Boy Meets Merchant

I’ve been a Natalie Merchant fan since the mid-80’s, back in her 10,000 Maniacs days. I’ve seen her perform dozens of times, and have collected nearly every recording she has ever released. My former wife used to assume I had a “thing” for the artist, but that was never true. I simply am drawn to her music, the thought-provoking lyrics and of course, that unforgettable voice.

The Historic Yost Theater in downtown Santa Ana

I’ve played her songs all the time, so it’s not surprising my kids have come to appreciate her too. My son, though, has become such a fan that he at times has played her music to the point where even I have asked him to play something else. He, much like me, has fallen under the spell cast by her one-of-a-kind voice.

A few days ago I learned she was playing in Santa Ana on May 9th, and instantly bought tickets. I didn’t tell Hayden, I left it as a surprise. I took both kids to see her in San Diego two years ago, and he has wanted to see her again ever since. This was going to be nice surprise.

I had no idea how surprising the night would be. Read On


Melancholiday Songs

Christmas used to be my favorite time of year. As a kid, I would look forward to it with the same excitement and singular focus of any child, and would count down the days by marking the milestones of the season: the appearance of Santa at the end of the Thanksgiving Day parade, the deluge of advertisements on TV, seeing the streetlamp posts adorned with garland, the houses festooned with lights, the release from school for vacation, and finally, the molasses-like march of the last two or three days until the glory of Christmas Eve.

 I remember the sense of change in the air on the 24th of December, where I would see the world through a lens of warmth and delight that seemed to make everything appear brighter, more colorful, and full of potential. Christmas Eve was the greatest single day of the year because of that excitement – like the best part of a roller coaster is that high peak after the long climb up the track, until just before the plunge into heart-racing thrills, turns and loops. Sure the thrills, turns and loops are fun, but it’s over so fast – it’s the build up, the anticipation, the preparation for what’s ahead that makes it so sweet.

As an adult, I continued to experience that same sense of wonder, excitement, and hope every year, and Christmas Eve was even more magical when I had kids of my own with whom to share it. Seeing it through their eyes was like “Being A Kid: The Sequel”, and I was the Dad who would go overboard with the lights and the decorations and the music and the food and the gifts. I never went Full Griswold, but I was certainly in my element as a Christmas Dad.

This year is not my first Christmas alone, so there’s something to be thankful for there: I’ve been through it before and thus know I can get through it. Last year, though, Christmas came just a couple months after I moved out of my home and started life over, and looking back on it, I think I might have still been in some form of numb shock then. I was certainly going through the motions for the sake of my kids, who were amazing little troopers and did their best to hold it together during that holiday.

I had told myself that I was going to make this Christmas celebration more like the ones we knew in the past [i.e. more jolly than humbug], because for the most part I’m in a much different place than I was last year. I’ve been feeling good, loving life, and genuinely happy, and thus I felt able to give the holiday my total effort once more. I found myself making plans for “Christmas: The Return” and smiling with a bit of hope once more.

Then something happened. It might have been the Christmas ornaments for the tree that my kids decorated with the fervor of pirates opening a treasure chest – taking each one out, unwrapping the tissue paper from it and going “Oh, I remember this one!” and gleefully placing it on the same branch with the previous two ornaments. They are exuberant tree decorators, my kids, but they are not aware of the finer points of balance and distribution when it comes to ornament placement. [It seems an odd tradition now that I think about it, hauling a severed tree into your home and throwing a bunch of lights and baubles on it. We do some strange things in the name of tradition.]

Christmas tree ornaments are charged with memories of years gone by, and this week it occurred to me that every year we borrow from Dickens and we adorn our trees with the ghosts of Christmas past. I first sensed this many years ago, on the Christmas after my brother died, when we hung his ornaments on our mom’s tree. But that year, for me, the sadness was balanced out with the joy of a new love with whom I was spending my first Christmas. I spent sixteen more Christmases in that relationship, and lots of ornaments were collected over those years. Lots of memories made. Lots of ghosts.

So it might have been the ornaments that turned my excitement for this Christmas into an emotional grudge match between hope and loss. Or, it might have been the smells of the candles and scented oils that are all over our holiday gear; with smell being the sense most closely associated with memory, it’s likely that had something to do with it.

But I think more than anything else, it’s the music that brings a sense of sadness to my holiday heart. There are traditional Christmas carols that are pure fun and  joy and are completely harmless:  “Jingle Bells”, “The 12 Days of Christmas”, “Winter Wonderland” – timeless standards that call to mind the festive spirit of the holidays, and thus only use their power for Good. These are fine songs and I experience no negative side effects with them.

However, there are other songs, mostly modern songs, which seem to have the sole purpose of driving out the silver and gold and bringing in the blue. Songs that are actually good tunes but have the same result of casting a sad shadow on the holiday. There must be money in melancholy, because every year it seems that there are new songs created specifically to bring the nostalgic and the bittersweet to mind.

My friend Rich would remind me of the difference between sadness and disappointment, and points out that I often confuse the two. Sadness indicates a loss, while disappointment indicates not having something I want. I think there’s a little of both at hand here, for while I certainly admit that I don’t have everything I would want, I also acknowledge I have experienced loss. It’s the memory of these things that the music brings to mind.

They say a joy shared is doubled, and a burden shared is halved. In an effort to lessen the weight of the holiday funk I’m in, I am sharing some of the songs that have been the biggest contributors to it. Why, I’m not sure – it just seems that speaking aloud about them might file down some of their sharp edges. So without further ado, here are some of the Christmas selections that are on my current list of Songs of Holiday Heartache.

“It Don’t Have to Change” – John Legend feat. The Stephens Family’t%20Have%20to%20Change 
This song makes me think of my brothers – the one still on earth and the one who has moved on – and my sister. It’s a simple song that I envision Mr. Legend singing at a piano with the Stephens family gathered around, singing about the Christmases that only exist in memory. 

 Oh, do you remember / when the family was everything?
Oh, do you remember / it was so long ago and so much has changed
I wanna go back / wanna go back to those simple days
I wanna go back / but now we’ve grown and gone our separate ways
Times is hard / and things are a changin’
I pray to God / that we can remain the same
All I’m trying to say is our love don’t have to change
No it don’t have to change

 I can’t listen to this song without thinking about the days when we were four siblings who didn’t realize how blessed we were to get to spend Christmas together.

 “Red Ribbon Foxes” – A Fine Frenzy

This song haunts me with its wintery imagery and poetic lyrics that –for me- conjure images of cold landscapes and a longing for the peace that is searched for but cannot be found when one looks for it elsewhere.

  There’s snow on your collar, boy / There’s snow on the bench
There’s snow on the sleeping grave / And the crooked fence
And if you’ve been crying / With my hand on my chest
I swear I’ll never tell
The town is aglow with lights / The carolers sing
You sister won’t sleep tonight / For the morning brings
That old happy Christmas / You came here to find it
I did as well
For love doesn’t come in boxes / Nor truth in a crowded shop
Those red ribbon foxes are not so easy caught
But the search it never stops

I hear this song and for some reason I see frost-covered fields and bare trees passing by as seen from a car window. I’m driving somewhere – to where is undetermined, but it feels like someplace from long ago.

 “Christmas Song” – Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds

 This is such a sweet, restrained song of acoustic guitars and a lyrical telling of the story of Christ’s life. It has none of the excesses of some Christmas songs, just a simple message of love.

 She was his girl, he was her boyfriend / Soon to be his wife, make him her husband
A surprise on the way, any day, any day / One healthy little giggling, dribbling baby boy
The Wise Men came, three made their way / To shower him with love while he lay in the hay
Shower him with love, love, love
Love, love was all around

 For some reason, it’s the end of the song that always gets me, for it resonates with me in ways I don’t fully understand. Jesus asking of God

 Father up above, / Why in all this anger do you fill me up with love?
Love, love, love
Love, love was all around
Father up above, / Why in all this hatred do you fill me up with love?
Fill me love, love, yeah
Love, love, and the blood of our children all around

I suspect it has to do with the fact that no matter what darkness comes to me, I still find love at my core, even when it would be understandable –easier, even– not to. I guess I don’t need to know why.


“The Heartache Can Wait” – Brandi Carlile

There’s something about the piano, cello, and jingle bells at the beginning of this song that just creates an instant lump in my throat. 

You’re talking about leaving / It’s right about Christmas time
Thinking about moving on / I think I might die inside
I’m thinking about years gone by / I’m thinking about church at midnight
I’m thinking about letting go / I think that might finally be alright
But this is where we shine
Silver bells and open fire / And songs we used to sing
One more chance to be inspired / Is what I’m offering
If love is not enough / Then stay with me because
The heartache can wait

Anyone who has gone through Christmas after a break-up they did not want can probably identify with that one.


“A Great Big Sled” – The Killers

This rock tune seems to use lots of loud guitars and drums to disguise an alt-rock Christmas song that has, at its heart, a wish to escape the burdens of the grown-up world and return to the innocent fun of the childhood Christmas.

I want to roll around like a kid in the snow / I want to re-learn what I already know
Just let me take flight dressed in red / through the night on a great big sled
I want to wish you merry Christmas (Ho Ho Ho)

Now they boys are all grown up / And they’re working their fingers to the bone
They go around chasing them girls on the weekend / You know they still can’t be alone
I’ve been racking my brain with thoughts of peace and love
How on earth did we get so mixed up?/ I pray to god it don’t last a long time…
I want to wish you merry Christmas (can’t do that)

 I suspect a lot of men my age have similar thoughts at this time of year. 


Wintersong” – Sarah McLachlan

While I get the feeling that this one was written from the standpoint of someone mourning a lost lover, it seems to apply to any love who has passed on. It makes me think of everyone I have ever loved who is no longer with us, but especially those with whom I have shared Christmas. My brother Steven. My stepdad Harry. My friend Julie. More and all.


Oh I miss you now, my love / Merry Christmas, merry Christmas,
Merry Christmas, my love
Sense of joy fills the air / And I daydream and I stare
Up at the tree and I see / Your star up there
And this is how I see you / In the snow on Christmas morning
Love and happiness surround you / As you throw your arms up to the sky
I keep this moment by and by



I never used to understand why people would say they “hate” the holidays. It seemed unfathomable to me that anyone could not love this time of year. Now I understand that most, if not all, of these people were not talking about hatred for Christmas itself, but for the feelings they experience during the Christmas season. It is hard for some people to make it through this time of year with “joy”, “peace”, and “hope”, despite being surrounded by reminders of these things.

 While I have previously written on this blog about how we all create our own experience, I must admit that it is hard to create the experience of joy in the here-and-now when there are so many things –sights, smells, and songs—that take me back to the there-and-then. There are just moments where I experience a feeling that isn’t joy. It’s okay. It’s only my grandiosity that says I “should” feel a certain way at a certain time (as if I can dictate these things to fit my will). I also know that everything is impermanent – this too shall pass. And it makes the moments when I am truly living in the present that much more special – like times when I see the delight and joy in my kids’ faces and feel the real Spirit of the season – love.

So the indicated action for me, during those times when I am feeling the sadness that comes and goes this holiday season, is simple:  just watch the blinking lights — and want what I’ve got. 

 If you are feeling the joy of Christmas and reveling in the festivity of this time of year, I wish you all the ‘merry’ you can handle, and I celebrate your happiness. If you are feeling sorrow and just waiting for the New Year to start, I wish you all the peace that you deserve, and I honor your sadness. All are welcome.

 Oh – and if you’re feeling a little annoyed with my song selection, to you I say: Just be grateful that there are no “Barking Dogs” or “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” in the playlist. Sure, those might also bring tears, but so does nerve gas.  

 I may get to post another entry here before the holiday (hey, like maybe one that features my favorite joyful holiday songs!), but in the event that I don’t (and let’s face it – as a single Dad at Christmastime, odds are pretty good that I won’t get back here before then), I want to wish everyone a holiday that is however you want it to be – merry and bright; sad and dark; apathetic and beige – whatever works for you. 

And thanks for your continued readership. May your New Year be one of peace and good fortune.



I Fought the Law

I enjoy taking my kids to cultural events, no matter what kind. Anything that will get them out of the house and away from television, computers, video games, or other passion-killing devices is something worth sharing with them. In the past year in which I have discovered the challenges of single parenthood, I have taken my kids Hayden, 10, and Makena, 6, to museums, the observatory, a string quartet concert, art galleries, aquariums, not to mention all manner of nature outings like hiking and swimming in actual rivers and lakes. In the spirit of full disclosure, I hope that these outings will create some lasting memories of joy for them amidst the turmoil they experienced this last year as their parents separated.  But I also hope is that they will learn appreciation of the wider world around them that they would otherwise not be exposed to sitting in front of a screen.

So last night, I took my kids to a concert in San Diego. One of my favorite artists, Natalie Merchant, was performing, and both of my kids have really enjoyed her latest album, which is a collection of poems about childhood. The poems were written by other authors, and Natalie composed and arranged original music for them and created a remarkable album, “Leave Your Sleep”, which is a unique literary and musical mash-up unlike anything I have seen before. My kids played it so much when it first came out last spring that even I – a die hard fan of the artist for two decades – was growing weary of it. When the concert was announced, I asked them if they were interested in going, and both said “yes”.

Arriving at the Spreckels Theatre in San Diego, my kids were nervous. They were in an unfamiliar town, going to an unfamiliar venue for an unfamiliar purpose. While my son had experienced two concerts before, one was when he was 3 and the other when he was 5, so his memory of them is minimal.  My daughter, on the other hand, was going to her first concert so her apprehension was understandable. The Spreckels venue was ultra-convenient, however, because parking was directly below the building, and a short walk up some stairs had us in the lobby. We were seated in no time, 14 rows from the stage, and on the very left side of the ornate theater.

My daughter was worried about how dark it was going to get when the show started. I assured her it would be fine. My son was worried about sitting next to a stranger. I pointed out to him it was just like being at a movie – something he’s done dozens of times. They finally began to relax, and we settled into a comfortable period of anticipation for the show to begin.

We were on the end of the row, and there was a young male security guard standing just to our left. I had the inspiration to have a picture taken to commemorate the event, and asked him if he would mind taking our picture. He smiled and said “Sure” and I handed him my phone. I knew there would be no flash but figured there would be enough light to get an idea of what we were doing. He had to take it four times before he got it right, but after the fourth picture we got one that worked. He handed my phone back to me and I thanked him for his help.
Just then, a short, round woman with a bad do-it-yourself-hair-color job and a perma-scowl walked up to us. She wore a white jacket that indicated she was part of the usher crew. She got between the friendly security guard and the place where we sat, and she said in a tone of haughty annoyance, “You know, you really shouldn’t be taking pictures in here. It’s not allowed.”
She projected the air of someone who has a small amount of authority and enjoys wielding it whenever possible – I picked this up instantly. Here she was, part of the elite group of super-humans known as Event Staff, and she was getting in our face about a little family photo.
My kids both tensed and turned to me, and their faces – each one displaying a “what did we do wrong?” look – made me realize I had a teaching opportunity on my hands. Namely, an opportunity to teach my kids that there are people everywhere who would want to victimize them, harass them, control them – and that they can speak up whenever such people do so. Not to disrespect others, but to stand up for themselves. This woman was giving my kids the message that they had done something wrong, when they had not. I chose not to ignore it.
I smiled at the woman and politely said, “It was just a quick cell phone pic, no harm done.” I spoke in a friendly, clear tone of voice. “I wanted to get a picture of my kids and I at their first concert.”
She replied unphased. “You still shouldn’t be taking pictures in here. It’s against the rules.” She had the look of a tired woman with some sort of chronic ailment that caused her to constantly frown in discomfort. Despite this, I chose not to let it go. My kids were still looking anxious and I did not want to have that be their memory of this concert experience.
“Ma’am, I’m here with my kids. I wanted a picture of the three of us. There was no flash, the show has not started, I’m not taking a picture of the artist or anything. And I didn’t see any signs posted that said I can’t take a picture of my kids here. Surely there’s no problem with this,” I said, still smiling, still friendly.
She chose to press on. “I know but it doesn’t matter, they’ve deleted people’s photos before,” she said harshly. I didn’t ask her who “they” were, and I doubted she could have told me anyway. She started to walk away, and I was not finished. I turned around in my seat and called after her.
“Ma’am,” I said, and she turned back to me, clearly annoyed but also a little uncertain, sort of surprised. I still spoke calmly, and there was still a smile on my face because I felt she was in over her head. She did not seem used to being challenged in all her white-jacket authority. “I am here with my kids. We are enjoying a night out. The picture is not a problem for anyone else here. You seem to be the only one that has an issue with it. Why is that?”
She did not look me in the eye, and instead gestured to the room in general, and said “I’m just saying, I’d hate to have them delete your photos.” With that, she started to turn away again to walk up the aisle to the lobby.
Knowing this was the last she was going to say on the subject and to press it further would just be me antagonizng her, I said, “Well, if they want to delete my photo, you can just let them come and see me. Thanks.” And she was gone.
The friendly security guard who took the picture observed the whole thing, and said to us, “She’s always like that, she seems to always have a problem with what people do and she’s always getting in their business. Don’t sweat it.”  I nodded and thanked him again.
I turned back around and settled in my seat. My daughter had gone back to playing with the stuffed duckling she brought with her, but my son was looking at me with a “What was HER problem?” look on his face. I spoke with him a bit then, pointing out to him how I was able to assertively communicate to her without getting in her face and being angry, and how the only reason I did was because she was blindly and unconsciously enforcing a rule that made no sense. I pointed out that the “no flash photography” rule is important in some places, but that our little picture didn’t fit that description – nor was there any posting that prohibited photography in the first place. He had a few choice words for the woman himself, and I reminded him that it is not our job to judge others. We had a few chuckles about the exchange, and when the lights went down, our attention went to the stage.
It was a fine concert. My son loved it, my daughter grew bored once the poem-songs were finished and the evening progressed into more of the pop / folk tunes with which she was not familiar. But it was a memorable evening all around.
At one point during the final encore, I saw Ms. White Jacket Enforcer come walking up the aisle. I couldn’t tell if she saw me or not, but in the event she was looking toward us, I whipped out my phone and took one final picture of the stage. The phone has no zoom and it’s almost impossible to tell what I was shooting at, but it’s okay. I took the pic anyway.
Sure, it was a big F-you to authority. But my kids weren’t looking. And sometimes I can be pretty childish myself. I’m okay with that.

Breakin the law, breaking the law...

Just Another Day (after)

I admit that I had pre-conceived opinions of the idea of a “Tribute Band”. I judged them as musicians who could not make a name for themselves on their own merit and thus rode the coattails of a well-known artist in order to gain some small amount of celebrity without having to find a “real job”. Herbert Spencer correctly labeled contempt prior to investigation as a principle that would keep a man in “everlasting ignorance”. I now see my old ideas on the subject were completely flawed.

Last night I had the opportunity to attend a concert featuring an Oingo Boingo tribute band called Dead Man’s Party. I went with two guys I’ve known since high school, Lee and Larry, whom I had only seen once in the last 20 years. When I got to the theater and saw them, I was amazed at how quickly we fell into the old familiar rhythms of humor, wisecracks, and good-natured jabs at each others’ expense. I asked myself several times why I had not seen these men in so long, for I felt so glad to be with them, it was good for the soul.

We made many jokes about the opening act, featuring a lead singer who could not have been more than 12 years old and the courage to belt out a few AC/DC tunes. When his voice changes, he might have a future – an original song they performed that this young kid wrote showed promise.

The next act was a Misfits tribute band, and I was horrified to hear myself saying “all these songs sound the same” – but they did. We laughed heartily at the bass player’s intro count – “ONETWOTHREEFOUR!” – to every song, and were forced to watch the lead guitarist -sporting a black leather vest- shred on the guitar in a manner that caused his gut to vibrate like a coin-operated bed in a cheap motel. When they announced, “This is our last song”, we shared a collective cheer.

When the headlining act came out, Lee – who has seen Dead Man’s Party on multiple occasions and who organized the evening’s get together – shot out to the pit to express his inner rock fan. I was immediately impressed by the bands tight sound, and how incredibly alike they sounded to the actual band. The lead singer had all of Danny Elfman’s good-natured-yet-creepily-psychotic expressions and mannerisms – and also a hell of a voice. He absolutely sold me from the first song.

Sitting at our table on the outer ring of the theater, the band launched into “Private Life” and I couldn’t take it anymore — I had to get up and dance. So I told Larry I was going out there and I hit the pit. Seconds later, Larry was right behind me.

Getting to the center of the pit, I found Lee and tapped him on the shoulder as I joined in the singing and the fist pumping. Lee turned and saw me and the look of joy on his face was worth the traffic I sat in to get to the show – he embraced me in a big, joyful hug and we joined in the singing, with Larry taking up position on the other side. The three of us bounced, jumped, shook, slammed, singed, screamed and laughed through song after song.

This will sound trite and cliche, but I was transported back to the days (or nights) of my youth, attending Boingo shows at Irvine Meadows and doing all the bouncing, jumping, singing to the same songs. The effect was surreal — it wasn’t Boingo, but it was a Boingo show. The band nailed every nuance of every song, and played selections from the catalog that went further back than even I remembered. The band were clearly having a great time themselves, and the atmosphere of fun spilled over the edge of the stage and enveloped the audience of thirty- and forty-somethings who were all there for the same reasons we were: to hear music that we grew up with, that harkened back to a time when life was a party and the biggest concern we had was whether we would get seats on the terrace or end up on the lawn.

The band played over 2 1/2 hours and played nearly every song I could think of. The party atmosphere increased as the night went on and the strangers in the audience became friends as they stepped on each others feet and apologized, only to be met with an “It’s okay dude!” and a pat on the back. I was jumping like a coked-up gazelle during my favorite songs and more than once bumped into someone I didn’t know. Never was it met with anything other than a good-natured smile and a wave of dismissal to say “don’t worry about it.”

I don’t know where the energy came from. I am twice as old as I was when I would attend the Boingo Halloween shows, and recently the concerts I’ve attended have had the mellow, relaxed vibe of John Mayer or David Gray or Natalie Merchant – even the U2 show I went to at the Rose Bowl last year –where I stood the entire show and danced occasionally — couldn’t match the frenzy of wild abandon I reached as the band launched into “Grey Matter”. I was sweating buckets and knew that I’d be paying a price for all the leaping and bouncing and slamming I was doing, but I didn’t care: at that moment, I wasn’t a fortyish single dad getting a rare night out with adults; I was a free and vital young man who was living life like it was 1989, and I lost track of any care or concern I had.

After the show ended and we were in the Denny’s next door, I couldn’t stop laughing. I felt high, though I was stone cold sober. I was giddy, and couldn’t stop laughing. I felt like I had just been through a transformation of some kind, and in a way I had been: I’d been transported back to my youth, where I partied for a few hours, and then transported back to the present where the effects still lingered. The smile is still on my face as I write this nearly 24 hours later.

A tribute band wields magical powers. I imagine those powers are proportional to how much an audience member loves their music, or what kind of memories that person associates with the original band. For me, Dead Man’s Party hypnotized me into thinking I was 21 again and enjoying a kick-ass New Wave show, and they did it all while singing and playing instruments. That’s no easy task – I’d say that’s a “real job”.

By the way, I am so not 21 anymore. I am paying the price today with sore legs, no voice, and impromptu napping. Magic spells seldom last long.