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Hamlet and the ukulele

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12/01/2011

Hamlet and the ukulele photo 1

When I was choosing colleges, my mom made her qualifications very clear. First, of course, I had to go somewhere that was right for me, intellectually, personality-wise, cost-wise, etc. But vying for top consideration was this: My mom wanted to visit me somewhere she could go shopping.

This was never actually going to be a problem. I grew up in a small town two hours from anything, and I always wanted to live in a city (for many reasons, not all of them shopping-related). A decent mall was an hour away, and Columbus, Ohio, with its stores, airport and restaurants, was 80-miles just getting there. Going shopping was a grand day out, a giddy affair bookended by a great car trip, often just me and my mom.

It's no surprise that an activity I associate so closely with happiness should become a go-to for cheering myself up. I don't do retail therapy by blowing triple digits at Express (though I have been known to stagger out of a bookstore, dazed and loaded down with totally justifiable additions to my shelves). Instead, more and more I seem to be gravitating toward single, special purchases. There's a handmade leather belt on Etsy cut and dyed to look like the f-holes on a violin. I'm still floored by how beautiful it is, and I've been lusting after it for well over a year. Timbuk2 makes my favorite bags: even though I don't particularly need one, I'm really itching for one of their customizable backpacks. (It would be great for travel!) Vivien of Holloway, Nudeedudee and Rocket Originals make the most smashing vintage repro, and I can't tell you how tempting it is to dump all the clothes I own now and start over with a dedicated wardrobe straight from the '30s and '40s. Don't even talk to me about John Fluevog.

I hover over these buys, though: I stew in them and put them off, as some future reward for some future accomplishment or occasion. To get all analytical for a moment—my mom is a psychologist, after all—perhaps that's a throwback to those trips to Columbus: the drive and the delay are bound up in the payoff. But let's get real, friends: this is not about why I don't buy things when I want them. Because this week I broke the pattern, and let me tell you, the payoff has been great.

See, my mom has been fighting cancer for three and a half years now. Yesterday was a big test, one that would tell us if the new treatment is working like we've been hoping it is. It's a pretty anxiety-inducing set-up, and even if you're not consciously thinking about it, you feel it under your skin. November was also a stressful month for me on its own, and I still have a mountain of other tasks to scale.

The day before yesterday, I happened on a link: a high schooler covering a Shakespeare soliloquy on a ukulele. Not just any soliloquy: Hamlet's "To be, or not to be," touching on some of the darkest, most profound soul-dredging stuff available to us as human beings. The cover is awesome. It's so cheery, you can't help but smile. It's sweet, but it's the last thing from manufactured. And that's the thing: even the undiscovered country sounds sunny on a ukulele. I'm beginning to suspect that it is actually impossible to be sad with a uke in hand.

So, rather than liking the idea and putting it on a shelf, to be cashed in at a later date, yesterday I headed to the Old Town School of Folk Music and strolled out with a Lanikai pineapple ukulele in hand. Why not? Eight years of piano lessons aside, I've never played a stringed instrument before, and it's been years since I've played music at all, but that's okay. Ukulele is known for being both easy and forgiving, and I have to tell you, it's a lot of fun.

It wasn't a huge purchase—I've actually spent more on pants for work wardrobes—but, satisfyingly, it felt like a bigger purchase than it was. Being able to walk home and open the case, prop open the learn-it-yourself book and start strumming was glorious. And there's so much to look forward to: ukulele covers of all your favorite songs probably exist somewhere on YouTube, and the very helpful guys from Old Town were quite excited to show off Metallica for Ukulele. Anything is possible now.

The danger, of course, is that having given myself permission to actually enjoy a non-incidental purchase spontaneously, I'm now furiously calculating whether I can squeeze in the backpack, the belt, the tea dress, the shoes. Sending in my rent check this morning will probably temper those impulses, but more importantly, I think it's time to just soak up this purchase for a while. As it turns out, my mom's test yesterday came back looking great. That alone makes the world a sunnier place, but I'm not going to lie: having a ukulele doesn't hurt.

Hamlet and the ukulele photo 2

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