Crying for those we don’t know

I am a big fan of the wonderfully crafted NBC drama This Is Us. It makes me cry pretty much every episode. The soundtrack music is well-chosen, and the depiction of past decades makes me warm with nostalgia.

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The cast of This Is Us.

The show is a touching family saga as well as a commentary on issues such as fat shaming, racism, depression, alcoholism (well-depicted, I must say, which isn’t always true), and other important topics. As I have been hearing from more and more people, arguably the heart of the show is father Jack Pearson, played heartbreakingly by Milo Ventimiglio.

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Actor Milo Ventimiglio.

Jack Pearson is a man with demons, he is flawed, but he is a good man. And he loves his family more than anything.

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The young Pearson family.
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Grown up Pearson family.

As a sensitive person who cries at the silliest things, the recent October 16th episode of the show that was devoted to Jack’s  backstory and his volunteering to go to Vietnam in 1971 had me teary-eyed from the get-go. I still tear up when I think back on it. It made me unbearably sad, not just for the characters on the show, but for every young person sent off to war, facing the possibility of their own death, leaving their loved ones behind.

Jack in Vietnam group photo
Jack (in front of the star on the vehicle’s door) with his company in Vietnam.

A big part of what made the story so moving was Jack’s reason for volunteering in the first place. He could have sat out the war with his 4-F classification, using his heart condition to justify not going. But he’s been told all his life that his job is to protect his little brother Nicky. His bond with and love for Nicky is fierce. When Nicky is drafted and  things go badly for him from the beginning, Jack manages to bypass his medical status through a trick his doctor reluctantly passes on to him, and off he goes. It’s not a spoiler that Nicky doesn’t survive. That’s been known from the beginning of the series. It makes it that much harder to watch as Jack goes, since we know that he won’t be able to save Nicky in the end.

Jack and Nicky
Nicky and Jack.

The episode is so well-crafted, written by series creator Dan Fogelman with Vietnam veteran and author Tim O’Brien, most known for his influential and thought-provoking short story The Things They Carried.

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Wrier Tim O’Brien in Vietnam, 1969.
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Writer Tim O’Brien.

The music that stood out to me and sent me down a rabbit hole of research and music purchasing was Tom Rush’s version of Child’s Song. It is haunting in the show’s context of a young man leaving home for war. The song of growing up and moving on, written by Murray McLauchlan and released by Tom Rush on his 1970 album Tom Rush, will have different meanings depending on your age, family circumstances, etc. Tom Rush has been reported to have said that it took him 3 months after recording it to be able to sing it in public without starting to cry. It’s that real.

 

Goodbye momma goodbye to you too pa
Little sister you’ll have to wait a while to come along
Goodybye to this house and all its memories

We just got too old to say we’re wrong
Got to make one last trip to my bedroom
Guess I’ll have to leave some stuff behind

It’s funny how the same old crooked pictures
Just don’t seem the same to me tonight
There ain’t no use in shedding lonely tears mamma

There ain’t no use in shouting at me pa
I can’t live no longer with your fears mamma
I love you but that hasn’t helped at all

Each of us must do the things that matter
All of us must see what we can see
It was long ago you must remember

You were once as young and scared as me
I don’t know how hard it is yet mamma
When you realize you’re growing old

I know how hard is not to be younger
I know you’ve tried to keep me from the cold
Thanks for all you done it may sound hollow

Thank you for the good times that we’ve known
But I must find my own road now to follow
You will all be welcome in my home

Got my suitcase I must go now
I don’t mind about the things you said
I’m sorry Mom I don’t know where I’m going

Remember little sister look ahead
Tomorrow I’ll be in some other sunrise
Maybe I’ll have someone at my side

Mamma give your love back to your husband
Father you’ve have taught we well goodbye
Goodbye Mamma goodbye to you too pa
Goodbye momma goodbye to you too pa

Little sister you’ll have to wait a while to come along
Goodybye to this house and all it’s memories
We just got too old to say we’re wrong

Got to make one last trip to my bedroom
Guess I’ll have to leave some stuff behind
It’s funny how the same old crooked pictures

Just don’t seem the same to me tonight
There ain’t no use in shedding lonely tears mamma
There ain’t no use in shouting at me pa

I can’t live no longer with your fears mamma
I love you but that hasn’t helped at all
Each of us must do the things that matter

All of us must see what we can see
It was long ago you must remember
You were once as young and scared as me

I don’t know how hard it is yet mamma
When you realize you’re growing old
I know how hard is not to be younger

I know you’ve tried to keep me from the cold
Thanks for all you done it may sound hollow
Thank you for the good times that we’ve known

But I must find my own road now to follow
You will all be welcome in my home
Got my suitcase I must go now

I don’t mind about the things you said
I’m sorry Mom I don’t know where I’m going
Remember little sister look ahead

Tomorrow I’ll be in some other sunrise
Maybe I’ll have someone at my side
Mamma give your love back to your husband
Father you’ve have taught me well goodbye
Goodbye Mamma goodbye to you too pa

 

The feeling of sadness, despair, and gloom I felt might have been compounded by the realization, after watching the magnificent Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary series The Vietnam War that aired on PBS starting in September, 2017, of how little I knew about the conflict in Vietnam and its repercussions, about the lies behind the war, and the needless loss of so many lives. The soldiers who survived came back forever changed and were met with hostility. When I watched the series, I just wanted to curl up in bed under the covers and never come out.

Burns Vietnam

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick
Lynn Novick and Ken Burns.

The feelings that The Vietnam War, This Is Us, and Child’s Song wrought in me reminded me the disturbing and, for me, life changing, art exhibition I worked on when I was with the now-defunct Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts in Napa, California.

Copia

As the assistant registrar in the art exhibitions department, it was my task to count and document the condition of each work of art displayed in any exhibition. In about 2003, we presented a show of artist Julie Green’s painted plates, The Last Supper, in which she painstakingly depicts the last meal requests of real death row prisoners who’ve been executed. Talk about a difficult subject…

Julie Green
Oregon-based artist Julie Green and The Last Supper.

Last I checked, the plate collection was up to over 700. That represents 700 real people who have been put to death by various state governments. People who knew they would die, who knew when they would die, and how. Who ordered their last meals, and either ate them or didn’t (I wouldn’t be able to), and then prepared for their executions. As I handled each plate, reading on the backs the locations and dates of the executions and looking at the images of the requested meals, I felt sad, sick, hopeless, ashamed. My intention is not to start a political debate about the death penalty. What I am trying to convey is that sense of empathy for another human being, of trying to understand what it’s like for someone facing their own mortality. I talk about practicing kindness, compassion, and empathy a lot, not because it comes naturally for me but because I have to work at it. Yes, the people (predominantly but not all men) whose meals are illustrated in the plates were convicted of horrible crimes. I am not defending them. I am lamenting a society in which we can justify taking the lives of others.

Across from the Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART) station in nearby Lafayette, California are the white crosses on the hill that can be seen from Highway 24. An anti-war memorial, each cross represents an American soldier killed in Iraq or Afghanistan since 2006. The last count I found was close to 8,000 crosses on the 2.7 acre hillside. It’s hard to capture the feeling it engenders when seen. It’s vast and beautiful and disturbing and sobering all at the same time.

Lafayette Peace Memorial

I honestly don’t know how to shake off the feelings of despair and hopelessness. One of the things I strive for these days is positivity and cheerfulness. But you can’t always be positive and cheerful , can you? There are bad things in the world, and despite my desire to bury my head in the sand and avoid anything unhappy, I feel like I have an obligation to increase my awareness of what is happening in my neighborhood, my country, my world. It is only with knowledge that we can make change.

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P.S. Maybe it will cheer you up to look back on a younger Milo Ventimiglio, who was Rory’s love interest Jess Mariano on another favorite show, Gilmore Girls, in 2002. I was definitely one of the show’s fans who hoped Rory would end up with Jess. He was the misunderstood, brooding bad boy, just the right counterpart to too-good-to-be-true Rory.

GILMORE GIRLS, Milo Ventimiglia, Alexis Bledel, 'Lorelai's Graduation Day', (Season 2), 2000-2007, p

Maybe that’s what I need–no, not a bad boy, but to watch some Gilmore Girls as an antidote to my “the world sucks” blues. A little time in fictional Stars Hollow, where everyone knows each other and you can drink coffee to your heart’s content at Luke’s Diner. Escapism at its best!

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As always, peace and hugs.

See the Changes (Stills was always my favorite)

One of the pleasures of getting older is looking back on meaningful things in the progression of your life, or making sense of things that maybe didn’t at the time, or even reflecting on what weren’t good times and seeing how they contributed to who you are. I’m realizing how important the music of various times has been as the soundtrack to my story. I more and more listen to the music of my young adulthood and hear a beauty in it that I didn’t necessarily get at the time. I just knew I liked it, but maybe not so much what it meant.

I was reading The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen (originally published in the Netherlands in 2014), and felt compelled to take a photo of this quote. It’s so true!

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Hendrik

 

When we were on our recent vacation in England, I happened to hear over a cafe sound system songs by Leonard Cohen that took me back to the time when I didn’t even think I liked Leonard Cohen.

 

Cohen

 

Now I appreciate him for the incredible poet that he was, and wish I’d paid more attention. The song playing was The Sisters of Mercy (1967), and I fell in love with it there in the cafe.

 

 

I don’t remember if it was the same cafe or later somewhere else on the trip, but my attention was caught by the Crosby, Stills & Nash song See the Changes (written by Stephen Stills) from the 1977 album CSN.

 

CSN

 

See the Changes (Stephen Stills)

She has seen me changing
It ain’t easy rearranging
And it gets harder as you get older
Farther away as you get closer

And I don’t know the answer
Does it even matter?
I’m wonderin’ how

Ten years singing right out loud
I never looked was anybody listening
Then I fell out of a cloud
I hit the ground and noticed something missing

Now I have someone
She has seen me changing
And it gets harder as you get older
And farther away as you get closer

And I don’t know the answer
Does it even matter?
I’m wonderin’ how

Seems like something out of a dream
I had years ago yes, I remember screaming
Nobody laughing all the good times
Getting harder to come by without weeping

Now I have someone
She has seen me changing
And it gets harder as you get older
And farther away

 

 

Most of my favorite Crosby, Stills & Nash songs were written by Stephen Stills, and his voice was always the one that stood out to me. I went to see him in concert in Sacramento back in about 1990ish, and he was older and heavier (as I am now), but he could still play that guitar and his voice was as strong as ever.

 

 

As we steered our canal boat through the English countryside into Wales, See the Changes became the soundtrack in my head, the song I sang aloud when no one was listening. The lines “…and it gets harder as you get older, and farther away as you get closer…” seemed particularly relevant as I took ibuprofen every night after the day’s hard work or raising and lowering locks and bridges on the canalway.

 

 

I also had a lot of time to reflect on the meaning of those lines and whether or not I’d say that it’s true that it gets harder as I get older or if anything seems farther away. I suppose it depends on what the “it” is. Some things get harder as I get older, like getting up if I sit on the floor, or getting by on little sleep, or being on my feet all day. Those are the physical things.

 

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The mental and emotional things, for me, have gotten easier in a lot of ways. My social skills are much better, I’m more tolerant and open-minded, I deliberately aim for kindness and compassion in my approach to life and the other inhabitants of the planet. I love learning, and since I quit drinking 5 years ago, my brain engages and I want to learn more, always.

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Farther away? Well, the closer I get to the PhD finish line, the farther away that seems! People I started the program with, in my cohort as they say, have in some cases finished (congratulations, Barbara!) or are close to finishing (you go, Jennifer!). I’m still about a year away at best. But I remind myself over and over that it’s not a race or a competition, that I’ll finish in my own time and will be proud of what I accomplished. Retirement seems farther away than ever! I dream about the retirement house we will move to some day, where it will be and how clean and simple and tranquil it will be. The projects I’ll get done, all the books I’ll read. It’ll be awesome, if I ever get there.

 

too-many-books-so-little-time

 

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Gee, I wonder what this house costs?

 

In addition to music and language, visual imagery, of course, is a huge part of our memories, nostalgia, reminiscing. I love to look through old photographs, but unfortunately, due a house fire in 1987, a lot of family photos were destroyed.

 

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A rare old family photo: me in 1965 at preschool. I’m the 4th seated in front from the left, worried looking blonde in white.

 

When I was in high school in the late 1970s, I was obsessed with Seventeen magazine. Summer breaks seemed so long and luxurious (maybe because I wasn’t motivated to get a summer job like other teens; shy and lacking in confidence, the idea of applying for jobs was beyond me), and I couldn’t wait for the newest edition of the magazine, with the upcoming fall trends and teen advice. I was shy, yes, and also a loner, but I wanted what was in those magazines! I commandeered my mother’s old sewing machine, dragging it into my room, and followed all of the instructions on how to remake your wardrobe (turning flared pant legs into straight ones was a big one). In particular, the August 1978 issue was one that I read and reread, tried to copy the styles from, and wanted so badly to be the cover model, Lari Jane Taylor. I actually have remembered her name all of these years. I still love the look. I even still have a copy of the magazine, carefully preserved in an archival sleeve. It was my bible going into my senior year of high school, a year fraught with uncertainty and insecurity. In my 17-year old brain, I thought the right color eyeshadow would be the answer to my problems.

 

Lari Jane Taylor

 

 

Lari Jane Taylor was also the cover model of the January 1979 issue, looking into the spring. That issue didn’t have the same impact on me, clearly, since I’d forgotten about it until I searched on her name. I prefer the August 1978 look anyway.

 

lari 2

 

Ah, the late 1970s. A strange time, a transitional time between the “hippie” era of the late 60s and early 70s and the me-first greed of the 1980s. I often felt a little lost, not identifying with my peers. I became vegetarian, made my own clothes, listened to the “wrong” music (I abhored disco music, although I think it’s fun now). I wasn’t a punk, either. I was a geek in a land of jocks and cheerleaders on one side, and feaks and punks on the other. If you’ve never watched the one season of Freaks and Geeks (set in 1980), I highly recommend it, by the way.

freaks

 

 

I was flipping throught the 1978 magazine, and all kinds of advertisements and images struck me as hugely amusing now, 40 years later.

 

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Whoa, 11 8-track tapes for $1! Even that $1 turned out to be a bad investment in a short-lived music format.

But look again at the song lyrics to See the Changes. The lines just before “and it gets harder as you get older, farther away as you get closer”:

Now I have someone

She has seen me changing…

Having someone with you on your journey who sees the work you are doing, who appreciates how hard you are working and can help you get perspective when whatever “it” is seems harder or farther away–that’s now my takeaway from this song. Whether it’s a sibling, a friend, a significant other, a companion animal (I’m not joking)–having someone to talk to, to bounce ideas off of, to give you comfort when you feel down–can make a world of difference. Hey, that English canal boat was a 2-person job and it was hard (but fun) work. Kind of like life.

Here’s to you, Captain Bob!

 

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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.

Harriett_M_Lothrop_from_American_Women,_1897_-_cropped
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.

littlest pepper with her kitten
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.

dionne infants
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.

 

next showing sign
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.

family secrets

 

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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Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes

As with many of these musings, this one begins with a dream and a musical earworm. I dreamed that my family (a mixed lot of from throughout time and some people strictly from my imagination) moved into a house, an old, blue-painted, farmhouse in need of a lot of work but with some great features, and before even unpacking, my dream father-figure (one of the imaginary dream characters, oddly resembling the writer Michael Chabon) decided we were selling the house and moving. There was much interaction with realtors, cleaning up of the farmhouse, etc.

Chabon
Author Michael Chabon.

Moving has been a recurring theme in my life from the age of 10 through my adolescence and adulthood until I met Bob, who’s comfortingly happy in one place.

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Home is where the heart is.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve moved over the years. If my tally is correct, I moved 25 times between the years 1972 (Atlanta to Sacramento) and 2006 (from Napa to Oakland). Locations in between included Ashland, Oregon; Ankara, Turkey; Chico, California; and a long tour of Davis, California at 5 different addresses. I’m sure family and friends gave up trying to keep up with my changes of mailing address along the way.

demonic U-Haul
Demonic U-Haul, drawing by headexplodie.

Which brings me to the earworm, David Bowie’s 1972 song Changes. I was never a huge Bowie fan when he was alive, sad to say, but I’ve come to appreciate his work more in the last few years.

Bowiechanges2

 

Most of us want change at some point in our lives, whether to escape boredom or troubles, to challenge ourselves, to not be stagnant. In recovery circles, it’s called “doing a geographic”, and is not always the best approach. Such as in those 25 moves over 34 years–some were for good reasons (new jobs) and some were for the wrong reasons (unresolved unhappiness). My mother’s second husband put us through a few moves, usually for financial reasons (downward, not upward) and in one case, to escape creditors in one state by fleeing to another on short notice.

Then I went off to college and met a boy, and set off on a whirlwind of moves myself. My now ex-husband seemed to think the cure for any unhappiness or restlessness was to do a geographic. Rather than addressing the real problems in our lives, we had the thought that going to a new place would make everything better. Unlike smaller changes we make, like a new haircut that can put a spring in your step and make you feel sassy and fun, moving is itself stressful. And your friends get really sick of being asked to help.

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Some changes, like I say, are great. I went from vegetarian to vegan in the spring of 2015 and although I am not a perfect vegan, I am a happy one.

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I remember visiting my paternal grandparents in about 1971, and thinking how cool and modern their house was. I revisited years later and nothing had changed. It made me sad. It seemed old and faded and no longer cool but fusty. I look around our house now and long for new furniture, partly because the cats have destroyed most of our upholstered furniture, and partly because I don’t want that unchanging, old-person fustiness to envelop me. Unless fringed furniture becomes stylish, in which case my cats are trend-setters.

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The fringed look is great for dresses and jackets, not so much for furniture.
Kitten scratching fabric sofa
Interior designer cat. Image from cattime.com.

Haircuts and hairstyles and fashion are like that too. We change with the times. And if we don’t, we can hope that what’s old comes back in style and is new again. That 1980s mullet hopefully never comes back in style! Please, never.

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The classic mullet on Billy Ray Cyrus.
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Even young George Clooney looks silly with a mullet.

My hair has changed many times over the years, long to short and back again. It’s also changed as I’ve gotten older, from thick and wavy to neither of those things.

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Me on the left with a lot of hair, my equally thick-haired sister Ellen on the right, circa 1988. My hair, sadly, is not thick and wavy anymore. The things they don’t tell you about getting older!
1975 hair
Circa 1975.
1985 hair
Mom on the left, me with 80s hair on the right. Circa 1985.
2015 hair
Fast forward to 2015.
2017 hair
Getting longer, 2017. I call this my moody rock album cover photo.
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Today in hair, March 13, 2018.

Rather than moving, when I am hit with those “doing a geographic” urges, I go back to school. School is my comfort zone, my safe place, the place I feel like I belong much of the time. I’ve been back to school several times over the years, and now with online education, I can be a life-long learner from the comfort of my own home, changing mailing address or not. Someday I’ll finish this Ph.D. I’ve embarked upon, and then I’ll maybe go to sewing school or goat-herding school or who knows what.

goat herding

Another change I go through admittedly more than I’d really like is jobs, which is what really brings up the whole Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes song for me.  I’ve had jobs I loved–working as a museum technician for California State Parks in Sonoma, as Assistant Registrar in the art exhibitions department at Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa. I’ve had jobs that I disliked–my first job after I finished my Bachelor’s degree in design, working as a “scientific illustrator” for an unnamed company in Sacramento. I’ve had jobs that I was mostly “meh” about–the 11 years I spent as the Assistant Registrar at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

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Because I was “meh” about that job, I spent a long time looking for and interviewing for other jobs. I thought I landed my dream job when I was hired by the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis in late 2015. I love UC Davis and I love the city of Davis. I was sure that was the job I would retire from. Maybe it’s true that you can’t go home again, though I don’t really believe that. Maybe my clue should have been my start day on Pearl Harbor Day–December 7. Or on my second day of work when my car broke down and I was 3 hours late getting there.

Cooper

Needless to say, it didn’t work out and in the summer of 2016 I found myself unemployed. Yippee!

I felt unappreciated at first, then I tried to be positive and think of it as a learning experience.

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(From the Travelling Squid)

better

A career change, that’s what I needed. I wanted to do something to make a difference in the world. Another version of doing a geographic, maybe, but in my case, it turned out to be the best decision I ever made. I applied for jobs at every animal shelter and rescue group I could think of, and landed at Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation in August of 2016. I couldn’t have been luckier. Or happier.

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Best job ever!

I spent a wonderful year and a half there.  I fell in love with the dogs and cats there everyday, and couldn’t ask for better colleagues or volunteers to spend my days with. I traded down in terms of a paycheck, but seriously up in terms of satisfaction and mental rewards. Like David Bowie sings, “Don’t want to be a richer man…” (woman), just a more fulfilled one. I wasn’t looking for a change.

So I applied for a job at the East Bay SPCA.

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I’m still not sure why. Needing a personal challenge? A shorter commute? Trying to go home again (I volunteered there from 2009 to 2016)? I was offered the job. I spent 5 days agonizing over what to do. I accepted the job. And here I go again, starting anew. Which starts my ear worm transition to Here You Come Again, by Dolly Parton (1977) (“…here you come again and here I go…”).

 

I hope I made the right decision. Admittedly, I miss my friends at ARF. But I seriously hope I spend the rest of this career in animal welfare with the East Bay SPCA (assuming I do a good job and get to stay). I’d like to stay put in one house and one job for a while. I can keep changing my hair. Maybe we’ll get new furniture and miraculously the cats won’t destroy it. (Do they make stainless steel living room furniture? And how uncomfortable is it?)

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Cat proof?

Before you know it, it will be time to make a big change and retire. Then maybe we’ll sell the house, move to the country, rescue some goats…

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Leanne Lauricella, one of my heroes, is the founder of the goat rescue and sanctuary Goats of Anarchy.

Keep learning, keep happy, and stay motivated to make a difference. You can change the world.

 

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.

sulawesi

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.

 

If I could talk to the animals (oh wait, I do that)

Yes, I talk to animals. I can’t say that they listen to or understand me, and they don’t talk back to me in a language that is clear, like with Doctor John Dolittle in the children’s books from the 1920s by civil engineer Hugh Lofting (born in 1886 in Maidenhead, Berkshire, England).

hugh lofting
Hugh Lofting

Lofting died in 1947, so any Doctor Dolittle shenanigans after that point are not his fault. The original stories are set in Victorian England in the fictional village of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, a place I wanted desperately to live when I read my mother’s old copies of the books in the 1960s. To tell the truth, I still want to live there.

I’ve written about perfect moments.  In  my memories, reading Doctor Dolittle as a child, curled up in my pajamas in the comfy chair with the nubby green upholstery, the sun shining through a window of the den on a cold day and dust just visible floating in the stream of sunlight, smelling the old-paper smell of the books my mother had also read as a child–that’s a perfect moment.

books

 

The movie version I am familiar with is the 1967 musical with Rex Harrison as the doctor, and also starring Samantha Eggar, Anthony Newley, and Richard Attenborough.

 

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It was, surprisingly in retrospect, nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture that year, and won the Oscars for Best Original Song (for Talk to the Animals) and Best Original Effects. Of course, I at age 6, loved the movie, but I don’t think it was actually very good. I mostly remember Anthony Newley singing (not necessarily in a good way) and the voyage in the Giant Pink Sea Snail.

 

 

It never occured to me as a child to ask why, if the Giant Pink Sea Snail is a living creature, it has no insides and the humans can live in its (his? her?) hollow shell without problems. When you are 6 you go with your imagination and don’t question these things.

 

I have never seen the Eddie Murphy version of Doctor Dolittle (1998) and have no intention of ever seeing it. Sorry, Mr. Murphy, but in my mind Doctor Dolittle will always be English, Victorian, and Rex Harrison-ish, although I applaud the concept of introducing said doctor to a new generation and a diverse audience. Plus, I don’t think fart jokes are all that funny and just have no place in my world of Doctor Dolittle and Puddleby-on-the Marsh. And neither does a PG rating.

drdolittle

 

But as usual I digress. I talk to the animals. Frequently. And I talk for them. I have voices I use for the animals who live with me, and they often are very sassy when speaking through me. We sing, too. Each animal has a story and a song, and there are songs that go with different ocassions, like meals and bedtime.

This version of Talk to the Animals by Sammy Davis Jr. makes me happy in some way I can’t explain. Sammy always reminds me of my mother’s second husband, Van, who was extremely thin and liked to dance and had a style a lot like Sammy’s when he was in happy drunk mode. That was less frequent than mean drunk mode, but we don’t need to go into that here.

 

And before you think you need to have me committed, let me tell you that I know I am not alone in the world. I know very rational people who sing and talk to animals, and have voices and special songs assigned to particular animals. Maybe it’s a little quirky, but it’s fun and harmless. I have no illusions that the animals are actually listening to, understanding, or responding to me. I think my marbles are all still with me.

 

 

Each of my resident companion animals has a special song. For Sara, it’s obviously Sara Smile (1976) by Hall and Oates. I’ve had Sara (brown tabby) since she was a newborn kitten, and I sang that to her when I bottle-fed her. She’s 19 years old now, and it’s still her song. Her brother Ben (orange tabby), who passed away at 15, was subjected to me singing the Michael Jackson song Ben from the horror movie Ben (1971), sequel to Willard. Yes, it’s about a rat, but it’s still a good song. I’ll spare you my singing and go right to the sources.

 

 

Misty, who I sometimes call Mystical, gets to hear me warble on with The Beatle’s song Magical Mystery Tour (1967) with the lyrics changed to “She’s the magical mystical cat, she’s going to eat your face…” She won’t really eat your face, but she on the moody side, shall we say.

Misty

Here is the song performed by Sir Paul McCartney:

 

Alternatively, Misty also gets Windy, the 1967 hit by The Association, alltered to “Everyone knows it’s Misty…And Misty has stormy eyes…”

 

Marble, lively young lad, I decided gets the the old Ballad of Davy Crockett (1955), with the line changed to “Marby, Marby Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier”. It suits him, can’t explain why. I won’t make you listen to it. You’re welcome.

 

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Davy_Crockett,_King_of_the_Wild_Frontier_FilmPoster

 

Einstein is the odd one out, the only dog. He feels misunderstood and put upon by all of the cat activity in the house. Middle child syndrome, in a way. I don’t know why I started singing Petula Clark’s Downtown (1964) to him. Maybe because it’s fun to say Einstein to the “downtown” spots, and I make the main line “Einstein, everyone’s waiting for Einstein…” And he does look a little like Petula Clark, now that I think about it.

Einstein

 

And then we have songs to mark times of day. From A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) comes Vince Guaraldi’s Christmas Time is Here, changed to “Breakfast time is here” or “Dinner time is here”, depending. Breakfast can also be signified by changing It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas (1951) to “It’s beginning to look a lot like breakfast”.

 

I won’t go into all of the songs I’ve sung to different foster kittens. But I could use suggestions for foster #56, Dapper. He’s a very affectionate 1-year old boy. I’ve been calling him Dapper Dan in honor of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000) and George Clooney’s character Ulysses Everett McGill’s obssession with Dapper Dan hair pomade.

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I’ll have to listen to the movie soundtrack and pick out a song. They do sing You Are My Sunshine in the movie. Sounds like I’ve found a winner!

 

Peace and hugs, and keep singing! I’ll be out there looking for that magical place, Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. Maybe I’ll see you there.

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Yes, I Was a Fanilow (Kelly, this one’s for you)

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I first heard the term “Fanilow” from the 2003 Will & Grace television episode in which Will tries to hide from his friends while he stands in line for tickets to a Barry Manilow Christmas concert.

 

I hadn’t thought about Barry Manilow in years. I probably wouldn’t have paid any attention to the Will & Grace episode either, except my sister Ellen called me to tell me she thought I’d get a kick out of the episode.

Why? Because I must confess, I was at one time a Fanilow. A devoted one. Okay, I was a teenager in the 70s. It’s somewhat explainable, but I don’t talk about it unless someone else brings it up. And now it’s out in the open.

Bob and I are in beautiful downtown Burbank, California for a couple of days.

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My “bestest ever” friend from high school, Kelly, lives down here. We don’t get to see each other very often, so I welcomed the chance to hitch a ride down I-5 to spend a day with her. At dinner with Bob she happened to say, innocently enough, “Did Gen tell you about how much she loved Barry Manilow?” I looked down. Bob looked at me with an amused expression. And my secret was revealed.

keep calm

 

It started with Mandy. It’s pretty much always been about Mandy. I didn’t even kow until I started writing this, Barry didn’t even write Mandy! I was so sure he had. Illusion destroyed. I listened to that song on the 8-track tape player in our living room in the house we lived in then in Gardnerville, Nevada, in the Carson Valley, over and over.

 

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Carson Valley, Nevada

 

Oh, how I loved that song. I sang my heart out. I can still belt out those lyrics from memory.

 

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Tell all, you say. The ultimate story takes place in March of 1977. Newly popular comedian Billy Crystal, made famous from the spoof television show Soap, was Barry’s opening act for a show at the Sahara Tahoe resort and casino. I HAD to go.

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Seriously. I HAD to go. I would DIE if I didn’t go. South Lake Tahoe is not far from Gardnerville, but it seemed worlds away at that time when I was pining for a chance to go to the show.

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Remember, I hadn’t yet turned 16, I didn’t drive, I didn’t have money, and it seemed IMPOSSIBLE that I would get to go. I pinned a picture of Barry on my wall and moped. If you have ever been or raised a teenaged girl, you know how expertly they pine and mope.

I don’t know what my mother did, but she did what it took, and lo and behold, we were going to the show. Five of us, in fact: my mother and her husband Van, me, and my friends Kelly and Michelle.

The only transportation we had was Van’s tiny Datsun pickup truck. I don’t use the term tiny lightly. Two people could “comfortably” ride in the cab of that truck. Not 5. Somehow we did it. It was very crowded, dangerous, and I am sure illegal. But we were determined.

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My mother made my dress. It looked something like the dress here in the lower left. This was a special occasion, remember. It was March in Tahoe; I was very cold.

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We went to the dinner show, seated at a table in the very back. I am sure Mom and Van smoked the entire time. They could do that legally then. There were maybe 3 dinner options; we all chose the least expensive–Salisbury steak. Salisbury steak is not steak. Nothing near being steak. It’s basically a hamburger patty in mushroom gravy. Chefs at fine restaurants do not make Salisbury steak. I knew it from frozen TV dinners.

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A girl we knew in school, a girl from a family with money, arrived at the show with her friends. They had a table up front. They more than likely ordered something other than Salisbury steak. I didn’t care. Van probably had a few drinks (and then drove the overcrowded little truck back down the mountain to Gardnerville). I don’t remember how bad the food or how scary the ride. This was about Barry.

barry at piano

Bily Crystal was, to me then, surprisingly vulgar. Lots of jokes about feminine hygiene products. Not funny. Just get him off the stage and on to Barry, people! It was wonderful, all a blur to me now. But I was happy. We made it home. I switched my crush over to Andy Gibb eventually. And then Daryl Hall, who I still have a thing for.

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Andy Gibb
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Daryl Hall

Life went on. The 70s moved on to the 80s, etc. Barry is 73 now, married to his long-secret love of 39 years, his manager Garry Kief.

 

barry and hubby

 

Now that he’s publicly out, I don’t think anyone is at all surprised. Even me, his former Number 1 Fan.

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But some things never change, like the wonderful feeling of being the company of a good friend. This time with Kelly has been the best; it’s just like we are those 15 year old girls all of those years ago, getting ready to go to a show. True friends are really what it’s all about.

friends

Love you, Kelly.

 

 

So Far Away (I love you, Carole King)

Not so long ago, I went with my buddy Debra to watch the recent film of Carole King performing her groundbreaking Tapestry album at Hyde Park in London in 2016.

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Tapestry (1971) was on repeat play on the turntable in my sisters’ room when we were growing up. I have strong and fond memories of the music.

Tapestry

Debra, inviting me to go, remarked that I seemed like the type who would love Carole King. She was right.

The Hyde Park concert was amazing enough to watch as a film. It must have been magical to be there. First of all, Hyde Park in London. I’ve never been but it looks lovely in photos.

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Hyde Park, London

A huge and congenial crowd is in attendance, singing along with Carole and clearly connecting to her music, whether as a remembrance of a time past or as younger, newer listeners struck by the emotion and angst of the songs.

Tapestry itself is such a classic, every song a gem (except maybe Smackwater Jack, but I loved it when I was 10 and I still like to sing along with it). This is the list of songs on Tapestry:

  • I Feel the Earth Move
  • So Far Away
  • It’s Too Late
  • Home Again
  • Beautiful
  • Way Over Yonder
  • You’ve Got a Friend
  • Where You Lead
  • Will You Love Me Tomorrow
  • Smackwater Jack
  • Tapestry
  • Natural Woman

You’ve heard them all. I’ve sung them all. It’s a legendary work of art. But what I’ve noticed a month after seeing the film is that the one song that won’t leave me is So Far Away.

 

There’s so much about this song that keeps it on my mind. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and prone to nostalgia. The lyrics themselves provoke a sense of loneliness, time slipping away, a need for connection and love and friendship.

so far away

lyrics

I’ve been thinking of the notion of far away. It can be distance, it can be time, it can be a mental state. My sisters and my brothers are distance away–3,000 miles give or take. That’s far. Too far. My mother is time away; when I say time I mean earlier days and memories, not a discrete amount of time that can be traversed. She died in August, 2009. But I dream of her frequently and miss her every day. And then someone can be sitting right next to you and be far away, lost in thought, in another world, with you but not with you. I am sometimes that person who is far away, dreamy and distant.

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I wake up with So Far Away playing in my head. I will be listening to my audiobook of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and up will pop So Far Away. That is fitting in its way. If you know Anna’s story, she was ostracized by friends and family and the larger society, not allowed to see her beloved son. She was right there, but made to seem far away, even to herself. Spoiler alert–Anna’s story doesn’t end well. We need family, friends, connection.

anna

“One more song about moving along the highway can’t say much of anything that’s new.” So true. And it’s predominantly men who sing those moving on down the highway songs. The Allman Brothers and Ramblin’ Man as well as Midnight Rider. The Grateful Dead and Truckin’.  Ricky Nelson and Travelin’ Man. (And what’s with the dropped letter g, by the way?) Steve Miller took it to the skies with Jet Airliner. Steppenwolf and Born to be Wild. Pretty much anything from Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska (which I love).

 

 

Was it a coincidence that about 95% of the audience in the movie theater the night we went was female, of a certain age, and we all sang along? But it was So Far Away that had me wiping a tear from my eye. I can think of one other song that has this effect on me–James Taylor’s Shower the People (1976).

 

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Letting the people that you love know that you love them–it seems so simple yet it can be so difficult. It’s the subject of many a novel, play, movie. We carry such inner turmoil around showing love. Yet we crave love ourselves. James Taylor is a guy that gets it.

Again, not a coincidence that James Taylor and Carole King have a history going back more than 40 years, including him performing backing vocals on Tapestry. In addition to his own songs, he’s performed (and made famous) many of King’s songs, such as You’ve Got a Friend.

 

James has his own Highway Song; it seems to be a male rite of passage. Women want to seek out and befriend, men want to get moving along/away.

 

When I was younger, my ex-husband’s response to strife was to suggest we move. During our 20+ years of marriage, we lived in too many apartments and houses to count in several different towns, including Ashland, Oregon; Ankara, Turkey; Chico, Vacaville, Winters, Sacramento, Davis, Fairfield, and Napa in California. I think what he really wanted was to move on without me. Now, with Bob, we’ve lived in this same house for the 13 years we’ve been together. It’s a nice feeling to be at home! Yes, he travels, but I always know he’ll be back, and be happy to be back. He’s never so far away that I can’t reach him.

Come visit us sometime; it would be so fine to see your face at our door. As long as you aren’t allergic to dogs and cats. They help make this place home, too.

 

 

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.

introvertparty

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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.”

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

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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!

 

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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.