Thursday, May 31, 2007
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
The McCarthy Road is rather ambitiously named. It would be a good place for a road to go through, if someone, say maybe, the state of Alaska, ever decided to actually BUILD a road. Built on the deserted railbed that used to carry copper from the rich fields of Kennicott, the road consists of one and a half lanes of dirt and gravel. To say the McCarthy Road is unpaved is being generous. It's 60 miles or so of bumping and thumping and scraping and railroad spikes and leftover half-rotten ties, tree limbs and rocks bigger than your head and OMG, look-at-that-pile-of-bear-scat-do-we-really-wanna-drive-through-that?!
The western end of the McCarthy Road lies in Chitina, on the Copper River. The town's name comes from two Athabascan words Tsedi and Na , meaning "river that flows like copper." Chitina has a population of about 120, a tiny A-frame post office that is only open about four hours a day, a diner with a waitress who makes the best grilled cheese sandwich in the world (excepting my mom's), and a public pay phone under a picnic pavilion overlooking a lake where the fish jump high in the late August Alaskan afternoon (or 7 p.m. to those of us on the outside).
One of the truly nice things about small Alaskan towns is that you meet all kinds of people that you just wouldn't, absolutely couldn't meet anywhere else in the world. As we sat in the aforementioned diner waiting for refills on coffee, a tall, thin, quiet man of some years came in and ordered a Coke. No thanks, he didn't need to see a menu. Nope, didn't care for a sandwich, or pie, or even chips. Just a Coke, thanks. In a glass. With ice, please.
He drank his soda. We ate our sandwiches. I retied my bootlaces and wiped my eyes. I was weary from traveling and stressed out from a number of things. Right before leaving for the Last Frontier, my mother had been diagnosed with lung cancer. The day before we hit Chitina, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, leaving my oldest sister stranded in Memphis with no word on her property, friends, job, and pets. All we'd seen in newspapers at that point was that the storm had smashed the gulf coast up pretty badly, but that was bad enough news. And to top it off, the proprietor of the diner did look more than a little like my mom and her sisters. I was an emotional thunderbolt looking for a place to strike.
Coke-man turned to the Loved One and asked where we were from. The Loved One explained his background as an exploration geologist in Alaska and how we met in Memphis. Coke-man nodded and told us his tale. He came to Alaska from California just after his tour of duty in the Korean War. He climbed mountains in the Wrangell-St. Elias Forest. He rode snowmachines across crevasses and through the peaks of southeastern Alaska, sometimes with his bride riding pillion, sometimes alone.
For about a half hour, he sipped his Coke and spun his stories. Turns out he lived about 30 miles up the road. He'd been working outside his house and got thirsty for something cold, and so he got in his car and came to Chitina. He left two dollars on the table and walked out the door to head for home.
The Loved One and I walked out to the gravel parking lot and climbed back into the dusty Ford Focus we'd rented in Anchorage, swearing in voice and signature not to drive on either the Denali Highway or the McCarthy Road. Okay, so we lied. It was a Ford Focus, after all. On the eastern end of town, the road squeezes through an opening in the side of a mountain--I kid you not. We drove through a space barely wider than the car and came out on a narrow lane hugging the side of a mountain. Around the first curve, we were hit with a view of the mighty Copper River, splashing its way downstream to a confluence with the Chitina River, loaded with fall salmon. Local natives (native Alaskans, as opposed to Alaskan natives) had set up fish wheels in the gravelly shallows to pluck the fish from the passing flow.
Driving carefully over the river and through the woods (literally), we saw beaver lodges, a pair of trumpeter swans gliding over a kettle lake, ptarmigan shooting up out of the roadside brush, and every few yards, three or four cairns, about knee-high, built of stones by passersby.
We spent the night in Kennicott and hiked out through the ghost town, past the abandoned copper mill and Silk Stocking Row, part of the way to the glacier. We met a friendly dog, mostly black Lab, whom we christened "Glacier Dog." She gamboled along with us for most of the hike, chasing sticks and splashing in the mud. After crossing the Kennicott River on foot across a wire bridge, luggage pulled along behind us, we climbed back into the dusty Focus and headed back up the McCarthy Road.
Sixty miles on a normal road would be a drive of less than an hour, but sixty miles between McCarthy and Chitina is at least four hours, if the weather holds. We ate sandwiches from a brown bag lunch the lodge had packed for us and settled in for the drive. I dozed off in the morning sun, only to be awakened by the crackling of the car radio. Radio reception in the wilds of Alaska is pretty much hit-or-miss. You never know if you're going to be able to actually pick up anything. The Loved One is tenacious though, and he found a station that came in with only a minimum of static. It took a few minutes before I realized what it was we were listening to. Back home in Memphis, these guys are a familiar sound, and even people we have known for years. On the McCarthy Road, hours away from even just a good cheese sandwich, they were the long arm of home reaching out to cradle me in comfort.
Friday, May 25, 2007
Sunday, May 20, 2007
Here's a secret about me, folks. I actually like baseball. The real game of base ball, not the bloated, lethargic, scandal-ridden travesty that is MLB. What I like even better than baseball is movies about baseball. This time of year, I like to rent things like Eight Men Out, Major League (the first one, although in a pinch, I will watch the second one), The Babe, The Natural and of course, the immortal Bull Durham.
Remember in Bull Durham when Susan Sarandon's character, Annie Savoy, reads Walt Whitman? "I see great things in baseball. It's our game, the American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us." He was right then, and his words still hold true today. Baseball represents much of what is good and wholesome and innocent about America. I identify strongly with the simple truths of baseball. Again, quoting from BD, it's a very simple game: you throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. All of life should be so easy, and what's not to love?
Unfortunately, MLB has turned this delightfully simple game into Massive Lurching Business, with the main objective no longer being a contest between 18 men armed with leather gloves and bats, but a high-stakes game of screw-your-neighbor in which organized gangs attempt to separate fans from their money by selling them $7 beers, $80 tickets, $120 replica jerseys. The proceeds of these go to pay the overinflated salaries of stellar "role models" such as Barry Bonds, A-Rod, Mark McGwire and the ilk. When these guys aren't making headlines for winning games, they're making them for testifying about drug use, or being busted for DUI, or for merely signing a new multi-million dollar contract for simply throwing, catching and hitting a ball.
Hey, nice work if you can get it.
But still, I like baseball. And I like going to games. Where I live, we have a rather good AAA team, and on a nice warm spring day, going out to see a game is a beautiful thing. We are also fortunate to have one of what is the most beautiful ballparks in minor-league baseball -- AutoZone Park. This green urban jewel smack in the downtown area shines with grace and dignity. It was built in harmony with the historic buildings surrounding it, and was designed with hard-core fans and casual family attendees in mind as well. There's plenty to do for groups with children, but just sitting in a row seat under the first deck, watching a young pitcher with a 91 mph fastball is truly a thing of beauty.
This was the first game we saw this season, and the impetus was actually the opening act. Another secret about me is that I'm an absolute patriot and a sucker for our National Anthem. I'm very happy and relieved to have been born in this wonderful country, and the Anthem brings tears to my eyes whenever I hear it performed in public. Today was an extra-special rendition, because it was a choir of schoolchildren that just happened to include Dear Daughter.
Now, she was behind home plate in a group of about 30 children, so perhaps it was just my imagination that I could hear her sweet little voice ringing out on "the land of the free-eee!!!" but then again, maybe it wasn't. It was a great moment for both of us.
Best Friend of Dear Daughter went with us to the game. We stayed until just before the seventh inning, so we had to sing the stretch in the parking garage. It was a beautiful day in the sun with two of my favorite girls watching a game played by men still young enough and hungry enough to love it. It was--all in all--a beautiful thing.
Friday, May 18, 2007
1883 -- Walter Gropius
1897 -- Frank Capra
1912 -- Perry Como
1919 -- Dame Margot Fonteyn
1920 -- Pope John Paul II
There was a funny joke I heard some years ago about screen star Jean Harlow meeting Dame Margot Fonteyn. I don't know if it's true or not, but it makes me laugh.
"At a party, screen siren Jean Harlow heard that Margot Fonteyn was also in the room. She asked to be introduced to the prima, and gushed, "Oh Dame Mar-gott, I'm so happy to meet you! This is the happiest moment of my life!" La Fonteyn replied, "Thank you, but the 't' in my name is silent. Like in 'harlot'."
Poor silly humans, we think we shape our own world. Yes, we definitely have the power, technology and desire to reshape and define it, but at the end of the day, we have a lot in common with your average tapeworm. We are essentially parasites on the planet, and it's an absolute wonder we haven't been eradicated long before now, whether by the equivalent of a geological vermifuge or some meteorological purge that strikes without warning.
Let me state for the record: I do believe that the Earth was created by an omnipotent and benevolent God, and that we were given dominion over all that is on it, but I don't think the intention was that we would squander and pollute it without regard to the consequences. We're supposed to love our planetary home and care for it as tenderly as God cares for us. The idea is that there will be something left for those who come after us, right?
Still, flying over the surface of the Earth gives me a sense of my own insignificance, and the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 is a prime example of why I feel that way. On my way to Alaska in 2005 I flew over the Cascades. I must admit I'm pretty much a coward about flying and, having already been in the air for about five hours, I had my nose stuck in a book, wishing desperately that I was back on the ground. My considerate seat-mate, a resident of the area, was kind enough to point out the spectacular view I was missing, right outside the jetliner window.
Scattered among the Cascade Range are green-black forests and still, shining-blue lakes and winding rivers. It's a breath-taking sight from the air. My tour guide pointed out the various mountains he and colleagues had climbed, and the approximate location of his home, from where his family would be departing shortly to meet him at Sea-Tac.
Then we saw the scar left on Mount St. Helens, when 57 lives were ended in one swiftly searing moment on a spring day in 1980. More than two decades later, the devastating impact of that blast are still evident, and will be for some time to come. Nature heals itself, but that healing is a gradual process. Long after I'm gone, there will be areas around the mountain that continue to refuse the mantle of reseeding and regrowth. Flowers will not bloom. Trees will not reach for the sky. Birds will not nest nor sing.
Eventually, though, it will all be reclaimed. We certainly won't be around to see it. Who knows, maybe no humans will. Geologic time, I think, can be easily compared with God's time. Maybe there's an argument that they're the same thing? They both move slowly; too slowly, often, for the human eye (and consciousness) to detect. Of course, at other times, both move swiftly and with great change or devastation. And they both continue on without -- and often in spite of -- human intervention.
I'm looking at a photo now of the plume of ash and smoke created by the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. It's a stark reminder of the incredibly awesome power and potential contained within the Earth. I am humbled by the gift with which we have been entrusted.
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
I bought fresh strawberries (or "strawbees," as Arven the mischievous squirrel from The Pearls of Lutra would say) from a roadside stand on my way home from the base. Oh, all foods should taste as good as these strawberries! These are small, sweet, red'n'juicy to the core, and don't need the slightest bit of sugar. I'm never buying those silicone, red dye #3 gigantiberries from the supermarket again. There's a lot to be said for eating food grown in season!
We had a fabulous vegetarian feast tonight--edamame (a favorite at our house), green beans, fresh spinach, fresh carrots and a salad made from new Roma tomatoes, red bell pepper and cucumbers. We had a little Italian peasant bread with olive oil and herbs, and that was it. Light, satisfying and delicious.
Today is a leek-fast day. I'm not feeling well, probably from all of the junk I ate over the weekend. Trust me, I had fun eating out with friends and family, but I just feel poisoned when I eat like that. Time to clean out the system and start anew. Besides, it's only 27 days until MAUI! The Loved One's Number One Son is getting married in Hawaii, and we're very excited about the trip. Family vacations are lots of fun, and this is going to involve everyone, including Number Two Son and The Grand Grandbaby. It'll be a terrific way to jumpstart the summer.
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
The Loved One is still in Alaska. Yes, he lives there. Yes, I live here. Yes, it works. Yes, we miss each other. Anything else?
Dear Daughter left this morning for an overnight field trip with school. She is going to Cumberland Caverns near Murfreesboro and will sleep tonight in a big old cave. She's a little nervous, and I'm a little nervous for her, but there's like 100 other people in there with her, for Pete's sake. It's not like I dropped her down a hole in the ground and walked off.
Besides, she gets to go on a nice brisk hike today and I am in a meeting. A really dull meeting. A deadly dull meeting and I just got told I have to go back. Must cram the rest of my salad sandwich (spinach, red pepper, cucumber and ham) into my mouth and run.
Friday, May 11, 2007
The Scottish Play. Shakespeare's play Macbeth is said to be cursed, so actors avoid saying its name (the euphemism "The Scottish Play" is used instead). Actors also avoid even quoting the lines from Macbeth inside a theatre, particularly the Witches incantations.
"Break a leg"
The expression "break a leg" replaces the phrase "good luck," which is considered unlucky. The expression is sometimes used outside the theatre, as superstitions and customs travel through other professions and then into common use. If someone says "good luck", they must go out of the theater, turn around 3 times, spit, curse, then knock on the door and ask to be readmitted to the theatre. The exact origin of this expression is unknown, but some of the most popular theories are the Shakespearean Theory or Traditional Theory, and the Bowing Theory.
One ghost-related superstition is that the theater should always be closed one night a week to give the ghosts a chance to perform their own plays. This is traditionally on Monday night, conveniently giving actors a day off after weekend performances.
One specific ghost, Thespis, holds a place of privilege in theater lore. On what has been estimated to be November 23, 534 BCE, Thespis of ancient Athens (6th BCE) was the first person to speak lines as an individual actor on stage (hence the term "thespian" to refer to an individual actor). Any unexplainable mischief that befalls a production is likely to be blamed on Thespis, especially if it happens on November 23.
One should always leave a light burning in an empty theater. Traditionally, the light is placed downstage center. Several reasons are given for this, all having to do with ghosts:
- The light wards off ghosts.
- A theater's ghosts always want to have enough light to see. Failure to provide this may anger them, leading to pranks or other mishaps.
- It prevents non-spectral personnel from having to cross the stage in the dark, falling into the orchestra pit, dying in the fall and becoming ghosts themselves.
Though it's a superstition, it does have practical value: The backstage area of a theater tends to be cluttered, so someone who enters a completed darkened space is liable to be injured while hunting for a light switch.
Related to a similar rule for sailing ships, it is considered bad luck for an actor to whistle on or off stage. As original stage crews were hired off of ships in port (Theatrical rigging has its origins in sailing rigging), sailors, and by extension theatrical riggers, used coded whistles to communicate scene changes. Actors who whistled could confuse them into changing the set or scenery, though in today's theatres, the stage crew normally uses an intercom or cuelight system.
Script under pillow
A common superstition held by actors is that sleeping with a script under their pillow will help them to learn it faster.
- No real money should be used on stage. This may derive from gamblers' superstitions about money, or it could just be a sensible precaution against theft. In a similar vein, it is considered unlucky to wear real jewelry on stage, as opposed to costume jewelry.
- It is bad luck to complete a performance of a play without an audience in attendance, so one should never say the last line of a play during rehearsals. To get around this, some production companies allow a limited number of people (usually friends, family, and reviewers) to attend the dress rehearsals.
- A bad dress rehearsal foretells a good opening night. This is possibly sour grapes. However, it has a tendency to be true in that cast and crew are scared straight by a bad dress rehearsal and therefore fix their mistakes by opening night.
- A company should not practice doing their bows before they feel they deserve them.
- Gifts such as flowers should be given to actors after a show, as opposed to before.
- Peacock Feathers should never be brought on stage, either as a costume element, prop, or part of a setpiece. Many veteran actors and directors tell stories of sets collapsing and other such events during performances with peacock feathers.
- Some actors believe that having a bible onstage is unlucky. Often, other books or prop books will be used with bible covers.
- The color blue is considered unlucky, unless countered by wearing silver. As blue dye was once very costly; a failing acting company would dye some of their garments blue in the hopes of pleasing the audience. As for the silver to counter it, one would know that the acting company was truly wealthy, so to enable actors to wear real silver.
Lastly, I'm relieved because Dear Daughter -- quite unknowingly--took one of the old superstitions a little too seriously last night and tumbled down the stage stairs during dress rehearsal. And while her foot is not actually broken, but merely a nasty little sprain, it's turned the play from The Twelve Dancing Princesses into The Eleven Dancing Princesses and Their Noticeably Hobbling and Footsore Big Sister. My poor dear girl, she always did know how to stand out in a crowd.
Wednesday, May 9, 2007
This is "production week" for Dear Daughter's play, so we've had three nights in a row of not getting home until 9 p.m. That doesn't sound like such a late hour, except she is only 11 and 6 a.m. comes awfully early. We have two more nights of rehearsal and preparation, and then...Showtime!
In other news, the Loved One departed Monday for the Great White North. Actually, he made a side trip to Portland and Bend, Oregon to see his mother, sister and brother. The Loved One is the original Road Warrior--he racks up more travel hours in a month that many people do in a year, but he seems to thrive on the sleep deprivation, airport coffee and Cinnabons. He called a few hours ago from the back of a school bus bumping along a narrow, one-lane company road meandering in a southeasterly direction between Fairbanks, AK and Absolutely the Middle of Nowhere. I love these phone calls -- although I do infinitely prefer our face-to-face conversations -- but talking to him while I'm in my office, or cooking dinner or knitting and while he's in a 10-seater airplane over the Alaskan Range or wondering if the bus is going to hit a moose (again) is pretty exciting. We're 4,000 miles and three time zones apart, but when we talk it's like he's sitting across our rather groovy kitchen table from one another. Plus, I get to live vicariously through his adventures and he always has some remarkable tale to tell in that deadpan, Sam Elliott kind of way he has about him.
It’s a good day for British literature enthusiasts. On this day, James M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan was born in 1860. Today in 1920 marks the nativity of Richard Adams, who wrote the lovely and gentle (well, maybe not so gentle) Watership Down. Both of these books are great stories for children, and sadly are overlooked in these days of cartoon characters, mass merchandising and brand recognition. Most people know the Peter Pan story either through Mary Martin's laughable 1954 performance, the Walt Disney animated film or through the really-truly bad Hook, from the early 1990s, featuring Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams and (gag me with the fairy dust, already) Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell. To truly get at the heart of what this story is about, you simply must read the book--take the time and savor the language and put it into the context of the Victorian tale.
Watership Down is perhaps lesser known, but is just as wonderful. The tale of a group of wild rabbits whose habitat is destroyed to make room for a housing development, Watership Down contains multiple themes and layers, including an entire mythology and language (Lapine). Dear Daughter received the book a couple of Christmases ago and devoured it. No big surprise, knowing her love for all things rabbit (except cage-cleaning). I went back and read it also, and then we rented the very excellent BBC animated production from 1978.
Continuing the theme of xenofiction, we're also currently revisiting the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. There are 13 novels in this series, detailing the lives and adventures of a group of small animals dwelling in an abbey and the surrounding forest. Certain species -- mice, squirrels, hares, badgers, otters and shrews -- tend to be kindly and peaceful; while the foxes, rats, stoats, ferrets and lizards are as nasty as they come. Like Watership Down, the characters of Redwall have their own history, literature and philosophy. I've been trying to spark Dear Daughter's interest in the books for a couple of years, but it's only recently that she's truly wanted to read them. Best Friend's younger brother is going through my shelf of them now. He's such a gentle and sweet fellow, but he also likes swords and animals. He's devouring the series, and it's a joy to talk about them with him.
I promised a photo or two, so here they are. The first is from tonight. The other is from at least two years ago. Both feature some of my very favorite people.
And for those of you reading this from the Jude, please know that I think about you all daily.
Monday, May 7, 2007
It's also the day in 1915 that the Cunard liner Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat. More than 1,100 passengers and crew lost their lives in this attack, among them at least 100 Americans. The Lusitania was a sister ship to the Mauretania and Aquitania, and were smaller -- though faster -- than the ships of the White Star Line (Olympic, Titanic and Britannic). The ship was built in Clydebank, Scotland, and launched in 1906.
The German submarine U-20 was operating in the Irish Channel in the spring of 1915. Despite warnings of submarine activity and the discovery of three German spies on the ship, Captain William Turner continued on his voyage. At about 2:20 p.m. Captain Schwieger of the U-20 ordered fire on the Lusitania. Struck below the bridge, a subsequent explosion below decks caused the ship to sink in less than 20 minutes. Lifeboats were hindered by the ship listing dangerously because of water pouring through its side and poor design of the hull plates. The dead recovered from the water are buried in the Church of St. Multose in Kinsale, Ireland. Others still lie in the wreck, near the point of Old Head of Kinsale.
Schwieger was branded a war criminal by the international press for firing on an unarmed passenger ship. Speculations abounded in later years that the Lusitania may have actually been carrying munitions and war materiel. These have never been proven.
War is a funny thing. It causes humans to take actions that are inexplicable and irrational. I can't get my head around the idea of firing on an unarmed ship full of people in the middle of a channel. How do you live with having given the order to fire, or actually being the finger on the trigger?
This morning I heard Neil Young's "Like a Hurricane" from his 1977 album "American Stars 'n' Bars." I love this song so much. Having a country highway to fly down with the windows rolled down and the volume cranked elevated the experience to just south of ecstasy. Rock'n'roll will never die.
Sunday, May 6, 2007
Did I mention there's no air conditioning in the Stealth Outback? Did I mention that here, the first weekend in May, it's been 90 degrees with 75% freaking humidity? Did I mention that, round-trip between the homestead and Collierville is about 17 miles, which isn't that far, unless you're driving with no air conditioning, in 90 degree heat with 75% humidity (freaking or otherwise)?
Dear Daughter is in final production for a play she's in with the local Children's Theatre group. It's a great group of kids she's in with, and the script was written by Best Friend, so she's doubly excited. On top of makeup clinic and choreography practice back-to-back on Saturday, this afternoon, she and the 11 other "princesses" in the show performed -- along with their corresponding princes -- at the Collierville Celebration on the Square. Now, my daughter is as un-ethnic as un-ethnic can possibly be (supposing, of course, that in this enlightened day and age, very White, very Anglo-Saxon and very Anglo-Catholic Protestant can't be counted as ethnic), so watching her do the Electric Slide and the Macarena was kind of ....well, funny, but she's really working hard on this performance and, as always, the space in my chest always seems too small to hold my heart when I'm watching her do something she loves so much. She's a bright and lovely young lady and having a fairly major role in this production has done wonders for her in many ways. We always think of our children as special, but this play has helped her feel extra-special, and for that I am exceedingly glad.
But four round-trips to Collierville this weekend...good gravy. Can I just say out loud how awfully tired I am of being in the car, especially a car with NO AIR CONDITIONING????!!!!
This afternoon I went to Therese's funeral. It was (as I think I've adequately stated) warm and humid. As she had people from all over this corner of the south, there were lots of cars with tags beginning with the letter "M." Since I wasn't exactly sure where in the cemetery to go, I pulled up next to a gold Cadillac hearse with out of town plates and asked if the passenger was "Mrs. T." Gosh, thinking of her as a "Mrs. anybody" was kind of a stretch. Not that I don't think the world of her husband and her sweet daughter, but my poor mind is still having trouble getting around the idea that we're no longer 15 and walking around the neighborhood at 9 p.m. on a Saturday night.
But there were quite a few people I knew, and they all remembered me. Growing up redheaded, we learned early that we shouldn't commit crimes. And that's not just because it would be wrong, but redheaded people are generally easier to pick out of a lineup. And so even at a sedate event such as a funeral, I was easy to spot. Which turned out to be a good thing. I spent some wonderful moments speaking with Therese's family--her parents, her cousins, her brother, her stepfather, the childhood friend of her mother, her husband, her lovely little daughter.
When I first saw her daughter, I thought I would burst into tears. Her eyes, her smile and the way she floated among the flowers was so much like her mother. In an instant, the years melted away and it was like I was seeing Therese for the first time, when we were on the brink of our teen years. She's a happy girl, again like her mother, and seemed to be doing well. It's a beautiful thing and a testament to a remarkable faith that a child can find happiness on the day of her mother's funeral.
I walked among the people, shaking hands, hugging people, and searching for words to say. What do you say to an aging mother who is burying her only daughter? The words I kept saying, and kept hearing others say to me were "It's so good to see you." And despite everything--despite the heat and the distance and the years and the vault with the short span of years engraved on the lid and the light maple casket and cloying scent of carnations and roses in the air, it was good to see them, each and every one of them. We could have stood in that cemetery next to that gaping hole for hours catching up and clasping hands and wiping tears.
There were two preachers. They both knew and loved the family well. One read the twenty-third psalm. Another led while we all sang the first verse of "Amazing Grace." We wiped away tears as we recited the Lord's Prayer together. Can you understand why it was okay that we lingered there, in the heat, under the stifling green funeral home tent, next to that gaping hole in the ground with the cemetery workers hovering nearby with their idling backhoe? Despite everything, despite death and sorrow and loss and pain, it was good to see them again.
It is in these moments when we say goodbye that we realize just how much those first hellos mean, and how far-reaching they are.
Fly away, friend, fly away.
Friday, May 4, 2007
I'm sorry folks, but the best I can do is share that today is the birthday of Bartolomeo Cristofori, who invented the piano, much to the chagrin of countless grade-schoolers around the world.
I promise I will do better on another day.
Thursday, May 3, 2007
Anyway, this is what we’re watching these days:
A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints – Violent, upsetting, sad, but absolutely stuffed with excellent actors, including Dianne Wiest, Robert Downey, Jr., a cameo by Eric Roberts (who has aged magnificently), the amazing Chazz Palmintieri and my favorite rising star, Shia LaBeouf. AGTRYS is not always easy to watch, but it is worth trying.
Babel – I only caught about 45 minutes of this, but what I saw was good. Cate Blanchett is luminous. The Japanese schoolgirls thread looked interesting. I’ve heard many good things about this movie. Will have to try again to watch the whole thing.
Marie Antoinette -- To paraphrase Oliver Twist (the musical, not the book): shoes, glorious shoes! It’s a pretty condensed version of actual events, and if you’re expecting history, this is not the right film for you. This is more a psychological examination of a marriage between a 15 year old and a 19 year old, which usually is not a good idea, but certainly not in the hypocritical fishbowl that was 18th century France.
Flags of Our Fathers – the Loved One and I both read the book last summer. It’s a good read. The movie is gently handled by director Clint Eastwood. He also composed the music for the closing credits, and its stoic simplicity is an absolute love-song to the Marines who fought in the Pacific theater. Ryan Phillippe grates on my nerves though. Adam Beach was excellent as Ira Hayes.
And please note, when I refer to my mother as a good Episcopalian, I am suggesting she’s one who has actually read and lives by what is in the 1928 BCP. Yes, we’re orthodox and unashamedly so. It wasn’t broken. It didn’t need fixing. And it certainly didn’t need the gutting that resulted in the travesty known as the 1979 BCP.
But I digress…
Mom is a very good cook, and what she doesn’t owe to The Joy of Cooking, she owes to growing up in a large family in the south, during the late Depression and World War II. My grandfather was a farmer, a hired day laborer, and, by all accounts, a heckuva fine baseball player. My grandmother was a homemaker, which in those days meant washing laundry with a mangle, cooking on a wood-fired stove, making clothes out of feed and flour sacks, chopping wood with an axe, milking cows, plucking chickens, planting and hoeing a vegetable garden, canning produce using that same wood-fired stove and helping butcher pigs (or sewing them shut, as the situation required, but that’s another tale I’ll tell a different day).
There were seven children to feed, so cooking skills were developed early and appreciated greatly. Our own family had five children, and both Mom and Dad worked hard to support us. While we didn’t eat out often, and we ate more frequently like peasants than kings, we had plenty, and it was good.
But growing up helping in the kitchen, watching my remarkable grandmother make biscuits and hearing tales from the cookbook all fueled my own love of cooking, as well as eating. I have my own copy of the Joy now, although a later edition than my mother’s. There have been a couple more iterations since I bought my copy in 1982. Pick up a copy—there’s recipes for everything from moose muffle to beef Bourguignon and just about everything in between. Check out the laundress’ tale that accompanies the recipe for apple strudel. It’s a good read while your dessert bakes.
The Loved One is home on interval from Alaska, which means we’re eating out too much. He’s gone three weeks at a time, and then home for about ten days. When he’s home, we strive to keep the “quality” in “quality time,” and do things that bring us closer together as a couple and a small family. We had out-of-town company over the weekend, which was wonderful. I cooked some, but we also had two special occasion meals out with the large, extended, blended and generally up-ended family we’ve become. It was all mostly a wonderful time.
Last Saturday, though, just the two of us went to a new place I’d seen in Collierville called Ashiyana. Dear Daughter was home “keeping house” with Best Friend, who is not quite older enough to be an official baby-sitter, but who is a good, sensible young lady whom I can leave in charge. Billed as an “Indo-Pak” restaurant, Ayishara conjures images of warm curries, flavorful vegetable stews and tandoori chicken. I didn’t have any experience with Pakistani cuisine, but I’m usually game to try almost anything new and unusual, so long as it doesn’t involve eat body parts that normally involve vision, digestion, rumination, cogitation or elimination. Call me a weenie, but personally I thank God virtually every day that I have never been hungry enough to eat the intestines of any living creature. Or the eyeballs, brains, pancreas, etc.
(I will confess to actually liking calves’ liver, but given the junk animals are shot up with during their short and unhappy lives, I can no longer bring myself to do it, and haven’t in decades. Dear Daughter has never eaten liver, veal or offal, and will not do so, at least not on my watch.)
But back to Ayishara. It had only been open for a couple of days so they are still working out the mechanics of running a restaurant. The greeter/server was a bit overwhelmed with double-duty, but she took time to talk to us about the dishes on the menu. We ordered some dishes with which we are familiar and some we’d never had before. Palak paneer is spinach in a spicy sauce with yogurt cheese, and something I would eat everyday if I could make or get my hands on it. We had the Pakistani version of samosas, which are wrapped in phyllo. The “puff pastry” we ordered was not a sweet, but rather a sort of Middle Eastern “chicken in a biscuit,” and a delightful one at that. The pastry was buttery and melt-in-your-mouth flaky, and the spicy chicken permeated each bite. What a treat!
As it turns out, in an “Indo-Pak” restaurant “mutton;” which we took to mean “sheep,” actually means “goat.” I grew up eating lamb and still serve it a few times a year, price permitting, but I’d never had goat before. The dish was basically the same as lamb aloo, just with a different animal. I have to say, I infinitely prefer lamb to goat, but it wasn’t bad. There were some interesting bone configurations to deal with, and I don’t want to speculate on which part we were eating, but the dish was good. I don’t think I’ll be cooking it at home anytime soon, but we left the plates shiny.
Wednesday, May 2, 2007
But the phone rang, so I answered it. The voice was hesitant, she asked for Mom, and when I told her she was out of town, she asked to leave a message. Her name was that of a friend from my childhood. Her grandparents lived across the street from us growing up. I was 12, she was 9 when we met. She called to tell me that her cousin, another friend of mine, is dying in a hospital in St. Louis.
As I write, I can see her cousin's face, the way she looked when we were about 13 or 14. The year was 1977. Gerald Ford was president. The Bee Gees ruled the airwaves. We both had feather-bangs, although they always looked much better on Kate Jackson and Farrah Fawcett-Majors. Therese was a blonde, my sister and I were (and still are) redheads. All three of us wore short white shorts and bicentennial-themed shirts in red, white and blue.
We met because my family lived on a dead-end block, and because we knew all of the neighbors. We liked to walk our dogs around the block, not just to exercise the dogs, but to look and see who was out, who was home and who could see us. When the car with Missouri tags showed up at the big house across the street, we were naturally curious. I hooked the dog on the leash and went for a turn around the block.
It didn't take long for me to discover that the new arrivals were visiting from St. Louis with their teenaged son and younger daughter. It didn't take them long to discover there were kids on the block, and before long, they ditched their parents and grandparents and came out to meet us. The rest, as they say, is history.
We were friends from then on, mostly for two or three weeks in the summer, and then around Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. In between, we'd write letters back and forth, in garish Flair pen colors. These were full of talk about school, boys, our parents, stupid things we'd done, nothing at all... I still remember one funny letter where she told us she'd just used the blue felt-tipped pen the letter was written in to color her eyelid like makeup, and now she couldn't get it off. When we saw her next, she made us laugh with the tale of how she went to school for a week with a navy blue eyelid. I told Dear Daughter this story just this spring when we were on a road trip to Arkansas. I don't remember how it came up, but we still laughed over it.
Therese was a lot that we weren't -- her parents were less restrictive than ours, and she had an older brother. She had a best friend named Sue who was into body-building, even as a teenager. She water-skiied, and wore makeup to school, and dated boys and made long-distance phone calls without asking permission. She was always a good girl, but still there was something about her that was open and daring and, compared to us, almost wild. We loved her for her adventurous spirit, her zany ideas, her spontaneous joy. When she married the first time, my sister was her bridesmaid. When we got married, she sent cards and gifts filled with joy and excitement. When her marriage went badly, we mourned with her, but rejoiced years later when she met Sam.
We haven't been in touch closely in a few years. We saw each other when her grandparents passed away. We had drinks and long conversations at Applebee's. We sent each other Christmas cards faithfully, hers with photos of a sweet-faced blonde girl, who had her mother's eyes. The envelopes were addressed in the same handwriting I remembered from my youth, though by now, she'd chosen a more sedate medium than magenta Flair.
And now, she is leaving us all behind. She's my age, and that alone is enough to give me pause. I can't be sad that her trial with cancer is finally over. I can't be sad that she's going to see her beloved grandparents again. I am sad that this is closing the book on those sweet, warm summer days, when we stayed outside until long past dark, walking around the block, singing and talking, laughing and making jokes, swinging our arms to make funny shadows on the sidewalks...
It's almost summer now, and I know that when I look at the summer night sky, she'll always be right there.
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
This is advice offered by Garrison Keillor, of The Writer’s Almanac. This five-minute daily radio program is one of my favorite resources. It combines history and literature and gentle humor. Tune in on your local NPR station, or you can read it here.
May Day has long been celebrated as the coming of spring, a time for young maidens to select a partner, and celebrate the beauty of nature. I don’t think we’ll be setting up any maypoles in the front yard, but the image of dressing Dear Daughter in a white dress with a flower garland around her lovely hair is kind of nice. It would be a great look for her on May Day, or any other day, for that matter…
Of course, another “May Day” is the universal distress call used by aviators and sailors. Here is an explanation of how this came into use: “The 'Mayday' distress signal: 'was devised by the late Frederick Stanley Mockford, born in 1897 in the East Sussex village of Selmeston. While he was senior radio officer at Croydon airport in 1923, he was asked to think up a word that would indicate distress and would easily be understood by all pilots and ground staff in an emergency. As much of the traffic at the time was between Croydon and Le Bourget (Paris) he proposed the word 'Mayday' from the French m'aidez'.'”
I found that blurb on a interesting forum called Linguistica, where people of all ilks gather to discuss the vagaries of language, both written and spoken. It’s an interesting place to kill some time.
Lastly, there is a delightful song by Canada’s Rankin Family called “Padstow” that merrily sings the joys of a May morning. We love to sing it in the car—it’s happy and bright and catches in your mind and heart:
Unite and unite, oh let us all unite
For summer is a'coming today
And whither we are going, we all will unite
In the merry month of May.
Oh, where are the young men that now here should dance
For summer is a'coming today
Well some there are in England and some are in France
In the merry month of May
Oh, where are the maidens that now here should sing
For summer is a'coming today
They're all out in the meadows a flower gathering
In the merry month of May
The young men of Padstow they might if the would
For summer is a'coming today
They might have built a ship and gilded it with gold
In the merry month of May
Oh where is Saint George, oh where is he oh
He's down in his longboat upon the salt sea oh
Up flies the kite, down falls the lark-o
And Ursula Birdwood, she had an old ewe
And she died in her park-o
With a merry ring and joyful spring
For summer is a'coming today
Oh happy are the little birds and merrily do they sing
In the merry morning of May
Unite and unite oh let us all unite
For summer is a'coming today
And whither we are going we all will unite
In the merry month of May
In the merry month of May