Monday, December 23, 2019

Christmas, 1942: A Christmas full of joy in service

December 1942 found my mother and other young women at the Naval Training School at Indiana University in Bloomington in training to be WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), the women's branch of the US Naval Reserves. Uncle Frank, already in the Navy, and Mildred McFall, a former teacher at Mother's high school, encouaged this young woman from Atlanta, who'd never travelled farther than Florida, to take a big step and join the newly-created WAVES (est. July 21, 1942). It meant training far from home and being away from her very close family for Christmas.

At our annual Bully Bartows family gathering yesterday, sister Cindy pulled out a letter, dated December 10, 1942, that she'd found in some of Mother's belongings. It was from the Office of Naval Procurement, Healey Building, Atlanta, Georgia, and addressed to Catherine Juanita Bartow, AS, USNR, at the Naval Training School.  Her former teacher McFall, now a lieutenant in the Naval Reserves, was the author writing to buck up her girls during what she knew must be a difficult Christmastime for them. 

"During this December 7 week I have been thinking of you girls and what you are going through in order to show your loyalty in your own way and to the full extent of your ability. I know that the boys of December 7 would be proud of you." 

The letter contained updates on some changes (e.g., wives of enlisted men could now join) and emphasized how proud Lieutenant McFall was of her "girls."

"I must tell you that that about the only time I get to go to the movies is when someone tells me my girls are marching in the newsreels. My eyes have gone down to about 2/20 trying to recognize you. The people around me s-s-sh me when I yell out "That's the cute girl from North Carolina," or "That's Mary from South Carolina," or "The one on the end is from Macon," or "I remember seeing that girl in Jacksonville." It's wonderful and you do look so Navy!"

But the Lieutenant also reminded Mother what the boys were fighting for and how they were counting on the WAVES and WACS. She encouraged them to write to boys they might know who were in active service. She asked that they keep them in mind if they started feeling sorry for themselves. 

"Please, if you begin to feel sorry for yourself now, grit your teeth for the boys who are having to fight all day, kill all day. Think of the boys who will spend Christmas under the sea in a submarine. Thank God we're not being faced with that, and thank God, we can look that boy in the eye without flinching when he comes marching home."

Lt. McFall also encouraged the girls to look beyond the war to a brighter Christmas which would surely come.

"Speaking of Christmas, let me say, some of these days you will be hanging a tree for your wee tots and you may stop on such a Christmas Eve to say a prayer of gratitude for having had a part in keeping this country a land free for them. Yes, Santa Claus will come again!"

Of course, Mother met sailor Daddy when she was stationed at the NAS in Jacksonville, and within five years, Mother did, indeed, have two little boy tots, and after a few more years added a couple of little girl tots.  But I'm sure she never forgot that Christmas of 1942 and how much was at stake.

What a wonderful gift for us to treasure this Christmas of 2019. Merry Christmas to all!

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Losing Thanksgiving, or Don't Plug In Those Christmas Lights Yet

While reviewing past Thanksgiving blogs, I came across this one from 2013. I do realize that folks have their reasons for rushing into the Christmas season, and yes, Thanksgiving is late this year, but something precious is lost, I think, eating November's meal by the light of December's tree. So, at the risk of alienating more season-rushing friends, here goes:

"Where on earth has Thanksgiving gone?

Every year, it seems to fade a little more, swallowed up completely by Christmas. Retailers get the jump on the season of red and green earlier and earlier each year. We fume about it, but it seems that everyone's buying into it, nonetheless.

Thanksgiving, my friends, is the most wonderful celebration we allow ourselves. It's simply gathering with loved ones to share a meal and talk about what we're thankful for. That's it. No presents to buy. No over the top parties to attend. No fancy clothes (in fact, I recommend the baggier, the better). No cards to send. Simple. Slow. Savoring the process of cooking, gathering, welcoming, eating, thanking, hugging, loving. What's not to love?

Yet, every year we chop a little bit more off this most perfect of holidays. Why? Why are we in such a hurry to shove Thanksgiving out of the way for Christmas? What message are we sending our children? We could all use a bigger dose of gratefulness, and a lot less focus on stuff. At the very least, we need more thankfulness for all the stuff. So why the rush?

Folks have already decorated trees, mantles, and yards. I'm simply stunned. We haven't poked the turkey in the oven, cooled the pumpkin pies, or watched the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and they've hung their stockings on the mantle. I don't know, maybe they'll be in Europe for Christmas and want to celebrate a little early at home. Or maybe the dog's on her last leg and they want to make sure she doesn't miss the season. I'm grasping for a reason to rush through marvelous Thanksgiving to begin the yuletide celebration.

Now, no one loves Christmas more than yours truly - I watch White Christmas in July and consider Easter the start of Advent. Still, I'm puzzled by the notion of having Christmas lights blinking while you sing "Over the River and Through the Woods."

I, for one, know that Christmas is just around the corner. I can wait. The day after Thanksgiving? All bets are off. It's Christmas all the way. But for tonight and all day tomorrow? My heart and all my senses will be filled with thanksgiving/Thanksgiving. The house is decorated in oranges and yellows, not reds and greens. Turkeys and Pilgrims and Squanto headdresses are showcased, instead of creches and Santas.

It's Thanksgiving. I'll hang on to it as long as I can."  Amen. 

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Three Great Thanksgiving Movies if Your Teeth are Aching from the Sugary Hallmark Stuff

Yeah, yeah. I know. Everyone adores the Hallmark holiday movies, but I've never been a big fan. If you've seen one, you've seen 'em all. (Overworked big-city single mom/single girl finds herself in some bucolic backwater, falls in love, and ditches the big bad city for the countryside. Yawn. I'll stick with the big city and singlehood, thanks.)

If you're more into edgy, sarcastic, hard truth-telling, honest happyish endings, let me introduce you to three of my Thanksgiving favorites.

Home For The Holidays, 1995. Directed by Jodie Foster. Ensemble cast: Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr, Anne Bancroft, Charles Durning, Dylan McDermott, Geraldine Chaplin, Cynthia Stevenson, Claire Danes, Steve Guttenberg.
  • Synopsis: Holly Hunter, fired from her job as an art restorer in Chicago on her way out the door for the holiday, travels to Baltimore for a family Thanksgiving. As with all families (if we admit it), everyone in the family has some kind of crap in their lives to deal with - parents and auntie getting old, crazy but loving gay brother looking for a way to break the news of his recent marriage, uptight sister thinking she carries the world on her shoulders, and newly fired Hunter worried about her daughter who stayed in Chicago to spend the holiday with her boyfriend. All ends well for (almost) everybody, so chill. And nobody has to go to the country.
  • Tiny Great Moments: 1) Charles Durning grabbing wife Anne Bancroft for a little dance to Tom Jones' "It's Not Unusual." This lasts 5 seconds at most, but it's glorious. 2) Holly Hunter working on a painting resoration during opening credits. 3) Geraldine Chaplin's whacky, sad confession of kissing Durning years earlier. 4) The shared eyerolls between Hunter, in the car with her parents at the airport, and some guy in the next car with his parents. 5) Durning sharing the memory of standing with his family on a runway watching the new 727 fly over. 
  • Takeway: Jodie Foster is an amazing director. And, despite all our differences and craziness, a family is a family. "We don't have to like each other. We're family."

What's Cooking, 2000. Directed by Gurinder Chadha. Ensemble cast: Alfre Woodard, Mercedes Ruehl, Kyra Sedgwick, Lainie Kazan, Joan Chen, Julianna Margulies, Dennis Haysbert, Maury Chaykin.
  • Synopsis: Four non-WASP families gather for their family Thanksgivings in a Los Angeles neighborhood - the Seeligs, the Avilas, the Williams, and the Nguyens. Each family is experiencing some kind of change or chaos, but, oh! the food! 
  • Tiny Great Moments: 1) Lainie Kazan placing marshmallows on the sweet potatoes and adding garnish to a polenta roll. 2) Joan Chen and the grandmother putting Sriracha on half the turkey, while leaving half for regular, non-spicy basting. 3) The look Mercedes Ruehl gives outside the bathroom door after talking to her daughter and boyfriend who are showering together inside. (And it's not disapproval.) 4) Alfre Woodard's angry/distraught pie-eating when she finds out at the table that her husband's been cheating on her. Really true to life - no self-respecting woman would throw a pie at someone. She'd eat it. And Alfre goes at it. 
  • Takeaway: Thanksgiving ain't just for white Pilgrim-type folks. Each culture brings so much love and history to the table. And the food! Wow!

The Ice Storm, 1997. Directed by Ang Lee. Ensemble cast: Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Christina Ricci, Tobey Maguire, Elijah Wood, Katie Holmes, Jamey Sheridan, Allison Janney.
  • Synopsis: Two families navigate the mid-1970s key-swapping, Nixon impeachment-era societal changes over the Thanksgiving holidays in Connecticut suburbia. It's full of coming-of-age issues pertaining as much to the adults as to their teen children. This is the darkest of the three films, and you're not sure the families are going to make it by the movie's end. Haunting music.
  • Tiny Great Moments: 1) Brother and sister (Maguire and Ricci) calling each other "Charles." 2) Sigourney Weaver's clothes. 3) Joan Allen's freedom bike ride. 4) Hostess Janney's excitement over the key-swapping. 4) That cuckolded husband Sheridan invented packing peanuts. 5) The whole early/mid-70's vibe. 
  • Takeaway: Growing up is hard. For everybody. And just say no to key-swapping. 
Of course there are a few other non-Hallmarky Thanksgiving films - Pieces of April and The House of Yes come to mind - but this is one holiday that doesn't get much love from movie-makers, so you take what you get. And in case you think I just enjoy depressing movies this time of year, I love A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, Garfield's Thanksgiving, and all the Thanksgiving episodes of Friends. I am thankful for those.

Eschew sugar this Thanksgiving. Go for solid meat. None of these are turkeys.

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.