Monday, October 28, 2019

The Comfort of Touching the Earth

Sometimes all you need is a Mary Oliver poem on an autumn evening. Just soak it in.
Song for Autumn

In the deep fall
don’t you imagine the leaves think how
comfortable it will be to touch
the earth instead of the
nothingness of air and the endless
freshets of wind? And don’t you think
the trees themselves, especially those with mossy,
warm caves, begin to think

of the birds that will come — six, a dozen — to sleep
inside their bodies? And don’t you hear
the goldenrod whispering goodbye,
the everlasting being crowned with the first
tuffets of snow? The pond
vanishes, and the white field over which
the fox runs so quickly brings out
its blue shadows. And the wind pumps its
bellows. And at evening especially,
the piled firewood shifts a little,
longing to be on its way.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Stardust, Willie, & A Newborn Babe: The Physical Pull of Music

The Ken Burns' series "Country Music" led me to pull out an album I hadn't listened to in over 35 years. Willie Nelson's Stardust was hugely popular in the late 1970s and early 80s. Of course, it's the least "country music" album in the world, though it won all kinds of country music awards in its day. All of the songs are Great American Songbook standards - September Song, Sunny Side Of The Street, Blue Skies, Georgia On My Mind, and, yes, Stardust, among others. 

And these few precious days 
I'll spend with you 
These precious days 
I'll spend with you 

The beauty of the album, besides the fabulous songs themselves, is the gentle acoustic treatment. Nothing loud or brassy. Just guitar, keyboard, harmonica, gentle percussion for rhythm. Willie's voice is the main country element; the rest is light jazz, pop, folk. 

Evening summer breeze 
Warbling of a meadowlark 
Moonlight in Vermont 

So. This gentle album, with songs by the likes Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Dorothy Fields, and Kurt Weill, brought back memories of a very specific time in my life. And it's all about love, but not the romantic kind. It's about dancing away the wee hours of the morning with my tiny baby girl on my shoulder. 

Missed the Saturday dance 
Hear they crowded the floor 
Couldn't bear it without you 
Don't get around much anymore 

Like most newborns, my Baby Kate got hungry in the middle of the night and then took some time to get back to sleep. So I'd put Willie Nelson's Stardust on the stereo, and with her slung over my shoulder, I'd keep time patting her back and we'd dance: 

Sometimes I wonder 
Why I spend the lonely nights 
Dreaming of a song 
The melody 
Haunts my reverie 

Maybe just a gentle waltz. Maybe a little quick step. 

Grab your coat and get your hat 
Leave your worry on the doorstep 
Just direct your feet 
To the sunny side of the street 

Even as new and tiny as she was and as sure as I was that she'd gone back to sleep, Kate's little head would bobble around between the songs and she'd look up to me as if to say, "When's the next song coming on?" And then we'd just keep dancing the night away. Swaying back and forth to the brilliant music.

Other arms reach out to me 
Other eyes smile tenderly 
Still in peaceful dreams I see 
The road leads back to you 

Playing this particular collection of songs again sent me straight back to being a new mother. Every wonderful song reminded me of those first uncertain nights of wondering if I was doing everything - anything - right. Wondering if she'd ever go to sleep for more than a few minutes at a time. 

I'm a little lamb who's lost in the wood 
I know I could, always be good 
To one who'll watch over me 

Every song, every arrangement is just perfect. Soothing, beautiful, memorable. I swear I could almost feel my milk let down! That's the power of music. It's physical. It's emotional. It reaches places inside you that you'd forgotten were there. Example? In my first trimester, plagued by morning sickness, I used to play a cassette of Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld (don't ask!) in the car. Even 36 years later whenever I hear the "Can-Can" song, I get nauseous. That's the physical power of music. 

I need your love 
I need your love 
God speed your love to me 

I wonder if grown-up Kate knows Willie Nelson's Stardust album? I wonder if she heard those particular songs today she'd feel a weird little pang that she can't put her finger on? Probably not. But it's a damn fine album and perfect for soothing a newborn babe and dancing the night away. Give it a listen sometime.

Blue skies 
Smiling at me 
Nothing but blue skies 
Do I see

Sunday, July 07, 2019

My 5-Star Year (So Far) of Non-Fiction

I'm one of those obsessive-compulsive book-lovers who keeps a diary of everything I read. I'll admit to favoring a good Southern-or-New England-or-England-Scotland-Wales mystery over most anything else, and I've read some darn good ones so far this year that rate a solid 4-stars. But imagine my surprise as I looked over my booklist since January to discover that the only books I've given 5-star ratings are non-fiction.

All of the authors are true storytellers, making complex information very easy to digest. Let me grab you by the collar, give you a good shake, and beg you to read:

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep. This one has everything - insurance fraud, lots of murders, a "preacher" named Willie Maxwell, Harper Lee, Truman Capote, a lawyer/politician named Tom Radney, Alabama politics, writer-struggle, surprises around every corner. It reads like page-turner fiction, and isn't that the best kind of non-fiction? A great story.

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe. I wasn't sure I would like this one because of the complicated subject matter, but I was sucked in immediately. This is terrific storytelling by author Keefe and really digs into all sides of the "troubles" and people involved. I learned so much in the most - dare I say? - enjoyable way. 

War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence by Ronan Farrow. Who is this kid? Forget all the Mia Farrow/Woody Allen kufuffle. Farrow's just a babe (he's 31), but he's served as UNICEF Spokesman for Youth in Dafur/Sudan, a lawyer and member of the NY bar, interned in the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, was recruited by diplomat Richard Holbrooke to help oversee relations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, won a Pulitzer for the Weinstein investigation. And that's not all. But. This book - another easy read -  investigates the weakening of Amerian diplomacy and gutting of the State Department in favor of military solutions. This has been going on for decades but it's certainly been on fast track for the last few years.  The scariest part is that long-honored diplomatic training avenues have been virtually destroyed. This will haunt us for years to come. 

Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Want to know how real leaders do things? Goodwin's book is an excellent case study in how leaders are born, how they think, how they make things happen, and how they lead in the toughest of times. Love 'em or hate 'em, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, and LBJ all exhibited profound leadership abilities, albeit in very different ways. Each faced huge, life-altering failures but had the gumption to overcome them. It did, however, leave me sad for where we are with leadership in this country today. 

My conclusion: it's all in the writing. Diplomacy? Insurance fraud? Leadership? The troubles in Northern Ireland? Every one of those topics could've been deadly dull - and I'm sure many deadly dull books have been written about all of the above. But these four books have been written in such a way to make reading them effortless and engaging. Now, go get 'em!

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Summertime Therapy: Shuckin' Corn and Shellin' Peas

Want to save $150-300 a week and eat really well at the same time? Cancel your therapist this summer, hit the local farmers market, and stock up on corn and peas in their nature-covered state. Whatever the shape of your emotions, work life, or finances, nothing will calm body and soul like shucking corn and shelling peas.

I'd forgotten the therapeutic pleasures of the squeak of the husks coming off the corn and the plink-plink-plink sound of peas hitting the bowl as you slide them out of the shell. Seems Daddy and I did those seasonal duties when I was growing up, along with stringing green beans (not quite so therapeutic to me), but it's not something I've done in a while. But a sack of corn and bag of peas brought back the simple delight of prepping these summertime treats.

It's a mindless operation, which is part of its beauty. If you have a shuckin'-shellin' partner or two, you can talk or not talk. If you're alone you can sort things out, make up stories, or empty out all the extraneous brain lint that's keeping you awake at night. It's a little bit physical, but not much - enough to keep your blood circulating, but not enough to earn you 10,000 steps.

All you need are some ears of corn and a bag of peas, big bowls for the fruits of your labor, and paper sacks for he husks and shells. Since the job isn't location-centric, you can sit outside on the porch if it's not too hot, or park in front of the TV bingeing on whatever gives you pleasure. Dress is really casual or, heck, optional. You can go as fast or slow as you want. And the cost? Just whatever you hand over to the folks at the farmers market. A lot less than $150/hour, I reckon.

I'm no therapist, but if you're feeling stressed, confused, and overwhelmed, I prescribe summertime shuckin' and shellin' therapy for the next couple of months. Put your hands to work and mind to rest. At the end of it all, you'll have some really good eatin'. And a calm mind.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Fine Art of Cussin'

In the wonderful series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the title character finds that some of the words deemed unseemly by society that she uses in her stand-up comedy act spill out into her off-stage life. Good old fashioned Anglo-Saxon four-letter words start flying out of this well-bred Jewish matron at the most inopportune times. In the middle of a wedding reception toast. During a game of Simon Says at a family Catskill resort. Yeah, she fuckin' lets it fly.

I can identify with Mrs. Maisel.

First, let me explain the difference between "cursing" and "cussin'." Want to damn somebody to hell? Put the bad juju on someone's career using colorful language? Confine someone to an everlasting roach or rodent problem with sharp words? That's cursing. Sinful. Wrong. Not nice in mixed or unmixed company.

OK, now, let fly with a "shit" when you forget something important? Give a resigned "fuck it" when you're not able to get through to someone during a conversation? That's cussin'. My opinion on this is if you're over 18 years old, let 'er rip. (Caveat: I hate hearing children and teens cursing or cussin'. They haven't earned the privilege because of lack of life experience. Also, I don't cuss in front of kids. Usually.)

Cuss words, especially those of the 4-letter Anglo Saxon hard-consonant persuasion, capture the anger and frustration of the moment. Nothing like a good old fashioned "shit!" when you drop something, stump your toe, or break a mirror. Admit it: shit = poo = poop = doodoo = cow patty = horse pucky. If you're using those words, you may as well just say what you really mean, and shit's a lot more satisfying. Same holds true for "fuck," though granted, the meaning is more adult than poop.

Those words are short, quick, and the "t" or "k" at the end bites off the words perfectly. I say short, but my mother could draw out the word shit to about 15 syllables - a Southern-style "shi-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-iiii-t," completely defeating the shock value. I, however, stand by the punchy Yankee-version. I do want to make it clear, however, that Mother NEVER used the f-word. I mean, she had her standards (which I, obviously, don't).

Whether you say it or not, you're thinking one of those cuss words when you cut your finger or drop that cherished Christmas ornament. Times like those require a punchy cuss-word. I'm just going to say 'em when needed. Folks can attribute it to my having lived in New York City for eight years or perhaps plain old senility. I don't give a damn.

Now, if you feel you need something longer and more colorful to add to the 4-letter word, I suggest spicing things up with a string of Elizabethan insults. Brush up your Shakespeare and toss in a "poisonous bunch-backed toad," "knotty-pated fool," or "vile standing tuck" when necessary. Consider it part of your literary education.

So look around. If there are no children nearby and you're over 18, go ahead and practice the fine art of cussin' as the occasion calls for it. Like, say, when your coffee mug full of freshly made brew hits the Italian terra cotta tiles in your kitchen first thing in the morning. Or you open that jury summons. Or you get a paper cut opening that jury summons.

Just let it all out. You don't want that shit festering inside.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Christmas Bells

On this Christmas Day 2018 when the world seems so topsy-turvy, I give you the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, written on Christmas Day 1863 in the middle of the American Civil War. (It was published two years later, February 1865.) The poem starts out rather melancholy, moves to despair, and ends in hope. 

May you find joy and hope in the notion that wrong shall fail and right prevail this holiday season. A voice, a chime, a chant sublime - Merry Christmas!

Christmas Bells
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
    And wild and sweet
    The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
    Had rolled along
    The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
    A voice, a chime,
    A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
    And with the sound
    The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
    And made forlorn
    The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth," I said;
    “For hate is strong,
    And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Thankful for Who I Am Now

Who I am now is a lot different from who I was a few months ago. Changes. Unexpected transitions. You know. Stuff happens, and it's altered who I am now.

I'm a person who moves on. From schools. From towns (except NYC - I'll always come back to you). From jobs. I'm just not a person who goes back. Forward is my primary direction. I am not who I was four months ago.

I am now a person whose only paid work responsibilities are to be cheerful, hospitable, and helpful, all while surrounded by fabulous art in a gorgeous Renzo Piano building. I am not responsible for anyone's comings-and-going, yearly reviews, office behavior, or work directives.

I'm now a person who works or volunteers in three of Atlanta's leading cultural entities: High Museum of Art, Atlanta History Center, and Center from Puppetry Arts. I am no longer expected to create anything clever, moving, or fabulous for a social media campaign, resource, exhibit hall display, or promotional giveaway.

My unpaid volunteer work lets me hang around the likes of Kermit and Miss Piggy, golfing great Bobby Jones, a multitude of fabulous authors, and Mali's Sogo Bo. I am no longer required to attend meeting after meeting after meeting after meeting after meeting (infinity), and impossible deadlines are no longer burdens I have to carry.

I like earning money, and thanks to the High Museum, I'm doing just that. Volunteering is lots of fun, but . . . money. Retirement holds no appeal for me as long as I'm healthy and in my right (sorta) mind.

I'm still Kate's mama, Greg's mama-in-law, and GrandMary to gorgeous, smart, funny, loving Liam and Charlotte. That part of me is deep and life-long.

In short, I'm not the producer or teacher or boss of anyone but my own self. Letting go of responsibility and office drama has been amazingly easy. I love not having to be on call 24/7. I love how varied and culturally enriching my work and volunteer life is now.

So this Thanksgiving, I'm supremely grateful for the opening of new doors, new opportunities, and new insights. And I plan to acknowledge that thanks with my family around a table full of good food, laughter, and love.

I'm thankful for the new me.

Monday, September 03, 2018

8 For What We Will

Happy Labor Day, y'all. It's a day to celebrate the 40-hour work week, overtime pay, a minimum wage (as small as it might be), collective bargaining rights (as small as they may be), and weekends! Safer workplaces and the absence of small children working dangerous machinery are a couple of other things to be thankful for.

In the late 19th century, the Gilded Age and Progressive Era ran smack into each other - boom! Thanks to brave politicians willing to reign in the robber barons and even braver working folks organizing for better working conditions, the American people tried to hammer out a way for those who had money to make more money, while not jeopardizing the lives and livelihoods of most of the population who were just trying to make ends meet and still be alive at the end of the work day.

Just take in some of these pictures and stories. I've purposefully chosen those of women and children, though certainly men were abused in the same way. Look at them. All hard workers - no shirkers, here. Helping their families keep a roof overhead, food on the table, and medicine available when necessary. Young children and scary equipment. Women burned alive or dead from jumping out of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory building. And the consequences of painting radium onto watch dials so they (the watch dials, but eventually the women themselves) could light up in the dark.

It took years to reckon with and legislate against the most heinous and unfair labor practices. True, factories with heavy machinery and any sort of mining jobs were and are inherently dangerous, But the late 19th-early 20th century labor movement worked to make earning a buck as safe as possible, even for the most hazardous occupations. For that alone we should be celebrating today.

But let's not be naive. First, who's missing in these pictures? Hard to find any black faces. That struggle is ongoing. And second, unfortunately, labor bosses evolved into the equivalent of mob bosses, their greed and forms of retribution as harsh as any Gilded Age captain of gelt. Thanks to the corruption of those bosses, unions and the labor movement are met with disdain and animosity today. A horrible dilemma, but not one we can't overcome.

Here's the thing. Most people want to work. I guarantee you there are more folks at the highest level of the food chain avoiding real work than there are in the middle and on the bottom. More folks at the top are gaming the system than ever were able to game it at the lowest rungs of the ladder. Let's stop making bad guys out of the women and men trying to better themselves through work and education. Don't be a work-snob. Work of all kinds is honorable, unless illegal or immoral, and, shoot, even then . . .  Show some gratitude. Treat people as the humans they are.

My prayer for this Labor Day is that we don't throw the safe, fair, moral baby out with the tainted bathwater. Folks shouldn't have to work two and three jobs to take care of hearth and health. Fair pay for a good day's work. And we've got to work out this healthcare thing. It should never have been tied to work in the first place. Yes, it's a Gordian Knot, but we can and must figure this out.

Consider how lucky many of us are for that 8 for work, 8 for rest, and 8 for what you will. It was won through much blood, sweat, and tears. Just look at the pictures.

I know we're in a time of high public immorality, but the wind has got to change for the better soon or we are doomed. So, consider that as you appreciate a good grilled burger and beer the Labor Day.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Tales of a Junior High Gym Class, or What Fresh Hell is This?

While skimming through the New York Times trying to maintain my sanity by avoiding anything vaguely political (a hard thing to do these days, maintaining sanity and avoiding the political), I came across an article that made me wish I'd stuck with venom and politics. The article, "How You Felt About Gym Class May Impact Your Exercise Habits Today," opened a zombie-memory I'd thought was buried for good.

And like any good zombie, it burst forth with a vengeance.

The article had some kind of point, I'm sure, but "gym class" stopped me cold, and I do mean cold. I froze at the very thought of junior high physical education and those walking-dead memories of the teacher, the uniforms, the sound of tennis shoes squeaking on the gym floor, and the smell of Right Guard, Shalimar, Aqua Net, and sweat in the locker room.

We had a tyrant of a gym teacher, Miss Willie Jones. Broadminded, forgiving adult that I am, I'm willing to accept that Willie Jones had many fine qualities, it's just that none were even remotely evident to junior high me. As the school king/queen-maker, she held sway over who was in and who was out for class officers, cheerleaders, and all those other things that adolescents deem so important. Alas, I got off on the wrong foot with her simply by being my brother David's little sister. She never made it clear exactly what he'd done to her that was traumatic enough to impose guilt by relation on little me, but I was junior high-doomed once she found out. And I was at her mercy every day in the gym.

Then there was the rush and hurry of dressing out, changing out of whatever cute little outfit you'd so carefully chosen for the day and slipping into lovely black bloomer shorts and a white top. Yeah, that gym uniform that you might take home every couple of weeks to wash. Maybe. I mean, who had time to take dirty gym clothes to your locker after class, when your time was better spent trying to salvage that perfect flip hairdo gone limp from 45 minutes of so-called exercise?

And don't get me started on the team sports mentality of phys ed classes. I could climb anything like a monkey. I could roller and ice skate with the best of them. But volleyball, basketball, and softball? Nope nope-ity nope nope. Oh, sure, we had a few minutes of jumping jacks and the like at the first of class, and occasionally we learned some kind of little dance to "Alley Cat," but most of the time was spent popping blood vessels in our thumbs serving volleyballs, missing countless baskets in basketball, or wasting our precious youth in the outfield of a softball game. And for those of us chosen last for teams, well, you know the drill: the dreaded humiliation as you and some other poor shlub stood waiting to learn which of you would be the bigger disappointment to one of the teams.

After class, the locker room was a cloud of aerosol - Right Guard, Shalimar, Ambush, AquaNet, Adorn - all of which did more damage to our young lungs than smoking ever did, I'm sure. Thank goodness, I never smoked or my lungs would be well and truly shot by now. Those clouds of fragrance combined with some good old teenage sweat remains one of my most traumatic olfactory memories.

Funny thing, memories. All of my gym tales of the zombie persuasion seem to be of the junior high variety. I don't remember much about phys ed in high school, though I know I had to take it my sophomore and junior years. Maybe those memories are so deeply repressed that they're not surfacing in my dotage. Or maybe it's because nothing could top the shudder-inducing thoughts of Willie Jones, the last-chosen humiliations, and the fog of Right Guard and cheap cologne.

Now, excuse me while I head off for the best workout I know: settling in with a good book.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

How Musical Theater Restores My Faith in Everything

Years ago, I told a friend that someday I was going to write a book called Everything I Know I Learned From Musicals. For instance, did you know that the rain in Spain does NOT fall mainly in the plain? Now see, I wouldn't care one way or another except for loving My Fair Lady (the Julie Andrews/Rex Harrison soundtrack) and being a curious 14-year-old wanting to know if that song lyric was, indeed, factual. The point being that many a song from a musical has led me to further research on a variety of topics, most of which have proven of more use than where rain falls in Spain.

The impact of American musical theater on my life is incalculable. I know you're thinking "Wow! How shallow!" But the stories, the performances, the music, the lyrics, the costumes, the scenery, and the sheer energy of pulling all of that together make my spirit soar. Is it any wonder that musicals are getting me through this dark time in our history?

Last week, daughter and I did a whirlwind trip to New York to see Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly! Kate managed to nab tickets to a Hamilton matinee for the same day. We were on our way to an afternoon and evening that restored my faith in some important things: all the ways we need to live and work together, how crooked paths can be made straight, how gifted storytellers, musicians, and actors can show us truth and love and laughter when we need it most. 

Both Hamilton and Dolly! showcase the indomitable American spirit. As different as they are, both shows capture the get-'er-done drive that has been a hallmark of our collective personality. And both expose some serious flaws in our collective DNA, as well. By highlighting our brilliance and our faults, Hamilton and Dolly! give me faith not only in the way our stories get told, but in the truth-telling stories themselves.

So, raise a glass to freedom before the parade passes by. Put on your Sunday clothes when you feel down and out, and look around look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now. I wanna be in the room where it happens room where it happens, because it only takes a moment to be loved a whole life long. (Pardon the mash-up, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jerry Herman.) Faith and courage restored. The will to persevere and fight for our better selves returned.

And as for writing that book about learning everything from musicals, I still might do it, who knows?