My Lessons

I recently read a NY Times article titled “Lessons from Living in London.” It was written by a former foreign correspondent for the Times who’d lived in London for almost 20 years.

As I read, I found myself gasping in bewilderment and asking my computer: “Did we live in the same place?” This writer had one complaint after another about one of my favorite places in the world. I guess everyone’s entitled to an opinion. Maybe if I had moved there in my 30s and had spent almost two decades living there, I would be exasperated by the people, the geography, and such.

As it happens, I lived there for six months when I was 22 years old. So here are my lessons…rebuttals to what I found to be her most offensive statements.

1. So she says that London’s buzz dims as you get farther from downtown. I would say that happens in most major cities. Now, she compares London to NYC a lot, and I don’t know much about NYC. So maybe there is a big difference. But the writer lived in what I consider to be posh, expensive boroughs of London. I lived in an area that was buzzing. It was horribly expensive, but not as expensive as other boroughs in London. Earl’s Court was gritty and felt very urban. Different ethnicities, crowded sidewalks, residential buildings on top of each other.

2. She says that Londoners belong to where they’re from, not where they are. And they keep themselves to themselves. Again, she may have felt this way because of where she lived and with whom she interacted. Because my friend and I lived in a less expensive neighborhood, our neighbors were on the young side and were more transient. And being a young person myself, I was open to meeting new people and learning from them.

One night, we happened upon our downstairs neighbors, who invited us right in for tea. They were in their 20s and 30s; they were Italian, Swedish, and Korean-Australian. Most of them were students so we didn’t see each other much, but I did become friends with an Italian couple who were professionals.

And all of my British coworkers were lively and gregarious. I guess maybe I was lucky in this regard. English auditors really know how to have fun apparently! I found all of my coworkers to be friendly and curious about getting to know me—this crazy American who wanted to live in England.

So the writer was bummed that people whom she passed in the park didn’t engage with her. Does this sort of thing happen in NYC? Because I’ve lived in Boston for 14 years, and that’s how it works here. You’re lucky to make eye contact with anyone, much less strike up a conversation.

3. Getting lost in a city definitely sucks. But that’s what happens when you’re in a city that’s been around for millennia. No grids here, folks.

4. Have you seen a map of the tube? The author says it doesn’t go everywhere. Well, it goes to hundreds of places. And like other cities, the subway doesn’t go everywhere. That’s what the buses and commuter rail are for.

5. Stores close early. And yes, the grocery store is only open for six hours on Sunday. I don’t see that as an issue, frankly. Americans are too used to getting anything they want when they want it. Most of the rest of the world doesn’t work like that. And I find that refreshing.

6. For the record, people who loved Princess Di do not find the statue dedicated to her and Dodi Al Fayed in Harrods “creepy.” Her fans actually make it a point to swing by the statue for a moment of silence when they visit Harrods. (At least this admirer does.)

7. The weather isn’t fantastic, and it is prudent to arm oneself with an umbrella. But as R.E.M. says, “I’ll Take the Rain.” I’ll take the rain if it means being in the vibrant, intoxicating, quirky city that is my London.


Cyndi and Chris

One of the reasons why I live in a city is so I can do things like see Cyndi Lauper in concert one night and Chris Thile the next.

Cyndi is on a 30th anniversary tour for her debut solo album, She’s So Unusual. I don’t remember all of the songs on that album, but I knew the concert would be awesome regardless.

The night got off to a fun start with me and the girls meeting for a drink at a bar across the street from the venue. We “recruited” (as Deb so aptly put it) the guy sitting next to us to join us for the concert. He was able to buy a ticket in the row behind us, since we had bought the cheapest seats available in the balcony. Maybe he brought us good luck: we were thrilled when we arrived at the theater and were moved up a number of rows because the balcony wasn’t sold out.

Cyndi rocked, as I expected she would. She was clad in black leather and wore a wig of long, wavy cherry red. The woman is 60 but she danced around as if she were still 30. The night was one big ’80s dance party with lots of synthesizer.

Cyndi was gracious and told long, rambling stories about some of the songs. One of the reasons I attend concerts is to hear the musicians tell long, rambling stories. It’s great to learn the stories behind the lyrics. Sometimes the most mundane story translates to the most profound lyric.

Cyndi ended the encore with “True Colors.” My friends, and our new friend, put our arms around each other and swayed back and forth while belting the lyrics. Whenever I hear this song, I picture my 10-year-old self dancing a ballet number in a pastel purple bodysuit with a flowing pink skirt. And I marvel at how timeless some music can be. Thirty years have passed, but the music is just as moving and poignant.


Twenty-fours after rocking with Cyndi, I found myself in Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre, waiting for mandolinist Chris Thile to take the stage. This was the third time I’ve seen him perform. I first fell under his spell at a Goat Rodeo Sessions concert in January 2012. I saw him about a year later with his band, The Punch Brothers.

He is touring solo now to promote a new record of his, a Bach sonata and partita on mandolin. I was pleasantly surprised by how close my seat was to the stage. I love  when that happens. I was sandwiched between a woman in her 70s with a thick accent and a college student wearing a T-shirt and shorts.

Chris walked on stage amidst thunderous applause. Without a word, he started playing the first movement of the sonata. After he finished, he explained that he would be playing some Bach, and then some “stuff” in between. The stuff was sometimes fun and sometimes hauntingly beautiful.

In the middle of the show, he played a Bach movement for possibly 30 minutes straight. It started to feel surreal, as I asked myself, is he still really playing??

Talk about music that is timeless. Three hundred years later and the music is still stunning. After his Bach marathon, Chris launched into a song he wrote, the chorus of which was “If you’re going to leave me, set me up with one of your friends.” Who can pull that off?

Chris Thile can.

To sum it up, he blew the mind of everyone there. The woman to my left looked awestruck every time I caught her in my peripheral vision. I giggled to myself as the kid next to me fist pumped when Chris starting playing his “stuff.” I think he was even singing along at times.

The man can tear it up on the mandolin. Plus he has an amazing voice with quite a range. And he can charm the pants off any audience. Add him to my list of musicians whom I would consider following around the country if I were independently wealthy and didn’t have to hold down a job. I think I’ve missed my calling as a music groupie…



A Hazard of Genealogical Research


I went to the New England Historic Genealogical Society Library for the first time tonight.

I left with an injury—probably the first injury that I have ever sustained at a library.

I did some research beforehand and wrote down the call numbers of two books the library owns on the history of Clearfield County, Pennsylvania. Both sides of my family come from generations of central Pennsylvanians. From what I know from oral history, census records, and such, my people are a humble people. Coal miners, lumbermen, and business owners.

I walked in to the library with the hope of finding something in these books about someone in my family. I found the first book. It hadn’t been taken off the shelf in a while; it kind of stuck to the shelf as I yanked it out. Then I found the second book. I gasped when I saw it. The second book was huge. And old. So old that it had a string around it, holding it together.

What do I mean by huge? I mean 1,100+ pages. What do I mean by old? I mean 1898.

I sat down at the research table and started with the normal-sized book. There was nothing about my ancestors in that one, but there was a twee description of my mom’s hometown. It was described as pleasant weather-wise, abounding with game and streams of fish, and prosperous businesses.

I looked at the big boy, titled Commemorative biographical record of central Pennsylvania : including the counties of Centre, Clearfield, Jefferson and Clarion / containing biographical sketches of prominent and representative citizens, and of many of the early settled families. The black leather cover was very ornate. As I gingerly untied the string and opened the cover, tiny pieces of leather and paper flitted onto my shirt and the floor. I looked around the room guiltily, but no other researchers were paying attention to me.

The book was unwieldy to say the least. I painstakingly laid the book on its front and prayed there was an index. Thankfully there was, and I found my mother’s maiden name listed. I wrote down four page numbers and flipped to the first one.

Bingo! There was Josiah Richards, my second great-grandfather. He had a bio and two photos: one portrait and one of his lumber camp. My third great-grandfather was mentioned too.

I sighed. I needed to make photocopies of the pages. Was I really going to attempt to photocopy pages from a 1,100+-page book that was 115 years old and falling apart??


Suffice it to say it took me awhile and I pulled a muscle in my upper back during the ordeal.

It was worth it, of course. Here is the first paragraph of Josiah’s bio:

“Josiah S. Richards is a prominent and enterprising lumberman of Greenwood township, Clearfield county. Comparatively few men can attain to the highest offices in civil or military life, but in America the opportunity for advancement in business circles is open to all, and one may exercise his powers unrestrained and gain an enviable place in the ranks of trade. Mr. Richards has been dependent upon his own resources from an early age, and the success he has achieved is the reward of his own labors, while his life record furnishes a striking example of what can be accomplished by determined and honorable purpose.”

There you have it: the American Dream, folks.

So my first visit to the library was a success. Now it’s time to nurse my pulled muscle.

big book

Time for a New Mixtape, Part 2

So, I need to finish my mixtape that I can play when I am waxing

nostalgic about my 20s.

I  brought out my book of concert ticket stubs and tallied which bands I saw the most between the years of 1998 and 2005.

The results are:

1. Guster: 10 shows

I discovered Guster when they opened for Barenaked Ladies on December 31, 1999. The  Guster men met at Tufts University, which meant that they toured in New England A LOT during my early Boston days. I have many, many favorite Guster songs. But if I force myself to pick only two from the aforementioned time period, they are:

“Mona Lisa”


2. Barenaked Ladies: 7 shows

I’m actually not adding any BNL songs to this mixtape. I no longer own any of their CDs from this time period, and I associate them more with my college years. I have a few BNL songs on my college mixtapes, so they are definitely represented.

3. R.E.M.: 5 shows

Thinking about R.E.M. is still painful for me. I will never be OK with the fact that they broke up in 2011. NEVER. But as Tennyson said, it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. R.E.M. released three albums during this time period. Favorites are:

“At My Most Beautiful”

“Final Straw”

“She Just Wants to Be”

4. U2: 4 shows

There is nothing like a U2 concert. I saw them four times during their 2005 Vertigo tour. I dropped a total of $293 on three of the shows. The other show was a $390 ticket. I did not pay $390 for the ticket. An angel sent me a man who sold me the ticket for $100-something. I can’t remember why the hell he did that. It was a VIP ticket, which meant I had access to a VIP bar with free drinks and food before the show. And of course the seat was amazing. I choose the song that they opened the concerts with:

“City of Blinding Lights”

I also include a song from the other album from this time period:

“Walk On”

4. Mike Doughty: 4 shows

Mike Doughty is a kick-ass singer-songwriter. I loved his band, Soul Coughing, but love his solo albums just as much.

“Rising Sign”

“27 Jennifers”

5. Red Hot Chili Peppers: 3 shows

The Chili’s album Californication was in heavy rotation during road trips with Daisy in the early 2000s. New to New England, we road tripped a lot. Naturally, we cranked this one up:

“Road Trippin'”

And from another album:

“By the Way”

I can’t wait to make this tape.


Book of concert ticket stubs
Book of concert ticket stubs