• Tuesday, January 01st, 2013
Sixty years ago, sometime in the night of December 31, 1952, or the early morning of January 1, 1953, Hank Williams died, cold and alone, in the back seat of his Cadillac. The world is a poorer place for his leaving it so early.
Hank died long before I was born, but his music is in my bones. When my father was growing up in inner-city Chicago, he listened to Hank on the WLS Barn Dance; when I was growing up in Indiana, he would play Hank’s records at night, after we kids went to bed. I’d lie awake and listen to these songs about crazy hearts, faithless love, and bedding down with the family dog after a fight with the missus, songs that opened a window into a strange and rather interesting world of adults behaving badly.
(Check out this post at Robot 6 for a fragment of a Hank Williams bio-comic and an intriguing insight into the inspiration for some of his songs.)
• Saturday, August 11th, 2012
When people think of CERN they generally think of the Large Hadron Collider and the Higgs particle and maybe black holes or even the Illuminati. But for the people who work there, CERN is also a place.
I think the best way to describe CERN and the nearest town, Meyrin, is “ugly buildings in a beautiful landscape.” That isn’t entirely fair. Many of the CERN buildings are utilitarian rather than elegant, and they have been refurbishing them over the years. Meyrin is an outcrop of horrible concrete apartment blocks that look like they were all built at once during the architectural nadir of the 1960s and haven’t aged well. But if you look out a window at CERN, or if you cross the main drag into the old part of Meyrin, you’re suddenly in a picture postcard. And life there has a special quality all its own.
So here are some pictures my husband took of CERN and Meyrin on his most recent trip, in June.
• Saturday, July 21st, 2012
This is one of a big stack of travel brochures that I acquired when I was about 10. I don’t remember where I got them, but I do remember being fascinated by the oldness of them. I still am, so I figured they would make good post fodder.
Let’s start off with Rapid City, Gateway to the Black Hills of South Dakota, copyright 1932 by the Rapid City Chamber of Commerce. This is a full-size magazine-style brochure that touts the many delights of the Black Hills and features some spectacular double-page spreads (which, unfortunately, my scanner is too small to handle). The front cover brings us right into the period, with its bright red tourist bus, a woman in a pleated skirt and heels taking a photo with a box camera (viewfinder on the top of the camera), and a man wearing a cap apparently fleeing down the road. The scenery is lovely, but it looks like this photo, like many of the color photos, has had extra color laid on with a heavy hand. One interesting compositional touch was the photo editor’s decision to crop the photo in such a way that a tree and a dead tree trunk run vertically parallel to the spine of the book, blocking the diagonal movement of the dirt road but also looking uncannily like a printing flaw or a bad crease.
According to the brochure, President Calvin Coolidge and his wife spent the summer of 1927 in the state game lodge in Custer State Park. Coolidge was out of office by the time this brochure came out, but I guess having a president pick your state for his vacation getaways is something of a feather in the cap. I never realized how handsome he was until I saw this picture—I picture all presidents of that era as portly and gray-haired. Coolidge died in 1933 of a heart attack.
• Saturday, June 30th, 2012
Here’s a fascinating puzzle.
I get the bare bones of it. My grandfather was the village doctor in Ireland from the 1930s to about 1980, a time when Ireland was much more puritanical than it is now. Memory is selective, of course, and people who think that sex was invented in 1968 have a lot to learn. The fact that there was a need for this, even in a small town in an intensely Catholic country, speaks volumes.
What I don’t get is what this was supposed to accomplish. Everyone in the village knew everyone else, so it’s not like these rings would fool a lot of people. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that a woman who was pregnant outside of marriage would go elsewhere to have the baby, so the ring could be a way to save face.
It does seem like an uncommon bit of kindness to give the girls these rings. I assume my grandmother was behind that. Although she raised her children pretty strictly, she understood human nature. I wonder, though, how many of these she gave out, and whether she took them back again afterward, and if there was a supplier somewhere who made cheap gold rings just for this purpose. There’s a whole backstory to this, in other words, that I suspect has been lost forever.
• Saturday, January 01st, 2011
This book fascinated and terrified me when I was a child. I loved reading it and re-reading it, but I knew the stories would unnerve me enough that I wouldn’t be able to sleep that night.
Looking back at it now, I wonder why that was. The stories aren’t that scary, and the storyteller, C.B. Colby, didn’t even claim that most of them were true. Many are drawn from urban legend (there are two “vanishing hitchhiker” stories in the book), folk tales, or local history, and a few are simply speculation—could there be flying saucers? Could aliens somewhere in space be watching our TV shows—or could scientists be picking up theirs?
Perhaps because I was so terrified by it, Strangely Enough has wedged itself into my memory in many odd ways. Mention Yonkers to me, for instance, and the mental picture that name conjures up is a flying saucer. David Lockhart’s matter-of-fact line drawings somehow made this book seem even more sinister than it already was.
• Friday, December 31st, 2010
My grandparents lived in a big house in the village of Louth, seven miles south of Dundalk and just a few more miles south of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. I remember it as being huge, almost a mansion, although it really wasn’t; it was bigger than the house I grew up in, though, and had a stately staircase, a drawing room, an enormous kitchen, and an actual scullery. My grandmother always had a cook (Mrs. Finnegan in my day) and a maid (who was never referred to as such—always by her first name).
There were seven children in my mother’s family, and they always had assorted other relatives living with them, especially during the war, when my grandmother’s siblings left London and stayed in Louth to avoid the bombing. So I could never figure out how they got by with just one bathroom. I guess it was a more Spartan time.
The bathroom was big and bright, painted white, with a claw-footed tub, a pedestal sink, and a most peculiar toilet—the seat was wooden, and the tank was overhead. You flushed by pulling a chain. There was only a limited supply of hot water, and when there was a drought, which happened several times during our summer visits, there was no water at all. During those times, we took turns cranking a big water wheel in the back yard to draw water up from an old well, and then brought it up in a bucket to flush the toilet.
• Thursday, December 02nd, 2010
When we were kids, my father used to read us A Christmas Carol aloud, a stave each night, while my mother baked Christmas cookies in the kitchen. By the time we were teenagers, though, we had too much to do, and too little patience, for this nightly ritual. We all liked the idea of it, but we seldom had the time to sit down, calm our racing minds, and just listen.
Dad understood that, and he would have liked to read us another, shorter book instead: The Story of the Other Wise Man, by Henry Van Dyke. He really loved this book, but it wasn’t as comfortingly familiar as A Christmas Carol, and Van Dyke’s flowery, roundabout Victorian style had us nodding off after the first page, so we never did make it all the way through it.
Last year, on Christmas morning, I read the book for the first time. I wish I hadn’t waited so long. Buried in all that description is a really lovely Christmas story, one that closely parallels my father’s life and the lessons I learned from taking care of him in his last years.
• Friday, July 10th, 2009
This week marks my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Neither of them is here to celebrate it, and I almost forgot it myself. But I thought it would be nice to reprint this piece, because it’s about them and about how the good habits of marriage can be carried on from one generation to the next.
(Take a look at my dad in that picture. You can tell how thrilled he is to be marrying Mom. In the 44 years they were together on this earth, and even after she died, he never got over that.)
This article was published in the Boston Globe 10 years ago, and I think it’s my first published piece. I’m tempted to polish it up a bit but I won’t. Better to leave it be.
• Friday, January 23rd, 2009
I was poking through the bookshelves in the Trinity Episcopal Church Thrift Shop a few weeks before Christmas, and I turned up this handsome booklet, which was published in 1947 by the United Fruit Company. The cover, reproduced as a full spread here, shows a nice big hand of bananas in a pressed-glass banana stand, an item that became popular in the 1890s, the booklet tells us, when bananas first became widely available. I like the almost-symmetry of this cover; if you look at just the front cover, it is particularly striking. The design is elegant and simple, especially compared to most food-company cookbooks. But the interior is a sheer descent into madness.
• Sunday, December 14th, 2008
Every family has their little holiday traditions. We certainly had plenty—Dad would read A Christmas Carol aloud to us kids, as a result of which I had big chunks of it memorized by the time I was in high school. We all worked together under his direction to make platters of egg rolls to give as gifts—no Chinese restaurant can ever come close to my dad’s egg rolls. My mother made sausage rolls. We usually cut the tree ourselves, often at the last minute. We kids made a stocking for Mom and Dad, and when we woke up before dawn on Christmas, there would be a bulging kneesock by each of our beds, filled with chocolate coins and assorted little items and—always—a tangerine and a quarter in the toe.
According to the note on the flyleaf, this little book made its first appearance in our family on Christmas 1978. My mother undoubtedly found it either at a yard sale or at our favorite store, the St. Vincent De Paul Thrift Shop, which means she probably paid 19 cents for it.
Each of the stories in this book starts out as your standard, heart-warming Christmas story of magic and good deeds, then takes a sharp U-turn at the end, winding up with exploding lightbulbs, adulterous elves, and Rudolph’s flabby laurels. more…