Posts Tagged ‘Parenting’

As I think I mentioned before, when I wrote music before it was very scattershot – I wrote basically every genre under the sun. Hell, I even wrote a (bad) Reggae type song. But, ultimately, it was important for me to pick a genre and stick with it – and, ultimately, it was decided that I should do country music. At the time – early to mid 90’s – country was exploding. It was also deemed by Mom to be the “easiest” to break into. So, she bought me boots. And hats. And Western style shirts, with fringes. I’m not exactly joking, but I wish I was. I looked like a Nashville tourist, except I was walking around NYC. I didn’t quite have the sense of self to realize I looked like a moron, but as I write this I am literally slapping myself in the forehead. I was cranking out songs by the dozens – by the time I was 16 I’d have over 400 – and each week I’d bring them in to Russ and he’d critique it, deciding if it ought to be recorded. The stuff I was writing at the time was total garbage. Good for my age (12-13) but really bad. To make matters worse, the arrangements were really bad MIDI recordings. Don’t get me wrong – Russ was a brilliant producer – but bad fake synth versions of real instruments make my skin crawl. Unfortunately, that’s what we had to work with – we weren’t going to be hiring live musicians…it would have just been too expensive.

The next step was how to break into the industry. I had a hand in it, in that I agreed that we should go about things this way, but Mom masterminded the whole thing. So how to do it? By going to shows of famous singers and hoping to talk to them in the autograph line. I’m not joking, but I wish I was. You hear that sound? That’s me slapping my head again. So we went to show after show…trying (somehow) to corner these singers and slip them my demo. Even though it rarely worked (I don’t think we ever got close enough, really, a lot of the lines were just too long) Mom wasn’t discouraged. Autograph lines were clearly the way to get discovered. The realization came (painfully slowly) that perhaps trying to accost the headline act wasn’t going to be fruitful. Instead, for whatever reason, Mom decided we should try the opening acts instead. I met some very nice people who graciously listened and took my demo, but it went no further.

A guy came by the back stage door once, when Tim was on Broadway. I don’t remember why or how, but Mom struck up a conversation with him, noticing that he had a Southern accent. She just assumed he was from Nashville (he wasn’t) and that he knew people in the music business (he didn’t – he was some sort of contractor or something). Mom insisted on taking them out to dinner, getting them a backstage tour (which they really appreciated), the works.  They didn’t realize that they were the unwitting recipients of Mom’s craziness. He had a daughter roughly my age, and Mom had it in her head to hook us up.

Mom: I’ll set it all up. He’s very rich…you guys should date.

That was basically the only time me dating people was okay with Mom – if they were rich or influential. Otherwise, they could go to hell. It was almost like she viewed the world in terms of some sort of middle ages royalty type thing – I could only marry “up”. Preferably way up. I really had no interest in the people she wanted to hook me up with, specifically because she wanted to hook me up with them. This was a nice girl and everything, but I wasn’t going to date people for money or influence. I thought (and still do) that was backwards and asinine.

Anyway, Mom talked a lot about my music, and we passed them demos. They graciously listened, but admitted they knew nothing about the music business. Mom seemed to think that was bullshit, and pressed them on the subject anyway. They were really nice about it, and we exchanged numbers and information. After several months (and several demos), Mom kept calling them. Finally the guy threw up his hands, and in as nice a way possible, told her to fuck off.

Guy: Listen…I really appreciate how nice ya’ll have been. But I honestly know nothing about the music industry. I’m a contractor.

Mom: A contractor?

Guy: Yes. I mean…the music’s great, but I can’t help you. I really can’t.

Mom amazingly took no for an answer and dropped pretty much all contact.

I did get a piece of advice from Dolly Parton that was actually rather useful – she directed me to an organization that helped songwriters with their craft. We thought we were getting the brush off, and didn’t really pay it any attention (even though she took the time to write a very nice letter). So clearly getting the attention of famous singers wasn’t working out…what next? Contests. For God’s sake, let’s try some more contests. I did every country contest under the sun. I auditioned for theme parks, for God’s sake. Every year, Opryland (a now shuttered theme park in Nashville) had open auditions for people to sing at their theme park. These people would walk around the park singing or performing or whatever I guess. We spent money on plane tickets to fly down there, hotels, money to enter the contests…etc. I was, of course, very under age – a lot of these had cutoffs of 16 or above. Ironically, even if I had won, I’d have been ineligible to win and thus been disqualified, probably. Anyway…I was always going there singing to tracks of my own original songs –  it always made me feel a lot more like a pageant contestant than an artist. Add to this the fact that everything I did was over-rehearsed – so over-rehearsed that the spontaneity was wrung dry out of every performance. Mom would keep asking me to go over and over and over and over the song, looking for that “one time” that I got it right. When I got it right…I could never get it again. That’s not to say I never got it right in reality. She would just watch and shake her head.

Mom: You know, three times ago? That was it. You don’t have it. You lost it. You’ll never get it again.

Panic would rise in my chest, and I’d think back on what the hell I might have been doing differently three times ago (I could think of almost nothing, and in reality…I was probably correct). I’d try it again and again, hoping for approval.

Mom: It’s…okay. I don’t think you’ll win. If you do it like you did that one time, you’ll get it. But you’re just okay.

She would walk out of the room, concluding the practice session and leaving me with nothing but fear and paranoia that I had somehow missed a shot at greatness.

Anyway, this one time – I think it was my 3rd or 4th  time auditioning for Opryland – this girl auditioned right after me. She was sticking to me like glue the entire time…and finally I got that she liked me. She was like some sort of runner up for a beauty contest or something (I remember her telling me all about it). I was completely oblivious socially, and in my head most of the time, so I had no clue I was being consistently hit on (and hit on very hard, at that). Finally, I think she gave up and just went the direct approach.

Girl: So…what are you doing later?

Me: Oh, I dunno. Probably going back to the hotel.

We bantered for a while about where we were each staying. She kept laughing and touching my arm, which really creeped me out (I really didn’t like being touched as a kid). Finally she leaned in.

Girl: You want to get a drink later?

Me: Uh, like…at a bar?

She laughed.

Girl: Of course at a bar.

Me: Uh. I guess I could have iced tea…

Girl: You don’t drink?

I took a moment, as it sunk in what was going on. This girl was in college, at least – I’m guessing maybe 19 or so. I rewround our conversation and realized that she was coming on to me. I was both flattered and perplexed.

Me: Um. I’m 14.

Her jaw dropped, and she walked away red faced and embarrassed. To her credit, I always looked a lot older than I was. Even when I was underage, I was never carded going into an R rated movie, even if all my friends were.

I still remember the first time I went down there. We literally had thrown our bags on the bed, and Mom grabbed the Nashville phone book and plopped it down in front of me.

Mom: Make some calls.

Me: …to who? You want pizza or something?

Mom: No. Call record labels and publishers. See if they’ll meet with you.

In sales, this is known as “cold calling”. It almost never works. More than half the time, I got a disinterested secretary – a secretary who, I have no doubt, received several hundred similar calls a day (conservatively). I was inevitably patched to someone’s voice mail or simply told not to bother.

Mom: Call them back.

Me: Why? They said no.

Mom: Did you tell them you were 13? And a prodigy?

Me: Yeah, I guess…

I didn’t feel comfortable flying that around.

Mom: Well, did you?

Me: No, I guess not.

Mom: So call back.

I sighed, but did as I was bid. I got similar results. One thing I learned as an adult is that you never, ever do what we did when I was a kid. You never go to Nashville waving your demo in everybody’s face, and you certainly don’t go around in a 10 gallon hat. That pretty much screams at everyone that you have no idea what you’re doing, or you’re just an ass. I think I got away with a lot of that because I was a kid, but I certainly would never try such a thing as an adult.

Anyway, after probably hundreds of calls, I got a couple people who were willing to listen (mostly small publishers). I counted this as a victory. They listened very graciously, and offered me their input on my music.

Publisher: This is really good for your age.

Me: Thanks.

Publisher: I want to encourage you, because you are very good. But you need to get a little bit better. You need to be even better than what’s on the radio. You know what I’m saying?

Me: I think so, yeah.

Publisher: I’d love to hear more from you whenever you have something new.

I felt at the time that what they were saying was that – because of my age – I really needed to rise above what was out there, ability wise. I think that was true, because it would have been hard to justify hiring a 13 year old if they weren’t the best thing you’ve ever heard. At the same time, I think I was also a curiosity, which sort of went along with the prodigy/genius thing. I often felt like a zoo creature, or an organ grinder’s monkey (considering the clothes Mom put me in, that probably wasn’t far off). I felt like the people that were interested were interested because I was an oddity, not because they necessarily thought I was amazing.

Looking back, even though I made some inroads, I despise the music I created and the way I went about doing things. Not because I hate writing, or hate country music or anything of the sort, but because it wasn’t mine. It wasn’t real or true. I was just a monkey in a ten gallon hat, dancing to the tune of an organ grinder.

 

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Mom used to be absolutely bonkers for contests. Still is, actually. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t worth my time, or if it was a long shot…she thought it was a great way to get “a foot in the door”, as she put it. A foot in the door is an old salesman’s term – it means that you literally would stick your foot in the door so they couldn’t close it all the way. Theoretically, they had to listen to your spiel. Anyway, she was always thinking of the next “big thing” – the problem was, whatever she came up with was either ridiculously implausible or difficult to pull off. I remember her reading a magazine once, and getting excited.

Mom: Danny, look! There’s a contest and the winner gets to play at a fair in Iowa.

Me: Why would I want to play at a fair in Iowa? 

Mom: It’s a great chance to get discovered.

Me: In Iowa?

Mom: Yes! They’re having open auditions…

The auditions, if I remember correctly, were at the crack of dawn and it would have been a total cattle call. That’s what we called auditions where there were hundreds of people. Not that I have anything against Iowa in particular – I’m sure it’s fine – but it doesn’t strike me as one of the top places to get noticed in the entertainment industry. Besides, I was already doing great with acting. I shot this idea down with extreme prejudice. Mom grumbled quite a bit about it – something about me “not listening” to her and being a “rebellious teen” – but the idea died rather quickly, thank God.

Anyway…one idea I couldn’t buck was this contest that Paul Simon was holding. It was a Doo Wop competition, and the winner got the chance to appear in his upcoming Broadway show the Cape Man.

Mom: You should do this!

Me: But I don’t sing Doo Wop. I don’t have a group.

Mom: Well, get a group!

Me: It’s in like…2 weeks. How am I supposed to do this?

Mom: We’ll figure it out.

I sat down and cranked out a quick 50’s style song – I figured my odds would be better if it was something original.

Putting a band together on the fly is a hell of a task – but it’s made significantly more simple if you’re friends with some of the top jingle singers in the business. After a couple quick phone calls, I had a bunch of my friends jumping onto the project with me – Jackie, Eden, Lisa, and Jeff. In their own right, they were all totally awesome singers – somehow, we pulled it together in just a couple rehearsals. Then came a curveball. Turned out, after reading the rules, that you had to be 16 to enter. I was 13.

Mom: So just lie. You could be 16. Who would know?

I shrugged. I was a little worried they would ask for me ID or something (they didn’t), but I figured I had come this far. Mom also wanted us to work with Russ, but Philly was kinda far considering most of my group lived in NY and surrounding areas. I have no idea why she thought this would be productive, but she actually wanted me to sing into Russ’s answering machine so he could hear what we sounded like and offer tips. I thought that sounded silly as hell, but basically went along with it. I figured it couldn’t hurt. We went back to practicing some more. For whatever reason, Jeff started being really ridiculous. Not just hitting on the girls, but actually saying really crude stuff.

Jeff: Mmmm. Tasty!

He flicked out his tongue at one of the girls who had her back turned to him, and slowly licked his lips. The girls asked him to quit it, but he just wouldn’t stop. I watched the girls get more and more uncomfortable as crude gestures were made and more comments were said. Not only was he upsetting my friends, practice was being disrupted. If I have one cardinal rule in my life, it’s this: Be A Professional. Somewhat loosely, it translates to being on time, being prepared, working hard at your given task, and having a positive attitude. There are only a small handful of things that set me off – I’m fairly easygoing – but someone Not Being Professional is one of them. People being demeaning to women and/or minorities is another, so really a couple of my buttons were being pushed. I took a quick assessment of the situation, and looked at the girls. They all looked upset. One of them was sitting on the floor, trying not to cry and doing her best not to look at Jeff. I also decided that Jeff wasn’t going to listen to anyone in the room – it had to be an adult. I didn’t really think, and I’m sorry I didn’t. I decided the best answer would be to rile Mom up against Jeff (there was probably a 50/50 shot she’d actually care about what was going on). I knew exactly what buttons to push, and walked out to her.

Me: Mom, Jeff says Russ doesn’t know anything. He asks why we’re even listening to him.

Mom’s face turned several shades of red and blue in quick succession. I immediately regretted my decision – I had used at atom bomb when a scalpel probably could have done the job. But it was too late. Mom was a bulldozer. She practically charged into the practice room, her eyes full of Jeffrey.

Mom: I WILL TELL YOU SOMETHING. THAT MAN HAS MORE TALENT IN HIS LITTLE FINGER THAN YOU WILL EVER HAVE IN YOUR LIFETIME!

Jeff stood there, gaping. He had no idea what he did, just that this bear of a woman was coming down on him with all the fury of an enraged rhino. He tried to speak, I think, but I don’t think he got much to say. Mom literally roared. Jeff’s Mom came to his defense, grabbed him, and started a (blessedly brief) shouting match before leaving. Mom, evidently happy with her defense of Russ, stalked out of the room.

The girls and I were dumbfounded.

Eden: I guess we just lost our bass.

They were all upset…possibly even more so than before. So was I. I felt dirty. I had never before used Mom’s psychosis was a weapon against her, or her as a weapon against others. I tried to tell myself there was no other choice, and I made the right decision, but it didn’t wash with me. Even if I did the right thing, the ends didn’t justify the means.

We talked for a while, each noticing that the sense of palpable tension had left the room. The practice got back on track – we were all professionals, and we had a job to do. We quickly reworked the harmonies without Jeff. From a production standpoint, I missed that bass, and I was sorry he had left. But from a group cohesion perspective, it worked much better.

It wasn’t until years later that I put together what was actually going on. Jeff was gay – a fact clear to everyone (at least the adults) but him. A lot of the mothers made comments about him. I got – vaguely – what “gay” meant, but I didn’t really understand. With some years under my belt, and hindsight, I get that Jeff was struggling with his sexuality and probably overcompensating. At the time, I just saw a bully who was being an ass…I didn’t see his struggles underneath it. I can’t tell you how much of a shit that makes me feel, even today.

Anyway, the contest made the news, and our group was all over the highlight reels from the night. During the intro, I slipped on the stage – not one of my prouder moments – but I recovered. That wound up on the news, too. We made it to the second round, but we didn’t ultimately win. Still, we got to meet Paul Simon. One of the girls the group – Jackie – did something I’ll never forget, and always love her for. She snatched a demo tape out of my hand (I had been carrying it around on the off chance of giving it to someone) and marched up to Paul Simon.

Jackie: You see this kid right there?

She pointed at me.

Paul: Oh, hey there.

We shook hands.

Jackie: This kid is enormously talented. He’s an amazing songwriter. Listen to his stuff.

She pressed the tape into his hand, with a surprising amount of force.

Jackie: I’m serious. Don’t chuck it in the trash. Listen. You’ll be sorry if you don’t.

I was flushed. Nobody had ever gone to battle for me like that before, and no one has since – not like that, anyway. I thought so then, and think so even more now – she had a mile of guts. I had no idea before that moment that she thought I was good, or  even if she did that she actually believed in me that deeply. This may sound almost silly, especially after everything I’ve written about, but it was one of the most flabbergasting, and pleasantly surprising experiences of my life.

She grabbed me by the shoulder and led me away.

Jackie: If he doesn’t listen, I’ll kick his ass. I don’t care who he is.

We laughed.

The group disbanded after that – not that we weren’t all friends and saw each other often, but we ceased to be a Doo Wop band. It wasn’t really a marketable kind of music, and there wasn’t a whole lot of places for underage kids to play. Besides, who had the time? We were busy making money.

We were driving in the car with Mom – I think we were coming back from NY or something. I had my book in my lap, my finger in a page. I was terrible at losing bookmarks. It’s funny…I was always so careful with everything else, but I must have had thousands of bookmarks during my lifetime. I read so many books – sometimes several at once – that I’d end up losing them somewhere in the pages (or they’d fall out somewhere, never to be seen again). I had a tradition when I finished a book – I’d take a little while…maybe a few minutes, maybe a day…depending on how the book was – and meditate on it. Just really soak it up. When I was done, I’d turn past the flyleaf and the table of contents and the Author’s Note and stick the book mark in page one. Uncle Richard had book marks too…but he was more prone to mark up his books. He’d underline something interesting, or dog ear a page. I couldn’t bring myself to do that. To mark up a book – any book – would be like defacing a holy site to me. I think I was so protective of them because some part of me knew they were portals to other worlds…a real escape for me, a means of transportation. I took care of my books as well as a car enthusiast would take care of a prized ’65 Mustang. It was a means of travel, but it was special too. I had long talks about this concept with Uncle Richard, who firmly disagreed with my conclusions.

Uncle Richard: I love a messed up book. Creased pages, wear marks on the binding…these are signs of a well loved book. Nothing is more special than that.

Anyway, so I was sitting there taking a break from the book. It must have been good, because I was really dwelling on the characters and the story. I suddenly felt a whap! on my leg. I looked up in shock.

Me: Did you just hit me!?

Mom: You’re damn right I did!

She was pissed – suddenly, and out of nowhere. I had no idea why.

Me: What did I do!?

She turned to me in a fury – it’s a miracle she kept herself on the road.

Mom: Wipe that fucking smirk off your face!

Me: I don’t have a smirk…I’m not smirking!

But now I was starting to. I have a thing…something I always felt was kind of weird…but whenever I’m in a conflict, I have a really hard time suppressing laughter. I don’t know why, it’s just always been that way. I don’t find it particularly funny (though I think people look positively absurd when they’re truly angry). I just can’t help it. It makes the situations much worse, and I know that. I often find myself literally biting the inside of my cheek to keep from grinning like a nut. The worse the conflict, the harder I grin, and the harder it is not to bust out laughing. By now Mom was yelling at me – she had started out pissed and was now even more angry. I was suppressing gales of laughter.

Mom: It’s not FUNNY. Quit LAUGHING. Goddammit quit being SMART!

Each word was punctuated with another closed fist on my knee. It hurt. What actually hurt worse is that I felt Mom and I had a sort of understanding – considering how Dad was, I never thought she’d ever hit me. As hurt as I was, my sides hurt worse from holding in my laughter. I had to close my eyes and think of terrible, horrible, depressing things in order to come back down. Once things had been quiet for a while and I got myself composed, I broached the subject.

Me: What exactly did I do?

Mom: You were being smart.

Me: How?

Mom: You made comments.

Me: I didn’t say a word to you. I was reading.

I gestured to my book – still on my lap with my finger still in it.

Me: What did I supposedly say?

She couldn’t tell me. I knew instantly that she had no idea why she was mad or what exactly I was supposed to have done.

Mom: You were being rebellious.

I raised my eyebrows. I have been many things…but rebellious was never one of them.

Me: I think I deserve to know exactly what I did.

Mom: You know what you did.

Me: No I don’t. And it wasn’t fair of you to hit me.

I had her, and she knew it. She couldn’t explain or describe what I supposedly did. She was full of shit, and we both knew it.

Mom: I’m not going round and round with you, Danny.

She accused me of trying to “outsmart” her by “talking over her head”. She said she “wouldn’t continue a conversation like that”. I dropped it eventually.

I understood none of this. It just seemed like I turned 13 and somehow had magically become a horrible teenager. I didn’t think I was acting differently, or doing anything wrong. I mean, I wasn’t shoplifting or drinking or anything like that. But ultimately, it didn’t matter what I was doing – Mom would decide I had done something. I remember there was some sensationalist news story about “huffing“. Supposedly, during the 90’s a lot of kids would inhale spray bottles – cleaner, bug spray…whatever…to get a high. Mom decided I was doing this. I had never gotten high in my life – let alone drunk – and I certainly valued my brain cells more than to try to get a cheap high off of furniture polish.

Mom: We need to talk about something.

Me: Okay.

Mom: I know.

Me: Okay…you know what?

Mom: I know you’ve been…huffing.

I laughed. I couldn’t help it.

Me: Huffing?

Mom: Don’t laugh. This is serious. I know you’ve been doing it. I can tell.

I went from amused to perplexed.

Me: I haven’t been doing any of that. I have no idea what you’re even talking about.

Mom: If I catch you doing it…you’re done.

Me: …okay…

Done meant a lot of things (depending on the subject) – done as in, going to live with my Dad, or her not taking me back and forth to NY anymore, or even kicking me out of the house, I suppose. She was always fantasizing that I was doing something or another wrong – usually drugs. She once went through my entire room, looking for weed. She was kind of pissed when she didn’t find it – she was so sure I was smoking it. I swore up and down that I wasn’t…and as far as I know, I never smelled of weed. Actually, there’s no possible way I could have, because I didn’t have any. One time, when I went away to college, I talked to her over the phone. Within 5 minutes after we hung up, Tim called me.

Tim: Are you high?

I laughed.

Me: Dude, what do you think?

Tim laughed too.

Tim: Mom said “I just got off the phone with your brother, and he was higher than a kite!”

We got a good laugh. At least in college it would have been theoretically possible for me to obtain and use drugs (up to and including anything in mt mother’s fevered imagination). I didn’t, though, but it wouldn’t have mattered – she had decided for whatever reason that I was “bad”. That I was rebelling. That I was a “typical awful teenager”. To be fair, I was probably a bit moody. I was reclusive (from her) and with good reason. But I wasn’t a punk who knocked over liquor stores. I wasn’t stealing the copper pipes in the house to sell for drug money. But I realized that none of that mattered because what happened in Mom’s mind was completely independent of reality. If she were to wake up one day and decide I was a Russian spy, I’d be a fucking Russian spy and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. If I argued with her, I’d be accused of “getting smart”. If I proved her wrong, she’d throw up her hands and end the conversation – she wasn’t going to go “round and round” with me, like a lawyer. The irony of it all was that if I was some kind of drug addled junkie, I wouldn’t have the presence of mind to argue like I did. But, in my mother’s imagination – I did it all. Meth? Yep. Home made drugs? Yep. Pot, of course. Probably over the counter pharmaceuticals, too. Out of nowhere, she’d look at me and yell that I was ruining my life. I had no idea what the fuck she was talking about.

This made it easy to tune her out – to stop taking her seriously. I saw behind the curtain a bit more and realized that if her fears about me were so completely unfounded, there was a good chance she was wrong about everything else. I saw, though, that I would never be able to win her approval. Nothing I did would be good enough, and my behavior could never be compliant enough – she had decided I was a dirtbag teenager. She did (eventually) grow out of accusing me of being on drugs, which I think had more to do with the fact that I got older than anything else. The closer I got to leaving my teenage years, the more quiet her paranoid fantasies about my drug use became. It didn’t stop her from accusing me of other things, though – being lazy and shiftless (despite the fact that I worked hard at my craft and was successful). I think everyone wants at least a nod from their parents. I never got one from my Dad, and likely never will. I may never get one from my Mom either – her perception of reality is just too warped.

Let me leave you with a final thought – a picture of a teenage rebel. Thick glasses, button down shirt, and dorky haircut. A teenager who goes through several books a week and has little time for friends (and few friends, at that). Somewhat of an introvert. A guy who works his ass off writing songs (sometimes 2-3 a day), recording, playing piano, and carving out his acting career. Never done a thing illegal in his life – paranoid, in fact, of getting in trouble in general. Not who you’d picture hanging out at 7-11, smoking cigarettes and committing petty acts of vandalism. But that was me…the rebellious, ungrateful and shiftless youth.

 

 

 

There is an island somewhere in the world called Snake Island. Don’t remember where it is, exactly, but it’s absolutely full of extremely venomous snakes. If it’s on the island, it will pretty much kill you within minutes. When you’re on the island, you’re never more than a foot or two away from certain death. I think that was essentially Mom’s view of the world when I was growing up. I couldn’t go visit my friends at their house (at least 90% of the time) because she was afraid something would go missing and I would get blamed. I wasn’t a thief, by any stretch of the imagination, though I did steal something once when I was about 4 or 5. I kept pestering Mom for a Peppermint Patty – I think they were maybe 5 cents at this diner we were at – and she kept telling me no. Well, when she was paying, I decided I wanted one anyway. So I snatched one from the jar when no one was looking. In the car, Grandpa saw me eating the Peppermint Patty (rule #1 of thievery: don’t flaunt your spoils) and asked Mom what was up. She slammed on the brakes, and interrogated me. I buckled under the pressure and admitted that yes, I did take it. I got a very long lecture about it – one of the few reasonable lectures I ever got from her, actually – and perhaps most importantly, my Grandfather was extremely pissed. That made the biggest impression, because I really looked up to him. They made me go back into the diner with a nickel, admit what I’d done to the manager, and apologize. Mom kept threatening me with jail time on the ride home. I was pale and sweating. That was the beginning and the end of my career as any sort of thief.

Anyway, she knew I wouldn’t steal anything, but I think she had this paranoia that I would get accused and there would be a big problem, and it’d be a black mark on my career. Nowadays, if you steal something, you end up having the opposite problem – media flocks to you and you tend to become more famous (or infamous, as the case may be). Whenever I went to someone’s house, I was always nervous and antsy. I never took anything I was offered – not even water, and not even if I was dying of thirst. I would pretty much sit as still as I could wherever I could find a perch. I was (and still am, unless I know the people in question very well) extremely uncomfortable.

She was afraid to let me ride my bike around the block, or walk to friend’s houses. It was practically a given that I would get hit by a car or snatched by a child molester. We lived on a quiet street that wasn’t exactly frequented by cars. Even then, the speed limit was 25. I think I’ve talked before about being suspicious of almost all food that was put in front of me (potentially poisoned, naturally) and never, ever leaving my drink unattended anywhere (and if I did, just get a new drink – who knows, someone could be trying to drug me). Leaving my backpack out of my sight was also a no-no, because someone could plant drugs or other incriminating evidence on me. If someone spit on me (something which hasn’t ever happened that I recall) I should immediately go to the ER and get tested for AIDS. Unless there was no other option, truck stop restrooms – or really almost any public restroom – was out of the question, no matter how clean. I could easily get diseases from the seat. When I was old enough to drive, I had to fight tooth and nail to get a license. Even then, she refused to let me drive on the highways (I would be killed in a terrible, fiery crash that would be visible from space). When I was in college, she would freak out if I took a class at night. When I asked her why, she told me that I could get attacked by a bum, who would punch me in the throat and I would never be able to sing again. Hoping to assuage her very specific (and very insane) fear, I assured her I would only travel well lit routes and give any deranged bums a wide berth.

She came by these fears honestly – my family, at least on my Mother’s side, were well versed in the art of hysterical paranoia. My Great Grandmother was so afraid something would happen to my Grandmother, she wouldn’t let her go next door to her Aunt’s house. And this was back in like,  the 30’s when crime was a lot less rampant and cars went 15mph. If you left the house, she feared and fretted that something horrible would happen to you. From what I hear, she pretty much paced back and forth until everyone was back in the house and within her line of vision. Hell, she didn’t even let my grandparents date before they were married. Well, they could date, but they could only “date” if Great-Grandma went with them. It wasn’t a propriety thing, at least I don’t think that was all of it. She was honestly paranoid something awful would happen if she wasn’t there. She very reluctantly let them go on their honeymoon alone. Grandma was very similar (though not quite as bad, at least with Tim and I – she had more of a Grandmotherly concern than full on paranoia most of the time).

I have to admit, I handled none of this very well. As I grew up, I started exhibiting symptoms of serious OCD. I didn’t know what this was at the time – actually not until my late teens – I just knew that I had rituals that I had to perform and when they got disrupted, I got very very upset. For instance, I carried probably close to a pound of change in my pockets and about $60 in ones in my wallet. I memorized the serial numbers of the bills, and the dates and imperfections of the coins. I determined that this was my “lucky money” and I could not possibly spend it for any reason. When I felt stressed (which was pretty often) I’d play with the coins in my pocket or the bills. It wasn’t very long before the bills were little more than rags. I became convinced that I couldn’t write songs without them, or that I’d not be able to book auditions without them. Once, when Mom needed change for the meter, she asked for a quarter from my pocket.

Me: No, you have to find some other change.

I didn’t tell her no very often, but this was a subject I was passionate about.

Mom: Well, I need a quarter.

Me: Can’t you find something in the ashtray?

Mom: There isn’t any in the ashtray.

Me: Well, break a dollar somewhere then.

Mom was taken aback.

Mom: I’m not going to break a dollar, Danny. Give me some quarters.

I freaked out.

Me: But this is my lucky money! I can’t give it up.

Mom was pissed.

Mom: It’s just a fucking quarter. Now give it to me! I need it for the meter, we’re going to be late!

With a great deal of regret and reluctance, I fished in my pocket. I began studying the coins – deciding which I would be willing to give up. Should I give up the one with the red dye marks, dated 1956? No…I liked that one. What about the one with all the nicks from the ’30s? Or the one that looked like it had been chewed in a shredder? I couldn’t decide, and it didn’t help that I couldn’t calm down. These were my safety net – I realize now I was creating a sense of security for myself. It’s what allowed me to hold it together, at least mostly. When that security was threatened, I lost the capacity to cope with the world and couldn’t handle it. I would give her one of the latter-dated coins, I decided – one that was relatively insignificant to me but had found its way into my pocket somehow and thus became lucky. I handed it over.

As she fed the meter, I opened and closed the car door several times, stuck my foot out and put it back in, and locked and unlocked the doors repeatedly. If Mom noticed, she said nothing. I didn’t have an exact count – it was never really about that, anyway – it was about doing it until I felt better.

I also had a “lucky comb” – how or what caused it to be lucky is completely lost to me now, although it was possibly because I happened to book an audition or write a great song while it was on my person. It was just a typical black comb you’d get at any drug store – probably cost less than a buck. But again, I would take it out and play with the teeth of the comb – running my fingers over it until I was soothed. By the time I threw it away years later – and I do mean years later – many teeth were broken and bent. There was gunk (probably old hair gel) stuck between the teeth. It looked like the grin of a lunatic.

I had a ritual for when I finished writing songs, too. I would open and close the piano lid a certain number of times – again, no specific number but it was usually even and I usually stopped whenever it felt “right” to do so. Then I stood with my hand on the lid for several seconds until the heat from my hand left an imprint on the lid. Then I would arrange the sheet music on the piano just right. Always the same sheet music – Somewhere Over The Rainbow, with Judy Garland‘s face peering out at me, and Harbor Lights. Sometimes Elton John joined them if I was feeling in a particularly light mood. If anyone touched my piano, I freaked the fuck out. If anyone played my piano, God help them. Actually, it was more like God help me. I paced, wrung my hands and was very, very agitated until they were done (if they were a stranger or someone I felt I couldn’t be direct with, at least). If anyone had ever asked me to explain this, I didn’t have the words – one of the few things in my life that I could never clearly communicate. I just would have stammered something about “things need to be this way” and hoped they understood.  The one and only time I completely lost my shit with my brother was when he decided he was going to come up and play my piano. I had finished writing, and my ritual was done. The piano was “closed”, as in it couldn’t be touched again (except by me) until whenever it was I was going to write next. I heard plinking on the keys and became immediately concerned. I rushed down the stairs to find Tim tinkling on the keys. He was old enough by then to know how to play a bit – he had taken some lessons with Russ as well – and there was certainly no reasonable expectation that he would damage it. He knew how to treat an instrument respectfully.

Me: What are you doing?

Tim: I’m just fooling around.

Me: Well don’t.

Tim saw I was quite serious. I was on the balls of my feet and my hands were in my pockets, jingling my lucky change.

Tim: Why not?

Me: Because I have a system, and you’re ruining it.

He laughed. I think he thought I was joking.

Me: It’s not funny. Get the hell out of here.

The change was jingling faster now, and I was sweating.

Tim: What’s your deal, dude?

Me: I don’t have a deal. Don’t ever touch this again. You’re not allowed.

He got up, then, a question on his lips. It never reached them, because I shoved him away from the piano – one of the only times I’ve ever actually laid a hand on him.

Me: I play piano. Not you. Buzz off. Never touch it again.

He left, and I went immediately into my ritual – with a few elaborations to make up for the “impurity” of someone else having soiled the keys. It was a long time before I felt settled, but when I did, I finished up and went to bed. I added a new ritual after that night – checking the piano to make sure nothing was disturbed. I did this several times a day, maybe more. I would be in another room, and start to panic that something had been moved – despite the fact that I heard no one playing. I would drop what I was doing, run upstairs and double check. Once relief washed over me, I could return to whatever I had been doing.

There was a time in my life when I was a complete nutcase, at least in private. I’m not happy about it. In fact, I’m rather ashamed of it. But it’s part of the story, and so it goes in here. I always felt bad about what happened – Tim never touched the piano again, at least not when I was around. He fiddled with playing guitar and even played drums for a bit. But once I came to my senses a bit more (many years and therapy sessions later) I came to realize I was a pretty freaking horrible older brother, at least in this incident. My therapist would tell me that I was just a kid, that I was trying to cope too. She may have a point, but I should have known better. I should have risen above the situation – I was smart enough to do that, even if I was just a kid. But I didn’t, and there it is.

The change and money that I felt was so lucky eventually got put away. After the day with the meter, and a couple other close calls where Mom needed to borrow some cash, I became too paranoid about keeping it on me. I worried that she would need it, or it would get spent accidentally by me (there was exactly zero chance of that happening, because I was way too attached). I ended up shoving them in pirate treasure chest I had gotten – it ended up being a sort of catch-all for random stuff that was important to me. A pair of cufflinks from a tux I wore on TV once, a mini troll doll, some Mardi Gras beads someone had given me backstage, a Chinese coin I picked up somewhere. And of course, the lucky money. I ran across it recently when I was going through the pirate chest – they bills were barely discernible as cash at all. George Washington’s austere gaze had faded so much that he could barely be made out. They almost looked like tattered grey strips of napkin. The coins – with only a couple of exceptions – were indistinguishable from any ordinary, garden variety quarters. I remember looking down at them as an adult and asking myself “Why in the hell did I save these? Why were they so important?” In the end, there’s only one real answer that makes sense: because I needed them.

I don’t know what got me started on the subject, but I was thinking today about how paranoid I am about bugs crawling into my ears. Whenever I go out to a park in the summer and get those gnats flying around, I start to inwardly freak out that they’ll find their way into my ears or something. To illustrate how much this bothers me, I’ll give you an example. Nothing wakes me up from a sound slumber – sometimes not even an alarm. I can sleep wherever – on a train, in a car, beneath a blaring fog horn. It’s largely the product of having a commuter childhood, I think – a great portion of my life was spent in a moving vehicle. Anyway…nothing will snap me awake faster than feeling like there’s something in my ears. I start to worry it’s a bug, and then rub it or whatever until I’m satisfied it’s not. When my anxiety about this is particularly bad, I actually get up and clean out my ears in the middle of the night. I know it’s a relatively irrational fear – my conscious mind is fully aware of this. I just can’t shake it though.

It all started when I was visiting L.A. during a commercial shoot when I was 8. We were out on the town, our pockets fat with per diem (an industry term for “spending money”). A lot of sets will give you some amount of cash to take care of meals or clothes or whatever – it’s usually a generous amount, much more than a typical person might need. Rest assured, you’re not regulated to eating off the dollar menu when you have that kind of cash in your pocket. Anyway, we were sitting in traffic (which is a common practice in L.A.) and there was some sort of preacher on the radio. I’m talking one of the over the top televangelist type guys. And he was telling this story of a “miracle” that had supposedly occurred.

Preacher: Now, I’m telling you brothers and sisters that this little six year old boy – he was no more than six, brothers and sisters – he got a BUG in his EAR. That’s right. A BUG had managed to worm its way into this little child’s ear!

He didn’t say bug. He said BUG. All in caps. It sounded like he was throwing up.

Preacher: Now this little child’s mother and father, they took him to the doctor. And the doctor was perplexed, brothers and sisters, I tell you he was perplexed. You see, there was nothing they could do for this little boy who had a BUG IN HIS EAR.

He was getting wound up. I was fascinated.

Preacher: The doctor, with aaaaaaaaaalll his understanding and modern science, told them that there was simply nothing they could do. This BUUUG had worked its way so far into this child’s EAR that it was making its way to his BRAIN.

His radio audience gasped audibly. I was horrified, but riveted. How the hell did a bug get to someone’s brain?

Preacher: Now, this little child – only a six year old boy, brothers and sisters, just a six year old boy – had only days to live. The doctor informed his parents.

A long, meaningful pause. The crowd waited. I waited. The preacher burst out, suddenly even louder – a fact which seemed impossible.

Preacher: But I TEEEEEELL you, brothas and sistahs, that GAWD performed a MIRACLE on THIS. LITTLE.BOY. Can I get an amen?

It turned out that he could.

Preacher: This little boy was listening to THIS VERY PROGRAM several weeks back. And it is thanks to a miracle of GAAAAAAWD that he is alive toDAY! You see, brothas and sistahs, you see on that day several weeks ago, I was preaching. And the Lord laid it on my heart to reach out with His plan of Salvation-ah. Oh yes He did. Can you say hallelujah?

They could.

Preacher: And this little boy, this little boy that the doctors couldn’t help with all their modern science, he was LISTENING. And he accepted GAWD-AH into his heart that very night.

Cheers and applause.  I just wanted to hear how he got that freaking bug out of his ear.

Preacher: And he laid his tiny little hand on the top of the TV – and he prayed the sinner’s prayer with me, just as many of you may do tonight. And the instant he laid his hand on that TV…

There was a loud POP as he clapped his hands into the microphone.

Preacher: That BUUUUUUUUG dropped over DEAD! It was a MIRACLE OF GAWD! Can I get an amen?

Many amens were had.

Preacher: Now, if you’ll just reach into your heart – think about that little boy now, brothers and sisters – and reach into your heart, and see if the LAWRD isn’t telling you to give something to this ministry toDAY-ah. It could be five dollars. It could be TEN dollars. It could be TEN THOUSAND DOLLAHS CAN YOU SAY AMEN!

Mom shut off the radio. I had heard enough anyway.

Me: Mom, do you think a bug can get into your ear like that?

Mom: Um. I don’t know. I don’t think so.

Me: But what if it could?

Mom: It’s pretty unlikely.

Me: But it could, right? Would I have to go to the doctor?

Mom: I guess you would. It’s just not going to happen, though. That’s not a normal thing.

I could tell she was getting irritated, so I shut up. I was pretty worried, though. Over dinner, the thought that bugs (or BUUUUUUUGS if you prefer) could get into your ear and crawl into your brain really preyed on me. I figured that even if medical science couldn’t cure me, I had a fail-safe. Just find a preacher on TV and lay my hand on the screen. Nevertheless, the idea itself gave me the freakin’ creepy crawlies. I found myself shrugging and shaking my head all night, discouraging imagined bugs from burrowing into my brain.

It stayed with me, right up until a checkup I had some years later. I was having some kind of ear infection, and Doc was checking out my ear. He seemed concerned, and taking an awfully long time looking at this one ear.

Me: What? What is it?

Doc: I thought I saw wings fluttering…

My eyes grew huge.

Me: Like a bug!?

Doc pulled back.

Doc: Yeah, but it must have been my eyes.

The guy was pushing 75 at that point, so I’d bet dollars to donuts it could have been. Nevertheless, no bug was found. But good God did that send me into a fit of panic. It served to further cement an already deep seated fear into my psyche.

And that, brothers and sisters, is how a phobia is born.

Can I get an amen.

I realized a couple days ago that I’ve been focusing a lot on negative things in regards to my Mom. Part of what makes the story so interesting (and cathartic for me) is writing about all the crazy, off the wall shit she did. A lot of that ends up being negative, because the things she did were either negative in and of themselves or had negative ramifications (my upbringing is probably the root of some of my more serious problems with depression, anxiety, and OCD for instance). But I don’t want to give the wrong impression – I don’t hate my Mom. I don’t even blame her for most of the stuff she did. Her actions stemmed from an illness (albeit a mental one) – and one she is no more responsible for than someone who comes down with the flu. Some in my life think it’s strange that I don’t blame her more or carry a grudge. For one, carrying a grudge isn’t my thing – besides, I have enough other things to worry about in my life. Secondly, at the heart of it all she’s a good person – more messed up than most, perhaps, but still a good person. I have no doubt she would take a bullet for me in an instant (she said as much multiple times when I was growing up and the Mafia was supposedly stalking us). I don’t doubt, too, that she would give me her last dollar, or do anything she could to otherwise help me. Perhaps this wouldn’t come about in a conventional way – likely, it wouldn’t. She would get it into her head I desperately needed something I didn’t ask for (and didn’t actually need) and get it for me. I learned a long time ago not to question this, and just accept it as generosity even if the gift itself isn’t particularly on the mark. Most of what she does, however misguided, is out of a sense of love. A friend told me a few days ago that my Mom is drowning in good intentions. I think that’s pretty accurate.

In short, this is one of the reasons this blog has been so hard for me to write. Obviously, a lot of the stuff (I speak mainly of her delusions) had to be kept “secret” and never talked about, but it’s more than that. It’s sort of pulling back the curtain on my family, and that feels weird. Almost like a betrayal sometimes. That’s one reason, I think, that I don’t write even more often (though I’m sure twice a week is plenty for you guys to read). To illustrate the importance of what I’m talking about, maybe I should give you a peek into my family dynamic a little more. Grandma knew, I think – or at least strongly suspected – that something was wrong with Mom. For all I know, something had been wrong all her life. The subject of her temper (and especially any delusions) was carefully sidestepped, at least by Grandma. Granted, she came from a different generation – one where mentally ill family members were hauled away to the nut hatch by the state. I don’t doubt that some part of her feared that outcome. Whenever Mom would yell or throw fits, Grandma would either stay silent or take Mom’s side. Whatever the issue was – let’s say I wasn’t practicing often enough – Grandma would come up to me after the storm was over and talk to me about it.


Grandma: Come on. Let’s practice your piano.

Me: Why? She’s just being ridiculous.

Grandma: We better do it. I don’t want your mother to yell.
And we’d practice, or clean my room, or do my homework or whatever it was that Mom was bent out of shape about. Sometimes – usually – it had little basis in actual reality. But when it did, it made things a little easier to manage. My point is, we went on like that. Heavy rains would come, the dam would creak and groan, and Grandma would come along with sandbags and shore it up. The dam never actually broke, in that the underlying issues were never addressed – Mom wasn’t told she ought to get help, or that she was nuts, or that she was being unreasonable. That dam didn’t break largely because of Grandma. She loved Mom. She loved Tim and I. She wanted the family to stay together no matter what, and I wanted the same. Love covers a multitude of sins. Grandma was empathetic about everything – even sympathetic – without acknowledging it directly. Mom didn’t act like a nut – she “got upset”. Mom didn’t threaten suicide or think the Mafia was tapping our phones – that subject was simply not brought up. I suspect those with a similar upbringing will know exactly what I’m talking about. I remember one time, towards the end of her life, I had a long talk with Grandma about Mom. I was an adult by then, and had come to some difficult conclusions – mainly that the things Mom said happened didn’t happen, and I had come to accept that the majority of my childhood was based around delusions. Anyway, I started talking about the past – hers specifically and ours as a family – just to get her warmed up and maybe prime her for some answers.


Me: Grandmom…why is Mom the way she is?

She thought a long time before sighing.

Grandma: I don’t know. I don’t know why your Mother is the way she is.

Me: She is crazy, right? It’s not just me.

Nothing from Grandma. She averted her gaze and ran her fingers through her brown hair.

Me: Has she always been like that?

Silence for a while.

Grandma: Family is all you have. Your Mom and Timmy, they’ll be with you for your whole life. You have to hang on to family.

I told her I would.

More silence.

Grandma: Did I ever tell you how your Grandfather and I met?
She had, many times. I asked her to tell me again, though. My point is she knew perfectly well – maybe all too well – that Mom had deeper issues than just having a “temper” or “getting upset”. But you didn’t talk about it, because to talk about it would be to expose your daughter’s nakedness. And you don’t do that, you cover it up.

My Grandmother wasn’t the only one who felt family loyalty should be above all else. I remember being at Uncle Richard’s one time, and seeing a headshot of a girl I recognized in the trashcan by his chair.


Me: Isn’t that Alison?

Uncle Richard gazed down at the garbage can. Alison gazed back up. I had seen her a few times – she had the lesson before me on occasion.

Uncle Richard: Yes. And do you know why it’s in there?

I shook my head.

Uncle Richard: She left her family. You don’t do that. You never do that.
I looked down into the trash. I thought Uncle Richard might be being a bit harsh on Alison, but I got the message. Family is family. It doesn’t matter how fucked up it is.

From my Grandmother‘s days as a mover and shaker in the courthouse, she learned a lot of things about how to “get ahead”. One of the things that stuck with me the most is one of her pet phrases:

Grandma: Always be nice to the secretary.

The big boss may be who you want in to see, but the secretary can make that a lot easier – or a lot more difficult. I remember watching an episode of a show (I think it might have been Mad Men, but I’m not sure) where the ladies in the phone room didn’t patch through calls of people they didn’t like. I remember thinking to myself “If only he had thought to drop off chocolates.

But, basically, that was her big secret – be nice to everybody. Chat with them. Bring them a home made pie or cake or chocolate or something. It worked wonders for her, because everyone adored her – from the secretaries on up. I remember her telling me a story once where a convict walked into her office and started getting vulgar. He sang her a dirty song about Dr. Pepper (for the record, she couldn’t remember it but I would have given a great deal to hear it – it sounds hilarious), and a judge threw the guy up against the wall and made him apologize. Such is the power of confectionery sugar and a winning personality.

Anyway, I try to apply Grandma’s philosophy in my own life and have had some success. Long story short, it pays to be nice to everyone – not just “important” people. But I tell you the story about secretaries to tell you about one secretary in particular. Russ had a lady named Nancy working for him. She was nice enough, I suppose, but her and Mom did not get along whatsoever. I’m not sure how it started, exactly, but Mom started insisting that Nancy wasn’t putting her through to Russ when she called his studio. She probably directly confronted Nancy about this, and Nancy (not surprisingly) took umbrage at this slur on her character. Whatever the cause, bad blood roiled between them. Mom insisted Nancy said stuff (and let’s be real – there’s a good chance Nancy didn’t actually say it since Mom heard things), Nancy got pissed, Mom complained to Russ, Russ would get irritated. As a kid, I didn’t doubt for one second that Nancy was a snake in the grass – Mom thought she was, and that was the end of it. Mom would insist she would threaten us on a regular basis.

Nancy: I’ll put a stop to you. You’ll never be successful as long as I can help it.

Truly, why would she care? And even if she did, who says she had any power to carry out her threats? Nonetheless, Mom believed Nancy was the fox in the proverbial hen house. If we needed a last minute appointment for a lesson, and we called Nancy, Russ “didn’t have any openings” (a claim which may or may not have been legitimate). Sometimes he wouldn’t show up for lessons, and Mom would insist Nancy had told him we cancelled and didn’t tell us so we would get mad at Russ and stop taking lessons (yes, that was her exact wording). Truthfully, he probably went to the race track and forgot. Although I suppose it is possible Nancy maliciously forgot to tell us when he cancelled.

Although she may not have been the master manipulator Mom insisted she was, she wasn’t exactly someone I was prone to like. She wore very tight (and very short) skirts, lots and lots of makeup, bleached her hair, chewed gum, and was very very snarky. Add in the fact that she was about 15 years too old to dress like she did…and you have a pretty complete picture of her. Mom used to complain to Russ that she dressed like a hooker. Russ didn’t seem to mind very much.

Russ once told us directly that Nancy doesn’t do anything but what she’s told to do.

Russ: She schedules who I tell her to and doesn’t schedule who I tell her not to. You know?

Assuming he could be taken at his word (which is a rather large assumption – Russ ran his mouth pretty much all the time and often said conflicting things), one can see that it’s possible that none of this was Nancy’s fault. Russ may have been telling her that he had this nut whose son was taking lessons and he needed her to never put her messages through or never schedule us for a lesson. Regardless, difficult secretaries are no match for the willpower of a crazy person (I’m convinced that not much is, actually) – Mom got the lessons by hook or by crook. She would call Russ directly, and if he didn’t get back to us she would drop by unannounced and extract a lesson time from him. These trips usually involved getting to Russ’s studio long before he was there and waiting outside for hours. I was quite annoyed with Nancy for the fact that we had to do this. Sometimes, she’d come driving up and see us already there waiting for Russ. She’d roll her eyes, walk in, and sit behind her desk (as an adult, I completely understand this reaction. As a kid, it pissed me off). Mom would inevitably follow her in, and Nancy would tell her that Russ wasn’t coming in today. Mom would not believe her, of course, and we would leave – usually just to go around the block until Nancy left.

It didn’t take long for Nancy to be involved in a wider conspiracy. There were certain other students that Russ had that Mom insisted were “competition”. She picked them apart, analyzed everything about them, and usually decided they were out to get us. She usually determined Nancy was involved with them somehow and they were getting our lesson slots because Nancy favored them. No doubt she was filling Russ’s ears with venom about us and telling him that I wasn’t talented, and that these other students were more worthy of his time (and, ostensibly, his “mafia” connections). Although such situations are few and far between, some things can’t be solved with a box of donuts.