Making Sense of it All: My Grandfather, My Grandmother, Music & Life

** I wrote some of this piece several weeks ago, but was only able to make any sense of it in the past few days. Coincidentally, today would have been my grandparents 58th anniversary, so I dedicate this article to them**


My grandfather was married for 56 years, 6 months, 3 days, 22 hours and 10 minutes before he lost his wife to complications from Alzheimer’s disease in March of 2008, about a year and a half ago.  It wasn’t until the last few years of this marriage that my grandfather, a religious, stern, and extremely old fashioned man, was forced to stray from the conventional restraints of the concept of marriage of his time.  During most of those 54 years, my grandmother had cooked every meal, cleaned every nook of the house, and tended to both her children and grandchildren with unconditional love.

I am not saying that my grandfather didn’t uphold his end of the bargain – in different times, from a different value system, there were simply different roles for husbands and wives. If anything, I am allocating to him even more credit – because there is something to be said about a man who has had to change everything about his previous way of life at the age of 86 in order to extend and preserve any semblance of happiness possible during the last few years of his spouse’s life.

The cruel subtext here, of course, is that the role reversal taught my grandfather a level of appreciation for a human being that perhaps could never have been channeled had the tragedy not occurred.  As my grandmother got worse and her mind began to age in reverse, my grandfather would often express his love by holding her, kissing her, or hugging her in public – physical signs of affection that I had never before witnessed from him. In these final years, I believe that my grandfather extended himself in an entirely new way and thus learned to fall in love with my grandmother all over again.

Needless to say, my grandfather has been a total wreck.  In the year and a half since my grandmother’s passing, he has seemed angry, tired, troubled and downright depressed.  Many people say that when an older person loses their spouse, he or she loses much of their purpose to continue living, and the effects – though often entirely emotional at first, actually turn into physical ailments and can often subvert the survivor’s will to live.  It hurts me to say it, but I would not be surprised to assume that this is exactly what is happening to my grandfather. These days, I see from him more tears than smiles, more questions than answers, and more despair than happiness.  A man from whom I once sought answers now seems more lost and overwhelmed by the complexities of life than I ever imagined he could.

What would you do? If every time you saw your grandfather he only spoke of what one more second shared with his wife would mean to him? If every time you spoke to your grandfather, no matter what the original topic of conversation, it eventually lead back to the same concept – that he was lost with out his love?  I am genuinely asking these questions because, of course, there are no answers. At twenty-three years old I cannot look into my grandfather’s eyes and expect to offer any form of comfort in any childish words of advice I attempt to give. “Try to live in the moment,” I say. “You have lots of family who still loves you.” But in reality, what can we really offer, short of temporary and fleeting companionship? Even my grandfather has told me that my family cannot be consumed by his grief, because ultimately, it is his grief, and we need to enjoy the world we live in while we still can.

That is why on the rare occasion that he does smile, not only do I attempt to document it, but I try to repeat it, over and over to help him live in the moment as much as he possibly can.

If you are wondering as to what the musical reference in this article is, here you go: Last night my brother turned 26, and after dinner, some more extended family came over my house for dessert. Eventually I realized that my grandfather’s entire immediate family was in my living room at that very moment. His son, daughter, and both of their children – myself, my brother and my sister, and my two cousins from France, contently sitting around the coffee table enjoying fruit tarts and birthday cake.

After several drinks, my brother picked up the guitar as we so often do, and we began to sing songs from the 60’s – a time which acts as a median between two generations from my experiences. But this time, something was different – an out-of-tune voice accompanied the rest of ours and to my jubilation, there was my grandfather, smile on his face, singing along out loud to my favorite Beatles song, “In My Life.” We all took turns stealing glances at my grandfather and matching his smiles as we played Simon and Garfunkle, Peter Paul & Mary, and more Beatles songs. For every song, our grandfather was right there singing along, only slightly off-pitch.

As we sang, I wondered if I would ever make it to 89 – or if I would even want to.  I thought about everything my grandfather has seen and experienced: his escape from Communist Russia, his time in Berlin during World War II, his years in Canada after the war, his life in New York as a bridge architect, raising a family for 55 years with his wife. I thought about last winter when we visited her grave in the snow, and my grandfather’s tears seemingly froze as they fell from his face. I thought about the sheer extent of everything that life threw at my grandfather – and here he was, in my living room, enjoying himself, just trying to carry a tune.

Could this be a lesson in music? Or maybe it’s a lesson in aging? Maybe it’s a lesson in family, or just a lesson in happiness? Should I just hope that I’m still singing at 89, however out of tune it may be? Maybe there is nothing to take away from this at all. Perhaps, this story has only earned a quaint, almost trivial observation: the bittersweet paradox of life is that no matter how difficult a path life paves for you, joy can exist in any single moment, however fleeting it may be.


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Slingshot, by Andrew McMahon

Andrew McMahon, lead singer of Jack's Mannequin, survivor of cancer

Andrew McMahon, lead singer of Jack's Mannequin, survivor of cancer

Sometimes you should just leave the writing to the artists:

“Boarding the plane today I was a head full of noise. Forced to process some everyday business disaster in the midst of what I’d intended to be a peaceful slipping away; A quiet departure from the brutal, beautiful capital of my endlessly expanding homeland. I felt myself disengage. With my thumb to the red button, pre-flight beverage in hand, and the routine safety belt check nearly completed, my digital Walkman emerged. Discretion is key in moments like this. You know what you need; you need songs. You know how quickly those songs can be taken from you if you aren’t realistic about the potential dangers of rigid flight attendants. You also know how good it feels when a taxiing plane transforms into a metal-winged miracle as you, eyes closed, sit, scoring the soundtrack of your great escape. It’s these moments that inspired everyday people to create moving pictures and sprawling canvases and symphonies. It’s these moments where you, being entirely present for however brief a time, IS in fact, art. With the right Lens, Melody, Paint Brush, Math equation it could be defined and reproduced for all of humanity to understand. How perfect that my cautiously adorned headphones lead me not to hassle, but instead to “Us and Them”. A track, that to me, largely defines the overriding theme of Pink Floyd’s, Dark Side of the Moon album. Somehow, it manages to speak equally to the malaise of a morning interrupted as it does to the general state of the human condition. (At least some human’s condition, I’m guessing). This is the stuff of real art and real music. Dissection. Exploration. Pop music with teeth, an experiment in human behavior and sound. What a fulfilling listen. Drifting off into the daytime, so far from my self-appointed capital, just a slingshot to the future.”

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Defining Summer – Jack’s Mannequin and The Fray, Jones Beach Theater, 6/25/09

The Fray and Jack's Mannequin at Jones Beach, 6/25/09

The Fray and Jack's Mannequin at Jones Beach, 6/25/09

As I sit in my Manhattan cubicle, I lean back in my chair and search the walls in an attempt to stare out a window, only to find that there are none in sight.  My beige and gray cubicle has overtaken me. I sit there, engulfed by invoices, documents and reports.  The color of the wall behind me is a faded green and pink, and the combination of the grotesque colors are only adding to what is becoming a true case of the Mondays.  It is 81 degrees and sunny outside and for my parents, who are both teachers, this is the first day of summer vacation.  Today also marks the beginning of the first time that I will not enjoy the freedoms, satisfactions, and sheer beauty of all that is summer vacation.

This clearly presents a problem.  For the first 23 years of my life I have had a “summer,” which was defined by 2 months in my grammar school and high school days, and eventually blossomed into just over 4 months each year during college.  I completely understand that 4 months out of the year is a fundamentally ridiculous amount of time to have off, but at the same time, isn’t having only 12 days off in a year just as far-fetched?

Still in my chair at work, I begin to question whether or not I am actually going to enjoy what I used to define as “summer.”  My boss walks up behind me and I hide this document and pretend to crunch numbers; this happens five more times while I write this.  My mood does not get any better.

Let’s face it: as much as I want to justify the fact that I feel entitled to what, up until this very moment, I have come to know as “summer,” that is simply no longer true.

That’s right, I said it. Entitled. I am part of that “Entitled Generation,” you’ve so often heard about – thus I am not in the minority, because I am having an extremely difficult time grasping the fact that summer vacation is a thing of the past.

So where does this bring me?

Battling three weeks of consistent, perpetual rain in June, the sun surfaced on June 25th, the afternoon of the Jack’s Mannequin & The Fray concert at Jones Beach.  My boss let me leave work at 3pm, and just a half hour later I was cruising in an air conditioned LIRR car, Bud Lights in hand, with a friend of mine en route to Long Island.

We met a few more friends in the Jones Beach parking lot and tailgated for several hours before we made it inside Jones Beach amphitheater around 8pm for Jack’s Mannequin, the opening act and the main reason I attended the concert.

Andrew McMahon and the rest of Jack's Mannequin

Andrew McMahon and the rest of Jack's Mannequin

Andrew McMahon, the lead singer and pianist for Jack’s Mannequin, put on a fine show and did a great job engaging the audience, many of whom seemed to have never heard of them before. On a side note, I think Andrew is one of the more talented songwriters out there today, and if for any reason you haven’t listened to Jack’s Mannequin, you must give them a whirl.

By 9:30 the lights dimmed and The Fray came on stage to a packed amphitheater. The Fray, despite lacking a little energy in their live performance, sounded much like their studio recordings and created a truly peaceful and relaxing atmosphere best described by the first photo up top.

So what does this concert have to do with my Manhattan cubicle and my question of whether or not I still get a summer?

One specific moment in The Fray’s performance seemingly stuck with me:

In their performance of the song “Happiness,” front man Isaac Slade sang, “Happiness: It’s like the old man told me, look for it and you’ll never find it all. But let it go, live your life and leave it, then one day, she’ll be home.”

At this point, I looked over my left shoulder, where the bay held several docked boats whose inhabitants seemed to be enjoying the concert for free.  I could smell the ocean. I was taking in the light show. There was no rain in sight.  No cubicle, no boss…

Just the mull of twelve thousand strong and a band playing into the night.

It is in this moment that my relentless ramblings about my lack of summer came to an end.

Entrance to Jones Beach

Entrance to Jones Beach

For me, in the past, summer was a state of mind, a warmer stint of weather, and daylight savings time.  It was sleeping in air conditioning, going out on weekdays, enjoying outdoor concerts, and staying up late.

So here I am, working full time, employed, a contributing member of society, and what has really changed?

Whether I have 4 months off or 12 days off, I still have summer all summer long.

And not to be corny, but in my realization of what summer means to me, I have a summer concert, the beach, my friends, and one hell of a great night to thank.

And since the rain is finally gone, I think it’s safe to say that summer is finally here once again.

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Happy Birthday America!

Ahhhhhh the 4th of July.  This used to be a day to celebrate just how great we really are.  But with all the negativity surrounding the USA as of late – be it our often questioned foreign policy or the economically volatile domestic front, it is fairly tough to do that these days.  I think its time we put that all aside and take in what we are thankful for. Here are some jamming tunes and videos to help you celebrate the holiday in style.

Jimi Hendrix’s national anthem. Classic.

America’s Got Talent, just from last week. You have to give it up for these three.

And what would the 4th be without some serious fireworks synced up to some music?

Have a happy and safe 4th everyone.

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Some Entertaining Videos to Get You Through Several Minutes of Your Monday

Let’s get something straight: this might be the first time I have ever laughed at anything Jimmy Fallon has done.  But the Dave appearance is semi priceless, and Jimmy Fallon really does seem to be trying his best here (even though he still laughs and looks into the camera).  I would say this is worth 3 minutes of your time…

Z-100 should take note of this 2008 music mash up, since this was their entire play list for the year. But in all seriousness, this is actually really cool and absolutely worth watching…

So Michael Jackson died this past week on Thursday, the 25th of June.  Despite the fact that he had a tendency to hold babies over balconies, touch little boys, and dye the color of his skin, the guy wrote and performed great quality music.  He will be missed.  And on a side note – did you know Jackson almost took down the internet with him?  Of course you did, because each and everyone of you had to access the web the second you received news of his death.  Check out this NBC news bulletin for a solid wrap. RIP Michael.

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Not Your Typical Concert Review: Third Eye Blind, Roseland Ballroom, June 16th, 2009

Third Eye Blind

Third Eye Blind, Roseland Ballroom, NYC - June 16th, 2009

During the height of my participation in the “Long Island Punk Scene” (1999-2003, RIP), I would occasionally venture out of the VFW halls, local community centers, and dive bars which hosted much of the music I ever needed to see live, and made it to Roseland Ballroom in Manhattan to see the “mainstream” bands that wouldn’t just find their way into a local show.  I saw some amazing shows at Roseland in my teens – Something Corporate, New Found Glory, Yellowcard, Finch, No Use for a Name, Sum41, The Starting Line, and The Ataris – all of whom were in their prime when I saw them.  I was young, and I felt like I was part of something larger than myself. We all rebelled against our parents because that was all we knew. We sang along to songs about staying young. We created a sense of community outside of the community. We conformed against the conformed. We were a portrait of youth, if you will…

Now I am twenty-three. My days as a 15-year-old are long gone. My triumphant return to Roseland came last Tuesday night in the form of a band that epitomizes youth: Third Eye Blind. I was a little hesitant as to how much fun I could possibly have at a place I seemed to have left behind me years ago, with a band that seemed to have disappeared along with my reckless teenage self.

And can you really blame me?

Things were pretty different at Roseland this time around. I came straight from work on the east side instead of coming from high school on the North Shore of Long Island.  I came by myself by route of subway instead of getting dropped off by my parents by route of their Camry. I was wearing a Brooks Brothers dress shirt and Rockport shoes instead of a Pac Sun t-shirt and Vans kicks. I went to a bar for drinks and appetizers beforehand instead of hitting up the Roy Rogers down the block. Everything was different. Absolutely everything.

And the best part?

None of that mattered once I got inside. Not one bit.

It didn’t take long for me to “forget myself” (pun intended – that’s a TEB song in case you didn’t know) and put aside the daily complexities that so often define us. I mean, I guess I should’ve been prepared for this. That’s what a concert is, that’s what music is – it’s an outlet, an escape. This is nothing new. But life is stressful and we all have jobs, and families, and friends, and plenty of distractions to keep us occupied day in and day out.

I think Third Eye Blind frontman Stephan Jenkins said it best right when he kicked off the show by yelling,  “Look New York City – we flew in from LA for this show, we are not f*cking around!”

Slow Motion

Slow Motion

The first song they played was “Faster,” off their “Out of the Vein” release. Not really a great opener, but it got the job done. After that, they played “Wounded,” during which the vodka Redbulls I had cozied up with before the show finally kicked in and it was at that point that, coincidentally, the order of the songs began to escape me. They played “Motorcycle Drive By” (my ultimate TEB favorite), as well as all the hits: “Jumper,” “Graduate,” “Blinded,” “Never Let you Go,” “Crystal Baller,” “How’s it Gonna Be” and then closed with “Semi Charmed Life,” “God of Wine,” and “Slow Motion.”

The truth is – I was right back where I was as a 15 year old – I felt I was part of something larger. I couldn’t help but experience a connection with my friends as well as with the entire crowd.

And in a greater sense, I think it is this connection which we all strive to achieve in every day life – whether it is a connection with friends, a significant other, family, music, movies, nature, religion or an appreciation for the world itself.  At this show, we all shared one relation: we were drawn together by music.

I think my message here is pretty clear: a concert can be a unifier amongst different cultures, various age groups, and our respective genders.  I didn’t care who stood to my left or to my right because we were all singing along to the same songs – the same songs that we grew up singing along to.

In the end, the concert was everything I had hoped for. I rocked out to one of my favorite bands, acted like an idiot with my friends, and was able to relive my “portrait of youth” persona, if only for a few brief hours.

Plus, I still made it to work the next day with only a slight hangover to show for it. I guess it doesn’t really get much better.

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Why you don’t need to be an Expert in Music to be an Expert in Music

This is Your Brain on Music

This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin

I graduated from college last May with no job and zero prospects for one.  I had more free time than I can currently even fathom– if I wasn’t golfing that summer I was caddying – and if I wasn’t caddying I was going to the beach. I legitimately did nothing else. And it was during these drives to the beach that I had several conversations about music with a good friend of mine that led me to believe that you don’t need to be an expert in music to be an expert in music.

I think we were listening to a mix I made – I mentioned to my friend how much I loved the chord progression in one of John Mayer’s live tracks from his “Where the Light is” release.  He kind of looked at me, wide-eyed and visibly lost.  He said, “You definitely hear music completely differently than I do.”

You should have seen the way I glared back at him.

I didn’t say it out loud but was thinking, “Yeah – I do hear music differently. Specifically, I hear it better. I’ve been in a band. I can play the guitar. I understand music better than you.”

Looking back, I could not have been more wrong.

Have you ever read a concert review or an album review by a professional critic? It probably went something like this: “Her sustained appoggiatura was flawed by an inability to complete the roulade,” or “I can’t believe she modulated to C-sharp minor! How ridiculous!”

And as a reader, what do we really want to hear about? We wanted to know if the audience was moved or not. Did the band play their classics or stick with the new stuff? Did the band come out for one or two encores? Did the audience sing along to every song?

In that drive to the beach with my friend, I was like that stupid album review and my friend was like the audience.  I made the mistake of thinking that I could hear a form of expression (music) better than someone else.  Maybe I do know how to play a chord progression when I hear it once, or maybe I do understand how certain scales in the melodies of the verses and choruses play off each other – but do I really think I can enjoy a song more than my friend?

My friend is an accountant – and a damn good one.  He does things everyday that I couldn’t even come close to understanding. He claims to know nothing about music – but if you talk to him about some of the bands he listens to – he could talk passionately for hours about all of them.  Wait a second – isn’t that what experts do? Talk passionately for hours…?

We are all music experts. The music industry is one of the highest-grossing industries in the United States – and the craziest part: the $30 billion a year that album sales bring in doesn’t even account for concert tickets. So let’s forget about the largest summer tours by your favorite bands, which span across the entire country – think about how many gigs are happening around the local bars and clubs right next to you every night. Or think about the approximately 40 billion songs that were downloaded for free through peer-to-peer file sharing in 2006.

Don’t be intimidated by those who deem themselves ‘musical experts.’ My friend from the beach trips is a musical expert, just like I am. And so are you – so download your favorite songs, scour the internet, comb through a local record store, and dig into your parents’ music collection – continue pursuing your love for music and take pride in the fact that you are now officially aware that you have and always will be an expert in the field.

** Many of the thoughts & ideas in this piece were brought together in my mind by Daniel J. Levitin’s book “This is your Brain on Music” and for this I thank him sincerely.

As always, please send me some ideas to write about at!

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