Driving Miss Tina

2003-2007 Nissan Murano photographed in Colleg...

Nissan Murano (not mine, but similar) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I may have mentioned, I christened my car “Tina” after I bought her.  It started as “Tiny” because she’s a big girl, but she didn’t like it, so now it’s Tina.  I have always loved Nissan cars–one literally saved my life in 2003 (that story I’ll blog about at some point, trust me)–and when I moved back to Colorado, with the prospect of snowy mountain roads, I bought a one-year-old Nissan Murano, silver gray with black interior.  She has many talents, my new (still feels new to me) big girl of a car.

Interesting (to me) digression:  While some complex mechanisms remain resolutely neuter, neutral and completely without individuality, others come equipped with personality, gender and, definitely, opinions of their own.  When I was in college, the elevator in my dorm hated me.  It simply did, that’s all there was to it.  My first car’s name was “Prudence Duvernoy” (from a character I had played in Tennessee Williams’ “Camino Royale”), and that car was madly in love with another student’s big old Chevy and always found a way to park next to him.  My second computer seemed a bit miffed that somebody so clueless could possibly be in charge of it, and I spent more on repairs and tech support than I had for the computer.  I think most people would, if absolutely pressed to the wall about it, admit that some machine in their life seemed to have distinct preferences and likes or dislikes.  And acted upon them.

In any event, back to today’s topic.  My car has many talents, chief among which is being the easiest to drive and the safest-feeling car I’ve ever owned.  As I said, she’s a big girl, and in my part of Colorado, which gets a lot of wind, it’s a delight to have this big solid vehicle around me as traffic lights wave around like banners and flags get ripped off flagpoles and construction signs have to have holes in them to protect them from becoming lethal flying weapons.  Tina also has the ability to find a parking space within reasonable distance of my destination virtually every time.  Even in Estes in the summertime.  That’s a very good talent for a car to have.  And, in spite of her size, she doesn’t guzzle gas, but sips it instead.  Very useful in the coming years.  She’s also comfortable and not cramped.  I’m glad she has cloth seats, because leather seats can be sticky in summer and cold in winter.  She has quite a bit of cargo space, and her rear seats fold down nice and flat.  So, yes, I’m very fond of Tina and she seems quite fond of me.

And where does she spend most of her time?  In my garage.  I’m sure she’s glad it’s there (she’s the first car I’ve ever had that didn’t live outside all the time like a husky).  I know I am, because I’m lucky enough to have an attached garage, which is a great luxury in a cold climate.  But Tina doesn’t spend a lot of time out on the road both because of my California gas crisis background (“is this trip necessary?  how much time do I want to spend in line at the gas station?  and I really shouldn’t be using so much gas anyway”  and so forth), and because I’m spending much more time these days at home, writing.  All good things.  But it turns out I miss driving.  Really a lot.

On Monday, when I went to buy my new toy (see previous post), one of the things I noticed about the whole trip was how much I enjoyed it.  Not just driving Tina because she’s a good, drivable car, but simply driving.  When I first learned to drive, my greatest (non-romantic) pleasure was to drive, simply to drive, not to go anywhere in particular, but to go!  I remember when I was a little girl, Daddy would sometimes say, particularly after dinner on a summer evening, “hey, want to go for a drive?”  And we all piled in, thrilled at the idea.  Daddy, Mama, Gail (that’s me) and Velvet (that’s the dog).  Of course, no summer evening drive engineered and guided by my father would ever come home without stopping at A&W Root Beer, so we had a hidden agenda, but so much of the joy was the drive itself.  This was a while ago, so our car didn’t have air conditioning (nothing had air conditioning except the movie theater, let alone a car) and Greeley, Colorado, while it did cool off after dark in the summer, was HOT.  My mother would bring beach towels so we could actually sit on the seats (which weren’t leather, but the particularly stiff and staunch plastic they had for car seats in the fifties) and Daddy would say a few Army words (as Mama called them while she shot a very dirty look at him) until the steering wheel cooled down enough to touch, and of course we’d have all the windows open.  So off we’d set, no seat belts, of course, not back then, and Velvet’s head out the side back window, ears flopping (she was a cocker spaniel), and me with the dog mostly in my lap, talking to Daddy at the top of my lungs.  The best time.  Ever.  (Especially with the soft ice cream cones we’d always get on the way back home, “we” in this case including the dog, who loved ice cream.)

Obviously, I grew up with the idea that one of the great things to do is get in the car and go for a ride.  And I think that feeling has always been there, even when I didn’t have a car, the time or a full tank.  When I moved to California, after my divorce and before I got so poor I couldn’t afford the gas (let alone trying to be a good person ecologically), I would get in my car and drive on a Sunday or late at night when the world just got to be too much with me and my life was otherwise out of control.  I remember late nights driving up the freeway to Palmdale and letting the car out, with much the feeling that I’m sure a horseback rider has, and driving as fast as I could on those straight empty highways in the high desert.  (For any possible California Highway Patrol person reading this, I think the statute of limitations has run.  I hope.)  I remember trying to pretend I was a famous star incognito driving a convertible (when actually I was a word processor in a Sentra that didn’t even have a sunroof) tooling up and down the Pacific Coast Highway on the way to or from Malibu,  just too cool for school.

Big Sur, California

Big Sur, California (Photo credit: the_tahoe_guy)

Once I took a vacation and drove up the Pacific Coast Highway practically to Oregon, which included driving the utterly glorious (and terrifying) Highway One to and past Big Sur.  It’s perhaps better to be a passenger on such a road trip, because as a driver, you can’t really take your eyes off the twisty turny narrow heartstopping road long enough to look out at the unbelievable heartstopping (for another reason) view.  But there are lots of turnouts, so I’d stop and stare at the Pacific and get back in my little Sentra and twist around the switchbacks some more.  Anybody who loves to drive someday simply has to drive on that road between San Simeon and Carmel.

The only time I didn’t enjoy driving was, of course, the daily commute to work.  Even then, there were times it had its compensations.  After all, if I was in my car getting to work, I wasn’t AT work, drudging away, so that was still a plus.  And there is nothing quite like the feeling of driving home after work.  The relief of it.  Except, of course, in southern California when it rained.  Just as Colorado drivers forget how, each and every year, to drive in the snow, Los Angeles drivers forget how to drive in the rain.  And a year’s worth of oil and muck on the roads gets as slick as snot (I know it’s a disgusting image, but it’s the only one that really says it) when the rains first come.  One night, when I worked downtown, I remember that it took me over two hours to get from my office to my apartment during a rainstorm.  At that time I drove a stick shift, and by the time I arrived home, I thought my leg was permanently damaged from the constant shifting into and out of first gear, trying to get ten more feet down the pavement.

Until I got Tina, I was also frightened of driving in snow, for the very good reasons of the stark terror I’d felt over the years commuting to work in Denver in the blizzards, and a bad accident (I’ve talked about it on this blog) in Wyoming during a blizzard.  But now, Tina does very well with her all-wheel drive and her big all-season tires and her weight.  She’s only slid around once or twice and that was in my neighborhood, so I may be getting a little too sanguine about what is really more dangerous than standard driving.

But last Monday, even with the high winds, driving was just a sheer pleasure.  Going down the canyon (that’s how Estes residents, or “locals” (see my post on Estes definitions) talk about driving down to the “valley” (ditto)) with little traffic was a pleasure, looking out at the trees and the sky and beauty.  I had lunch at a great place in Lyons called “Oskar Blues” and then set off to Boulder for my shopping.  I found parking places easily (okay, Tina found them), and I had the delight I just talked about in my previous post of purchasing my new iPad.  Then I went to Whole Foods, which is another terrific shopping experience, especially for someone like me whose only alternative in her home town is a pretty standard Safeway.  There I bought produce and strawberries that smelled so richly of strawberry that my mouth was watering right there in the store, and other good things to enjoy.  And then I drove home, up the canyon, out of the worst of the wind.

And I loved it.  It reminded me of being young and taking off on a California highway just for the sheer joy of it.  I know it’s frivolous and ecologically unsound and I do try to minimize my driving for the most part, both for reasons of carbon footprint and pollution, but oh how I love to drive Miss Tina!

Colorado Sky

Colorado Sky--One of the Delights of Driving (Photo credit: Let Ideas Compete)

New Toy

It’s all Steve Jobs‘ fault.

Apple iPad Event

Apple iPad Event (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yes, I have succumbed.  Yesterday, at the Boulder Apple Store, I lost all common sense and self-control and bought an iPad.  The new one.  The gorgeous shiny, pretty thing I’ve wanted since the first one came out of the mind of Jobs, the design gurus at Apple, and, sadly, the factories of China.  And, what’s worse, I’m not even sorry.

Not only is the gadget thrilling, the experience of shopping at an Apple store is amazing.  Walk in and no matter how busy they are (and they are always busy), within a minute an employee will have approached you and within another minute, the person who will guide you through the purchase has arrived.  You never stand in line, the wonderful widgets are brought to you and, with small hand-held devices, the employees “ring up” your purchase right then and there.  After which, if you like, they set up the gadget for you and answer all your questions.  And the “wow” factor remains.  Even the packaging is magnificent:  sturdy, attractive, of a quality designed to underscore the quality of what is packaged.  (Yes, packaging is evil.  If the actual trivial way in which we chop up the planet just for ephemeral things isn’t bad enough, the layers of plastic and cardboard in which we surround them will be.)  But Apple’s packaging becomes part of the experience of buying.

So, I discovered that the merest touch and gesture would, more easily and elegantly than on my iPhone, move me from screen to screen, app to app.  I found out how brilliant all images are (unfortunately, this also included my own face, which lately I have enjoyed seeing, shall we say, as if through a bit more mist).  I stayed up late (nonsense, early for me) reading a novel on the delicious sharp screen.  Earlier, I synchronized my new toy with all my other Apple toys (iPhone and iPod).  I surfed apps, and I turned it on and off so often that I actually had to recharge it on its first night.  And I’m still enamored.  Although the guilt level is higher today.

You see, I don’t really need it.  No, let’s state it more forcefully.  I do not need an iPad.  I have an iPhone I still do not really know how to use to its fullest capacity, I have two computers, one a Mac, one a Dell and, as I said above, an iPod.  Obviously, I have long since drunk the Kool-Aid.  But if there’s anything Steve Jobs knew how to do, it was to create desire for those shiny, pretty things–desire that immediately becomes need.  Of course, unlike so many other shiny, pretty things, once a person has an Apple gadget, the delight has a tendency to stick around.  Unlike the toys of my childhood, which barely kept my interest past New Year’s Day after being so wanted, so desperately wanted, prior to Christmas, my iPod, my iPhone, and, I’m sure, my iPad (MY! iPAD!) will be used and happily so for a long time to come (at least, they will if I can figure out all their options and mechanisms).

The term “shiny, pretty things” is not mine.  It comes from the antic and gadfly mind of Mark Morford, a truly sane voice howling in our current cultural wilderness.  He was pointing out in his weekly column for the San Francisco Chronicle that our monkey-desire for these shiny, pretty things is gnawing our planet bare.  And it is.  And I’m guilty.  But as he also pointed out in the same column, all of us want ours before the chance is gone.  After all, they only had to make one more iPad so I could have one.  Only one more.   Sort of how I feel about Colorado–glad I moved back here and NOW they can close the gates and throw away the key.

All of which does have a tendency to take a little of the shine off my new toy.  But I’m still glad I got it.  Thanks, Mr. Jobs.

Although, upon thought, I really should have gotten the white one.

Image representing Apple as depicted in CrunchBase

Little Niggling Things About the Movies

Last night, I saw “The Help” for the first time.  I could wax lyrical about the performances, the story, the many ways they got it right, but this is going to be a blog about the little niggling things that movies get wrong, at least for me.  So here’s one little niggling thing in all that wonderful rightness in “The Help”: Skeeter’s hair.  I don’t mean to brag about my longevity, but I was alive during that era and I remember hair.  Skeeter’s hair was, I think, supposed to be a mass of undisciplined curls, designed to show that she wasn’t caught in the feminine mystique of that era.  And they got her hair right, too, in the scenes where it was straightened and smooth and in the wonderful scene of her first date when she arrives after driving in an open truck in all that Mississippi humidity — her hair suddenly looking as if it was filled with static electricity, frizzing up beautifully.  But the perfect cork screw curls trailing down her face, well, they’re just impossible.  Not just for the styles of the era, but for curly hair in high humidity.  Without tons of what hairdressers call “product,” there are no such things as perfect corkscrew curls, there is only frizz, wild curls that don’t drape lovingly down the side of a pretty face.  The whole point was that she didn’t do all the stuff women did then to make their hair smooth and perfect (well, perfect for the time).  And the other point is that the movie stylists got the costumes, the makeup, the way women looked so right otherwise, but Skeeter’s hairstyle would never have been a style and it was too pretty, symmetrical and cared for to be the non-style the character really required.  It didn’t spoil my enjoyment of a truly good movie, but it’s one of the things I remember about it.

And that got me to thinking about other movies where one niggling little thing (or a few) ends up being more memorable than all the things the cast and crew got right.  I don’t mean to make of this an “ah ha, I’ve got you” kind of thing.  Movie websites are filled with those, after all.  And I don’t mean to denigrate the work and care and artistry that go into making a movie.  I have worked on them myself, mostly in film school, and the quality achieved is often amazing, considering the constraints of time and money everybody works with.  And it is impossible to get everything right, anyway.  Even Steven Spielberg is human (although his level of artistic creation sometimes make me wonder about that).  I also am not talking about deliberate stuff, where one of the artistic points happening may be pastiche, or parody or a stylized version of some kind of reality.  But some of these niggling little things do make me wonder.

For example, in “Titanic,” James Cameron‘s vision is not only remarkable, it’s quite specific.  And in one of his movies, apparently, truly it is his vision we’re experiencing when we watch and listen.  He did his research.  And yet, Rose wears makeup (and it’s made clear it is not simply the actress wearing it, but the character when, during a scene, her tears have made the mascara run), a VERY red and black evening gown, and is apparently living with her fiance.  I’m not suggesting those things didn’t happen, even during that era, but NOT with a supposedly virtuous unmarried girl of good family.  This is pre-WWI, after all, and not only was the whole function of virtuous girls of good family to get married, they achieved that ambition usually using the weapons of ignorance and innocence (imposed by that good family), even if they faked it.  (Old Hollywood joke, attributed to Sam Goldwyn and which I am going to mangle:  “Sincerity is the most important thing and once you learn to fake it, you’ve got it made.”)  Trust me, no Philadelphia debutante would have appeared, PRIOR to her wedding day, wearing visible makeup and a red and black evening gown.  And, even with her mother’s chaperonage, who would NOT have taken passage on even the richest ship in the same cabin/suite as her fiance.  Another bit I didn’t get.  At one point, Rose’s mother talks to her friends at tea and says, “The whole purpose of going to college is to find a fiance.  Rose has already done that.”  Rather than being pre-WWI, that attitude is post-WWII.  Prior to the fifties, most women did not go to college, and if they did, it was in defiance of the current mores and to get an education.  Rose would have gone to a boarding school, perhaps, or a “country day school,” and then possibly a finishing school, but if her mother’s only goal for her daughter was marriage, certainly she would not have taken the chance of having Rose be thought of as a bluestocking by going to college.

Cover of "Titanic (Three-Disc Special Col...

"Titanic" DVD Cover (Amazon)

Whew!  I’m glad I got that out.  I love the movie “Titanic,” but those bits of it always bothered me.  Because Cameron’s (and his crew’s) research was so otherwise impeccable, those must have been artistic choices, and I simply do not know why they were made as they were.

One minor item:  In the movie “Pride and Prejudice” (not the BBC miniseries starring Colin Firth which simply makes me drool and which was very well researched and designed indeed), Elizabeth’s father is played by Donald Sutherland.  He did a fine job of the part.  But for some reason, to me, his teeth looked like chiclets, big white chiclets, far too large for his mouth, and completely unlikely given the period and the dental care available.  I’m not suggesting that everybody in a period movie should go around with brown teeth (in fact, that is truly off-putting, because we watching the film would find that so disgusting), but Mr. Sutherland’s teeth outraged credibility.

So did Clive Owen‘s teeth in the otherwise good film (I loved it) “King Arthur”.  Not as badly, because Mr. Owen was portraying a great knight and future king and a member of the Roman Empire, which while it did not have modern dentistry, did have some dentistry.  But perfect, utterly perfect white teeth seem actually a bit wrong for even films set in the modern era.  I don’t know if the gentleman has caps, which have a tendency to appear to be too big for any mouth they’re in, or if he simply has really terrific teeth, but they bothered me in that film.  Especially since the other actors (while they had cared-for, attractive teeth) seemed to have, well, fewer of them than Mr. Owen.

Schindler's List

Schindler's List (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And, finally, another artistic choice I didn’t understand, and in one of the most superb films I think ever made:  “Schindler’s List.”  Mr. Spielberg had a running motif of a little girl in a red coat walking through the frame in an otherwise purely black and white picture.  For some reason I’d love to hear him explain, he chose to photograph those scenes in color film and de-colorize all but the little girl’s red coat.  But color film de-colorized looks blue, not the rich silvers and grays of the black-and-white stock he used for the rest of the film.  It jarred me.  And technically, it wasn’t necessary, because the little girl’s coat could be, or so I was told at film school, colorized on the black-and-white internegative.  In my view, that would have been the better choice.  But of course I’m not Steven Spielberg by several hundred decimal points, and I’m absolutely sure he had an extremely cogent reason for his choice.  I just wish I knew what it was.

And for today, that’s enough about niggling little things, especially teeth, which seemed to figure as prominently in this essay as they did (to me) in the actors’ mouths.  I think, since TV tonight is abysmal, I’ll pick out the BBC version of “Pride and Prejudice” and spend the evening with Mr. Darcy as exquisitely and perfectly played, without one niggling little thing, by Colin Firth.  Yum!


My Home in Estes Park

I recently read a magazine article which was primarily about the subtle joys of retirement.  Her point was that, while it was hard to become accustomed to determining her own use of time, she found it to be a great wonder in her life.  I agree with that wholeheartedly, both the difficulty of getting used to it and the joy it brings being truly the captain of my fate, as it were.  But something she wrote got me to thinking.  One of her greatest joys now that her children have grown and she’s no longer employed is that she does not have to be home at any given time, nor stay home.  Her life, now, can be and is spent away from home, in the great world.

For me, however, the entire purpose of retirement, the delight I gain in not having a paid job, is that I can stay home.  I have always liked home best, enjoyed the freedom of doing what I wished inside the cozy, private space of my own domain, taking care of my house and possessions, working on my computer, reading, sewing, needlepointing, even watching TV, enjoying the antics (even if they are mostly asleep) of my cats.  I still arrive back at my house, put my car away and close the garage door with a feeling of safety, security and joy.  I’m HOME!  I remember how glorious that feeling was when I was working, but it still lives in me every day.

So I’m curious.  What about the concept of  home can be to me such a welcome refuge, but to others more a prison?  Perhaps for the writer mentioned above, her time at home had always been spent dealing with, picking up after and mothering children, cleaning the space, figuring out what to have for dinner, and much more.  It could very well have been a place where there was no leisure, no self-determination, no feeling of refuge.  It could very well have been a place where the writer simply had more and even harder, perpetual work to do.  I have heard from women, particularly women with small children, that leaving home, getting out of the house, is like being released from a particularly noisy, messy and sticky jail.  I didn’t have children, so that aspect of life at home was not at issue.  But I was married, once, and sometimes the presence of a husband seemed to loom over me.  My home, my rooms, weren’t really mine.  I was fortunate because our house had a small basement room that I used as a sewing room and (later on) a refuge from my marriage, and I suppose it served as an emotional release valve.  Since he never went in it, my husband didn’t comment about its tidiness or lack of same or the ways in which I stored and organized my projects there.  But I have clear memories of him going through the living room and rearranging ornaments so that they were militarily square with the edges of the surfaces they were on.  I remember quite clearly how that drove me quietly crazy.  I remember, too, that he once made an entire day’s discussion (lecture) over the fact that I had forgotten I already had gelatin and continued to buy packages of it until I had over 20 packages.  Of course he was right and I didn’t buy gelatin again throughout the course of our marriage (that’ll show him), but what irritated me is that he was spending his time going through MY kitchen cabinets.

Now, from his point of view, of course it was also his house and he had a perfect right to take an interest in it and make his stamp upon it.  (It should be noted, he had his own room that he called his dressing room that I didn’t enter except to clean, so there was a kind of parity.  It should also be noted that we had similar tastes (not, obviously, for gelatin).  Also, he was old-fashioned in some ways and thought that the decoration of the house was up to me.)  So I didn’t make an outsize fuss because I did know he had a right to live in our home just as I did.

But I have to admit that I didn’t miss living with him when we divorced.  How lovely to live in my own place where I could have as many packages of gelatin as I wanted in my cupboards.  (Oddly enough, I don’t buy it any longer, don’t seem to want to eat gelatin salads.)

Robert Frost's Farm

Robert Frost's Farm (Photo credit: StarrGazr)

So perhaps my concept of home, as is the writer’s first mentioned above, is doing what we want to do in our own space, whether that is cocooning (me) or spending most of the time outside of it (her).  There are a great many concepts of home, I think, ranging from my own utter sense of refuge and welcome and gladness to the home-as-prison feeling, where the home is just a house, just a place to put possessions and (occasionally) sleep.  Robert Frost once said, “home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”  He was talking, I think, more about family than a physical space, and he has a good point.  When I was a little girl, we moved often, because Daddy changed jobs about every other year.  He always said that “home is where the heart is.”  Again, he wasn’t talking about a physical space, but an emotional place of welcome.  Until his death, I was always completely secure in that emotional loving space.  Later in my life, the specific house got more important, I admit, to my sense of being home, because the emotional center left when he died.

On the other hand, however, the concept of home can’t really be encompassed by four walls and a floor and a roof.  My sense of home now comes deeply because I have returned home, home to the mountains of Estes Park.  My home still is the refuge that shuts out the cold and snow and the demands of the outside world, but my home is also and always the mountains surrounding the Estes valley, the sense of peace and joy that coming back to the place I was raised always gives me.  When I lived in Los Angeles, my sense of home was truncated because I didn’t really like it there, and I kept trying to imagine the house that would make it all right.  That never worked.  My sense of home in Los Angeles became my friends, not the places they lived, but the connections among us that made living in a big city less lonely.  New York, well, Manhattan, was home immediately.  I fell in love with it and made my neighborhood my home (this was of course facilitated by the fact that New York apartments, unless one has pots of money or rent control (neither of which I had), are small, cramped and usually face north for some reason.  So my sense of home expanded to include my block and the public spaces I had the great good fortune to live next to (Central Park and  Lincoln Center).  But now, home is Colorado, or at least that part of it from Denver to the continental divide in which my small town nestles.

Cloudy Afternoon Over Central Park, New York City

Cloudy Afternoon Over Central Park, New York City (Photo credit: andrew c mace)

And one last comment.  Let’s face it, a home would be a prison, by definition, if we couldn’t leave it.  Which is what, I think, the writer I first mentioned above still felt after years as the mother, wife, housecleaner, “chief cook and bottle washer,” as my mother would have said.  Just let me out of here.  Come to think of it, I wouldn’t feel my great joy in coming home, in closing all the doors behind me and feeling safe and enclosed, if I hadn’t, after all, been out in the great world.  In all things, it is the contrast that points up the value.

Finding Leaves on the Family Tree

Occasionally, I go to my Ancestry.com page and try to climb just a bit farther up my family tree.  If I explore my mother’s mother’s lineage, I can find quite a

Davy Crockett 1967 Issue, 5c

Davy Crockett 1967 Issue, 5c (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

good many names and historical records and whatnot, because apparently lots of people search through families that came from (or at least stopped in) Virginia.  At some point, my mother was persuaded to join the Daughters of the American Revolution, which was a big deal in her mother’s family.  She eventually abandoned the attempt, saying later (much later) to me that they were too snobbish for her.  I have no way of knowing if this is objectively true, of course–I was surprised to discover that the organization still exists and has quite a few philanthropic activities.  In any event, one of the application processes necessary is to prove through genealogical evidence that one is indeed a descendant of a soldier in the American Revolution (ahem, of course, one on our side–fighting for the British would not, I imagine, increase one’s chances of being able to join).  So after I had started getting interested in looking up the family tree, it was treasure trove indeed to find the genealogical worksheet my mother had gotten from one of her relatives.  It turns out that the Revolutionary War soldier to whom the link was made was a Samuel Crockett, who was a soldier with a Virginia militia and saw action in the American Revolution.  More interesting from my own point of view, Samuel Crockett was apparently a direct ancestor of Davy Crockett, the explorer who served in Congress and who eventually fought and died at the Alamo.  This made me rather popular when I was a child, although a few people now, when informed of my one and only genealogical claim to fame, have a tendency to say ‘who?’.

A dear friend years ago did more genealogical research on that side of the family for me and found evidence that the Crockett family originally hailed from France, their name then being Crocketaigne.  (Of course, we all originally hail from Africa, so this is a kind of interim origination.)  According to records found by my friend, the founding member of this branch (where do you place the cutoff, by the way–every founding member of a family has a father and mother) was an actual Musketeer, doing the same work and living in the same era as the fictional “Three Musketeers”.  From research, my friend told me that this Crocketaigne married a member of the French court, but they left France and moved to Ireland, supposedly because they were Huguenots.  (My own feeling is that this makes little sense, because why would a Protestant being kicked out of a Catholic country, which is basically what happened to the Huguenots, go to another Catholic country, but that’s what the research indicated.)  From there, the Crocketaignes, now Crocketts, immigrated to what was then not quite yet the United States.

Interestingly, my mother’s father’s family tree has quite a few leaves as well.  There seems to be a groundswell of interest in those looking up their Swedish origins.  Of course, not being able to speak Swedish (I know, that disappoints me too), I can’t decipher any actual records kept within Sweden and so need to take some other family tree researcher’s word for the names and locations.  But still, there seem to be a sprinkling of Persdotters and Ericsons who lived in the middle of Sweden who are probably my long ago ancestors.  I do know that my grandfather came to Virginia as a boy to get work.  He met my grandmother there and, after the birth of my mother, in 1913, they moved to Oneida, New York, where my grandfather worked as a forger at Oneida Community Silverplate.  That always fascinated me as a child, because of course I thought if he was a forger, he was forging documents or money or pictures, but it’s not nearly so romantic.  The forger at the silver factory forged the knives, rather as a blacksmith forges iron gates and whatnot.  So my mother was born in Virginia but raised in upstate New York.  She met her first husband there (he was a chef on the big ships that plied the Great Lakes) and she met my father there–his family being from the Syracuse, New York, region.

One aspect of research into family history that delights me is the historical vignettes one comes across.  For example, in my researches just into my mother’s side of the family, I’ve discovered more about the history of the Oneida Community and the wider and deeper history of the utopian movement that led to such communities being established in upstate New York.  This is why there are so many names in that region that are taken from Greek, Roman and other classical sites, such as Oneida, Troy, Rome, Syracuse and so forth.  Nineteenth Century men and women, in an attempt to create a perfect society, would come to the United States, set up what is no more or less than a commune, and attempt to live by classical or Republican (in the classical sense) or other ideals.  The vast majority of these utopians, as they were called, ended up dissipating (as did the more recent communal efforts), but Oneida Community, seeing the handwriting on the wall, turned their apparently considerable talents to figuring out a way to survive in the real world, and started silverplating flatware.  They still do, creating a high quality product.  I have no family ties with anybody who created or lived in the Oneida Community when it was a utopian experiment, but my grandfather was employed by them throughout his working life, even during the depression, when he would work one or two days a week only.  So there’s a tie of interest, if not of family.

Oneida Community, Home Building, Oneida, Ny.

Oneida Community, Home Building, Oneida, Ny. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But back to genealogy.  While I have been able to climb the many branched maternal tree, the problem comes with my father’s side.  No matter how I search or what I search through, I cannot seem to get past my great-great grandfather (father’s father’s side) or my grandmother herself (father’s mother’s side). Now, in the case of the Willwerths (my maiden name), my great-grandfather Fredrick was apparently, according to census records, born in upstate New York, and lived in Syracuse most of his life, but I can find nothing about his parents at all.  And more, the family story (undoubtedly apocryphal) is that my great-grandfather’s name was Carl (or Karl) and that he emigrated from Germany, from Bavaria.  But I can’t find any records of that either, even in the detailed shipping manifests that have been published on the ancestry.com site.  Further, census records indicate that the family came here from Prussia, not Bavaria.   I don’t speak German, either, so even looking at birth or baptism records from Bavaria or Prussia is beyond me.  So I’m obviously not experienced enough a researcher to cut through this particular thicket.  Worse, my father’s mother (whose full maiden name, Nellie Ann Pitcher, I finally discovered by diligent search through every piece of paper signed or written or filed by my father) seems to be an entire roadblock all by herself.  I cannot find any record of her birth, nor can I find any records of her parents.

Frustrating but interesting, all at the same time.  What I am discovering, if not new leaves on my tree, is several facts about genealogy.  First, that amateur genealogists have a tendency to accept all possible records, thus ending up with a family tree in which, sometimes, the dates of the parent generation simply do not match those of the children.  I have often read through records in the ancestry.com database in which the last three or four children were born after the mother’s date of death, which does seem miraculous.  In another instance (on the Swedish line), I discovered a marriage between a man born in 1740 and a woman born in 1688.  Who died in 1720.  I don’t think so.  I try to filter those through what little common sense I have before adding the records to my tree.

Even more frustrating is the cavalier way in which our ancestors got born, got married, had children, lived, and died without anybody thinking it would be a good idea to write down the circumstances.  My own father did not, apparently, have a birth certificate.  When it was necessary in order for him to join an officers’ candidate school class in early WWII, he had to get a notarized affidavit from his father attesting to the date and (presumably) the fact of his birth.  My mother also did not have a birth certificate.  Even more perplexing, the spelling of my father’s name, Willwerth, appears differently in practically every record I’ve been able to unearth (are we really ‘unearthing’ when we’re searching the Internet?).  Wilworth, Wilwert, Wilwerth, many others.  Are they simply misspellings or mistranscriptions of the name, or are they different people?  In addition, I keep finding the right name but in the wrong place.  To my knowledge (which isn’t that comprehensive, of course), my direct Willwerth ancestors never lived, traveled, moved to or even thought about Michigan, but I keep finding records giving the correct name and the right time in Michigan.  Sigh.

I’m  not sure that any but other hobbyists like myself will find this interesting, and those hobbyists, undoubtedly being much better and more experienced at it, will laugh (perhaps reminiscently, because we all start somewhere) at my fumblings.  But this is my own small part in history and I’ve always loved history.  It is quite amazing to have discovered that an ancestor of mine was perhaps a genuine Musketeer serving the King of France, or that my great-grandfather owned a livery stable in Rome, New York just before the advent of the internal combustion engine.  It makes history come alive in a way that even the best book does not.  Real people did those things, and not just kings and princes and presidents and generals, but the forgers (this still makes me giggle) and the train conductors (my paternal grandfather) and the Revolutionary War soldiers.  Perhaps someday I will find out about more of the contributions of the men and, harder to find but as or more important, the women who are leaves on my family tree.

Ahnenblatt Family Tree Example

Family Tree Example (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Time for the Irish

English: Postcard: "St. Patrick's Day Sou...

Image via Wikipedia

Today’s is St. Patrick’s Day and the wearing of the green is imperative.  I’m not sure about others, but the mere thought of green ketchup, let alone green beer, more or less makes me shudder.  But today we’re all a bit Irish, so even though my heritage is a mixed bunch of northern Europeans not including Irish or Scots, I thought I’d explore my own Irish yearnings.

First, I tried to think of what I knew about St. Patrick himself.  It turns out not much.  Let me see, he was a Catholic saint who Christianized pagan Ireland and threw out all the snakes.  I’ve never known what that meant, although I have read that Ireland truly does not have any indigenous snakes, which is not a bad thing in a country.  I have this vision of St. Patrick picking up the snakes and tossing them, one by one, in the outgoing tide of the ocean.  I don’t think that’s probably how he did it, if he did it.  Perhaps because it is his saint’s day, there are quite interesting articles on the Internet about him, Ireland and the various traditions.  Here’s one I read that I found quite fascinating:  Did St. Patrick sell slaves to the Irish?  In it, a Cambridge scholar posits the notion that St. Patrick was a slaveholder and a tax collector, or at least his family was.  This seems quite different from the vague legends I’ve heard about him.  In fact, I seem to have some awareness that he freed Irish slaves (a very good thing but one which, alas, did not last that long, from the little I know of Irish history).

Statue of St. Patrick in Aughagower, County Mayo

Statue of St. Patrick in Meath--Image via Wikipedia

So what else do I know about Ireland?  Turns out I don’t know very much about the country either.  I know it was originally settled by Celts, who created while they made Ireland their home rather wonderful stories of their origins and their gods and goddesses.  I know that Ireland suffered raids from the Norse, who were originally, I think, some form of Anglo-Saxon or Germanic tribe who settled up in the frozen north somewhat later than the Celts moved into the British Isles.  I know that Ireland became a Christian country (St. Patrick led the wave here, I believe), and for many years Ireland was considered far, far more scholarly and civilized than any other Christian country, even enlightened.  Once England had been made Christian, there was apparently quite a lot of controversy between the two kinds of Catholicism, Irish and Roman, with the Roman Catholics eventually winning.  And I know that at some time during the Middle Ages, the British kings and their armies ‘subdued’ Ireland, from which led all these hundreds of years of resistance on the part of the Irish.  I put quotes around ‘subdued’ in the last sentence because the Irish (how strange) didn’t like being subdued and fought it from that day to this.  Sometimes it seems, from what I’ve read or heard, that the island was colored more with red blood than green trees and bogs.  My other knowledge of Ireland is fairly modern, having to do with the potato famine, the emigration of starving Irish to other countries, particularly the United States, and the ‘Troubles,’ which is a somewhat euphemistic term for many many years of fighting and tragedy that led eventually to the Free State of Ireland, the division with Northern Ireland (which felt more of a compatibility with Britain), the Sinn Fein, the IRA (and, I believe the IRA is an arm of the Sinn Fein, not the other way around), Michael Collins and all the stories of bombings and misery in the sixties, seventies, eighties and forward.

I know that Ireland is a beautiful island, green as chopped parsley, filled with bogs, cliffs, fields, forests, oaks and legends.  The leprechaun with his pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  Dagda, the good god, Brigid, the goddess of water and of fire, Rhiannon, the great queen,  Epona, the goddess of the horse,  Cerunnos, the antlered god, Macha and Nemain, the goddesses of war, all of the Tuatha de Denan.  And one of the loveliest of heavens, the Tir Na Nog, the Land of Eternal Youth and Beauty, somewhere in the West.

And the gorgeous art, the lovely carved stones, the illuminated manuscripts.  More recently, the lead crystal, the fisherman’s sweaters, the Irish linen, the Belleek china, the poetry and prose, the songs and tales, so much that is lovely.  Writers such as (and this is only the recent ones) Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, Sean O’Casey and of course James Joyce, the writer of “Ulysses,” of which I can say without caveat that I have managed to read the first five pages.  Several times.  And music and dance that, even with very little of the Irish in my heritage, seems to call to me.  Oh, one more legend I think I know is that whiskey was first distilled in Ireland.  (Considering how melancholy much of their history is, perhaps this is not surprising.)  Possibly Scotland would dispute that claim, but after all, in Scotland, it’s called ‘whisky’ anyway.

And all I know of the shamrock is that it exists, has three leaves (not four) and is a symbol of Ireland.  Well, it’s certainly green, and I think it had something to do with St. Patrick, but that’s all.

It seems clear I have some researching to do.  And maybe someday a trip to take.  All my ‘knowledge’ of Ireland is anecdotal and vague and there is so much more to this country so rich in history and lore than I know.  But today, we are all a bit Irish, and so I salute Ireland and its people, so staunch, so unwilling to be ‘subdued’, and its culture and life.

English: St. Patrick's Church St. Patrick was ...

An Irish Church--Image via Wikipedia

All except corned beef and cabbage.  I can’t quite get my mind or heart around that.

A Small Poem Written Late Last Night


Cat (Photo credit: sylvia@intrigue)


What do they think of us?
These small beasts who look at us
Out of such containment,
Who love us so inexplicably?

When we pick them up,
Do they think it is alike unto
Their play with a mouse?

Are we their sisters and brothers
That they curl up
In the bend of our knees and purr?

Do they feel our hands stroking
As they do the grooming of their mothers?

Do they groom us
Because to them we are their kittens?

They are small so they sleep lightly,
Lest danger threaten.
But they trust us and let sleep overtake them.

That trust is enchanting.
Reassuring. We are indeed gods.
Their contained love is all in all.

We are not gods, we are monsters.
They should not love us.

But they do.

The Secret to Writing

First, there is more than one.  But there are few.  So this should be a rather short post.

The primary secret to writing is to write.  A lot.  Many many words.  Often.  I think we have all known bright, interesting people who are convinced that the Great American Novel hides somewhere in their minds.  But unless the GAN actually makes the trip from inside the mind to on the page, it really doesn’t exist.  Writing is like any kind of performance, it requires talent, opportunity and rehearsal.  We may be intrigued by the possibility of competing on Dancing With the Stars or The Voice, taking a bow for an Oscar-winning role, appearing onstage at the Met or Carnegie Hall, receiving a standing ovation for a rendition of Mendelssohn‘s First Violin Concerto (or, for that matter, for a soulful solo of “At Last”).  (Or maybe that’s just me.)  But, let’s face it, without a combination of chance, ability and practice, the only thing any of us would be able to do if we found ourselves onstage at Carnegie Hall is to blush and sidle off stage right.

English: A post-concert photo of the main hall...

Carnegie Hall--Image via Wikipedia

Native talent is something that we can do little about–it either exists in us or not.  (Although I believe we each of us have more talent, more talents, than we have ever explored or will ever have time to explore.  And there is something to be said for the notion that talent may be another word for desire, for love of the thing.  So it’s not something to worry about.)

Opportunity can be iffy.  If you want to be an astronaut, apart from the training and the scientific and physical abilities you must demonstrate, you have to realize how few slots open up each year.  That’s simply a given.

But rehearsal?  Now, that’s something we all can do, each in our various areas of desire.  All the time.  Every day, in some way.  Keep a journal, start a blog, Write poetry, songs, short stories, novels, words on a screen, as many as you can.  To be a writer, write.

The second secret to writing is to read.  In my friend’s blog, Sharon Sings and Writes, she tells us the many ways in which she organizes her life to make it possible for her to read what she wants and needs to read to help her enhance her writing.  I do many of the same things, skimming through articles, discarding those that aren’t ‘speaking’ to me, choosing books and magazines carefully.  But I read almost to the point of addiction (oh, well, actually, far past that point) every day.  I read when I’m eating (alone), when I’m watching TV (except for Downton Abbey and The Good Wife), when I’m taking a bath (I wish they’d create waterproof books–far too many of mine have wavy edges after an unexpected dip in the tub), when I’m doing chores, and sometimes while I’m writing (this is not easy).  I read the newspaper, magazines, articles on the web, books (books for research, books for enjoyment, books for knowledge, and novels, novels, novels).  I hope you love to read.  Very few writers who love to write hate to read.  And, by the way, if you are writing without loving it, there is very little point.

The third secret to writing is to learn how.  Writing practice and reading as much as you can are key here, but there is also formal learning.  Learn the structure of our language, learn how to write a sentence, a paragraph, an essay.  Read books on writing, such as “Bird by Bird” and “On Writing”. Learn syntax and grammar, punctuation (a fun way to do this is to read “Eats Shoots and Leaves“), and spelling.  Yes, even in a Spellcheck world, you need to know how to spell.  Spellcheck does not pick up everything.  Take classes in composition as well as in creative writing.  Constructing a non-fiction article requires using detail and evidence rather differently than you do in fiction, essays or poetry.  Learn how to touch type.  Unless you are Anthony Trollope, you will probably do your writing on a computer.  While Hildy Johnson in “My Gal Friday” managed quite well using two fingers, touch typing is a lot faster.  And you don’t want the mechanics of getting the words out to interfere with the flow inside your mind.  Learn formats.  In other words, learn the rules of your trade.  You may then break those rules at your pleasure, but you can’t break rules unless you know what they are.  Remember, Picasso knew how to draw.

The fourth secret to writing is to figure out what you want to write, why you want to write, and how.  Not everybody wants to write for publication.  If you wish to write for your own enjoyment, have at it!  And find a writing group specifically designed for expression.  But if you do want to write for publication, first, learn to cope with criticism.  Hopefully you will receive the kind known as ‘constructive criticism,’ that only hurts when you breathe.  But you will have to deal with criticism in one way or the other even if the only person who ever reads your work is your mother. Second, find out what markets there are for what you want to write.  Writer’s Digest can help you here; it is an invaluable resource for the writer for publication.  This magazine will help you learn how to find the market, how to present your work, and how to handle the business end of being a writer.  It will also help you improve your writing with prompts, contests, and articles about specific writing issues.  I can recommend it wholeheartedly.  And if you want to write screenplays, realize that nobody, NOBODY, will read your work if it isn’t in proper format.  This is as the laws of the Medes and the Persians.  Even if you’re the brother of the producer’s nephew’s girlfriend’s nanny, which is as close as most of get to nepotism in a most nepotistic Industry, you won’t get it read unless it looks like a screenplay, reads like a screenplay, is as long as a screenplay should be, and uses camera directions properly.

Summer reading, 2011.

Summer reading, 2011. (Photo credit: revbean)

The fifth secret to writing I may have mentioned.  Write.

And, finally, note I did not entitle this blog post “The Secret to Publishing.”  My list of published writings is so slim that if you blink while reading them, you’ll miss them.  And none of them would you find on Amazon.com.  Ahem.  So that’s a secret I’ve yet to crack.  Anybody out there who’s figured that one out, please do not hesitate to let us all know.  Happy writing.

The Great American Novel -

The Great American Novel - (Photo credit: unprose)


[NOTE:  I belong to a writing group designed for self-expression.  The moderator assigns fifteen-minute essays (stories, poems, whatnot) based on pictures, grab bags of images, words, concepts, almost anything.  Each member of the group writes for the regulated amount of time and then we read aloud.  Occasionally, on this blog, I will publish some of the essays I have written in that group in a new category.  This is one of them, slightly modified.]

A Thick Forest

A Thick Forest (Photo credit: Jon Person)

“A forest which has never felt an axe.”  A time before history began.  Imagine a land filled with the green of growing, with the rustle and creep of living.  A land with no horizon, only trees for up and water for across.  A place where you cannot hear your own footsteps.  There are many such on our beautiful planet, from tropical rain forests to jungles to temperate rain forests to hardwood forests to pine forests in all our mountains to perhaps the most beautiful of all, the redwood and sequoia groves on the west coast of the North American continent.  But, let’s face it, humans really don’t feel comfortable in forests.

We did not start in such a place, we human beings, but in a wider, less lush world.  When we first came upon forests, in Africa and later in Europe, Asia and America, we found them uncanny.  We have always preferred spaces where we can see what’s coming at us.  In all the tales, the forest is a most frightening place, where the very trees, more alive than those in pastoral settings, can capture you and you’ll never be seen again.  Look what happened to Hansel & Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood or what almost happened to Frodo‘s friends in Pangorn.  To our species, just getting started, a forest was not a refuge, but a trap.

Arthur Rackham, illustration to Hansel and Gretel

Arthur Rackham, Hansel & Gretel--Image via Wikipedia

But the forest can be sanctuary.  If it’s harder to see your enemies in a forest, it’s also harder for them to see you.  Snow White found safety in a forest.  And so did the Celts.  Long, long ago, the Celtic tribes moved with their cattle and their looms and combs and swirling artistic designs, their ability to mine and market tin and salt, west and north from the Great Steppes into and over the heavily forested Alps.  Once over that barrier, they found a forest so primeval it seemed black instead of green, a forest anchored by oaks growing for hundreds of years, a forest so solid with growth that the occasional light-filled glade must have felt like a special benison from the gods, a forest in which the flow and pool of water was so astonishing–and so necessary–that each spring and pool soon became inhabited by its own goddess.

The Celts built a beautiful and sometimes terrible culture in the forests of Europe and the British Isles, in those primeval wooded places.  They hacked at the fringes for firewood and charcoal and space for houses and fields, but they worshipped the true untouched forest, feeling at home, at peace and filled with grace within its sheltering branches.

English: Maximum Celtic expansion in Europe. B...

Furthest Expansion of the Celts--Image via Wikipedia

Their culture remained supreme in Europe until the Romans.  The Greeks traded with them and warded them off, finding their religion barbaric, although they discovered the Celts’ priests–the druids–wise and cruel and crafty.  Best to keep them on the other side of Parnassus, after all.  But the Roman legions cut down the sacred oaks, walled and roofed over the sacred pools, renamed the gods and goddesses and so tamed them, even Cernan of the forest and Brigidda of the waters, suppressed the druids and the human sacrifice which had kept those woods so dark over thousands of years, and rammed through their stone roads to open up the forests to trade.  The intricate culture of the Celts never recovered–and neither did the forests.

But it is that Europe, that England, I long to see, the wooded land before the Romans, the sacred groves and pools, the interesting, productive, artistic, cultured and deadly people who, almost unique among the world’s tribes, loved the forests.  There are some pockets of forest left, just as there are still Celts among us, but mostly the black forests covering huge square miles of land are gone in Europe and England, cut down to build ships and palisades and houses, to clear fields for crops, and to burn as fuel.

Apart from the Celts, we humans have always found forests frightening and prefer them once they have felt the axe.