Family Vacations: The Summers of My Discontent

Family vacations are dumb.

Nothing sends me into a tailspin faster than a technological mishap: this would include power outages and car problems, to say nothing of broken laptops. I’ve been in a tailspin since the first week in August, the week my shiny new laptop failed catastrophically on a Saturday morning, an incident that prompted a series of irritating phone calls and remote sessions with tech support, and no fewer than five trips in the car over an hour one way to try to deal, because we are underserved in Vermont. That’s more than a tank of gas and five days I’ll never get back again. This coming Saturday will mark the sixth. I remain skeptical at best, even with another new laptop in the offing: an evil vortex has settled in over me, ready to stir up trouble with any device I bring into this house, I am sure of it.

New equipment should not fail, tech support should be smart, and people on the other side of the planet who are enlisted to ‘remote’ into your computer, with your personal stuff on it and all, should not be loading weirdo media players in another language onto your laptop without your permission. I submit these are the folks who refused to do their third grade homework but still walked away with ‘participation’ ribbons, never learned manners but were coddled in the name of self-esteem boosting, and possess not one shred of respect for personal property, because if it’s broke you just buy a new one. I bet they leave crusty bowls of half-eaten ramen noodles sitting around at home. And now here they are inside my electronics doing god-knows-what, but failing miserably at fixing the problem I invited them in to fix to begin with. (You need more RAM. Wait—how could that be the case on a new laptop?)

How do these folks even get these jobs in the first place?

See? Tailspin. But I digress.

On a recent day trip over to neighboring Upstate New York to meet again with the homework slackers, HCB and I got to talking in the car as we are wont to do. We came around a twisty bend in a sleepy rural highway and crossed another busier highway to continue our trek, which took us past a lake dotted with docks where small watercraft are moored at the edge of unassuming vacation home properties; a single golf cart was sitting idle on a patch of asphalt near the edge of the lake, a beacon of leisure on this sunny summer afternoon. This tiny lake’s more or less a poor man’s paradise, cheerful nonetheless.

I never had the kind of camping experience you had growing up, I said aloud to HCB. I vaguely recall one summer when I was barely beyond my toddler years (maybe three) when my parents and I visited with my grandparents—my dad’s folks—at a place near Chattanooga called Camp Ocoee. I’m not sure we even spent the night. What remains in my head after all these years are washed out memories of rustic board-and-batten structures with wraparound screen porches and creaky screen doors. And my grandmother’s crafty ceramics class in one building. And dusty pathways, possibly a swingset, and a boy called Chris Cunningham who accepted my heartfelt passions only reluctantly. That is all I remember, and probably the only reason I remember any of it at all is the legacy of a few photos and some family folklore. (Chris: where are you now? Did you do your third grade homework, or did you get participation awards?)

I did not have cooties.

Camping was big in my family, said HCB, and he went on to describe it. The girls had better games, he said—they were more complicated and involved and fun. The boys were just idiots. Playing with the girls was your best bet.

I remember long car trips in the summer, I said, and always asking to get out of the car when we stopped at a scenic overlook or passed some landmark or monument. No, came the answer always.

I know why, I went on: it was my brother’s fault. He was a pain in the ass to travel with. We never made short trips—we were either eastward bound for Knoxville and Chattanooga all the way across the length of our squished parallelogram state from Memphis to visit family, or worse—to a remote Texas destination for a family convention tied to my dad’s work, which meant two solid days in a hot car to get there: the crayons always, always melted, and my brother always, always Crossed The Line in the back seat to my side, to purposely detonate the big sister bomb and then sit back and enjoy the explosion. This was to be expected of a seven-years-younger brother, but of course I could not appreciate that. If I were my parents, I’d want to get there, too.

Here is the truth about my brother in those days: he simply could not shut up. He sang to himself, talked to himself, and ran out of breath mimicking the noises of choo choo trains. Trains, for god’s sake. They were his everything.

The Talker

One time on the way home from a Texas vacation, my brother drove my mom to the brink of insanity with his ‘prattling,’ as she called it. We were in Arkansas, with Memphis squarely in the crosshairs by then, so close to home we could almost taste it. My mom had cleverly outfitted the back seat of the car with two vinyl shoe racks hung over the front seat headrests—one for my brother and one for me, a strategy she’d read about in a parenting tome. Mine was still fairly organized by the end of our vacation, stocked with a few new treasures acquired along the way, but his was chaos. Long weary of his toys, he busied himself with jabbering. The kid simply could not. shut. up.

THOMAS! snapped my mama about an hour away from our suburban home. SHUT YOUR MOUTH.

He complied, but continued to make all kinds of creative sounds with closed lips, including weird gurgling noises that required lots of spit.

HCB erupted in giggles when I told him this story, and then started making his own version of close-lipped noises. Two peas in a pod, I imagined, while agonizing at the thought of traveling with not one, but three siblings in a closed space. Perish the thought.

For my part, I yearned for my bicycle and my neighborhood friends about a second after we reached our vacation destination. That bicycle meant autonomy and freedom, from boredom, from a brother who followed me around like my shadow, from tiresome grown-ups. You can’t escape any of those things on a hot summer vacation with your family.

But no, we never camped as a family, and we did not get out of the car much, because dad was hell bent on getting from point A to point B. The upshot of this for me is, I have no interest in camping, never have as an adult and never did as a parent myself, but I do love me a good road trip, especially off-the-beaten path trips into the American countryside, the kind that put you in the back yards of farmers, and take you down remote highways dotted with derelict billboards, leaving your imagination to reinvent a place that is no more, and anyway what happened to it and to the people who once worked there or patronized it? I can entertain myself in silence for a long time making up a story. Lately I’ve fabricated one closer to home, about some goings-on on the rural road where I often run: in short, I have invented an entire narrative to explain the activity I have observed on a particular property for the past few weeks. It involves tawdry behavior and a messy divorce and a property dispute and unhappy children.

You don’t have evidence for any of your assumptions, HCB tells me.

What’s your point? I ask. Give me my story: I am not hurting anybody.

He smacks his hand over his face and shakes it in disbelief.

Family vacations with a younger brother are bothersome and that is all. On that very trip—the one where my brother made the gurgling noises—he also spat out his chewing gum in my long, silky ballerina hair right as we were crossing the Mississippi River from West Memphis, Arkansas, into downtown Memphis, Tennessee.

I howled in agony, ruing the day he was born, gnashing my teeth and wishing I could tear out my hair.

My mom was at once horrified and delighted: she knew just what to do to get it out, and it involved peanut butter—she’d read it in that damned book, the same one with the vinyl shoe caddy tip.

Little brother, your sister has a blog: it’s payback time at long last.

I wish I had a laptop. Because I like laptops.

Nota bene: My brother is enjoying a long and successful career in the railroad industry. He is a hard worker and a problem solver, character traits for which he is beloved in the workplace. He also holds a patent for a piece of machinery that is helping revolutionize the modern locomotive engine.

Art is the Consolation Prize…

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…for the human condition.

Catchy, isn’t it? I can claim it only partly. Came to me in the car, where all profound thoughts outside the shower do, while I listened to the inimitable Meryl Streep discuss her portrayal of Florence Foster Jenkins in a movie named the same. Jenkins was a real-life character, a New York heiress notorious for her pronounced ineptitude as a singer but shameless resolve to sing nonetheless. (No one, before or since, wrote one historian, has succeeded in liberating themselves quite so completely from the shackles of musical notation.) I can’t quote Ms. Streep directly, but she did mention the word “consolation” in reference to art and its effect on us as a species, whatever talents and gifts may elude us. She’s spot on about that: when the world comes crashing down around you, there is art to pull you from the rubble, a joyous ray of hope fighting its way through the plumes of dust.

If you were a liberal arts major in college chances are excellent you took at least one survey course in anthropology, where you learned about the emergence of art on the timeline of humanity. But for those who did not, who among you has never seen cave paintings like the ones discovered in 1940 at Lascaux? They’re estimated to be as old as 17,000 years, which in the grand scheme of things is not old at all; earlier examples have been discovered elsewhere. Nor have they escaped Disney’s pop culture canvas, as any self-respecting five-year-old can tell you.

But when you were sitting in that survey course you probably also learned that art came later, after the rather more pressing business of survival. Art, our professors opined, was what separated civilized societies from the rest, societies who’d figured out how to grow things to eat, and then store food for later. Art was a glowing beacon that announced, We have time on our hands—looky what we can do while the rest of you are out there driving bison herds off cliffs.

And that is precisely why losing the great art and architecture of the world to natural and unnatural forces alike is so tragic. And why leaders who champion the arts tend to govern great societies who collectively hold the arts in high esteem. And why steeping our children in the arts is so important, and why singing or dancing or painting or playing an instrument, even badly, is so utterly worthwhile.

Art holds sway over us all, whether or not we recognize its power (so much power it inspires love on one end of the continuum, and despicable acts of intolerance on the other, to say nothing of garden-variety controversy between those two extremes). It does not matter where or how you found art, whether it defined your life from the get-go, or you stumbled across it later on. It only matters that you found this beautiful thing for which climbing down from the trees was worth risking our necks: it elevates us as a species. No time like the present to elevate ourselves—in the end, art may be more than our consolation prize—art, the arts, may finally be our salvation.

Coconut Shrimp in Green Curry Sauce: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

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Yesterday Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I trekked back over to central Vermont for another load of stuff in the neverending process of combining our two households. This has been a logistically painful move, a bit like pulling off a bandaid verrrrrry slowly. I remain eternally grateful to my erstwhile landlady for allowing me to do things this way. Soon it will be time to yank off the rest of it, and get the heck out of her beautiful loft in earnest.

We spent an afternoon doing some gritty work: HCB painted the loft’s bathroom, which we had started some time ago but never finished, and I cleaned the wood stove to a fare-thee-well and did some other organizing and tidying up. Wish like heck things would go as they did for Jane and Michael Banks with the help of one Mary Poppins; there is still so much work to do.

Then we packed some stuff and schlepped some stuff. As we were buttoning up we thought about dinner and decided on a fantastic place we love over in Woodstock called Angkor Wat: Asian fusion, with an authentically Cambodian thumbprint. I had the great pleasure of a long chat with chef-owner Chy Tuckerman in his kitchen back in December, related to work I was doing at the time for Upper Valley Life Magazine. His story is worth reading.

Anywho. We thought we’d take advantage of our proximity and treat ourselves to dinner after a day’s work. Spring rolls for appetizers, to start. Beautiful, crispy, flaky, not greasy. Perfect, in fact, as you might surmise from the photo above.

HCB does not miss a chance for duck, ergo:

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I had a hankerin’ for coconut encrusted shrimp, where there was a choice between red or green curry sauce. Curry is one of those things that is not at the top of my to-die-for list in the world of cuisine. I like it okay, but it does not make me sing and dance, nor have I ever found it particularly hot. Our waiter told us that green is the hottest of the three Chy uses (the other two being red and yellow). Without batting an eye I chose green; I am an adventuresome eater, and spicy is always okay by me.

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This was possibly a mistake, not unlike another one I made several weeks ago involving a mix-up between cayenne and cinammon. Suffice it to say that I had a visceral reaction to the first bite I took. That is actually a euphemism for what I was feeling. But there is no turning back from a decision like this. I resolved to continue, much to the amusement of the person sitting across the table from me.

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The burn was instantaneous, and continued and continued. And continued, until it reached a crescendo where I teetered on the edge of asking for milk. Or for medical attention. A tiny reprieve came in the bites of beautifully prepared shrimp; there was also a bit of mercy in the veggies, as the fleshy inside of each piece was untouched by the devil in the sauce. The waiter checked on me a couple of times. I really could not speak. I could not see well, either, through waves of tears.

The person across the table was also tearing up. From laughter. And he felt inclined to point out to me again and again that my cheeks were growing redder. (Thanks for that, Captain Obvious.) I could feel the heat radiating off my face, and my lips were burning the way they do when they’re suffering a bout of mid-winter chapping. I concluded that there must be some health benefit to this much pain associated with a meal. There’s gotta be. Right?

There were jokes upon jokes, gentle readers, to do with farting around open flames, among other things. And riddles involving the words “swollen” and “red.” So dang funny I forgot to laugh.

I finished about two-thirds of my dinner and boxed the rest. The burn lingered even as we left the restaurant; by the time we reached Ludlow I was almost able to speak again.

Today has been decidedly less spicy. It was too beautiful to stay indoors, and we had planned a fun project with a particular almost-thirteen-year-old:

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HCB is the consummate Boy Scout (really), and spent some time engineering spots to hang our pine cone birdfeeders where the squirrels could not reach them:

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One parting thought for this delicious weekend, a friendly message to our neighborhood squirrels: mess with our pretty bird feeders, and I have a leetle something for you, courtesy of my friend Chy:

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A Plié Is Not a Squat (and other truths of the universe)

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See that up there? It’s fifth position demi-plié in a class at the former Knoxville Ballet School, as executed by some of my Level 2-almost-Level 3 students. And that’s my lovely friend Joan Kunsch of Nutmeg Conservatory teaching them; I had invited her for a springtime guest appearance. As you can see, the girls have (relatively) straight spines, with knees over toes, as they should. That was a class of sweet kids, a bit tricky to teach, as some of them were late arrivals to the ballet world. But they each had an amazing work ethic in class and it was my privilege to teach them.

Plier is the infinitive, and it means simply “to bend.” Plié is the participle, meaning bent or bending. We go down, we come up. That’s it. (Well, there is more about energy and placement, but the downy-uppy part will suffice for my purposes here.) It is the most basic and important movement in all of classical ballet because, as Raymond Lukens would say, it’s the take-off and landing for almost every single movement in ballet. Oh, and the “demi” part? It just means half—you bend the knees half way and then you stretch, or straighten them. There is also a “grand” version, meaning “big,” where you go all the way down and come back up (at least, we hope you come back up).

But I digress. This post is not about the proper execution of this all-important movement. It is about my recent foray into the world of pumping iron.

Yeah, we don’t do pliés in Pump You Up class: we squat. And we squat and we squat and we squat. We squat holding free weights and barbells. And we squat to loud, pulsating, Pump You Up music. We drop our backs and stick out our booties. It is about as far away as one could possibly migrate from a plié.

That is the first univeral truth. The second one is, I am evidently hearing something else in that music, because when I am down, with my booty sticking waaaay out there, everybody else always seems to be up. And vice versa.

Okay, friends, I am a very musical person. You can’t NOT be musical and dance (see Raymond Lukens, above). That, and I am also a classically trained musician (piano and classical guitar, a story for another day). I have spent more than a decade at the front of various ballet classrooms urging my students to soak up every drop of music in each phrase. (That one is mine, not Raymond’s.) Kids like to rush. You can’t rush the music in classical ballet. Unless you are big star, and then you are called a diva.

I have concluded that the Pump You Up teachers and the other students are anxious to finish, ergo our being out of sync. I totally get that—I am anxious as hell to get out of that class about a nanosecond after it starts. I do it because I assume it’s probably good for me. You know: kinda like eating fish oil. It tastes awful, but there must be some benefit, right? No pain, no gain, and all that.

But rushing the music feels as unnatural to me as sticking out my bum in a demi-plié.

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Here is some weight lifting, ballerina-style. They’re my kids, being silly when I asked them to get out the barres.

I leave you with beautiful footage of England’s Royal Ballet in company class as taught by ballet mistress Olga Evreinoff. Yeah, it’s a long video, but the pliés are right at the start. Have a look-see, and hang around for the rest of it, should you be so inclined. They are lovely.

Gotta go work on trying to look glamorous and magnificent whilst sticking out my booty.

 

 

 

Somebody call the decorum police. Please.

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That was the view out the front door earlier this morning; seems last week’s moderating temperatures and dry, sunny days were just a tease. Figures. My erstwhile home state of Tennessee has had a rough winter, I understand. (Vermonters feel your pain after one of the coldest winters on record here.)

But this post is not about the weather. It’s about the human condition. As different as the weather may be in the two states, people are the same wherever you go. That conventional wisdom is the truth.

Last week I went into a particular big box store that shall go unnamed except to say that it rhymes with small fart. I detest going there–in Tennessee, in Vermont, or any other state. I go for the same reason most people do–for bargains on necessaries. On a good day I can overlook store filth and disinterested staff; on a bad one I feel like I need a bodyguard. Last week I witnessed a new low among lowest common denominators, if that is even possible.

I tried to ignore the portentous screaming child who was leaving the store as I was going in. I am talking blood-curdling and hair-raising, like a kid in genuine distress. But then I saw him walking next to the shopping cart his mom was pushing into the parking lot, younger sibling in tow, mom angrily shouting there would be no television for the rest of the day. She looked tired and harangued. I’ve been there; I have no idea what the kid did to get himself into his pickle; I silently thanked the universe those days are over for me, and sent up a little offering of strength to the mom, that her resolve would not weaken as the evening wore on. You go, mama.

It gets worse. I had been inside the store taking care of business for maybe a nanosecond when a woman walked past me and farted. Loud and long and without shame. Standing right next to me. No small fart here. Neither she nor her (presumed) husband batted an eye. They just kept on gabbing and walking. And I got the heck out of the way, to avoid, you know. The word miscreant popped into my head, along with underbelly of society, and other uncharitable phrases I will not quote here.

I know: I am a princess, right? The last time I was in this particular store I was shopping for a pair of readers for Handsome Chef Boyfriend so he would not have to keep toting his home pair to work with him. I was scrutinizing the spartan offerings of the Small Fart pharmacy and at some point grew marginally aware of a disturbance somewhere in my periphery. The noise ballooned until neither I (nor anyone) could ignore it. Swearing. Lots of it, no filters, angry (nay, hostile–almost delusional), coming from a man pushing his toddler in a cart and ranting about why medicine costs so much to his (presumed) wife, who did not say anything. The child was taking it all in, as children do. Every. Single. Word. I could go on about this bully and his captive audience, but I’ve said enough.

At one point people joked about a particular Small Fart location in Tennessee where it was said the store kept impossibly late hours so that unwed teenage mothers and their infant children could come in and shop. It’s not really very funny. Last week I started thinking of this establishment corporately as a microcosm–or as a petri dish of sorts–for the American culture of poverty. It’s not the poverty, of course, that is most reprehensible; nobody really sets out to be poor. It’s the ignorance. And of course the two are inseparable. And the most terrifying corollary to this axiom: ignorance begets ignorance.

I’m not observing anything here that has not been observed a million times before by minds far greater than my own. I’ve just had my nose rubbed in it a few times lately.

My daily commute takes me right past Robert Frost’s home, a stone house sitting close to the highway, beautiful in its simplicity. And for a moment I think about Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, written at that house. I can hear my eleventh-grade English teacher using the Socratic method to draw answers out of us about its meanings, and later a college professor attempting the same. I see the beautiful hardcover copy of the book that was a favorite of my young son, pored over scores of times from the comfort and security of his clean bedsheets at the end of the day, or being held and rocked in the lap of a loving parent. I thought about it again this morning, looking out the window, dismayed as I was that it was snowing. Again. Did anybody read that poem to the angry man swearing out loud in front of his listening child? (Did anybody ever read anything out loud to him, and if they did, when did things begin to turn south?)

Maybe the human condition after all is one of suffering, which would be our undoing but for a single, beautiful, four-letter word: hope.

Back to Small Fart. I propose a coporate change. The greeter (you know the ones–they wear blue vests and offer you a shopping cart when you walk in) is your redemption, dear corporate shirts: they are people of civility and charity. In the new utopian big box retail experience the greeter is entrusted not only with shopping carts, but with the policing of manners and deportment. Give them some executive power to, you know, ask people not to fart out loud or curse in front of their kids in the store. (And maybe a vest made of kevlar.) The Small Fart greeter: America’s hope for the future.

 

Pleasantly Neurotic

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One thing I’ve learned from hanging around with shrink friends through the years: everybody behaves neurotically sometimes–nobody is exempt. Getting a diagnosis as clinically neurotic in some way depends on where your behavior lies along a continuum–are you neurotic all the time, or are you a once-in-a-while, casual neurotic?

I have self-diagnosed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder–not every second of every day, but pretty damn near close, and I have been this way most of my life, I think. It manifests in all kinds of kooky ways, like how I fold clothes in neat squares (as if anybody besides me sees it or cares), or how I tuck in the corners of the sheets on my bed. Because everybody knows if you don’t tuck them in just right, the earth’s magnetic field will reverse and we will be wiped out as a species.

I have come a long way towards recovery through the years, though–parenting will do that to you. The singluar experience of child rearing will wipe that OCD right off your face, and sometimes make it impossible for you to do things like, say, take a shower in the morning. Personal hygiene tends to be rawther important to those of us with OCD. And right at this moment my car’s condition happens to be proof positive of OCD recovery. (When it is winter in Vermont, you might as well forget about keeping a clean car.)

So I figure it all balances out–the wacky and the normal.

When I am under any kind of duress, though–even the good kind, my OCD announces itself loud and clear, like the fruit on Carmen Miranda’s hat. Right now, for example, I should be getting as much of my stuff into boxes as I can ahead of this weekend, when Handsome Chef Boyfriend will arrive to help me pack every single thing we can possibly squeeze into two carloads ahead of my move to his place. And ahead of my new job. Which starts on Monday. We will be back in the coming days to get more loads, but it’s a long drive–we need to make the most of each trip.

So I am polishing silver (and blogging).

Seems reasonable.

Silver polish was on my shopping list last weekend, when HCB was here helping. Why do you need silver polish, he asked?

To polish silver, I said. Duh.

The real reason is that what little silver I possess is tarnished to the point of being unrecognizable and I can’t bear to just throw it into a box that way. (OCD.) Ditto textiles. They’ve got to be clean, and preferably packed in plastic bins (the inside of which I just washed with hot, soapy water, yes really). HCB brought me cardboard boxes last weekend, bless him. I was explaining that I could not pack textiles into them because I’d have to wash them a second time, when I unpacked them, because they would be touching cardboard.

That’s why I was careful to bring you clean cardboard boxes, he explained.

Nope.

Still, I admit to a bit of wackiness this week and last, and the week before. Which is why, I think, when my very sweet friend Rebecca announced this reading challenge I jumped right on it. At one time in my past when I had a disposable income I liked to buy books–lots and lots of them. I had bookcases on bookcases in every room of the house. (OCD, or possibly hoarding, definitely neurotic.) Weeding through them ahead of moving a thousand miles from Tennessee to Vermont was no small thing. I pulled a bunch of titles I’d never read thinking I would have plenty of time to finally dig into them in my new life. (Wrong.) But this challenge seemed like a great idea, and perfectly timed, poised as I am to take on extra projects.

January 2015 seems as good a time as any to start some serious reading. And a new job. And a new life with Handsome Chef Boyfriend.

Think I’ll go look for my fruit hat. Just as soon as I finish polishing silver.

Carmen Miranda

The Nutcracker is here to stay.

P.I. Tchaikovsky

I like to think Peter (Pyotr for purists) Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a rock star in his day, but I can’t say for sure. He certainly was an attractive man. One thing I can say is that his Nutcracker score (penned not long before his death) is tacky ballet music through and through. There, I’ve said it.

I can also say that I’ve made it through the entire holiday season (as defined by big box retailers) without hearing it a single time. Woohoo!

Before you declare me a Christmas curmudgeon and banish me from the kingdom, consider this: for dancers in big companies The Nutcracker represents hours and hours of repetitive work to that familiar, overwrought score, sometimes upwards of forty-plus times in a season (roughly defined as sometime around Thanksgiving and going right up to the New Year). Elsewhere in the world it is also performed at other times of the year. Waltz of the Flowers elicits the biggest eye roll with its embellished, saccharine sweet harp intro that is almost a caricature of itself, going on and on before the familiar oompah-pah oompah-pah heralds its start in earnest (listener alert! it’s a waltz!). To be fair, I have known dancers who actually like dancing Nutcracker. Not many, though. My favorite Flowers story: Daniel Ulbricht (NYCB Principal) has been known to stand in the wings and dance the “Y-M-C-A” dance for the amusement of the corps during that schmaltzy waltz. There’s one in each ballet in Tchaikovsky’s holy ballet trinity: Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty. Evidently there was a rule in the late nineteenth century that a very big, showy waltz had to be scored to satisfy some sensibility of the day.

In truth, though, I have a huge soft spot for The Nutcracker. From the time I was about eight and for several years thereafter my mama and I were cast together in Memphis Ballet’s version (lifted pretty overtly and shamelessly from Mr. Balanchine, as the company and school directors were Balanchine disciples)—I was in Act I, she in Acts I and II, usually in Snow and in the Chinese variation, which had continuous pirouettes she could pull off like nobody’s business. She was always a work horse of a dancer, very reliable, and I think the company director really liked that about her. For me, as is the case with so many young ballerina wannabees, it was simply magical, end to end, even the year I had flu and almost vomited back stage when I overheated in my wool felt soldier costume. I recently quipped to somebody that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, which is true. But my memories of Thanksgiving growing up—aside from the food and Macy’s parade and all that—have much to do with Nutcracker rehearsals, which were a galvanizing thing between me and mom, something special that unified the two of us. Sharing the stage somehow set us apart from other moms and their daughters, and we will always have that.

Another truth: there is one part of the score I really, really like, and that is Snow (Act I, Scene II)—the whole thing, starting with the Nutcracker’s transformation into a prince. It’s also a moment in classical ballet where there is choral accompaniment, which does not happen often. The Snow pas de deux, danced sometimes by Snow Queen and her prince, other times by the Nutcracker Prince and Clara/Marie, is my favorite in the ballet, too. And I must say I am sorry to have missed the fifth and final year of American Ballet Theatre’s new Alexei Ratmansky Nutcracker, which ran at Brooklyn Academy of Music and will now move to the West Coast; I can only hope for a DVD at some point, or that ABT will resurrect it in the near future in NYC.

The reality is that for most ballet companies The Nutcracker represents revenues they rely on to get them through the rest of their fiscal year, without which they could not likely exist. It’s also a great recruiting tool for the art form, not unlike all those amazing air shows the Air Force and Navy take on tour to enthrall aspiring young pilots. There is always some discussion in some corner of the world about the waning of ballet as an art form, particularly since it experienced a boom in the 70s, the likes of which it has not really seen since. I submit that there is nothing to worry about unless and until companies quit dancing Nut: it is maybe the best-ever barometer for ballet’s health and well-being.

I leave you with some silliness I like to post every single year, although I am a little late getting to it this time around. Lots going on with me at the moment, about which more later. Happy New Year! (Oh, and if you want to know the Nutcracker Truth: the versions we bring our children in droves to see each year typically bear little resemblance to the original E.T.A. Hoffman tome; there is a nice translation illustrated by Maurice Sendak worth a look-see if you are interested to know just how far we have migrated from the original tale.)

Seven Dangerous Words

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Hey Mom: Can I borrow your phone? 

When you have not had the pleasure of sharing company with your irreverent twenty-one-year-old son for a while (like, say, for TWO YEARS), it is easy to forget that this is probably a loaded question. And that you should ask why. And make it clear that your phone is fine the way it is, thank you very much, that it does not need new sounds, nor apps, nor games, nor new wallpaper, nor anything else.

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See that little battery icon up there? Under normal usage it stays full for most of the day. The exception to this was the month without Internet, when I had to rely on my phone’s hotspot for a connection. But this wallpaper (^) which appeared on my phone when I loaned it to my son is animated. There are skaters whizzing across the screen in all directions. And snow falls continually from the sky. It is pretty nifty, I admit.

It eats up battery.

So do selfies.

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We have been apart for far too long, for reasons as varied and complex as the boy. We have had a fantastic time together, warts included. He has matured a lot and made some very positive changes since I last saw him. I hate that our visit is almost over, and hope it is not two years before our next one.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. I hope yours have been filled with just the right amount of joy and ridiculousness.~D

Mise En Place

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Today I had a huge, long list of stuff I planned to do. Some was work related, some was house related (actually most was house related), and there was the usual catching up on correspondence. Handsome Chef Boyfriend’s mandate to me as he was leaving this morning: go out and pick up sticks. (Manly Vermonter translation: get ’em now, you are almost out of kindling, and don’t be whining to me about it when the lawn is buried under ten feet of snow.)

I did try to pick up sticks. I’ve been under the weather for the last week, though, and every time I swooped down to grab one my head felt like it was exploding off my neck.

So I did the sensible thing and went back inside and baked cookies.

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I had all the ingredients for molasses cookies and decided that since they have molasses in them they must be health food. (Ergo, cookies equal health food.) Lately my life has felt distinctly un-mise’d en place. During an afternoon phone chat I whined to HCB that I have felt unsettled for three years. Would I feel the comfort of being settled, ever again? He assured me I would.

Mary Ann’s Molasses Cookies came out of my mom’s third grade cookbook. I remember that rumpled book, its faded blue pages held together with faded ribbon, a contribution from every member of the class therein. (Betcha anything she still has it.) We made those cookies all the time when I was a kid. The summer before my sophomore year in college I sat down with pen in hand and copied recipes I wanted, from that book and others, so I’d have them in my very first apartment. My own collection is looking pretty aged now.

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My mom did not own a stand mixer when I was growing up. We mixed the batter with a wood spoon and it was stiff as all get-out. This afternoon while I watched the mixer whir around, effortlessly blending the flour and egg and gooey molasses, I wondered about Mary Ann. What kind of a kid was she? Was she nice to my mom? (Was my mom nice to her?) Is she still alive? What did she do with her life? Was it a settled life? Did she marry and have kids? Did she divorce?

One thing I know for sure. That cookbook was a product of WWII-era Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where my mom and her family lived at the time. Her parents, and her grandmother (my great grandmother Gracie) all lived under the same roof in G.I. housing and contributed to the war effort in one capacity or another. My great grandmother was a librarian, and my grandmother was a lab technician, each of them at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where the bomb that would end the war was in development. I am fairly certain their lives did not feel mise’d en place, either–probably not many Americans could make that claim.

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Another thing I know for certain. Neither mom nor Mary Ann had Silpat. What a glorious invention. Had the outcome of that war been different, maybe none of us would have Silpat. (All hail Silpat!) Have a molasses cookie, on me.

Mary Ann’s Molasses Cookies

Ingredients

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2/3 cup shortening (it’s Vermont: use butter, dammit)
  • 4 T molasses
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 t cinnamon
  • 1/2 t cloves
  • 1/2 t ginger
  • 1 t baking soda
  • 1 t salt

Preheat oven to 375º. Mix and work with hands or mixer. Form into small balls. Roll in sugar. Bake 15 minutes.

Yield: depends. How big are your balls? (Ha.) And how much cookie dough did you eat while you were baking? (Please, no sanctimonious speeches about raw eggs–you know you do it, too.)

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Note: the cookie jar was made by a Memphis potter and sculptor named Ellen McGowan; my mom bought it at a crafts fair on the lawn of the Pink Palace Museum in the mid-1970s. (It says, Tomorrow I go on a diet!) My dad once told Gelsey Kirkland that we lived in the Pink Palace while he was schlepping her around town during one of her many guest appearances with Memphis Ballet. She believed him. True story.

 

Tiny Step over a Giant Threshold

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I am officially published in this here magazine. It has been a long time coming, and I hope it is just the beginning. There are great big changes on the horizon for me, about which more later.

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Meanwhile, this made me smile today; the topic is relevant in so very many ways. Oh, and who wouldn’t want their first bit of professional work to appear in a publication with a cover piece about a New Yorker cartoonist, hmmm?