I put a spell on you…

Let me start by saying I know nothing about the religion of Voodoo (or Vodou, considered by scholars to be the more appropriate spelling). I am sure it has been drastically misrepresented in television and the movies. The religion originates in Africa, but is different in the various places it is practiced. As practiced in the Americas (most famously in New Orleans in North America) and the Caribbean, it combines African, Catholic, and Native American traditions. Voodoo is not necessarily a cult, or violent, or the black magic it’s been portrayed to be, and my understanding is that most people who are Voodooists have never seen or used a Voodoo doll. (If interested, you can read more about Voodoo the religion in Saumya Arya Haas’s article for the Huffington Post.)

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Voodoo festival in Benin, image from cnn.com

I, however, am fascinated by Voodoo dolls. I have a few, not a lot, that are not meant to represent anyone in particular and I don’t stick pins in them or anything. Mostly, I think they are terribly cute.

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My Voodoo dolls. Cute! And their powers are for good, not evil.

At least the ones you used to be able to buy from places like Jamie Hayes Gallery in New Orleans are cute. I bought a couple of dolls the week I was there between Christmas and New Years in 2009. In the gallery window was a Christmas tree decorated with little dolls, and I thought it was about the most adorable thing I’d ever seen. )Looking at the website now, I don’t see any dolls.) These are the dolls I bought at the gallery:

I love these 2 in particular because they remind me of another cute overload duo–Hoops and Yoyo™ from Hallmark.

Hoops and Yoyo for real

Hoops and Yoyo™ crack me up. My inner 12-year old takes over at certain moments, and she will almost always choose Hoops and Yoyo™ if choosing a card for someone (given that humor is appropriate; I do have some common sense).

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The tiny Mariposa doll was a gift from a very dear friend who always knows what to pick up for me on her travels.

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Tiny Mariposa. Use the cat hair under her feet for scale.

Mariposa, a string doll from Watchover Voodoo, has a particular assignment and was thoughtfully chosen for my needs:

Mariposa tag

My first experience with a real life Voodoo was at a job, a job I loved but unfortunately didn’t stay at long. And no, that had nothing to do with the presence of a Voodoo doll in the boss’s desk drawer. The Voodoo doll was meant to represent the former boss, who had left suddenly and vaulted the new boss into the position with little notice or preparation. In times of stress, New Boss would secretly take out the Voodoo doll of Old Boss and stick a pin or two into her, and then get back to work. The secret didn’t stay secret, but given what a cool and unflappable (being sarcastic there) group of women we were, none of us thought too much about it. It was an amusing way of relieving stress. If Watchover Voodoo had existed back in the early 1990s (or, if online shopping had existed, which, believe it or not children, there was such a time), New Boss might have bought Watchover Voodoo’s the Stress Reducer, the Love Your Job, or even the Ninja.

I myself am partial to, besides Mariposa, the Bad Hair Day (I have a lot of those), the Pixie, the Loner, and the Nice One. Sometimes I really need the Scatterbrain. Take a look at the collection; there’s one for everyone and every need!

I might have made a Voodoo doll once, but I won’t go into too many details except to say I was at a very low point in my life and I was really furious at the person whose name and image the doll carried. I did stab the doll through its little heart a few times. Did it make me feel better? Absolutely, for a minute or two. Did it make a difference? Not at all.

This brings to mind the whole concept of magical thinking, which I’ve always found myself doing, but hadn’t thought about as a concept or applied a name to it until I read the Augusten Burroughs memoir Magical Thinking: True Stories (St. Martin’s Press, 2004).

Best known for the memoir Running with Scissors (St. Martin’s Press, 2002), Burroughs does not shy away from the personal and painful while still mananaging to be funny.

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From the site GoodTherapy.org:

Magical thinking is the belief that one’s own thoughts, wishes, or desires can influence the external world. It is common in very young children. A four-year-old child, for example, might believe that after wishing for a pony, one will appear at his or her house. Magical thinking is also colloquially used to refer more broadly to mystical, magical thoughts, such as the belief in Santa Claus, supernatural entities, and miraculous occurrences.

My experience as an adult with magical thinking runs along the line of the belief that I am bad luck for the San Francisco Giants so I shouldn’t watch their games on television (e.g., if I root for them they will lose, but if I don’t pay attention, they will win). Or if I wish really hard, that pair of shoes I really want will go on sale. Magical thinking can be totally harmless, but can also be correlated with mental health conditions such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Does love invite magical thinking? (I just stole that line from the book The Awkward Age by Francesca Segal.)

Joan Didion also wrote a memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, in which magical thinking plays into her journey through grief in the year following the death of her husband, while she also cared for her comatose daughter, who also eventually passed away.

We see athletes who never vary their pregame rituals or their approach to their turn at bat, say. I’m thinking of San Francisco Giant Pablo Sandoval there.

Or former Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum, who was reported never to wash his trusty cap, but to spray it with Febreze fabric refresher once in a while, for luck.

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You can call it superstition or magical thinking or delusion or irrational or whatever you want (or unhygienic in the cap case). But does it work? According to a 2009 article by Piercarlo Valdesolo for Scientific American, it can give people an edge. Lucky charms do have power, not because they are indeed magical, but because we believe they are.

Rituals, signs, omens. They’ve been part of the human psyche forever. Supersitions and the belief in luck are reported to have an evolutionary basis. The cave person who runs from the rustling in the bushes survives, whether it’s a fanged and hungry carnivorous beastie or the wind.

Many writers have compiled encyclopediae of superstitions.

Some of the described superstitions are amusing, others not so much. For instance, diagonal windows in Vermont are called witch windows, due to the belief that a witch can’t fly a broomstick through them.

witch window
A witch window. Eccentric but harmless.

At the animal shelter, we see more often than you might think people who will not consider adopting black cats. And some shelters will not adopt out black cats at Halloween to prevent animal torture.

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All of that aside, lucky charms and rituals provide us with comfort and a feeling that we can somehow control the chaos of life. I’m okay with that! Much less fattening than a bowl of macaroni and cheese, even the vegan kind.

vegan mac and cheese
Vegan mac and cheese recipe available at The Organic Authority.

So now I bring out my magic wand and take you back to the magical and simpler time of 1982 and the band that was known as America.

My magical powers are perhaps limited. I can make a great vegan muffin. And make it disappear as well! I can try to make Einstein see the wisdom of my words.

What I really can do is choose how I live in this world. And I choose, to the best of my ability, to live a good life, a life of love and kindness, and a belief in the magic of happiness. Perhaps the beautiful and inspirational Audrey Hepburn said it best.

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Peace and hugs.

Remember Proverbs (Cultivate Kindness)

cultivate kindness

That’s something I never thought I’d do: start an essay by referring to the Bible (or any other religious text). It’s so not my style. First of all, I’ve never read the Bible so quoting the Bible or anything remotely Biblical is beyond me. The Bible would be one of my nightmare categories if I ever competed on Jeopardy! or any other quiz show. Along with sports and pretty much anything to do with geography.

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I think of myself as more of a secular pagan (if there is such a thing) than anything else: I love feasting and gift giving but for reasons of all kinds and on a daily basis, not because of any religious foundations. I’d much rather celebrate solstices, equinoxes, the seasons and nature. And kindness as an everyday way of life. Which leads me to Proverbs.

I didn’t get there by myself. The author Alex George took me there in his book Setting Free the Kites.

On page 39, the main character Robert, after the new kid at school, Nathan, defends him from the school bully, is being told by his mother, ” ‘So now he needs you to be kind back. Remember Proverbs: Do not let kindness and truth leave you. Bind them around your neck. Write them on the tablet of your heart.’ She smiled at me, and I knew the game was up.”

Do not let kindness and truth leave you. Bind them around your neck. Write them on the tablet of your heart. 

This struck me as possibly one of the most important things I’d read in a long time. (If you must know, it’s Proverbs 3:3, according to Google.) Words spoken by Solomon, who I was thinking about just the other day. Really.

A story I do remember hearing often is that of two women both claiming that they are the mother of a fought-over baby and King Solomon, deciding the case, advises cutting the baby in half. I was always horrified by what was called the wisdom of Solomon. But of course the upshot is that he correctly surmises that the woman who says she will give up the baby is the real mother. In her love, she’d rather give him up than have him hurt.

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Maybe the story wouldn’t have scared me as much if I’d seen it told with Legos.

I have to remind myself every day to be kind. As much as I wish it always came naturally to me, it doesn’t. People try my patience and elude my understanding. I find myself being judgmental, envious, dismissive. Working in an animal shelter, I see both the best and worst in human nature. It is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, part of the unpredictability of being human.

I felt called upon to be Solomon not so long ago when two women were arguing over who should get to adopt a particular dog. Would Solomon have suggested cutting the dog in two and seeing how the women reacted? Neither was willing to step back and let the other adopt the dog. I had to make a decision based on our first come, first served policy. Whatever my decision, one of the women was going to be very angry with me. My interior voice was saying that there are plenty of little brown Chihuahuas (also called LBDs, Little Brown Dogs) to go around so let’s not argue over that particular one, but I can’t say those things out loud. I really don’t like the feeling of having made someone angry and unhappy. And if I had handled it better, two dogs would have gone to new homes, not just one.

I wish I had remembered the wisdon of William Ury rather than Solomon. Ury is a noted writer, speaker, negotiator, and helped found the International Negotation Network with former United States President Jimmy Carter.

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William Ury

Here’s his amazing TED talk, The Road to Yes.

 

I am familiar with William Ury from his book The Third Side: Why We Fight and How We Can Stop.

the third side

 

I automatically went to the role of arbiter in the dog dispute, but I could have explored other roles. If I’d only had the book with me and the time to consult it! As an introvert operating in an extrovert job, I find myself not always thinking fast on my feet. I like to mull things over, reflect, and formulate my responses. I’m terrible at witty answers to stupid questions, too.

One of my go-to sources on postings about life as an introvert is Introvert, Dear. I’m not alone in my need for time to respond. Plus, if I said the first thing that comes to mind, I could get in a lot of trouble.

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The motto “the customer is always right” really sucks sometimes. Because the customer isn’t always right. Alexander Kjerulf listed 5 reasons why the motto is wrong:

  1. It make employees unhappy. True. We take a lot of bad mouthing and abuse and smile while we do it.
  2. It gives abrasive customers an unfair advantage. Absolutely. Squeaky wheel syndrome. Bad behavior is rewarded.
  3. Some customers are bad for business. Yes, anyone causing a ruckus at any place of business will turn off other customers and they will go elsewhere. Or we will get a bad Yelp review.
  4. It results in worse customer service. If we are tired, humiliated, frustrated, we may unintentionally reflect that to clients who are there with the best of intentions.
  5. Some customers are just plain wrong. They are. And sometimes we have to convey that to prevent harm to an animal. Tactfully, of course. Our ulitmate priority is the health and safety of the people and the animals we serve.

I can list many examples of all of these points, some funny (the male dog returned after 2 hours because the woman felt awkward explaining to her 6 year old about male body parts), some sad (the elderly woman who fell in love with and wanted to adopt a particular dog but her son said no because he didn’t like the breed mix), some infuriating (people who insist on animals living outdoors despite evidence that animals who live indoors with their human families generally live longer, healthier lives), some downright puzzling (the woman who pointed to a kitten and asked “do you have that one in gray” as if she were shoe shopping). And don’t get me started on some of the phone calls we field!

John Cleese
“You want me to come catch the wild turkey in your office parking lot?”

We all have bad days, make mistakes, could use a little leeway. I try to keep that in mind with the people I deal with. I wish everyone kept that in mind when dealing with others: we don’t know what another person might be going through, what might be making them act they way they do, what their story is.

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In a world where you can be anything, be kind. To each other, to animals, to the earth. To yourself.

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A song I adore (got to get a musical reference in here somewhere!) that speaks to love, kindness, and writing them on the tablet of your heart is Clem Snide’s Find Love. Love is an infinite commodity. The more we give, the more we have.

 

I do have a quibble with Proverbs. Our hearts are not tablets. That to me implies stone, a hard substance that wears away with time. I think of the metaphorical heart as able to grow, to be nourished and to provide sustenance, more like a garden. Apparently Jesus said that hearts are like gardens too (I didn’t know that, I just Googled “the heart is a garden”). I also discovered a poem by Katherine Merrill, Heart’s Garden.

Heart’s Garden

By Katherine Merrill

My heart is a garden where thought flowers grow.
The thoughts that I think are the seeds that I sow.
Every kind loving thought bears a kind loving deed,
And a thought that is selfish is just like a weed.

So I must watch what I think each minute each day,
Pull out the weed thoughts and throw them away,
And plant loving seed thoughts so thick in a row,
There will not be room for weed thoughts to grow.

Buddha also compared the heart to a garden. As did Oscar Wilde. I feel like I am in such good company on this one!

buddha

Oscar Wilde

If this is too high-minded for you, think of Dr. Suess’s character the Grinch and his tiny little heart that grows when he discovers the power of love and kindness.

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You might have noticed I haven’t addressed the truth side of the Proverbs quote. Is it possible to have kindness without honesty? Honesty without compassion is cruelty, I’ve heard someone say. Bruce Kasanoff writes about the downside of honesty without compassion. Maybe brutal honesty is just brutality. Michelle Reid addresses the question of whether honesty and kindness can coexist, and they can, if we stop and think before we speak. And I’d add, reread and think before you hit send on a text or email.

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If I am honest with myself at this moment, I should go fold that load of laundry waiting in the basket. But I’m going to choose kindness, and get back to my reading.

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Peace and hugs.

Five Little Poopers and How They Grew (apologies to Margaret Sidney)

We have foster kittens in the house again! Beautiful momma cat Cola arrived to us with her 1 week old babies Squirt, Soda, Pop, Fizz, and Bubbles, on April 2. In the week we have been watching them, they have shown so much change. I can sit and watch them for hours. And I do, believe me, much to the chagrin of my instructors at Saybrook University, who keep waiting for me to submit this semester’s essays on the human animal bond. Instead of writing about it, I am living it! They have me mesmerized.

Here is the family on the first day they came to stay with us.

 

 

These little bundles of love and joy get bigger, stronger, and more active every day. I feel so privileged to be a part of their journey to finding new homes with loving human families.

It was a bit of a challenge to sort out which little one is which, but on the day of their first weigh-in we tried our best.

Day 7 collage

I’ve been waiting for a mom with 5 babies to come along just so I could use the title Five Little Poopers and How They Grew, a nod of a sort to Margaret Sidney’s series of books, Five Little Peppers. The first in a series of 12 books (published 1881-1916), The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew was a childhood favorite of mine. As I’ve written before, as the youngest child of a young, pretty widow, I was fascinated by stories of widowed mothers with spunky children, everyone pitching in and getting into all kinds of hijinks.

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Margaret Sidney was the psuedonym of Harriet Mulford Stone Lathrop (1844 – 1924).

Five Little Peppers book cover

Margaret Sidney considered the series done after 4 books, but pressure from her fans prompted her to keep writing. The series, in order:

  • Five Little Peppers and How They Grew (1881)
  • Five Little Peppers Midway (1890)
  • Five Little Peppers Grown Up (1892)
  • Five Little Peppers: Phronsie Pepper (1897)
  • Five Little Peppers: The Stories Polly Pepper Told (1899)
  • Five Little Peppers: The Adventures of Joel Pepper (1900)
  • Five Little Peppers Abroad (1902
  • Five Little Peppers At School (1903)
  • Five Little Peppers and Their Friends (1904)
  • Five Little Peppers: Ben Pepper (1905)
  • Five Little Peppers in the Little Brown House (1907)
  • Five Little Peppers: Our Davie Pepper (1916)
all 12 books
Someday I will own them all!
kindle collection
For now, I will settle for the much cheaper alternative of the Kindle version of the complete set.

In 1939, Five Little Peppers and How They Grew was released as a film, with Edith Fellows receiving top billing as sister Polly.

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The cast of the film version of Five Little Peppers and How They Grew (1939).

 

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Of course, as the youngest in my family, my favorite Pepper was baby sister Phronsie (short for Saphronia). She was also the sibling saddled with the least common name in the family, another trait I share with her. In the film version, she was played by adorable little Dorothy Ann Seese.

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Dorothy Ann Seese (1935-2015) was considered to have the potential of Shirley Temple. She appeared in 11 films between 1939 and 1955. She became a data analyst and then a paralegal.

When I finally saw the movie, not so long ago, I became seriously concerned for the kitten actor who appears as a gift to Phronsie. Phronsie hauls that poor little thing around like an old sock, and I became concerned for the welfare of that long gone cat.

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Phronsie and her kitten.

Apparently I’m not the only one who was concerned for the kitten. I found pictures of the kitten in several scenes, marked with a red arrow to show that the kitten was alive and kicking and still in the movie.

 

I’ve been oddly fascinated with the number 5 recently. Biblically, the number 5 supposedly signifies the grace of God because man was created with 5 fingers on each hand, 5 toes on each foot, and 5 senses. In other traditions and readings, the number 5 represents balance, health, love, marriage, the human (the 4 limbs and the head that controls them), peace, harmony…

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Other odd things about the number 5: there are 5 vowels in the English language, an earthworm has 5 hearts, many (but not all) starfish have 5 arms. Back to the Bible, David was armed with 5 stones when he killed Goliath. I am generally opposed to throwing stones at anyone or anything, but it’s a good story as far as parables go. With faith and determination, you can do what you set out to do.

5 stones

 

Legendary designer Coco Chanel considered 5 to be her lucky number. Her most successful and iconic perfume, Chanel No. 5, was released on May 5, 1922. She purportedly said, “I always launch my collection on the 5th day of the 5th month, so the number 5 seems to bring me luck – therefore, I will name it No 5.”

 

 

I am currently reading Louise Penny’s 9th novel in her Inspector Gamache series, titled How the Light Gets In. Gotta love a book that references singer/songwriter/poet/ordained Buddhist monk Leonard Cohen’s song Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

 

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Here is the song performed by 2 amazing singers, Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla, who were both backup singers for Leonard Cohen, or his angels, as he called them.

 

In the Inspector Gamache book (yes, back to the book, there is a reason I brought it up), How the Light Gets In is a mystery surrounding the famous Ouellet quintuplets, a fictional set of 5 identical sisters based on the real-life Dionne quintuplets (born 1934) and the story of their family ceding custody of the girls to the government of Ontario, which made millions of dollars off of them a tourist attraction.

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Ontario premier Mitchell Hepburn with the Dionne quintuplets.

The Dionne quints were the first known quintuplets to have survived infancy. In 1934, such a birth was headline news and not a common occurence. Now, with fertility drugs and medical interventions, such a story would not be the rarity it was then. In the midst of the Depression, the world was hungry for what they thought was a happy story. But the true story of the Dionne sisters is much darker; they were watched, examined, kept by Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe in his Dafoe Hospital and Nursery with the support of the Ontario government.

Quintland
Living facility constructed by the government of Ontario for the quintuplets, surrounded by barbed wire fencing. It became known as Quintland and was a tourist attraction.

 

The parents were poor, unable to make ends meet, and already had 5 older children to support, so the girls were taken away at 4 months of age, exploited, exhibited publicly several times a day. They didn’t see their parents Oliva-Edouard and Elzire Dionne until they were 9 years old, in 1943, when Oliva and Elzire won custody of the girls back from the government. In later years, the girls described being sexually abused by their father. They had all left home by the age of 18.

 

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Never thought of indvidually, sisters Annette, Émelie, Yvonne, Cécile, and Marie.

 

Émilie became a nun, but died young at age 20 from suffocation during a seizure. Marie died of a brain tumor at age 35. In the 1990s, surviving sisters Annette, Cécile, and Yvonne, living in poverty, received a settlement from the government, but it could, of course, not make up for the abuses they suffered. They also told their story in the book Family Secrets, with writer Jean-Yves Soucy. Yvonne died of cancer in 2001.

 

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Annette, Yvonne, and Cécile in 1998.

 

As far as I can tell, Annette and Cécile are still living.

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Cécile and Annette in 2017.

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Morbid curiosity on my part? Probably. Partly. It is a fascinating story. Not necessarily murderous as in the Louise Penny fictionalized version, but still dark and tragic.

 

 

As for my 5 little ones, their mother is taking quite good care of them, and they are on the path to very happy lives. Yes, I love to show pictures of them and it would be great for people to spend time with them, socializing them to human company. But I don’t get any benefit from them other than tremendous happiness and the feeling that I am doing something good in the world. Priceless.

 

 

I love all 5 of the babies, and their momma, to pieces and would never do anything to hurt them in any way. But I do want to share them with you. Everyone needs a little kitten photo break in their day.

Cola today
Mother cat Cola.
Squirt latest
Squirt, the only boy.
Soda latest
Lively adventurer Soda.
Pop latest
Serious looking Pop.

 

Fizz today
Curious Fizz.

 

Bubbles today
Tiny Bubbles, the smallest of the siblings. The smallest always holds a special place in my heart.

(I am aware that Tiny Bubbles is a 1966 song from singer Don Ho, but I am not going there right now. You’re welcome.)

I wish them loving adoptive families, long healthy lives, happiness cat-style, safety, delicious nutritious food, and bright sunny windows. That’s 5 things. I am sure I can come up with more, but this seems a fitting place to stop.

Consider fostering for your local shelter. You’ll be glad you did.

foster

 

Read books. Read every day. Seriously.

read

 

Peace and hugs (and kittens).

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Bright lights, long shadows, and mementos

Memento:  something that serves to warn or remind; also: a souvenir.

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When I looked up memento on Merriam Webster, I wasn’t expecting the word “warning” to be a part of the definition. But given the reason I looked it up, it’s actually apt to include warning in my thoughts. Then I looked up memento mori, thinking of the movie Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) and the story Memento Mori (Jonathan Nolan, published 2001). “A reminder of mortality.” Yikes. Even more appropriate. I followed up with memento vivere (a popular tattoo according to the internet): in Latin, remember that you must live; a reminder of life, a reminder of the pleasure of living.

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Christpher and Jonathan Nolan
Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. Jonathan came up with the story and proposed it to Christopher as an idea for a script. Jonathan’s original story was published after the movie was released.

 

I read a line in a book I just started, Setting Free the Kites by Alex George (2017):

But such a bright light casts long, dark shadows.

George’s narrator is speaking of his friend Nathan, but it made me think of a dear friend of my own.

 

Late last year, a friend of mine took her own life.  She was a bubbly, enthusiastic, cheerful person. So many of us were stunned that her bright light hid such dark shadows. Pain, despair. She was always helpful to everyone else, but left her own needs secret from us.

She befriended me and my dog Einstein when we were new in the neighborhood and feeling friendless. She and her Friday dog invited us on walks and playdates. We both joined a neighborhood book club. We went out together to concerts and restaurants. I didn’t see her regularly or often, but when I did, I always felt comfortable (hard for an introvert) and had a good time. She had the most amazing smile and dimples. Laughter came easily. She really was a bright light.

Just last weekend her family held an estate sale at her house down the street from me. I briefly thought of going in and picking up some memento of my friend. I couldn’t do it. I drove past on my way to work and kept going. Partly, it seemed ghoulish, going to a sale at her house and going through her things to buy something. I decided I’d prefer to remember her one of the times we went out together, for tacos at Xolo and then a Damien Rice concert at the Fox Theater on April 23, 2015.

 

 

I had bought 2 tickets, hoping I’d find someone to go with me. Trying to be a “glass half full” kind of person and hoping for the best, I posted that I had an extra ticket. She was the first to respond. She wasn’t sure she knew who Damien Rice was, but it wasn’t just about a free ticket. She wanted to do something with me; it felt genuine. We met at Xolo, had a great meal and caught up. At the Fox, I had splurged on not terrible tickets. We goofed around taking photos of the giant Hindu-deity figures that flank the stage.

We chatted with the people in the seats on either side of us. We were mesmerized by Markéta Irglová, who opened for Damien and also sang backup on a few of his songs. She recognized a few of Damien’s songs. It was a great night.

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Markéta Irglová

 

Life got busy for both of us. We didn’t see each other often. She changed jobs, worked a lot of extra hours. I changed jobs twice. My schedule shifted to weekends and evenings. We liked each other’s Facebook posts. She was always the first to respond when dog Einstein posted on his Facebook page (he can be quite witty). At some point, she wasn’t responding any more. I didn’t give it a lot of thought.

Another mutual friend messaged me, asking if I’d heard the news. She was gone. I went to the service, cried with her friends and family, wished I’d noticed something was wrong. We all asked what we could have done. Maybe that’s the memento I carry forward–an awareness of suicide prevention and the ending of the silence around suicide. As well as the notions of memento mori and memento vivere: remembering our own mortality and embracing life.

end the silence

 

My mother passed away in 2009. I have several mementos of her, but one of my favorites and maybe one of the silliest to an outsider is her beloved cookbook, Noted Cookery: Favorite Recipes from Friends of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (1969).

Noted Cookery

It’s hard to explain how much this cookbook meant to my mother and the sentimental value it possesses for me and my siblings. We still cook some of her flagged recipes from it, as they are old family favorites and standards at family gatherings. They aren’t vegan, so I don’t indulge anymore, but I still have fond memories of helping mom make the Broccoli Puff or the Hello Dolly bars (aka 7-layer magic bars).

 

The cookbook, one of those fundraiser efforts of recipes submitted by various community members, was a Christmas gift to my mother from her sister Isabelle and her family in 1970, part of the reason for its importance to Mom.

Noted Cookery signed

 

As kids, we were fascinated by the list of contributors, some of whom we had heard of and I still don’t know what their connection to the Dallas Symphony was (but it doesn’t really matter; they generously contributed). Mrs. Bob Hope (Bob Hope’s Favorite Lemon Pie) and Danny Kaye (Chicken with Peppers) were notable among them. Later, I saw names that I had come to recognize: actress Loretta Young (Bride’s Delight), opera great Leontyne Price (Crabmeat Imperial), Mrs. Lyndon Johnson (Pedernales Chili), Mrs. Ross H. Perot (Crabmeat Aspic Salad and Mocha-Nut Tortoni), Mrs. Ronald Reagan (Sweet Potatoes Supreme and Orange Sparkle Cookies), Mrs. Richard Nixon (Apricot Nut Bread), violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin (Birchermuesli), actress Greer Garson (English Trifle).

 

Don’t discount that lemon pie. Bob Hope lived to be 100, and Dolores Hope to 102. And Danny Kaye is said to have loved to cook and to have been quite a good one. Food writer Ruth Reichl, in a piece she wrote after Kaye’s death in 1987:

“It may be the sense of timing he developed as a comedian, or the balance he learned in music. It may be the generosity of somebody who gave so much of his time to charity. Or the sheer gusto of the baseball lover (you should have heard his discourse on hot dogs). Or maybe it was the much-vaunted hand-eye coordination that made his cooking so incredible. But there was something more.

Danny Kaye didn’t cook like a star. He didn’t coddle you with caviar or smother you in truffles. He had no interest in complicated concoctions or exotic ingredients. His taste was absolutely true, and he was the least-pretentious cook I’ve ever encountered. The meals he made were little symphonies–balanced, perfectly timed, totally rounded.”

danny cooking

 

Some of the recipes in Noted Cookery horrified us. Hot Citrus Fruit Salad? No thanks! Same to the equally horrific Hot Pineapple Salad on the same page. Blech.

Hot Citrus Fruit Salad
Make and consume at your own risk.

 

Others we loved, partly for the names. Johnny Bozzini, You Asked For It. Remember, it was 1970 and these recipes ddidn’t seem quite as odd as they do to at least me now. Lots of canned soups and weird things in jars.

 

The cookbook was lost in a house fire in 1987. Mom managed to save the page with her beloved sister’s inscription, but the rest of the cookbook was a charred lump. She put the remnant in a plastic bag and made the recipes she loved best from memory. Years later, around 2004, I was volunteering at a library fundraising book sale. I always look at the cookbooks for hidden gems. There it was, sitting on the shelf, easily recognizable to me with its ochre yellow cover. For fifty cents. I grabbed it, feeling the sense of excitement I might have felt finding a rare first edition of Catcher in the Rye. I managed not to spill the proverbial beans on my weekly phone call with mom, awaiting the look on her face at the surprise when I gave her the book. My next visit, I presented the book. I don’t remember if she cried. More than likely she did. We cry easily in my family; tears of happiness as well as tears of sorrow. We sat down and perused the old recipes. A trip down memory lane. She put bookmarks in at the old favorites, even though she knew the recipes by heart.

When she passed away a few years later, we were going through her things. Somehow that cookbook had taken on an even greater significance for me after having reunited her with it. It’s a memento of her and our earlier family life that I treasure. It sits with my other cookbooks, rarely used but often fondly brought out just to look and remember.

Not so long ago, my sister Ellen texted me that she was making one of the old favorites from what we call the Dallas cookbook: Chicken Tortilla Casserole. Back in 1970, tortilla chips were an exotic thing in Atlanta, so Mom made the recipe with Fritos instead. I’m trying to figure out a way I can veganize this recipe just for fun.

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Not one, but two cans of soup.

 

If you are feeling hungry and inspired to cook, you too can have this gem of a cookcook. I just found it listed on eBay for $5.95. Better idea, think back to a cherished memory and a memento that you can treasure the way I treasure the nostalgic memory of a family, safe and happy, laughing and enjoying a meal together, or the memory of a dear friend who made me feel special.

Memento vivere.  Remember to live.

memento vivere

Troubadours and Storytellers

For many years, I have been intrigued by the designations troubadour and storyteller. There is a very long tradition of both throughout history. What’s the difference? The word troubadour is from the French and was used to refer to medieval lyric poets, often concentrating on the theme of courtly love, with verses written to music. A poet musician is how I think of it. In more modern times, troubadours have been folk singers in particular.

 

Scheherazade spins tales about Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad the Sailor over One Thousand and One Nights, enthralling her murderous husband King Shahryar, who postpones her execution night after night in order to hear another story. Stories are that powerful.

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Storytelling goes much further back, when histories were passed down in the oral tradition rather than the written. Oral storytelling remains central in some cultures today.

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Still from the documentary Al-Halqa–In the Storyteller’s Circle (2010, Thomas Ladenburger).

 

The storyteller figures above were made by Cochiti Pueblo potter Helen Cordero (1915-1994), who based some of her work on the “singing mother” motif and others on memories of her grandfather. Her figures are storytellers and she herself became a storyteller through their creation.

Storytelling clearly doesn’t have to involve words, as seen by Helen Cordero’s work. Images tell wonderful stories. Think of ancient cave paintings, some over 35,000 years old. In the January 2016 issue of Smithsonian, Jo Marchant and Justin Mott explored the cave paintings on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia, thought to be the oldest cave paintings thus far discovered.

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Scattered on the walls are stencils, human hands outlined against a background of red paint. Though faded, they are stark and evocative, a thrilling message from the distant past. My companion, Maxime Aubert, directs me to a narrow semicircular alcove, like the apse of a cathedral, and I crane my neck to a spot near the ceiling a few feet above my head. Just visible on darkened grayish rock is a seemingly abstract pattern of red lines.

Then my eyes focus and the lines coalesce into a figure, an animal with a large, bulbous body, stick legs and a diminutive head: a babirusa, or pig-deer, once common in these valleys. Aubert points out its neatly sketched features in admiration. “Look, there’s a line to represent the ground,” he says. “There are no tusks—it’s female. And there’s a curly tail at the back.”

Humans making figurative art, using imagination and symbolism–truly a remarkable development. Previous to the discovery of the paintings on Sulawesi, the oldest cave paintings were thought to be the famous Chauvet Cave paintings in France, made a World Heritage site in 2014. You can see an online exhibition of them through the Bradshaw Foundation.

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I come to write about this through my love of singer/songwriters. Preferably menlacholy ones. Or romantic. Or romantically melancholy. As I have written about before, I have really weird and vivid dreams. Last week, I had several dreams in which Canadian singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot (as a young man, not the close to 80-year old he is now) was wandering through the action, playing his guitar and singing.

As I have also written, I am highly susceptible to ear worms. So for days now, Lightfoot’s song “If You Could Read My Mind” has been on an endless loop in my head. The song is about the breakup of his first marriage. Hauntingly beautiful but unbearably sad.

 

Sigh. Of course, there are many wonderful examples of troubadours: Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, David Wilcox, Kelly Joe Phelps. I heard Kelly Joe Phelps describe how when he’s performing a song, he sees it as a movie playing in his mind. Storytelling, yes indeed.

Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

 

Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) and his son Arlo Guthrie (b. 1947)

 

Bob Dylan (b. 1941)

 

Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

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David Wilcox (left), Kelly Joe Phelps (right)

 

Lest I leave out women, I’ll add Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, Emmylou Harris. I consider Natalie Merchant to be in this group of female troubadours and storytellers. I could go on and on.

 

And this is only a very narrow sampling from North American, white culture. There is such an array to choose from; the African American blues tradition, for example, with Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter…

 

Writers are, by nature, storytellers, but I consider some to be more in THE storyteller tradition than others. For example, Irish writer Frank Delaney (1942-2017), a novelist, journalist, and broadcaster, is best known in the United States for his book Ireland, a many-layered and rich story of storytellers. Here is the synopsis from Amazon:

In the winter of 1951, a storyteller, the last practitioner of an honored, centuries-old tradition, arrives at the home of nine-year-old Ronan O’Mara in the Irish countryside. For three wonderful evenings, the old gentleman enthralls his assembled local audience with narratives of foolish kings, fabled saints, and Ireland’s enduring accomplishments before moving on. But these nights change young Ronan forever, setting him on a years-long pursuit of the elusive, itinerant storyteller and the glorious tales that are no less than the saga of his tenacious and extraordinary isle. 

It’s probably not okay to bring up now-disgraced storyteller Garrison Keillor, but for many years, before the sexual misconduct allegations, he created a wonderful world of characters and stories with his radio program and books about the fictional Lake Wobegon. There, I brought him up anyway.

 

One of my personal favorites is Eudora Welty, author of one of my all-time favorite short stories, Why I Live at the P.O.

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Eudora Welty.

Following in her footsteps and the tradition of female Southern writers is my mother’s favorite, Fannie Flagg.

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Mom made a point of making sure each of her children had a copy of A Redbird Christmas, which I’ve reread over several holiday seasons, and also listened to the audiobook, read by Ms. Flagg herself.

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You might be more familiar with her work from the movie Fried Green Tomatoes, based on her book Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.

 

Filmmakers are certainly storytellers, whether it is in telling a hardhitting true story through documentaries, like Michael Moore, or whimsical fictional stories along the line of Tim Burton or Wes Anderson.

 

There’s a novel I am going to write someday. I know what it’s about, but it’s a long way off, and will require much research on my part. (I think I’ll complete the Ph.D. first.) I already have a vision for what the film version will look like, and Wes Anderson is my first choice for director. I see something in the spirit of his The Grand Budapest Hotel. I hope your curiosity is piqued so that you will read my novel. When I write it. When it’s published. By then, I’ll be old enough for the large print edition myself.

 

I could go on and on, but I will end with an art exhibition here where I am now at the Saybrook University Residential Conference, being held at the Hyatt Regency Monterey. Photographer and filmmaker Randy Bacon has compiled a work entitled The Road I Call Home, featuring portraits and films of people who are homeless telling their stories. The project is presented by Gathering Friends for the Homeless in conjunction with 7 Billion Ones. I have been gazing at the portraits as I travel the conference center today, but only just started reading the stories they tell. Everyone has a story to tell, and deserves the chance to tell it. Here are a few of the portraits.

 

It’s late now and time for me to sleep, perchance to dream. And perhaps hear a little Gordon Lightfoot.

Sweet dreams to all.

 

Things I’ve thought way too much about while home sick

I hate calling in sick to work. That’s a new thing for me, because for the first time in ages I love my job and miss it when I am not there. Mind you, a day off here and there is welcomed, but generally I’d rather not miss out on anything. Work doesn’t FEEL like work most of the time, and I enjoy all of the people and the animals I’m surrounded with on a daily basis.

Serious moments at work:

 

 

Contrast those moments with this:

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Me, at home sick. Not fun.

I used to look for any reason to stay home sick when I was in school. I was a good student, but I was painfully shy. Staying home was much better! Back in the day, when my single mom was at work, she felt it was safe enough that, when I was in about 3rd grade I think, she could leave me home alone. This was the 1960’s in a middle-class suburb on a street of mostly retired people. My older siblings would be home at various points in the day, and mom could check in at lunch. Nothing bad ever happened. The things is, Mom was almost too sympathetic to my dislike of being at school and often let me stay home when I clearly wasn’t sick. I never had to resort to any Ferris Bueller antics to convince her to let me stay home.

 

I graduated (with good grades), went on to college, and survived just fine. Then I ended up at some point in a job that I hated. I’ll never forget the morning I burst into tears, threw my hairbrush across the room, and wailed to my then-husband, “Don’t make me go!”  Was that the first time I called in sick to work when it was really just that I was sick of the job?

Things got better. I switched careers after an interlude of graduate school (I hated school through high school, but I loved college), and spent quite a few years only being sick when I was really sick. And then along came the University of California and 12 years of me wishing to be sick, of fantasizing about breaking my leg in the shower so I could go to the hospital instead of work, of reading hopefully about the sysmptoms of appendicitis. My work ethic had died a slow death. I wasn’t so obvious as to call in sick on a regular, clockwork basis, like a colleague in one past job who we all knew would call in sick the day after pay day. Nothing predictable. But maybe calling in sick when I felt a little under the weather but not really sick. I would even gladly go for jury calls and hope to get onto a jury so as to not go to work. I wasn’t precisely a bad employee, just a not very dedicated one. Note to any of my former UC colleagues: there were many times I was genuinely sick. Please don’t think I ever took advantage of you to get out of anything!

'I'm going to be sick on Monday.  I'm telling you now so I don't have to call in.'

That’s all changed now that I am working in animal rescue. Every day brings new rewards and happy endings. Sometimes there are sad endings, too, but I try to keep moving as cheerfully as possible and toast the successes.

I wish I could say I never get sick, but I have whatever this gross lung crud is that’s going around at the end of 2017. I’m coughing like crazy, no energy, sounding like a dog with kennel cough. This would be bad enough in any case, but in addition to animals, I also work with potential adopters, and how bad would it look if I started coughing and wheezing in their faces? That would not bring good customer service marks on a Yelp review. I went in last Sunday and it was not pretty. Nobody ran away screaming, but a lot of hand sanitizer was passed around. I’ve stayed home since then.

I’ve had a lot of time on my hands to think. Too much. Here are some of my reflections.

Cats are better nurses than dogs.  They are sensitive, and pick up on subtle things. Or they just really love blankets and warm bodies. But dogs have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), like “Aw, hey sick buddy, let me cuddle with you…SQUIRREL! Gotta go!”

 

 

Watching television during the day is no longer fun. When I was home sick as a kid, or even as a teenager, the majority of that time was spent in front of the television. I’d watch anything. Even though we only got 4 channels back in the dark ages, I’d find something. I watched cooking shows, exercise shows, reruns in syndication, old movies…Maybe watching Julia Child and Graham Kerr (The Galloping Gourmet) contributed to my love of food and cooking, but I also watched Jack Lalanne and have no love of exercise. Note that I watched Jack Lalanne, I didn’t ever get off the couch and do any of the stretches or exercises.  I adored Bewitched reruns. At a young age, I got hooked on soap operas, especially All My Children. My favorite movies were those with Ma and Pa Kettle or Henry Aldrich.

It’s a wonder I have any brain cells left!

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Now we have TiVo, Netflix streaming, binge watching, endless channels, and I can’t stand the idea of watching television during the day. I feel like I have succumbed to true hopelessness if I watch. Nighttime is another story altogether, though. Which leads to:

Folding TV trays are a great 20th century invention. They don’t have to be for eating meals in front of television, although we use the old set we bought for $25 at the flea market for that pretty much every night. They are great for holding all of your medications, tissues, water glass, etc. next to you while you are curled up in your favorite cozy spot. I also use them to hold stacks of books and papers when I am at my desk writing and I run out of desk space.

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I found the almot exact set we have online, although the colors were less faded, where they were advertised as “vintage Eames era”. If you aren’t familar with the Eames name, Charles and Ray Eames were the noted mid-century designers who, by using their names, you add a gazillion dollars to the price of something.

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I really don’t think Charles or Ray Eames had anything to do with these.
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Ray and Charles Eames at home, LIFE magazine, 1950.

 

Life is too short to stick with a book you aren’t enjoying. This is a recent revelation for me. I always doggedly stuck to books I wasn’t enjoying as if it was somehow a virtue. No more! So many books, so little time. I’m not wasting that time anymore. The only time I can remember abandoning a book previously was in 2001, with German writer W. G. Sebold’s Austerlitz. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award that year. Sebald, who died at age 57 that same year, was considered by many to be a great author and possible future winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature until his unexpected death in a car crash. The novel sounds like it ought to be great, but I found it inscrutable. I was about 5 pages in, and I think it was still the first sentence continuing from the first page, running on and making no sense to me. I threw in the towel, figuring I wasn’t smart enough for Sebald.

 

I was recently defeated again. Not because I wasn’t smart enough, I just didn’t care what happened to any of the characters. At all. Any of them. This time it was Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, winner of the Man Booker prize in 2013. Maybe I should avoid books that win critics awards? This huge tome (848 pages) was donated to the Little Free Library I steward. I was intrigued. It was free. I needed something to read that would occupy me through a flight to Iceland and back, as well as any down time in between. Never mind that I could barely lift it. We went to Iceland in the summer. It is now very close to January of the next year. I got about 200 pages in. I couldn’t keep track of who was who. I didn’t care.  Finally, common sense (well, actually it was Bob’s common sense) had me send the book back out into the Little Free Library this morning. I want to enjoy my reading time, and if one of the rare chances I get to lose myself in a book is when I am sick, it’s not going to be a book that is torture to read. I saw somewhere that The Luminaries was being made into a limited television series. Yippee.

Now I am free to read a book that sounds right up my alley: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. It sounds utterly charming, quirky, and very British. I’m in!

 

 

 

Color coordinated clothing and clothing that isn’t pajamas are over-rated. I’m wearing might-as-well-be-pajamas clothes right now. Leggings, old stretchy cardigan, pulled-out-of-shape knit skirt. I am neither color-coordinated nor fashionable at this moment either. Am I warm and comfortable? YES! I figure I’ve always been more of a “fashion don’t” than a “fashion do.” Whatever. My sisters both have amazing senses of style and fashion. My mother despaired of my disdain for matching handbags and shoes, for scarves, for all of the little details that pull an outfit together. One of the reasons I hated high school was the judgment being passed based on appearances and wardrobe. I was smart and cute enough. Why wasn’t that enough? Not having the right label of jeans or shoes seemed (still seems) such a stupid basis for popularity and friendship.

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What Not to Wear. Unless you’re me!

In a brief moment as I was putting this sick-day outfit on, I thought, “None of the blue tones go together.” And immediately after that I thought, “Tell that to Mother Nature when a field of wild flowers of all different colors and tones is in bloom.” Colors go together. Period. Somebody told me once that the outfit I was wearing looked like a fruit salad. Cool, that’s what I say.

 

Take care of yourself. Stay warm. Eat healthy, whole foods. Remember to splurge on a bit of dark chocolate and other things you enjoy now and then. If you do get sick, stay home.  It’s best for you, your co-workers, and anyone you might come into contact with. If you are lucky, like me, it will be that much better when you get back to the job you love. And please, consider getting a pet from your local shelter.

awesome

So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright

I’m in a Frank Lloyd Wright state of mind at the moment. I go through passions, as any regular reader might have noticed, and right now I’m obsessed with all things FLW. I’m rereading the T. C. Boyle 2009 novel, The Women, about the, shall we say, turbulent relationships FLW (1867-1959) had with the various women in his life. He was not an easy man and his relationships were messy and complicated. In his era, he was in fact scandalous and reviled by some for his flauting of social mores, but today no one would really think it quite that outrageous that he left wives for mistresses. He also was perennially in debt (one of his nicknames was “Slow Pay Frank”), a surprise given his major success.

The Women

 

Boyle himself lives in a FLW designed  home in Montecito, California, which I am sure has a lot to do with his interest in FLW. As a design student at UC Davis back in the day, of course we studied FLW and his enormous impact, and I fnally saw some of his drawings, furniture, and glass designs in person when I made it to the Art Institute of Chicago a few years ago.

 

Author TC Boyle at his home in Montecito, CA.
Novelist T. C. Boyle in his FLW-designed home in Montecito, California.

But my fascination goes back to another of my childhood memories of music in our house, this time from the iconic album Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970) by Simon and Garfunkel.

 

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This album reeived some heavy rotation time on the turntable, along with Carole King’s Tapestry.

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There are, of course, many wonderful songs on Bridge Over Troubled Water beside the title track: The Boxer, Cecilia, Bye Bye Love, The Only Living Boy in New York, among others. But the song that always caught my attention when I was a 9-year old, was, oddly, So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright. I didn’t really have any idea who FLW was, but the song seemed so sad and made me want to know who this man was.

 

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The story goes that Simon and Garfunkel (or as I like to call them, Paul and Art) were renting a house in the Hollywood Hills in 1969 while working on the Bridge Over Troubled Water album. Art saw one of the FLW homes in the area and suggested to Paul that he write a song. What I didn’t know was that Art, smarter than I realized, majored in architecture at Columbia University just in case music didn’t work out for him. Not a bad Plan B. Theories suggest that it’s also Paul’s goodbye song to Art, as the duo broke up after Bridge Over Troubled Water was released. Note the line “all of the nights we’d harmonize till dawn”.

 

 

FLW was undoubtedly a genius, and his designs are amazing. He not only designed the buildings as an architect, he also worked on the details of interior design, including the furnishings, textiles, and art pieces, and even mailboxes. He was known to design the clothing for the women in his life. Was he controlling? I imagine so. And that spilled over into his personal life.

 

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The bit that’s sticking with me at the moment is a scene in the book The Women in which FLW declares himself a pacifist, a conscientious objector to war. That’s cool. I consider myself a pacifist as well. But I’m not a bully, and FLW seems to have been a big one. I’m not a genius either, so…

Much of the novel The Women takes place around Taliesin, FLW’s studio and farm built and rebuilt (plagued by fires and tragedy) in rural Wisconsin, now maintained by the Taliesen Preserve.

 

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FLW at Taliesin in 1911, when the house was first was completed.

Can one be a pacifist and a bully both? I suppose so. We are, if nothing, complex and contradictory creatures, we human beings. He had a vision for how he wanted things to be, and brooked no nonsense from those around him, but he wasn’t violent and held a deep appreciation for other cultures. Except when it came to food. He was very early 20th century mid-Western in his taste for basic meat, potatoes, and gravy. None of that fancy French stuff for him (one of the many bones of contention with his Southern belle and Francophile second wife Miriam Noel Wright). When he traveled in Japan while working on the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, he had a hard time with what I think of as an amazing cuisine.

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The Imperial opened in 1923 and was demolished in 1968. The entrance lobby was saved an reconstructed at the Meiji Mura architecture museum in Nagoya.

I also think of FLW as an artist, sensitive to atmosphere and color and harmony. We have a model of one of his early designs, the Romeo and Juliet windmill, built for his aunts in 1896 in the town of Wyoming, Wisconsin. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of the artist who made the model. When I bought it from him at an Oakland gallery, he was working in the exhibitions department at the Oakland Museum of California. I’ll post it when I recall it. He is a talented artist who deserves credit for his work.

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The Romeo and Juliet windmill.
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Our model of the windmill, photo by Robert Ward.

 

One of Wright’s most famous buildings is Falling Water in Pennsylvania, completed in 1935.

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Falling Water

 

The sesquicentennial of FLW’s birth was celebrated this year on June 8th. This feature by Jay Jones in the Los Angeles Times provides a nice overview of his work: From New York to California, celebrating the 150th anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s birth. One of his more famous and first California homes is Hollyhock House in the East Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles. Built for oil heiress Aline Barnsdall in in 1919-1921, the house is now part of the Barnsdall Art Park.

 

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The living room at Hollyhock House. Wright was a pioneer of open living spaces, with the hearth at the center of the home.

Yes, I can see a man who has the kind of vision for open, warm, harmonious spaces and the surrounding of ourselves with beauty as being a man who wants peace and harmony for the world at large. The contradiction is in his very messy and unharmonious personal life. The saddest and most tragic episode was that of his mistress, Martha “Mamah” Borthwick Cheney. Mamah and her husband were clients and Oak Park, Illinois, neighbors of FLW and his first wife, Catherine “Kitty” Wright (1871-1959).

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The Wright Family in 1898, Frank on far right, Kitty in center with infant Lloyd.

FLW built Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, for Mamah, a place where he and she could get away from the press and turmoil caused by his leaving his wife and 6 children and her leaving her husband and 2 children. A disgruntled workman at Taliesin murdered Mamah and 6 others (including her 2 children, on a summer visitation at the time) and set fire to Taliesin in 1914. Distraught, FLW was vulnerable and became entangled with the quite dramatic and mentally unstable opiate addict Miriam Noel, his 2nd wife after Kitty relented and granted a divorce.

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Mamah Cheney (1869-1914)
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Miriam Noel Wright (1869-1930)

His relationship with Miriam was the most turbulent and fractious, and their divorce battle was a media storm of accusations and paparrazi around FLW’s mistress and later 3rd (and final) wife Olgivanna Lloyd Wright (1898-1985).

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Olgivanna Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona in 1968.

 

FLW was quite proud of his Welsh heritage. The name of Taliesin, and the later Taliesin West, means “shining brow”, and comes from the name of the 6th century Welsh poet, who in Welsh legends is portrayed as a wizard, prophet, and companion to King Arthur.

 

taliesin poet

 

Seems fitting in that FLW can be said to have been a wizard in his own way in the arts, but not in his relationships, and defnitely not with money, except to make it disappear.

Whether Paul Simon was writing his song as a literal tribute to Frank Lloyd Wright or using the name Frank Lloyd Wright to refer to Art Garfunkel, it is a poignant song. And it led me on a journey of discover around FLW and his life. And since I am obsessed at the moment, next up in my book queue is the novel Loving Frank (2007) by Nancy Loran, the story of Mamah and FLW from Mamah’s perspective.

 

Loving Frank

 

Nancy Horan
Writer Nancy Horan

 

I have no plans to travel to New YTork any time soon, but when I do, I will make a pilgrimmage to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, itself a work of art and completed in 1959, the same year FLW died at age 89. True to form, the estate he left behind took years to settle.

 

Frank-Lloyd-Wright-Cars-Gear-Patrol-Ambiance-31

 

Love Frank, hate Frank, or puzzled by Frank and his life, you have to admit he led an interesting life.

 

Tom Wright and his wife, Etsuko Saito, live in a Bethesda home designed by his grandfather, Frank Lloyd Wright.
The signature red tile placed on the facades of Wright’s buildings.

 

 

 

A Wonder of Women (or, Confessions of a Girl Scout Dropout)

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My latest adventure centered on spending 2 days with these delightful women. 

For most of my life, I considered myself to be an anti-social loner, not a team player, prefering to avoid group situations at all possible costs. My mother made me join the Brownies, which was mostly okay. We had snacks and did arts and crafts and sang silly songs. I could deal with that, and if I immersed myself in the arts and crafts I could avoid the other girls and more importantly, the troop leader. She scared the life out of me. Then came Girl Scouts. Uh oh. I was clearly not Girl Scout material. Girl Scouts are expected to interact in the world, earning badges for awesome deeds and selling overpriced cookies to people who really don’t need or want them. And go camping. Hell no. I don’t do camping.

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If there was a badge in cat holding, I could’ve earned that one. And color coordinating outfits.

I pretended to go to Girl Scouts, showing up at the spot in front of the school where the car pool mom picked us up so as to be seen by the other girls. Then I’d go hide somewhere until the coast was clear, play on the school playground until it was time to go home, and then walk home, pretending when I got there that I’d had a great time. I didn’t get away with it for long. But my mother was understanding and let me leave the scouts. I was free! Free to spend my time with my books and my cats and my arts and crafts projects! Happy girl!

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I grew up. I was lonely, but still convinced I was not a people person. I sat at home alone a lot, drinking too much in front of Food Network shows.

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I needed a troup, a community, a network, I just didn’t know that’s what I needed. It was suggested that I needed to get out of the house and challenge myself. What?! But I tried. I signed up for cooking classes, mosaic making classes, knitting classes. But I didn’t make friends or try to fit in. It wasn’t because the women (yes, it was all women in these groups) didn’t try to befriend me. I resisted them, cultivating my misunderstood loner status.

But life has a way of kicking us in our butts when we need it. I needed it. I got my butt kicked. I got help. And I discovered that I am a nice person who thrives among friends and enjoys the company of others. Who knew?!

Call me a late bloomer if you will.

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It started with volunteering at an animal shelter, where I started to make friends and find a purpose in life. The animals were my bridge to connecting to people. Then I joined a book group. And had fun! I do things I would never have done 4 years ago, and they all involve other humans.

We have names for collectives of animals. A congregation of alligators, a battery of barracudas, an obstinancy of buffalo, a clowder of cats, a charm of finches, a rhumba of rattlesnakes, etc.

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We don’t have such creative names for groups of humans. Women in particular tend to reach out to other women for support and friendship. We need a name. I propose a wonder of women. I finally reached that point in my life where I have discovered that women who gather in groups don’t “cat fight” or backstab; okay, we might gossip a bit. But we help and support each other, offering good listening skills, advice if wanted, and understanding.

A study by Laura Klein and Shelley Taylor suggests that women are genetically hardwired to respond to stress by “seeking and befriending”. I most recently sought and befriended by attending the Ethelridge Road Knitting Salon, in upstate New York last week. What attracted me was the presence of one of my favorite writers, Alice Hoffman. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to spend 2 days in her company. I can knit, but it’s been a while. I was willing to dust off my needles and relearn casting on and purling in order to meet Alice Hoffman.

with Alice
I got to meet Alice Hoffman!

I recently wrote about having read her book Faithful and how I connected to the main character Shelby. Shelby would have loved our dog mascot for the weekend, Millie.

I had an amazing experience in so many ways. First of all, it really was an adventure for me. I went so far out of my comfort zone (which is admittedly fairly small), renting a car and driving around upstate New York, staying by myself in a bed and breakfast. I felt so grown up.

me on arrival
All grown up and ready to join my life.

Was it worth it? Undoubtedly! Everyone was warm and welcoming, helpful and interested. We talked, we knitted, we listened to Alice read, we wrote, we ate well. Our hosts, including Millie, were welcoming and made us feel at home.

It was like Brownies, only better! Arts and crafts–check. Snacks–check. Scary troop leader–no way! And no camping!

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We all made amulets after listening to Alice read a lovely fairy tale, Amulet.
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Happily crafting away.

The only thing missing from my perspective–a cat.

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The B and B was just missing a cat. One would’ve made it perfect.

I’m home now, surrounded by cats, with new knitting projects, new friends to keep in touch with, and charmed memories. I plan to go again next year if all goes well.

My deepest thanks to everyone involved in making the experience so special. It means more to me than words can convey. And you didn’t make me sell cookies or camp!

Peace and hugs.

The Perfect Moment (starring an orange tabby cat)

The artist James Lee Byars (1932-1997), known for conceptual works and performance art, did a piece called The Perfect Moment.

Not A perfect moment, but THE perfect moment. Byars seemed to like the word perfect; among his works are The Perfect Love Letter, The Perfect Kiss, The Perfect Performance is to Stand Still, The Exhibition of Perfect, The Perfect Quiet, The Perfect Death, The Perfect Thought, The Perfect Moment, Perfect is My Death Word, and The Palace of Perfect. That’s a lot of perfection! So when I thought of the idea of a perfect moment in my own life, as a former museum professional my thoughts went to Byars.

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Byars: The Perfect Smile, 1994 performance, Ludwig Museum, Cologne
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The Perfect Love Letter (is I write I love you backwards), 1974, performance, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

In my personal experience, I think on the smaller level of having perfect moments, plural. Every now and then, there is a moment when all seems right with world. It doesn’t have to be something big and grand or momentous. It doesn’t even have to seem special to anyone but you. It can be fleeting, or it can stick around for a while. But in that moment, however long it lasts, all feels right and good and just the way it should. It speaks to the rarity of such moments that they are memorable. They can happen in the midst of tedium or of turmoil or, of course, when everything seems perfect already and then that one more thing happens, that cherry on top of the hot fudge sundae sits perfectly and beautifully, beckoning you and making it all worthwhile.

hot fudge sundae

I had such a moment recently on a long-awaited trip to Iceland. My interest in Iceland, a trendy travel spot currently, dates back from my days as a graduate student at UC Davis, back in the early 1990s. One of my textile department classmates was a beautiful young Icelandic woman, Thorbjörg, with her pixie-like features and cheerful attitude. During one of our graduate seminars, she presented some slides and facts about the Icelandic textile industry. The images of Iceland were so captivating—the color and the light and the natural beauty took my breath away. And animals—sheep, horses, marine birds like puffins—caught my attention as well.

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We finally made it to Iceland all of these years later. On my wish list, amongst other things, was to see these animals. And I did. But I kept wondering, where are all of the dogs and cats in Iceland? I saw very few dogs being walked around the city, and absolutely no cats. Zero. NO CATS. How is this possible? I was told that there were lots of cats in Reykjvik. I bought a t-shirt that shows the cats of Reykjavik. In one shop, I saw a sign regarding proceeds going to help Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) efforts for the stray cats of the city. But they remained invisible to me.

cats rule

 

On our last day in Iceland, we made a trek to the Snæfellsnes peninsula on the west coast.

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It was a perfect day. The towns of Borgarnes and Stykkishólmur were charming and picturesque.

Stykkishólmur
Stykkishólmur

We had good coffee and good food. We had sunshine. I saw sheep and horses on the road driving in. We booked a boat excursion to see puffins, and saw them as well as gray seals and a white-backed dolphin. I was thinking it had been the best day ever, and I was happy. It felt like a fitting and satisfying end to a wonderful week.

 

And then it happened. My moment. In an empty church parking lot on the edge of a small town on the west coast of Iceland, the friendliest orange tabby cat walked right up to us, like he knew us and was expecting us. He was clearly loved and well-fed. He had a collar and a lot of self-confidence. And he wanted affection. I immediately sat down on the asphalt and gave it to him. It made me ridiculously happy. It was a perfect moment.

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Looking back on such perfect moments, I find they often involve sunshine, animals, and/or books. The first that comes to mind was when I was probably 7 or 8 years old. I must have had perfect moments before that, but this is the one that stands out in my memory. It was a winter day, and I was snuggled up in the den of our house in Atlanta. I can see the green nubby fabric of the upholstery on the chair and the tones of browns in the braided rug on the floor. A beam of sunlight has cut through the air and settled on me in the chair, where I am reading Hugh Lofting’s 1920 The Story of Doctor Dolittle, an old copy that was my mother’s in her childhood and had that particular smell and feel of old paper and old books. I was warm and sleepy and enjoying my book, the room was quiet, I was alone, and there was nowhere to go or be. I was just there, a little girl doing what she loved, perfectly happy. I might have had our cat Whiskers in the chair with me, but oddly I don’t remember. It would make sense. And he was an orange tabby.

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And yes, I came to find out that the author, Hugh Lofting, really was an animal lover. Forget the silly movie adaptations of Doctor Dolittle. Go to the original.

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Hugh Lofting

quote

Another time, much later in my life, I was terribly jet-lagged and unable to sleep on a very hot night in Istanbul. Tossing and turning and hating life, I was cursing pretty much everything and everyone. I could hear the beginnings of the call for prayer coming from the loudspeaker at the local mosque. Great. I was about to put a pillow over my head when I listened instead to the most beautiful male voice I had ever heard, singing out the call. The gorgeous yet haunting song gave me the shivers. I can still hear the voice and feel the sense of the beauty in the moment. I am not religious, and for me this had nothing to do with anyone’s God or piety. It was about beauty in unexpected times and places, and the realization that I am just a really small part of this world, not its center. My soul was soothed, and I eventually went to sleep.

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There are no expectations attached to these moments. No preconceived ideas or possible disappointment. They just are. You can’t make them happen or predict them. That’s what is so beautiful about them. I know some will disagree; I see lots of articles along the lines of “Don’t wait for the perfect moment—make it happen now!” But I think they have to sneak up on you unawares; if you are trying to make it happen, that kind of defeats the perfection of it.

I am not a performer. I don’t know if Byars felt what he performed. Classical musician Bob tells me that the feeling that he’s played just the way he wanted is more rare than I might think. But that’s his idea of a perfect moment. Dabbling in art, I am usually dissatisfied at some level with the drawings and painting I produce. Once in a very great while, I think I’ve done just what I meant to or even more. It is rare. But this is something a little different; this is about self-satisfaction—something internal and based on when we expect from ourselves. These are from the inside out.

My perfect moments have come from the outside in. A friend put it that in that moment in Stykkishólmur, Iceland, the cat found me. I was, in a sense, perfectly happy already. And then I got that one more thing, the more than I could ask for, the cherry on the hot fudge sundae—I got my perfect moment. And I felt blessed.

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Peace and hugs.

The Mystery of the Princess Locked in the Tower (Nancy Drew meets Zelda Fitzgerald)

“The American woman is told she can do anything and then is knocked down the moment she proves it.”

I wrote this down in one of my notebooks. I circled it, underlined it, highlighted it. But I didn’t note where I heard or read it. When I Googled the quote, I was led to her an essay by former supermodel Paulina Porizkova, “America Made Me a Feminist“.

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Paulina Porizkova

“In America, a woman’s body seemed to belong to everybody but herself. Her sexuality belonged to her husband, her opinion of herself belonged to her social circles, and her uterus belonged to the government. She was supposed to be a mother and a lover and a career woman (at a fraction of the pay) while remaining perpetually youthful and slim. In America, important men were desirable. Important women had to be desirable. That got to me.”

This obviously struck a chord with me. My worlds had collided, or coincidence had taken me on a journey. My fascination with Thomas Wolfe led me down a rabbit hole to the writing of contemporary Southern literary icon Lee Smith to the tragic figure of Zelda Fitzgerald, Nancy Drew, and unpredictably, Paulina Porizkova.

The degrees of separation are few. Thomas Wolfe was from Asheville, North Carolina, which he famously wrote about in Look Homeward, Angel, much to the anger and dismay of the city’s residents. Zelda Fitzgerald spent many years, and ultimately died in, Highland Hospital, a mental hospital (or “hospital for nervous diseases”) in Asheville. Lee Smith wrote a novel about Highland Hospital, Guests on Earth, and the fire there that killed 9 women, including Zelda.

guests cover

Nine women died in the hospital fire on March 10, 1948. According to the official medical report, Zelda was unable to escape the fire as she had been sedated and placed in a locked room prior to a scheduled electro-shock therapy treatment. The women who died were all trapped on the top floor of the central building

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The fire started in the kitchen wing, but there is still mystery around how it started and who might have started it. Speculation includes a former patient who was later hired to work in the hospital and held grudges against some of the other women, doubling their medications and locking them in before starting the fire in the kitchen. The windows were barred, the fire escape made of wood that quickly burned.

But was Zelda really “crazy”? She is commonly said to have been schizophrenic, but more recent studies suggest she was more likely bipolar, with periods of depression and periods of high energy and creativity. She was herself a writer (some believe F. Scott plagiarized from her writings), an artist, and a dancer; a free spirit in a time and place where that was heavily frowned upon. She was raised to be a Southern Belle, to marry well, to be a pretty and charming hostess, but not to be smart, creative, or independent. After the fire, she was indentified as among the dead from her charred ballet slipper.

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Lee Smith, through narrator Evalina Toussaint, wrote of Zelda in Guests on Earth:

She didn’t fit in, that’s all. They didn’t know what to do with her…None of them knew what to do with her. She was too smart, too original…She didn’t fit in.

Smart women who didn’t fit in. Locked up. Princesses in a tower. While Zelda was in Highland Hospital, F. Scott would visit, staying at the luxurious Grove Park Inn, supposedly resting and relaxing and taking the “beer cure” to wean himself off of gin.

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Grove Park Inn
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Highland Hospital doesn’t sound all that horrible when one looks back at the history of
the treatment of mental illness. Founder Dr. Robert Carroll created a program based on
exercise, diet, and occupational therapy rather than straitjackets and shackles. But there
were also questionable electroconvulsive treatments and insulin coma therapy, with risks of brain damage and death.
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Electroconvulsion therapy.
At Highland, Zelda was able to dance, to paint, to write.
The character Evalina, a talented pianist and a fellow patient, enters the hospital at age 13 in the aftermath of her mother’s suicide. She loves to read. One of the nurses brings her Nancy Drew books.
Nancy Drew. I love Nancy Drew.
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 I read all of the Nancy Drew books I could get my hands on the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the best compliments a coworker ever gave me was to call me Nancy Drew.

The first Nancy Drew mysteries were published in 1930: The Secret of the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase, The Bungalow Mystery, and The Mystery at Lilac Inn all in the same year. Nancy Drew books are still being written and published, the most recent title, Riverboat Roulette, was released in early 2017. Two titles, The Professor and the Puzzle and The Haunting on Heliotrope Lane, are planned for late 2017 and early 2018.

Why do we love Nancy Drew? She’s smart, fiesty, curious. Blogger Kerry Winfrey lists the reasons Nancy Drew is such a good role model:

  • She’s not afraid of anything.
  • She’s well-rounded.
  • She has great fashion sense.
  • She’s a feminist.
  • She has staying power.

The books purported author, Carolyn Keene, didn’t and doesn’t exist. The actual writers have come and gone, but Carolyn Keene lives on. Nancy Drew was created by Edward Stratemeyer, a publisher of children’s books. He hired ghost writers to churn out the books, as well as other series like The Hardy Boys, according to a set and successful formula.

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I don’t think it was a coincidence that Lee Smith brings Nancy Drew books into a story of princesses locked in a tower. Just as Paulina Porizkova wrote recently, women are told we can do anything. Nancy did it all, while dressed to the nines. She had her roadster, her friends, her college-aged boyfriend (who doesn’t show up that much), a father who encouraged her. She was smart and pretty and everything I wanted to be as a girl. But in the case of Zelda Fitzgerald, she was locked away for wanting to be more than a good wife and mother. She had serious artistic aspirations of her own, but lived in her famous husband’s shadow.

“Excuse me for being so intellectual. I know you would prefer something nice and feminine and affectionate.” [Zelda, in a letter to F. Scott.]

 

Many women in institutions at that time were women who didn’t fit in, who didn’t want to stay in their proscribed boxes, who were uninhibited, creative, and deemed hysterical. The word hysterical itself is significant. It comes from the Latin hystericus–of the womb–and was considered to be a female ailment, brought on by dysfunction of the uterus. Gary Nunn writes of the “feminization of madness”. Take the word loony, from lunacy, and the connection to the moon (lunar). Thus, lunacy becomes a monthly periodic insanity brought on by the moon’s cycle. As Nunn describes it:

“These etymologies have cemented a polarisation of the female and male mental states: men being historically associated with rationality, straightforwardness and logic; women with unpredictable emotions, outbursts and madness.”

In an interview, Lee Smith said,

“A fairly sizable number of women who were at Highland Hospital had really been sent there by their husbands or their families because they were just a little too wild or creative, because they didn’t fit into the norm that society—particularly Deep South society—expected of them.”

Zelda published a novel, Save Me the Waltz, in 1932. It was written while she was a patient at the Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She was there after “an episode of hysteria”, and spent 2 hours a day writing as a part of her recovery. The novel was autobiographical and apparently angered F. Scott, who forced extensive revisions before it was sent to the publihser. He then used much of the same autobiographical material in his own book, Tender is the Night, published in 1934.

F. Scott himself was clearly mentally unstable, yet he, the tortured novelist, stayed at the Grove Park Inn while his wife Zelda was confined to Highland Hospital. Ring Lardner Jr. referred to the couple: “Scott is a novelist and Zelda is a novelty.” During their courtship, Zelda routinely evoked jealousy from F. Scott with her flirting and “outrageous” ways. Before their marriage, he was quoted as saying something along the lines of “I used to wonder why they locked princesses in towers.”

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F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald

Nancy Drew, if she were real, would probably have been locked in that tower too. But hopefully she’d solve the mystery of the fire and escape before she was tied down for electro-shock treatment.

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The Princess in the Tower, by Otori Reka

I am currently reading  Therese Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Zelda’s story as she herself might have told it.

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I’m not very far into it. Zelda doesn’t seem crazy, though, just bored and stifled by the expectations placed on her in 1918 Montgomery, Alabama.

There is also now a television series on Amazon, Z: The Beginning of Everything, with Christina Ricci as Zelda.

 

The Fitzgeralds’ daughter, Frances Scott “Scottie” Fitzgerald Lanahan Smith, died in 1986. When she was born in 1921, Zelda said she hoped her daughter would be a “beautiful little fool”, a line which F. Scott had Daisy utter in The Great Gatsby.

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Scott, Scottie, and Zelda Fitzgerald

 

She was definitely not a fool; multi-talented, Scottie graduated from Vassar in 1942, and over the years worked as a writer and journalist, wrote musical comedies, and was a tireless figure in the Democratic Party as a fundraiser and promoter of Democratic candidates. Completing the circle in a sense, she moved from Washington, DC to Montgomery, Alabama and spent the last years of her life in her mother’s hometown. Two of her daughters control the Fitzgerald Trust. The house Zelda grew up in was set to be demolished in 1986; instead benefactors purchased the home and donated it as the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum. The F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald Papers are held at the Princeton University Library.

Meanwhile, Nancy Drew is still a badass girl detective.

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keep calm