The Holiday Playlist of the Musician’s Daughter

My dad is a self-proclaimed snob about music, which means that I was exposed to some really great music and educated really well about that music. It also means that I didn’t hear a contemporary pop song unless my sister played on. The radio was NOT an option in our car. So this is my holiday playlist, and there’s a story for each song. Disclaimer: these are all affiliate links from Amazon, because that was the easiest way to get the pictures and link you to clips of the songs without thinking about copyright issues.

Classy: George Winston, “The Holly & The Ivy,” December

My sister’s name is Holli, with an i. When I was little, people used to sing “The Holly and the Annie” instead of the “Ivy” and I would get mad. First: the movie Annie terrified me, because of the part where they almost KILL the child while she’s climbing that tower thing. I did not want to be called Annie. Second: The lyrics go like this, “The holly and the ivy, when they are both full-grown, of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly wears the crown.” She was already the older sister. Now, they were telling me that, even when I was big, too, she would get the crown? Not. Cool.

Then, I grew up, and I grew a sense of humor. I also sang this song in choir and still know all the verses. The words are really awesome, explain the symbolism of the holly plant and why it’s associate with Christmas, and it totally bridges the pagan and the Christian imagery that got thrown into Christmas. George Winston is an incredible piano player, so this is the instrumental version. I prefer to sing the words myself. :)

Classic, for singing: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

My dad used to play this on the piano, and sing it. He’s an awesome musician. He was so good at the saxophone, that he got to be in the Army Band instead of going to Vietnam, during the war. (Military bands are incredible. Amazing. Really freaking talented.) He could play every instrument, and he was in a band with all six of his brothers for most of his 20s. We also listened to this song, often, but I can’t remember whose version. I want to guess Natalie Cole sang it. But here’s a version I listening to:

Classic, for listening: “The Christmas Song,” Nat “King” Cole and Natalie Cole, The Magic of Christmas

There was one dad and two daughters in our family (and a mom, who was often excluded from musical activities, which I now find obnoxious–that’s another story) so I liked the duet. This song is great. These singers are amazing. The London Symphony Orchestra is playing the music behind them. Get it.

Pop: “All I Want For Christmas,” Mariah or that little girl from Love Actually (her name is Olivia Olson)

Mariah made it famous, and she’s behind the story of why this song is on my short list for the holidays. My dad is actually a Mariah Carey fan, in the sense that he thinks she’s an amazing singer, and I was allowed to have her CDs. All. Of. Them. I inherited the collection my sister started during high school and built from there. I love classic Mariah. I love Mariah + JayZ. I love Mariah. My friend Jessica and I used to listen to her CDs on our headphones (DISCMAN!) and skate around the ice rink by her house singing outloud. It was epic.

My dad remarried in 2003, right before I went to college, and moved in with her, so I spent that Christmas at their house. When he got out of the car to get our Christmas tree at the farm (real farm–part of it grew trees–rural Minnesota, people) my stepmother popped in Mariah’s Christmas album, and we rocked out to “All I Want for Christmas.” She told me a really cute story about her, love in her young life, before I met her, and singing this song. When it was over, she put in my dad’s music again, and we giggled hysterically. Evidently, he’s not a fan of her pop Christmas albums. The car, when he was not in it, was where she enjoyed them. That was a fun day.

I went to see Love Actually with my college BFFs, so that version makes me feel so cozy. I have a pretty great memory of my friend Ellen singing this song along with the soundtrack at the top of her lungs with a pretend microphone in her hand, in the hallway of our dorm. That was fun, too.

Christmas Movie song: “White Christmas,” sung by Bing Crosby in the film White Christmas

Holiday Inn doesn’t cut it, folks. White Christmas has Rosemary Clooney, and she’s just a better a singer than that Holiday Inn actress, who is totally forgettable. Also: I didn’t see Holiday Inn until I was 16. I watched White Christmas every year, because we mysteriously owned a VHS copy. This is mysterious, because neither of my parents actually likes this movie. But I found it and watched it over and over. I’m the kind of person who listens to a song on repeat–the same song–for an hour, because I just happen to love it at that moment. I’m also the kind of person who watched White Christmas, reached the end, turned off the VCR, discovered that it was on TV, and watched it from the middle to the end, again. Right away. I like almost every version of this song I’ve ever heard–it’s a great song. But Bing is my love. And when I found out that no one else in my family shared my passion for the film, that kind of just made my tradition better. It was mine and only mine. Now, where did I put that DVD…

Non-Christmas Holiday song: “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” preferably when Ella Fitzgerald is singing

I discovered this song as an adult, when Nathan and I were already together. We moved in together on New Year’s Day, so I used to sing this song to him. We got our keys before the holiday, so we knew that we’d be spending New Years Eve drinking sparkling cider and eating Chinese on the floor of our new place. This song makes me all mushy inside. I have a version Diana Krall recorded, too, and it’s great. Get to know this one. You can sing it after December 25th, after all!

And it's playing iN THEATERS this year! Woohoo!

And it’s playing iN THEATERS this year! Woohoo!

Why Lullabies Calm Babies and Parents

While we were moving and closer to his first birthday, Walt had a really hard time getting to sleep, and I found myself singing a lot. I also found that I had no idea how much time had gone by, when I came out of that dark bedroom. It took me a little while to figure out why this feeling was really familiar, but I figured it out while finishing my HypnoBirthing paperwork–it’s a lot like self hypnosis. I use the song I am repeating (I tend to pick one that I don’t have to “think” about and can repeat endlessly) when I really feel like I might lose my mind to put myself in a sort of zone, where I pat the baby to the slow beat of the lullaby, focus on the love in the words, and let it all go.

I have used music to stay sane through many difficult parenting moments; I even hummed during surges [contractions for you non-HypnoBirthers] to help me release tension. My family is a musical one, so I grew up singing and love to do it. But there’s plenty of research that suggests that you can stay sane through lullabies, regardless of your ability to carry a tune. There’s even more research to prove that your baby LOVES to hear your voice, much more than the most gorgeous recording of the most beautiful voice you have ever heard. In fact, researchers recently found that singing lullabies to sick kids actually decreased the pain they experienced in a London hospital! For infants and toddlers, a song they associate with an activity can help them make the transition, like going to sleep. Babies respond to the human voice like nothing else, and infants pay special attention to voices for emotional cues.

Lullabies in particular have a calming effect, obviously, but think about why this is true. (I have had lots of time to ponder this, lately.) familiar lullabies have nice associations, at least the ones you might think to sing to your own baby. But they all have several things in common: repetition, soothing sounds, easy melodies, soft moods. I am not always super psyched to spend who knows how long soothing my baby to sleep, but he will only go to sleep while nursing. Here we are. If I sing a calm, soothing song, I find myself feeling more calm. If I really focus on sweet, loving words, I feel more loving. It’s a fake-it-til-you-make-it tool when my list of stuff to do threatens to make me upset about spending time waiting for the tiny human to detach himself from my chest. (After a certain point, I really start to wonder if Mama matters at all, or if he just needs a Mama-Pacifier, but that’s just not a helpful line of thinking.)

If you’re not a melody person, use words. My husband has “sung” Biggie Smalls to our baby, in a nice, soft voice, and the kid loves it. Whatever you can recite, repeat it. When I was sick and couldn’t sing, I would list the people in our lives. “I love you, and Daddy loves you, and Gram loves you, and Grandpa loves you, and Nana loves you…” and on and on.

If you’re not a words person, hum or use your kid’s name. I learned that second trick from a mama I babysat for; she teaches this to parents in her Music Together classes. Replace the lyrics of a lullaby with your child’s name, and everyone is happy! Babies love hearing their names, and you don’t have to remember the words. I have spent a long, long (I don’t know how long) time singing “Walter James” to the tune of “All the Pretty Little Horses” or even “Twinkle, Twinkle” (which is, by the way, a Mozart melody).

One of the best hand me downs from all the hundreds we’ve been blessed with (5 older cousins, 18 months-6 years) is a CD of lullabies from around the world, called Close Your Eyes. My sister must have gotten this when they lived in Australia, because the only links I can find are to shops in Australia and New Zealand. But, I’ve been putting it on a lot, and I can confirm that China, India, Russia, and other cultures with languages and music unfamiliar to American ears, all have lullabies with repetition, soothing sounds, (comparatively) easy melodies, and soft moods. I won’t be singing along to the Indian lullaby, even though it is beautiful, but I have learned the Irish, French and Mexican ones–and you could, too. Easily. Maybe not all the verses, with perfect pronunciation, but the chorus is always simple, sweet and repetitive.

My favorites coming into motherhood were in English: All the Pretty Little Horses, Sing (from Sesame Street) and the Beatles song I Will. Having heard my sister lovingly sing the three I just mentioned in Irish/English, French & Spanish, I was excited to add those. From late pregnancy, when we watched The Muppet Movie (2008?) and discovered Walter the Muppet, we have all enjoyed singing Jim Hensen’s The Rainbow Connection, to the belly and then the baby. It has become His Song.

These are just my favorites and some ideas, if you need them. Here’s what they do: let me lose track of time. I have no clock in our bedroom (Walt will not sleep if he has realized that another human is not within 12″ of him) because knowing that it is early, late, I’ve been here for ten minutes, an hour, has always made me itchy. I start thinking about getting stuff done, and it’s harder for me to survive the times when it takes forever to put him to sleep!

This is my favorite, lately:

Arrorró mi niño, [ah-roh-roh mee knee-gnoo]
arrorró mi sol,     [ah-roh-roh mee sol]
arrorró pedazo,   [ah-roh-roh pay-dah-zoh]
de mi corazón.    [day mee coh-rah-zohn]

And it supposedly means something like this:

Hush-a-bye my baby
Hush-a-bye my sun
Hush-a-bye oh piece
of my heart.

Just try and be cranky while saying that, especially if you can roll your “r” sounds. “Arrorró” is used like “hush” for a reason. Lean on your lullabies, my sleep-deprived, long-bed-time-routine-suffering, parents.

The best lullaby CD ever. Sadly, not available in the US at the moment. If you find a copy, let me know where, so I can get it for every family I know!

The best lullaby CD ever. Sadly, not available in the US at the moment. If you find a copy, let me know where, so I can get it for every family I know!

In Search of a Song for “Bug”

My sister began a beautiful tradition; she chose a song, “I Will” by Lennon/McCartney, and sang it to her daughter in utero, the day she was born, at nap time. It’s their song. For her son, she chose “St. Judy’s Comet,” which belongs to either Paul Simon or Kenny Loggins, depending on who you ask. He’ll be two next month, and you can still hear her singing that song to her beautiful child at bedtime. It turned out to be especially appropriate, because this child has a very strong will when he wants to keep himself awake! As the song says, “Though I know you’re fighting it, I can tell when you rub you’re eyes, that you’re fading fast.” It’s sweet and perfect.

I have been wondering which song would belong to my baby and me every since we started singing “I Will” to my sister’s girl. I thought that I had it with “Let it Be,” but the lyrics are all in the first person. I want to sing to Bug. With a “you” sprinkled here and there. “Hey, Jude” is still a candidate. Both of these songs represent cherished moments with my own family, hard core Beatles fans (I do not exaggerate when I tell you that I have heard every recording the Beatles ever made. Every. Single. One.) and the lyrics represent life lessons that have been really important to me. “Hey, Jude” kills me with the line “And don’t you know that it’s just you, hey Jude, you’ll do–the movement you need is on your shoulder.”

I’ve gone through every song I love, from Irving Berlin’s “Count Your Blessings” (featured in White Christmas) to a traditional Scottish lullaby that was on a CD my sister had, called “Bonny at Morn.” I’ll sing those to Bug, but there’s still something missing. I haven’t found Our Song.

Nathan and I have a song. It’s Blossom Dearie’s version of “They Say It’s Spring” which, if you haven’t heard, you must go listen to immediately. Back? Ok, I’ll tell you why. We heard it on WNYC (New York’s NPR station) like the geeks that we are, and I bought the album, in love with her voice. When we discovered that the date we had picked to go to city hall was the first day of spring, 2009, we knew that it would be the song we’d ask them to play in the chapel. (The NYC Marriage Bureau is high tech like that–you hand them an iPod, they play music at your wedding. It’s amazing.) It’s also perfect, because what we were doing was pretty crazy, getting married after having known each other about a year and dating for just over six months. But we knew. “Did I need spring to bring the ring that you bought me? Though it was spring, that wondrous day that you caught me, darling I thought we knew that it wasn’t spring–t’was you!”

I’m listening to Blossom sing the softest, sweetest version of “Fly Me to the Moon” doing what she does best–singing the meaning behind the lyrics. Her version of “Tea for Two” will make you smile, it’s so slow and heartfelt. I think I’ll turn to her songbook, next, and find a song for Bug in one of those simple, classic melodies.

Do you associate songs with people or relationships? Do any of you find yourselves transported to a moment in the past by a snippet on the radio or a trick of iTunes Shuffle? Tell me about your songs!

UPDATE: Within ten minutes of posting this, Val left a comment that sparked a memory that gave me my song. And, it is “Sing,” from Sesame Street. Here is a best-of medley. You are welcome.

Kids Are Smart: How I Learned to Love Science Again

Somewhere along my own path from girl to woman, I got the impression that I was not good at science. My talents definitely lay in the humanities, but I got darn good grades in IB (International Baccalaureate) Chemistry and Physics. I even got a decent grade on my IB Physics exam, which took about half a day, included only a fraction of multiple choice questions and almost always had us show our work. English, history and even economics came easily for me, so I somehow got the idea that I should focus on the humanities. Recently, that all changed. It started with feminism.

This is my first summer working in child care. Obviously, I spent a good chunk of every day outside and, obviously, I was bound to encounter bugs and other “creepy crawlies.” As a feminist who wants children to see women participating in all aspects of life, even the exploration of slug slime, I felt bound and determined from day one to show no fear.

I am lucky–I have no hangup about bugs. Never have. I grew up in the woods in Northern Minnesota, so it was mandatory that all children learn what’s actually dangerous and what’s not. If you’re going to be encountering garter snakes on a daily basis every summer, it’s good to know that they’ll never bite you. I am terrified of wood and deer ticks, but they do actually bite and carry disease. I’m not afraid of snakes, spiders, worms, slugs or even leeches. I put leeches on hooks during fishing trips. Puh-leeze!

My new scientific interest started with bugs, but expanded during my time with the preschoolers at the child care center. I try to take their “Why?”s seriously and answer the question if it is a genuine question (not just reflexive). When they ask about how the world works, I like to give the scientific answer. I have a good memory. It’s really fun to see their faces. They love physics. I am good at explaining stuff. And, one more time, I want them to know that women are good at science. From bugs to dinosaurs to the solar system, I have been re-learning, learning and passing knowledge along every chance I get.

Along the way, I discovered that I love science. I have read, for fun, books on genetics, chemistry, medicine and evolution. Among my favorites are The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, for telling a darn good story and clearly explaining both the history of growing (culturing) cells in lab as well as the history of ethics in medicine, and The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. I’m currently enjoying The Poisoner’s Handbook, which explains the history of the chemistry of poisons and how the fields of toxicology and forensic medicine came to be. I also love murder mysteries, so the Flavia de Luce series wins tons of points for teaching me more about chemistry, yes, specifically of poisons, and for starring an eleven-year-old girl with some serious scientific talent and know-how in both the lab and in the crazy situations she gets herself into and out of with remarkable problem solving skills.

Thank you, dear children, for rekindling my interest in how things work, even down to the cells in my body. And now, They Might Be Giants, singing Science is Real.”