Laura Tokie

In fifth grade, Laura wrote an essay about Thanksgiving that her teacher thought was good. She also played Santa Claus in a school play and tried to make croissants from scratch. Not much has changed since she was ten. She still writes, and still shamelessly laps up approval. She loves theatre, especially plays about Christmas. She attempts projects that are way too ambitious for her skill sets, with imperfect, yet sometimes edible, results. Laura’s worked as a writer, performer, teacher and caterer, and lives in Michigan with her three kids and forgiving husband. You can keep up with Laura at her blog.

It’s Opera Season

This piece was originally published in September of 2013. Consider reading it alongside Kristen Gaylord’s opera piece, also originally published last year and available for you again on the homepage. 

Before attending the opera, I held an optimistic view. I could like opera. After all, I ain’t Laura of Flatbush. I met baseline criteria:

  • Likes classical music.
  • Enjoys Shakespeare.
  • Does not fear foreign languages.
  • Enjoys getting dolled up.

I thought of myself as an unshaped mass of opera-loving potential. Thus mentally armed, I attended the opera. The experience brought me into a new self-awareness: I was delusional, naive. I thought the elements of opera would enter into my existing nucleus, connect with the substances therein and expand, like two tiny amoebae, the start of (opera) life. What a maroon!

Perhaps I’m being too hard on myself. I had it partially right. The elements of opera were going to combine with something, bub, but nothing on the list.

***

Opera hours are like dog years. I learned this thanks to subtitles. The singers performed in French, and subtitles appeared on a scoreboard-like screen above the stage. The singers went on and on, trilling up and down on the same four words that hung in the air, floating along at balcony level as if under the influence of a mad scientist’s ether.

I pined for escape: the bathroom, the bar. I remembered the last time I failed to connect at a cultural event. I sat much closer for that one, so close that I can remember how the place smelled. It took hours to get there, and then I spent hours by the pit. The other patrons looked like they lived there, camping out for days. Some wore special headsets that gave them a more intimate grasp of the underlying story, but I didn’t have that kind of money. I tried to distract myself with people watching. I nicknamed one very sunburnt gentleman Lobster Man and observed his ways. Every forty seconds he stood and saluted the action with a loud “whoo-hoo” and a raised glass of Bud.

Maybe opera has something in common with NASCAR. Maybe opera needs to have more in common with NASCAR: Airstreams and headsets and copious amounts of cheap beer. Maybe opera needs more drama in the pit. Picture it: the cellist seated in the house. At the conductor’s signal, she races to the edge and hops over the wall. Will the cello clear the clarinets? We could expand the scoreboard; make room for “trombonist cam”: will he clear his tube of spit before his cue? Maybe the problem is the words themselves. Let’s eliminate the subtitles altogether and replace them with a single earbud. Give me announcers in my ear, give me Al Michaels and John Madden calling the opera:

“Here’s our first baritone of the evening, Coach.”

“He’s one of the good ones, Al. You can tell by the way he entered the stage. Shirtless. Look at those flow-y harem pants! He’s some kind of sultan or something.”

“A priest, I think, Coach, certainly of the ruling class.”

“Let’s take another look at that entrance … Watch how he comes in from stage right and then … Zap! Slam! Powee!”

In the time it takes to sing one aria, I could’ve had the whole thing telestrated. But I wanted to connect to the opera, so I stopped pining and daydreaming. I tethered myself to the physical action onstage. The soprano reclined, her arm to her forehead, and that (to paraphrase) was all, folks.

***

The caution against smoking used to go, “it’s habit-forming,” but what does that mean, exactly? It causes you to repeat a behavior, somehow, against your better judgment, against your will. I’ve never been addicted to nicotine, but this response is more than physiological, I think. It’s the process of smoking, the way it fits with food and drink, the pleasure of a break, the calm of it, all that shapes the thinking and behavior of a smoker, causing him to temporarily forget the money wasted and the lung cancer and remember smoking fondly.

If you had a habit like that, a pleasurable habit, but without the cost or cancer, a habit that wouldn’t kill you, a habit whose only downside was that it prevented you from enjoying opera, you’d keep it, right?

In the 1970s, cartoons were not on television every day. Thus, wise and sensible children got up early on Saturdays so that they could enjoy cartoons to the fullest. Rising early, eating cereal in front of the television, I became a lover of animation. My first and true love would be Bugs Bunny. His words became my words, magic words like abraca-pocus and Walla Walla, Washington.

Bugs Bunny is the world’s most popular rabbit.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I had a favorite writer/director team, Michael Maltese and Chuck Jones. Consider the meta-cartoon “Duck Amuck”, in which Daffy is the victim of a guest animator’s sense of humor, with whom he carries on a one-sided conversation. Or how about the singing, dancing Michigan J. Frog, who ceases performing at the most inconvenient moments? What about “Boyhood Daze”, featuring the escapist imagination of Ralph Phillips?

I loved these, and other Maltese/Jones classics. But above all of their other work I placed their second opera parody, “What’s Opera, Doc?” It was the story I waited for, the one that would drive me to gather the rest of my family and make them watch it with me. It features only two character, the hunter Elmer Fudd and his clever prey, Bugs Bunny. These roles of hunter and prey typify their cartoons, but the usual settings of woods or gardens has shifted to a highly stylized landscape suitable for Wagnerian hijinks.

It begins with Elmer, a powerful Viking hunter, preparing to ‘kill the wabbit.’ Bugs, the wabbit in question, does not want to die, and so employs many a strategy. At the last, he disguises himself as a beautiful, horse-riding Viking maiden. Elmer is smitten, singing of her beauty and his desire for her. Bugs slides down the horse to him, and then they sing a duet, “Return My Love”. Maltese wrote the lyrics:

Elmer: Weturn, my wove… a wonging burns deep inside me…
Bugs: Retoyn my love I want you always beside me.
Elmer: Wove wike ours must be…
Bugs: Made fer you and fer me…
E & B : Return, won’t you return my love… for my love is yours.

This is followed by a ballet interlude. Elmer dances in tights and a shield. Bugs continues in his disguise, a bronze brassiere, miniskirt, eyeshadow, and a helmet with trailing gold braids. The ruse ends when Elmer, after ascending an extraordinary flight of stairs, finds his love in repose on a chaise lounge. Much like the soprano in the opera I attended, Bugs goes a little too far with the reposing. The helmet with the braids falls from his head and bounces down the stairs, revealing the sad truth to Elmer–his beloved is also his enemy. Elmer enacts revenge, wrecking destruction and finally, regret.

If there was a potential opera fan deep inside me, she was crushed long ago by a fat horse carrying a rabbit in drag. How could the opera compete with a ritual hour and the most desired seven minutes on television?

photo by: Steve.M~

A Case for Creating

Imagine a game developer in Stockholm, Sweden, looking to make something. He searches for inspiration, sees potential in an existing indie game, and builds on it, striving for an experience where every part feels fun. He does the work, then releases it into the world to continue its development. Others build on it too. What will happen with his creation? Will it be just another game with little to no value, a virtual distraction? Will other hands hurt the work, damaging his intent? Would you be surprised to discover it changing cities in real life—places like Nairobi, Kenya, and Les Cayes, Haiti? Is this typical or atypical for created things?

 Minecraft. It’s a video game. My kids play lots of video games, and I hear them barking at one another, giving orders to each other. When I hear them playing Minecraft, it sounds different: less yelling, more inviting. They want someone to come and see what they’ve made. They create houses and submarines and creatures like snow golems. They play together, and sometimes, it sounds like they are playing house. Curious, I started asking questions; I read its genesis story; I observed players in my own home and talked with several more, ranging in age from eight to twenty-two.

The players I spoke to embraced different aspects of the game. One liked competing in mini-games and having adventures, but wasn’t much of a builder. He operates in creative mode, where the game’s resources are available to you without effort, like a virtual second-generation man of means. Another celebrated the home he built that juts out from a cliff, completed in survival mode. He declares creative mode “for the weak.” A third player felt his greatest achievement was building a survival mode community with his friends, where all involved had a vocational specialty: farming or smithing or protecting the community from threats. A fourth, a member of that community, said if he had the game now, he’d create a new world and “build some really cool crap,” and then shared with me a seventeen-minute video of players exploring a ship built in the game.

These are disparate, not congruent, responses, abnormally disparate for a video game. Compare responses about the game Call of Duty: Ghosts. Players will have their preferred mode of play, methods, and techniques, but all agree that the player takes on the role of a shooter, a part of an elite military squad. The identity and mission of the character in the game are set.

It is not so in Minecraft. It starts out this simply: a virtual guy, in a virtual world, making his mark. He does not have a set identity or mission; he will make and morph his own. He mines from the world into which he has spawned, and then crafts shelter, tools, food. He could build a house modestly, harvesting only what he needs, defending and never attacking, living a quiet life. He could also run (or fly) off and see the world, or build something spectacular, or join up with some friends and build a community.

How did the purpose of the game diverge? Remember the game’s origin and genesis. When it started, it was incomplete, unfinished. It was so unfinished that it came without instruction. It was so unfinished that people could add to it, and players in the early, PC-only days came up with fun things to do. They built fantastic structures, created mini-games for other people to play, and they shared what they made online via YouTube and social media sites. This is how the game grew in popularity: the players creating the playbook, sharing it, adding to it.

Things progressed. Servers popped up where players could work together in a world. Some players replicated real-world buildings and spaces. Conferences were held. People started to wonder about applications outside of video games: education? design? urban planning?

Mojang, the maker of Minecraft, is now in partnership with the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), the UN agency promoting sustainable towns and cities. Block by Block brings master Minecraft builders into a city that needs help with a public space, including Les Cayes, Haiti, and Nairobi, Kenya. The master builders replicate the public space in the game and then teach people in the community how to use Minecraft to help make changes to the space. The UN and the real-world community then use the changes to develop an architectural blueprint and build, using funds provided by Mojang and the Minecraft virtual community. This partnership aims to upgrade 300 public spaces by 2016.

An amazing development, but not an outlier. In October 2010, my father and my sister and I spent a few long days in a hospital, sitting beside my mother. Her heart was shorting out at unpredictable moments of increasing duration, shorting out completely and stopping, causing her to disappear from her body, as if someone had flipped her switch to off. She is fine now, leading a normal life, thanks to a surgically implanted device: an artificial cardiac pacemaker.

Who invented the pacemaker? How did this device come into being? The pacemaker story intersects with the story of transistors:

[D]evelopments in technology would make the implantable pacemaker a reality. The critical turning point was the introduction of small silicon transistors to replace vacuum tubes. This technology allowed pacemakers to become small enough to be implanted in the body.

The inventors of the transistor did not have their sights set on medicine, nor did they know my mother, but they changed both.

From gaming to the United Nations, from the transistor to the pacemaker, so it goes. In the days since I began looking into Minecraft, I have read of Disney animated movies becoming a bridge of communication between a child with autism and the world. I have viewed a child’s life saved by the surgical implant of an airway splint created through 3D printing. In all these cases, people created: animators, software developers, and builders of printers mining earlier stories, earlier platforms, earlier technologies. What is made, what we make, what will be made affects the world in ways we cannot predict.

 

photo by: colmmcsky

The Voice of Summer

We’ve tried something new with the piece. Click here to listen to  Laura Tokie read her review of  “Ernie. Below you’ll find the transcript. We hope you enjoy it. 

On a rainy Thursday night in June, I took my eighty-five-year-old aunt to the current show at Detroit’s City Theatre.

The show is in its third year, sort of. It hasn’t run continuously for three years. Rather it returns like the weather, in its season, when, as it says in Song of Solomon, “…the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.”

The play was written by Mitch Albom, best known for his book Tuesdays with Morrie. This is his fourth play, titled “Ernie.”

“Ernie.” I imagine that name might be obscure, but my aunt instantly guessed the full identity of the title character. Ernie Harwell, the voice of summer, the voice of the Detroit Tigers for 42 seasons. He began each season with that quote from Song of Solomon, for the last time in 2002, at the age of 84. He died in 2010, and was mourned like royalty, lying in state at the ballfield, more than 10,000 fans paying their respects.

And now a two-man play. A play, an unexpected form. Theatre is by nature collaborative, but Harwell was an old-school broadcaster, calling his innings solo, without a color commentator. This was a part of his special connection with his audience-he was the storyteller, allowing only the sounds of the game to float between his words.

So a play was not the obvious choice, but taking my aunt was. She calls her spare bedroom “the Tiger room.” It’s filled with baseball memorabilia. She’s a lifelong theatregoer too, and as I sat with her, surprised by her response, I realized that telling the story onstage was right.

***

The play is set in the tunnel of Comerica Park, the Detroit Tigers home field. The Old English D sits high above the light bar. Three screens act as a backdrop, and they are put to good use throughout the course of the show, allowing the audience to see pictures and footage of some of the stories mentioned during the play. It is the evening of September 16, 2009: the night that Harwell, diagnosed with terminal cancer, said his last goodbye to the fans. The character Ernie is struggling with the idea of going before the crowd; he feels that all the attention is too much. During a rain delay, a young man, called Boy, appears. Time stops. Boy asks Ernie to share his life story.

At this point, the show seems purely biography dressed in the theatre’s clothes. Not that I minded. His is quite a tale, beginning in Georgia as a writer, becoming a broadcaster in Atlanta, being traded to New York, bearing witness to the rise of Jackie Robinson as the Dodgers broadcaster, then moving across town to the Giants, joining the military and spared heavy combat in World War 2, marriage, children, finding faith, trying his hand at television and other sports before coming to the Tigers, the stories woven together with light stage business between Ernie and Boy.

Beautiful. Touching. My aunt is enjoying herself. But the question lingers–beyond the fact that Harwell liked the idea, why a play?

The answer is hinted at as the show continues, and becomes clear as Ernie tells of a moment from the 1984 World Series: Kirk Gibson’s at-bat versus Goose Gossage in Game 5.

Onstage, Ernie begins with the backstory. This is the right time in the game for an intentional walk, but Gossage thinks he can get Gibson out, can strike him out, because of their history. We watch the video moments unfold – the conference on the mound beween Gossage and his manager, the cut away to Tiger’s manager Sparky Anderson in the dugout hollering at Gibson, “he don’t wanna walk you.”

Ernie and the kid repeat it, “he don’t wanna walk you… he don’t wanna walk you,” just like Sparky. You can feel the crowd in the theatre responding. Are people shaking their fingers, mouthing the words? I don’t know, because my aunt can no longer contain herself. She tells me she watched this same footage of the game in Cooperstown, on a huge screen, amazing, she says, her eyes lit by the memory as much as by the stage. She’s not whispering and no one is shushing her because it is amazing. It is elevated story, it is shared story. There’s the wind-up. And the pitch. It’s a long drive to right, the call begins, and we are stirred, thrilled at the sight of Gibson’s arms in the air as he rounds first. The 5:30 Thursday night crowd in the theatre is on the verge of erupting.

This is why theatre is the perfect medium to tell this story. As Boy says, quoting from Tennyson’s Ulysses, “I am a part of all that I have met.” Theatre is a collaborative medium, and this isn’t purely biography. “Ernie” is a story of the stories we share.

** “Ernie” | Written by Mitch Albom, directed by Tony Caselli, featuring Timothy “TJ” Corbett as Boy and Will David Young as Ernie Harwell.

 

In Praise of Sunglasses

“…the artist does not see life as a problem to be solved, but as a medium for creation.”– Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker

When I look at all things created by man, all the things I could celebrate, I am drawn to my sunglasses.

O glorious sunglasses! I do not see you the way Hadley Freeman sees you:

“…[sunglasses] make you look cool, they make you look rich, they get you attention because people think you might be famous, and they might possibly stop wrinkles—frankly, it’s a wonder the fashion world hasn’t put them up for sainthood.” – Hadley Freeman, The Meaning of Sunglasses: And a Guide to Almost Everything Fashionable

I do not see you as the fashion world sees you, but I join it in calling for a special dispensation. There is no word for how I see you: Accessory? Gear? Equipment? Livery? Uniform? A single word falls short of what you do for me.

***

Romantic notions about science and creativity abound. We imagine a neat and tidy process in which Science notes a possible problem, forms a hypothesis, tests. A conclusion is drawn, and Necessity is revealed. Science and Necessity then conceive and create a technology to solve the problem. But creativity is not so. Consider more from Sayers and The Mind of the Maker:

“From our brief study of the human maker’s way of creation, it should be fairly clear that the creator does not set out from a set of data, and proceed, like a crossword solver or a student of elementary algebra, to deduce from them a result which shall be final, predictable, complete, and the only one possible. The concept of ‘problem and solution’ is as meaningless, applied to the act of creation, as it is when applied to the act of procreation. To add John to Mary in a procreative process does not produce a ‘solution’ of John and Mary’s combined problem: it produces George or Susan, who (in addition to being a complicating factor in the life of his or her parents) possesses an independent personality with an entirely new set of problems.”

So it goes with the creation of the modern pair of sunglasses. The real story is that Sam Foster and Bill Grant went into business together to manufacture women’s hair accessories. When hairstyles changed, they ran into a little trouble, and began using their plastic injection molding equipment to make other things, including sunglasses sold on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.

Sunglasses were once custom-made, typically for those considered too weak to bear harsh light. After they became widely available, all sorts of people began wearing them, people with health and vitality, people enjoying their time in the sun. The creation took on a life of its own.

Today we know that properly treated lenses can help protect our eyes from the effects of UV rays, but for Foster Grant, sunglasses were a way to use their equipment and make money. And I confess: the fact that wearing sunglasses is good for you never motivates me to wear them.

***

In the Book of Ecclesiastes, we read:

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,

    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

What does man gain by all the toil

    at which he toils under the sun?

A generation goes, and a generation comes,

    but the earth remains forever.

The sun rises, and the sun goes down,

    and hastens to the place where it rises.

All things are full of weariness;

    a man cannot utter it;

the eye is not satisfied with seeing,

    nor the ear filled with hearing.

What has been is what will be,

    and what has been done is what will be done,

    and there is nothing new under the sun.

 

This is how the Book of Ecclesiastes begins, sounding like a book filled with darkness. It reflects our need to know why; what does it all mean? The Preacher, our guide in the book, sees that a search for meaning can lead us to wrong thinking. We might try to find meaning in our potential legacy, or our potential wealth, or our right living guaranteeing success, or at least being better off than our neighbor. If we thought this way, our understanding of life would be skewed. We would wrongly view the results of our work as a solution to the problem of meaning. The Preacher calls this “striving after the wind” because the results of our labor are uncertain.

The Preacher spends much time debunking certainty. The only certainty in Ecclesiastes is death.

This statement, at first glance, does not make the book sound any less dark, but I find its reality comforting. Sayers puts it this way: “The thing that is settled is finished and dead, and [the artist’s] concern is not with death but with life ‘that ye may have life and have it more abundantly.’”

And The Preacher? He weaves our follies with alternate calls to God-fearing joy. Five times he points to it, commends it, recommends it. Joy. Even as the fortunes of people rise and fall, even as a sense of pleasure waxes and wanes, even as we consider death and dying and the benefits of having never been born, The Preacher claims the value of joy, like in Chapter 5:

“Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.”

There is pleasure in the toil. There is gratitude for the gift of God—not just having wealth or possessions or power, not just the ability to enjoy life, but the ability to accept our lot and rejoice in our toil and be forgetful of the days of our lives because God keeps our hearts occupied with joy. How unlike the temptations of this age, when we believe documenting every bite will give pleasure, when we think joy arrives from pure leisure.

***

I have other temptations. For example, I have been tempted to call this living: hiding, waiting for certainties, waiting for the only certainty. That’s a dark place; no need for sunglasses there. But God has given light and life; is a burrowed subsistence how He wants me to experience them?

No. Better to remember that, even as The Preacher pounds the pain of living “under the sun,” he also declares the light sweet and pleasant. Life under the sun is not a problem to be solved. It is not the result of the work, but the work itself I must celebrate. Despite the uncertainities, despite certainty, I go forth. This is why I wear sunglasses.

 

 

photo by: JelleS

Hospitality, Intimacy and The Great American Songbook

Hospitality is an open hand. It’s a gesture. It’s a way of telling someone that they are welcome, that they belong. In order to be hospitable, there must be space for another person.

Our culture uses the word as if it were the same as entertaining. This is wrong. The pure entertainer isn’t concerned with offering space. At best, the audience has an experience: they are razzled, dazzled, awed, and delighted. Think Sinatra in Vegas, singing the songs of a bygone era with panache.

It is grand to sit in the shadows of a great performance, but what happens when entertainers, musicians, choose to play host?

In 1978, a few Vegas-y numbers found their way into different hands: a singer-songwriter from Texas best known for his work in country music, and an arranger/producer/musician with a great history at Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee. Long before interpreting standards became trendy or cliche, in the era of outlaw country and disco, this unexpected pairing tendered a collection–ten songs written by the likes of Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, and the Gershwins.

The album went on to storied success, peaking at #1 on the country charts, producing the country vocal of the year, named country album of the year, going platinum 8 months after its release, remaining on the Billboard 200 album chart for 10 years, listed as #260 of the top 500 albums of all time according to Rolling Stone magazine.

All these accolades, but let me add mine. Their album extends the Great American Songbook in ways unknown to the Strip, offering listeners something better than entertainment. From the opening finger-picked guitar notes of the title track to the final chord on the B-3, a listener is invited to not only stay awhile, but to draw close. This is not entertainment. This is a gift of hospitality and intimacy.

***

Our two artists first appeared on the Billboard music charts separately but in the same year, 1962. The country artist, best known for writing Patsy Cline’s hit “Crazy”, released his first solo album. Over the next 15 years, Willie Nelson would release 35 songs that became Hot Country hits. During this time, he became embroiled in record-label issues and ‘retired’ from music and especially from Nashville. He moved to Austin, TX, honing his sound. His biggest post-Nashville hits during this time were “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time”, but the hits don’t tell the whole story. The period also includes concept albums like “The Red Headed Stranger” and “Phases and Stages”, as well as his first recording of an outlaw country classic, “Whiskey River.”

 

Booker T. Jones was 17 years old in 1962, a session musician at Stax, writing lead sheets and string arrangements. That summer, between graduating from high school and starting college as a music major at Indiana University, he and the Memphis Guys recorded a #1 R&B hit that crossed over and became a #3 hit on the pop charts.

 

Jones eventually landed in California. He still recorded as a part of Booker T. and the MG’s, but also played with other people and worked as a producer. Nelson asked Jones to arrange a song, and liked the arrangement so much that he had Jones arrange and produce all ten tracks on “Stardust”.

“One of the reasons Willie had come to me for the album was because of how simply I approach everything. I think he really liked that. We had a lot of space on that record, a lot of time to think about the words and the melody.” –Booker T. Jones in an interview at emusic.com

That simplicity, that space, still stands out 35 years after the album was made. It is as if Nelson and Jones have taken all their great talent and skill, and have decided to use them to open the door to you. They’ve invited you in, won’t you listen to these great songs, won’t you hear them as your own, as ours?

And how can you not? The opening song, “Stardust”, considers the memory of a song. Surely you’ve heard melodies echoing your heartaches, regrets, changes in fortune? They’re here, along with shifts in perspectives that seem nearly holy (“Blue Skies”), light takes on brokenness (“All of Me”), and then there’s “Moonlight in Vermont.”

Robert Christgau from the Village Voice called this number ‘a revelation’, and it is. The guitar begins, and then comes Willie’s voice (they’ve invited us in; we’re on a first name basis now). When he whispers, we lean in, and when he sings in full voice, it sounds like an orchestra, so rich in tone and timbre. Easy as a ripple comes the keyboards, the piano merging perfectly into Booker’s Hammond B-3, and then the strings and piano licks. By the time Willie sings the third verse, the one that begins ‘evening summer breeze’, I’m sitting on a porch and I can’t tell if it’s the wind or the very music itself brushing against my neck. Each bit of instrumentation contributes to the picture of the whole, the passing of seasons, a subtle, unrhymed, impressionistic, haiku-based lyric that doesn’t have to tell us that it’s in love. Through the craftsmanship, through the musicianship, through the space we have been given and the gifts of the hosts, we know it. Intimately.

 

 

Buy the album on Amazon.

“Stardust” Track List (original 1978 recording)

1. Stardust (Hoagy Carmichael, Mitchell Parish)
2. Georgia On My Mind (Hoagy Carmichael, Stuart Gorrell)
3. Blue Skies (Irving Berlin)
4. All Of Me (Seymour Simons, Gerald Marks)
5. Unchained Melody (Hy Zaret, Alex North)
6. September Song (Kurt Weill, Maxwell Anderson)
7. On The Sunny Side Of The Street (Dorothy Fields, Jimmy McHugh)
8. Moonlight In Vermont (John Blackburn, Karl Suessdorf)
9. Don’t Get Around Much Anymore (Duke Ellington, Bob Russell)
10. Someone To Watch Over Me (George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin)

 

 

 

Eyes from the Ashes

Photography is a powerful tool. How many people take pictures every day, hoping to capture bits of life as it happens? People treasure photos as access points to their memories.

Most of us did not experience World War II concentration camps, yet we can have knowledge of them, both intellectual and visual. Our most referenced sources of knowing are historical records, written and oral histories, and powerful pictures displayed in history books and Holocaust memorials all over the world—pictures of the abused, pictures of the dead.

Nazi Germany established about 20,000 camps to imprison its millions of victims. These camps served different purposes, and only a small fraction of those imprisoned survived. The most infamous camps were those that exterminated people, killing centers designed to expedite the “Final Solution,” the mass genocide and destruction of the Jews. (1)

The Auschwitz complex was the largest of its kind, with three main camps: Auschwitz I; Auschwitz II (Birkenau, the killing center), and Auschwitz III (Monowitz). The complex housed the heinous pseudo-scientific work of SS Captain Dr. Josef Mengele. Zyklon B was first tested here in 1941. More than a million people were killed here. (2)

Much of the concentration camp photography and footage we see was taken by those liberating the prisoners of the Nazis. Most of the rest are from the Nazi point of view. From Auschwitz, we know of a limited number of official pictures taken for administrative and pseudo-medical recordkeeping purposes (3). We also know of two unofficial albums. One contains 116 pictures of SS soldiers and workers going about their days together—hunting, singing, trimming a Christmas tree (4). The second, called the Auschwitz, or Lili Jacobs Album (5), contains photographs of people arriving via boxcar to the ramps, the sorting and selecting of the prisoners, the prisoners in lines and rows, some in uniform, others taken to the woods.

Besides the people of the Auschwitz Album, there are 22 photographs of stuff. Piles and piles of bagged stuff. What was inside? Belongings, perhaps mementos. Like most of the people in the pictures, the mementos were destroyed. The goal of the “Final Solution” included leaving no trace.

***

The German Nazis did not succeed in their goal, but they destroyed millions of people and decimated culture. Sadly, it is their acts that that often define the people persecuted: we see the people as the taken, the victims, the dead. In both the Nazi pictures and pictures taken by the liberators, it is the abuses that we see. These pictures are invaluable evidence, but how can we see what once was, and what might have been, in starving eyes, crowds of people treated like cattle, and piles of bodies? It is easy to disconnect, to see the evidence and forget the humanity.

The Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan helps visitors remember. Its appearance and placement in the community, with architecture echoing a concentration camp, fully visible from a busy street, flanked by a bank and a Chinese restaurant, challenges passerbys to consider the horrors of the Holocaust in the everyday. It houses a permanent exhibit exploring Jewish history and culture prior to World War II. Area Holocaust survivors speak to tour groups. And the special exhibit The Last Album: Eyes from the Ashes at Auschwitz-Birkenau gives visitors other images to consider, images that didn’t matter to the Nazis, images that tell us what, and who, the people victimized wanted to remember.

***

To curate, in its most old-fashioned sense, means more than gathering a collection. The word implies a sense of care. In 1986, Ann Weiss separated from her guided tour group at Auschwitz I. She wanted silence, and took some time before seeking to rejoin the group. When she began looking for them, she got lost. She could hear voices, but could not see them, when she encountered an employee. The employee invited her to see something not on the tour: a collection of about 2400 photographs. The pictures were not of abuses. They were not from the Nazi perspective, officially or unofficially. They were the spared mementos of prisoners, specifically from the people in the final liquidation and deportation of the Bedzin ghetto, August 1-3, 1943.

From that moment forward, Weiss began to care for the photographs. She sought to copy them and bring them to the light; she sought people who might remember those in the pictures. She gathered stories and made connections. Her work is collected in a book, and in this traveling display. By curating this collection, Weiss gives the viewer a chance to acknowledge a fuller reality surrounding the Holocaust.

The exhibition includes sweethearts and couples, portraits of children, friends walking together, people visiting resorts. Some of the people have been named, including eight pictures grouped together with the title The Huppert Family.  In this portion of the exhibit, we learn that Artur, Grete, and their son Peterle sent notes and pictures to Artur’s parents. We see an artful picture, “The Triple Exposure of Artur Huppert,” a picture of Artur and Grete at their wedding celebration, two pictures of Artur and Grete with their son, Peterle, when he was 16 months old. Between the pictures of the family sit three portraits of Peterle at 16 months, with a beautiful head of curls.

The eighth picture in the Huppert family collection features a delighted Artur kneeling behind Peterle. Together they hold picture frame containing two portraits: Josef and Rosa Huppert, Artur’s parents.

The direct impact of the Holocaust on Artur, Grete and Peterle is told in the captions near the photos. It is recorded that Artur and Grete do not survive their transport to a slave-labor camp. Peterle was on the same transport as his mother, and his fate went unrecorded.

The pictures were brought to Auschwitz with love. It is love that makes them familiar to us. The viewer is invited to think beyond the violence, remember this common bond, and imagine afresh the loss. As Leon Wieseltier writes in the foreword to Weiss’ book:

“The greatest enemy of abstraction is suffering. … Pain is always endured in the particular. Suffering is always experienced concretely; and this experience of concreteness, this transforming encounter with facticity, humbles the mind, and disgusts it, and stimulates within it the sobering suspicion that its most strenuous task is not the development of ideas, but the acknowledgment of realities.” (6)

***

Along with the three portraits of Peterle, the following words (translated) were sent:

“As pretty as the moon, and we will all see each other again very soon, in freedom, in health, when all this is behind us. Love, your grandchild, until 120 (years).”

If only. If only Peterle had lived to be 120, a phrase evoking Moses and his good lifespan. If only the world had not known such cruelty and violence. If only the Huppert family album continued. The viewer is left to ponder not just the culture lost, and the lives lost, but the future lost.

And yet. The display calls us beyond loss, to remember something else too, to not let evil and death have, in the exhibit’s words, “the final punctuation.” It asks us to end the sentence with life.

***

The author wishes to acknowledge and thank the Holocaust Memorial Center of Farmington Hills, Michigan and especially the staff of the research library for their work and contributions to this piece.

 

 

Other sources:

(1) “Nazi Camps”, an article from the Holocaust Encyclopedia, available online at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005144, accessed January 16, 2013, 10:13 a.m.

(2) “Auschwitz”, an article from the Holocaust Encyclopedia, available online at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005189, accessed January 16, 2013, 10:38 a.m.

(3) Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence by Janina Struk, reprinted in 2005, published in 2004 by I.B. Tarius & Co. LTD, 6 Salem Road, London W2 4BU, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY  10010; in association with the European Jewish Publication Society, PO Box 19948, London N3 3ZJ; copyright Janina Struk, 1984

(4) Press release dated September 19, 2007, available online at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, from http://www.ushmm.org/museum/press/archives/detail.php?category=02-collections&content=2007-09-19, accessed January 18, 2013, 3:50 p.m.  Note: The USHMM also offers “Auschwitz through the lens of the SS: Photos of Nazi leadership at the camp.” It includes links to pictures from album mentioned, online at http://www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/online/ssalbum/

(5) The Auschwitz Album: Lili Jacob’s Album, edited by Serge Klarsfeld, The Beate Klarsfeld Foundation, 515 Madison Avenue, New York, NY  10022. Note: The original album is housed at Yad Vashem in Israel, which shares some of the contents online at http://www1.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/album_auschwitz/index.asp

(6) The Last Album: Eyes from the Ashes of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Updated and Expanded, by Ann Weiss. Introduction by James E. Young, Foreword by Leon Wieseltier, Epigraph by Elie Wiesel. 2005-5765 The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia. Copyright 2001 by Ann Weiss, all rights reserved. Second edition, 2005.

Arts Education and Technology Rock Our World

Yearly benchmarks and assessments saturate the current educational climate. We set expectations; we test; we measure. The results determine what we—students, educators, administrators, government overseers and parents—declare good, or not good, in education. Through this, the community conditions itself to view annual test scores as the indicator of a school’s failure or success.

There are gains to be made from this sort of thinking. Children need to be educated, and they can and should be tested. But if the immediately measurable becomes the sole marker of a quality education, what might we lose?

Since September, one of my kids has been a part of Rock Our World 17, a project connecting students around the world through technology and the arts. Carol Anne McGuire, a teacher and specialist in integrating technology, founded the project in 2004. Classrooms apply to be part of the project. If accepted, they spend several weeks working collaboratively.

The primary collaboration uses Apple’s GarageBand. Each class creates a 30-second drum beat track. They send that drum beat to another participating classroom, and receive someone else’s drum beat. They listen to the new track and add another instrument to it. The tracks get passed along 8-12 times, and at every stop, one more instrument is added. When the track returns to its originators, it may contain the work of students from places as varied as Australia, Belgium, Germany, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Poland and Tasmania, as well as many schools across the United States.

In addition to producing the musical component, participants in ROW 17 also take photographs on the theme “Smiles in 100Languages.” Students plan and create pictures that make people smile, show people being made to smile, or both.

ROWers also video chat with other participating U.S. and international schools, asking questions and teaching each other—sometimes about language and culture, other times about technology tools and how they are used. Our local kids talked to students in Canada and Hawaii.

Our area project leader, music teacher Michael Medvinsky, sees value. In an interview, he described the GarageBand collaboration process for me, how our local students brainstormed ways to contribute to each track. They voted to determine what idea to pursue each time, and then trusted their classmates who play or sing to execute their ideas. ROW, Medvinsky said, helps students learn that we all aspire to expression—self-expression. The students see this in both their classroom experience, as well as in the work of other classes.

Medvinsky also pointed to all the technology the kids learn to use: FaceTime, Dropbox, GarageBand, working with MIDI and Skype. He believes that the greatest value is that kids see themselves as a part of a global community. Through the lens of music, ROW broadens the students’ perspectives and helps them understand how they fit into a whole world of their peers.

All this sounds wonderful, but that is a problem. “Wonderful” is not an educational benchmark. It is not measurable. Given the climate in education, something being wonderful may arouse suspicion. Is it fluff? What’s the point of this? Can you measure creative output, collaboration, flexibility, and asking questions?

I can’t think of a way, and yet I agree with Medvinsky. I know this project has value. I know it because I watch my son’s understanding shift. He sees himself and his classmates differently. He learns, through this time of working with others to make art, that they each have something unique to offer. He sees the world differently. States and countries once thought of as spots on a map are now populated with creative, fun people with whom he can exchange a smile or a song—people curious about the world, people like him.

He sees technology differently. It’s not just a source of entertainment, but a tool for real work and education and creative expression.

And he sees learning differently. My son’s class video-chatted with a local professional photographer to learn about photography. The photographer, Jeffrey Bennett, let the students direct the conversation. This shift in responsibility caused my son to pay more attention to and celebrate good questions. According to Bennett, some of the questions amazed him, and his answers amazed the students, creating a sense of community and delight.

ROW takes the long view, meaning the full rewards of this project will not come until much later. It reinforces artists and the arts as being a valuable part of, as well as a source of, community. It reveals that technology is more than YouTube and video games, it shows kids that technology is a tool and is useful for working, collaborating, creating.

From this foundation, I imagine the possibilities for my son. Being exposed to technology at a young age will change the way he thinks and solves problems. Knowing the capacity of current technology may stir him to dream of future technology, and ways to use that technology. These are building blocks toward our future.

ROW also puts him in a different educational environment—one that values individual contributions to a community. It honors people, processes, playing, and product. It allows kids, and everyone else involved, to experience and be filled with wonder, to marvel at the world, to practice asking questions and to gather information from people in an immediate way. It’s cheaper than travel yet yields some of the benefits of travel: a change in venue.

I hope this sort of learning shakes us loose from our benchmark-only conditioning. Students and schools are more than bar graphs. While some learning can take place now, and should be measured now, I want to see schools with an eye on the future, creating an ecology that lifts our vision, helping us see ourselves rightly: as creators, thinkers, collaborators, individuals who are a part of something bigger, people wise enough to call the immeasurable good.

Real Life in Mumbai: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

If I want to make an argument, a cogent argument, what do I need? A position. Data. Facts and figures. Hard evidence, to speak to the head. Soft evidence, to affect the heart. I will assemble these things and build a fortress around my position. I will state my case. I will strive to convince and persuade, eliminating that which does not support my point, polishing that which does.

This type of rhetoric floods our contemporary communications. Some go further still, expressing their political and religious positions in the new media of visual memes, a shorthand able to stir praise from those who agree, derision from those who do not.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo
Random House, 2012, 288 pgs
Purchase at Amazon

How refreshing, then, to come in contact with a living story, not an deadening argument, one that illuminates the complexity of an issue. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo could be said to be about economic inequality, but that would be an unfair reduction. She chooses not the path of rhetoric, but rather the path of story, and the result is more than a book about social justice. It forces the reader into a discomfort that only comes as we walk in other people’s lives, imagining their cooking fires, smelling the sewage, sorting trash.

The title comes from the barrier between the seen and unseen parts of Mumbai. A wall divides them. One side of the wall faces Annawadi, a slum near the airport. The other side faces the overcity, and is covered in an advertisement selling flooring. The ad papers the wall, repeatedly using the phrase “beautiful forever.”

The book satisfies the nonfiction reader’s needs for facts: the origins of the people in Annawadi, the history of the place, the lives of the current dwellers, the struggles they face, how they intersect with the surrounding city and the authorities. She does this through the work of a reporter, but with the voice of a storyteller, delivering three years of journalistic exploration scene by scene and life by life, telling of three families who live behind the wall, with plots and subplots and a style that echos a novel.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers submerges its reader in Annawadi. The setting and statistics become the ecology, a context of which the people, and by extension the reader, are a part. When the book is finished, reality has been enhanced, challenged, changed. The reader has worn someone else’s skin, and it’s uncomfortable.

Discomfort starts as we move beyond statistics. Numbers give us a sense of scope but also provide us with distance and excuses. Three thousand residents and only six people with jobs sounds like a big problem, bigger than I. It would be easy to breeze past that sort of statistic in a straight news piece. On the other hand, Abdul and his efforts give me as a reader a way to empathize. He is one of the many who is not traditionally employed, yet finds ways to care for his family. This takes him off of a graph and puts him in my mind—a person kind of like me.

Discomfort continues as “the poor” are named and have successes and failures, both economic and moral. The aforementioned Abdul, along with Asha and Kalu and Zehrunisia and Fatima and others, are not representative of the poor or symbols of economic disparity. If they were, they might be easier to dismiss. Instead, their specific desires and heartaches allow us to consider that both systemic and individual ways can be corrupted. With full story, rather than glossy anecdote, the reader can no longer see the residents of Annawadi as merely oppressed or merely foolish. This opens a door that a chart cannot, an invitation to see ourselves, our systems, our motives for what they are.

A quick survey of responses to this book suggests that most reviewers were moved. It’s difficult to find naysayers, but their words are intriguing. One feels the book is good but not great, as it does not explore larger forces in play, the stories of the overcity. Is the author’s work lessened because she chooses to tell the story of a few people in Annawadi and not the story of those in charge? A second reviewer expresses concern that the narrative style might diminish the plight of the slumdwellers. Does an absence of forcefully expressed hard facts, combined with a compelling tale, lighten the weight of suffering for the reader?

Boo allows the people to stand with limited quantification, their morals unpolished; she shapes the story without fortifying the possible rhetoric. This is the final discomfort. When a story reveals systemic injustice and also broken people, will we act anyway, or do we champion justice only on behalf of innocents? Can we find the humility and mercy to enact justice even though we are broken people in a broken world?

From The Outside In

I grew up in a 968 square foot house. I would not call it designed. It seemed haphazard, a shelter, with newsprint for insulation. Rumors swirled: did the prior owner share the house with a pony?  We couldn’t imagine it; where would a pony fit? With five people in three bedrooms, even a mouse would have to fight for space.

The lack of space might have crushed some women, but that house served as an inspiration of sorts for my mother. She measured the rooms and bought graph paper, making a scale drawing of the floor plan. She kept it in an envelope along with scale cutouts of our furniture. She laid it out often, dreaming of ways to expand or improve.

I take after my mother. My house is a little bigger, and I don’t bother with graph paper, but I want to better our space. This year in particular I’ve been thinking about ways to alter our environment, but I’m torn. So many ways to approach a house, so many ways to handle your money. How do I determine the best ways to use and/or change the house we have?

I dwell sometimes on efficiency. We need the space to work, to contribute to our purpose. I think about shelves and storage and baskets and a bigger kitchen. Other times I yearn for for something less utilitarian. How can I bring a sense of beauty into our lives?

Our culture chases me with ways I might spend time and money on my home. I don’t always like what I see. Magazines bait me to buy more and more things. Somehow, this ever-expanding list of essentials is supposed to make life more simple. Television shows exalt glossy customized rooms–beyond customized. Does everything have to enshrine us?

I want to create a space were we, family and friends, thrive. How to do that without falling into desperate consumerism and self-indulgence mystifies me, in some ways, but this summer I’ve realized that I manage one space that works.

***

Photo by Flickr user Pandorea

What manner of loveliness is this? There is so little in my life that feels this fine. This is why I tolerate rutted dirt roads, possums scratching on my screen door, getting tangled in spiderwebs as I walk to my car. This is why I accept  getting stuck in the snow, why I live miles from the city, miles and miles from everything good a city offers.

This beloved space in my home isn’t inside my home, and I’ve done little to it. It’s my back deck. A flight of stairs up from the driveway, the back deck juts out into a hill, a low platform thrust into trees and sky. To the right, surrounded by hostas and day lilies, we placed the tiniest of water features; the frogs move in and call it their summer home. Craggy rock walls mark flower beds carved into the hill, filled with periwinkle, rhododendron, violets, lily of the valley. A verdant arch of grass and moss begins at the far end of the deck and follow the hill’s incline, surrounding the flowers beneath. Boughs and bushes and vines hover above, the crown, woods pouring from woods, our quiet cove.

A breeze blows and the leaves are louder than the sounds of children calling to one another out front, louder than the voices inside our home. I watch the wide sassafras, the shaggy oak, the fringe of wild cherry. I imagine if I stayed outside long enough, I wouldn’t even need to see them move. I would know the leaves by their sounds.

And I try to stay outside all day. A cup of coffee in the silence of the morning, waiting for the birds and squirrels to wake up. An afternoon read, stress peeling off my shoulders. Some evenings with friends, with easy food and easy drinks and the best sorts of conversations, the kind that are as warm and bright as the small fire we sit around. Other evenings spent staring at the night sky, the fireflies looking like stars wandering.

I could live like this year round if the weather co-operated, tucked into the edge of the woods with a chair, a good book, times of silence and times of socializing, celebrating what we have and what is offered. To let that spirit spread and grow throughout our interior spaces … when I think of thriving, I wish to create nothing else.

Apple Orchard’s and Hemingway’s Cottage

The true artist works alone, many say, and who am I to argue? Famous men from President Kennedy to Steve Wozniak spoke of this, as did Ernest Hemingway when he accepted the Nobel Prize:

“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.”

Creation, in this image of the artist, becomes a a guarded space, a time when no one is allowed inside. Sometimes the artist struggles, but it is internal, a personal storm. Keeping others out is a way to allow the work to grow its own way, unaffected by others, shielded from the harsh weather of the critic. He is strong already, the critic within; what artist would open the gates and offer him reinforcements?

An apple blossom. Photo by flickr user andrew dowsett.

I discipline myself as a writer to rarely grant access to my work in its early, formative stages. I want to know what I want to say before you tell me what you think of it. I keep the door to my ideas shut, the way Windemere, Hemingway’s cottage in northern lower Michigan, is generally closed to the public. An heir lives there, and preserves it from the crowds.

I learned of Hemingway’s cottage while at the Bear River Writer’s Conference (BRWC). The cottage and the conference share Walloon Lake, but that might be all they have in common.

I appreciate Hemingway’s perspective. BRWC offers a different one. I find room for both. While I wouldn’t endorse the early exposure of a creative work as a new best practice, there are some benefits to cross-pollination.

***

Growing up, my room faced west. Its only natural light came from a window, maybe 18 inches wide and three feet high.  We had obscured the view with bunk beds. The wooden slats rubbed against the sill, but I found a way to curve up and through the frame, pressing my face into the screen, breathing in all that was outside. The glow of a near night sky might draw me, but certainly a warm spring day would find me there. That second story window offered the best view of the apple blossoms.

I have no idea how old our small orchard was. The house was built in the thirties, and I imagine the trees were planted then. This would’ve made the trees 40 years old. Most of them, anyway.

There was one little tree, tucked underneath the MacIntosh or Red Delicious. It was probably a volunteer, sprouted from a dropped seed. It grew, and one year, it not only flowered, but the fruit set.

As its apples formed and turned, they looked nothing like the others in the orchard. The ripe fruit was almost pink.

Where that tree came from, and how it grew such unusual fruit, was a mystery to me for quite a while.

What I learned later is that many apple trees require another type of apple tree, in bloom at the same time, in order to produce. These trees are called self-unfruitful. The fruit of some types of trees only set when the blossoms are cross-pollinated. The seeds produced from this process are therefore made of more than one type of apple, and there’s no guarantee what sort of fruit you’re going to get.

It’s funny. Even the few apple varieties that are self-fruitful benefit from cross-pollination. It increases their yield.

***

When artists get to it, when they go to work, how do they go from the flowering of an idea to a fruitful project? What if you let someone into it early? What might become of your vision? I imagine it could be like a frost. Some people take questions hard, some people give answers harder. The bloom might fall, and the joy of this creation will never get past the early stage of idea.

I realize my process and preconceptions will be tested on the very first day at BRWC. We are here to generate new material; we need to do it in less than 24 hours; I have not pondered my ideas prior to my arrival.

At one time in my writing life, I would have been able to produce something brief, coherent, and safe, but not now. I have taken to the Anne Lamott method of a true first draft. She discusses it as a slightly different discharge, but I view it as catastrophic hurl, where I force myself to just vomit words on the page, knowing I can clean it up later. To have strangers examine my puke, this is not anything I want, but I’m here to take some risks, be generative, write something new.

The beginnings of a piece hit the page. I let the process stand. I run it through the printer and bring it the next day. The other workshop participants share their experiences that connect, and it is nothing like frost. They ask good questions and give genuine insight. Our leader highlights two sentences and calls them out as my voice. I am prodded to write more like that. The fruit sets, and my second draft is incomplete, but transformed.

As I work and take in the setting and the people, other ideas form too, lists of them, mounds of them. Interacting with poets and fiction writers over meals, hearing authors read their work, walking from building to building in days of rain and moments of sun, I see more possibilities, more stories to tell and ideas to explore.

Later I wonder what would have become of the workshop piece had I continued alone. Would it have revealed a different voice, a different form? Perhaps, but now it will bear an image shaped by the group and her leader, the lake and the weather, and in the shadow of Windemere, I will enjoy it for what it is.

Obligation, Like Mercy

Some author quoted or misquoted on the internet claimed that no true writer needs to be told to write. This makes me feel like crap.

I would like to say that I have been very busy, that my kids keep me running, that my other work overwhelms me, but there are no excuses. I have not put the words to the page, I have not written. It is not writer’s block, it is a drought, a writer’s desert, and I found myself on the fringe of it. Then I sat at the keyboard and noted that I am sick of myself and sick of this age, and with that I wandered from the fringe of the desert to its center, my body becoming like sand.

***

I’ve thought often of Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer:”

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;

When I, sitting, heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;

Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

I want to sit in front of my window. I want to watch the light shift across my yard until the horizon fills with color, silhouetting the trees. I want to wonder at the moon and not google anything about it at all.

***

I treated the coming winter like I was ocean-bound. Obligations, in these times, feel like stones in the hems of my clothing. I gather so many, and then someone else comes along and needs something. I think, I can’t. I’ll sink. I want to run, or rip out the hems, for fear of drowning.

That’s why I asked someone else to manage the details of my writer’s group. It was a preemptive move; I planned to be absent; I was sharing the weight before the waves broke.

So how was it that I found myself standing before them, unshowered? I confessed. I told them the truth: I need drops of mercy in the form of assignments, assignments in the form of emails, creating an obligation.

What is it about obligation, that it can have the power to both oppress and free us? Maybe it isn’t obligation, maybe that’s not the right word. All I know is that I’m not in the ocean. I’m in the desert, and I need to find water.

I know how I found myself at that meeting. A desert wanderer knows that an area with life can give life.

***

I am blessed with friends. If you met them, you would marvel. One loves football and loves to make her house a beautiful place. When the call comes to hang out with her and learn how to make pretty things, I say yes. I’ve never dreamed of doing this, but in this dry place I have to say yes, I have to embarrass myself. It is time to take that dreaded first step and try something new, be the fool.

The pretty things will be edible. Cakes. We will take classes and decorate cakes. It comes easily to her, mostly, but I stumble along in a cloud of powdered sugar.

She may feel bad for me, but I don’t. I’m happy to do something hard. It’s satisfying to make food, yet food is temporary. A cake will not be my legacy.

It’s good to remember what it’s like to be a learner. I worry about the narrowness of our current culture, the way the internet tries to present me with more, more, more of what I seem to be interested in knowing. It absorbs the bit of me it knows and calculates, offering me days of shoes and sports scores and theatre ads. I will become a micro-market instead of a person, eyes trained by algorithms and SEO, unable to see past what I know.

Our class makes flowers. Roses, lilies, violets, apple blossoms, daffodils, carnations, poppies, daisies formed of buttercream, royal icing, fondant, gum paste. I’m not always pleased with my work. The teacher says no flower is perfect, not in the way you’re thinking.

***

The assignments come. How did I meet my husband? Have I ever written a haibun? Try it. What do I think about this video game theme song? Write a setting that suits the song “Hurt” as performed by Johnny Cash.

From dry ground, shoots of green. Words.

***

It is better to be in a house of mourning than a house of mirth, the Teacher says in Ecclesiastes. I attend a funeral honoring a man I’ve never met. It is Saturday, the day before Easter.

He lived to be 93 years old, the grandfather of another dear friend. This friend has relationships with her parents and grandparents and sister and extended family that spill over onto all of us. She invests. Because of her, because through her I have learned what love of family and friends looks like, I go to the service.

They tell stories of his good humor and his quiet faith. I learn he was in the Navy during World War II. Underneath the surface of his card playing and travel and love for his family, underneath this ordinary life, he had been a part of bigger things.

We stand and watch the men from the VFW hall fire into the afternoon air. Someone plays Taps. A flag is lifted from the casket, folded, and presented. It gets me every time.

Obligation, I realize, is the wrong word. Relationships don’t have to be like that, work doesn’t have to be like that, as if they’re burdens. Being part of the whole, contributing, sacrificing, grasping hope of a future full of people and promise, these are the things I’ve forgotten.

***

I have two assignments yet to fulfill. One will be about my daughter and an imagined holiday. For the other, I will send this, this story written from an oasis in the desert, the air moist and starlit, the sand quickened. He asked me to write about endings.

 

A Record of Wearing and Worn

Side A – Wearing

1

A tiny, uneven house once sheltered a denim jacket. A girl discovered it wadded up in a garbage bag filled with other hand-me-downs. She rolled back the cuffs and ripped off the patches and wore it, wore it until the long seam across the back only held at the corners, leaving a valley of open space, a frayed tear in the sky.

Her father found it shabby. She looked like a hobo. She had a job, why would she wear something mangled? At night, she would throw it across the hamper or dump it on the floor.

“Put that thing away or I’ll throw it out,” he’d yell.

She loved it all the more.

2

The word is “worn.” As in well-worn, as in worn out, as in weary. Wear on, wear thin, wear off.

A thing can be worn in many ways. It may be that a thing is put on, a show, an adornment, a cover. A lady may wear her clothing or adversity well. Hearts may be worn on sleeves, worn out with tears or trying.

3

The Detroit Institute of Arts displays a bronze casting called “The Donkey.” They call him Artie. From the time of his arrival to this moment, he holds a unique position in the collection. You can touch him. Every finger leaving a bit of itself, every finger taking with it a sliver of luster, for eighty-odd years.

Artie continues his unrestored existence as a reminder to patrons: touching the art will change it forever.

4

Tourists can no longer climb Chichen Itza, one of the most famous Mayan structures. The steps crumble from flocking feet.

What does this say about me? I was there before the ban, and I do not regret being one of the wearers.

5

Three cassette tapes I wore out with love:

Boston, Mass. by The Del Fuegos

Here Comes the Groom by John Wesley Harding

Look Sharp! by Joe Jackson

That was always a sad day, pulling a destroyed tape out of the player, streamers of audio ribbon hanging from the slot, the plastic shell hanging over the gearshift. Back then, I would rarely replace a tape with an identical tape. In fact, for the longest time I wouldn’t even consider buying it again, those songs were so burned into my memory.

 

Side B – Worn

6

Are we changed by what we consume, by what we see, by what we hear, marked forever by structures and sculptures and cassettes?

The music that I still hear in my head, from tapes I wore out as a teenager and haven’t heard since, do they wind through my mind, one long magnetic strand ready to begin again?

7

Days go by. The spools of memory whir. Days come and go and I wind and rewind. I choose to hear it again. I check myself. I buy digital versions and they echo, out from my laptop into the interior of a ’74 Cutlass Salon. I feel myself driving fast. I am singing Don’t Run Wild, I am singing Here Comes the Groom, I am singing One More Time.

8

Some music is tied so deeply to a moment that the two fuse. When we hear one of those songs again, we discover our own fingerprints loom loudest in our memory. The notes weave through our every arch, loop, and whorl, eventually reaching our ears, yes, but never to be new again. It’s art we owned for a time, art we couldn’t help but touch, a voice that spoke in shorthand, a surrogate, but temporary.

Other things stand, continuing to move us as we age, resisting our attempts to entangle them.

9

The denim jacket disintegrated. The lead singer of The Del Fuegos sings children’s music. John Wesley Harding writes novels. I sold my Cutlass. The house no longer stands.

I dance to Joe Jackson and think of Artie the Donkey, his unrestored state, his threadbare body, his whimsy-worn.

 

Thanks to Dr. Alan Darr, Senior Curator of the Department of European Paintings, Sculpture and Decorative Arts and the Walter B. Ford II Curator of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at The Detroit Institute of Arts for his assistance.

photo by:

February Done Right

I will go to great lengths to ward off the February blahs. In years past, I have decorated my home with tropical flourishes, distracted myself with games and group trips, tried to embrace winter with snowmobiling and “Doctor Zhivago” weekends. I have done all I can think to do, and February still comes… and stays.

My pain is prolonged this year, as it is a Leap Election Year. This is when we make up for time unaccounted for in the solar calendar, and make it seem longer still by adding the torturous political primary season. It’s an extra day to campaign; I know the politicians will never give that up. They are too busy twisting truth. But perhaps we don’t need the politicians to help us Keep February Short (™).

Photo by Lindsay Crandall

That’s right. I’m doing it. My New Year’s resolution: instigate calendar reform. Before you poo-poo this idea, remember that people have adjusted time throughout time. The Gregorian calendar lopped off 13 days when it was signed into effect in, of all months, February. My proposal is not nearly so dramatic, although I know any change is difficult. According to L.E. Doggett, reprinted on this website, “In most societies a calendar reform is an extraordinary event. Adoption of a calendar depends on the forcefulness with which it is introduced and on the willingness of society to accept it.”

The church is more fractured today than it was in 1582, so I’m not looking for another papal bull. I’m not going to any United States government entity either — remember, it is an election year. No initiative of real social value will get done.

I could take it to social media with a Facebook page or a Twitter campaign. The idea would gain likes and re-tweets galore, but what does that accomplish? I need to take this to the top.

Who is forceful enough to make this happen, with followers who are willing to accept change — yea, demand it? Who could do the “extraordinary”, do in a moment what Pope Gregory’s decree did in centuries? Who needs new frontiers to cross, with new leadership and something to prove? That’s right, Apple, I’m looking at you. Help me better the world — you’re so good at it.

Please move the intercalated Leap Year Day to June 31st.

Note how humble a request this is. I am not proposing a wholesale dismantling of the Inter gravissimas. I’m not calling for the annihilation of dreaded February, although I could make a case for its destruction. I am a moderate. I understand that there is a subculture who enjoy the grey days of winter. Some ski, I suppose, or hole up and listen to Morrissey. They revel in the cold and bleak. Despite our differences, I accept both the goggle-wearing and the pasty-faced. This proposal honors them in all their winter glory.

Some may say that our Founding Fathers would be opposed to such a shift. I say, prove it. Show me a declaration of our official calendar in the Constitution. It’s not there. This omission suggests to me that they were open to other calendar ideas, willing to allow future generations the freedom to one day modify time to suit our own needs. The time, I believe, has come.

Think of it. An extra day of summer. Let it roll off your tongue. June 31st. It sounds natural, doesn’t it?

The benefits are obvious.

Benefit One: It keeps the tyranny of February to a minimum.

Benefit Two: More available days in June=more June brides. Brides spend money. The economy improves.

Benefit Three: More summer tourists in my home state of Michigan. Everyone’s rooting for us. This is a perfect way to show support.

Benefit Four: Reduced carbon footprint & energy consumption. One less day of February means one less day of cold weather. Less cold weather means less energy used to heat buildings.

I see the complaints coming. Someone will cry, “It messes with our timepieces, the ones with the little month and date tickers.” To this, I point out that you must be arguing hypothetically, as no one actually uses those watches anymore except rich fat-cats. I say, let them enjoy their timeless monocles and spats. It’s time to help the 99%.

Some will say, what of those born on February 29th? You can’t just skip their birthdays, can you? To this I say, no we cannot. All February 29th birthdays shall be moved to June 31st. And what of those few who prefer a winter celebration? They can easily change their birthday through iBorn, available for $2.99 at the App Store (for month and date birth changes only; year changes is still in beta).

Some may say that changing the day doesn’t change the weather. But the math doesn’t lie. The average temperature in February in New York City, for example, is 33.5° F. The average temperature for that same region in June? 72° F. That’s a difference of 38.5, and that is going to add up over the next 500 years, when another calendar adjustment will be due. Some so-called experts will refute this, and to them I say I have skimmed both the aforementioned article as well as Wikipedia. Let Apple decide who is right.

Some may insinuate a corporate influence is behind this proposed change. Let me assure you that I am not in the pocket of Big Gelato. Others may intimate that Apple is the wrong company to handle this, given their calendar problems in the past. I say, thanks for bringing that up. Let’s look at the past. Apple is profitable; their society is loyal; their past mistakes and subsequent triumphs uniquely position them to conquer time.

Despite these answers, I know voices of dissent will linger, claiming we should gather a committee, think this through, listen to other voices. Maybe we should consider extending September, April, or November instead of June. To all this democratic talk, I say, sure, that ’s one way to do it. An old-fashioned way, a slow way. But what about the older-old-fashioned way? I called it first, people.

So what do you say, Apple? June 31st. All you have to do is program it into our iPhones. Make it so.

 

Author’s voluntary disclosure: Contributions to this article also made by Jennifer Beltramo and Ty Beltramo. Reports of their ties to Apple, and Big Gelato, have been grossly exaggerated.

 

Transformation on Toast

If I could put you inside a time machine and send you to 9 a.m., Christmas, in my girlhood home, most of what you’d find would be unsurprising. My brother and sister and I would be lying on the living room floor, surrounded by wrapping paper and candy foil. Somewhere in another part of the house, you would hear pans rattle. You would take a breath and smell bacon frying and realize that my parents were making breakfast.

You might follow me as I slide into my slippers and wander into the kitchen. You’d hear mom instruct me to fetch something from the pantry or the back porch, and this is where things would get strange. Pressed against the doorway, you’d watch me pop the lid off of a narrow-mouthed canning jar and impel the contents into a saucepan. You’d see me add a hill of sugar,  a pat or two of butter, a shake of salt and pepper. You’d see my dad edge the frying pan toward the front so I could tuck my saucepan onto the back burner. You’d watch me try to stay clear of the bacon spatter while I use the spoon like a knife, then like a press, adding flecks of red to the grease on the stove.

My family doesn’t have many Christmas ‘always’: we don’t always have turkey; sometimes we have ham. We don’t always have homemade pumpkin pie or cranberry relish. But I do not remember a Christmas breakfast without tomatoes on toast. It was so regular, so consistently a part of our Christmas morning that I believed it to be a long-standing and worldwide tradition.

As a preteen, the discovery that we were the sole progenies of this dish fit nicely with my newly forming attitude. Mine was a family of freaks and weirdos.

The origins of the meal were unquestioned. Grandma raised eight children, seven during the Great Depression, in a marriage that is most generously described as dysfunctional. Dysfunction, my dad says, is the ethnic and cultural heritage of the dish. Grandma served many meals borne of desperate circumstance, and tomatoes on toast was a common one.

How it came to be revered on Christmas morning may also be the stuff of dysfunction. Somehow, the family culture police got involved. Years of being asked, “Did you have tomatoes on toast for Christmas breakfast?”, accompanied by expectant looks, may have created a sense that we had to do it, just to avoid being the breakfast black sheep. By 1990, it was documented in the family cookbook as the Manser Christmas morning dish. The submission bore the name of my grandmother, who had been dead for 20 years.

If my 12-year-old self had known this, imagine the sarcasm she might have produced. Such an act of artifice, to take a slapped- together necessity food and enshrine it as a special occasion recipe. The zealous and pure outrage of that time has passed, as my twenties and beyond have revealed me to be as error-prone as any of my ancestors. With that, I recognize the tradition as a story about transformation.

In cooking, raw ingredients are changed by seasoning, by brining, by marinating, by applying heat. Grandma was, I’ve heard, good at this process. She could take the little and make it enough, better than enough. Everyone agrees, she was a marvelous cook.

Like his mother, my dad is a good cook. Like his parents, he struggled to have healthy relationships. He wasn’t kidding when he used the word dysfunction to describe his background, and dysfunction is a terrible gift: it continues to give into the next generation, and the next. Dad recognized this, and rather than continue passing that along, he strived to be different. He was good at that process; he continues to be good at that process, and in pursuing change, he gave his kids something better.

A dish served in one tiny kitchen in New Baltimore, Michigan as a way to survive can become special and beautiful. A rough start can be smoothed. As we gather together, the flawed and beloved, we can find ways to honor the good and transform the bad– transform the past into something both savory and sweet. Our lives are affected by hardship. Our lives are affected by dysfunction. But we are not the hardship, and dysfunction can be undone, turned around, made right. We remember, we honor, but we are not doomed by our past. This is something to celebrate at Christmas.

Christmas Morning Tomatoes on Toast

Reprinted from the Manser Family Reunion Cookbook, 1990

1 qt. tomatoes

2 Tbsp. sugar

2 Tbsp. butter

12 slices toast

Heat tomatoes, sugar, and butter; simmer 5 minutes. Place bread on oven rack. Turn on broiler. Toast one side. Flip and toast other side. Or use a regular toaster. Spoon tomatoes on toast.

-Martha

For Victoria Crawford

I am, at weak times, a creature seeking comfort, trolling the internet at all hours of the night, grasping facts and calling them truth, searching for someone who will tell it straight, hold me responsible, distribute blame. This November marks the ten-year anniversary of one such night for me, one of the nights of searching, submersing myself in every link, crying at the information, overwhelmed by what it contained.

That is true, but it’s not worth celebrating. I celebrate the anniversary of what happened before and after that, how my life and the flooded information stream were altered by new life and poetry, by God and Victoria Crawford, the true stranger to whom this is dedicated.

***

After an early Halloween party, my almost 10-year-old, dressed like a soccer player, said, “I thought I was going to make it. I thought I was going to make it a whole night without explaining my face.”

But you didn’t, I guessed.

The last minute, he said. Right at the last minute, a bunch of them, they asked me, all at once.

He handles it as we’ve always handled it. It’s a birthmark, he said. He said it to his peers, the children at the party. They moved on. For most children, giving it a name is enough.

***

His 3rd Halloween, he wanted to be Dora the Explorer’s cousin Diego. We outfitted him with safari clothes and a backpack. He wasn’t satisfied. He needed a mask, he said, or some way of covering his face. “Diego doesn’t have a birthmark,” he said, and who can argue with that. I bought a tube of green concealer and some foundation, and it was gone.

It made me a little nervous, to do this for him. Looking back on it, I don’t know why I felt that way. With or without the concealer, he was a beautiful preschooler.

***

Trick or Treating 2011 should find him dressed as the Phantom of the Opera. He saw a high school production of it last year, and a teenager he admires played the Phantom. He loved the music and the mystery.

Plus, he explained when he decided on this costume above all others, plus, it’ll be the first time where the birthmark will be an asset. It cuts across his face just like the Phantom’s mask.

***

On a nondescript morning in November 2001, my husband drove me to the hospital for the birth of our second child. Everything went well, until I saw him for the first time. From a distance, something looked wrong. He seemed more red than our first child. When they brought him to me, I realized that this redness only covered abut half of his face.

Misdiagnosed in the delivery room as a hemangioma, thought to be Sturge-Weber syndrome (SWS), it was explained to us that our son had a port wine stain (PWS) birthmark. We were encouraged, if I remember right, to give ourselves a little time, and then we could begin to explore his needs and treatment options.

Waiting to understand something has never been my strong suit. I like to know, I like to understand, and I like to be able to answer questions. And I had some big ones. I wanted to know what to expect. I wanted to know what to do. I wanted, or maybe didn’t want, to know why—what had I done to cause this.

This last one was on the minds of everyone who met our baby. Perhaps it was genetic, they said. A cousin had a birthmark. Other people waited when they asked, waited for some sort of confession, some sort of story, an explanation. All I had were the words handed to me by the doctor: in utero injury. What had my uterus done, exactly, to cause this?

So on one of those late November nights, after the toddler went to bed and the infant fell asleep, I decided to get to the bottom of it. Now was the time to understand everything about SWS and PWS, the past mistakes and realistic future.

I don’t know how many hours I searched and read. It was so hard to believe that no one had anything to say about real causes. No one knew. I realized that this would never satisfy anyone. It is little comfort, I thought, to stare at a baby who is different and say, no one knows. This means there is no planning, no prevention, no assurances, no guarantee and no blame. The past and the pregnancy would give me no clues. The PWS just is. It just has a name.

The voices of medicine and experience painted a picture of the future. Ongoing CAT scans, laser treatments, the possibilities of seizures and glaucoma and mental retardation, the social stigma: who wishes these things for a child?

Knowledge is not power, not always. I was drowning in it, awash in it, eroding from it, when I found this. Posted on birthmarks.com by Victoria Crawford, written in 1877 by Gerard Manley Hopkins, it’s a poem titled: “Pied Beauty”:

GLORY be to God for dappled things—

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;

And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

 

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

 

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

 

Thanks be to God for those who echo the interests of the Creator: artists and poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins; reflectors of beauty, honesty, mystery, and joy like my son; and people that pull us out of the careening waters of information onto the dry land, people who care for the truth beyond facts, people like Victoria Crawford. You are named, and yet unknown, and today (who knows how?), that is good enough for me.

How and Why We Stay Lions Fans

A passerby at a soccer tournament stopped, turned around, and came toward me.

“Well,” he said, “Did you drink the Kool-Aid?”

I imagine this sounds cryptic, but it wasn’t. Here are two clarifying details:

1) It was August in Michigan.

2) I was wearing a Detroit Lions jersey.

***

We spend our autumn Sundays, each Thanksgiving, and the rare Monday, in the throws. We visit Ford Field; we stare at our televisions. Sixteen times every fall, we participate, identify, and scream — sometimes with joy, usually in pain. We are offsides; we are injured; we shake our heads and curse ourselves for wasting a perfectly good afternoon on this ridiculous team. Occasionally, we win, and we shake our heads just the same. We are being strung along. Stupid Lions.

Winter brings the playoffs, and we watch numbly, from afar. By the second round, we’re adopting a team. The Super Bowl is played. We don’t wonder when it will be our turn. We have no dreams for our future. It’s February, the mercifully shortest month, the worst month. Our hearts and road conditions unite: we are cold, iced over. We are sick of winter and done with football.

The rash among us disassociate and make vows: they will never watch another Lions game until that team proves their worth. These rash might get teased a little, about jumping off the bandwagon, but mostly, everyone nods.

***

Come March, the roads thaw. We joke about the draft, how it’s our Super Bowl, the one benefit of mediocrity. We remind each other of draft years past, the bad decisions, the promising picks made of glass. Someone brings up Randy Moss, whom we passed up in 1998, or All-Big Ten, All-American receiver Charles Rogers, drafted in 2003, out of the league 3 years later.

Draft day comes. Some people host parties. Most everyone keeps an eye on the ticker, even the rash. We collectively try not to buy into anything, but a small voice whispers, “Did you see who we got in the first round?”

***

We catch a little coverage of mini-camp, not on purpose of course, and note who has shown up, who has lost weight, that the rookies seem to be behaving themselves. We speak in clichés and we hedge and nobody minds: the coach runs a tight ship, but so did Bobby Ross. That wideout has great hands, but who’s gonna get him the ball?

The off-season surgeries are deemed successful, and we the fans seem to be on the mend.

Those who heal first begin sentences with the word “maybe.”

***

The summer finds our recovery progressing. We sit in camp chairs, around fires, and forget.

Who was it that kept jumping offsides?

He didn’t drop that many balls.

What was our record last year?

Is it those starlit nights, or is it the sunshine, sand, and chlorine? The month of June generates a lovely wave of amnesia, a selective amnesia that forgets Gus Frerotte and holds fast to Billy Sims and Chris Spielman and Barry Sanders.

***

The players report, and their practices make the news. One story shows a boy running onto the field, holding the helmet of a player, beaming. His dad chokes up. Times have been hard, he says. He’s talking about losses beyond football, we know — money and jobs and housing, but his son and this sport remind him of something good. Joy?

The preseason begins, and we all remember that lowest year, 2008, when we won the preseason and lost every game thereafter. The preseason doesn’t mean anything, we know, but we go to the first game. We cheer and holler and gesture for a coach’s challenge when a call doesn’t go our way. We laugh because we know it doesn’t matter, but we can’t help ourselves. We sing the fight song, a tune somewhere between “Hail to the Victors” and “The Dating Game,” at least six times that night, once for every score.

The second preseason game is on the road. We give up a lot of points in the first half, but come back in the second. The waves of amnesia crest more quickly now; overnight, we forget the first two quarters, remembering only the win.

We drop the term preseason. The third game, nationally televised, versus New England, is a sellout. We’ve got plans to be at a soccer tournament, but we’ll find a way to see a little American football. It is still only August.

***

We leave the park for the night and watch part of the game over dinner. The Lions win. The preseason ends and we are 4-0. We set aside the shame of 2008 and remind ourselves that we also went 4-0 in 1993. We won the division that year, we tell each other with an exclamation point, completing our recovery. The once rash return to the bandwagon.

We joke as far as the Kool-Aid goes, but this isn’t some cultish death march. It is a game after all, one with faults and flaws, but also the great catch, the trick play, the fake punt: unscripted moments made of skill and good fortune. In football, life begins anew in September. We choose to risk the pain and savor the hope.

photo by:

After the Fourth

The days surrounding July 4th normally trumpet the ease of summer, but this year’s music is different. It was Tuesday, the fifth of July, when the horns gave way to the unrelenting beat of the future.

A careful listener would have heard the cues sooner. On Friday, my oldest went away with a buddy and his family. We packed my boy’s things and wrote down all the phone numbers. His dad and I spoke out of both sides of our mouths, reminding him to call if anything made him uncomfortable and assuring him that everything would be fine.

Thump, thump.

Photo by flickr user cyanocorax.

Saturday the wind and rain washed the rhythm away, but it returned on Sunday, pulsing as I came up the stairs and saw Connor in combat boots and camouflage. Once a young boy I taught, now a man preparing for basic training, he stood before our church and led us in the pledge of allegiance to the American flag.

Thump, thump.

Monday, Independence Day, I sat with friends and confessed my hang-ups about fireworks. I ratted myself out. I am not like them, at ease with things that burn hot and explode. I grew up avoiding sparklers; my mom hated them; I think I know why as I watch my own kids running and whooping with abandon, silhouetted by embers and shrouded in smoke. I force myself to breathe, to remember that this day is like every other day: the possibility of death hangs over us all.

The illusion of control, responded one friend, and I remember that now. Thump, thump. The cadence of the future.

These things I press into the background on Independence Day, the unofficial beginning of summer. I prefer to pay attention to the merry bells of fried chicken and fruit salad and conversations about books. I had all of those; I had a grand time, but then came the fifth of July.

The day wasn’t all that unusual. We were on our way from here to there, me and my children. My two youngest sat securely in the back, one still in a car seat. My oldest, safely returned, sat in the front, long legs wiggling for room, head resting on the shoulder strap of his seat belt.

In my car, we still listen to regular commercial radio. We sing along. We were doing just that when “Ohio” started. I sang along; I don’t think my kids knew the words. At the end of it, my oldest adjusted ever so slightly in his seat and said, “That . . . is he singing about war?”

I took my eyes off the road just long enough to recognize that he was shook. I saw him, twelve-years-old, on the cusp of adolescence, fascinated by history, steeped in the All-American weekend, now faced with:

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming

We’re finally on our own

This summer I hear the drumming

Four dead in Ohio

Gotta get down to it

Soldiers are cutting us down

Should’ve been done long ago

What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground

How can you run when you know?

I turned down the radio. I said, “I don’t think I can answer your question without crying.”

I did the best I could, to explain what I remembered from history. I did the best I could to frame it for him, but having to say it out loud, that college kids were shot and killed during a protest, this changed things for both of us.

Shot, I said, more than likely by people the same age as them.

People the same age as Connor, I thought. People only six years older than my boy asking the question.

I drove very quietly the rest of the way, and he said little.

His independence day is coming. He will finally be on his own. He will make decisions: will he be a soldier, a student, both, neither? What causes will he claim, what will he deem worth fighting for?

I might be able to shape that, but the truth is that beyond nature and nurture, the time we live in will play its part in his history, just as it did for all of those students and soldiers on May 4, 1970. The U.S. incursion of Cambodia. College protesters out of hand for the weekend, throwing things. A building on fire. Stressed young soldiers in a tense political climate. A shot heard, but never identified, and then the Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire. At least two of the four students shot at Kent State were reportedly innocent bystanders.

I thought of Connor in his fatigues. I thought of the fireworks from the day before, and my movement away from fear. Quotes from Ecclesiastes swirled in my head, lines about time and chance overtaking us all, lines about the wise preferring the house of mourning over the house of mirth.

I hear the drumming. In my mind, I choose to have faith and not fear. I let him go. I will be fighting this battle the rest of my life, I realize. It is good that he learns these things, that I learn these things, grapple with them, not running, feeling the beat of the bigger picture.

RoboRoach Academy

I may have just met the kid who grows up and cures Alzheimer’s– the person who will one day claim that he or she started their journey in biomedicine thanks to two guys on a mission to democratize neuroscience.

Also, I saw a remote-controlled cockroach. A live cockroach saddled with a circuit backpack, steered via wireless controller. When I heard of it, I was standing in a park watching my son play soccer. A friend of mine came over and mentioned it, cyborg cockroaches in Clarkston, Michigan.

It was as if a spacecraft landed at midfield and the ghost of Jules Verne beckoned. I had to go.

***

I arrived at Clarkston Science, Math, and Technology Academy at about 9 a.m. Soldering irons surrounded eleventh-grade biology students. They spent the morning building biomedical equipment, SpikerBoxes, from kits developed by Backyard Brains.

Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo, both PhDs, founded the company.

Cockroaches are submerged in ice water to anesthetize them.

“This actual project started as a joke,” Marzullo says of the SpikerBox. We pause to listen to the teacher instruct the students to check twice and solder once. Marzullo explains that PhD candidates who work in solid state electronics labs may spend up to 6 years developing sophisticated, patent-able equipment using next generation chips and sensors. He and Gage wondered, if you just want to read neural activity, could someone do what costs a million dollars for less than a hundred?

They presented non-working prototypes at a conference two and a half years ago, and were flooded with responses.

“We had more attention in three hours in presenting these non-working prototypes than I did in six years of experiments in grad school,” says Marzullo. They responded and created a working model from off-the-shelf components.

The SpikerBoxes allow students to hear and see neural activity, called a spike.

Marzullo explains,“The EKG, the lub-dub, is a kind of a cultural phenomenon … [Like the heart], the neurons also fire, also use electricity to communicate as well. But it’s much faster—one millisecond long—and it’s much smaller in amplitude; it’s a much weaker signal. So that spike is kind of like that electrical pulse that travels down a neuron, and the rate of those pulses is one way that the brain encodes information. So when you’re seeing a spike, it’s like the first time you hear a heart beat.”

***

The students finish the SpikerBoxes; the cockroach experience begins. A few Blaberus discoidalis cockroaches will have a limb surgically removed. The legs, the scientists explain, have neurons firing in them, even after they are amputated, and will remain alive for up to two days.

Volunteers take on the roles of anesthesiologist and surgeon. Marzullo guides them through the procedure. The cockroaches are removed from their habitat and submerged in ice water. Using small, curved scissors, the leg is quickly and carefully cut and pinned to a SpikerBox. Students huddle around it, waiting to hear the spikes. It sounds like static. Gage and Marzullo then connect the box to an iPad, and students can see a visual representation of the sounds.

They discuss possible responses of the leg to stimuli, and reveal what will be one of the student’s favorite experiments: How will a cockroach leg respond to the sound vibrations of hip-hop, specifically the song “Love the Way You Lie?”

Visual evidence suggests that the legs preferred the beats of the Eminem verse to the melodic sections featuring Rihanna. The cockroach leg appears to dance.

Later, Marzullo says, “the first time that dancing leg thing worked, I nearly fell off my seat… [it’s] just science fiction far out.”

It’s more than that. Gage and Marzullo encourage the students to have a healthy skepticism. Is this real, they want to know, or are we tricking you? I find myself playing along. They could fake the spikes; how would I know the sound or wave pattern of a neuron? I could argue away that evidence as trickery. I’m having a harder time arguing with a newly severed, rhythmic limb.

***

I am inspired to make up words. Entrepreneurologists. Revulsionary. Creeptastic.

***

A group of prospective students, eighth-graders, come through the classroom on a tour. Mike Olsen, my friend, the teacher, tells them about the day’s activity. One of the students asks, “Is that ethical?”

He sees this kind of hands-on work as intellectual nutrition for his students, and reminds me that the cockroaches aren’t actually dying, and it’s true. Both the amputees and the implanted cockroaches continue their lives: eating, reproducing. Despite this, Marzullo tells me some of his colleagues feel that a three-dimensional computer model would suffice, that this is a step backward. In their eyes the experiments are less ethical when less supervised, less controlled, less mature students participate.

Gage and Marzullo see the participation differently. They see themselves at 16, longing to have this sort of opportunity. Beyond this, they wonder if an early understanding might lead to more rapid advancement in their field, eventually leading to breakthroughs that improve the quality of life for people dealing with brain function anomalies. They’ve received funding from the Kauffman Foundation, the Michigan New Economy Initiative, and the National Institutes of Health’s Small Business Innovation Research grant program. They’ll be reporting on how student retention of neuroscience concepts is impacted by these experiments over the next two years.

The cockroaches, then, aren’t the only subjects.

***

I survey the room. Gage walks around as spikes screech from each table. Marzullo holds his breath as he brings together electrode and antennae for a different experiment, the much-anticipated RoboRoach. When this step is complete, he says, “This is so wonderful, hearing sounds like this in a high school classroom.”

Another screech rises up from the lab tables, and Marzullo laughs as he returns to the prep. About a minute and a half later, one box sounds like high-pitched, club-style scratching. Marzullo looks up and explains to the cockroach deejay that this is how a theremin works as well. I find myself singing “Good Vibrations.”

The RoboRoach prep complete, students take turns pressing the buttons on a control panel about the size of the roach itself, laughing about what the cockroach might say if it could speak. They observe the cockroach at first responding to, then eventually ignoring the microstimulation.

The cockroach isn’t really a cyborg; he’s being tricked into moving in one direction or another. Eventually, the RoboRoach is no longer steerable. The microstimulation provides no reinforcement, so the impulse is adapted to, ignored. I imagine that this could be altered with a reward, a treat. For the rest of the day, I try not to be distracted by the vision of someone breeding a cockroach army.

***

I text my husband that this is the best day ever. It’s almost like living poetry in the classroom, watching students so engaged, watching scientists and teachers work with such enthusiasm and passion.

“The average person on the street, not even the average person, the above-average person doesn’t know how the brain works,” says Gage, “doesn’t even know the basic principles of the brain, that energy from the outside world, be it sound, light, heat, gets transformed into a neural code through these things, through these neurons, and then your brain processes this information and then causes your body to move, all through electricity.”

Marzullo says, “When you’re seeing a spike, it’s like the first time you hear a heart beat. You’re seeing that basic element of information-processing in your brain. And so we’ll see some this afternoon, and when you look at it, it’s like you’re looking at reality.”

It’s the stuff of fiction, but it’s real. It’s science and meta-science. It’s challenging; it’s full of potential; it feels like art.

To Tame a Friend

Last summer, a feral cat gave birth under our deck. My kids and my husband were delighted, but I predicted future trouble: waste in the sandbox, an influx of coyotes. I proclaimed that there would be no feeding of the strays. My family nodded, and I think they tried to resist, but bits of bread kept finding their way onto the deck, along with Tupperware containers full of water.

I watched my family try to tame the kittens. I caved; I participated. I sat on the steps of the deck in the sun, silently watching, coaxing the kittens closer with a little food and a gentle gaze. I repeated this many times, and each time I was reminded of a book I read 24 years ago. Odd, isn’t it, how literary scenes sometimes follow you? What, I wondered, makes a passage stick? I started thinking about the brain, how it functions, what it chooses to remember. I decided the answer would make a good subject for a detailed, factual, scientific sort of article. I surveyed some friends, searching for a pattern to exploit. What I found was much better than that.

***

The scene begins simply, and is not well-defined by the landscape, the time, the architecture. It is a dialogue between Antoine de Saint- Exupéry’s title character, The Little Prince, and a fox.

The Little Prince, a young boy and ruler of a distant planet, has been on a grand tour of the galaxy, meeting all sorts of grown ups. Much of his experience perplexes him. He is now on earth, missing his beloved rose back home. He has discovered that roses grow in abundance on earth, and is disappointed. All this time, he thought his rose was special, but now he sees that there are thousands like her. It is at this moment in the story he meets the fox:

“Come and play with me,” proposed the little prince. “I am so unhappy.”

“I cannot play with you,” the fox said. “I am not tamed.”

“Ah! Please excuse me,” said the little prince.

But, after some thought, he added:

“What does that mean– ‘tame’?”

“You do not live here,” said the fox. “What is it that you are looking for?”

“I am looking for men,” said the little prince. “What does that mean– ‘tame’?”

“Men,” said the fox. “They have guns, and they hunt. It is very disturbing. They also raise chickens. These are their only interests. Are you looking for chickens?”

“No,” said the little prince. “I am looking for friends. What does that mean– ‘tame’?”

“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. “It means to establish ties.”

“‘To establish ties’?”

“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

***

I ask my friends about memorable scenes in literature. Missy talks about Charlotte’s Web, how she struggles when they leave Charlotte at the fair to die. Jerry couldn’t make it through reading Where the Red Fern Grows out loud to his children. The moment when Little Ann goes to Dan’s grave and dies of a broken heart, he breaks down and his children are left wondering how to respond. Tom drinks coffee while he shaves, like a character in a Salinger novel.

Shawn recalls a scene from the Journey to the Center of the Earth. The setting is vivid to her, like a snapshot in her head. Chip reflects on the emotions that welled in him when Billy Parham shot the wolf in The Crossing. Matt recalls C.S. Lewis’s description of Aslan: Not safe, but good.

Laura and Jen can’t stop with one scene. Laura echoes Jerry’s attachment to Where the Red Fern Grows and adds Stone Fox, The Grapes of Wrath, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Jen starts with A Tale of Two Cities, moves to Knowles: A Separate Peace, and then ponders the books on her shelves, looking for patterns.

I notice that five of the eleven scenes involve animals. Seven of the eleven titles are children’s or young adult books. I am momentarily excited, but then I realize that the phrasing of the question may have skewed the answer. My survey is flawed; I will have no objective data to savor, not even from this small sample. I give up on the article and go searching for something else to write about. After a few weeks, I fail. I reread The Little Prince.

***

The fox explains the benefit of being tamed:

“My life is very monotonous,” the fox said. “I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the colour of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”

“One only understands the things that one tames,” said the fox. “Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me…”

I think about my friends and what they’ve shared. I reread their comments, no longer as a  statistical exercise, but as an invitation. Their perceptions shine; their lives sing; books are now woven into the ties between us.

Ten Things I Learned at the App Store

Confession time: I am a Mac user who owns a total of zero touch devices.

We have no iPhone in the house. Our fanciest iPod is a Nano without a video camera. We marvel at the magical iPad from afar.

Due to this lack of modern technology, I have been missing out on the App Store. I know this because of my chums with touch screen Apple devices. I should start slipping them calcium. I fear they will develop hunchbacks from hovering over their screens wherever they go.

It’s tough to see the value of the app while staring at their scalps, so when Apple announced the opening of their App Store for Mac, I was excited: my first personal exposure to this wonderful world of Angry Birds and Urban Spoon. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

1. I can delude myself into believing I have more self-control now than when I was twenty. More confessions: I once had a gaming addiction. I would share the number of hours I’ve blown on Atari 2600, Sega Genesis, and the PC versions of Hearts and Solitaire, but by rule I only do one story problem a month (see point 3), plus I’ve spent way too much on hair color to date myself in such an obvious fashion. I’m pleased to report that even after downloading Action Potato and Pangea Arcade, I’m not spending a lot of time gaming on the computer. This allows me to continue hollering at my video-game loving children, without hypocrisy, while I’m on Facebook or Twitter.

2. Computer geeks like a good soap opera as much as girls. I decided to ask my friend Ty, an app developer, to be my Glinda, sans singing and dress, in the Land of Apps. As a part of my tour, he recounted the saga of Jobs and Gates, their split, the exit of Jobs from Apple, the return of Jobs, and the Google factor (and this was before the shake ups at both Apple and Google in mid-January 2011). Tremendous story. Recommended improvements? Cast Susan Lucci as the many faces of Android and supply chocolates.

3. Apple wants to own my consumer soul, part one. Shortly after I started toying with the App Store, I noticed an odometer-looking counter at apple.com. It was tracking the number of apps downloaded through iTunes, and if my math is correct, will turn over the ten billion mark within hours of my submission of this article. I felt like it was aimed squarely at me. C’mon, it was saying, everyone’s doing it. Tick-tock. Don’t you want a chance to win $10,000 in iTunes credit? What’s the harm in one little app? Don’t you want to be as awesome as the rest of the known world?  You at least want to see it roll over, don’t you? It was like a drug dealer inside my computer.

4. Apple wants to own my consumer soul, part two. I just said no to the ten billionth iTunes app slot machine/app-ometer, but they’ve got other ways of making you shop. The App Store shows me how badly I need to be unilaterally aligned with them. By teasing me with apps for my computer that are also available for the touch screen devices, I can see how much cooler it would be if only I could, say,  take my notes with me (yeah, Ty-Glinda the App Developer showed me Evernote), add to them, and sync it all up, nice and pretty.

5. An app by any other name is software. Such a satisfying little word, app, but an app is really just a software application, a focused sort of computer program. Thus the App Store is a virtual marketplace with a really great name. I would say “merely” a great name, but I can’t discount the value of the phrase “App Store”: Microsoft is suing over it.

6. Nostalgia can lessen your appreciation of the new. Fireworms, a part of Pangea Arcade, is a fun game to play, reminiscent of Centipede. It stirred a sense of longing for the past in me. You might be thinking, ah, she probably misses her teenage years and all that is contained therein: youth, vitality, innocence. You would be wrong. I miss the arcade rollerball. If you do not know what a rollerball is, just imagine your touchpad with a pop-up ball in a socket that you could control with your fingertips or palm, and in moments of extreme gaming frenzies, whip your hand across it and make it spin really, really fast.

6a. You were right after all. Discussing this made me also miss the game Tempest. Thinking about how few readers will remember Tempest makes me feel old. Now I’m longing for my youth, etc.

7. Programming a yelling robotto keep you on task may be as distracting as not having a yelling robot at all.

8. Selling software through the virtual store means less overhead. Aperture version 3.1.1, Apple’s step-up photography software, sells for $79.99 through the App Store. Aperture 3, sold in stores, is $199.99. This seems like good news for consumers, or at least those owned by Apple.

9. Despite the distraction of programming a yelling robot, it is fun to name him Steve.

10. When entering a high score, I call myself ACE, even though I’m the only one playing the game.

The Prophecy of Network

I have noted with some delight that the movie Network has made its way back into the contemporary conversation, so I happily gave myself the task of revisiting this 1976 satire with a couple of friends and relating it to our current situation. It turns out I gave myself a more difficult assignment than I was expecting.

When I began, I thought I might find it easy to focus on the character of Howard Beale. Beale is an anchorman on a fictional fourth network, competing against ABC, CBS, and NBC. His life is falling apart at the outset of the movie, but in his shattered state, he becomes a voice for the frustration of his audience. He is deemed “the mad prophet of the airwaves” and instead of delivering the news, he spews his delusions on an adoring group of followers who respond to his tirades with applause and occasional action. His show becomes the news, and at its peak includes segments like a supposed psychic predicting the future, a fabulously dressed woman revealing people’s dirty secrets, and Vox Populi, an opinion poll.

“It is,” Roger Ebert said in his 2000 review, “like prophecy. When Chayefsky created Howard Beale, could he have imagined Jerry Springer, Howard Stern, and the World Wrestling Federation?”

Ten years after Mr. Ebert’s review, I stand more amazed as I think of the news personalities branding themselves on every 24-hour news channel.

It would also be easy to talk about the obvious lack of changes in our culture since 1976. The things that troubled Beale’s audience trouble us today: oil, corruption, problems with the food chain, pollution in the air we breathe, crime, and the fear of other nations taking over our country. All of these are still causing us trouble 34 years later. Beale’s general frustration with the state of our society would resonate with many people today, and so it seems we have not made much headway.

Beyond these things found on the surface, we can see other truths: the weariness that sets in amongst the professionals who are handling the news; how situations and people are manipulated for gain; how reality becomes fictionalized and how that can leave a person feeling in control, but cold. So many aspects of life are poked at here — it should be easy, I thought. I’ll just pick one. But satire has its own agenda, so I didn’t pick a moment. It picked me.

The scene features Diana Christiansen, Vice-President of Programming, calling on Max Schumacher, head of the news division. She comes to him because she wants to program the news, specifically by writing some better apocalyptic doom material for Howard Beale and adding some more suspense elements to the show. At first he thinks she’s kidding, but she’s not. And before he can throw out any argument about why this is a terrible idea, she says:

I watched your 6 o’clock news today, it was straight tabloid. You had a minute and a half of that lady riding naked in Central Park; on the other hand, you had less than a minute of hard national and international news. It was all sex, scandal, brutal crimes, sports, children with incurable diseases, and lost puppies. So I don’t think I’ll listen to any protestations about high standards of journalism when you’re out on the streets soliciting audiences like the rest of us. Look, all I’m saying is, if you’re going to hustle, at least do it right.

In my circle of friends, no one thinks “the news” is delivering news. I think of stories aired that inform the public there are germs in their washing machines, funded by the makers of bleach; stories that cover reality TV shows; hours of speculations on motives and conspiracies. Like Howard Beale, I am mad. Like Max Schumacher, I am tempted — tempted to pine for the good old days, when journalism meant something . . . and then I hear this speech, quit romanticizing, and really remember.

We sometimes give our yesterdays more honor than they are due. While there may have been more restraints in place in the past, journalists have always sought an audience. Newspapers, back when there were newspapers, depended on ad revenue. Television depends on ad revenue. Ad revenue depends on an audience, readers or viewers or page-clickers. It’s the dirty truth of media: if you are dependent on commercials, you need to deliver a committed audience. Prevailing wisdom says that to keep an audience, you need to spend some time giving them some adult sugar–stuff that isn’t useful or good, but keeps them watching.

So now what? I have no illusions that going back will solve this problem. The content may be more lurid, the personalities more defined, the grab for money and prestige more desperate and untempered, but the weight has been and unceasingly will be carried by us, the audience. Our burden? To think about what we are consuming. We have to ask ourselves, why do we watch what we watch? Is there more to the story than we can glean from 90 seconds of TV or web coverage? What should we be most attentive to, and what can we let go? What are the other perspectives?

With today’s technology, we can gather sensational stories from around the globe, but of what value is that? It is good to be informed, but is there more to it? Does news shape what we think is worthy of action? How often do we skip what is local and embrace that which is sensational, and thus find ourselves swept up by the sound and the fury, signifying nothing? Is there another way?

Revered works of art hold up over time. Effective satire makes us laugh, even as it calls us to reconsider our ways. Network proves itself to be both.

Please note that Network contains strong language and adult situations. As such, it may not be appropriate for everyone. Special thanks to Carol Reed and Jennifer Beltramo for their contributions to this article.

The Garden of Healing and Renewal

“I’m going to come back here every time we come. Every time,” said my younger son.

It was the fourth of July weekend, and he and I found ourselves at the nearest urgent care clinic — again. We had come the week before, hurriedly, first thing in the morning, his brother and sister in tow, half his face swollen. He was reacting to poison ivy. I peppered him about his breathing; fortunately, it remained normal. He only needed an oral steroid. I probably could have used a Valium.

The medicine did its work on him, but five days later, fishing with Dad, he was re-exposed. He was still on the steroid, so I  wasn’t sure what would happen, but by the weekend, we were back. With no other children, no other cars, no other patients, and nowhere to rush off to, the hazy afternoon sun set our pace. We pulled in to the lot, and when we got out, I headed toward the door. My boy stopped.

“Did you see that over there?” he said.

I don’t even think I looked. My mind was elsewhere. My mind is often elsewhere, undoing what’s been done, imagining what might happen. In my thoughts, it’s a quick trip between contact dermatitis and Armageddon.

“Something tall and shiny, in the woods,” he said.

I muttered something non-committal, something about maybe checking it out later, after we saw the doctor. But my dear child would not let it go. As we came out of the building, he pointed to the woods.

There was a sign that said: Garden of Healing and Renewal.

The Peace Tree.

We walked past our car and through the gate. My son went straight to the metal that had issued the invitation: a sculpture, somewhere between a mobile and a weather vane, maybe 20 feet high. Two branches, each branch holding two leaves, spun and chased each other, powered by the breeze. He stared, striving to discern a pattern in its dance. I watched him, surrounded by black-eyed susans and day lilies and roses and butterfly bushes.

I could see more metalwork, tucked away in a wooded spot to our right. They turned out to be giant dragonflies perched in the trees. My son then took the lead, exploring the flowers, the benches and Adirondack chairs, the art. He delighted in everything, alternately running from display to display, and then sitting and watching.

All this happened in the opening courtyard of the garden, but more paths beckoned to the right and to the left. We made our choice, passing a labyrinth, a quote from Einstein carved in stone, a fountain, a resting spot with red benches, rocks, and boulders. We found ourselves at the end of the formal gardens. At that place of transition stood a carved tree, richly colored. My son responded with the joy of a pilgrim discovering a sacred relic. He continued this way around every turn, and I had to set aside my preoccupations just to keep up with him.

We stopped on a bridge to watch a frog. We saw birds take off and land. As we followed their flight, we discovered we were being watched. Carved faces peered out from the woods: a woman, a bearded man, a jester hanging over a bench like a giant’s walking stick.

The Sky Garden.

We found ourselves back in the courtyard. My son gravitated toward the Sky Garden, its birdbath high-rise swimming in a sea of stone, the landscaped shore a violet and dusty blue. I turned to a nearby map, and realized that we were between the medical building and a cancer center. I remembered a similar day, years ago, sitting with my notebook next to my friend Trudi.

Trudi is going to die. Soon, they say, and while I used to think that ‘that’ was a little presumptuous, I see it differently now. … People who work and volunteer at hospice see so much death. I imagine it is like a dance. The steps begin to come together for the patient, until it is the only song she can hear.

I met Trudi at her greenhouse, which was at her farm. She couldn’t be cajoled on the price of her flowers. She liked the blue ones, because of the variety they brought to the garden. So much yellow — so much white and orange — blue’s something you don’t see every day.

… There are bird feeders right in her window. Beyond the feeders is a garden. It’s July, so some of the flowers are in bloom. In the foreground, there are tall, deep, purple plumes on top of reedy stems. A column of thin grass stands to the right. Behind them, some sturdy plants not yet in bloom shoot toward the sky.

The wind was blowing. It still is blowing … and the plants in the garden seem to move all of one accord, but differently. The grass is so active, it flutters and flows. The stately purple flowers shake from side to side. The new growth on the not-yet-in-bloom plants seems to wave. The birds fly in and out, riding the breeze.

… Trudi is dying. She is learning the steps. Soon they will be all she knows in this life, but then the dance will be over and she will find herself leaning on, resting in, sheltered by, the God who cares for the sparrows and arrays the lilies and loves sweet Trudi.

What is it about a garden, this garden, these spaces where people create in and through and with nature? How is it that here I am able to enjoy the moments and at the same time, gain context for the past and the future?

“I’m going to come back here every time we come. Every time,” he said.

He explained it to me, how when you are sick, you just feel so . . . He crunched himself up and made his whole body tense.

He had my full attention again. I knew exactly what he meant.

“But this is like, ahh.”

His shoulders dropped; he took a breath. He looked at me and smiled. Together we stretched a little closer to the sun.

Summer Comfort

A picture of a Smores treat.
What can a classic summer comfort food teach us about moving from slacktivism to action?

Close your eyes and picture it: your favorite comfort food. It’s crusty, maybe, or cheesy, and even a little gooey. Mine is surrounded by a full table near a warm fire on a fall or winter’s night.

Odd, isn’t it then, that I can’t stop thinking about the idea of summer comfort food? But that’s the term swirling around in my mind, for two reasons that I can sum up in one word: s’more.

In some ways, the s’more fits the comfort food profile. At its most pure, it requires a fire. The marshmallow becomes both crusty and gooey. On contact, the milk chocolate melts slightly, and the dry, crisp graham cracker acts as both the perfect transportation device and textural counterpoint.

The snob in me is not ashamed to admit that I love this treat, despite its ordinary construction from maligned convenience foods. In my regular life, I prefer homemade things and dark chocolate, but stick me around a campfire and I’m alright with the packaged and the regular. I’ve played with some alternative ingredients: hazelnut-chocolate spread, caramel, coconut, different kinds of chocolate or graham crackers. I love the experiments, but I don’t need any of that to be fully satisfied. One bite of the basic s’more and I turn into the critic in Ratatouille, who takes a taste of the title dish and finds himself transported back to a time of simple and abiding pleasures.

It’s a funny name, s’more, and the origins of the dish are hard to trace. Most sources point to a Girl Scout cookbook from 1927, and then state the obvious: after you eat one, you want some more. I wouldn’t think too much about it in a different time and place, this fun but greedy contraction. In my current context, in Michigan, in a recession, it rolls around in my mind. While I’ve not given up marshmallows in the name of piety, I can’t help but reflect on those who might need some more of the real basics this summer.

I think of families in the United States who rely on the National School Lunch Program to make ends meet. About 19 million kids receive free or reduced school breakfast and/or lunch. More than thirty-one million kids are served during the course of a year. This helps to offset the needs of the 17 million households living, according to the USDA, with low or very low food security.

A family with low food security reports reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet due to a lack of resources. They experience little or no indication of reduced food intake, typically due to outside assistance like food stamps, WIC, and school lunch programs. In 2008 (most current data available), 10.3 million households across the U.S. dealt with low food security.

And what of the other 6.7 million households? These families have it worse: they report multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns. This number has increased by 2 million households since 2007, an estimated five-and-a-half million more people going hungry at more than one point during the year. These numbers represent the largest need in the 25-year history of the survey.

What happens to these families when summer comes? I’m imagining new delights to put between two graham crackers. What are they considering, these seventeen million households, an estimated 49 million people living in households dealing with low food security, 16.7 million of them children?

The national numbers are stunning, but are they stunning enough to drive me from slactivism to action? Every year, area food banks report a spike in demand over the summer. What have I done about that? I’m sickened by my own complacency and lack of response. But outrage, even when aimed at myself, doesn’t feed anyone. I must act.

Here are some ways to help:

For further motivation, understand the problem at the state and local level. For example, an estimated 1 in 10 people living in Michigan will need help with food this summer. The percentage of kids in my school district who qualify for free or reduced lunches has risen in the last four years from 16% to 34%: more than 1,000 kids. Numbers in nearby urban areas are much worse. What’s it like for people where you live?

Give money to an area food bank (search for one here). Food banks can buy many goods at lower prices than you will find at a grocery store. This means that if you want to use money to impact the hunger problem, consider giving cash instead of shopping for canned goods. In an op-ed piece published by The Oakland Press, Jane Marshall, the executive director of the Food Bank Council of Michigan, estimates that every dollar donated will help provide five meals. “A $20 donation,” she writes, “can feed a family for two weeks.”

Be a conduit for additional needs. Big food banks serve local pantries, and sometimes these smaller agencies have hard-to-get, high-demand items. For example, my local pantry, OCEF, needs personal care products and, surprisingly, macaroni and cheese. The need is bigger than my ability, but I can host micro-charity events on their behalf. Beyond existing systems, I can reach out to the schools and find a way to help there.

Start or volunteer at a community garden, or donate part of your harvest. Fresh produce is a welcome addition at many food pantries.

Give time. Dedicated volunteers go on vacation, too – summer’s the perfect time to get involved.

Choose to get to know your neighbors well enough to know how to help them personally.

This summer could be the summer of real comfort food.

For the USDA report on food security, visit http://www.ers.usda.gov/briefing/foodsecurity/.

Diego Rivera and the Gods of Detroit

It used to be called the Garden Court, this space at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). Two men, a capitalist and a Marxist, Edsel Ford and Diego Rivera, tooled the gears of a name change in 1933. That year, after eleven months of work, Rivera finished the Ford-commissioned piece entitled Detroit Industry. Even as I admire Rivera’s fresco cycle, I wonder if we will ever get back to the garden.

***

Walk through the Farnsworth entrance of the DIA Beaux-Arts building, down a promenade and up the stairs, through the black wisteria gate and into Rivera courtoriginally 68 feet long, 49 feet wide, its height intensified by the natural light coming through the ceiling. Twenty-seven panels make up the murals titled Detroit Industry, some running 45’ wide by 17’ high, others only about 6’ x 2’. The scale does more than shrink the viewer; it puts him in motion. People step into a wall and back away, sit and stand and pirouette to its unheard music.

Even as one moves to experience the whole, the motion of work is captured in the largest panels. My eyes found their only rest in this motion when I was a child. The east wall, the first wall visible upon entering the court, troubled me. A fetus is underground, roots growing outward from what looks like a womb. Above that, on either side, sit two round-bodied topless women.

It was far easier to look at the largest panel of the north wall. Here, men on the line at an automobile factory push and pull as far into the painting as the eye can see. This was a very right and good rendering of work, and I liked the colors and the patterns. That was the best I could do with the Rivera court at eight years old.

Revisiting the mural, I understand why my eyes settled on this picture of manufacturing. Rivera’s artistry draws you in, and the image of hard work, done together, keeps you there. It is still stirring, and yet Rivera’s work speaks to me differently now.

As I tried to take it all in with a friend last year, we were overwhelmed by the sense of the machines being greater, god-like, in this panel. Its themes are echoed in the major panel opposite, on the south wall. And as I returned to consider this idea further, and explored the excellent multimedia resource available both at the museum and online, that sense was reinforced.

Rivera drew connections between science, manufacturing, and the gods of the ancient cultures of Latin and South America. The gods were believed to be the bearers of things like sun and rain, sometimes to the benefit of the worshipers and other times to their destruction. Rivera was an atheist, and in this piece, he replaces the gods with Industry and Technology. Industry and Technology produce in the panels, but to what end? And what is sacrificed?

The smaller panels give some clues as to the possible outputs of these modern gods. On the north wall, cells are built up, as above them a child is vaccinated. In perfect symmetry, at the other end of this wall, cells are destroyed; as above them poison gas is manufactured. On the west wall, natural images of the dove and the hawk are topped by passenger and war planes.

In the ancient mind, the gods would be credited with both the giving and the taking away, as the rains produce growth and flooding or the sun produces warmth and drought. Here, Industry and Technology produce, but it is the people wielding the power, and they will receive the credit or the blame.

But while Rivera escapes blaming or crediting the gods, the demands of Industry and Technology seem familiar. Sacrifice is necessary. The great stamping press, according to the multimedia presentation, visually alludes to Coatlique, an Aztec goddess to whom humans were sacrificed. Here, no blood is shed, just sweat and steel. Perhaps this would be seen as a noble endeavor seventy-seven years ago, but today, I am not certain. Industry has taken her share.

The workers have given energy and time. Some are cast aside, with area unemployment reported around fifteen percent. City numbers have been reported as closer to thirty. The other natural resources have been largely non-renewable, and corporations and investors have taken a hit as people have less interest in this kind of buying, which leads to fewer workers, which leads to fewer viable consumers. This is a problem, as Industry’s products demand consumers, and the power and wealth she confers demands more consumers.

Industry produces: sometimes to health and prosperity, and other times to destruction. Regardless, suggests the murals, Industry rolls on. But, I wonder, are we the consumers or the consumed? Can we be both without eventually devouring ourselves?

***

If Rivera were alive and interested in painting an update, would he be able to envision the east wall the same way? Would he see us as a fertile place? Perhaps he would still point to the earth as the root of all human endeavor, as it says in the DIA’s materials. Maybe, as a Marxist, he would take it as an opportunity to point to some of the failures of capitalism.

But time has revealed his system also has its flaws – as does any human system.

The author wishes to thank the Brandon Township librarians for their assistance in researching this piece. Librarians rock!

Art Meets Town

Art and artists have historically tenuous relationships with their native geography. Think of Hemingway and the other American ex-patriots of the Lost Generation. Think of my friends and family who have moved away from Michigan to pursue writing or acting. Think of Squidward, feeling trapped in Bikini Bottom. He loves modern dance, men’s chorus, sculpting, his clarinet, fancy living, and his superior taste and intellect. The other characters populating SpongeBob are beneath his endeavors.

Squidward represents all that is bad with small-town artistes. They want to be special, the standard-bearers of all that is culturally excellent, but look down on the very people who could be their audience. They yearn for “these people” to be more refined and sophisticated. Ironically, some are not talented. There’s a reason they never tried to make it in the big city.

The professional artists at the Williamston Theatre are nothing like Squidward. The founders are big-pond tested Midwesterners who love the small-town way of life, and believe that art can be a thread in the greater fabric of a community.

The Williamston Theatre in Williamston, Michigan.

With this belief, the Williamston Theatre challenges attitudes held by many so-called artists, as well as so-called regular people. Some artists assume that they know what “the common man” likes, and dismiss their interests and opinions. Some regular people assume that “those artsy types” are purveyors of snobbery and elitism. Under these conditions, an evening at the theatre becomes a regrettable one-and-done date instead of a potential long-term relationship.

From the beginning, things were different here, according to artistic director Tony Caselli. He describes their process of becoming a theatre as a perfect storm of challenges and opportunities. He was working for the Purple Rose, Jeff Daniels’s theatre in Chelsea, and found out he’d be downsized in a year. Around the same time, John Lepard, executive director, had moved back from California with his wife to raise their daughter in Williamston.

Meanwhile, says Caselli, a Lansing-based professional theatre, the Boarshead, was shopping for a new location. Williamston rolled out the red carpet. When the Boarshead decided to stay in the state capitol, Lepard stopped in to see the mayor of Williamston to see if they really wanted live theatre in the city of about 3700. They did.

From 2004-2006, Caselli, Lepard, Emily Sutton-Smith, and Christine Purchis started to build relationships and gather support. The four founders of the theatre didn’t want to thrust art upon the town, but rather tell stories with, for, and about their audiences. They went into area businesses and held staged readings, says Caselli, gathering backers and fans.

“We went in and said, ‘We want to make it about here, plays that audiences relate to.’ We struck a chord with people,” says Caselli.

This attitude permeates everything they do. It’s what they’re about: “We believe that theatre can enrich our lives and make a positive difference in our community, both culturally and economically. We believe that theatre should be accessible and affordable to everyone, whether they live in a large coastal city or a small Midwestern town. We believe that there are voices in the Midwest worth hearing, and our goal is to create moving, entertaining, professional theatre for and about this part of the world.”

A look at their past seasons shows that these weren’t just words on their website. They do plays by Michigan playwrights like Annie Martin and Joseph Zettelmaier. Other works reveal common interests. Rounding Third is about Little League; Guys on Ice combines the musical form with ice fishing; An Infinite Ache explores the nature of a relationship from a first date to the end of life and back.

And then there’s the well-received Voices from the Midwest project. Caselli conceived this three-year series for both practical and artistic reasons. In the theatre’s fledgling year, unsure of their audiences, they scheduled eight-week runs. This turned out to be too long, so they scaled back. The buzz was that they might not make it. Caselli enjoyed working on premiere productions at the Purple Rose, and was looking to develop new works, so he planned the multiple-season work as a way to reassure the community and create something from scratch.

For Voices from the Midwest, they begin by gathering source material from real people in the community and across the region. Area writers, musicians and actors develop an evening of theatre by reflecting on and interpreting the responses. They began by looking at the lives of women in Mothers, Maidens and Crones. In year two, they turned their eyes to the experiences of men in Flyover, U.S.A. This season, they are exploring the idea of family in Home, set to open May 13th.

Beyond their play and project selection, Caselli delights in and passionately defends all members of the audience.

“Don’t tell me that the people paying money coming into my theatre have an opinion that should be of a lesser value. They have just paid their money. They were moved, or they weren’t,” says Caselli. “…That’s just as useful to me in the making of our art with a deadline as the ‘higher’ train of understanding. I don’t need to know how my digital watch was built … but I can tell you if I think it’s cool … and if it works.”

A Cheese Story

I am rarely romanced by agriculture.

I grew up in a rural part of Michigan, raised by a man who enjoyed working the land and a woman who learned how to put things up. Our home garden provided a yield that usually outlasted the winter: frozen beans, corn relish, canned tomatoes, apple butter. We had a modest number of chickens, a root cellar filled with potatoes and squash, and the occasional temporary livestock we were only allowed to call bacon or steak. All the modern fuss about locavoring is hard for me to understand – we didn’t do this to be novel or as some kind of grand gesture. It’s practical to till and plant and harvest.

I admit it; I’m always delighted and a little amused when city folk discover gardening and canning. But my days as a mocker and a scoffer are over, because, like Buddy the Elf, I’m in love, I’m in love and I don’t care who knows it.

Farm-fresh dairy. Homemade mozzarella, where have you been all my life? Even your byproduct is glorious: ricotta. Dear dairy, my heart beats only for you.

We met in Coopersville, Michigan, introduced by a mutual friend, Betsy Meerman. Former resident of my town, she went off to college and became a physician’s assistant by trade. But love brought her to a fifth-generation dairy farm, where she married Jesse the cheese maker. He’s a skilled craftsman, developing specialty cheeses that take advantage of the plentiful supply of raw, organic milk and cream produced by grass-fed, grazing cows. He makes a high cream aged cheese, Fait Gras, that is one of the most delectable things ever stabbed by a toothpick. She helps out by teaching classes on fresh cheeses and butter. One average day in May she suggested that I come and see.

If I had known what joys awaited me, I would have immediately jumped in the car and headed west. But I was busy. Perhaps the delay only made the union sweeter.

A friend and I finally made the journey one Saturday morning in October. The drive was metaphoric – we came across I-96 in a rainy haze that didn’t clear until we came off the highway. The fog lifted and the light shone down and before noon we realized that all of our lives we had been eating crappy mozzarella.

Betsy is a woman at ease with people. She is natural, friendly, and knowledgeable about the practical and scientific aspects of the cheese-making process. She has homespun star power, but even she could not compete with milk’s ability to combine with citric acid and rennet. The 30-minute mozzarella (recipe available for download here) took a little longer in the unheated cheese-making room on a crisp fall day, but once the curd came together, the process moved quickly. She stretched it until it was smooth and separated it into several small balls. She invited the class to come and finish the cheese.

Working this egg-sized, almond-colored glob was fun. The whey coated my hands as I imitated Betsy’s simple technique, reminiscent of folding socks. I set the perfect-looking ball on the platter.

I have been tempted by so-called fresh mozzarella before, in the specialty cheese case. It was disappointingly similar to the brick of cheese available in the regular aisle. It was edible, I thought, but not worth the money.

This was nothing like that. This was nothing like anything else I had ever called cheese. This was more than worth eating: it was warm, it was smooth, it was creamy, and yet had bite, grains of sea salt riding the wave of cheese perfection. It was the cheese that launched a thousand ships. It was worthy of song, or a crusade.

I’m not much of a sailor, or a singer, so when we returned, I started telling everyone of this glorious, simple process. But eating is believing, and when the time came and Betsy was in town over the holidays, she taught a home class.

A few bites in, I saw the eyes of a fellow student light.

“So, you’re telling me that every time I drink glass of milk,” he said, raising the cheese high, “I’m keeping it from its full potential?”

Smitten. And I can’t even put into words how he feels about the butter.

With Liberty and Justice for All

The restored bus on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.

The restored bus on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.

With Liberty and Justice For All, a permanent exhibit at the Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, sets out to do more than weave a narrative or artfully display a collection.

It accomplishes both of these, to be sure-telling stories of individuals involved in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the women’s suffrage movement, and the struggle for civil rights. It uses text and audio and video. There’s a timeline, effective lighting, interactive computers. Artifacts include celebrated pieces like George Washington’s camp bed and the chair in which Abraham Lincoln saw his last play. Other items carry a different weight, things like shackles and a bullwhip and an iron collar.

If it were only these things, it would be worthy of discussion. This is our history, warts and all, and it is good to remember. But this is not only about remembering.

The Henry Ford has created an experience that resonates with and extends history.

To fully appreciate the impact, you have to picture the installation within the layout of the whole. The primary space is wide and high and warm. It boasts a 40-foot ceiling and the world’s largest teak floor. Two laps around the interior perimeter equal about a mile. From the main entry point, there is more than the eye can absorb. There are tractors in front of rockstar outfits, an exploded Model T and a moving assembly line, a suspended plane and a diner, neon signs and cars, presidential limos, and a steam engine.

In the middle of this barrage, a boundary of grey walls sets apart what may be the greatest treasure – the Rosa Parks bus. Restored, painted yellow and green, covered with the ads of the mid-1950s, it is surrounded by a buzzing crowd.

It is the reason I came. I sadly had not been here since its acquisition, let alone its restoration or its home in as the centerpiece of this section. My most recent visit was a whirlwind of children, including two preschoolers and two kindergarteners, more interested in skywalkers and the shiny, round Dymaxion house.

As I move closer, I realize that the bus is not just for looking. Folks are climbing aboard. They are sitting, looking out the window. I was excited. I wanted to get on that bus.

I was almost there when I saw, for the first time, the glass. It is a huge pane; about as long and as tall as the bus itself. I half expected it to slide over like at a drugstore or supermarket door. For a second I thought maybe the guide had to let you in. But he can’t – the glass is a divider, and you must walk through the exhibit.

It starts at the battle for independence: the Stamp Act, Common Sense, the Declaration of Independence, George Washington. Next, tools of brutality that were wielded against men and women in the name of economic need, and the ways people fought back. You consider Lincoln, his struggle to keep our nation together but extend freedom to slaves. It has been a winding, but relatively clear, path.

Coming out of the Civil War, past artifacts connected to the 13-15th amendments, you turn the corner and are confronted. It is the back of a figure in the full uniform of the KKK. The path forks. You may choose to go back, or turn toward the women’s suffrage display, or walk past it and the clansman and into the Civil Rights era.

In this hallway, displays line the left wall. To the right, a mini-theater plays a Jackie Robinson documentary. Mini-theaters similar to this are a part of the fabric of the Henry Ford. But this one replicates a public waiting area in the South prior to the civil rights movement. You have to choose a door – the entrance for Whites, or the entrance for Coloreds.

The first door was the one labeled “Colored,” and I stepped through it partway through the film. I was behind glass. On the other side, the movie played and an American flag hung. I sat on a bench, and as others entered in the door in front of me, they looked back and stared. I was on display; I was a curiosity. One family looked at me a long time, particularly a little girl in a pink top. She disappeared when her mom became engrossed in a conversation that I couldn’t hear. She reappeared next to me on the bench, and we sat silently for a few minutes until she was spotted and motioned away.

I was ready now, and went to the bus. You can sit right where Rosa Parks sat on December 1, 1955 and listen to her recorded version of the story. It is so much worse than I remember from history class. The norms of this route reserved the front 10 seats for whites – she wasn’t sitting there. She was sitting in “her” section, accepting her “station,” but the bus was crowded. The bus driver warned her that if a white wanted her seat, she would need to move back. It happened. She didn’t move. The driver threatened to call the police. She didn’t move. The cops came, and she was moved – and so was an entire people.

On my way out, I noticed two things. One was an interactive board. Sticky notes and pencils were available, and people responded to four questions about freedom and justice. I was not surprised by what I found. On my drive to the museum, I saw scores of people in a wealthy community protesting against healthcare. Healthcare was the focus of the majority of yellow stickies. People responded not just to the questions, but also to the responses: arrows pointing, stickies stacked on stickies. As I sat and thought about this, a woman pointed out someone else’s answer to a question about modern threats to freedom and justice. She ripped it down and crushed it; later, I saw the same answer reposted.

It is a challenge, I thought, to balance these values. Emotions and rhetoric blaze, and we have become so accustomed to polarization and bias that it has become the norm. Minds are made up by reflex, like when the old-time doctor tapped under your knee and your foot would kick.

On good days, arguments and counter-arguments fly. On bad days, people wave signs wherever it’s convenient so they can feel like they’ve done something, and anger-mongers spew the froth of exaggeration, hyperbole, and lies. How will this nation manage, I wondered?

I stepped away from the board and walked the back wall of the display. I was met with the faint white script of the Declaration of Independence on the same grey walls. Their line was broken by four windows. Through the first, I could see a sign within the exhibit – “The Coming Storm.” The second framed Lincoln’s chair. From the third, I could see the women’s suffrage jail cell.

The last window looked dark. As I drew closer, I realized it was on purpose. How will this nation manage? In the last window, all you can see is your own reflection.