mid-life crises

Burning my last boat to live a life of passion.

burning boat life of passion courage

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.
~ Helen Keller

A year ago I quit my job. The stated purpose was to start a freelance graphics business and sing jazz at night, but I was lying to myself. I didn’t want to be a designer anymore. I just wanted to sing.

Singing always came easily – too easy. I was gifted with good pitch, a pleasing voice and loved singing more than anything else in the world. It was the first thing I was good at. But build a career out of it? Silly girl. I thought I was ugly, short and had no charm. Everybody knows performers are tall, glamorous and feminine. Instead, I took a consolation prize, dressed my little artist self in a grey suit and thirty years ago became a graphic designer.

I was good, but never great.

Passions have a funny way of persistently itching and mine would not let me go until I scratched it. At mid-life I owned what beauty and charisma I had and learned to love myself as is. I left the corporate design job ostensibly to work freelance and sing, but actually started an inner battle that shook me hard. It became a tug of war between doing something I did well or doing what my singing demanded — taking a leap into the unknown and believing in myself. At first I did both half-heartedly.

I posted in a blog:

Every day I get up and ride two horses. When I spend time on music, it feels as though I am cheating my business. When I work in advertising and design, I feel like I’m taking the easy, well-worn path of success and not devoting myself to my passion.

Clinging to the ruse of being graphic designer by day and a jazz singer by night ensured
neither would flourish. A saying kept haunting me: “Burn the boats to take the island.” It refers to an historical incident where a commander, having landed in enemy territory, ordered his men to destroy their ships, so that they would have to conquer the country or be killed.

I hadn’t burned my last boat. I kept swimming back to my graphics comfort zone and clinging to it. I was afraid to trust my singing and my ability to make it succeed — afraid of failing at something so beloved and desired.

This fear had a point. The music business has never been easy, especially in Western New York, where most musicians supplement their income with teaching or another job. Even low-paying gigs are ferociously competed for and guarded. However, hard work, competition and challenge had never stopped me before. Why should they now?

After a year of divided attentions, I still had no advertising clients. The few design jobs I pitched landed with dull thuds as the client probably sensed my heavy heart and lack of enthusiasm.
A previously strong suit was now dragging me down.

Meanwhile, music was succeeding in ways never thought possible. I had regular gigs at clubs, scored spots at festivals, was playing with some of Buffalo and Rochester New York’s best musicians, and had selected and memorized songs I loved, could master and deliver with feeling. Most importantly, I was connecting with my audience on a deep level and building a fan base at each gig.
The answer was blazing a hole in me.

One year after quitting my job, I officially quit my old career and faced my terror — closing the door on the one sure thing that was not so sure after all.

The American Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron writes:

A teacher once told me that if I wanted lasting happiness the only way to get it was to step out of my cocoon. When I asked her how to bring happiness to others she said, ‘Same instruction.’

Today, when asked what I do for a living I answer without hesitation: I am a jazz singer. I finally believe it.

 

Fifty, fit and fabulous! – 10 tips.

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This morning I weighed myself and didn’t dread it. Why? At 50-something years old, I took those impossible ten pounds off, kept them off, and have (mostly) maintained good eating and fitness. And, in spite of all the fun and food of the holidays, I only gained back a pound of it.

I didn’t keep the weight off by starving myself, not drinking alcohol or being a workout nut. I just kept some simple practices I’ve developed over the years. I’m sharing them in the hope that they might encourage you — and keep my own resolve strong!

Love yourself. Unconditionally, right now, where you are, who you are, and how you look. Stand naked in front of a full-length mirror and take in your beautiful body — bumps, bulges, warts and all. Self-loathing has no place in your tool kit and can only sabotage you. Look at yourself and love yourself. No exceptions.

Weigh yourself. Not hatefully or self-punishingly, but mindfully. Accept where you are, but have a goal weight that is reasonable and achievable. Weigh yourself daily or weekly, whatever keeps you aware of your progress.

Move everyday. I didn't say exercise. Every January the gym is jammed with folks who want to lose those holiday pounds (again) and start an exercise program. By March they are all gone. Instead, embrace movement that you like; gardening, walking with a friend, running, skating, swimming, yoga, dancing or whatever works for you.

Eat chocolate. There. I said it. People wanting to lose weight frequently punish themselves and refrain from all desserts and sweets. This degree of deprivation can only last so long until natural cravings kick in and all resolve crumbles. Yes, refrain from donuts, cookies, pie and ice cream (fat, salt and sugar bombs), but eat that dark chocolate truffle and savor it.

Cook veggies. And not frozen peas boiled in water. Experiment with herbs, oils, cheeses and nuts. How about roasted asparagus with basting oil, pepper and sea salt? Or fresh green beans with butter, fresh dill and almond slivers? The proper seasoning and cooking method can make a hum-drum vegetable into a treat.

Avoid the whites. White sugar, flour, pasta and rice provide empty calories and spike blood sugar – this leads to cravings, binging and ultimately more pounds. Cut out sugar and substitute whole-wheat products for white. You’ll feel fuller and eat less.

Lift weights. I hate lifting weights, but notice that the women at the gym who are slim and sexy lift weights. Strength training is the secret weapon in a fit girl’s arsenal. Muscle burns energy (calories) and shapes a body beautifully. Start out slow and moderately and build up to 2 - 3x a week. And don’t worry, unless you’re a body builder you won’t bulk up.

Dress beautifully. Whether or not you’re near your goal weight, dress as though you like yourself. Choose clothes that are neither too loose nor too tight — clothes that enhance your curves or height — your unique features. The better you dress, the better you’ll feel about your body.

Get a buddy. Enlist the aid of a spouse or friend to encourage you in making better choices. Walk with them, share your goals, cheer each other on and win together. Most communities have running, hiking and walking clubs. Find one and join with others who are like-minded.

Embrace moderation. Do nothing today that you can’t see continuing for a lifetime. Fitness and good nutrition need to be slowly incorporated one-day-at-a-time into a healthy lifestyle. Fad diets and harsh workout regimes don’t work for anyone. Right now, make one or two simple, achievable goals. In the months and years to come, build on that.

I hope these tips inspire and show that fitness and good health belong to all of us — even you!

 

Rockin’ this nose. The one I was born with.

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He meant well. “Have you ever considered a nose job?” He said it with great delicacy and care, feeling it would improve my chances of succeeding in bigger market cities as a jazz singer. My response was measured, “I hadn’t considered it, but wouldn’t rule it out.” He went on to share the long list of performers he knew that had, including himself. “Why do you think I look so young?" I had to admit, for his age, he did look good.

I have my beloved father’s nose — a German-Irish nose, a not-small nose that shows no sign of shrinking with age. It never bothered me. Or, hadn’t — until now.

I am 51 years old. Many of those years were spent in self-loathing and holding myself up to unattainable, model-like standards. I had a love-hate relationship with my body and it held me hostage from doing the thing I loved the most — singing jazz, instead, spending 12 years as a folk singer, a safe place where an ugly duckling like myself could hide. It was only after a painful divorce that I learned to embrace and love my form in all its glory, with all its flaws. And three years ago, I switched from singing original folk music to jazz — finally feeling sexy and confident enough to get out from behind the guitar and sing the music I was born to sing.

Last January I quit my pleasant, secure day job to become a full-time singer. In addition to the loss of a respectable income and benefits, I have paid a very high price to make this change; I take voice lessons from two coaches, work weekly with a pianist/arranger to build my repertoire, read books on music, study classic recordings and sing for hours in the basement, car and bathroom. Each and every gig is widely promoted with e-mail, Facebook, posters and press releases. On some gigs I compensate my musicians from my own pocket — just for the exposure. Maybe this nose suggestion could be filed in the “price I have to pay” column.

The doctor was highly regarded. He answered every question with intelligence and thoughtfulness. By his reckoning, he had performed more rhinoplasties than anyone in the area. I knew one of his patients, and his work was subtle and attractive. He did not overpromise. This was the guy.

I recently attended a benefit that featured a number of vocal acts from New York City. All of them were smooth and polished — most were beautiful, svelte and dewy-fresh. They had stage presence and some had great patter, astounding ranges and vocal clarity. And, while I enjoyed their performances and derived many good tips, the biggest treat of the night came from an outlyer.

He was the opening act bandleader — a well-known, local horn player. This man is not conventionally attractive. He weighs well over 300 lbs. and is around 60 years old. As a lark, he presented a song. He moved slowly and painfully, and got up. Then he sang Little Girl Blue
with pathos — his voice soaring to a glorious falsetto, in turn brassy and bold, then dropping to an intimate, paper-thin whisper. “Why won't somebody send a tender blue boy to cheer up little girl blue." I was stunned. I could not close my mouth or stop smiling. That night, he was the sexiest man on the stage and it was his performance that stayed with me the most.

As I lay in bed that night reviewing the performances, I began to think of why I loved my favorite vocalists: Jeri Southern, an obscure singer from the 50’s, touches me with intimate vocals and vulnerability; Canadian folk singer Bruce Cockburn impresses with truth and musicianship; Holly Cole, a jazz singer from Toronto, amazes with originality and focus; Alison Krauss draws with silvery timbre and musicality; Ella exudes warmth, precision and tone; kd lang explodes with power and dynamic range; Mel Tormé seduces with smooth style and phrasing; Jane Monheit commands respect by overall mastery, song selection and interpretation.

Compiling the list, I realized not one of them was a conventional beauty. More important, as a fan, their looks were something I never once considered, loving them instead for their artistry, humanity and talent. I respect their work ethic, dogged attention to detail and professionalism and admire their bravery and creativity.

I do not think about their noses.

If I don’t succeed as a jazz singer, I suspect it will be because I got tired from the immense amount of work it takes to be great with so little initial return. Or, it will be the drain of preparing books and setting up sound equipment, or lack of venues for serious jazz. Possibly it will be the ridiculous amount of work it takes to promote a gig and get a crowd, or living in a small market city. Or, a creative block, beyond which I can’t go.

I don’t think it will be about my nose.

Monday morning, I’ll call the good nose doctor and cancel my pre-op appointment. And then, like most days, I’ll go down to the basement, open my book of tunes, and start working — hard.

 

On being loved fully and outrageously, like I deserve.

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First, a confession. For the first 40 years of my life, I did not feel worthy to be loved romantically. I projected an aura of superiority and self-confidence, but inside felt unlovable and undesirable. A lot of women do. We internalize slights from middle and high school and hold ourselves to impossibly high standards. We find ourselves lacking.

What cured me of self-loathing? At first it was becoming a musician and singing out publicly — finding a passion and that audiences liked me, they really liked me, as Sally Field once said. This flew in the face of my old story about being unattractive. Secondly, it was going through a painful, unwanted divorce.

To heal I needed to fully love myself, faults and all. Early in the separation a memorable moment occurred in front of a full-length mirror. I assessed my body and finally embraced its beauty, uniqueness and flaws. I loved it — and me, completely.

Loving myself was an important step to being loved, but before dating, I also needed to map out what a successful relationship would look like, so I created a vision statement for my new life. It painted a verbal picture of my new home; the atmosphere, art and music that would live there — the social life, vacations and spirituality I’d pursue.

I also envisioned the man in my life. He would be kind, hospitable, generous and fit. I imagined a mutually loving relationship with a lot of sex and affection. I wanted a man who adored me, would lay it all down for me, put me first and powerfully desire me. I shot not only for the stars but the whole dazzling Milky Way before even setting a foot in the dating swamp. This became the road map for my future.

A friend who had been single for many years warned about the lack of prospects in our hometown. “There are no good men. They are all taken. The only ones left are losers. Trust me — I’ve dated them.” I envisioned better for myself. I reckoned it was only a matter of time before Mr. Right came into my life. The key was to not be entangled with Mr. Wrong when he finally appeared. The more I loved myself, the easier it was to lose the Mr. Wrongs. And while setting the bar high might result in singlehood, alone and happy was better than coupled and miserable. The bar stayed high.

It didn't drop with that first man I dated who noted I was “loving and feminine onstage, but vulgar and boorish offstage.” Bye. It remained high with the wealthy but incurious man with only one thing on his mind and it wasn't quantum physics. He was stopped at the second date. Significantly, the bar didn’t lower when dating the well-off, fit and sexy plumber who had anger and jealousy problems. It was sad, but I ended it and was alone again.

Dave was not an obvious choice. He was a recent widower of a dear family friend. He was an artist like I was and quiet, probing, funny and smart. We started out as supportive friends with no thought of dating while I kept looking for Mr. Right. To our surprise, over time our friendship became romantic. We were remarkably compatible, sharing interests in museums, theater and music. We both loved to read, travel, entertain and wanted to create a house filled with love, respect and generosity. Most important, Dave wanted me — was willing to do anything to get me. Nothing came before me. The more he loved me, the lower my defenses became and the more I loved him back.

Newly single, I'd been told that “statistic” that a middle-aged woman had as much chance of remarrying as getting struck by lightning. But, that was a mindset of scarcity and desperation. Instead, I determined there would be abundance and love in my new life, if not specifically a new man. However, it turned out that accepting myself fully, envisioning an ideal life and keeping high standards became the magic path to the love of my life.

 

Getting to “no.” How embracing rejection can set you free.

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20 press kits had been sliding around in the back seat of my car for weeks. Knowing I should drop them off at bars and restaurants, instead, paralyzed — unable to walk in the door and “cold-call.” My winter depression was seriously kicking in, and all I really wanted to do was crawl into bed and forget this pipe dream of being a jazz singer.

I had been singing as a hobby my whole life, first in high school, then in a rock band and in mid-life as an acoustic singer-songwriter, producing two CDs of original music. I studied voice for years under wonderful classical teachers, then switched to jazz, found an arranger/pianist, chose a repertoire, hired a vocal and acting coach and had charts written for over 50 songs in my key. It was my dream to go professional, and I was stalled at the starting line.

To intensify the pressure, I broke the 11th commandment and “quit my day job,” announced grand intentions to anyone who would listen, and, at the age of 50, risked failing publicly and quite spectacularly. I felt as crazy as it sounded.

One day, my sister Linda called, and immediately sensed my malaise. “What’s going on? You sound really low.” It was no use hiding from her. She grew up observing my moods, tracking my triumphs and failures, and could read my voice in a nanosecond. I described my inertia with the press kits, which she airily summed up in one succinct phrase: “You’re afraid of rejection.”

Was it that simple? Was I just afraid of rejection? And, did success lie on the other side of hearing a lot of no’s? As it turns out … it did. 

Linda’s offhand comment kicked me into gear. I gave myself a goal of delivering the kits to 20 restaurants or bars, including the many Wegmans Market cafés in Western New York. It took about two weeks, and I did get a lot of no’s – quizzical, stressed-out bar and restaurant owners fielding yet another unfamiliar musician who wanted to play their establishment and drain their thin resources. But I remained cheerful, upbeat, and optimistic as I collected my rejections, “maybes” and “we’ll sees.”

Two weeks after the press kit drop, my gig calendar was still empty as I headed off to Pennsylvania to help out in a family emergency. Halfway there, I got a call from one of the Market cafés. Would I like to play the Alberta Drive Wegmans on May 25th? Two days later; another Wegmans. Soon after that, an art opening, then a birthday party at a private club, three benefits and two more Wegmans. It was happening, and no one was more surprised than me.

There is a new game out called Rejection Therapy. The Game

The game has one rule:

You must be rejected by another person at least once, every single day. In this game, rejection is success. You actually collect rejections to win. Terrifying.

In my old life, I avoided rejection like poison ivy. I gravitated to fields I knew well, was talented in, that ensured, if not easy, at least eventual success. Jazz was a journey for which there was no road map. And like jazz, it required improvising.

Embracing rejection is still a powerful piece in the puzzle of seriously following my passion and believing in my art. So, I tirelessly promote and connect with club owners, and those who know club owners. Some call me back, some don’t.

I apply to every festival this area offers and haven’t heard back from any of them yet; however, rejection has become, if not a friend, a fellow traveler on this journey to deep career satisfaction.

And lately, he’s been a little quiet.

In the woods; then and now.

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I am five. I am in the woods in front of my house on the south side of Grand Island, NY. It’s winter and the forest is hushed with a muffle of snow. The trees are black and bare, like spiders against the pewter sky.

I am captivated by the silence and intimacy. It’s like a church, but spooky. I am intoxicated with freedom and independence. This is what is good about a large family. I can sometimes get lost and not be missed.

Crunch, crunch, go the sticks and dried leaves under foot. I hit a smooth hard surface, brush away the snow with my brown vinyl boot and discover a pane of ice. Underneath it are rotten leaves and black water, a glass paperweight.

I can skate! I run, and zoom on the smooth surface – my own private ice rink. In the middle of the pond I hear a cracking, the ice groaning and buckling under my feet. I try to run, but the ice traps my feet. The brackish sulphur-smelling water pours into my boots. It is only a foot deep, so I am safe, but shaken. I slosh out of the pond and make my way home to stuff newspaper in my boots, fairly sure I will not receive a scolding; one of many adventures.

I am fifty and have left the comfort of a good job. The possibilities loom large. The silence of my home office is rarely broken. My time is my own. I am both exhilarated and terrified.
I make phone calls to prospective clients and meet with rejection. Press kits go out unnoticed. Calls to bars and restaurant owners result in tepid recollection.

I trudge on, practicing, creating, calling, writing and planning. I am shaken, but believe I am meant to be here and will find my path.

Never let the odds keep you from pursuing what you know in your heart you were meant to do.
~ Satchel Paige

 

Taking my leap of faith (or, “all in”).

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Many months ago, I took local jazz singer and Frank Sinatra sound-alike Jack Civiletto to lunch. I quizzed him on his career – how he got there, what he loves about singing full time, and how he decided to make jazz singing his career.

I was surprised to learn that Jack had not been blind from birth. His condition began in his late twenties and got worse, till in his thirties, he lost his sight entirely. He was forced by circumstance to give up his successful job as a clothing salesman and expand his part-time musical career to his full-time vocation. And boy, is he good at it. I have more than once wished I were limited to just one career. What if singing had been the only thing I could do?

Nearly one month ago I quit my day job as a graphic designer at a bank to become a jazz singer/graphic designer marketing specialist. Every day I get up and ride two horses. When I spend time on my music, it feels as though I am cheating my business. When I work in advertising and design, I feel like I’m taking the easy, well-worn path of success and not devoting myself to my passion. I am torn.

This quote inspires me:

Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
~ Mark Twain

I’ve always wanted to be a singer and put on a show. When I was 10 years old, I wrote, produced, marketed and performed in a variety show to benefit the SPCA. We made over $47 dollars, which, in 1971 was a nice haul.

Fast forward to June 26, 2010. I’m debuting my first-ever jazz singing trio to benefit Gilda’s Club. We make over $1,675. That night, I knew; this is my passion — doing good and singing
— putting on a show and benefiting a cause I believe in.

Is there a career here? I really don’t know. I’m in the weeds right now with not a lot of gigs on the calendar (who am I kidding? Just one), a whole lot of discouragement, and this amazing gift I’ve been given, but doubt, oh, about fifty times a day.

In the belief that truth sets me free and with the knowledge that I’m not alone I’m sharing my journey. Come along. Share yours with me. We both might learn something.