Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Divorce Diaries

Christmas. Part One.

So I was sitting there staring at the box of neatly wrapped Christmas ornaments, dumbfounded. My brain hurt. My heart hurt. My body felt leaden. I had to remind myself to breathe.

It was a great love story to tell for so many years. September 2, 1978. Flying in on a Cessna over the festival site, 20,000 people below. Meeting him backstage. I was 24, he was 44. I was barely a woman and he was a Peter Pan in cut-offs, barefoot, shirtless, salt-n-pepper beard and flowing hair. It’s a long story from there to here. And I’ve told it often.

And now this box of ornaments, dusty and well worn. 33 years of Christmases packed neatly in a large plastic storage box. Each memory carefully wrapped in tissue paper.

So sad, looking at that box this year. Didn’t feel like I had the heart to take the lid off, let alone dig through it. My 9-foot Christmas tree stood by at attention—waiting to be told what and who we are now—bare, but for the perfectly placed twinkle lights. I wondered—do I open the box and just start pulling out the “Baby’s First Christmas,” Grandma’s hand-me-downs, the sweet fragile handmade-by-the-boys’ sticky fingers ornaments, the mementos from Hawaii and England and Poland, the gift ornaments from sisters and step-children and friends? Do I put the same tree up, as I have done year after year? Can I?

This being our first Christmas as divorced people, with two households, 2 kitchens and 2 Christmas trees—I hit another roadblock with that box.

I couldn’t help but go back over it. I couldn’t help but have another “moment” over this, as the blues began to envelope me again. All those years, all those Christmases, our family history can be partially read from what’s inside that box.

When I finally visited a divorce lawyer earlier this year, there were so many other important points and issues that had to be discussed, but not something like this. We went over the big stuff—like parenting and custody plans, division of property. Those were the hurricanes we had to weather as we have progressed through this process of the dissolution of a marriage. And we have weathered them and it’s been hard. But the divorce lawyer didn’t cover some of the little things that come up, these microbursts of localized storms that hit me in the solarplex and knock me off my center. No one told me about the Christmas box.

I have found that these kinds of moments can creep in and derail me—finding meaning and attachment in the stuff that mounted up over the years and seemed so mundane at the time—those moments, the ones that send me back over time and over all the years and happy and the bittersweet memories. How many of those Christmases did I stress out and rush and pull it together and overdo it, trying to make the perfect experience for my family? How many times did I wonder why do I make it so important every year?  The tree that this particular box of ornaments decorates is the symbol of all of that.

As I looked at that box, still unopened, over the next day or two, I began to get inspired. What if I didn’t open the box? What if I could bring myself to buy some new ornaments this year and start over? I could try to not make this about putting the same family tree up as we always have done. I could get creative and make a new statement with it this year. Just for this year. Maybe this year I’ll just reinvent the tree. A clean slate. A fresh outlook.

And I’m not even a proper Christian! I’m all-inclusive, but closer to being a Buddhist, actually. The tree isn’t even about religion for me and for our family. It’s about giving and family tradition. The winter festival of lights.

In our living room, the tree stands next to a Buddha, an angel and some Native American art. It faces an Aboriginal painting and a feng shui fountain. My meditation pillow sits on the floor nearby.

After the inspiration hit, I realized I’d have to have one of those sideways “discussions” with my 17-yr old Sammy. I have to go in sideways with him because he really does not like to talk very much. Especially about meaningful stuff. Or at least “Mom’s meaningful stuff.”

I lead with a general statement about how I want to discuss something that he will deem as lame….

Me: “So I know you probably don’t care about this, but I want to ask you something about the Christmas tree.”

Him: “I don’t care.” (Not looking up from his phone.)

Me: “Yeah I know, it’s probably not really important. But I had this idea that maybe this year I’d do something different with the ornaments. Like maybe not use the old ornaments at all and get something new, like make a new design or color scheme.”

Him: “OK. But I really could care less.”

Me: “Yeah, I know, but I’m your mother and even if you don’t care it’s important I give you the option to weigh in.”

Pause. (He was reading a text, I think.) I wait. He looks up.

Him: “Mom! I don’t c….”

Me: “So if you decide there is something from the old box of ornaments that you really miss and you want me to add, just let me know because I’m your mother and it’s my job to….”

Him: “I really don’t care.” (Back to the text.)

And that’s how it went. But at least he knows that he could weigh in. And he won’t come home to another big change, as God knows, there have been so many in the last few months. I’ve prepared him. And at least he knows that I care.

So, I went to Target and filled my cart. I decided to go with a cool color scheme: it will be brown and gold this year. I got excited! I went straight home and put them up on the tree. A flurry of activity, a surge of energy overtook me.

And then, I stepped back.

Beautiful. Majestic. Creative. Artistic. And a bit generic.

And foreign.


Sunday, January 9, 2011


You’d think I’d be used to teaching a kid to drive, this being my third time through it (2 sons and a stepdaughter). But I recently learned that the best way for me to be in the car with my teen driver is to let my husband sit in the front seat, with me in the back. I have to promise to keep my head down and not look while we merge onto the freeway. Not that our teen driver is doing so bad, he’s actually doing quite well. The problem is me. I’m a worrier.

There is a lot to be concerned about, though. Car crashes are the number one killers of teens in the United States, so it’s important to know the facts and risks. I thought I’d pull together some resources to both bolster up my arsenal of helpful tools and to also share some tips with other parents of teens out there that are going through it too.

First of all, we have no problem turning over the lessons to a professional instructor and mining outside resources. I need all the help I can get, no matter how good a driver I may be. The good news about a professional is that they don’t have the emotional attachment that could add to the stress of the situation and they have the experience to teach this skill in a calm and efficient way.
But in between lessons and the driver’s license test, though, a lot of hours have to be logged behind the wheel so that we can prepare him to be a proficient driver for his lifetime.

·      Don’t be negative, freak out or have a meltdown. (Sit in the back seat if you have to and have someone else be co-pilot!)
·      Don’t use their time behind the wheel to nag them about other issues like their chores or homework!
·      Don’t allow your teen to take his behind-the-wheel test too soon. It’s always better to wait. Sure, it will be convenient for your teen to have ability to drive themselves to the game practice or the store, but the more supervised experience they have under their belts before being on their own, the safer they will be. And safety should be our number one priority here, not convenience.

·      Decide ahead of time what today’s lesson will be and outline it (like today we’ll be practicing left-hand turns around this specific route).
·      Start small for their first lessons, like in an empty parking lot. Work up to the freeway!
·      Use encouragement and positive reinforcement (point out what they are doing well).
·      Calmly point out when mistakes are made, without shaming or freaking out.
·      Make lots of opportunities to practice (like on errands and extra curricular activities)
·      Set a good example when you are driving. Make conscious choices to remain calm, don’t run yellow lights, always make full stops, stick to the speed limit, wear a seatbelt, show respect to other drivers. It’s important that my teen driver listens as I explain what I’m doing and why, when I’m doing the driving.
·      Use at least one lesson to go over emergency roadside situations, changing a tire, driving in inclement weather, checking the oil and coolant levels, filling with gas and jumpstarting a battery. And we need to have a plan about what to do if the car breaks down or if he’s involved in an accident.
·      Draw up a safe-driving contract with your teen. This would include all your house rules about your car and all the state laws, like wearing a seat belt at all times, refraining from speeding, driving under the influence and talking on the phone or texting while driving. The Automobile Club of America has a great contract (it’s free), as well as other resources for parents of teen drivers.

The most important thing to remember with a teen driver is that we are preparing him or her to go out there in the world and use this 3,000 pound machine in get around in safely and responsibly. But it is not a “right,” it’s a privilege—and it’s important for us to help him understand that. As long as he is a minor, we will allow him to drive under the rules we have set down, after he has completed a driver’s training course and signed a contract with us. It is our job to make sure our teen driver develops an appreciation that driving is a highly complex task for which he needs maturity and judgment.

And in the meantime, I've been relegated to the back seat.

Friday, December 31, 2010


by Maggie Mayall

BEST PICTURE PICKS: “The Fighter,” “True Grit,” “Black Swan,” “The King’s Speech,” ”Toy Story 3”

Runners-Up: “The Social Network,” “127 Hours,” “Winter’s Bone,” “Get Low”

A few years ago, my husband John joined BAFTA, the British equivalent of the Academy Awards, because he qualifies from so many television and film appearances. Every year, starting around Thanksgiving, we get “screeners,” which are DVD’s of the latest movies that will be up for consideration for awards. We get some of them before they are even released in theatres! I will tell you that we take the movie business very seriously in our house because we even have our own screening room with THX sound! We also take our membership very seriously, much to our friends’ disappointment, because we never lend our copies out and John takes special care with his voting.

This year I have compiled my reviews for the movies we have watched this holiday season and throughout the year. A few of them are British and may not be as accessible for many of my American movie-going friends, but are important enough to include.

The following is strictly my opinion. Take what you want and leave the rest!

"THE FIGHTER"(A++) "Well-produced" says it all: from the story (Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, Keith Dorrington) the script (Scott Silver, Tamasy & Johnson), director (David O. Russell), casting, the individual and ensemble acting (those sisters are an entity), the photography, down to the big hair, makeup and costumes (I OWNED that same denim skirt in the '80's). Mark Wahlberg gives a great performance as Mickey Ward. What CAN’T this guy do? I mean, he gave us hilarious performances this year in “The Other Guys” and “Date Night,” he produces some of the most cutting-edge programming in television, and now this? All the acting performances in this film are noteworthy, especially Melissa Leo as Alice Ward. Of special note: Christian Bale should be nominated for an Oscar for his heartbreaking and bitter performance as Dicky Eklund, the fallen older-brother mentor. Finally, my personal barometer for a great movie is when not only does every thing else work, but the score and soundtrack moves me at times, moves the story along seamlessly at times, and is hardly noticeable at others. Great music selection throughout, with original music by Michael Brock, and some chestnuts from the late 70’s and 80’s—by artists like Hall & Oates, White Snake, Wang Chung, “Til Tuesday, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Traffic—were well-chosen and well-placed. Ben Harper’s “Glory and Consequence” over the closing credits had me dancing in the aisle! Well done, Marky Mark. My Top Pick of the year, I think it's Best Picture.

"TRUE GRIT" (A+) I have raised my grade for this movie from an A- to an A+, because the more I think about it and talk about it, the more I am amazed at what a truly great movie this is. What a skilled piece of work, this latest from the Coen Brothers and Scott Rudin, (Executive produced by Steven Spielberg).  I am making this one of my top five films of the year. Of course Jeff Bridges is excellent as Rooster Cogburn, though I found it difficult to understand him at times. Matt Damon provides comic relief while retaining a very believable characterization as Mr. Le Beouf, a man with a big ego but a lot of humanity. Based more closely on the novel by Charles Portis, like the 1969 film, which won an Oscar for John Wayne, the dialogue and screenplay came alive with authenticity. The photography, by Roger Deakins, is beautiful. The music was by Carter Burwell was gorgeous. When Josh Brolin finally shows up as bad guy Tom Chaney, his performance was deeply nuanced—I was surprisingly both empathetic and repulsed by this bad guy with tragic flaws. Barry Pepper, always adding interesting choices to the mix, makes an appearance as a truly sinister yet strange character. And I loved Bear Man.  Most important, Halee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, gives a breathtakingly stunning performance. Closing credits song: “Leaning on The Everlasting Arms” performed by Iris DeMent, was absolutely beautiful and stuck with me as much as Halee Steinfeld’s deep brown eyes. I can always expect great things in music in a Cohen Brothers film. I feel this is the most commercially accessible film from them to date, yet they haven’t sacrificed their “true grit” and integrity as filmmakers.

"BLACK SWAN" (A+) Eerie, dark, scary, ewww! But cool! Darren Aronofsky gives us a modern take on one of my favorite movies of all time, "The Red Shoes."  “The Black Swan” is a creepy psychodrama about ambition—with anorexia, ballerinas, blood, sex and insanity—a horror movie about art, a slasher movie “en pointe!”  It’s sooo like a cross between “The Red Shoes” and Roman Polanski's "Repulsion"—so creepy, so scary it messes with your head. Oh yeah, also throw in a little “Gypsy,” with a psycho stage mom played by Barbara Hershey! Natalie Portman, as the “good” ballerina Nina, portrays a young artist losing her grip with reality against Mila Kunis’ “bad” ballerina Lily. Some may find the story-line and director’s treatment of it melodramatic and like being hit over the head with a mallet, but I thoroughly had fun with this one.

"THE KING'S SPEECH" (A++) Brilliant! God Save The King! Not everybody’s cup of tea (pun intended), who knew that a film about a stutterer and the speech therapist that helps him overcome it would be so great? What was unexpected, for me, was putting the story into context at the climax where Colin Firth’s King George VI gives a moving pre-World War II radio address as a call-to-arms that unites the British people and sets the course of history. Never knew that! I never really put that together, as an American baby-boomer baby, and I found that part in the movie very moving. Geoffrey Rush’s performance as the “Doctor” was entertaining and multi-faceted, as usual for him. Wouldn’t be surprised if both actors were nominated. Also, Helena Bonham Carter as the young Queen Mum was stellar! Well-made film. Long live the King!

“TOY STORY 3” (A+) Don’t think this will actually make the final five for Best Picture Oscar, but it WAS the highest-grossing film this year. And the reason is simple—it’s a really good frikkin’ movie! This animated feature from Pixar is not just for kids. It’s sweet, it’s funny, it can be dark (scary Care Bears!) and it’s poignant—about what happens to a kid’s beloved toys when he grows up and begins to move on. For those of us who had young children when the first “Toy Story” came out, “Toy Story 3” is all the more meaningful. But that doesn’t diminish its stand-alone capacity to be a great film for all. I rate it one of my Top Five this year, barely beating out “The Social Network,” because of the music and because I was actually crying for several minutes (hours? days?) after the closing credits.

“GET LOW" (A) What can I say? Great story, Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray. Beautiful photography. Beautiful sound track. 'Nuf said.

"THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT" (A) Lovely film about a real family. Deep, poignant, touching.

"HEREAFTER" (D+) Wha' happened, Clint? They made a TV show that was better than this called "Medium." And IT was canceled!

”BIUTIFUL" (C) Good story, nice direction, but without Javier, I don't think it would be as noteworthy. The score really irritated me, too, and that does it for me.

"SOMEWHERE" (D) Couldn't get past the first 15 dull minutes. Sorry, Sophia. Maybe I'll finish it later and raise the grade, I don't know.

“BLUE VALENTINE” (C-) Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling play a couple unraveling. With seriously graphic—but was it really necessary?—sex scenes and interesting and quirky actors, I kept watching waiting for a pay-off, but in the end I was disappointed.

“INCEPTION” (B+) Fun Sci-Fi!

“HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, Part One” (B) It helped if you’ve read and savored every word of all the books, like I have. My husband was confused and finally just took a nap, snoring away, because it was really long. But I liked it and can’t wait for the finale next year!

“WINTER’S BONE” (A) Jennifer Lawrence deserves an Oscar nomination for her soulful, intense depiction of a teenager living in desolation and bleakness, searching for her father so that she, her disabled mother and two young siblings will not lose their home—all the while dealing with local Ozark mountain folks cooking up methamphetamine. Yikes!

"BRIGHTON ROCK" (C+) A remake of a B movie from England, it’s a bit corny. We watched the original and I found the new one a bit more interesting because it was set in the early ‘60’s rather than the late ‘40’s and because Helen Mirren and John Hurt, though not on-screen for long, make it worth it. We could’ve had a whole completely different movie just based on their characters. Now THAT would have been something!

"THE TOWN" (A) Ben Affleck has had his mojo back for a while now. Brilliant cops-and-robbers!

"THE SOCIAL NETWORK" (A) How do you make a movie about a legal question interesting? Aaron Sorkin, that’s how!

"MADE IN DAGENHAM" (A-) Not a big fan of Sally Hawkins, but I was pleasantly surprised by this film—an English version of “Norma Rae,” set at a Ford Motors factory outside London in the early ‘60’s.

"NEVER LET ME GO" (D) huh? Parallel universe where special human-types are bred to be organ donors, with Keira Knightly and Carey Mulligan. Based on a Japanese movie that I bet was better.

"127 HOURS" (A) I vote James Franco for King of Everything! (but he’s in a tie with Marky Mark)

"THE GHOST WRITER" (B+) Hitchcock lives on.

"THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATOO," "THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE," and "THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST" (A+) Brilliant. Totally true to the books by Steig Larsson.

And these were not in the "screeners," but I saw them and was sorry I saw them:

"SHUTTER ISLAND" (D) Hitchcock doesn't live on. Nice try, though, Martin Scorsese.

“EAT PRAY LOVE” (D-) Loved the book, hated the movie.

“SEX AND THE CITY 2” (F) Time to retire this old girl.

Also saw: "THE AMERICAN" (B+) "ALICE IN WONDERLAND" (B-) "TRON LEGACY"(C+) "LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS,"(D) "PLEASE GIVE"(B+) "BARNEY'S VERSION" (D) "ANOTHER YEAR" (C) Also saw the 1969 version of "TRUE GRIT" and loved it!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Is This Heaven?

by Maggie Mayall

True story:

When my dad died in 1988, we'd been gathered ‘round him holding vigil for 2 weeks or so at the V.A. hospital in Denver. At only 62, his heart had given out and was damaged beyond repair. Slowly, his body was shutting down, organ by organ. I was lucky to be there with him at the end—truly one of the most heartbreaking and scary and spiritual and heavy experiences I have ever had.  Our son Zak, who was only 4½ at the time, hadn’t been allowed into the ICU to see him at all during that time. I think it would have been too scary for such a little one to see his grandpa all hooked up with breathing tubes, IV’s and catheters anyway. So my husband John did coloring books with him out in the waiting room and took him to the zoo.

There are good deaths and there are ugly deaths, and we don’t get a whole lot of choice about which we are going to have.  I believe it’s a crapshoot and a lot like childbirth—you can make all the arrangements you want, but when the time comes you never know exactly how it’s going to come down. A good death would be peacefully dying in your sleep in a good dream or dropping while pruning roses—last breath as you gaze up to a beautiful blue sky. A bad death is thrashing away for weeks or months, in pain and/or mental agony. Both my parents died bad deaths, unfortunately—a very sad and hard thing to watch.

When John and Zak got back from the zoo, his red-eyed mommy explained to him that Grandpa had just died and he’d gone up to heaven. At that age, he really didn’t quite understand what “died” really meant, though, which of course is developmentally appropriate. But being a fairly new parent myself, the next couple of days were about making things up on the fly to help him get through it.

“So what’s heaven, mommy?”

“Hmm. Well, you know how Grandpa liked fishing so much? Remember when Grandpa took you fishing and you caught a rainbow trout? Well I think that what happens when you go to heaven is your spirit goes to a special place—a place with God. And for those of us left here on earth, your spirit lives on in a place that was most beautiful and special for you. For Grandpa, I think his spirit will live on in the rainbow trout. So from now on, whenever you look in the river, you can see Grandpa’s spirit in the colors of the rainbow trout swimming by. That would be heaven for Grandpa.”

As we made our arrangements for his cremation and memorial, it was decided that because all of us big people had been hanging out with my dad thrashing about in a hospital for so long, we would have a “natural” viewing, so that we could see him one last time. My dad would have approved, as he was a free spirit and would not have condoned embalming him, putting makeup on him, dressing him up and parading him around in a casket.

The day of the viewing, all of us big people were talking about “going to see Grandpa,” followed by bursts of sniffles or outright wailing, hugs and courageous smiles.  On our way to the funeral home, Zak asked again and again, “Where are we going?”  And I told him, “We’re going to go see Grandpa one last time, Zak,” as bravely as I could, oblivious to the fact that he was getting confused.

So I pulled into the parking lot with my rental car and turned the engine off and took a moment to breathe and collect myself. In that moment of silence, my little Zak piped up in the back seat, “Is this heaven?”

Oh, I loved him as much in that moment as ever.  No, this isn't heaven, honey. This is the funeral home.

John and I decided it was ok to let Zak see Grandpa. You never know until you know when it comes to what’s right for your kid. It was ok for Zak. He was still young enough to not quite be traumatized but old enough to benefit from the visual experience of seeing his Grandpa one last time.

When we walked into the viewing room, there was my dad’s body, quiet and relaxed. He looked peaceful. It was a relief. And he looked really small. I was holding Zak’s hand tight and then bent down to put my arm around his little shoulders. He looked up, surveyed the sight of his Grandpa’s quiet repose, blinked, and said, “Where’s the rest of him?”

Well, that’s the part that we see in the colors of the rainbow trout, my lovely child.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Maggie's Bucket List

by Maggie Mayall

In 2004, I took a cold hard look at what I’d done with my life. Turning 50 will do that to you. Turning 50 gives you perspective. Getting old(er) ain’t for sissies. It ain’t for the faint of heart, I can tell you that.  When I turned 50, I started to wonder, “OK. Now what?”

Let’s just say—just to round things off to a nice even number—this is the halfway point. Let’s just say I stay healthy and everything goes well from now on—that I’ve survived the excessive and hard-partying 20’s, the road, a few rock bands, a long-term marriage and being a parent. Let’s just say stress and worry and a traffic accident doesn’t send me to an early grave, and luck and keeping up the good work with my lifestyle will help keep some of the genetic predispositions of my family tree at bay.

Ok, so let’s just say I make it to about 100. What do I do for the second half?

When I turned 50 I thought, “What have I left undone?  If I knew that I was going to go tomorrow, was there anything that I regretted not doing?”

First crazy thing I did was I cut my hair. It was like I was struck with an insane urge. I had to do it. I’d read once that in some cultures, cutting your hair is a spiritual cleansing and a beginning of a rebirth. I have to admit, doing that did have an effect on me: Annoyance. It was very cute, but it was a bitch to keep styled.

Well at least I didn’t get a sports car.

I thought about the fact that I had never released a record of my own. Oh, sure, I’d done a lot of recording. But when I’m 99 years and 364 days old, would I be sad that I didn’t have a record? And my answer was yes, I would be sad. So I released an album, “dig this,” in 2006—an anthology of never-released material. For good measure, I put a band together and played a few gigs. And I’m very happy I did that.

Since then, my hair’s grown out again (thank God), I lost 40 pounds (boy so THAT was a weight off my ass!) and I started working out. I’m in the best shape of my life. My goal is to be able to do at least one chin-up someday. Maybe I’ll end up some kind of geriatric body builder or something, who knows?

I started making a “Bucket List” and checking things off.

Sometimes when I tell people about my “Bucket List” they say that’s for people who are going to die.

But an emergency room nurse told me once, “Statistics show that 100% of us are going to die.”

Thank God I wasn’t in the emergency room when she told me that.

When I was 26, I went on the road to Australia with my boyfriend as part of his band. It was a crazy trip. A lot of stories there, some scandalous, but this is not the place for it. I’ll have to write that in my memoir. Which is on my Bucket List.

I loved Australia and always wanted to go back there. I especially wanted to go back there older and wiser and a lot more sane than I was when I was 26. And I always regretted that I had never seen The Great Barrier Reef. So I put that on my Bucket List.

While I was envisioning going to the Great Barrier Reef someday soon, I joined a writers’ group and started writing an online column about my life, getting a chance to hone my skills for my eventual memoir-writing. See how everything comes together?

Lo and behold, earlier this year, the stars aligned and I was able to join my husband (the former boyfriend) on the road again in Australia. After spending a week with him and the band (with no kids!), and singing with the band—something I didn’t even put on the list but should have—I got on a little plane by myself and went up to Cairns where I caught a boat out to the reef. I took a lot of underwater pictures and checked another one off.

See Alaska and walk on a glacier? Check!

Ride a bicycle in Paris? Check!

Start a new blog? Check!

River raft trip down the Grand Canyon? We did that in July. But John (the boyfriend/husband) broke a rib, so I’m going to have to be careful about dragging him along for some of this stuff.

About a month ago, my sister and I camped out in a parking lot all night somewhere near Boston for a TV show called The Amazing Race. Tried out for a Reality Show? Check!

I don’t have to worry about running out of things  to do because I keep adding to the list. I’d like to go swing a hammer somewhere, building houses for some people that need it. Anywhere in the world will do.

Also on the list: Sing the National Anthem at a professional baseball game and ride a bicycle to The Great Wall of China. I’m on a roll. I think all I have to do is envision it and when the time is right, the path to it will show itself.

I mean, after all, I’m only 56. Got another 44 years to go, right?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Turnaround

by Maggie Mayall

12-Bar Blues Song Recipe
1.     Start on the “1” (the root chord)
2.     Tell the first part of the story in four bars
3.     Go to the “4” (4 whole steps up from the “1”)
4.     Build the story there for another four bars
5.     Wrap up the story and climax it with a "hook,"  or “The Turnaround,” jumping to the "5," then "4," then back to "1" again (" 5-4-1") in four bars
6.     Repeat steps 1-6 for verses 2, 3, etc.
7.     Optional: Put in a bridge (usually involves going to the "4" and doing some other fancy stuff)
8.     Optional: Repeat Step 6, as desired,  and vamp to end the song

Any musician with even a minimal knowledge of the blues knows that "5-4-1" is The Turnaround.  The Turnaround is where it all comes together.

Don’t be deceived at how simple this looks.  I’ll tell you from experience, it’s not an easy form to write.  I’ve given the form a good try a few times in my day, and have only been modestly successful.  

A good blues song is a miracle.

First of all, there has to be a story with an edge, a good story with a unique way to put it.  And then there’s the necessity of the “hook” at the turnaround.  

What a thing to behold is a good blues song! Cases in point: “Goin’ To Chicago,” “Have You Ever Loved A Woman,” “St. Louis Blues,” “I’m Tore Down,” “Hound Dog,” “The Thrill Is Gone,” “Woke Up This Morning,” and of course “Room To Move,” just to name a few.

I was contemplating this several years ago as I was driving my car on one of our usual family shuttling trips. My husband, “The Bluesman” John Mayall, was relegated to the back, as our then-11-year old, Sammy, had commandeered “shotgun.”

Sammy--we called him Lil’ Dude then--with his baseball cap strategically low and tilted to one side over his wraparound shades, sat up front with an ulterior motive: to put the car radio on the local Hip-Hop station, because that's what he was into then.

Poor Bluesman.  “Aaarrrgh” is what I think I heard him say back there behind me.

Protesting at the assault on our ears, I turned it off, emitting complaints from Lil’ Dude. 

I’m not saying I don’t like Hip-Hop, because that wouldn’t be true. I refuse to close my mind to any genre of music, but my taste was still stuck in the 90’s and early 2000's, though, with Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,”  Run DMC’s “Walk This Way,” 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” and Yung Joc’s “It’s Goin’ Down,” Outkast’s “Hey Ya” and Jurassic 5’s “Work It Out.” Oh, and “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-a-lot, because I like a little humor.  

But the song that was playing was actually draining IQ points from my brain.  I could feel my intelligence slipping away.  So, as usual, I made this a "teaching moment" for Lil’ Dude.

"Lil' Dude," I said, "here’s how it goes:  someone sets a thing called a drum machine on a catchy Hip-Hop beat and then they add a booming bass line to it.  Then someone plays a cheesy chord and the rapper starts a monotone rap. The lyrics will go something like this...." I then kind of used a goofy Brooklyn-type accent or something, for effect.

"I’m kickin it around and the girl has got me groovin
 I like your #*#s and they shake with how you’re movin...."

"And then they change to another cheesy chord," I say. 

Lil' Dude's mouth had dropped open. 

I couldn't see his eyes, because of the shades you know, but I think I had his attention at this point.

I forge ahead:
     “You R da bomb and I like it like that, You R da bomb and it’s really @@##in phat."  (I think I'm on a roll here)

I continue, "Then the girl comes in. She doesn't really have a melody, just the key, so she vamps with what we call 'The Wobbly Singing."

"I’m your girl and I’m humpin with the bumpin and baby I’m your girl and I’m bumpin with the humpin"* 

Pause here, for effect. Drink it in, Mom, drink it in.

“Ha. Ha. Ha,” Lil’ Dude deadpanned, as he slapped the radio back on, in defiance of what I personally feel was an absolutely spot-on brilliant satire.  Then the song that came on was pretty much a copy of what I just demonstrated. 

Chalk one up for big mama.

Lil’ Dude looked at me incredulously for a moment, like I’d just performed a magic trick right there in the car.  Then he slumped down in his seat, crossing his arms.  I think there may have been a hint of admiration in his eyes, though, but I couldn’t really tell, under the shades and all.

I looked at The Bluesman in the rearview mirror.  He was smiling with me.

Eventually I had to let it go with Lil’ Dude, the same way I did with his big brother Skater Dude Zak. Thank God the Hip-Hop stage didn't last very long. They eventually come around if you leave 'em alone.


These days, The Bluesman and I and our two sons share the diverse language of music as more of an exchange. I learn a lot from them. And I actually really love most of the stuff they listen to. And I hope they've learned something from us.

But I’ll always marvel at the simple form of a good blues song.

And rejoice in The Turnaround.

(This piece originally appeared as my first essay for my column called "The Tour Bus is on Fire," in October 2006. It has been slightly edited for updating here, and, please note: *Simplified lyrics example only—No actual songs were harmed in the making of this essay.)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Brain Fire

by Maggie Mayall

Last week, we watched devastation in San Bruno, when a gas line exploded, wiping out a section of a quiet neighborhood in suburban San Francisco.

I know what it’s like to be in a firestorm.  I have seen a wall of flames up close and personal.

A couple of years ago during another of our Southern California fire seasons, the ash and soot filled the air and fell on us like snow. We cleaned it up, again, hosing down the driveway and the cars. The pool sweep worked overtime sucking up the grainy black dust that settled on the bottom. We restricted our outdoor activities for a few days, the air a thick smoky haze from a fire that burned 20 miles away. The sunsets turned burnt-orange with grey streaks—colorful, but ominous. The news programs provided round-the-clock, unrelenting coverage, bombarding us with countless images of destruction, heroism, broken hearts and satellite images of huge plumes of smoke stretching hundreds of miles over the Pacific Ocean—until we heard “10% contained” or better, breaking finally for commercials and other news.

Every fire season brings out my “Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome,” from when the Laurel Canyon Fire surprised my husband and I on a hot and lazy Sunday afternoon, September 16, 1979. When we lost it all. When we escaped with our lives and nothing but the clothes on our backs. When John dropped the garden hose and we ran like hell, driving through flames in our friend’s Chevy Suburban.

That day is still with me, in the recesses of my heart and my mind and in the cells of my body. This week, it is 31 years later. And yet, when the anniversary comes or the Santa Ana winds show up again, I can enter my own “high pressure zone.” I get brain fire. I have a heightened state of alert. I keep an eye on the horizon and listen for the thump-thump-thump of the helicopters. I can smell smoke sooner than others. I get sad. I smell destruction. I feel the pain that the new victims must be feeling.

I go back there like a soldier in combat mode.
I know what it’s like to sift through hot ashes looking for possessions—any little thing that’s left: a twisted shard of metal, a broken pot, a piece of melted glass. I know what it’s like to see the material evidence of a life vaporized. I have that tattoo branded with charcoal on my soul. The ink of it has faded, but it will always be there. I have a smell of burn that lingers in the lining of my nose. Forever.

Though we've had a reasonably mild summer and a comparatively slower fire season here in SoCal, fires nowadays are far superior, major monster home-eaters, a sign that urban over-development and global-warming drought have made conditions ripe for more devastating firestorms today. And they are not just limited to SoCal--case in point: Colorado this year.

I used to hear that a burn is a natural occurrence in the life cycle of brush and undergrowth of California chaparral. We don't hear that anymore. Maybe because these fires are not natural.

At the time of our fire, our section of Laurel Canyon had not experienced a burn in recorded history. Those were the days, too, just preceding strict brush-clearance laws in Southern California. On the day of our fire, Los Angeles’ giant fire trucks were unrehearsed in negotiating our narrow canyon roads, compounding the problem.  It took them over an hour to get to our street, Grandview Drive, but by then it was too late. Twenty-four houses burned to the ground that day.

Our Laurel Canyon Fire was small in contrast to today’s fires. It burned hot and fast, but the LAFD ended up knocking ours out comparatively quickly. Even though the trucks didn’t make it in time, they were testing a new fire-fighting plane that day called the “Super Scooper.” From our vantage-point on Mount Olympus, where we escaped, we watched them drop a whole plane-full of ocean water, like a small lake, keeping the firestorm from advancing too far.  It was awesome—but too late for us and twenty-three other homes.

After our fire, we spent three years rebuilding. We got married and started our family, rising from the ashes like the Phoenix.

We changed after that, though, eventually moving away to flatter land in the San Fernando Valley, with sidewalks and green lawns and no chaparral to burn.

Still, every year, when the fires kick up again, I relive it all. I still do.

When the Santa Ana winds start to blow and the air is hot and the brush is tinder-dry, I scan the sky. I am on alert. I smell the smoke before anyone else can, even when the windows are closed. I wake up in the middle of the night and wonder why.

And then I remember.

(this essay has been slightly edited from the original that was published in my former column, "The Tour Bus is on Fire.")