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By Christine Lavin

Read this after you have finished the book.  We're on the honor system here.

10:50 PM SFO Airport
I'm on my way back to NYC, but there's a ground stoppage at JFK, and no telling when it will be lifted. I arrived two days early so that I could see Dame Edna at the Post Theater in San Francisco.  She was on what she calls her "first last tour" -- I got a second row seat for the performance on December 9th.  It had been quite a while since I'd seen the Back With A Vengeance tour of a few years ago.  I saw that one four times, Royal Tour 29 times (28 in NYC, once in Boston) so this was my 34th time seeing her live, and she was fantastic.

It still does absolutely no good trying to describe her stage antics.  Like always, her audience was left gasping for air from laughing that hard.  And, as I've witnessed in the past, it's when things don't go as planned that Dame Edna is at the height of her powers.  I was one of the lucky ones who caught a gladdy at the end and I had every intention of packing it carefully into my suitcase and carrying it back to NYC, but I mis-read my airline ticket for the following day.  I thought I was flying out at 10 PM from SFO to Redding, CA, but when I woke up at 11:30 the next morning I found a text message from United reminding me my flight was at 1:26 PM.

I packed as quickly as I could, had to leave the gladdy in my hotel room; no time to wrap it properly.  I hope the hotel chambermaid recognized what a valuable relic that gladdy is and kept it for herself.

In Redding I performed a holiday concert with a wonderfully boisterous junior high school choir, then the next night a show in Ashland, Oregon that didn't have a choir, so I recruited one during intermission out of brave audience volunteers.  If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times:  too much rehearsal ruins folk music.  The choir in Ashland was so good -- for "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" a young teenage boy even boldly made up his own verse on the spot. The next day I flew back to SFO to sing at an international conference of atmospheric scientists, probably one of the smartest audiences I have ever faced, then one last show in a tiny seacoast town in northern California, an enclave called Pt. Arena.

There is no way to get to Pt. Arena except driving and it's been years now since I've been behind the wheel, so my agent lined up someone to drive me there and back -- a woman named Claudia Russell.  She picked me up at the Omni Hotel where the science conference was held and we set off.

I'm one of those bad New Yorkers who doesn't know much about geography.  I knew Pt. Arena was about 125 miles from San Francisco -- as the crow flies.  But as the car drives is something else.

The route passes through Bodega Bay, the town made famous by Alfred Hitchcock's film The Birds.  If you remember that movie, you might remember the scenery is spectacular.

As we drove along Claudia and I chatted non-stop.  She told me she works part-time in Berkeley at the Freight And Salvage a live music venue that recently raised a ton of money and built a brand new venue.

Claudia is also a singer/songwriter and has released three CDs.  I asked if we could listen to one as we drove, but she demurred, saying it's hard to talk when your music is playing (I know - it was a test!).  But she told me she had a brand new CD of her father's music she wanted to play.  And she told me an intriguing story.

His name was Val Rosing and he was one of England's most beloved singers of sentimental ballads back in the 1920s and '30s.  He caught the eye and ear of Louis B. Mayer of MGM, who brought him to America in 1937 and planned to promote him as "The British Bing Crosby."  His name was changed to Gilbert Russell . . . but his career never took off in this country.  Instead he became a vocal coach for singers like Shirley Jones and Natalie Wood, traveled the states performing in musical theater and opera productions, but never regained the kind of fame he knew in England.

Val and Claudia's mother got divorced when Claudia was just two years old.  Both parents remarried and she spent time shuttling back and forth between the two households til she was 14.  That was the year that Val died, at the age of 60.

A few years ago a long-time fan of "British Dance Band Music" tracked Claudia down.  He had many of Val's early recordings, all made prior to 1936, that included the very first recordings of "Teddy Bear's Picnic" (which was later recorded by Dave Van Ronk), and "Try A Little Tenderness," (which was later recorded by singers as diverse as Jimmy Durante, Frank Sinatra, Otis Redding, and Three Dog Night).  Claudia and her husband, mandolin player Bruce Kaplan, went through all the recordings, picked their favorites, and more than 70 years after they were first recorded, were finally able to release an album by Val Rosing (it's called "Try A Little Tenderness" and you can learn more about it at Val Rosing.

As we drove through the windy countryside -- rolling hills, huge trees to our right, the fiery sun setting over the Pacific Ocean to our left -- we listened to the album.  I loved it.  Val Rosing had a high tenor with beautiful vibrato.

It took us close to five hours to reach Pt. Arena.  I was booked in a cottage at the Coast Guard House right on the water.  When we pulled in the place was deserted, the owners were out but left my cottage unlocked.  Claudia helped me get my gear up the stairs -- she had to turn around and drive back to San Francisco, but I asked her to sing a song before she left.

At first she refused, feeling a bit shy, but I asked again, opened my guitar case and handed her my guitar.  

There are people who are so naturally musical that from the first strum of the guitar and the first note out of their mouths you know they were put on this earth for one thing more than any other:  to make music.  Claudia is one.  And it was instantly apparent she had inherited her dad's unique voice.

My concert was scheduled for Friday night.  Claudia planned to drive up from San Francisco on Saturday, then drive back in time for me to catch a flight back to JFK.  I asked her if she could come back on Friday and be in the show.  I couldn't believe my good luck that the person my agent found to chauffeur was so talented.

She was surprised, thought a moment, and said yes.  Then she had to leave.

I went up to check out the upstairs bedrooms in the cottage -- there were two.  One was large with a queen-size bed; one was small with a single bed.  I took the small one, sent an email to Claudia that she should bring her husband, too, and they could have the big bedroom.  

It was very chilly and there was one gas fireplace in the cottage, at the bottom of the stairs that led up to the bedrooms.  Those rooms eventually warmed up a bit as the hot air rose.

There was a large pot bellied wood stove in the living room, with a stack of wood next to it that I mistakenly thought were "for show."  That first night I slept in my clothes with my coat over the quilt.  It got very cold overnight.

The next day I met Kevin Gallagher, who with his wife Mia owns the inn, when he brought a tray of breakfast over.  He grew up in Philadelphia and told me he went to school with Julie Gold.  He straightened me out about the fireplace in the living room -- it was real and he told me to build a fire that night.

Later that day I met an artist named Lauren, who drove me over to the Arena Theater to rehearse with a local women's chorus.  Lauren is not only an artist, she is the vice mayor of the town.  She decorated every inch of the car she drives, so there's no debate what she does for a living --visit her website Art Goddess.  She's a tall, trim, athletic blue-eyed blonde -- as California girls go, I guess she's a poster girl.

When I got to the theater I met a spirited slightly older version of the California girl, a tall, trim, blue-eyed grey-haired beauty named Cornelia, who runs the place.

Cornelia had bad news:  all but two members of the chorus had backed out of the concert, feeling they had not learned the material from my Runaway Christmas Tree CD well enough.  The two who bravely showed up were Pam, a confident soprano with a lovely voice, and Renata, an alto not as confident as Pam, but a lovely voice nonetheless, and a sweet, charming presence.  They were quite apologetic and were prepared to hear that I would not want them in the show without the whole chorus.

I assured them that was not the case -- I already had invited Claudia Russell and her husband Bruce Kaplan to be surprise guests in the show, so we'd have plenty of music.

We reheared "Wind Chimes," "New Year's Round," "Lamb+Lion," "Tacobel Canon," and "Good Night To You All."  No, it wasn't like doing it with a chorus, but the simplicity of hearing the rounds done by just three voices actually demonstrated more clearly how the rounds are constructed, and how even beginning singers can easily learn them from the CD The Runaway Christmas Tree.

After rehearsal art goddess Lauren took me to a local eatery for lunch (she made the sign for the restaurant -- she pointed out a half dozen signs she painted for businesses in the downtown area.  It's easy to see which ones she created).  Lauren also knew every person who worked in the restaurant, every person who walked through the door, and she introduced me to them all.  We then drove to a grocery store on the outskirts of town, did some shopping, then she dropped me off at the Coast Guard House.  That night I made a light dinner, then managed to build a roaring fire in the living room.

I had emailed Julie Gold about meeting her old friend Kevin -- she emailed me back that she remembered him and his two brothers and was so happy to be in touch with him again.

I practiced guitar for awhile, read tomorrow's New York Times on my cell phone (despite the area's Brigadoonish aura, at night my cell had good internet reception).  Then I fell asleep on the couch in front of the fire.  I woke up a couple hours later.  The whole cottage was warm and cozy.  I went to bed.

The next day Lauren brought me over to the theater but told me first I had to visit Franny's Cup And Saucer a world class bakery across the street from the theater.  They were in the midst of their annual holiday party -- giving away tiny roast turkey sandwiches, cream puffs, croissants, lemon poppy seed cake, truffles, cookies, egg nog, hot cider, and champagne to any and all who stopped in.  

In the back of the bakery, instead of Santa Claus, sat a giant Holiday Monkey.  Children sat on his lap and told the monkey what they wanted for Christmas and had their pictures taken.  The pastries were sumptuous.  What good fortune that I was doing a concert right across the street.  The bakery was packed and then I spotted Claudia Russell reach for a cream puff.  She introduced me to her husband Bruce.  We felt like the luckiest musicians in the world to be in such a fancy bakery on the one day everything was being given away for free.

But it was time for sound check, so I crossed the street and found that Pam and Renata were already there.  Extra mikes were set up for Claudia and Bruce.  I gave the running order to Eric, the soundman:  I would start solo, then Pam and Renata would join me, then Pam and Renata would be solo, then I'd introduce Claudia and Bruce.  For the second half I'd start solo, then bring everybody back to sing a bunch of holiday songs together.

Before the concert I had a knitting circle backstage where I met a bevy of local characters, the most memorable a woman with wild multi-colored hair named Gloria who works in the local drugstore, "Arena Pharmacy."  Though it's really much more than a pharmacy.

Besides filling prescriptions (her husband Chris is the pharmacist) they sell knitting fibers, homeopathics, herbal preparations and organics, all on beautiful oak shelves built by a local cabinetmaker.  The top shelves display old brass instruments (double bell euphonium, tuba), and the store also feature local artists' works on the walls.  When he's not behind the counter, Gloria's husband Chris is first chair trumpet in Symphony of the Redwoods.  Gloria is a hoot -- a wonderful knitter whose handwork is as colorful as her hair.  

The concert was a lot of fun -- Pam and Renata rose to the occasion beautifully, I brought Claudia and Bruce on near the end of the first half.  I told the story of the Val Rosing album, how Claudia inherited her dad's voice.  They performed three songs.  The crowd loved them.  At intermission Eric played the Val Rosing CD Try A Little Tenderness over the sound system.

At the end of the concert I bought everyone back, plus a half dozen volunteer singers I had recruited during intermission to form a chorus to finish with "The 12 Days After Christmas," "Will The Circle Be Unbroken," and Tom Paxton's classic "Peace Will Come."  

After the concert Claudia, Bruce, and I had a glass of wine in the lobby with Cornelia, Lauren and a few other volunteers from the theater.  Cornelia had to be up early the next day for the 9:00 AM live broadcast of Thaïs starring Rene Fleming from the Metropolitan Opera.  This tiny town of 440 people, with no cable TV or high speed internet, where the vice mayor drives around in a hand painted car, has a theater that broadcasts live opera onstage across the street from a world-class bakery that yesterday gave everything away for free.  Sometimes I stumble upon magical places like this in my travels.  I haven't hosted a songwriters' retreat since the early '90s when we gathered on Martha's Vineyard, but if I do it again I know Pt. Arena would be the perfect setting and the Coast Guard the ideal place to stay.  Especially now that I know how to build a fire.

But I'm eager to get back to New York.  I've missed the last three Cast Party shows at Birdland.  Last time I was there Michael Feinstein was coaxed out of his seat that night and debuted a long-lost Jerry Herman ballad, "Dancing With You," (Jerry wrote Hello Dolly and La Cage Aux Folles), and also long-lost Irving Berlin lyrics to "There's No Business Like Show Business," that his friend Ken Bloom had unearthed.

I guess it's a show biz variation on "If you build it they will come," but Jim Caruso's Cast Party continues to draw so many of the most talented artists working today.  And Jim's on a high -- Liza Minnelli's Broadway  show Liza At The Palace was a raging success. She got raves and so did "The Williams Brothers."

The New York Times reported:

The quartet execute production numbers that are the last word in modern pop-jazz virtuosity from an era when the term modern meant sleek, cool, jet-propelled sophistication. Clad in identical black suits, white shirts and skinny ties, delivering impeccable, jazz-inflected barbershop harmonies as they swoop and glide, Johnny Rodgers, Cortes Alexander, Jim Caruso and Tiger Martina perform astounding feats of singing and dancing coordination. They are assisted on the piano by Billy Stritch, who breaks in to provide creamy vocal fills.

Their mile-a-minute rendition of the Gershwins' "Clap Yo' Hands" has the furious velocity and compression of a jazz-flavored rap. The director Ron Lewis's choreography belongs to the vintage variety-show sort, but is stripped of clichés to the point that it transmits joy and enthusiasm to the audience like an electric charge."

I miss listening to Jonathan Schwartz on Saturday and Sunday afternoons on WNYC.  I can't believe he's the same radio voice my younger brother Eddie first discovered all those years ago when we lived in Peekskill.  I learn something new every time he's on the air.  I miss listening to John Platt and and all the other DJs on WFUV.   Good thing their shows are archived at the WFUV website.  

It's a very difficult time to be a working musician.  But I have hope.  I may not stay much longer in my dream apartment, but I'll take away some wonderful memories.  Writing this book is one.  Check out the index and the bonus radio list at the end.  There are so many first rate singer/songwriters listed there -- if you don't know who a lot of them are now, well, you can start getting to know them.  

Except for this final 'Afterword,' I wrote this entire book at my desk just a few steps from my beautiful terrace.  Whenever I would get stuck, I'd step out there, take a few deep breaths, then get back to work.  It fueled my inspiration, but was also the setting for one unforgettable celebration.  

I was a wreck over our most recent presidential election.  I wrote a number of songs.  One of them: "I love Hillary But I Voted For Obama" would always get an interesting reaction.  Hillary fans would burst into applause at first, then sit and sulk the rest of the song (and sometimes for the rest of the concert).  Thank goodness Obama is made her part of his team.

As the election got closer, John McCain made me write a new ending to "What Was I Thinking?"  

Oh his name is John McCain
went looking for a running mate
he passed over the usual suspects
found a uniquely unqualified candidate
a candidate who didn't even have a passport
'til she got one last year
she attended five different colleges
and yet her lack of knowledge is
something we should question, no, fear

What was he thinking?
what in the world?
does he think women will vote for women
just because we're all girls?
what was he thinking?
here comes Joe the Plumber
Joe, meet Sarah
dumb, meet dumber

It got huge laughs, but let's face it.  Coming up with that rhyme was like shooting moose in a barrel.

As things started to look really bad for the Republicans, I wanted to help, so I sent this to their headquarters, but never heard back of them:

Dear McCain/Palin Team

It appears you are doomed. I know you want to turn this economy around, and I want to help.  Why? Because I'm a maverick, just like you.  I'm a folksinger.  Most folksingers are Democrats.  Or Commies.  I'm a Republican folksinger; an oxymoron to some, a visionary to others.  Here's my ideas:

Back in the 1930s the WPA [Work Projects Administration] hired everybody who wanted a job. Everybody. Around New York City you can still see visible results of the WPA: murals on Rikers Island, the General Post Offices of midtown Manhattan and the Bronx.   But jobs like that take elitist artistic talent.  I travel for my work and every time I fly I see so many missed job opportunities -- jobs that don't take unusual skills, but are screaming to be filled by unemployed Joe Sixpack Americans anxious to get back to work.

Shoe Tiers --  That is not "tiers" as in the elitist "tiers of the Metropolitan Opera House" but "tiers" as in someone to tie our shoes after going through the metal detector.

After pushing all our possessions, including our shoes, through the detector and showing our boarding passes, there's a mad dash at the other end to gather everything up, put it back in place, AND put our shoes on and tie them quickly.  There's usually no place to sit down to do this, resulting in a lot of eye rolling and sighing from the people in line behind us, who get to view us, uh, not from the best angle.

My solution:  hire five-year-old children to tie our shoes.  They need practice, and they are already close to the ground.  Velcro has deprived too many children of the shoe-tying experience -- the anguish, the tears, the trial-and-error, but ultimately the pride of mastering a valuable life-long skill.  A job as airport shoe-tier keeps the line moving quickly, and teaches children the value of a nickel.  That would be what we would tip them for each shoe.  So they'd also learn the value of a dime!

Gentle Reminders --  A little old lady [think Katherine Hepburn crossed with Julia Child] to make sure we had our briefcase, cell phone, keys, laptop, etc. as we leave Security.  She would use a soft yet stern maternal voice, "Make sure you haven't forgotten any of your fancy East Coast intellectual Liberal luggage, dearie" and would be the grandma of the five-year-old who just tied your shoes, simultaneously providing inter-generational family quality babysitting time and added income for both!  My Aunt Patsy (Pat Crawford Brown) is the perfect actress to make the instructional film for this job.  You will hire her to thank me for helping you in your hour of need.

Water Drinkers  -- We are not allowed to take bottles of water through the security screening, and there is no water fountain nearby where we can dump the water so that we could put the empty back in our bag.  There's just a trashcan filled with perfectly good bottles of water going to waste.

Not any more.  

Professional water drinkers will stand nearby, drink our water, hand the empty back to us, which we can refill at the water fountain on the other side of Security. One less plastic water bottle tossed gives us all a smaller carbon footprint.

The water drinkers would be recruited from nearby weight loss centers and alcohol rehab centers.  Drinking lots of water is known to help curb the appetite of chubbies, and drunkards are easily distracted from booze, so the water drinkers lose weight, become healthier, resulting in lower medical bills, not to mention the extra shopping they will have to do (thinner clothes for some, vomit-stain-free clothes for others) resulting in increased revenue for clothing stores, greater demand for designer outfits, more hiring in the fashion industry, and possibly a special episode of "Project Runway."  [Designers!  Your challenge?  Turn these ex-boozers into something respectable-looking, like congressmen!  Now go go go!]

Scaredy-Cat Whisperers  --  For years nervous flyers have had to get sloshed on outrageously expensive drinks at noisy airport bars, or swallow expensive prescription drugs to numb their flight fears.

Not any more.

Now those nervous nellies can sit and chat with a certified Scaredy-Cat Whisperer who will allay their fears with calm conversation about unimportant issues (Brad+Angelina, Jennifer Aniston, football scores, wind-chill factors) laced with travel-tested mantras like "Qantas Qantas Qantas."

Airport Therapist/Manicurists  --  We all have to get to the airport at least an hour before departure.  How boring to wander around in desperate search of a Fox News TV monitor, or just sitting, staring, and pondering the meaninglessness of life.  Why couldn't every airport have a row of manicurists in every terminal?  A good manicure can be done in 30 minutes.  Travelers have that kind of time!

Nail clients always confide in their manicurists; it's human nature.  So why not train manicurists as therapists, too?  Many travelers have dark secrets they don't want to share locally -- cross-dressing, sleep-eating, dangerous addiction to "Dancing With The Stars" -- they are bursting to tell someone.

Why not have them spill their guts to a trained professional? Vast majorities of therapists' business is one-time clients who are 'stuck,' talk it over, and then go on their merry way.  An out-of-town airport would be the perfect place to take care of humiliating personal problems and get our nails groomed at the same time.

This program would mean training therapists as manicurists and manicurists as therapists, providing new streams of revenue for psychiatry and beauty schools, diploma printers when the training is completed, dressmakers and tux rentals for the proms, then caterers and limos for the graduation parties. This needed service will improve the lives of troubled travelers who will now get a grip on their problems, and will result in happier trips for those of us forced to sit next to them.

I have many other ideas which I am eager to share with the candidates:  a quick haircut/blow dry in airport ladies rooms --- they already have the sinks, mirrors, electrical outlets, and unflattering fluorescent lighting making even beautiful people (yes, I'm talking to you, Sarah Palin!  And you, Ann Coulter!) look like they need of a makeover.

A palm reader  --This could also naturally be combined with the manicure skills.  A convincing palm reader could predict romantic travel and adventure, which would subconsciously plant ideas to buy more airline tickets, resulting in greater revenue for the airlines, which would trickle down to the water drinkers, shoe tiers, gentle reminders, scaredey-cat whisperers, etc.

And I've got lots more ideas where those come from.  Call me, you mavericks!  There's still time to turn this campaign around.

Well, they didn't call.  What were they thinking?

On Election Day, November 4th, I was so nervous that I did the best thing I knew to calm myself down -- I got in the cancellation line for South Pacific tickets.  Two tickets were freed up right away. Andrew Ratshin was in town -- his mom Edith had had back surgery so he was being a good son, flew in from Seattle to keep her company while she was recuperating.  I had lent him my Larrivee guitar while he was here -- he was leaving on the 5th, so I had to get my guitar back anyway.  I called and told him I would pick up my guitar later, and by the way, would he like to see South Pacific?

Andrew didn't feel right about leaving his mother for the evening, but she's a New Yorker, she knew how hard it was to get tickets.  She told him to go -- go!

Twice during the performance we heard squeals and cheering from some room above the theater -- I knew those sounds were not part of the production.  It had to be election results.  During intermission people crowded around iPhones and Blackberries in the lobby to see if the final results were in yet.


The show was over at 10:00 PM.  Andrew LOVED it.  Of course he did.  It's magnificent.  Danny Burstein was as heartbreaking/funny as ever.  Kelli O'Hara dazzled. William Michals played Emile DeBecque brilliantly. We all hustled out into the lobby, turning our phones on as we moved up the stairs.  Still no final results.

I walked Andrew over to his mother's apartment on West End Avenue, retrieved my guitar, said goodbye to him, hailed a cab.  I got home around 10:45, turned on MSNBC.  No final answer yet, but the numbers were starting to look good.

At 11:00 PM -- well, you know what happened.  Barack Obama won.  I started jumping around my apartment, screaming, whooping it up . . . then I heard noises from outside, ran out on my terrace to investigate.

On every terrace, there were my neighbors, jumping and dancing, screaming, and crying, too.  We all waved to each other as more neighbors stuck their heads out windows, waving, cheering, hallelujahing, crying.  On the street, car horns blasted, people on lower floors ran outside and for one glorious moment, New Yorkers of all ages, races, and colors did a spontaneous happydance of joy.

A few floors below me a man was hanging out of his window also screaming at the top of his lungs, "Motherf*@ker! C@$ks%ker! God damn holy sh*t! etc." -- I thought he was angry, but then I realized he was also delirious with joy, but only possessed a limited vocabulary.  

I'd seen some fabulous thunderstorms -- even Central Park fireworks -- from my terrace, but this happy historic moment will be my favorite forever.  Obama's had a hell of time since he took office, but look what he inherited.  The fact that he won the election was a great moment for us all.

It's now 1:30 AM here at the SFO airport.  We were supposed to take off  2-1/2 hours ago.  There's a couple hundred of us sitting here at Gate A9.  I'm eavesdropping on two pinheads next to me.  He is movie-star handsome.  She is beauty queen gorgeous.  But their conversation . . .
Uh oh, I feel a song coming on . . .

Attractive stupid people
appear to glide through life
watch this attractive stupid man
attract and land a stupid wife
but the problem is the kids
won't look as good as mom or dad
but they're always slightly smarter
which drives their pretty parents mad

Attractive stupid people think
talent got them where they are
sometimes it's not good
when your good looks take you too far
to places you're not smart enough
to know you don't belong
this is the story of Franklin Pierce
this won't be a happy song . . .

Ooops.  Gotta go.  Boarding.

Christine Lavin gave up her NYC apartment in January 2010, is now based in upstate New York, and continues to tour.  Franny's Cup + Saucer mailed her the holiday monkey costume so look for the Holiday Monkey to make an appearance at one of her Christmas concerts later this year.