poem out loud every day. Whether early or late, through an incidental gift or a dedicated stubbornness, someone provided the lightning strike.

The firestorm then took care of itself.

It makes me curious to see what paths it’ll light up for Riley. Maybe music will be a passion, or a hobby, or just a pleasant diversion on the road to her real interest. That’s fine. But it’s nice to think that, as she starts to march to her own drummer, it might be with drumsticks I helped shape.

It’s a pleasure that just can’t be beat.