Tuesday, January 26, 2010


When people asked me 13 years ago what I was having, I said, “a guitarist.” The sex of my baby wasn’t important, as long as I had created a musical human. I dragged my embryo and fetus to Ani Difranco several times, birthed my baby girl to Mazzy Star, enhanced her afternoon naps with Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark, nursed her to Keb Mo, took her for car rides serenaded by the Indigo Girls, and dressed her in a Righteous Baby onesie of my own design. When Serena could talk, she’d request her favorite: “'Pow[er] of Two,’ Mommy.” At three, she invited Ani Difranco to dinner. Since she emerged twelve years ago, she’s seen the Indigo Girls (as an infant), Regina Spektor, Ani Difranco, Billy Bragg, and Willy Porter. She slept through all but the last. (I’m not allowed to mention Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers.)

Over the past few weeks, we’ve watched the School of Rock’s tributes to Eric Clapton, Steely Dan, and, last Saturday, CBGB. As always, the kids were as impressive as the finest adult cover bands. But Serena hasn’t made a lot of friends at the cliquey school, so she usually watches with detachment instead of excitement.

Consequently, I was worried that I’d made a mistake spending $100 for our two tickets to see Cheap Trick at the Rams Head, catty corner to Angel’s Rock Bar, where Marty and I bobbed up and down to old favorites by the Bad Brains and Television, while Serena read a book of ghost stories on a sofa in the corner. After the show, I fueled her up on some crappy McDonald’s food (which helped her recall why she hasn’t eaten anything from McDonald’s in over two years), and we took our place in line in the long hallway of the club, where someone said, “I hate people who come to see the opening act.”

“Are you kidding?” I asked. “I went to see an opening act called Cheap Trick in 1979 at the Baltimore Civic Center!” They were on the bill with UFO, whom I liked, and Rush, whom I loathed. I pulled out my photos of that night—Robin signing an autograph while being pulled out the door by his tour manager, Rick giving me the thumbs up in front of a curtain. My treasures. “It’s people like us who turn opening acts into superstars.”

When we got in, we made our way quickly to a spot at the balcony, where no people could push in front of us and where we’d have room to lean and a place to put drinks—important, as I had to pre-caffeinate the kid to keep her standing.

Jason Faulkner (who is as easy on the eyes as a young Jon Bon Jovi) and Roger Manning of Jellyfish were the openers, and I could feel Serena’s excitement growing. But when it was time for the greatest fucking rock and roll band to take the stage, I could see that edge in her. She was captivated, enrapt. She screamed and yelled and woo-hooed and reveled in wide-eyed awe. And while she didn’t know a lot of the songs, she sang along anyway, because you can do that with Cheap Trick. They were never a band to be bogged down by pesky political verse and awkward, fancy timings. They are jump-up-and-down-able; even the crippled old mommies became all right while they played. And, damn it, they are still cute after all these years. Hello, Tom Petersson, you handsome old dandy in your purple duster and your rhinestone-spangled bass!

During the concert, I asked Serena whether she thought Rick Nielsen was a great guitarist, and she said, “DUH.” And I asked whether she was enjoying herself, and she said, “DUH.” And I asked if she liked Robin’s voice and Tom’s bass and Bun E.’s drumming and even the addition of Jason and Roger to the band, and she answered “DUH” to each. And then she added, “For a bunch of old guys, they can sure move around!”

When the show ended, I figured Serena would want to get out of there quickly, as it was late, and we’d been in loud clubs since 5:00, but she was intent on getting guitar picks. We went to the floor by the stage to find the strays. I begged a stage hand to get my “12-year-old daughter” a souvenir from her “first concert,” and he did. Serena stuck her finger between spaces in the barricade and got a purple pick for me before catching another flung into the air. Then came the begging. She wanted to go backstage, so she had me ask the guard if we could go up. I showed him the post cards Rick sent me in 1977. A nice story, he said, but he’s heard them all. Serena told me I should try again, show him the pictures, but I declined, and she was too shy to do it herself.

“What would you say to them, Serena? Hi, you’re great? My mom loves you?”

“Yeah. I don’t know. I just want to meet them.”

As we were leaving in the cold, without coats, we walked out by the bus, and Serena wished out loud that we could wait for them. “I wish I lived back in your day, when you could just meet bands,” she said, referring to my planned encounters with the likes of the Ramones, U2, and Cheap Trick. But it’s not that security has gotten any tighter. You simply have to catch those stars before they rise.

I knew when Serena was born that there’d be a small chance, despite our political and cultural influence, that my baby would grow up to be a banker or a stripper. I might have prevented the latter by giving her a name that doesn’t end in i and isn’t a color or a food. But the truth is that I really don’t care what she becomes, as long as she is passionate about it, and as long as she is still passionate about music—listening to it, performing it, and seeing it. Live. I know her mom still is.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

the order of the teen-ix (xii)

This is where it starts to get hairy, literally. On Wednesday, my eleven-year-old daughter became—whisper it—twelve.

On Twelfth Night, the anniversary of my own epiphany, Serena Joy Utah Miller began her after-dinner chores by dropping my new butter dish. It was an accident of course, but I was a little loud about it; I’d finally replaced the one my husband chipped in 1995.* The lid of the new dish was unharmed, but I tossed it in the trash along with the bottom in a heap of exasperation, then restored the chipped pink butter dish, a wedding gift to us, to its former spot of glory on the counter.

The next night, while cleaning up from dinner (the previous night’s leftovers of beef stew and cheese bread), Serena dropped the lid of the old butter dish, which shattered into tiny pieces on the tile floor. We all erupted momentarily, under the impression that our daughter was spending too much time watching TV and playing games on the computer, because clearly she’d lost her ability to pay attention to what she’s doing.

Then it hit me: the yelling, the inattentiveness, the rolled eyes, the appearance of humiliation when we speak to her friends, and the kicker—Wockenfuss chocolates for breakfast. I smiled the all-knowing mom smile, fished the blue lid out of the trash, washed it, and placed it on the pink base. (Now I have a hideous, mismatched butter dish, and, with my luck, no one will break it.) I decided Serena should call her band Butter Finger. She cried. As I hugged her, I wondered how much longer she’d let me.

Unlike eleven, twelve is not merely “one louder.” It is what Bob Schneider posted as his Facebook status update and what the tabloids have called Lindsay Lohan and her ilk: a drama tornado. The way I deal with anything these days in this, the year of my annoying positivity (which, incidentally, is lost on my family) is to write a song about it.

“Hurricane Serena blew into town / like a hundred cannonballs / she touched down / now she’s raining axe handles / and barn doors / and I can’t find my little girl anymore.” Chorus: “a drama tornado / whisked away my daughter / dropped a house upon her / now she is a goner.”

Last night, after some random disagreement, I gave her a belated birthday present—the DVD of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. She said, “You didn’t need to get me anything. The Les Paul is sort of holding me over.” I saw a glimmer of my daughter under all that brand-spanking-new twelve-ness. Then she looked down at the movie in her hand and, in a moment of perfect self-realization, declared, “Oh my God! I am Hormone-y Granger!”

I am still waiting for the Dark Mark to appear, waiting for the Hairy Potters to dazzle her with their magic, waiting for her to choose some creep I’ll call “He Who Must Not Be Named.” But it won’t be long. The boy who asked her to the dance surprised her with a set of guitar strings and designer picks. And I hear things breaking in the distance. And 15 chocolates are now missing from the Wockenfuss box.

* We still argue about who's responsible, like it matters when you've been together for 27 years. (He is.)

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Monday, January 4, 2010


I would rather spend my life close to the birds than wishing I had wings.”
    ~House, episode 1, season 5, “Dying Changes Everything.”

While 2009 was preparing to be shoved out the back door by people with more energy, my husband and I were asleep. We didn’t watch it go. I awoke at a few seconds after midnight to the sounds of applause and thought: 2010 must be lookin’ good. Then I smiled and fell back to sleep. In the morning, my favorite sound woke me: crow rush hour.

I will not miss the old year, despite all the good it brought: the helpful friends, The Book, all the music—in clubs and at home. And I have no regrets about the time I spent wallowing, mired in misery, even beyond the worst of the pain; I needed it then. But I don’t want to forget it because I don’t want to repeat it.

So how do you change your penchant for negativity when life seems to knock you down? Why do some people get right back up again and others sit in a weeping heap first, sometimes for ages? I know which of these people I want to be, and I know who I am; they are different.

Don’t you find yourself wishing you could snap your fingers and snap out of it—your mood, your depression, your funk, your anxiety—even if it has roots in reason, like catching the flu or waking up to four slashed tires? Don’t you wish you could glide through it, that the wrinkle in your day doesn’t become a tear in your fabric? That you could just turn the dial on your brain and adjust your attitude, like you would a guitar amp, to get the mindset you want, so that all the stuff that goes in through that cool yellow patch cord connecting your ears to your mind gets processed and comes out with some ethereal reverb and some happy country twang? Sweet Peavey Alchemy!

You know me. I’m not one for bullshit or all that new-age hooey. (I still cringe at my shiatsu guy’s choice of music; while I’m getting painfully pulled and poked, it sounds like a Chinese restaurant. Just put on The Prodigy, I tell him; that’s what my body hears.) I don’t need any cross-stitch philosophy or self-help books or letters from the universe telling me how great I am. But it never hurts to remind yourself that thoughts become things. It’s those messages from water all over again.

Years ago, when I was suffering from insomnia, my therapist taught me an interesting trick. He said that we sometimes have bad dreams, but we can control their outcomes. Even with a subliminal knowledge that anything is possible in a dream, we can escape from whatever is chasing us.

I bet we can learn to do that a little while we’re awake, too. You don’t have to go around telling your glass of water that it’s beautiful before you drink it, but you do have to drink it. A lot of it. So depression is chemical; does that mean your only treatment ought to be chemical? It’s situational, too. It’s environmental. It’s medical. It’s not only that you’re born with or develop a deficiency in serotonin or norepinephrine or dopamine; it’s that the deficiency keeps you from getting the other things that make your brain healthy: good food, exercise, positive thoughts. If you don’t want to be around yourself, who is going to want to be around you?

An acquaintance sent me an email the other day. “We are now living in the future … hope to see you in it soon.” When he does, I am going to be smiling, if for no other reason than because it's what I’ve decided to do.

“Leslie F. Miller will write more, shoot more, sing more, play more, move more, smile more, do more, be more. And she'll whine less, bitch less, and eat less. The cussing's gonna stay the same. I can't fucking change everything.”
    ~facebook status message, 01/01/10