Moving right along…

My family moved to Alaska just before I turned 7. Leaving the familiar (and familial) confines of the midwest to start a life in the Last Frontier was no small endeavor for my parents. As a family, we were heading North to build an entirely new life for ourselves. “What an adventure,” we all thought.

MovingboxesWe didn’t know anyone in Alaska, nor did either of my parents have jobs lined up. So, naturally, some extended family members thought the move was a crazy idea. “You can’t just up and move to Alaska! What’ll you do with all your furniture?!” Seriously. My parents were embarking on the adventure of a lifetime and their relatives were discouraging them from following their dream because of…furniture?

Many years later, as I prepared to move from Seattle to New York City, people had questions for me, too: “Where will you live?” (I didn’t know.) “Do you know people there?” (I had one childhood friend and one musician acquaintance.) “Do you have a job yet?” (No.) And, yes, I was asked, “What’ll you do with all your stuff?”

Harry&SallyI’m happy to say that fears about what to do with my furniture never occurred to me, but I was scared of moving to New York: what if I took the stage at a jam session and everybody laughed? What if I took the wrong subway and wound up in the South Bronx? What if the rats really were as big as cats? What if I moved to New York, nothing ever happened to me, and I died one of those New York deaths where nobody noticed for two weeks until the smell drifted into the hallway?

You know what scared me more than anything else, though? What if my fear kept me from pursuing my lifelong dream of living and singing in New York City?

The scariest thing about making big changes in our lives has nothing to do with the logistics of selling our furniture or finding a job. The scariest part of transformation is saying “Yes!” to uncertainty, fear, and setbacks. Whether we’re moving to a new place, letting go of a toxic relationship, starting a business, or learning a new skill, there are bound to be moments of sheer terror.


1955 - Girl views NYC from rooftop by Elliott Erwitt

As we shed the skin of the Self we’ve outgrown, the question “What the hell am I doing?” inevitably arises. And once we’ve shed our old skin, we’re not exactly comfortable, are we? We enter a new phase of being tender and vulnerable in our brand-new surroundings. We become strangers in a strange land.

The good news is this: every time we undergo transformation, be it literally or figuratively, we discover a little bit more of what it means to be human. We become wiser, more expansive, more creative.

As for me? I became a New Yorker.


Here come the Yankees!

I grew up in a “baseball house.” As in, there was a pitching machine and batting cage in my backyard. My brother played Little League and American Legion ball as a kid and my father coached, as well. When March rolled around, we’d flee the frigid temperatures of Alaska for the scorching Arizona sun and MLB Spring Training.

In short, my jazz-and-theatre-loving Alaskan tuchis warmed up many a bleacher during my formative years. And despite my best efforts to appear disinterested and disengaged, I osmotically wound up with a fairly good understanding of the game of baseball. I’m no expert, by any means, but I know the basic rules of the game and have tremendous respect for all the strategy involved. Being at the ballpark just makes me feel good.

So it’s fitting that I am now living with a rabid Yankee fan, which I suppose is a redundancy; is there any other kind? I am known to grumble when he turns on the Yankee game the second he walks in the door, but the truth is, I like watching the games with him. And he always laughs in bemusement when a batter fouls one off and I shout things like, “Atta kid, atta kid, you got a piece of it, now just straighten it out. Straighten it out!” Then we clink our beer bottles and cheer on the Yankees.

I’ve been a New Yorker at heart forever, so it’s only natural that I’ve grown to love the Bronx Bombers. I mean, after every win at home, Yankee Stadium is filled with the sound of Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York.” How could I not love the Yankees?

And so today, on the eve of Game 1 of the World Series, I leave you with a simple, heartfelt: Go Yankees! (See, Dad? You made me a baseball fan, after all.)

“Here Come the Yankees,” by Bob Bundin and Lou Stallman, recorded by the Sid Bass Orchestra and Chorus

Here come the YANKEES
Let’s get behind and cheer the YANKEES
They’re gonna learn to fear the YANKEES
Everyone knows they play to win, cause

They’re the New York YANKEES
Show them today why you’re the YANKEES
No other way when you’re the YANKEES
Wadda ya say we win a brand, new, ballgame

We’re gonna shout when ya powder the ball
We’re gonna scream, “put it over the wall”
The other teams gonna know what it means to play the Y.A.N.K.E.E.S
We love the Yankees
Shout it out loud , We Love The YANKEES
We’re really proud of our YANKEES
And we’re gonna win today
2, 3, 4, Hit, Run, Fight, Score, Go! Go! Go!

Seeing red (tape).

By the time I graduated high school, I was so ready to get the hell out of Wasilla, Alaska that if they’d told me I was going to do my foreign exchange on the moon, I probably would have accepted. As it turned out, I was sent to Italy. The year I spent living la dolce vita, I was 17, blonde (yes, blonde), and ripe for adventure. It was, as the song goes, a very good year.La Dolce Vita

Diving headlong into a love affair with la bella Italia, I quickly learned the lilting cadences and animated gestures of the Italian language and became virtually fluent in about six months. The language of Italian food proved just as enticing: my host father, Domenico, grew beautiful tomatoes in his backyard garden that, warmed by the sun, were the flavor of summer. Italian gelato, not yet popular in the States, was a gastronomic reverie of sweet, frozen silk. And on a sunny, early spring afternoon, a three-hour lunch on the Grand Canal in Venice sealed the deal: la cucina italiana was the cuisine of my heart.

I fell so naturally into the rhythms of Italian life that I began to think I was, in my soul, truly an Italian. Then one day, my host father and I drove into town so that I could withdraw money from the bank. The bank, inexplicably, was closed. “How is this possible?!” I demanded. “It’s a Wednesday afternoon! They’re supposed to be open! What’s going on?” I became nearly apoplectic.

Domenico shrugged, totally unperturbed. “Boh. Proviamo ancora domani. Dai, andiamo a casa a mangiare.” (I don’t know. We’ll try again tomorrow. Come on, let’s go home and eat.)

In that moment, I realized that I could live in Italy for the rest of my life. I could speak perfect Italian and make pasta as beautifully al dente as the most traditional of Italian mothers. I could drive an Alfa Romeo and marry someone named GianCarlo, but I would always, always be an American, hailing from the land of 24-hour supermarkets and “your way, right away.” That year in Italy, though, when faced with bureaucracy and inconvenience, I had no choice but to adapt and follow Domenico’s go-with-the-flow example.

All these years later, my New York life is defined in large part by the 24/7 access we modern-day city dwellers have to services, information, and Chinese takeout. Convenience nowadays feels like a birthright. Yet, this week I’ve been met with one bureaucratic hassle after another: the postponing of a flu shot due to misinformation, miscommunication between my doctor and insurance company (leading to a big fat bill for me), and the weekend disarray of the NYC subway system on a weekend filled with errands and travel.

chinese_takeoutTired, discouraged, and a bit overwrought, I am reminded of Domenico’s tranquillita‘ in the face of unforeseen annoyances. Bureaucracy, ineptitude and “necessary track work” can throw our well-ordered to-do lists into chaos. Domenico taught me that, on those days when we can’t get everything–or anything–done, there’s at least one thing that we can do: go home and eat. Or, in my case, have dinner delivered. New York is good like that.

Always listen to the bass player, or: Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)

Truth has a way of showing up in funny places. Some people get flashes of insight in the shower. For me, a lightning bolt of awareness struck somewhere between the best man’s toast and the fish course at a wedding gig a few years ago. I was talking to my friend Paul, the bass player. He was listening patiently to my anxieties about where–or if–I belonged in the New York music scene.

Photo by Gerald Slota

Photo by Gerald Slota

See, I had just finished a long-belated classical voice degree, and while I loved the discipline and power of classical singing, I knew that a career in opera wasn’t for me. When it came to jazz, I loved to experiment with rhythm and phrasing, but since I wasn’t musically or aesthetically inclined toward scat singing, I didn’t feel like a true-blue jazz singer, either.

“Maybe I should just scrap classical and jazz and go audition for Broadway musicals,” I said to Paul. But I wasn’t in love with musical theatre and, while I didn’t think of myself as a high-flying improviser, I knew that doing the exact same show the exact same way every night would make the jazz part of my heart wither.

Wasilla121So what was I supposed to do? Feverishly throw myself into opera and will myself to love it? Memorize Coltrane and Bird solos and be a hard-core jazzer? I really didn’t see myself taking tap classes in hopes of landing on the Great White Way. Was there a place for me in New York’s musical community, or would I have to pack it all in and go back to Wasilla? (Okay, you’re right; I never planned on going back to Alaska.)

ideaPaul listened patiently and then gave me some of the most powerful advice of my life: “Hilary, find the thing that you do. Find the thing that’s yours, no matter how small a niche it might be. And then get good at it. Work your ass off and get so good at it that, whenever somebody is looking for that specific thing, there’s only one person they can call, and that’s you. If you do that, you’ll never stop working.”

If we’d been in a cartoon, a lightbulb would have appeared above my head. I’d had it completely backwards! I’d been making myself crazy trying to fit into my idea of what a classical singer or a jazz singer “should” be. As embarrassing as it is to admit now, I had no idea what I wanted to sing.

weillCoverYou know how this ends: once I stopped second-guessing my eclectic influences and started celebrating the things that made me, well, me, the phone started ringing. I found myself immersed in a jazz-based cabaret project called West 73rd that incorporated elements of classical, jazz and theatre. We made a The Kurt Weill Project - A Song About ForeverCD, got representation, and began performing in some wonderful New York venues, such as Feinstein’s and the Metropolitan Room. More big band work materialized, and most shocking of all, I started hearing from people who wanted to take lessons with me.

Look, I still play weddings. I still work part-time at a restaurant. I teach lessons occasionally and keep a constant eye on my checkbook. Singing for your supper means a lot of hustling, whether you’re in New York or Nebraska. But thanks to Paul’s sage counsel, I’m no longer riddled with anxiety about what kind of singer to be. I just sing and give thanks for the chance to be myself.