Practically Perfect

The best class I took in college was Professor Micklus’s upper level English elective, “Evaluating Literature.” I learned to vivisect a text to see how it worked, to pull back the skin to see its beating heart, how the blood moved through its veins, where its muscles connected to its bones. I learned that my impressions of the text were starting points to be probed for their origins; my opinions were not really mine and not really opinions at all–they were reactions the author constructed with similes, with caesurae, with motifs, with word choice. A different word here, an adjusted theme there, and you’d have something new.

This mode of interrogation has become part of how I move through the world. I don’t see finished products so much as I see the tiny choices and processes that make them up.  It’s not much of leap from there to see how you could make better tiny choices and create more elegant processes to end up with a better final product. My professional life has revolved around that kind of problem solving. I’ve built a reputation for having good, constructive suggestions on how to improve things.

In a large meeting this morning, my colleague Camilo held a post-mortem on a cool event we held last month. He walked us through feedback we’d received from external participants, then opened the floor for our ideas and comments. He walked across the room with a handheld microphone; “Now I want to hear from you all about what you thought worked well, and what could we improve. And I’m going to start with Kerry Grannis.”

I protested that I hadn’t raised my hand, but Camilo said, “Yes, but I know you always have suggestions.”

And I did. I took the mic.

Continue reading “Practically Perfect”



My family–all musical, except for dad–played together a lot. I played Gesu Bambino on the clarinet and my mom played piano accompaniment.  I taught myself to play the piano part to “On My Own” when I was nine years old so I could sing Eponine’s pain. Later, I would practice the accompaniment to “I Still Believe” from Miss Saigon and and tell my sister which part she had to sing (Kim, duh). We worked on the Chess duet, too. I asked my mom to learn the piano accompaniment to Andrew Loyd Webber’s “Pie Jesu,” then made my brother learn the boy soprano part so I could do the really high Sarah Brightman notes.

Even away from home, I found partners. I learned a few songs from “24 Italian Songs and Arias” well enough to accompany singers at NYSSMA competition in high school. I learned the left hand of songs I studied in college so I could hear the whole thing better when I practiced the vocals.

A few years after college, when David and I bought our first house, I found myself at a piano sale at George Mason, yearning to play again. We bought a digital piano–smaller, never needs tuning–and I took out all my old piano music and relearned it, finding it was easy to shake off the dust on the old songs I’d practiced a million times. Muscle memory kicked in. I relearned Chopin. I sang old songs. I learned the left hand to the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” musical episode songs.

But no one played with me. No one sang with me. My husband has a lovely baritone, but not much practice with harmony. In more recent years, I worked on my children. Owen plays guitar and occasionally will sing along with himself, but isn’t much for vocals. Amelia sang a few rounds of “Castle on a Cloud” in second grade but probably sensed how much I wanted it and begged off quickly. I had temporary success when I downloaded the sheet music to “Let It Go” a few years ago, and led a neighborhood singalong, but it was short-lived.


Nathaniel, now in 5th grade, is learning the clarinet. He’s picked it up nicely, and is taking private lessons from a high school girl in addition to his weekly school lessons. There’s a festival coming up where they can play solos, but accompaniment is required. His teacher loaned us a solo book and said she could probably find the CD with accompaniment, but if I have learned anything from Hamilton it is that I am not throwing away my shot, and so Amazon Prime to the rescue and three days later I’ve got the piano accompaniment book in my hands.

My youngest child, light of my life, tracked that sucker via UPS and when it finally arrived today, ripped it open and suggested we try the piece together with a metronome. We played it (at 80, but we’ll work up to 108!) a few times through and just when I thought I couldn’t be happier, he said “let’s try another one” and we found another song in the book and sight read it together and IT WAS GLORIOUS.

I told him about playing all the time, with my family. He smiled, and said, “Except granddad. He was probably busy outside, knocking down hornets’ nests or something.” And I thought, O Lord, this is the what life is made of: music and grief and songs and tears and dorky joy that sneaks up on you so that your heart could burst.

Warning: duets attempted using the saxoflute will drive your family mad.

Science Boy and the Searle Girl

At dinner a few days ago, one of my children tried to explain bitcoin to us while another competed for attention by doing a little dance number that involved a combo of gymnastics, Riverdance, and dabbing. The juxtaposition of substance and circus reminded me of the first dinners I had at David’s house back when he was a new boyfriend. At that time, dinner for the Searles was a boisterous but coarse affair–mostly yelling at the boys to take those green beans out of their nostrils, thank you very much, or arguing about the obvious injustice that in setting the table, Tracy had folded the napkins and put the forks down, while I had gotten the knives, plates AND placemats. At the Grannis home, people had extended conversations about politics, or etymology, or baseball during the meal. Thanksgiving featured a fearsome pun competition. They seemed to deal in sophisticated wit, where I was used to prop comedy. I was amazed, and terrified that I would not be able to keep up. There was immense pressure to prove you could spar at that level–no easy feat with this family of accomplished and intelligent people.

As the youngest in a family of sharp wit, David was used to punching above his weight class. He had never had to hold back on that zinger so as not to hurt the baby’s feelings–he WAS the baby. Continue reading “Science Boy and the Searle Girl”

And I softly listened

Christmas mornings, Dad made us wait at the top of the stairs until he gave the all clear. He’d queue up some Christmas music, put on the kettle for tea, plug in the lights on the tree, and when we were quite young, turn on the little train that went around its base. When he returned, we’d pose in our pajamas on the stairs for a photo before being released to see what surprises awaited. When we opened presents, it was clear he’d had nothing to do with the planning, purchase, or wrapping of a single one. But he would sit, watching, taking us in, content.

As a teenager, most years I would sing at church on Christmas Eve. My family sat in the fourth pew, and when I stood up front, I’d see my mom mentally singing along with me, silently counting, willing me to attack the notes from above, to open up and resonate, to keep my breath support strong. Basically she was working along with me. And next to her, Dad–who always thought it sounded great–relaxed, usually with eyes mostly closed and his mouth turned up slightly in a hint of a smile, rocking back and forth, out of time but content. Continue reading “And I softly listened”

If I built this fortress

Five years ago today is when I began to crack open. Twenty little fireballs, twenty little humans full of possibility were murdered. My youngest child–my own sparkling fireball of a little human–was 5 years old, just a few months younger than these dead children.

I cried for hours every day for about two weeks. Sitting at my desk. Sitting in church. Trying to fall asleep at night. Drinking coffee in Starbucks.

Since then, I have not really stopped. Continue reading “If I built this fortress”

Burn it down

I recently attended a brown bag session at work that was framed as a discussion of  harassment that some of our female scholars face when they speak publicly. My colleagues spoke about their experiences by saying “it’s bad” or “the criticism goes beyond a critique of my ideas to some really nasty stuff.” The women in the room nodded.

They didn’t have to be explicit for us to know what they meant—that there is no right way to be female and speaking. That the attacks they get are about being ugly or slutty or fat or prissy or frigid or stuck up or old. A certain scary swath of the population is angry and resentful that you get to talk, feels you need to be taken down a peg or ten, and is disgusted by your deigning to imagine yourself as anything other than a sex toy or servant. A larger cohort are people who don’t think they have a problem with women, and yet whenever they disagree with one, their responses are shot through with a critique of femaleness. The rest of the men–the good guys you know–probably don’t think about this much at all.

I think that is the category many of my male colleagues in that room fall into. They didn’t recognize that coded language the women were using. When we pushed on the language a little, the women articulated that often times the responses threatened violence, usually sexual, and some of the men were shocked. The men with public platforms were used to hearing that their ideas were wrong or stupid, but not that they themselves were wrong or ugly, or that as a consequence they should be raped or worse. Continue reading “Burn it down”

Lover, Beloved

When my friend Gary first asked me to speak at church today about how our congregation finds community,  I said no. I assumed they wanted someone to talk about how awesome we are at it–and I just still get that “alone in a crowd” feeling–even though I’m in charge of a lot of stuff there. Luckily, Gary agreed that my sales pitch might ring hollow (“You want community? We got community by the bucketful at FCPC!!!”) and assented to a slightly less enthusiastic meditation on community, why it’s hard, and why it’s important. A slightly edited version of that talk is what follows.

When I was in college, I was in a women’s a cappella group. I auditioned when I transferred to this school and was so happy to get in—I hoped that these dozen women would be my new friends in an unfamiliar place. After about a year, I was elected the musical director.  I was so excited to get the gig—I had more musical training than anyone else in the group—so I knew I had the technical skills to arrange the songs, and the ear to tune us up to sound better than we had last year. I worked all summer to plan a great set of songs; I stayed up late working to arrange them for the voices in our group; I mapped out an aggressive rehearsal plan to make sure we’d sound perfect come the end-of-semester show.

I worked hard. We sounded good. I knew what I was doing.

And I was so lonely.  Continue reading “Lover, Beloved”