Let’s Go Glamping!

I was sitting outside at work the other day, drinking my iced tea and eating grapes on my break, when the random thought, “It’d be nice to go camping!” occured to me. I am able to ignore a lot of random thoughts, but this one startled me. I do not camp. I have in the past, but I’d rather not do it again. Like the David Foster Wallace essay about going on a cruise, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, camping seems like it should be fun, in theory, but in reality, not so much. And I have no desire to ever go on a cruise, either, thank you very much.

Camping. First of all, why should I sleep on the ground when there is this great invention called the BED? Second, I hate dirt. And peeing behind trees. Indoor plumbing, hello?!

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Any activity that involves this, please let me stay home!

my idea of camping

Have you ever watched the show Monk? Mr. Monk is one of my idols. Mr. Monk had to go camping once. He didn’t like it.

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I’m fine not taking a shower for a day or 2, and being outdoors is great. Within reason. But outdoor living should refer to the Sunset magazine, California lifestyle variety, not living in a tent for fun!

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1953 Sunset cover; my kind of outdoor living.

I love a good picnic; eating out of doors is nice. Especially if you bring really good food. And make it really pretty and romantic.

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I like the idea of outdoor living. If it’s civilized.

There are wonderful ways to spend time outdoors with friends and family while remaining clean and comfortable and having access to an actual bathroom. Outdoor kitchens and living rooms are quite “the thing” these days where the weather permits.

There are more modest ways to follow this idea:

I adore the idea of the unfortunately named “she shed”, the feminine alternative to the man cave.

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These can be basic too.

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This one veers a little close to camping, but I’ll allow it since it’s adorble.

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But please don’t ask me to go camping.

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My camping experiences started when my mother married her second husband, Van. He loved camping. But his idea of camping was parking his GMC truck, equipped with a camper shell, by the side of any old river and proceeding to fish (boring) and drink a lot. I always took a lot of books. Anytime I was forced into outings with Mom and Van I made sure to have a book. I spent a lot of time in bars and by the sides of rivers reading while they drank. But since he was a cabinet maker, the camper was nicely kitted out, and Mom always tried to cook something nice. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it.

Then when I got married, we thought we liked camping. Like Van before us, what we liked was a different setting for drinking.

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We made a point of going to walk-in only sites so it would be more private and we wouldn’t be surrounded by RVs.

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Campground at Yellowstone. No thanks.

I would cook a lot of gourmet food ahead of time, we would make sure to have lots of wine, and off we’d go. I never slept well, partly from the wine, and partly because sleeping on the ground in a tent sucks! I don’t even do well with cabin camping. I didn’t sleep for an entire week last summer when I went to Maine, but I did gain a new appreciation for frogs.

Given half a chance, my ex-husband would probably have had us going out camping in an old VW hippie van.

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If we had to go camping, I’d have preferred a somewhat less conspicuous van back then (although I do love the hippie van now as a look).

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But we were poor, so it had to be a tent and sleeping bags. As long as we had the money for the wine. I can see us in something like this as well.

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I’m older, wiser, and sober now. And I think life is too short to do things we don’t like if we don’t have to.  I don’t have to go camping, and despite my random thoughts I don’t really want to.

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What about camping even appears to be fun?

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This does not look fun.

Camping is dangerous, besides. There are crazy people out there looking for dummies zipped into sleeping bags and tents, ready-made targets for horror movie mayhem. There are bugs and spiders and creepy crawly things.

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The food chain is fine and all, but I’d rather not be a part of it, thanks.

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And coffee. Let’s talk coffee. I’m sorry, cowboy romanticism aside, boiled coffee made over a campfire does not taste good.

I haven’t mastered the art of campfire espresso, although I suppose it’s possible. But I am not really interested in learning the art. My beautiful Rancilio Silvia machine at home is just fine.

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Admit it, this looks like a serious coffee maker. My best friend.

I’d consider easing myself into the idea with the she-shed (buit it does need a better name), and work my way up to “glamping”(glamour camping).

I could be a glamper. See this Project Runway clip for a good description of glamping. If Tim Gunn is on board, okay!

I’d even go with an Airstream or tear-drop trailer if they were glamped up.

There’s a book for people like me: I Hate Camping, but I Love Glamping! by Lynn Sable. There is also Glamping with MaryJane, by MaryJane Butters. I’m sure there are many more.

One thing I will grant on the plus side for camping: s’mores. I had never had a s’more until I went to Maine last summer. Zoe Weil at the Institute for Humane Education taught me how to make and eat a vegan s’more at the campfire, and I even willingly sang camp songs after ingesting a couple of those. All that was missing was a great cup of coffee.

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Age 54, my first s’mores experience.
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Use a vegan dark chocolate and Dandies vegan marshmallows for cruelty-free s’mores.

But are s’mores enough reason for camping? No, you can make s’mores at home. There is not enough chocolate in the world to make camping fun.

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Only 10?

If all tents could be like the magical ones in Harry Potter, that would be okay too. Wave a wand and have all the comforts of home at your fingertips. Or, alternatively, stay home! Or go to a nice hotel.

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The Weasley tent in one of the numerous Harry Potter films.

As we enter the summer season, I’ll be enjoying outdoor time and sunshine. Just my way, not the cowboy way. And I’ll be a happy camper, ignoring my random thoughts.

Sticks and Stones

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Remember the old childhood rhyme:

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?

There are variations on the words, but for anyone who was ever called names as a child, an adult might have recited this to you to remember the next time (and there was always a next time). It really didn’t help. Words do hurt.

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I will never forget proudly riding my new bike to school in 4th grade and someone calling out, “Hey, fatty on the red bike!” All these years later, I still hurt for my 9-year old self.

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I loved that bike.

Labels. I started thinking about them at work recently. One of our volunteers had the Dymo LabelMaker out, and was on a roll reorganizing the file cabinet of materials we hand out to animal adopters at the shelter.

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I’ve always loved label makers. Getting things organized and in their place with the nicely typed label–such a satisfying thing to do. Between my educational background in library science and my years working cataloguing art in museums, I naturally tend to categorize and label things. Things, not people. Labels are great when we need to know what’s in our food, for example. Although the little labels put on every piece of produce in the grocery store drive me crazy. Someone has to put them on, and then they are hard to get off. Another reason to go to the farmers’ market. They don’t have to label the food to identify it.

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What I did learn about the labels on our produce is they actually are a code that means more than just an identification for the checker for pricing. This IS important.

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But it was a slow day and my mind drifted to what labels I would put on my coworkers and our volunteers. The Bossy One. The Talker. The Mother. The Scary One. The Big Sister.

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And as I was doing this, I realized how unfair it is to reduce people to a single characteristic, and how hurtful it can be. Growing up, I always thought of me and my siblings with the labels The Pretty One (Cathy), The Funny One (Ellen), The Boy (Steve, obviously), and The Baby (me). My alternate label would have been The Shy One.

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That outfit was high fashion in 1971! I was a shy nerd, but a well-dressed one.

But I wanted to be pretty, and funny, too! I never wanted to be The Boy, but my brother was also The Athlete, and I, to my embarassment and humiliation, had (have) no athletic abilities whatsoever. We are all so much more complicated than simple labels imply. I worried about following in the footsteps of these siblings when it was my turn at Druid Hills High School, and how disappointed the teachers would be when the youngest Cottraux turned out to be a quiet, clumsy nerd.

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Things happen in life that we don’t predict, and I never went to Druid Hills High School. I arrived in California at age 11 with no labels, but that didn’t last long.

Stereotypes abound in popular culture. In books and movies, there’s the Sassy Best Friend and the Goofy Sidekick and the Grumpy Old Man and many others. A popular movie in the 1980s, still beloved today, was The Breakfast Club (1985).

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The 5 high school characters are clear stereotypes. I most heavily identified with the Ally Sheedy character, Allison, who in plot synopses is called The Basket Case. I disagree. She’s an introvert and an outcast, misunderstood, with things to say if anyone cared to ask.

One thing I disliked about the movie is that the key to opening up for Allison is getting a makeover by Princess and Popular Girl Claire, played by Molly Ringwald. Suddenly she’s happy and being noticed by the boys. Life doesn’t work that way.

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One of my favorite television shows, and it unfortunately wasn’t on for long, was Paul Feig and Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000), set in 1980. I graduated from high school in 1979, so the world depicted in the show is a little closer to my high school experience. A great show with a great cast, critically acclaimed, yet it failed to find an audience for reasons I don’t understand. I developed several celebrity crushes seeing the early careers of actors like Jason Segel and James Franco. I loved this show. Please watch if you find it.

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The high school counselor, played by Dave Allen, reminds me so much of my senior English teacher. I’ve forgotten his name, but he was different. He took the desks out of the room and put in old couches. The first day of school he talked about how the movie Midnight Express (1978) was the scariest movie he’d ever seen (drug smuggling reference, if you’re unfamiliar with the movie). I was a little afraid of him, but he was a great teacher.

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Dave Allen as Mr. Russo.

Labels and stereotypes, again. In 1977, Randy Newman released the song Short People, about the ridiculous nature of steretypes and prejudice. And as a short person, I found it highly amusing.

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Ridiculous yet hurtful. So why do we persist in labeling each other? Within the family it starts, then continues when we go to school. Teachers label us. We decide we are good or bad at something based on stereotypes and labels. I was in school in the days when girls weren’t encouraged in math or science. According to Peter DeWitt in Education Week, teachers use a term Growth Mindsets; he discusses the labeling teachers use with students and how it leads them to treat students in fixed ways.

Adam Alter, writing for Psychology Today, describes a study done by Darley and Gross (1983) that is still relevant today:

College students watched a video of Hannah playing in her neighborhood, and read a brief fact sheet that described her background. Some of the students watched Hannah playing in a low-income housing estate, and her parents were described as high school graduates with blue collar jobs; the remaining students watched Hannah behaving similarly, but this time she was filmed playing in a tree-lined middle-class neighborhood, and her parents were described as college-educated professionals. The students were asked to assess Hannah’s academic ability after watching her respond to a series of achievement-test questions. In the video, Hannah responded inconsistently sometimes answering difficult questions correctly and sometimes answering simpler questions incorrectly. Hannah’s academic ability remained difficult to discern, but that didn’t stop the students from using her socioeconomic status as a proxy for academic ability. When Hannah was labeled “middle-class,” the students believed she performed close to a fifth-grade level, but when she was labeled “poor,” they believed she performed below a fourth-grade level.

Scott Barry Kaufman, also writing for Psychology Today, describes how we become trapped by labels. Labels can become self-fulfilling prophecies, and follow us long after the label has been lifted. I will always be that 9-year old girl humiliated by the mean taunts as I rode my beautiful red bike. And labeling doesn’t allow for variations and gradations:

When we split people up into such dichotomous categories, the large variation within each category is minimized whereas differences between these categories are exaggerated. Truth is, every single person on this planet has their own unique combination of traits and life experiences. While this isn’t true of objects, such as rocks, books, and television sets, it’s true of humans. Which is why we must be very, very careful when we allow labels to get in the way of our perceptions of reality. As the actor Anthony Rapp so aptly put it, “labels are for cans, not people.”

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Have you ever seen the Diversity Day episode on the comedy The Office? Funny, yet a little too true in how stereotypes work.

I particularly like this quote from Ellen DeGeneres:

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And here is one from Joan Baez:

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I still get labeled. The Good Sport. Annoying Vegan. Book Nerd. Crazy Cat Lady.

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We were out walking the dog this afternoon and I saw this on a telephone pole:

Kevin

I laughed, and wondered why someone felt the need to write the name Kevin on the pole. “I shall call this telephone pole, hmmm, lemme think, Kevin!” It’s probably not even the pole’s name. Who knows.

I tried Googling songs about labeling, and came across this by The Ting Tings. Not my musical style, but it seemed appropos.

My name is Genevieve, and someday I am going to get back on that bike again. I don’t care what anyone says.

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The word soup in Thomas Wolfe’s refrigerator

If you have ever met me or read my blog, you know that I am not a tall person. And I’m okay with that. Thomas Wolfe, on the other hand, was not a small person. I assume he was okay with that. Tall people come across with a sense of authority and power to us shorties. I am 5′ 0″. Wolfe was 6′ 6″.

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Due to budget constraints, the “life size” Wolfe is only 6′ 0″. The actual life size me is 5′ 0″. Add 6 more inches difference. He was really tall; just sayin’.

 

I’ve always kind of known about Thomas Wolfe, mostly from the book title You Can’t Go Home Again (published posthumously in 1940) and the romanticized view of Southern writers that an avid reader who spent her childhood in Georgia can’t escape.

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After watching the film Genius, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer A. Scott Berg book Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (1978)  and writing about it, I have continued reading and researching into the life of Thomas Wolfe.

 

I loved the film, but after my recent sojourn to Indianapolis for the 39th Annual Meeting of the Thomas Wolfe Society, I have even more questions. (And I’m buying yet more books. Running out of places to put them all!).

 

What was interesting to me is that so many dedicated Wolfe scholars and readers had some negative reactions to the film, which we watched together at the Indianapolis Public Library as a part of the weekend. Author Berg, on the other hand, who spoke to us to a standing ovation at our closing banquet, was pleased with the film. And I still love it.

 

genius poster

 

 

One of the complaints from the group about the film was the casting of Jude Law as Wolfe. Law, in my opinion, did a wonderful job, but he’s not anywhere close to 6′ 6″ and 250 plus pounds. But what actor would be close to that without being some former wrestler or football player of dubious acting ability? Law is better looking than Wolfe, but it’s a movie. I can look past that!

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The book had been considered for films for many years, according to Berg. At one time, Paul Newman was slated to play Max Perkins. And at another, Tim Robbins wanted to play Wolfe. That I can see, in his younger days.

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A young Tim Robbins, who is 6′ 5″.

One thing to keep in mind is that the film is based on a book about Max Perkins, the editor who wrangled with Wolfe and served as a father figure to him in many ways. In the book, next on my to-read list, Perkin’s relationships with 2 of his other writers, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, are also featured. It’s not a biography of Wolfe.

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In speaking about the casting of Jude Law, Berg said that in the interviews he did for the Perkins book, it was mentioned that when Wolfe first appeared in Perkins’s doorway at Scribner’s, Perkins saw, in his mind, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Berg sees Shelley in Law’s countenance. Of course, we don’t have photos of Shelley to get an accurate idea, but there are portraits.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

My imagination was totally captured by the images in the film of Wolfe writing as fast he could, using the top of his refrigerator as a desk, sheets of paper flying through the air as he filled them with words. I imagine the inside of his head as a swirling word soup. Mine often is like that, but my word soup tends to stay soupy and muddled, whereas Wolfe was able to put the words into such beautiful creations. If we were working in a restaurant, I would be the dishwasher and Wolfe would be the executive chef, the genius who I admire and emulate. Or maybe Wolfe would be the Chef de Cuisine, doing the work of making the delicious soup, and Perkins would be the executive chef, at the pass making sure the plates are perfect before they go out.

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Word soup ingredients.

 

This leads to the burning question, can a refrigerator be used as a desk? Remember that Wolfe was 6′ 6″ tall. A typical 1920s-1930s refrigerator was probably just over 5″.

 

You can buy such a vintage refrigerator today if you think it will help you become a writer.

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Being who I am, I had to test this out. My home refrigerator is 5′ 10″ tall. For me to use it as a desk, I have to stand on the kitchen counter next to it.

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No worries; I sanitized the counter after I was done.

 

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At 6′ 6″, Wolfe could probably even use a modern day refrigerator as a desk if he really wanted to. It wouldn’t be a good ergonomic choice.

 

One of my favorite papers presented at the meeting was by Paula Gallant Eckard of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. She is the author of the recently published Thomas Wolfe and Lost Children in Southern Literature (2016).

 

There is a common thread of a sense of “lostness” in much Southern literature, especially in regard to children. Eckard discussed, among other contemporary writers, Kaye Gibbons (Ellen Foster, 1987) and Jesmyn Ward (Salvage the Bones, 2011).

 

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Other highlights: the charming performance by the Indiana University Kokomo Players of “Wolfe’s Wanderlust: Scenes and Music from His Life and Fiction”

and the amazing table centerpieces created for the banquet, each based on a theme in Wolfe’s life.

 

Everyone I met was warm and welcoming. I arrived a bit anxious about going into a meeting of scholars with relatively little knowledge. I needn’t have been. They are all eager to share Wolfe with the world and bring him back into the canon of American literature alongside his contemporaries Fitzgerald and Hemingway. He died so young; who knows what legacy he might have left behind.

Speaking of young, the first person I encountered going to register for the conference was my new friend Savannah Wade, from Asheville, North Carolina. Pay attention to that name, she has a bright future ahead of her. I was so impressed with her varied interests and thirst for knowledge. When I was 23 years old, I wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to get on a Greyhound bus alone and head to an unknown city to meet with anyone! I felt so grown up doing this at age 55. Savannah, now, I can picture writing a work of genius using a refrigerator as a desk. And I can see that she has ways with word soup that I can only dream of.

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Savannah

And now I must go and dust off the top of my refrigerator. It’s the first time I’ve seen the top of it in a while!

Broken Dreams

 

I had a dream about dreams. In the dream, the one I had while asleep; the kind where you see weird stories and wake up in the morning thinking, “What was that all about,” there was a bittersweet moment in which a beloved person looked at me and referred to broken dreams, at which I smiled.

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I woke up wondering what that was all about. Do I have broken dreams? In the literal dream I seemed to recognize the reference to my broken life dreams. This sounds so sad, yet it was also a romantic moment in the dream, that connection you have looking in the eyes of another person and feeling an understanding.

Are my broken dreams educational? I did have dreams of an Ivy League university with ivy-covered old brick buildings and finally fitting in somewhere. But I went to a small state school, dropped out, and then eventually went back to a big state school, which I loved. And now I am working on my PhD, which is mostly online, so the whole ivy-covered brick building idea is a thing of the past anyway.

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Or is it my ever-downward career spiral; downward in terms of monetary rewards, not the mental or emotional ones. Yes, I had dreams there, too. Once to be an artist until I realized artists have to be really savvy at representing themselves if they don’t want to starve, Then of a museum career, which I did for a while. That dream seemed promising until it turned sour last year. And now I am in what I realize is my dream job after all—working at an animal shelter helping connect people and homeless animals and making lives better. I make almost no money, but I love going to work every day. And that is a rare gift.

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Seemed like a good idea at the time.

I’ve had ups and downs along the way in my love life, of course. A marriage that seemed good until it didn’t, and a divorce that was painful but from which I ultimately came out of a stronger, smarter person. For a while. Until I hit the next relationship bump in the road, which was really more of a mountain, but I climbed that mountain and came down sober, determined, and excited about life. Thank you, Bob, for climbing that mountain with me.

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Children. There it is. I never had children. I am not childless by choice but by the fickleness of human biology. I would have adopted in a heart beat, but in a relationship, I firmly believe that both partners should agree to as big a decision as children, so I gave that dream up. And sometimes it still hurts terribly when I see happy families and children being children. For a while, I wouldn’t go to baby showers. Now I am too old to have friends that are having baby showers. I have great-nieces and great-nephews. I am old enough to be a grandmother. And at night, asleep, I do still dream of that little girl I longed for. She’s a smart, impish, sprite of a thing, with blue eyes and strawberry-blond hair and my mother’s cute button nose. She has a wreath of flowers on her head. She holds my hand. I call her Jessa, short for Jessamyn. She sometimes seems real to me. I drew a picture of her once, but I put it away because it makes me cry to look at it.

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But (there’s always that but), I see how scary crazy the world is right now, and hear how for the first time in America, children will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. For so long, there was an assumption that each generation did better than the one before. That is gone, as far as I can tell. I travel through Oakland and San Francisco, even Berkeley, and there are so many parts that look like so-called Third World countries. It’s heart-breaking. And it getting worse, not better.

Would I deny myself my Jessa if I could have had her? No, of course not. But she wasn’t meant to be, so I try to reconcile myself to that. Does this make a broken dream? I suppose so. But life goes on. Kittens need to be fostered. And I can meet lots of Jessa-like children at the animal shelter, and help them meet the dog or cat of their dreams. One of my favorite sounds in the world is that of a child squealing when she or he sees the animal that is the one they can’t live without. “Mom, I NEED that cat!” I’ve said those words, and I love to hear them. And I can help. Dream come true.

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My first foster kitten, Abracadabra.

Peace and hugs.

 

 

The comfort of sad songs

I used to be a very moody person. Tempered by age, a lot of hard work, the love and patience of my nearest and dearest, a major career change, and the pharmaceutical industry (hey, don’t knock it; Prozac changed my life), I am a fairly happy, easy to get along with person.

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We all have bad days, but I handle roadblocks much better than I used to, and little things don’t trip me up as much. I still have bouts of anxiety. I’ll always hate parties.

me at parties

 

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My ideal party is me, cats, a hot beverage, and books, or a good cooking competition on television. And Bob. Bob can attend. And Einstein, the dog. He can come too.

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But I still love sad songs and melancholy singer-songwriters. Why? There’s something about singing along with a sad song and getting a little teary eyed; there’s no feeling like it that I can describe.

I was reminded of this at a party (by which I mean, eating dinner in front of television with Bob and the animals). We were watching season 3 episode 4 of the HBO series The Leftovers.

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This season (the final) has been mind blowing. The writing, acting, the crazy plot turns, the unpredictability, and the use of music all leave me feeling stunned at the end of each episode. The series is based on the book of the same name by Tom Perrotta, published in 2011, chronicling life for the surviors, or leftovers, after a rapture-like event takes some (referred to as The Departed) and leaves others behind.

 

The opening music is different each episode, and sets the tone for the show to come. Episode 4, entitled “G’day Melbourne”, has Kevin and Nora travelling to Australia. The song that plays over the opening credits is a sad song, “This Love is  Over” by Ray LaMontagne.

 

I got a bad feeling about where this was headed!

Here is Ray LaMontagne performing the song with the Pariah Dogs.

 

And I was right. The episode ends with Nora sitting alone in a burning hotel room while the fire sprinklers rain on her, to the seemingly odd strains of “Take On Me” by A-HA (there’s a story to the choice of music here too but I digress).

 

 

In my head, the Ray LaMontagne song took over, combined with the imagery of Nora with water dripping from her profile. The song obsessed me. A giant ear worm ate my brain. I have a thing with ear worms. They keep me awake at night and I start to think I am going crazy. Ray LaMontagne is now on an endless repeat loop on my iPhone music and in my head.

What is it about sad songs and heartbreak that consume me, an otherwise happy person? Richard Thompson, another notable sad song guy, said “It’s fun to sing sad songs. And it’s fun to listen to sad songs. Enjoyable. Satisfying. Something.”

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“Even when I’m in quite a happy state of mind, I like writing really sad songs. I think a lot of people do.” This is from Ellie Goulding, a singer I never heard of until I started working on this post. But she apparently is into sad songs.

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Natalie Imbruglia: “I like singer-songwriters, and I find sad songs comforting rather than depressing. It makes you realise you’re not alone in the world.

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So it’s not just me. And it’s not just songs. It’s books and movies, too. Happy endings are great, believe me. I’ve admitted my love of Hallmark Channel movies. But I love a good cry too. West Side Story. I’ve seen it so many times, the film and staged versions. I cry every time. I hope that the ending will be different every time. But it never is. Chino still shoots Tony and Tony still dies in Maria’s arms. And I watch it again. And cry.

 

 

All you have to do is mention the movie title All Mine to Give (1957) to my sister Ellen, and she will start to tear up. I think the only explanation needed is that the British title is The Day They Gave Babies Away.

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A book title that will do the same to me is Child of My Heart (2002), about 15-year old Theresa and her younger cousin Daisy, who is 8 and ill. It’s a lovely book. I rarely use the word poignant, but I will here for Child of My Heart.

 

Opera is always tragic. NPR, in their 2006 April Fools Day story, did a piece on making opera happy (One Man’s Sad Goal? Make Opera Happy). I still remember sitting in my car listening to an interview with a (fictional) Hamilton Banks, who wants to rewrite operas so that Madame Butterfly doesn’t kill herself, Mimi is cured of TB in La Bohème, Don Juan is born again and repents. It took me a minute or two to realize this was a joke story. But it just wouldn’t be the same, opera with happy endings, would it?

According to Paul Thagard in Psychology Today

On reflection, I realized that the emotional impact of music does not come from imparting particular emotions, but rather from being emotionally engaging in general. Sometimes sad songs do you make you feel bad if they revive memories of your own tragic times, but more often they engage your interest because they describe or convey important events in the lives of others. Such emotional engagement is also important in other forms of art, including tragic drama such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, stirring paintings such as Picasso’s Guernica, and thrilling movies…

All of these songs combine original music, appropriate lyrics, and superb performances to evoke intense emotions. So it does not matter whether a song is happy or sad, only whether it has an emotional impact on the listeners. People are happy to like sad songs, just not boring ones.

Then there is the theory of downward social comparison (you know, that thought that as bad as things are, there’s someone out there worse off than you). This is from David Nield of Science Alert:

In terms of social psychology, one way of thinking about this is that we feel better about ourselves if we focus on someone who’s doing even worse, a well-known process known as downward social comparison. Everything’s going to be okay, because Thom Yorke is having an even worse day than you are.

I don’t know who Thom Yorke is, but I feel bad for him! Thagard goes on to describe the neuroscience theory as well:

Some scientists think melancholy music is linked to the hormone prolactin, a chemical which helps to curb grief. The body is essentially preparing itself to adapt to a traumatic event, and when that event doesn’t happen, the body is left with a pleasurable mix of opiates with nowhere else to go.

Thanks to brain scans, we know that listening to music releases dopamine – a neurotransmitter associated with food, sex, and drugs – at certain emotional peaks, and it’s also possible that this is where we get the pleasure from listening to sad tunes.

My favorite resource for these things, The Greater Good Science Center, also published an article on this phenomenon, and they connect it to both empathy and brain chemistry.

Tear-jerkers such as Adele’s Someone Like You frequently top the charts these days, while gloomy classical compositions like Mozart’s Requiem have moved people for centuries. Both portray and bring about a strong sense of loss and sadness. But our enjoyment of sad music is paradoxical—we go out of our way to avoid sadness in our daily lives. So why is it that, in the arts, themes such as loss can be safely experienced, profoundly enjoyed, and even celebrated?

The research adds to a body of work suggesting that music appreciation involves social cognition. People sensitive and willing to empathize with the misfortune of another person—in this case represented by the sad music—are somehow rewarded by the process. There are a number of theories about why that is.

The reward could be purely biochemical. We have all experienced the feeling of relief and serenity after a good cry. This is due to a cocktail of chemicals triggered by crying. A recent theory proposes that even a fictional sadness is enough to fool our body to trigger such an endocrine response, intended to soften the mental pain involved in real loss. This response is driven by hormones such as oxytocin and prolactin, which actually induce the feelings of comfort, warmth and mild pleasure in us. This mix of hormones is probably particularly potent when you take the actual loss and sadness out of the equation—which you can often do in music-induced sadness.

It is also possible that the effect is mainly psychological, where those who allow themselves to be emotionally immersed in the sad music are simply exercising their full emotional repertoire in a way that is inherently rewarding. The capacity to understand the emotions of others is crucial for navigating the social world we live in, and therefore exercising such an ability is likely to be rewarding—due to its evolutionary significance.

They used the phrase that so often comes to mind in this regard–a good cry. There is a Yiddish proberb “A good cry lightens the heart.”

The round transparent drop of water

There are lots of articles on why crying is good for you, emotionally and physically.

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cleanse the heart

 

Check out Aging Care on why it’s good for you to cry:

  1. It Relieves Stress
    Because unalleviated stress can increase our risk for heart attack and damage certain areas of our brain, humans’ ability to cry has survival value, Frey says.
  2. Crying Lowers Blood Pressure
    Crying has been found to lower blood pressure and pulse rate immediately following therapy sessions during which patients cried and raged.
  3. Tears Remove Toxins
    In addition, Frey says tears actually remove toxins from the body. Tears help humans remove chemicals that build up during emotional stress.
  4. It Reduces Manganese
    The simple act of crying also reduces the body’s manganese level, a mineral which affects mood and is found in up to 30 times greater concentration in tears than in blood serum.
  5. Emotional Crying Means You’re Human
    While the eyes of all mammals are moistened and soothed by tears, only human beings shed tears in response to emotional stress. Emotional expression acknowledges the feelings you’re having. Emotions motivate us to empathize, coordinate and work as a unit to best survive.

Good news for women, and bad for men: on average, women cry 47 times per year and men only 7. Hey guys, instead of that action flick, try watching Steel Magnolias. It’ll be good for you!

 

And now I am wondering about the whole “tears of joy” thing; why do we cry when we are happy? But I don’t have time for that now. I have a party to go to, with Child of My Heart, Ray LaMontagne on my playlist, a cat, a cup of tea, and a box of tissues.

Have a good cry!

P.S. If you haven’t seen The Leftovers season 3 episode 5, “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World”, OMG! There’s the whole Frasier the Lion thing that is based on a real story. I am still reeling over the episode (a lion eats a man claiming to be God; I mean, this is serious stuff). And there is a song, lyrics by Johnny Mercer and sung by Sarah Vaughan, to go with it. In the words of Bob’s mother, “It’s a weirdy!”

 

And that reminds me of another sad song, Tears for Fears’ 1982 “Mad World”, as covered  by Gary Jules for the film Donnie Darko (2001). Sigh, I am in a never-ending loop here and I only have so many tissues. G’bye!

 

Alternately purring and spitting

Yes, the title could refer to a kitten, like little Jarito (I don’t name them!), the current foster kitten in residence.

Jarito
Jarito. I call him JJ.

 

But what I was thinking of with the words “alternately purring and spitting” was Southern writer Eudora Welty and Southern women in American literature. That so aptly describes Southern women to me.

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Eudora Welty (1909-2001)

 

I had heard of Eudora Welty.  GRITS (Girls Raised in the South) tend to look out for Southern writers.

GRITS

 

Even though I’ve lived most of my life in California, I spent my childhood years in Atlanta, Georgia and was raised by proud Southern women. Yes, there are a myriad of social justice and human rights issues to discuss when one brings up the Southern United States, but there is also a unique and sometimes beautiful culture that I wax nostalgic over, even though I didn’t necessarily experience it.

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But what led me to Eudora Welty and a fascination with her was hearing actress Stockard Channing read Welty’s short story “Why I Live at the P.O.” (written in 1941) on Selected Shorts, one of my favorite NPR podcasts.

American actress, Stockard Channing
Actress Stockard Channing.

The story is hilarious and poignant and so very Southern. The characters have names like Papa-Daddy, Uncle Rondo, and Stella-Rondo. The narrator is Sister. When I heard the story read aloud, I felt right at home! The story was published in her book A Curtain of Green and Other Stories. Despite its quirky, humorous overtones and absurd (or not, you decide) characters, there is an undertone of isolation and bitterness in Sister’s narration of the 4th of July holiday in small town Mississippi. The P.O. refers to the post office; Sister is the town’s postmistress.

 

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You can read the story here or listen here, if the links work. It’s well worth the $2.99 to buy your own download if the audio link doesn’t work. I tried, but sometimes I fail!

Welty herself was born and died in Jackson, Mississippi. In addition to being a writer, she was also a talented photographer, capturing the lives of the rural poor for the Works Progress Administration during the Depression of the 1930s.

 

Her photographic work is being shown at the North Carolina Museum of Art in the exhibition Looking South: Photographs by Eudora Welty, on display until September 3, 2017. Art critic John Szarkowski wrote:

“Like those of [Helen] Levitt, Welty’s photographs do not show us the only truths of her subjects’ lives; perhaps they show us only the rarest and most evanescent truths, in which case we are the more grateful for these proofs of their existence.” 

Best known for her short stories, she also published 5 novels. She never married or had children, and kept her life mostly private. Her stories focus on individual lives and stories, using local color and humor to convey sometimes stifling environments and families.

RyanSheffield
Illustration by Ryan Sheffield for The Eudora Welty Portrait Reader.

 

As described on the website The Bitter Southerner:

Why Welty? For a lot of us who grew up in the South and liked words, Welty represented not only what we knew, capturing the characters and cadences of our region, but also the range of what was possible — telling honest stories about a place that continues to struggle and progress.

As President Jimmy Carter put it when he presented Welty the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980: “Eudora Welty’s fiction, with its strong sense of place and triumphant comic spirit, illuminates the human condition. Her photographs of the South during the Depression reveal a rare artistic sensibility. Her critical essays explore mind and heart, literary and oral tradition, language and life with unsurpassed beauty. Through photography, essays, and fiction, Eudora Welty has enriched our lives and shown us the wonder of the human experience.”

 

carter1

 

One can visit Eudora Welty’s home and amazing garden in Jackson. The garden was created by Welty’s mother, Chestina Welty, in 1925 and carefully restored by garden restoration consultant Susan Haltom.

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Eudora Welty’s mother, Chestina tends her roses.
garden 2
Eudora Welty’s garden.

Welty’s home is a National Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places. Eudora lived there from 1925, when she was 16 years old, until her death in 2001. It is located at 1119 Pinehurst Street in Jackson. She gifted the home to the State of Mississippi and it is a museum of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

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1119 Pinehurst Street, Jackson, Mississippi.

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I myself am not a gardener. I love the IDEA of gardening, but the REALITY of gardening is another story.

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If you are at all intrigued by the life and work of Eudora Welty, please check out the Eudora Welty Foundation. You don’t have to be one of us GRITS to appreciate her writing or photography. Or of any of the others who I would add to the pantheon of great Southern women writers. Clockwise from upper left: Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Conner, Kate Chopin, Alice Walker, and Zora Neale Hurston. There are many more; these are just a very few.

 

Hopefully you feel inspired to read, write, or take some photographs. Or dig in your garden. Or whatever makes you happy, be it painting, cooking, sewing, etc. They can all be therapeutic activities, good for your mental health and sense of well-being. Even observing creativity is good for you–reading, listening to music, or going to a museum. According to the lifestyle website Verily, such activities:

  • Relieve stress
  • Increase and renew brain function
  • Help prevent Alzheimer’s
  • Improve mood
  • Cultivate your social life

So instead of going to the gym, I think I’ll go read a book. In the garden. With some music. Getting healthy!

painting
Painting by Niels Frederik Schiøttz-Jensen (1855–1941)

 

 

 

Oh, to be Queen (all 5 feet 0 inches of me)

I don’t really have a desire to rule a queendom. Okay, maybe I do a little bit. My inner 10-year old does still daydream of crowns and sceptres and beautiful gowns and having all of the coffee and chocolate I want. And kittens everywhere. And peace on earth. And rooms full of books. And time to read them.

my throne
The throne room in Genevieve-landia.

 

But who doesn’t have those daydreams?

Queen for a Day

 

My beautiful sister Cathy was Homecoming Queen at Druid Hills High School. She looked so glamorous in her gown and sash, wearing the tiara, and carrying roses. Her beaming boyfriend (later husband) stood proudly at her side. My equally beautiful sister Ellen raced across the football when Cathy’s crowning was announced, as excited as anyone. I could only dream.

By the time I got to high school, it was clear the title wouldn’t pass down to me. I was a bookish, quiet wallflower. I never was asked out on a date or to the prom. I pretended I didn’t care.

i-shouldve-been-homecoming-queen-but-im-over-it

 

A popular song in the 1970s was Seals and Crofts King of Nothing. I actually managed to use it a reference in an essay at the end of my senior year. It was something about how I saw my future. I got an A, and the teacher read it to the class. I was heavily influenced by J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), the paean to teen angst and alienation, of course.

Seals and Crofts
Seals and Crofts.

King lyrics

 

Rye_catcher.jpg

I was trying to be all Bohemian and anti-preppy. I made dresses out of fabric remnants on sale from the bin at the local fabric store (there were such things then) and quit eating meat. I dreamed of going to Mount Holyoke with the other girls like me, and being like one of the characters in Wendy Wasserstein’s play Uncommon Women and Others (1977), which I saw as a teleplay in 1978, starring Jill Eikenberry, a young  and upcoming actress named Meryl Streep, and Swoosie Kurtz. If you can find it, watch it!

Uncommon_Women..._and_Others-poster-1979.jpg

 

What has renewed my queenly aspirations? Recently, Bob and I binge-watched the Netflix series The Crown. So good! I got to Googling Princess Margaret, and for some reason looked up how tall she was–5’2″. So of course, I had to look up Queen Elizabeth II–5’4″ (maybe shorter now that she’s 91 years old; we tend to shrink as we age).

The Crown.jpg

It made me happy to realize these women were on the small side. I am 5′ 0″. My mother was 5′ 2″.  There are a lot of average height and tall people in my family; we women of small stature are the anomolies. I’m fine with that. I’ve never wanted to be tall. But queen? Maybe.

Queenly and queen-size are reference to large women in the fashion industry. I am in the petites category. Sadly, a lot of petites clothing looks like it was made for little girls, not adult women. I imagine queen-size runs to the matronly, if designers and their stereotypes are at play in other size categories. Designers–get real!

Anyway, shortly after we finished The Crown, we started watching Victoria on PBS. Also excellent! There are many references early on to Victoria (1819-1901) being too small and too short (and too young) to be queenly. That piqued my interest! I Googled. Queen Victoria was–get ready for it–5′ 0″ tall! I am vindicated. I can be queen!

victoria_portrait at 24
Queen Victoria at age 24, portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1842.

 

Victoria reigned from 1837 to her death in 1901. She inherited the throne at age 18. As depicted in the costume drama, she had to be feisty and stand up for herself to be taken seriously. Now it is with great seriousness that we picture her.

The Queen 1887
Queen Victoria in 1887.

 

And sing of her. The song by Leonard Cohen (1972) comes to mind. I won’t pretend to understand the lyrics. But it sounds serious.

 

Of course, as portrayed by Jenna Coleman (5′ 2″), she is heartbreakingly lovely and delicate looking. And spunky.

Victoria-Recap-01-450

 

Actually, it’s pretty good casting when one sees portraits of the young Victoria. Not quite as lovely, no, but there is a similarity.

1842 portrait Franz Xaver Winterhalter
1842 portrait of Victoria, Franz Xaver Winterhalter.

 

Once down the rabbit hole, I had to know how tall other queens had been. Elizabeth I is estimated to have been about 5′ 4″ as well. One of my favorite queens to read about is Anne Boleyn (1501-1536), the ill-fated second wife (1533-1536) of Henry VIII and mother of Elizabeth I (1533-1603).

Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn
220px-Darnley_stage_3
The “Darnley Portrait” of Elizabeth I, c. 1575.

Anne Boleyn’s body was exhumed in the 19th century (I try not to think about that too much), and she was estimated by a Dr. Mouat to be between 5′ 0′ and 5′ 3″. (Insert inevitable joke about “with or without her head” here.) I first became intrigued with Anne Boleyn from the 1969 film, Anne of the Thousand Days, with Genevieve Bujold (5′ 4″) playing the queen.

Genevieve B
Canadian actress Genevieve Bujold as Anne Boleyn in 1969.

After watching the series Wolf Hall (2015), another excellent drama based on the Hilary Mantel novel of 2009, I decided to read up on Anne, who was portrayed somewhat less sympathetically than in Anne of the Thousand Days.

Conincidentally, Claire Foy (also 5′ 4″), who portrays Elizabeth II in The Crown, played Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall.

Claire-Foy-as-Anne-Boleyn-wolf-hall-bbc-38148555-960-640
Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn.

Wolf Hall.jpg

After struggling a bit through the Mantel novel, I decided to go a little, shall we say, more readable, with Philippa Gregory’s book, The Other Boleyn Girl (2001), told from the perspective of Anne’s sister Mary.

Other_Boleyn_Girl

 

I know there is a movie version of The Other Boleyn Girl, but I just can’t get behind Natalie Portman (5′ 3″) as Anne and Scarlett Johansson (5′ 3″; I thought she’d be taller) as Mary. Don’t ask me why; I’m not sure.

The-Other-Boleyn-Girl-the-other-boleyn-girl-17169828-500-333

My paternal grandfather’s Aunt Genevieve was Queen–Queen of Mardi Gras in 1888.

1888 G
Genevieve Cottraux, 1888.

I have royal blood, so to speak. Do I wear the crown well? Maybe that’s why I like a good headband so much; it’s kinda like a crown. Combine a headband with cat ears, and there I am!

 

I’ll be a kind a benevolent queen. Genevieve-landia will be a happy place of peace and harmony. The motto will be Peace and Hugs. I tried inserting this in a Latin translator and got this:

pacem et cubantem piis foveamus amplexibus

Peace and Hugs is a lot easier. No need for Latin.

By the way, Genevieve Cottraux of 1888–her father was a coffee merchant and her uncle was a confectioner. So my royal blood includes coffee and chocolate. I’m taking applications for Royal Barista and Royal Chocolatier. These are appointments of the utmost importance.

Until my coronation, you can find me wherever there are books, kittens, coffee, and chocolate. Wait, that sounds like home.

 

The banjo moves up on my life list

I hate the term bucket list. You might as well say, “I’m going to die any day now. What to do?” I’d rather say, “Life is a mystery. What would I like to do?” Bucket list sounds so final. Life list sounds open and celebratory.

 

For the longest time, going up in a hot air balloon was a feature on my list. I lived for a while in Napa, where hot air ballooning is a major activity. But no one I know would go up with me. I know too many people who are afraid of heights. And I was afraid of going alone. So I still haven’t done it. I would hear that sound of the air whoshing up into the balloons as they drifted over my house near the Napa River. Taking my coffee out on the deck, I’d stand in my pajamas and wave longingly at the tourists in the balloons as they drifted by.

balloon

I signed up for a watercolor painting class and the first thing I painted was a hot air balloon.

balloon painting

I’ve read Around the World in 80 Days more than once. Of course, there isn’t a hot air balloon in the book, but thanks to the film version, I can’t think of the story without a hot air balloon.

atwi80d2

 

 

 

I still have hot air balloon dreams. Maybe over Paris! Paris was also a long-time life list item. And in 2014 I finally got there! Was it everything I dreamed it would be? Mais oui! Certainement! I’ll brush up my bad high school French and go back anytime. Given my name and French heritage, you’d think I’d have speaking French in the bag, but alas, languages don’t necessarily pass down in families once they assimilate to the United States. So I was really An American in Paris:

 

For a few years now, I’ve said I want to learn to play the banjo. I see banjos at the Alameda Point Antiques Fair (the flea market) now and again, but they always look pretty beat up, and I never have the courage to haggle with the dealers since I know absolutely nothing about banjos.

14965206-antique-market-on-the-Portobello-road-London-Stock-Photo

I don’t know why I love them, but I do. Recently, we went to the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. What a beautiful place! I worked for years in museums, and I was quite impressed with the displays, collections, volunteers, everything! They even have a conservation lab, which was my first foray into museum work.

 

MIM

Some of my favorite displays at the museum were the Americana, Bluegrass, and Banjo sections. Banjos! In a museum! I felt vindicated in my banjo love.

Since, I have come to find out there is an American Banjo Museum and American Banjo Hall of Fame. Woo hoo! Now I have a reason to go to Oklahoma City. Some of the illustrious inductees include Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, Roy Clark, and Steve Martin. There are women in the hall of fame too: Debbie Schreyer, Helen Baker, Georgette Twain (love that name) among others.

 

Last night, in one of my weird, mixed up dreams, I bought a banjo. The main theme of the dream was that I was trying to board a ferry into San Francisco. It was an ordeal. I had to go through a labyrinthian mall to buy a ticket. And while wandering lost through the mall, I saw the world’s most beautiful banjo. I had to have it. I bought it. And in nonsensical dream style, instead of putting the banjo in a case for me, the salesclerk carefully and elaborately wrapped it in brown paper and string, like the gorgeous and mysterious Christmas present.

beauty
The dream banjo didn’t look like this; not quite so fancy. More Danish Modern meets banjo. This is Gibson’s Earl Scruggs Golden Deluxe.

The banjo often doesn’t get a lot of respect. Mark Twain (any relation to Georgette?) said something about a true gentleman is one who knows how to play the banjo and doesn’t. But I don’t care. I’ve had a crush on Steve Martin since the 1970s. Then, when I was in high school, the banjo was part of his comedy schtick. Now he’s a respected, Grammy winning musician with his band, The Steep Canyon Rangers. And he’s still funny.

 

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Can I learn to play this late in life? The question is more, will I follow my dream. There’s even a Dummies book for me.

banjo for dummies

 

I challenge myself to follow this one. I made it to Paris. Maybe soon you’ll see me in the sky, in a hot air balloon, picking on a banjo and having a great old time.