Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Naked Lunch

It was around noontime, and I was at my desk dictating, trying to keep up with the progress notes. I was bored. I was tired of inquiring solicitously into the color of nasal secretions. I had already scarfed up lunch -- jelly sandwich, apple, raisins and walnuts -- so the high point of the day was over. I knew a long, mucusy slog lay between me and quitting time and I was bummed.

Suddenly I became aware of shrill and perky chatter from the adjacent office. Blah, and, like, blah blah -- and, like -- blah blah BLAH ! --and, like, totally, blah blah !!! A young woman was blathering on in high valley-girl speak at the top of her lungs and my heart sank. If this was Tuesday, it must be drug lunch day. Young, perky drug reps in power suits and scary high heels. Flogging expensive pharmaceuticals with sketchy studies. I swore under my breath. The clinic began to fill with the stench of savory lunch (cue my usual unheeded cavil about how would a nauseated patient feel being subjected to food smells during a doctors visit) and the voices grew louder and more convivial -- and then I, like, blah blah BLAH blah blah, and, no, like, really, BLAH, blah, blah -- are you, like, serious ? like, blah blah BLAH ? --

I got up and slammed my door. Hard. The voices continued right though the wall. I seethed. In my office I am in a distinct minority with regards to drug lunches. I am the cranky nutcase who won't even write with a drug-logo bearing pen or use a drug company post it note. My desk is a Big-Pharma free zone. It's an ethical discipline, a practice, like being a vegan. No drug company goodies for me. And most folks actually agree with me, in theory, when I ask: why should drug companies shower health care workers with expensive lunches and stupid tchotchkes -- bribes, really -- when our patients can barely afford their overpriced and overhyped wares ?

When I'd finished sulking (and when the perky young women had left) I went next door to survey the leavings. I gazed at the plates of fat sandwiches and over-stuffed wraps, the enormous salad, the pile of pastries, the cans of soda. Suddenly I knew what I had to do. And I had the perfect co-conspirator, Lisa, a fellow 'pisky, my most leftward leaning colleague, a woman with a houseful of rescued animals -- and a camera phone ! We would do some undercover investigative journalism, a scathing, Pulitzer level expose of Big Pharma's meaty profligacy ! She, as I suspected, was into it. Like, totally. Soon she was training the unblinking eye of her TMobile on the groaning capitalist board in the break room,

and then she even went on to discover the magnum of Dunkin' Donuts coffee (bearing the logo of an anti-Alzheimer's drug) in the file room ! What a find ! Woodward and Bernstein redux ! Who would play us in the movie ? Catherine Zeta-Jones and Judy Davis ? Yeah ! (No, I'm the Judy !)

Suddenly I realized I felt much better. Fortified. Energized. Activated. There had been crankiness ! There had been conspiracy ! There had even been PHOTOGRAPHY ! We had stuck it to The Man and now I was ready to get back to work.

Ready, even, to face the mucus.

Sunday, April 06, 2008


Suddenly we're in a new chapter of the geometry book. Having mastered lines and angles, we move on to circles and spheres. There's no turning back. It's like the move from cross to empty tomb. Each year re-enacts it. The sky darkens, it rains, the sun re-emerges and the green fuse ignites.

I was standing in the rain, a half-hearted mist actually, in the hospital parking lot. Night had fallen and, for the first time this year, I heard the sound of spring peepers from the adjacent woods. I shivered. I was wearing my mother's raincoat -- a neat, lavender trench coat with padded shoulders, utterly not my style --if I can be said to have a style -- that my father gave me after her death. Wearing it, I feel overwhelmingly strange, as if I were inhabiting someone else's skin.

I closed my eyes and listened to the sweet frog music. It was my personal, yearly swallows-back-to-capistrano moment, marking a threshold crossed into spring. How many more ? my brain whispered, clinging, fearful. Hearing them, once, I suddenly thought of a newly dead boy: O, he will not hear these again. And, thinking that, I wept. That boy has been dead for over a year now -- and yet, measured against eternity , what is that ? The parking lot rocked gently.

I opened my eyes. The sad tape whirred to a halt. My glasses were fogged with mist. The frogs piped and peeped their familiar song. And yet could I remember my mother's singing voice ? My mother, in whose skin I'd lived for 56 years, and whose lavender coat I'd been wearing for a year ? No. I couldn't. My father's ? I can hear it at will in my mind's ear. But my mother was a singer, too. I can see, in my mind's eye, the old black and white photo of her onstage, in college, singing in Pirates of Penzance. The photo is shot from a low angle, and she seems to tower, ecstatic with song, in her pirate's costume. Before my time, to be sure -- although the photographic record puts my father as a co-Pirate in the same production.

I'm sure she sang to me. I know she did. I simply cannot hear it anymore. The vinyl's mountains and valleys are flat as a desert now. She sang, my father told me recently, in the choir he directed at Groveland Congregational Church. She sang so well, in fact, she simply arrived Sunday morning and sang. Didn't even have to rehearse.

My Dad was the theatrical one. I'm sure my mother sang to me, but I am also sure she did not sing at the full voice around the house. After all, I live in the skin she gave me and it's quiet skin. Quiet, shy, reticent, reclusive. Evaluating our Lenten adult education program (ironically enough called "Connect") I wrote, regarding what new ministry I'd been inspired to consider, that I wanted to be an Anchoress in our Church's bell-less tower. I got the Anchoress gene from my Mother. My Dad did not pass on the Papal gene.

Is there any song sweeter than the echoing call and response of the spring frogs ? It is one of the many lullabies that God sings to his disconsolate, frightened children. My grandmother, my Lithuanian Bubbi, sang to us, malapropping Sleep my child and piece-a-candy, all through the night. I can still hear it, faintly. And I can also conjure my Auntie's voice -- Show me the way to go home, I'm tired and I want to go to bed, a song I took to be about being existentially lost and alone, not about being too drunk to find your house after a night of wild partying. And now that I am older, and have been all three, I am ready to start singing my own songs.

How can someone presume to start singing at my age ? It seems an enterprise fraught with peril and hubris. My Dad, sitting at the back of our choir room, listened to us rehearse a few months ago. Even though I sing now, I cannot imagine singing alone in front of my father. I was keenly aware of him listening. Afterwards, over coffee at IHOP, I asked him how he'd liked it.

He replied that I should take some singing lessons. My voice needed to be bigger, stronger, louder.

So after months and months of singing along with celestial countertenors in the privacy of my car, I took my first singing lesson. With trepidation, I made my way to the Conservatory where R., who sings with DKs big band, teaches.

My vocal avatar changed in an instant. It's not a good sign when the teacher asks you, right off the bat, whether you smoke. I spent the next two weeks getting deeply in touch with the fount of bubbling mucus otherwise known as my vocal cords. And breathing ! R. plunked me in front of a full length mirror. Put your hands on your belly. she said. Breathe in. Your fingertips should move apart. Your belly should swell to second trimester proportions. My inner anorexic woke with a shriek of protest. I sucked in air, watching my hands in the mirror. The fingertips didn't move. I sucked in more air. Fingertips ? Immobile. Now I've DONE abdominal breathing. Playing clarinet. Sitting Zen, feeling the hara move in and out, even then with the inner anorexic muttering that it wasn't fair, and wouldn't I rather feel the breath at the nostrils ? I inhaled what felt like an ocean of air deep into a vast abdominal chasm. Nothing. She tried imagery: you're standing in an inner tube -- swell and fill the hole ! Swell until you fill the whole room ! I inhaled enormously: my fingertips parted a few millimeters. It was a start.

So we moved on to opening the mouth. Wider ! Rounder ! she coached. I was back in Mrs. Hart's chorus in the sixth grade, banished to the back row because of my little mouth. I stared, appalled, at the mirror. At the round, contorting, snaggletoothed little hole at the bottom of my face. I sang a long tone on oooo: my voice sizzled and cracked. Staticky mutiphonic overtones zinged and zanged all over the place.


Undaunted, after 2 weeks of husky long tones and aerophagic, belly-swelling breaths (all done, of course, in my private, four wheeled, rolling studio) I returned for my second lesson. As I stood in the hall waiting for R., I listened to the music pouring from the practice rooms around me. A virtuosic piano piece, all thundering clusters and runs at breathtaking velocities, long tones on a trumpet, sonorous, mournful cello chords -- what was I doing there ? Saying I had a frog in my throat was insulting to spring peepers. And yet I was happy to be there. I was happy singing. There had been moments when the breath had seemed to come from way down there , leaving my chest free and relaxed. At ease. I listened to the accomplished young music students practicing. I didn't want the moment to end.

But it did, and then it was my turn. Today we would learn something important, R. said. The mouth position that would give my voice more resonance. High palate, low larynx.

I'd read about that palate and larynx thing. I was skeptical. I'd also read that the voice has a natural vibrato. Well, then, where was mine ? I'd thought how on EARTH does one raise one's palate and depress one's larynx. For a woman that lives as I do in a disembodied zone somewhere six inches above my head, it seemed like it would take act of swami-like skill, akin to stopping one's heart or levitating. But I was wrong.

R. cupped her hands midair, one over the other, enclosing a fat, oval space. Make your pharynx round like this and the sound will resonate. It's like the position of the pharynx at the beginning of a yawn.

A yawn ! Now that was something I could could do. No problemo. I like to sleep do not wake me, and all that. Just thinking of yawning, I yawned -- yes, there was my palate, going up, and (I touched the front of my throat) my larynx going DOWN ! I yawned again, peering into the dark cavern of my mouth in the mirror. By God, there was my uvula, ascending like a Ralph Vaughan Williamsian Lark ! Cool. But I was supposed to sing with my mouth in that position ? Really ? Just vowels for now. We'd add the consonants later.

She went to the piano. We'd do some vocalises. She played a minor sixth. I half yawned and let 'er rip.

I heard a round sound pour out of my mouth. I was astonished. Oh my God. Was that me ? I couldn't wait to get into my Rolling Studio to try out my repertoire with my newly elevated palate and depressed larynx. Unfortunately, I had taken two subways and a bus to get into Boston and could not bring myself to bellow out round minor sixths on the E train or Bus 70. I hurried down Huntington Ave toward the subway station practicing half yawns, unconcerned that passersby see the strange contortions of my mouth and face. I couldn't wait to drive to work the next day. I popped my celestial countertenor CD into the player, half-yawned, and lit into Henry Purcell's Evening Hymn.

I listened. There it was. That round sound. With -- with vibrato.

I almost crashed into a tree.

Still listening to froggy antiphonals, I unlocked my car. Soon I'd be singing, too. I pulled the lavender coat over my knees. This late life singing, I suddenly realized, like my shyness, reticence and disconnection, was matrilineal. Or, at the very least, I could declare it such. These songs are for you, Mom, I could say, listening for a vestige of her voice in mine. My song will be round, and also a round, a reiterant song with voices joining in and dropping out and joining in again, mother, father, Bubbi, Auntie, frogs, me, divas all, human and divine, song without end, amen, amen.