Wednesday, January 29, 2014

We Shall Overcome

A mighty voice.
Pete Seeger, 1919-2014

 One of the voices that rang through my childhood is silent now. Pete Seeger died Monday.

          I have mentioned him here before, joking that he made me a pint-sized communist. Actually, I suspect he only solidified my beliefs, nurtured by my parents, that universal kindness, tolerance, and justice are the bedrock of a life well-lived.

          Seeger gave me a house of song—wonderful old folk songs, workers' and civil rights songs, anti-war songs, silly songs about monsters who didn't brush their teeth. So many stories lived in that house, and they captivated me. The also gave me much-needed courage.

          I was a timid, even fearful child. I was scared of the dark, of the witches that lived under my bed, of loud noises, of adults I didn't know, of doing the wrong thing, of being laughed at. One of the things I loved about the protest songs Seeger sang was that they surrounded fear and broke its ranks through sheer force of will. Sing about it, Seeger taught me, and you will feel strong.

          "We Shall Overcome" is the song I always think of when fear rides me. It was sung by people who had much to fear, yet who sang a song of such hope and grace that I can never hear it without being pierced by its fundamental faith in the power of our poor, wayward species to act for the right. In the version I'm embedding below, the version I grew up hearing, Seeger says, "The most important verse is the one they wrote down in Montgomery, Alabama. The young people there, they taught us all a lesson," and then he introduces the verse. "We are not afraid," he sings. "We are not afraid today."

          Knowing that song, having it live in my heart, always hearing Seeger's distinctive tenor rise and soar into the chorus—"We shall overcome someday"—gave me what I needed to rule fear, to face it rather than submit to it; to live in a world that is as large as love rather than on the meager, stunted acreage of hate.

          Thank you, Pete.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

O, Pip!

          Of all the curses that exist, a mother's curse is the worst. Inevitably, it takes the form of, "Just you wait," which is, of course, its genius. The curse of a mother never affects you in your childhood years. It waits until you're grown to spring out and ever after remind you of your callousness.

          My mother only cursed my sister and me once, but it has really been rather more than sufficient.

          She was reading Little Women to us. Marmee had gone to Washington to nurse the girls' father, who was wounded while fighting in the Civil War. The girls were left at home to run things, which duty they acquitted with less than total success. Little things—like feeding their pet canary—got forgotten because Marmee wasn't there to remind them, and none of the girls wanted to take responsibility for anything.

          If you've read Little Women, you know how very Moral a book it is. It bases its plot loosely on Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, for goodness sake. Alcott intended it as a primer on how to become a Good Person, as well as a charming story. And in the telling of this Moral story, the girls' canary must needs die of starvation in order for Alcott to make a point about taking responsibility.

          When the girls discover the little canary dead on the floor of its cage, our mother, who is tender-hearted, starts to sniffle. My sister and I are small and have yet to be thoroughly civilized, so we are unmoved. A dead bird is a dead bird. Not our problem. The March girls argue about whose responsibility it was to feed Pip. Our mother starts to weep. J and I are as stone. One of the March girls suggests they try to revive Pip by sticking him in the oven. Mom weeps harder. J and I burst into hysterical laughter. Who ever heard of trying to revive a dead bird by warming it up in the oven? We can't stop laughing. This is the funniest thing we've heard this week.

          Mom, who knows what it's like to lose a pet (although not by starving it to death, I hasten to add) is by now is a complete mess, the pathos of the pet canary dead at the hands of the very girls who should have been taking care of it not lost on her as it is on the two barbarians—her own flesh and blood!—sitting in front of her.

          "Just you wait," she sobs, shutting the book.

          "They wanted to put Pip in the oven!" my sister and I crow, still in hysterics.

          Years later, I was watching a dog food commercial, one of those ones where faithful Shep waits on the corner every day for little Tomasina's bus, and I burst into tears. No dogs, real or imaginary, were harmed or even inconvenienced in the making of that commercial, and faithful Shep and little Tomasina are reunited, yet watching faithful Shep wait for his little human made me weep. I can no longer watch dog food commercials without getting teary. My mother's curse has come home to roost at last.

          Do you remember what happens in Alien? I don't, even though I saw the movie. I was too worried that the cat wasn't going to make it. Didn't care about the humans, but I was terrified for the cat. In a movie. Whose plot was entirely fictional. My mother's curse at work.

          I don't read animal stories. If they're true, the animal dies at the end and I weep inconsolably. If they're fiction, the animal dies at the end and I weep inconsolably. My mother's curse rides again.

          In effect, if there's an animal, real or fictional, anywhere in the picture, count on me to puddle up and reach for my hanky. It's become more than a bit of an embarrassment, my mother's curse.

          Mom, if you're reading this, can you undo the curse? I reread the Pip scene the other day. I cried harder than you did. I think you've made your point.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Why God Made Freezers

          I was reading this morning that home canning is still A Thing.

          I have many memories of canning peaches and tomatoes with my mom when I was a teenager.

          They are why I run screaming in the opposite direction if I so much as glimpse a pressure cooker or a Mason jar. These memories, they are not happy ones. Home canning is a hot, messy, miserable undertaking that happens pretty much at the high heat of summer. It is a relic of subsistence living, like dressing out and cooking squirrel, that unless you absolutely have to do it to survive, offers a very modest return for an outsize expenditure of time and effort.

          Imagine a lovely September evening. It is still warm out. Dinner is finished and the dishes are done, and Mom, who put in a full day at work and then came home and made dinner, has a stove full of cooking pots—one to make the syrup that must be poured over the peaches that are to be canned, one to boil the jars and lids in, and one to boil water to pour over the peaches so that they can be peeled easily, as well as the pressure cooker. Did I mention that it is still warm outside? Well, it's a lot warmer in the kitchen.

          We wipe sweat out of our eyes as we peel peaches and slice them into a bowl of acidulated water so they won't turn brown* before they can be packed into sterilized jars, topped up with syrup, capped, and put in the pressure cooker.

          We do this every night, slogging our way through bushels and bushels and bushels of peaches, wilting in the steam, getting scalded by the boiling water, until finally all the peaches are canned. We go to bed every night with aching feet and backs from standing in the kitchen for three hours peeling and slicing and sterilizing and packing.

          We repeat this effort for tomatoes, although there tend to be fewer of them, and no syrup is required, making our toil slightly less irksome.

Cute little guys, aren't they? Too bad they won't be helping you
can those tomatoes.

          Ah yes, you say, but think of the payoff—all those jars of golden peaches sitting in the pantry just waiting to brighten your winter.**

          Thing is, neither Mom nor I like canned peaches. We prefer frozen, which are infinitely easier to do. As for canned tomatoes, well, they're useful, but let me tell you a secret: core your ripe tomatoes. Toss them in the freezer. Remove the desired number and run them under the tap for a minute until the skins rub off. Chop them while they're still frozen and use as you would canned. Save yourself a lot of effort and some steam burns into the bargain.

*At least not until the necessary pressure-cooking turns them brown.
**Did I mention that pressure-cooking turns them brown?

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Dr. Who Scarf is Entirely Curse-Free

          There is a bit of dark magic out there that All Who Knit are acquainted with. Knitters who gather in coffee shops for their weekly knitting group murmur stories to one another about it as young hipsters eye them warily. Knitters who meet in bars, and call their groups Stitch & Bitch, tell stories also, often louder and accompanied by large sloppy gestures, that inevitably end with a shouted, "…and then (s)he dumped me!"

          A Knitting Curse, if you will, affects every knitter who has ever Loved and Knit. This is how it works. You are a person who, in addition to all your other interesting vocations and avocations, knits. In between bouts of knitting, you meet someone. You fall in love, so so so deeply in love. You want to share your very soul with your loved one. Your loved one reciprocates. You spend hours, days, weeks gazing into each other's loving eyes. You decide, as a token of your deep and abiding love, that you will make your loved one a sweater. A beautiful, beautiful sweater. (And here it doesn't matter whether the sweater is, in fact a work of wondrousness or whether it has three arms and the neck opening ten inches down and four inches to the left of where neck openings usually go, because you Made It With Love. So so so much love.)

          You work on the Sweater of Love for a long time, for sweaters are not quickly made. You knit your love into each and every stitch. You imagine your loved one wearing it. You stay up late working on the Sweater of Love. You turn down invitations from friends to go out and have extra super fun so that you may toil even harder on this sweater that is the physical embodiment of your deep, abiding love.

          Finally comes a day when the Sweater of Love is finished. All the stitches knitted, seams sewn, loose ends work in. With trembling hands you offer it to your loved one—this symbol of your love over which you have labored so long.

          At this point, one of two things happens. Your loved one dumps you right then and there to run screaming away from you and your bizarre obsession with sweaters. Or, your loved one thanks you bleakly for the Sweater of Love and then a week later texts you some version of it's not you; it's me (with no really it's that sweater as the subtext) and disappears as completely from your life as that one friend of yours who owes you money.

          Those of us who manage to avoid The Curse of the Love Sweater, as it is known to all knitterdom, will not escape its lesser sibling, The Curse of the Cat Sweater.

          Before we were married, I prudently eschewed making any sweaters at all for K (although I did darn his beloved and moth-eaten sailing sweater at his request). After we were married, I made him a beautiful warm sweater that he thanked me nicely for and then put on the remote shelf in the closet where unwearable sweaters went to be discovered by our cats and put to their true intended use: the beautifullest and warmest of cat beds.

          I am a slow learner, and so a few years later I made him another sweater. The cats were excellent pleased with their new, handspun cat bed.

          There were one or two objects after this—the world's scratchiest socks for my mother, interestingly engineered but impractical as regards the actual wearing mittens for our oldest son—but I finally learned not to knit anything out of love for anyone except myself unless I received a signed, notarized request. In triplicate.

The Season 18 Dr. Who scarf.  All the necessary paperwork was filed prior to the making of this scarf.

          So my delightful niece moved me almost to tears this fall when she voluntarily said, without coaching or prodding of any kind from me, "Aunt Nancy, could you knit me a Dr. Who scarf?"

          After she wrote out the request and we found a notary public, I did, indeed, knit her a Dr. Who scarf. It is the most fun I've had on a knitting project this year. And she assures me no cat of hers will be able to use it for a bed, because she will be wearing it.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The God of Design

The poster from the album Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits,
Designed by Milt Glaser. You can get the authorized
reproduction from Mr. Glaser himself. Here's the link.

          Bob Dylan presided over our family room from the 1970s onward, a mysterious presence underneath the psychedelic curls that Milton Glaser gave him in the iconic 1975 poster.

          Many times I looked at that poster and thought, "His hair does not look like that."* Until the day I looked at the poster and thought, "Oh. I get it. The hair is a metaphor." I did not actually use the word "metaphor," because I don't think I knew the word at that point, but that concept—that one thing can represent both what it literally is and at the same time stand in for another idea altogether—was suddenly as clear as if it had been revealed to me by angels. And the idea that you can do that using art—make something beautiful and interesting that also means something else entirely—well, that was magic, pure and simple. That was the day I became an artist.

*I was a child. All children are flinty-eyed literalists.

Saturday, January 11, 2014


          On my last post, I fear I failed in my writerly mission. I was trying to demonstrate the differences between the East Coast and the Rest of the Country using something that everyone would immediately recognize as only available on the east coast. It was not an easy task.

          Krispy Kreme donuts? Ubiquitous, and, in fact, ubiquitous worldwide.
          White Castle Burgers? Available in your grocer's freezer section.
          Hudson News, beloved of Northeast Corridor commuters? There's one in the Denver airport.
          Commuter rail? It's being discussed everywhere, and it has been installed and is even now being used on parts of the west coast, and in Denver (that I know of).

          The only thing I could think of that was peculiarly East Coast is the traffic management innovation known as the jug-handle turn. You just don't see it anywhere else. Which, of course, means that all the people from Anywhere Else are clamoring to know just what the heck one is.

          So I made some diagrams.

          Simply put, a jug-handle turn is a way to manage left turns developed by traffic engineers with highly baroque ideas about directing the movement of vehicles.
A normal left turn. It's pretty straightforward and really requires
no extra signage.

          A jug-handle turn, instead of using one turn to get you going in your intended direction, requires two—a counterintuitive right turn and then a left one.

A jug-handle turn. It works, but no more effectively than a normal
left turn, and requires signage telling drivers that all turns are to be
made from the right lane, confusing the literal-minded and the nervous.
           I am fond of jug-handle turns because they remind me of New Jersey, which was one of my all-time favorite places to live. Still, they are silly. They are a pretentious and overly complicated solution to a simple problem that could probably be better managed with a dedicated turn light. They are the last remaining unassimilated icon of East Coastiness only because no one else wants to assimilate them. We have enough problems already. But hey, thanks for the Krispy Kremes.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Fox Games

         You know what's a big outing in my family when we gather over the holidays?

          A trip to the art museum! Yay!

          I am only being moderately sarcastical. We love us some art museums. Even the young persons. Even my sister's east-coast-centric partner, press-ganged into family togetherness in the western wilderness, far from jug-handle turns and other comforts of civilization.

          So, on New Year's Day, we went to the Denver Art Museum. There was an exhibition of posters from AIGA's archives I wanted to see. B, my sister's east-coast-centric partner, wanted to see a Chuck Forsman photo exhibition. DAM has a gorgeous collection of Native pottery that my potter father never tires of looking at. Mom enjoyed Thomas Moran's Yellowstone chromolithographs. My sister was wowed by Roxanne Swentzell's monumental sculpture, Mud Woman Rolls On.

          And my charming niece? When I asked one of the friendly security guards where the poster exhibition was, M said, "The foxes, Aunt Nancy. Ask him where the foxes are."

          I'd forgotten about the foxes, but M remembered them from a visit several years earlier when she and her brother had walked through the crimson exhibit space that resembled a cafe dipped in red paint. Everything—walls, tables, chairs, dinnerware—was red. Except for the gray foxes, frozen as they rolled and jumped and pounced on one another among the tables and chairs.

          One reviewer characterizes the work of Sandy Skoglund, the artist, as narrative surrealism. The kind of compelling weirdness that drives viewers to invent the stories that seem to be lurking near every fox and under every tablecloth.

Who let the foxes in the cafe?

Is it a game? Or is it a battle?

I want to live in the world where grey foxes romp in red cafes.

          The joy of going to a museum with M is how excited she gets when she sees something she likes. She likes the foxes very much. We took lots of photos. M shared hers with her friends on that thing that's newer than Instagram which I am far too elderly to ever have used (Snapfish? Snapchat? Snapdragon? Something like that). I'm sharing my photos with you here. You'll have to come up with your own stories.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Small Print Leads to a Mosh Pit

          On the very last page of the Large Manual O' Stepmothering, at the bottom, in six-point type, under the heading Other Duties and Responsibilities, is the following phrase, which anyone could be forgiven for missing on a first read: "Take the stepchildren to concerts by very loud bands of whom you have never heard."

          I only discovered it when K absolutely refused to take his youngest, B, to a Social Distortion concert, and I was press-ganged into service.

          "Who are Social Distortion?" I asked innocently. B rolled his eyes, which meant both, "A punk band that is far too cool for the likes of you," and "How can it be that my only ride to this show is a black hole of uncool who will suck all my coolness into her plumbless depths? I wonder if I can get her to sit in the car for two hours."

This is Social Distortion, for those of you who join me in being
tragically uncool. They do the very best version of "Ring of Fire"
since the Man in Black himself. I also love the logo.
Sadly, this does not make me cool.
           But, the instructions in the Large Manual were clear. So we got tickets, and I sacrificed a lovely July evening that I had planned to spend reading (because we uncool do not Go Out; we Stay In. Alas. And read.) to the cause of B hearing Social Distortion live.

          Punk is not my very most favorite genre, so I was expecting a loud, unpleasant evening spent going deaf while keeping an eye on B and trying not to suck all of his cool into my plumbless depths of uncool.

          I perked up a little bit when the opening act set up. There was a bass. I firmly believe that a bass*  makes any band better, and so I thought perhaps this concert wouldn't be the exercise in decibel-thrashing, head-banging despair I had expected.

          Then The Reverend Horton Heat took the stage, and gave us a wall-thumping, amplifier-bouncing, psychobilly tent revival from hell that even the crème de la uncool could tell was Something Else Again. Those boys didn't rock so much as rampage through a scorching-hot set that blew us to our feet and pulsed through the floor until we were powerless not to dance, even the uncool. Even the stepmothers.

This man made a believer out of me.

          Well, I thought to myself when they cleared the stage after their set, that was pretty cool. B was so busy enjoying himself that he hadn't even forbidden me to dance when the spirit generated by that battered, duct-taped up bass had moved me to try steps I hadn't done since college.**

          We were out of our seats by this time, and a mosh pit had formed down in front of the stage. When Social D came onstage and snarled into their set, B shouted something in my ear. "What?" I shouted back. He put his mouth against my ear and bellowed, "I want to go into the mosh pit!"

          What the hell, I thought. I yelled back, "Okay, but I'm going with you." I had no first-hand experience, but I had read about mosh pits, and they sounded like a place where a kid could use some backup from his stepmom***.

          I hate crowds. I hate really loud music. Not to say I hate punk, but I'm not a fan. So why was I dancing in front of a speaker stack that vibrated my entire body, crushed in with a bunch of sweaty kids in a mosh pit, listening to a punk band hammer out "Ball and Chain," and thinking, wow, I have got to get out more. This is great! 

          Because Social Distortion live + way too much amplification + dancing like a holy roller =  transcendence.

          Everyone needs to break free of their boundaries once in a while, to jackhammer themselves with music so big it surrounds and shakes them like a terrier shakes a rat. Dancing in that mosh pit, I felt powerful. I felt elemental. I felt cool.

          Until, that is, a big guy with a beer gut slammed into me. Hard and deliberately. As people do in mosh pits.

          I punched him in that beer gut. Because transcendence just can't overcome my feral dislike of being slammed into under any circumstances. Even if I should know enough to expect it in a mosh pit.

          Quicker than regret, I became a black hole of uncool again. B grabbed my arm, said, "Okay, it's time to get out of here, Nancy," and dragged me up to the balcony of theatre. We spent the rest of the concert up there, safely remote from other concertgoers. B was nice enough not to grump about how I'd spoiled his show, but I did notice that he kept a certain distance between us.

          So that I wouldn't suck all his cool into my plumbless depths of uncool. And also possibly so that I wouldn't punch him, too.****
*not talking about a guitar here, kids, but an actual string bass, beloved of jazzmen, folksingers, and rockabillies.
**I may have pogoed.
***Yes, this is a deeply uncool thought. I did not share it with B.
****Just to clarify, the first rule in The Large Manual O' Stepmothering, which I have followed scrupulously, is "Under no circumstances should you punch the stepchildren."