Friday, September 27, 2013

Hangin' with Queen Ceres

West Virginia is the most festival-crazy place I have ever lived.  It seems that every weekend, there's some kind of local event going on--especially this time of year, when many towns have harvest festivals celebrating whatever the local crop is.

But my favorite, hands down, is the Preston County Buckwheat Festival, which has taken place in Kingwood, the Preston County seat, every fall since 1938.  Kingwood is about twenty miles east of Morgantown, straight up a narrow, twisty two-lane road.

Preston County takes this community event seriously:  the county schools are closed for the duration of the festival, since so many kids are participating in one way or another...showing livestock, preparing crops or baked goods for judging, or marching in one of the innumerable marching bands in the area.

Friday is always children's day at the Buckwheat Festival, and so the midway swarms with preteens and teens out of school for the day, scoping out the rides, games, food, and each other before the day's big event, the kids' parade.  

You have never seen a parade with so much royalty:  there's Queen Ceres and King Buckwheat, of course, but there are also innumerable princesses, junior princesses, and Little/Tiny/Baby Miss Valley District, plus visiting royalty from near and far.  No one, it seems, reaches adulthood in Preston County without having been some kind of festival princess or attendant.

King Buckwheat. After I took this photo, he blew me a kiss.  Swoon!

Queen Ceres
For me, the highlight is always the buckwheat pancake feed at the Kingwood VFD Hall.  It's a huge building, filled end-to-end with banquet tables, and for eight bucks you get a KVFD plate loaded with all the pancakes you can eat, two enormous pieces of homemade sausage, and a half pint carton of whole milk.  Butter and syrup are on the shared tables, and in the past, I've actually seen Queen Ceres herself--tiara and all--busing tables, pouring coffee refills, and bringing extra pancakes to diners. 

We don't get there every year--often the weather is chilly and rainy.  But today could not have been a more picture-perfect day to go:  72 degrees with bright, warm sunshine.  

That, and discovering that one of the prizewinning goats was named Katniss, made it a perfectly lovely day out.

Katniss is the goat on the other side of the fence--the one you can't
see very well.  Camera-shy, just like her namesake.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Skylark, have you anything to say to me?

One of my sabbatical goals was to start voice lessons again.  I studied for about seven years in high school and college, and though it never "went" anywhere (obviously, I didn't become a professional singer), I enjoyed it immensely and have missed it ever since.  There's something about singing that's very Zen-like for me: it's effort, but from a totally different part of my brain and body than anything else I've ever done, and when it's going well I can slip very easily into that optimal sense of flow.

This time around, though, I didn't want to study classical repertoire like I did before.  While I enjoyed singing all those arias at the time, that music kind of leaves me cold now.  What I really want to do is sing jazz--not necessarily scatting (I'm not sure I'll ever loosen up enough to do that in a way that isn't deeply uncomfortable for me and any unfortunate listener)--but just a more relaxed, personal kind of singing that makes the best use of my range.

WVU offers private lessons through its community music program, and I found a local teacher who was willing to take me on, even though she's more classically trained.  I had my first lesson yesterday, and it was great fun--even doing scales and various silly exercises to loosen up the face and lips was a real blast from the past.  


About midway through the lesson, I was overwhelmed by a deep sense of grief.  It caught me unexpectedly and swamped me for a few seconds, until I realized what it was about.


In part, I'm doing this because at the end of his life, I saw how vital music was to him--it was, in many ways, the thing that most sustained him and gave him the deepest pleasure and peace.  And I realized that it's something I not only admired but envied in him, his ability to sustain that hobby and passion until the very end of his days.  I wanted to rekindle that love, which I shared with him, in my own life.

While my new voice teacher is excellent, I think it's fair to say she's not a pianist.  In fact, she pretty much "accompanied" me in the same way I accompany myself at home: by picking out the melody with the right hand, or just hitting the first note in a measure, and then going acapella from there.

Midway through the lesson, I wanted my dad.  My dad, who could play almost anything by ear, or in a pinch, from a fake book.
Dad at the piano(s)

Wanting to keep my own interest in music separate from his, we very seldom played together.  And now I'm sorry that we didn't play and sing every damn time we saw each other.

And it also made me miss my longtime voice teacher from all those years ago, Carol Marty. She died in 2012, and when I heard the news, I felt freshly guilty about having lost touch with her.  Not only was she my teacher, but she was also a good friend, and in addition to formal lessons, we frequently went out to sing old tunes from the 20s and 30s at a nursing home in east Columbus, often followed by lunch at the Kahiki.

Again, adulthood--or my theories about it--got in the way.  Though I doubt I could have articulated it at the time, I think that after I'd graduated from college and started working, continuing lessons was a final tie to my adolescence that I wanted to sever.  

But yesterday, I appreciated her in a whole new way.  Not only was she a great voice teacher, she was a remarkable pianist, and a very skillful, sensitive accompanist.  I know I wasn't as aware of and awed by that as I should have been at the time, but I sure am now.  In the midst of picking my way through Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark" yesterday, I wanted nothing more than for Mrs. Marty to be there, playing a lush accompaniment, the two of us gauging each other's tempo and phrasing so that voice and piano would not just synch, but together create something more full of life and movement than either alone could.

As a teenager and a young adult, I was blessed with two incredibly talented accompanists who took my interest in music seriously, nurtured it, and who went a step further and loved me.  And sometime between 4 and 5 p.m. yesterday, I finally understood that.  Too late to thank either of them.

In honor of the great Linda Ronstadt, who recently announced that Parkinson's disease has left her unable to sing a note, I'll post her version of "Skylark."  A nice reminder that if you've still got the pipes, you've gotta use and cherish them.  Will do, Dad and Mrs. Marty.  It's the best tribute I can make to you both.

(Not necessarily my favorite arrangement of that song, however...I prefer the spareness of this one.)

Monday, September 9, 2013

Miley, Robin, and the "Secret Keeper Girls"

Recently, a Facebook acquiantance posted that she was attending a "Secret Keeper Girls" concert with her tween daughter.  

A few days earlier, she'd posted a link to an article about not being the kind of girl who wears clothing that encourages boys to look down your shirt.  I almost posted a comment to the effect that while I was on board with that idea, we have to be careful not to go back to the Victorian idea that women are responsible for controlling men's urges.  But not wanting to get into an online debate, I refrained.  

Still, her mention of the "Secret Keeper Girls" intrigued me.  Was this some new girl group, a Christian version of the Spice Girls or the Pussycat Dolls?  I Googled it.  

No: Secret Keeper Girls is a nationwide organization that touts itself as being "The most fun a mother and daughter will ever have digging into God's word."  But what it's really about is promoting "modesty," purity," and--as this post suggests--not having your daughters vaccinated against HPV, but instead warning them about "the risk of sex outside of marriage" (like your husband might not transmit HPV to you? Puh-lease!).

To be fair, the post about Gardisil is very even-handed, generally, and some of the project's goals are ones I support wholeheartedly, such as their effort to lobby the fashion industry to fight the sexualization of pre-teen girls by designing more age-appropriate clothing for that demographic.  The Secret Keeper Girls' petition even cites an American Psychological Association position paper on the issue.

But generally, I agree with a blogger on Jezebel who wrote
I totally support this in principle. And it's good that SKG focuses on healthy body image for girls and recognizes the correlation between overly sexualized kids and [eating disorders]. But why is there no happy medium? Why does this "mission" have to be twinned with God's Plan and chastity belts and what seems to be a generally retrograde and abstinence-only approach to sexuality?....It's depressing that the only voice I've seen publicly calling for any kind of not-slutty kids' clothes is politicized and somewhat problematic, making it easy for us to dismiss any good sense within the rhetoric. Eight-year-olds shouldn't have non-slutty clothing options because God Loves Modesty, but because they're little kids who shouldn't be sexualized.
This isn't a new battle; I remember my mom lamenting the lack of appropriate, well-made fashions for tweens back when I was one in the 1970s.  And the recent kerfuffle about Miley Cyrus' VMAs performance and the "message" it sends to girls is just the latest instance of similarly "shocking" displays going back to...oh, I don't know...probably to the silent-film era.  Hell, probably to ancient Greece.

And why was all the outrage directed at Cyrus?  To me, the video for Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," the song he performed with her, is the real source of outrage: it's a misogynistic, tedious piece of garbage (and Thicke is a low-rent George Michael-wannabe).  Better yet, skip the original and check out this smart parody by Auckland University's "Law Revue Girls" instead:  

What's ultimately disheartening about all of this is that while we seem to agree that girls and young women are suffering from body dysmorphia more than ever these days, the shots we take at a solution fall way, way short of the mark.  Or, as in the blame-Miley-and-ignore-Robin case, we're missing the target entirely.  Or, in the case of the Secret Keeper Girls, the shots ultimately seem to boomerang and hit the very people they're trying to protect: the girls themselves.

Is it really empowering to tell girls that they shouldn't show their midriffs because "bellies are very intoxicating, and we need to save that for our husbands"?  (See the Secret Keeper Girls' "Truth or Bare Fashion Tests" in this post on Jezebel.)  We may scoff at women wearing the hijab or the burqa, but the logic behind those fashion choices is the same: men can't be held responsible for their actions if you don't dress modestly.

It's easy to use SKG as a straw-girl in this debate.  Too easy.  I can't fault moms for embracing a prefab and seemingly simple "solution" to what is undoubtedly a complex and emotionally wrenching problem.  It's a classic move to think that if we just buy this book, or sign this petition, or wear a t-shirt, that we've done our part for the cause.  SKG's creator, Dannah Gresh, can't be faulted for following in the Great American Tradition of pushing merch and profiting from others' anxiety.  I don't doubt that she's sincere all the way to the bank.

Meanwhile, though, girls and adult women are still faced with the very complicated task of figuring out how to own their bodies and their sexuality in a culture that increasingly tells them that those same bodies are perpetually objects for evaluation, consumption, and capitalization.  Creating a healthy self-esteem is a long, complex, and deeply individual process for everyone, regardless of gender.  Miley and Robin are clearly still working on it, despite--or perhaps as evidenced by--their over-the-top performances.