Friday, June 30, 2017

The Lessons of Old Wood

Some projects take more time than others. Twenty-seven springs ago, when I knew we were moving into this house, I bought an old, cedar lined, wardrobe trunk, to use as multipurpose furniture.

"It can be a coffee table or a lamp table" I caroled to my overwhelmed husband. "While it stores extra blankets and quilts."

"What we need is more floor space," he replied, eyeing the battle-scarred box, "and we're not going to get it with that ugly thing."

"Just you wait, once I paint it, this thing will be beautiful," I said. And, because I was in a hurry, I poured a quart of ivory paint over the entire trunk and hauled it into the house. It didn't look good or hold the out-of-season linens like I planned, but it served as table and storage container for decades, first in the living room and then on the porch. With the construction of Darling Husband's garage, the cedar trunk was emptied of its cache of tools and finally ready for the restoration I promised it years ago.
Trunk after years on the porch. This should be an easy cleanup, right?

That process has taken the best part of a week and three layers of skin from my hands. But I also gained some wisdom worth keeping: what I think of as The Lessons of Old Wood

Respect the Product That's what I didn't do with ivory paint years ago. Wardrobe trunks were manufactured to be complex, durable luggage made from various woods, metals, cloth adhesives and other materials. As a result, these trunks were durable, one reason there are still so many on the market. But that also meant, no matter how sad my trunk looked when I purchased it years ago, the ivory paint didn't hide the scars of its use; instead, it added an extra layer I'd have to take off down the line. And none of those layers would leave without a fight.

Respect the Process. After years of neglect and exposure, I expected stripping this thing would be a cinch. So, putty knife in hand and the lyrics to Born in a Trunk in my head, I went to work. And five hours later, the porch floor was covered in layers of adhesive, paint and cardboard, I was a sweaty mess and the trunk looked like it had an incurable skin disease. After that came three days of rubbing, sanding, chemical strippers and removing decades of grime from the details of this box. By the end of the third day, my unconscious had switched from Born in a Trunk to Give Me Something to Believe In and the top layer of skin on my hands was gone. And the trunk still looked sick.
3 days and the boring trunk now looks diseased.
Strong Problems require Strong Treatment. After a little Internet Research, I found Citristrip, a marvelous product that cleans wood and metal without killing your sense of smell. That took layers off the wood of the box and floor below when it dropped (well, I can repaint the porch later.) Notice all the stained wood? Yeah, so did I. Trust me, no chemical stripper or high-grit level of sandpaper will fix that issue. So I went to work with the 60 grit sandpaper and kicked up a huge level of dust. Now that sucker's beginning to clean up.
Post CitriStrip - Stained but Cleaned
You have to Get Dirty to Clean Something Else Up. This is something the DIY blogs don't mention. When I reviewed posts on restoring old furniture (and there are thousands of them out there) they all mentioned several things, like chemical strippers, vinegar and water solutions and lots and lots of sanding. None of them mentioned the mess all this creates. As layers of paint, glue, and cardboard came off of the trunk, they reattached themselves to whatever was handy; the floor, my shorts and me. And stripping gel is an ooey-gooey gunk before it gets to work, even worse when it does its job. So have trash bags handy and lots of paper towels if you decide to do this. Expect to wash a lot of laundry during the process. And repaint the porch when you're done.
Stripped and Sanded - The trunk looks better even if the porch floor looks worse
Perfect ain't necessarily flawless. When the trunk was clean inside and out and the goo-soaked mess was gone, I took a serious look at the box left behind. To me, the wood was beautiful, but it looked far from flawless. There were scars and pits in the surface that even a good sanding couldn't touch and the woodgrain had some serious issues. I remembered that, although the interior was lined with cedar, this exterior was a different wood, probably considered inferior and cheap. So had all of my work been for nothing?

No.  I cherish this old wooden box because of the age and events that gave it these scars.  It was probably made somewhere between 1910 and 1940, which means it's seen at least one world war, a few revolutions, some economic downturns, and a lot of social change.  At first, it was somebody's luggage with drawers on one side and hangers on the other, which means it's probably been hauled to a lot of places and had a lot of hands upon it.  As the times changed, it got shoved into unlikely places, filled with crap, and ignored.  And then I dumped my husband's greasy tools inside and left it out in the weather.  And still, the trunk survives.  

So, this time, I rubbed it down with layers of tung oil, allowing it time for each layer to cure. I didn't try to mask the imperfections in the wood but I did try to let its golden beauty shine through along with its age.  And then I put it back to work.

Now the Trunk is where I always wanted it to be, holding the quilts and blankets we don't need right now.  Even Darling Husband says it's beautiful.  And I think he's right.

Thursday, June 15, 2017


Ever been slapped upside the head by a forgotten Memory?

I'm not talking about the memories with short-cut, easy-access triggers.  Those are the ones you use from every day, stuff like your computer password, social security number and how to drive a car. Other recollections get misfiled in dusty cranial drawers so when you need the information, you walk around feeling stupid for five minutes, saying, "I know (fill in the blank) like I know my own name, what is it?" I'm talking about the memories that pop up out of nowhere and surprise the heck out of you.  That happened to me today. You could say it was a random accident or because Father's Day is coming up soon. Personally, I think the culprit is cake.

See, dense sugar/carb sweets are like cocaine to me and I've been trying to live without them for the last 14 months or so.  I've been doing pretty well with that too, not even missing the pastries I couldn't live without before.  At least until a couple of things that happened lately....

See some friends did us a wonderful favor.  I mean HUGE.  And nothing says "Thank You" to a friend like bringing them a great, big, gorgeous, dessert you've made yourself.  But nothing will get me in trouble faster than getting my fingers near cake batter So, I purchased and froze one angel food cake, two cartons of ice cream, some strawberries and whipped topping.   The frozen angel food cake was sliced into three layered rings, ice cream was spread like mortar between the layered rings, the whole thing was frosted with topping and strawberries and the result?

Tempting, right?
One "Thank You" cake pretty enough for the cover of Southern Living that still managed to avoid the perils of temptation...barely.  But then, there came the cookout.

Cookouts are almost an obligatory component of summer, like visitors.  Since we were hosting the latter, we had the former.  And (because you can't host a cook-out without dessert), pound cake and fruit were on offer for dessert.  A dessert no one had room to eat.  So after the cook-out, I'm stuck at home with a pound cake.

Does anyone remember Richard Pryor's routine about the cocaine pipe?  He swore that the pipe talked to him when he was actively freebasing. Now, when I first heard it, I thought he was a brilliant comedian, during the misery of addiction into performance art but I didn't really believe the pipe talked.  Well folks...the cake started talking.

VOICE IN THE KITCHEN:  Lessslie. Oh, Lessslie... I'm heeere.

ME:  Shut up, cake.  I don't want you.

VOICE IN THE KITCHEN: Now, we both know that's a lie. You liiiike me. Come on over here.

ME:  No.  Go Away.

VOICE IN THE KITCHEN: You want me to go away?  You know how to get rid of me.

Cake wouldn't stop talking until I left the room and went to bed. Right after I cut out one thin slice.

Next morning, I'm back in the kitchen and cake's voice is stronger than ever, which makes no sense since there's less of him now on the plate.  I'm actually considering eating a slice for breakfast when I heard one of my dad's favorite records playing:
You came...and I was aloooone
 I shudda knooown
You wuz Tump-TAY-shun 

This was a speeded-up, country version of the old standard Red Ingle and Jo Stafford recorded. Dad loved because it sounded so silly. I hated it. I hadn't heard of or thought of the recording for years, but here it was, plain as day.

I stood there, looking at Cake and listening to Stafford moan and yowl her way through the lyrics.  When she got to,"Take it Away, Take it AWAY" the memory meaning clicked in my head. That cake was Tump-TAY-shun and I had to take it away or, succumb.

Well, somewhere in this favored land, 95% or more of a pound cake lies in wait, looking to seduce some other poor chump jonesing for sugar.  But not in my house.  And I have the memory of Dad's music choices to thank for this. And I've decided, no matter what the occasion, I'm not bringing cake back into my house for awhile. It's one dessert that doesn't know when to shut up.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Betrayed by Your Closest Friend

He called them his swans.

It's a story beloved by literary freaks, pop culture geeks and gossip mavens everywhere. Between the last World War and the Fall of Saigon, there roamed a covey of fascinating young women known for their individual and collective beauty. Beauty had turned them into fashion icons and trophy wives but none of them had happy lives. They wanted to be loved and known for something besides the beauty that would fade away all too soon.  This collective of lovely, lonely ladies discovered a man, unlike any of their husbands,  An odd, unique, little man, who agreed with their values, dished the most interesting gossip and told each one he adored her. Not just her beautiful appearance but her wonderful soul. And, because he was gay and understanding the trophy wives believed him, to some extent, and they showered him with gifts and friendship.  They even shared their deepest secrets.

Secrets he listened to and wrote down.

This is the setup for The Swans of Fifth Avenue, a novel recounting one of the most fascinating literary scandals of the 20th Century.  It starred some of the original taste-makers of the mid-century: Babe Paley, who sparked a national trend by tying a scarf to her purse handle, Slim Keith, a California girl who hit her stride in Manhatten and, of course the man they and so many of their best friends befriended: Truman Capote. When he was a young, semi-successful writer, these women and many of their friends each found Capote to be a kindred spirit. He cherished not only their faces and forms (referring to them collectively as "swans") but the beauty in their souls.  In turn, they supported him during the lean years and cheered him on once he found success.  Because of this, none of them expected him to publish their nastiest secrets in Esquire magazine, fictionalized just enough to turn their most embarrassing, humiliating memories into a guessing game for readers.  At least one woman described in the story killed herself the day that she got the printed story. The rest of them ended the friendship.   And was Capote surprised they took offense?

You bet he was.

In one sense, The Swans of Fifth Avenue is a story of friendship made and destroyed by understanding and misunderstanding.  It's also something of a history piece, capturing a small section of America in the latter half of the 20th century.  Indeed, like Capote's masterpiece, In Cold Blood, Swans is that amalgamation of research and imagination known as the "non-fiction novel" (without ICB's meticulous prose).  It's also plain, old-fashioned, gossipy fun in places, perfect for a summer read.

Most of all, it's a story of trust and betrayal and how people cope when those they love let them down.  Many get angry. A few grow sad.  But most find a way to cope.

And how we cope is what makes us stronger.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Murder Takes a Hike

Summer is here in all but fact, the season when most people take vacations.  If you grew up in the United States, the odds are pretty good that your vacation history involves one or more of our National Parks.  That's great! The National Park system is one of the smartest, most democratic ideas this country put into place: beautiful spaces are preserved so they can be used by everyone, at an affordable price.  The only problem, for the addicted reader, is how all that natural beauty can get between your eyes and a book. I mean, as much as I adore the magnificence of nature, (and I do) I start jonesing for a good story to read, even when I'm face to face with the Grand Canyon or El Capitan. Of course, the minute I bury my face in a book, I feel guilty because I'm not paying attention to the gorgeous Park. It's a no-win situation

At least I thought it was until my friend, Edna, introduced me to Nevada Barr.  In case you haven't heard, Nevada Barr is the writer of the Anna Pigeon mystery series.  Why are her books the solution? Because Anna Pigeon is a Ranger and each of her adventures occurs in a National Park.

Let's start out with the first book in the series, the award-winning Track of the Cat.  It's set in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, a spot I'd swear my folks dragged me to when they were young and broke.  It's a beautiful, barren, deserty kind of place, full of antiquities and cactus.  That's the world the tourists see.  To Anna Pigeon, Park Ranger and heroine of the series, the park is so much more.

Of course, she sees the land and its animals: beautiful, terrifying, vulnerable and dangerous.  She also deals with the Park's human visitors, from the ill-prepared, day-tripping tourists to the semi-permanent citizens with political or economic interests in this land that belongs to the nation. Most of all we see, through Anna's eyes, the world of those who work in the National Park Service, well-trained and working for a pittance in order to keep the rest of us safe.  When another Ranger is found dead, it becomes Anna's mission to bring the responsible party to justice.

Like all good literary detectives, Anna is at least as complex as the victims and perpetrators she pursues and that's why I'm continuing with the series.  Thanks to Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta and Val McDermid's Carol Jordan and Tony Hill, I've started expecting fictional detectives to fight City Hall and their own personal demons while they track down a killer.  On this score, Nevada Barr and Anna Pigeon don't disappoint.

So, get out the map and decide which vacation spot you'll visit this year.  Remember to pack your camera, bug repellent, and a big enough water canteen.   And, if you're visiting a National Park, be nice to the Rangers, especially if they catch you reading an Anna Pigeon mystery. Park Rangers need fans too.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Deep End of the Deep South: The Help

I was 25 when I married and moved from the plains to Mississippi. It was like learning to swim by diving in the deep end of Southern Culture.  I traded wide, far, horizons for close, verdant landscapes; dry heat for humidity; corn for okra.  I also fell headlong, into beliefs and traditions that weren't my own. For example, one of my first acquaintances was an elderly neighbor lady who continually delighted and frustrated me. She was a lovely, friendly soul, and very kind to a lost, newlywed, giving me afternoon tea and shopping tips, but she insisted on calling me Mrs. Golden and deferring to me in every question. She also insisted I call her solely by her first name. Now I had been raised to recognize the seniority of older, more-experienced, hostesses, especially when using their names, but I reckoned without two things.  My neighbor lady had been taught that skin color established who had the real authority, and I was fair while she was dark.  Because of this, we spent most of our afternoons trying to verbally outmaneuver each other with courteous remarks.  In the end, our mutual efforts to show respect became one more insurmountable obstacle to developing any genuine friendship.  
Those memories of long, sweltering days and sweet, frustrating afternoons came flooding back when I read Kathryn Stockett's The Help.  I've always been an outsider, but Mississippi is the place that taught me what it means to be a "Stranger in a Strange  Land."

Stockett's Jackson, Mississippi in this 1960's tale is like a never-ending high school for outsiders. Here, the successful derive their social and political power from their ability to exclude. They use all kinds of rules to undermine and isolate others: blacks are excluded from white society, women from men, poor from rich, single people from married couples and "well-born" people from "trash."  Meandering through this miasma is Skeeter, a girl whose family and skin color should make her an insider, but whose height and ambition exclude her from the group. More than anything, Skeeter wants to be a published author and, since the Civil Rights unrest is in the news, she decides to write about the least powerful groups in Jackson; the black women who work in white households.  That decision and the resulting book overturns Jackson, Mississippi and the lives of each soul in The Help.

Much has been deservedly written about how The Help captures the story and voices of black and white Southern Women in that tumultuous period, but it is the humanity of the characters that I like. All of the central characters of The Help are female and ensnared by the rules and expectations of their society. This trap frustrates some and enrages many, but all suffer from its pressure. Because of these strictures, the women all become creatures of want, some chasing the love, and power they think will make them happy while others fighting for the ability to survive. Still, The Help isn't just about what happens to people in an awful situation.  It's about how they survive even in the worst of times.
Of course, Southern culture has changed a great deal since the 1960's.  It's even changed in the years since I moved here.  But a few old discredited beliefs still hang on in some corners, breaking hearts and causing terrible damage. Until they die out completely, the South's tragic Civil Rights history will remain the elephant in the room, keeping good people trapped together but estranged, unable to trust each other enough to move forward.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Name It and Claim It: Summer Sisters

If you went to camp as a kid, did you wonder what the counselors did in the evenings? Speaking for myself, that's when I learned to play Name it and Claim It. Are you familiar with the game? One person sings a few lines from a song, and if you can either join in singing or identify who made the song famous, you win. Sort of. See, knowing the song was usually a sign of how old you were and, although most of the staff were all still in college, advanced age wasn't an honor we were all that anxious to grab. I haven't played the game in years. Yet, Name It and Claim It was the first thing that came to mind as I read Judy Blume's Summer Sisters: A Novel.  In so many ways, it's a Gen-Xer's version of We Didn't Start the Fire.

In a way, this is entirely appropriate, since Judy Blume was the writer for many Gen-X women at an early point in their lives. Her Middle Grade and Young Adult stories steered many of them through the horrible, hormonal adolescent years until they grounded safely into adulthood.  That's no small task, and many grown women remember Blume because of the help she gave them as girls.  And memory is the central theme of Summer Sisters.

These are Victoria "Vix" Leonard's memories of her friendship with Caitlin Somers.  At first meeting, these two girls should have little in common.  Victoria, growing up in a working-class family, is familiar with siblings and debt.  Caitlin, the only child of affluent, divorced parents, knows the joys and sorrows of travel and non-stop relocation.  What they share is a sense of loneliness that is relieved when they become friends.  The effects of that relationship change the trajectory of both their lives.
Blume tracks the changes of her characters' young lives through the popular songs and news stories they follow, a move that first endears and then dates her story.  When  Vix says in the first chapter that she dreams of being the bewitching "Dancing Queen" when she sings along with the record, it tells us a lot, both about the story's setting and what occupies this child's imagination.  Unfortunately, nearly every chapter follows with some pop culture marker until the reference feels obligatory.  By the time Vix mentions the padded shoulders in her first business suit, I wanted to shout, "Yes, I get it! We're in the 80's!" 

Blume does a better job of capturing Martha's Vinyard, that off-beat, island of eccentrics, hard-working islanders, summer tourists, and money.  A Summer day at the Vinyard is something to be experienced, with its ambiance of light, color, and joy and you get the suggestion of that in this fire-fly narrative, as well as how much harder life is for year-round residents.  But, what she does nail is the intensity and durability of certain adolescent friendships.  Adult friends like the people we became; first friends loved the people we were becoming.  That makes them worth remembering and writing about, for the rest of our lives.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Traveling Hopefully

When we were young,
And Broke,
And starting out in life together,
Nothing was more fun than a drive.
Over the roads and around the curves we’d go,
Grinning like fools,

Shouting with laughter,

Harmonizing with the radio.
Our future, always just over the next horizon
That we sped to on paid-with-pennies gas
I didn’t care how poor we were then.
I knew great things were headed our way.

Well, we didn't get famous, or start rolling in gelt,
But we’ve taken a few bows in our time,
And tripped some fantastic lights.
Those moments were fine, though not all I expected,
And usually not worth the fuss that came with them.
I’m happier back in the car.

Belted into the shotgun seat,
One foot propped on the edge of the dash.
Drumming on my thigh to the rhythm of a song
That left the charts decades ago.
As gray-haired, we still speed
down the road,
around the corners,
and over the hills.
Rolling toward an unknown future.
Traveling hopefully.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Because Everybody Loves a Good Fight

A lot of people spent the last eight Sunday Nights watching Ryan Murphy's TV series, Feud, and I think I know why.  First, it was a quality product: well-written, acted, edited and produced. It was also an intriguing story about well-known people in a fascinating industry.  My mom, with her collection of books on the Golden Age of Hollywood, would have raved about this series, either praising or vilifying it to High Heaven.  But, mostly I think the title explained why people tuned in Sunday after Sunday and can't wait for the next season: everyone loves to watch a good fight, and the nastier it gets, the better.  In case you are experiencing Feud-withdrawal, and you like a battle of wits, may I suggest Literary Feuds: A Century of Celebrated Quarrels?  Trust me, when it comes to insecurity and ugly behavior in public, writers are pugilists with words.

Take one of my favorite battles in the book, the one between Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy. You could argue these two, like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, might have made better allies than enemies. As creative writers, political liberals, and women succeeding in fields still dominated by men they would have profited from mutual support.  Unfortunately, they also shared twin faults: neither responded well to criticism and both liked to get in the last verbal slam.  So, Lillian dismissed Mary's negative review of her script by saying the opinion of a mere "Lady magazine writer" wasn't worthy of her respect.  Now, Mary wasn't a girl to let something like that go so when she was on TV, said Lillian, was an overrated, has-been and, "every word she writes is a lie, including 'and,' and 'the.'  To Lillian, whose reputation at the time was based on her memoirs, those were fighting words. Lillian sued Mary the TV show, the station, and its host for every dime they had. Never mind that, since these gals were both past their peak of popularity, no one was really listening, or that Mary didn't have enough money to make the litigation cost-effective. Never mind that a lawsuit could (and did) ultimately cause Lillian more damage than Mary's original, catty remark.  Ms. Hellman stuck to the fight for years, while her health and reputation sank like the Titanic. Only dying allowed her lawyers to drop the suit.  And, McCarthy complained afterward that Lillian's death kept her from winning outright in court.  Talk about your sore winner!

There are other wonderful tales of Writers Behaving Badly, like Truman Capote's shot across the bow to Gore Vidal ("So, how does it feel to be an enfent terrible?) and Theodore Dreiser slapping Sinclair Lewis, but I'll leave those for you to peruse.  In the meantime, before you get into your own war of words, remember, fights are only truly fun to those outside of the line of fire.  And writers know all the mean words.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Humans Are Dumb! (Guest Post from an Angry Turtle)

One Angry Turtle
I'll tell you: Humans are Dumb.  Yes, most of the world moves faster than we southern turtles, but, when it comes to missing the obvious, people take the prize. Y'all are ridiculous, and I can prove it.

Take what happened to me last Saturday morning.  There I was, moving at my own pace across one of your roads, (which, by the way, are too many, to begin with, and far too wide for the rest of creation) when this car comes over the hill, barreling down right toward me. Now, a squirrel or a dog would try to race that machine, but squirrels and dogs aren't all that smart either.  Humans can be outrun when they're afoot, but none of us is faster than one of them in a car. Anyway, the stupid car started squealing its tires, making more noise than before, and it screeched to a stop...directly over me.  Then it backed up, stopped again, and a human jumped out and ran toward me, making the same kind of high-pitched sound her automobile just made.  "I'm so sorry, I tried not to run over you," she cried, and I would have accepted her apology if she hadn't picked me up and carried me away in her car!

On and on, that woman talked for the next 10 minutes, and 10 miles.  All she did was talk and drive that car far too fast.  She apologized again for not seeing me and said she'd make it up by taking me on "an adventure" (As if being kidnapped going on joyrides with humans was something would like!)  Then she said we'd to go to her house once she ran a gardening errand.

Now gardening's an example of human stupidity, at least the way she explained it to me.  According to Her, gardening is the practice of killing what plants are already thriving and reseeding the earth with others that won't survive there without help.  Does that make sense to you?  I don't see the point, especially after she added she was doing this for decoration, not food.  She explained the process takes both "energy" and "money," two things she seems to value.  I asked, in that case, why didn't she hold onto her energy and money and keep the plants that grew there in the first place? I don't think she heard me.

After the "errand" (where I was introduced to more humans than I ever wanted to meet) she drove me back up to her home and said she wanted to feed me "lunch" and take my picture. She also said she wanted to study me. If that was studying, she didn't look at me much.  Instead, she'd stared at a black plastic box in her hand she called a smartphone and only glanced at me once in a while. Evidently, the smartphone was supposed to tell her what kind of turtle I was.   Fool Woman!  If she would listen, I could have told her, "I'm the kind of turtle that wants to go home!"

Why does every human assume
I want salad for lunch?
Eventually, she pronounced me a common box turtle, which I thought was rude (As if anyone with a profile like mine could be considered "common"!) and began to read about my habits and needs out loud.  "Oh dear!" she looked up from her smartphone and said in a small voice.  "It says here you can get stressed out from being over-handled and sick if you lose your way." She needed a phone to figure that out?

At that point, she apologized again, and this time she seemed ready to listen.  So, I let her have it with both barrels. I reminded her turtles existed long before people and we've learned a thing or two over the eons.  For example, we've learned speed is nothing compared to endurance. "Lots of species have moved faster than turtles," I said. "They rush along, never noticing anything that didn't directly affect them, and they run themselves headlong into extinction." The woman muttered something about turtles not doing so well themselves these days. "But turtles still exist," I said. "Because we slow down enough to notice things, we have focus and endurance. If humans have realized turtles are in trouble,  they've learned to notice, which is good. Only time will show if you can develop the focus to endure as we have."

And, people shouldn't disrupt our lives based on momentary impulses, I continued. Birds, turtles, even bugs have their own purposes in life to serve, and humans shouldn't disrupt them unless they are in danger."I picked you up to keep you safe," she protested. "But you kept me with you to make yourself happy," I replied. "You bounced me around in that noisy car and took me far away from my goal just because you wanted my company for a few hours. That isn't right." I said. "Other species may be your prey or servants," I warned her, "but none of us exist for your amusement." She looked pretty ashamed at that point.  

Turtle Across the Road at Last.
So, we made a bargain, the woman, and I.  I dictated my opinions so she could publish them on something called "the internet." (she said it's where millions of humans gather and learn but the more she talked about it, the dizzier I got.) Then, people could hear the opinions of a turtle and maybe slow down, a little. Then, she put me back in that rattle-trap thing she called a Jeep, and drove me, more slowly this time, back to the spot in the road where we met. She put me in the grass on the side I was facing when she first saw me that morning. Then she left.  Of course, I stayed tucked up in my shell through the trip, but I didn't stick around once she left. I had places to go.

Internet or no, I don't think humans learn as quickly as they can move and we turtles may outlast them yet. Who can tell? I know only to protect myself when danger is near, and remain focused on my goal when it's not. If we can endure, then we will survive. Such is the wisdom of turtles.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Revelations about Revolutions

For the last two years, popular culture has been increasingly influenced by the musical, Hamilton. First, at the Public, then the Richard Rodgers Theatres in New York and now on its first national tour, Hamilton has garnered more acclaim, and awards than any show in recent memory (I think the last show to pick up the Pulitzer, as well as the Tony and the Grammy for Best Musical was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying).  Nevertheless, this polished, game-changing production did not appear, full-blown overnight. Hamilton had a long, slow, evolutionary journey, and the story its creation is almost as fascinating and complex as the subject, itself. Thanks to its composer, Linn-Manuel Miranda, and columnist/critic Jeremy McCarter, we have an insight into that creative journey through the book, Hamilton, the Revolution.  Reading it doesn't leave you thinking (ala The Grateful Dead), "What a long, strange, trip it's been."  It reminds us how good minds, and generous natures, can create works of genius.

Take one feature of this revolutionary musical, its employment of Hip Hop and Rap. These were chosen, not just because the composer knew and loved the mediums but because he knew they were the best modes to use for this musical.  As McCarter points out, before the American Revolution was a battle of weapons, it was a battle of words and ideas with essayists like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson leading the attack.  To recapture the feeling of those verbal Molotov Cocktails and set them to music would require a text-heavy medium, something Hamilton's composer well understood. Add this to the edgy, street-wise intelligence omnipresent in Rap and Hip Hop, and you have a revolutionary form of music to tell a revolutionary story.  Like some genius concepts, we only see in hindsight, how obvious this is.  

However, as gifted as Mr. Miranda is, his creative partners should not be slighted.  When I first saw the images of the musical's set, I assumed it was a "bare bones" stage. All you see, if you Google these, (Sorry, I don't own any I can add) are roughed in brick walls, wooden catwalks, some ropes and a pair of movable staircases.  It turns out this was an intentional choice the set designer came up with through research.  He learned early colonists built their first shelters with materials and techniques borrowed from ship-building.  Consequently, the first act's set suggests a site still underway and under construction.  By moving a few walls and removing the ropes during intermission, the second act set lets us know we're at a New World, both bigger and a little more settled.  

The reader learns every choice in the Hamilton production was intentional, including costumes, casting, and props.  There were debates, and disagreements, and mistakes on the way as well as a ton of revision.  The personal lives of the cast and production team often align with the musical, sometimes in heartbreaking ways.  Through it all, the composer and his creative team focus on each moment of the show, making it stronger, swifter and more focused.  If nothing else, Hamilton the Revolution reminds theatre-goers that plays and musicals aren't the static dramatic pieces we know so well.  Those are simply the final, evolutionary results.  There is a world of story and song behind each one that ended up on the cutting-room floor.

So, before you put the soundtrack of Hamilton back into rotation or start the Herculean labor necessary to get tickets, open a copy of Hamilton, the Revolution and get to know the story behind this show.  Sondheim and Lapine wrote that "Art isn't Easy".  This book shows that Art is still worth the work.