Friday, June 26, 2009

Time travel: it already happens!

Like many of a certain age, I was stunned to hear of Michael Jackson's death yesterday. His recent emotional and legal problems aside, he was undoubtedly one of the most talented performers of our time, and he certainly had one of the longest careers. Anyone born before, say, 1970 remembers not just the Michael Jackson of Off the Wall and Thriller fame (and later personal infamy), but the adorable and prodigiously gifted child Michael Jackson of the Jackson 5.

When I heard the news I went over to YouTube to look for old Jackson 5 videos, and posted this one on my Facebook page.

I was astounded by the responses it got from various friends, and moreover by the specificity of their memories. Here are a few examples:

Lisa: "During our grad school years John and I used to go to a bar in Kansas City where we could watch Michael Jackson videos on this big screen. 'Beat It' and 'Billy Jean' when they first came out. Wow. We couldn't get enough.

Martine: " Quintessential 70's memories: Dancing with my girlfriends in my basement to ABC. Rockin' Robin. Swooning over 'I'll Be There.' Man. And Off the Wall and Thriller? Whew. Yup, you're right--no matter what he became, there were those songs."

Anita: "I've never shared this with anyone --in 6th grade 4 of my classmates and I performed 'ABC' and 'Rockin' Robin' in full Jackson Five costuming as a surprise for our teacher Ms. Landrin. I was assigned the role of 'Tito.' I too was one of the girls in the basement swooning to 'I'll Be There.'"

I'm always amazed by the power of a song to transport us back to a very specific place and time...and in a way that isn't just passive recollection, but which almost recreates the scene in the present. It truly is a form of time travel.

After reading these stories from other folks, I thought about a few Michael-Jackson specific time-travel moments of my own--memories of roller-skating to "Off the Wall" at the United Skates of America rink, and dancing to "PYT" in a huge circle with a bunch of girlfriends in college...back when we were actually the age to be "PYT"s.

But my clearest MJ-related memory is connected to the song "Human Nature" (from Thriller). Whenever I hear it, I'm transported right back to the huge, Palladian-window filled room in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I attended an open dance for all local students during my freshman year of college.

There I met the improbably named Wylie Schneider, a Harvard grad student from Saskatchewan (I swear I am not making this up). We chatted and danced to some of the faster songs. We even talked about Michael Jackson that night—this was the fall of 1983, Thriller was huge, and Wylie noted that he and Michael Jackson were the same age, 25.

And then "Human Nature" started to play. Wylie asked me to slow dance. I anticipated the typical high-school slow dance, where you gracelessly throw both arms around your partner’s waist or neck and shuffle from one foot to the other for three minutes.

Instead, upon entering the dance floor, Wylie caught my right hand in his left, clasped it, and folded both our hands to his chest. It was the single most charming and romantic gesture I’d ever experienced in my young life--and, with all due respect to my dear husband, perhaps even now, in my middle-aged life. Mostly because it seemed so genteel and affectionate and graceful. That was not what I expected from the men I encountered at that stage of my life.

He had taken ballroom dance, he told me; his sister was a ballerina. I was an untrained clod. So, the usual side-to-side foot shuffling was still about as fancy as my footwork got. But like a true gentleman, he moved easily, knew how to lead the unleadable. I think I fell in love with him a little bit that night. That dance (and one additional date) constituted more or less the whole of our acquaintance. But still, whenever I hear “Human Nature,” I am right back in that room, and in his arms, and feeling like nothing more romantic could be possible.

Funny how music can pin a moment and a memory and a person down in a way other sensations can’t. Once when I was in grad school I took my car into a local shop to get the oil changed, and the manager was a guy I’d dated briefly about five years earlier. I had totally forgotten about him—I couldn’t remember his name, and it really stunned me how thoroughly I’d forgotten him. And as I later remembered, he'd been someone I’d really liked and been interested in at the time. I had far more of a “relationship” with him (and no, I still don't remember his name) than I ever had with Wylie Schneider.

Here's the difference: the oil-change guy didn’t have a song. Wylie did. And still does, even though Michael’s dead, Wylie’s probably not, but is, nevertheless, 50. And when I hear that song, I’m 18 all over again.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Scramble vs. Boggle

I've recently gotten sidetracked by Facebook's Bejeweled Blitz game, which has temporarily supplanted the real reason I subscribed to Facebook: Scramble, which it looks like I've played over seven thousand rounds of now....

Scramble, for those who don't already play, is an online version of the old-fashioned analog game of Boggle. The site gives you a set-up of sixteen letters in a 4-by-4 grid, and you enter various words spelled by those letters, typing them in or using the mouse, and the machine keeps score of how many points you score in three minutes. On-line games are played against other folks in real time. I play regularly in Scramble Classic room 3, where the competition is (in my opinion) serious but not overwhelming. The room has a whole cast of regular players, and I see the same names and profile pictures of high scorers often enough that they have come to seem familiar figures to me.

Unlike Boggle, where you score zero for any words also found by another player, in Scramble, all words score. And it's a good thing: one can play for round after round and find only words that other players have already found. But once in a while, one gets a word that none of the competition has found: the word is highlighted in green in your scoring summary, and there's a special pleasure in scoring a good green word.

(In the old King of the Hill episode where Peggy defeats her Boggle nemesis by scoring all the one-point words, while her opponent looks for the longest words only, Peggy's strategy would be a dud in Scramble: it's a strategy designed for head-to-head playing. In Scramble, it's the long words that get the high scores, since no words ever get canceled out.)

In the past day or two, I've scored a few good green words: cabaret, triode, toenail, tilde, tierce, masoned. In the past, I've scored words that I only know for professional reasons: uncial and uncials (a specific early medieval letter style) and fourteener (either a 14000-foot peak in Colorado or, more likely, a late-medieval/Elizabethan metrical form of fourteen-syllable lines. I did once fail to find runelike, however: Scramble tells you all the words there are in a particular round, even if no one found them.

Boggle has long been a family favorite (or unpleasant routine, depending on your perspective), and I've always preferred the strategy of finding the long words. But seven thousand rounds of Scramble may be just a bit too much practice to ever play Boggle at home again. And they said I was just wasting time playing on-line.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The house that progressive education built

Over the weekend we made a long-awaited trip out to the Eastern Panhandle to do some sightseeing. It seemed a shame to have lived in West Virginia for nearly two years and not to have seen Harpers Ferry, Berkeley Springs, and some of the other interesting and historic places at the state's far reaches.

The place I ended up falling in love with, though, was Shepherdstown, a small college town between Martinsburg and Harpers Ferry. Its main street, German Street, is lined with 18th-century brick and stone buildings that now house an interesting array of shops and restaurants, and adjoins the campus of Shepherd University, the state's oldest liberal-arts college.

Notably, the now-Shepherd University began life as Shepherd College, one of West Virginia's extensive system of state normal schools. (My grandfather taught at the former normal school in Athens, which is now Concord University, and my aunt got her degree in education from the normal school that's now Glenville State College near my dad's hometown of Grantsville.)

It turns out that this cute playhouse that Tom is standing in front of wasn't built, as you might expect, by a handy parent or grandparent for a beloved child. Rather, it was built by children as part of a "learning by doing" initiative by education faculty at Shepherd in the 1920s.

According to a 1983 article by Chris Kaye reprinted in the Summer 2009 edition of Shepherdstown's Good News Paper,

The project started out quite modestly back in 1928. Professor Florence Shaw, supervisor of "observation and teaching" at Shepherd College, had the idea to start a small garden for school children in the fifth and sixth grades....When the idea was presented to President W. H. S. White, it is reported he replied, "Why not build a real house?"

...Thus, the garden grew into a one-acre model of a typical farm in the Shenandoah Valley--a house, a barn, and crops.

The kids researched local farming practices and architectural styles, calculated the amount and cost of needed building materials, and built the structure with the help of adult masons and carpenters. According to other sources, after it was completed, student teachers observed children's play habits in the house as part of their own research (though it seems hard to believe that there'd be room enough inside for a group of kids and several adults).

It's really the perfect illustration of the values of early 20th-century progressive education, a la Dewey: get the kids involved in real activities and you'll see real learning. And in the meantime, teacher-researchers can continue their own professional development by observing and writing about if, why, and how the various activities worked.

Like old wine in new bottles, these are the principles of contemporary theories about "project-based learning" and "action research." But I bet no one's out there building an adorable stone cottage that will not only still be standing, but still be admired 80 years from now.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

More on "the local"

Rosemary's earlier post about English beer puts me in mind of our pub experiences on this last trip that were not related to the Cambridge Beer Festival. I won't say that either of us is a big consumer of beer, ale, or cider, but a trip to England is not complete without a half-pint or a pint of something. Or maybe two.

One thing I can say is that if you order fish and chips in an English pub, you're likely to get a great big foot-long slab of crispy-battered and deep-fried fish. Even when I've had good fish and chips in this country, it's usually three or four little pieces: maybe the same amount of food, but not at all the same effect.

So--let's see. We avoided the Eagle in Cambridge, which is nostalgic for us primarily because on one trip, Rosemary went there for the fish and chips at lunch one day, and they were greasy and sat like a lump in her gut all day, unpleasantly. So, what did she do, but a week later she ordered the same thing, hoping it would be better. But it wasn't. But they used to have a good Ploughman's there, where you could get a big wedge of Stilton--which is practically a local cheese in Cambridge.

In London, we went to pubs mostly on Friday, with our friend Erin. One on the south bank was quite crowded, but we were able to get a nice (if a little chilly) table outdoors, right on the Thames. Then I saw a mouse--really!--and we decided to go.

But our most interesting pub experience this trip was on the Sunday when we had a few hours to kill between our accommodations in Cambridge and in London. We dropped our bags off at the Cambridge train station and set out to find some place to get a good English Sunday roast. (We had a great one in a little pub in Wales once.) In an excess of electronic enthusiasm, we looked up some options on the new iPod Touch, and got a recommendation for a little place called the "Live and Let Live." It was walkable from the train station, and (after hanging out for a while on Parker's Piece) we walked past a handful of other places, all offering traditional English Sunday roasts, and made our way to the Live and Let Live, hidden away on a residential corner.

We walked in, and it was a pub all right. Barman behind the bar, and four obvious regulars huddled on their stools. I asked if we could get lunch, and the barman pointed to a sheet of paper posted above the bar. I looked at Rose, turned, and ordered the ground beef patty on a bap (that's what we would call a bun). Oh, and a half-pint of Leffe. Rose got the same thing, and we split a basket of chips. We took a table (we didn't feel like joining the regulars), and drank our beer until the food came: a bare beef patty on a bap: no lettuce, tomato, pickles, catsup, or anything else. It wasn't bad, actually, and acurately described on the menu, after all. But it took another half of Leffe to wash it down.

It was interesting to hear the barman read out all the naughty bits from the Sunday papers, though. It put the quirky British morning tv habit of reading the newspaper headlines on air into perspective a bit.

Rick Steves always says that the purpose of travel ought to be to see the real places, not just the tourist stops. Live and Let Live.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Books that stay with you

On the long flight back from Heathrow, I read Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic book, The Road. Father and son, wandering through a desolate landscape pushing a shopping cart (all the grey ash floating around and ruining the main character's health made me wonder if the apocalypse in this book wasn't figured as akin to 9/11, but happening everywhere). Cannibals, bomb shelters, etc. Science fiction readers have probably seen it all before, and while McCarthy's take on the plot was fine, I wasn't blown away by either that or his sentences. It was okay, was pretty much my reaction.

Yet I get the impression--from the hype as much as much as anything--that The Road is supposed to be one of those books that stay with you, that haunt you long after you finish them. But I don't think that it is such a book for me.

The book that I read recently that's really stuck with me is Dan Simmons's The Terror, which I read back in March. It is also, in a very different way, about the end of the world. But the characters in The Terror are the participants in a doomed arctic expedition on a foolish quest for the Northwest Passage. Their ships are frozen into the ice through two winters and the summer between them, and the food (and coal) supplies are running out. Worse, they are being terrorized by what seems (to the sailors) to be a super-sized polar bear, killing and rampaging and the like. And by the end, there's cannibalism here, too, if not bomb shelters.

All that is handled well enough, and Simmons, whose novels are sometimes of uneven quality, is at the top of his form here: this really is a good book--a terrifying novel, and without a speck of "evil," which is something I always like to see. But what really sticks with me is the depiction of the frozen cold world on the sea north of Canada, and the matter-of-fact routines of the sailors as they deal with that world. Flying to London, I kept trying to peek out the window to catch a glimpse of that world. I don't like the cold, and I don't want to starve, and I don't think I'd like to really go there. But that book made me want to see that place, and see it in the middle of winter, and live there.

June is wedding month...

...and here's what this year's tackiest Bridezillas will be wearing:

For the woman who acknowledges that her wedding day is her one chance to strut like a peacock. Actually, this one's kind of interesting (at least it's not blinding white and strapless like most). And there's a certain bit of irony to it: isn't it male birds that generally have the brightest plumage?

Did you know that Disney has a line of wedding apparel? Are you surprised? I certainly hope not, since--as we've been conditioned--we're all supposed to latch onto our chosen "Disney Princess" and emulate her. So, there's a line of gowns for each one of them: Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Belle, Jasmine, Ariel, and Giselle. If anyone out there knows who Giselle is, I'd appreciate knowing, since I don't recognize the name from any classic fairy tale. Is she the one from Hunchback? And if so, why not add a dowager's hump to the dress for authenticity, sort of like a misplaced bustle, or bad 80s shoulder pads?

Alas, though, the folks at Disney have played it straight. Here's what one of the 2009 Giselle gowns looks like:

Mice, rabbits, and squirrels sold separately. Disney assumes no liability for "accidents" that said creatures might have if used as attendants.

Of course, the Disney collection wouldn't be complete without a line of Cinderella gowns:

Here's my question, though: why does Cinderella look so bitchy? I mean, isn't this the moment she's been waiting for all along? Maybe that's why she's mad: she knows it's all downhill from here.

If she wanted to leave a lasting impression, she should have tried this dress:

...which undoubtedly would have permanently burned its image into her guests' retinas.

Since June is the most popular month for weddings, it's all too likely that some brides-to-be will be disappointed to find their chosen church, reception hall, or caterer unable to schedule them on their preferred date. But those brides forced to postpone their nuptials until July needn't worry; that month offers a whole new range of sartorial options.

Hence, we'll end with this grand old bride:

Dear reader, please do not ask what got me started trolling the web for these images. Let's just say that blogging provides the perfect justification for time wasted on Google, and leave it at that.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The pleasure of things done beautifully

Question: What do the following have in common?

1) A great performance of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors at the Globe in London

2) An equally amazing performance of Croatian tamburitza music by Jerry Grcevich and his band in Chalk Hill, Pennsylvania

The answer? Both have been recent reminders to me of how pleasurable it is to watch a performance so masterful that it seems effortless. The kind of performance that makes you forget the prodigious amounts of talent, practice, inspiration, and energy required to spark such a magical chain reaction.

Tom is planning to blog about The Comedy of Errors, so I'll simply say that it was brilliantly staged and performed with incredible clarity and wit. Pure proof of the show's success: the fourteen-year-old boy sitting next to us who not only got it, but who laughed his ass off throughout the show. A real reminder that "masterpieces" needn't be serious or incomprehensible.

That reminder goes double for Jerry Grcevich. I have to admit, when I saw the scheduled entertainment for the first night of the Mid-Atlantic Folklife Association retreat, my friend Don's famous quip that "folk music is annoying" ran through my head. But tamburitza is anything but annoying; in fact, it reminded me of the great Gypsy music tradition that produced one of my favorite jazz musicians, Django Reinhardt.

Jerry is an NEA Heritage Fellowship winner who's regarded as the world's greatest prim player, and something of a music superstar in Croatia, where he collaborates with other musicians, tours, and records. But more crucially, he's also a consummate showman and a man who is clearly in love with the tradition he's engaged in.

It was a tremendous treat to be able to hear him perform in such an intimate setting...and by intimate, I mean not only small (there were only about 30 people there), but also up-close and personal. On at least two occasions, he came right up to me and played his prim about eight inches from my face. I'm not quite sure what that was about, but it was probably precipitated by the insane grin of delirium plastered across my face.

At one point he picked up another, smaller stringed instrument (I can't remember the name), which he said was sort of the ancestor of all the other tamburitza instruments, and explained that it might've been played by a shepherd out with his flock, as a way to pass the time.

To say that Jerry's playing is merely a way to "pass the time" would be a grave injustice. Nevertheless, his comment struck me: isn't it incredible that so much of the beauty in our world--art, music, drama, even gardening and great cooking--has stemmed from leisure? In saying that, I don't mean to diminish those activities. Quite the opposite: I am inspired by the fact that it's play, not work (or rather, the ethereal place where the two merge) that produces the most satisfying human accomplishments.

I am grateful for both of these recent experiences for reminding me of that, especially since my annual "holy-crap-I'm-not-getting-enough-done" summer panic is already gearing up. Note to self: play is essential, too.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Save the ales!

Generally, the best parts of any trip are the ones you don't, and can't, plan--those moments of pure serendipity, where you stumble across a great street performance, take a wrong turn and find a terrific restaurant, or find an incredible work of art while you were passing through on your way to see something else. (Of course, the corollary is true, as well--that the worst parts of any trip tend to be the ones you don't and can't plan--but that's another blog.)

We spent a week in Cambridge on our recent trip to England, and as it happened, our visit coincided with the town's annual Beer Festival. Sponsored by the local branch of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), the festival featured over 200 different locally-brewed beers, ciders, and perries (pear cider) from across the UK.

Everywhere we went in England this time, pubs, restaurants, and grocery stores boasted about their items being "locally sourced," but this interest in all things local doesn't extend to concern about the "Local." According to this article, five British pubs go out of business every day. Pub culture and beer culture have been so integral to British culture for so long, and part of CAMRA's mission is to remind people of that connection.

Far be it from us to contribute to cultural degradation. Off to the festival we went!

Here's how it works: You pay your admission fee, buy a pint glass (unless you've brought your own--lots of people did), and belly up to the "bar"--the bar being a wooden counter extending along three of four sides of a basketball-court sized tent. There, you order a pint or a half pint of your choice--the barrels are all labeled with the ale's name and alcohol content. Here are the ones we tried:
  • Cranberry Wheat from Iceni Brewery in Norfolk
  • Hotel Porter from the Maldon Brewing Company in Essex
  • 1837 India Pale Ale from Pitfield Brewery in Essex
  • Grapefruit Beer from St. Peters Brewery in Suffolk
  • Old Barn cider from Monmouthshire
  • Hundred Extra-Dry Mead
The most remarkable of the beers I had was the grapefruit beer: when you lifted the glass, it smelled exactly like you were about to drink a glass of grapefruit juice, but the beer itself only had the slightest citrusy taste. Very strange sensory experience! Tom reports that the Old Barn cider was, well, quite Barn-y.

What I love about British beer: it's not sickeningly sweet like a lot of craft beers here. It's not over-carbonated. A pint is a real pint.

Plus, it was a beautiful late-spring evening in a beautiful city, there was good food, a nice crowd, and we were on vacation. Cheers!