Monthly Archives: December 2018

Celebrating the Solstice

My dear friend “D” entertains annually on the Winter solstice. The party includes many people who don’t know one another, because they come from different parts of D’s life. My original connection was the playgroup that supported D and I though our children’s preschool years. Those kids are over age 30 now, and most of the playgroup mothers are now grandparents.

Not satisfied with food and drink and general conversation (all wonderful!), D always organizes some kind of “sharing”. This year, her topic was simply inspired. IMMIGRATION has been all over the news and dominates many conversations.

We were offered a chance to discuss our family histories, and share about holiday customs that came from our forebears! Seriously, we could have talked all night. There were 16 of us. Do the math. Thirty two parents, sixty four grandparents, and on it goes! Each life is a story.

What did I learn? The most common country of origin for South Jersey families is Italy! (Had you asked me, I might have suggested Germany, but that’s just my neighborhood.) Those with Italian roots reported large families and many variations on the “Feast of Seven Fishes” on Christmas Eve.

Next most common was the Irish/German/Miscellaneous cohort. I belong there – German mother, Irish father, maybe some English blood.

Many people like me report data gaps. Family members were adopted (often informally), and their backgrounds remain unknown. Going back only four generations, my family tree includes two adoptions.

Two people reported Native American ancestry. Each could name a tribe, but neither holds tribal membership. Only two in our group reported on ancestors from before 1776, and no one reported membership in the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution).

Some of us discussed genealogy and/or genetic testing. One woman hired a specialized tour guide to help her find family records along the Rhine in Germany! Several people had done or planned to use commercially available genetic testing.

I spoke early in the discussion, and managed to be brief, but things continued to occur to me. Did anyone else know how to make the German treat called “elephant ears”? Did anyone speak a language that was NOT lost during immigration? Each of my grandmothers said she had forgotten her first language, but my German grandmother remembered a little vocabulary and snatches of song. My mother studied German in high school, and I learned it in college. Gaelic, regrettably, has been lost to us.

The Christmas season is a wonderful time for these types of reflection! Thanks, D, for a great evening.

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The Silent Night SING-IN in Philadelphia! Presented by WRTI 90.1 and Composer/Conductor John Conahan

Image result for silent night

I was there! Singing! A Facebook friend posted the announcement for this event, and I impulsively decided to attend. The “Messiah Sing” is a common December event, but this offering (on December 17, 2018) was a surprise. Several factors combined to bring it about.

This year is the 200thanniversary of the carol’s first performance. John Conahan wrote a new arrangement of the familiar tune, and offered it for performance by all who wished to attend, using the atrium of the Kimmel Center on Broad Street in Philadelphia as his venue.

Conahan’s arrangement is gracefully classical and includes interesting modulations of pitch. It was challenging (for me) to sight read, but well within the grasp of a good high school or church choir. Silent Night has always been a gift to the conductor who loves dynamics.

Conahan has generously put his arrangement into the public domain. so groups can perform it without worrying over copyrights or royalties.

You can find it on YouTube.com by Googling “Silent Night SING-IN in Philadelphia”.

This recording isn’t great – 1200 singers with barely any opportunity for rehearsal, with the unpredictable acoustics of a lobby rather than a concert hall… Better versions will soon be achieved.

Music brings people together. Silent Night is a song of love and peace. And hope! Conahan used his talent, connections and technology to toss a gift into the future. This is cause for happiness all around.

“Finding Dorothy” by Elizabeth Letts

Finding Dorothy: A Novel

This book was given to me when I made a purchase at an independent bookstore in North Carolina. There was a stack (several feet high) of pre-release volumes from which I was invited to choose. The official publication date is February 12, 2019. My copy is marked Advance Reader’s Edition. Maybe there’s too much competition if you release a book right before Christmas?

The “Dorothy” of this book is the heroine of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, who spoke the immortal words “I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more.” The book falls into the genre of fictionalized biography. (I disapprove, in principle…)

Elizabeth Letts begins by introducing Maud Gage Baum as an elderly woman, in 1938, during the months when The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by her deceased husband, was being rendered into a movie.

Flashbacks then reveal Maud Baum’s life story, beginning with her arrival at Cornell University in one of the first groups of women permitted to study there.

Many aspect of Maud Gage Baum’s life are distressing. She suffered from the rampant sexism of her day, poor medical care and economic instability. Her mother, Matilda Gage, was a well known suffragist at a time when the vote for women was widely considered a joke.

The book would be depressing, but L Frank Baum was such an engaging, imaginative and kind man that we understand how Maud was able to carry on.

One well developed theme was the Women’s Suffrage movement. Additionally, both Christian Science and spiritualism are touched in passing. Maud Baum lived in interesting times!

What about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz? Letts describes Frank Baum as a man of vast creativity and optimism. His book is described in Wikipedia as “the first American fairy tale”. What a wonderful accolade! Its popularity was sensational. Children believed every word of it, loved it, read it, dreamed it.

Somehow, I never read the book and never even watched the movie all the way through. But now I feel inspired to do both. I think that makes Letts’s book a wonderful success.

PS: Why have I read two works recently in which a DOLL figures prominently? The Dorothy of Letts’s novel is not a person, but rather the beloved doll owned by Maud Baum’s suffering niece, who is tragically mired in poverty and loneliness. The doll is destroyed and Dorothy is reincarnated as an imaginary friend. Think about the doll in the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante. Kind of witchy, right? Can anyone explain to me the end of that long saga, when the doll reappears?

“Becoming” by Michelle Obama

I wanted to write about this book BEFORE checking out reviews and other feedback, but it’s becoming more difficult every day! I just got a Facebook message from the man himself (Barack Obama) recommending the book, and offering a few other comments. He did not yet release his annual list of favorite books.

One of the first questions I was asked (by a friend) was whether Mrs. Obama had a co-author. There’s none on the title page. She mentions many people in her acknowledgements (which run to three pages and end, unpredictably, with a gratitude towards “every young person I ever encountered during my time as First Lady… Thank you for giving me a reason to be hopeful”). So, the answer is “no”. There was no co-author.

Michelle Obama emphasized one thing over and over. Each of us has a story to tell. Each of us matters. Much of her public speaking has involved telling her story – that of growing up on Chicago’s side, seeing her neighborhood change from diverse to decidedly minority dominated, wanting SO MUCH to achieve, to be approved of, to get high grades!

Once, when she was in high school, Michelle was asked (by a relative near her own age) why she talked “like a white person”. Surprised, she didn’t really answer. Her parents and other adult relatives had emphasized diction and standard usage. My guess is that Michelle Obama is functionally bilingual (in two forms of English).

So much of Michelle Obama’s life was spent “juggling”. Between being “too black” and “too white”, and everything else. Too tall. Too earnest. Too “pushy”. She found her path, but became, in many understandable ways, cautious. She was always aware of the balance she needed and/or wanted to strike.

I was interested in the First Family’s life in the White House. Michelle wanted her mother to join them, but Mrs. Marian Robinson was reluctant. She had lived all her life in Chicago. Michelle enlisted her brother Craig to help change her mind. Mrs. Robinson was able to occasionally evade the constant Secret Service presence. She slipped out of the White House to run errands. If someone said “You look like Michelle Obama’s mother”, she smiled politely and said “Yes, people say that…”

I get the impression that Michelle and the President didn’t play any games AT ALL with the Secret Service. They accepted the fact that the stakes were way too high for that.

We all wonder what’s ahead for the Obama family. Leadership is so urgently needed, but they deserve a break, at the very least a long vacation, and I wish them all the best in the future.

Gleodileg* Jolabokaflod!

This year, my family celebrated Christmas on the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving. We approach the holidays “creatively” and have previously celebrated Christmas at times ranging from Black Friday to The Day Itself. Thanksgiving and Christmas were combined about 15 years ago, when it became clear that gathering TWICE was simply impossible.

A designated “game master” defines our gift giving arrangement. This year my niece organized a combination of “Secret Santa” and “Jolabokoflod”. Jola…what?

Here’s an explanation of this popular new holiday tradition

This is how it worked for us. Each of us sent a (private!) message to the game master, listing:

  • a book we wanted
  • a favorite genre or author
  • a pet peeve (I nixed historical fantasy fiction)
  • OR our willingness to let Santa choose

SOMEBODY heard that in Iceland on December 24, families exchange books and spend the evening reading and drinking chocolate, or possibly eating chocolates. So we also submitted our chocolate preferences – dark or milky, soft or chewy, favorite brand… Turns out caramel sea salt/dark chocolate is the winner. Ghirardelli was the most popular brand. Seventeen family members participated.

Here’s the outcome:

We didn’t photograph the chocolate. Use your imagination!

*In case you are wondering, I used GoogleTranslate to approximate “merry” or “happy”. I wish you a Gleodileg Jolabokaflod! You can pronounce it any way you like.

I already finished reading my gift book. Stay tuned for a review!

“Bohemian Rhapsody” by 20th Century Fox et al

Bohemian Rhapsody poster.png

I don’t go to the movies very often, so I find our family tradition of a movie after Thanksgiving dinner exciting! Ten years ago, a dozen of us would troop out to the latest Harry Potter movie or Lord of the Rings extravaganza. Now, tastes are more sophisticated and wider ranging. Luckily, a multiplex theater offers something for everyone. This year, five of us decided to see “Bohemian Rhapsody” while others went to “Fantastic Beasts”.

I hadn’t paid much attention to what “Bohemian Rhapsody” is about. Music, right? Well, I’ve managed to miss a good deal of popular music and popular culture over the past few decades, but it turned out I did recognize more than a few of the band Queen’s iconic, blockbuster songs.

I had totally missed out on Freddy Mercury (born Farrokh Bulsara), the lead singer of Queen. What talent and creativity! Mercury is played by Rami Malek, who rose to great challenges in portraying the complex, conflicted genius.

I can’t pass critical judgment on this movie… I have no idea what a “biopic” should be like.  (Wikipedia provides links to dozens of reviews and related commentary.) But I enjoyed it very much, and plan to look back into the music of Queen and the Live Aid concert (which I DO remember!) that serves as the climax of the movie.

“What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815 – 1848” by Daniel W Howe, part of “The Oxford History of the United States”

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford History of the United States)

Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday I spent many hours in the car, driving to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, then to a suburb of Washington DC and finally home to New Jersey. Recorded books make grueling trips bearable! My fellow traveler is working his way (selectively) through The Oxford History of the United States.

The Oxford History (conceived in the 1950s and published starting in 1982) will eventually consist of 12 volumes. They are not strictly sequential. (Some deal with a topic rather than a time period.) We are making no effort to read them in order. My husband began with The Republic for Which it Stands, covering 1865 to 1896 (Reconstruction and the “Gilded Age”). Then we jumped back in time to What Hath God Wrought.

Initially, this book was going to be titled Jacksonian America. Wow! I didn’t realize how much there is to hate about Andrew Jackson! His attitudes toward African Americans (enslaved or free) and native Americans were ugly. The rest of the world was turning it’s back on the “peculiar institution”. How would America move forward? The US was on shaky moral ground.

Taking a step back, the value of this book is that it shows how unprecedented and experimental the newborn United States was. The future success of our country was by no means assured.

Okay, I admit to having slept through a good deal of the recorded text, but it didn’t matter. What I learned was interesting! Consider, for example, the role of violence in civic life. Why so many riots? This book was published in 2007, but it has a remarkable amount to say about politics and behavior in 2018.

Three issues in this book that particularly engaged me were

  • the abolition movement
  • “Indian removal”, as in The Trail of Tears
  • women’s rights, especially suffrage

Sometimes supporters of these movements aided each other, and sometimes they found themselves at cross purposes.

When I’m on the road, I often need music or conversation, but well written history also makes the miles roll past. Previously I’ve read popular books about World War II. Shifting towards these more scholarly works has been worthwhile.