Sound Memories I: Pop-Pop’s Song

Every now and then, I a little ditty pops into my head.  It is one of the few sound memories I have of my grandfather, Albert James Belanus, Sr., who died when I was about seven years old.  I remember him as a tall, slim Dutchman from Northern New Jersey with a shock of white hair and bushy black eyebrows.  He sometimes ate cold rice with milk and sugar.  He loved Christmas and he and my grandmother spoiled us rotten buying toys with their Christmas Club money.

Anyhow,  he used to sing a little song that I only figured out was a naughty song years and years later, after he was long buried.  I realized then why he got a twinkle in his eye when he sang it. I don’t think my sister remembers it, or maybe this was something between Pop-Pop and me.   It went something like this, in my memory:

A-sol, a-sol, a-soldier boy was he (repeat)

He had two pis- two pistols on his knee (repeat)

There might have been more, but that is all I recall, except for a sort of chorus that sounded to me like “And step, comarade, and step comarade, and step tra-la-la-la.”  Which led me to believe that maybe it was a marching song for actual soldiers, though my grandfather was never a soldier.

It never occurred to me to search for other versions on the internet.  (And I call myself a folklorist?)  But, here it is, and here, along with discussions about its origins and alternative versions.  (I can see now why my grandfather might have edited out some of the additional verses for my little ears.)  Seems as if it might have started as a soldier’s song and then made it’s way to the playground.  Where my grandfather learned it, we will never know.  But, it is so ingrained in my memory that I recall it more than 50 years later.

The power of music, the power of memory, the power of love.

Senses and Memories Part Two: As the Stomach Turns

Earlier this week, I ate a weird combination of foods and ended up with an upset stomach. The next day, I turned to my go-to comfort food to calm it down:  noodles with butter and a generous sprinkling of salt, which to me is the definition of the term “totally bland but utterly delicious.”  

I also craved a Coke, and not just for the bubbles.  When we were kids, my mom used to give us “Coke syrup” when we had an upset stomach.  Yes, this was a thing back in the day, and you can still get it at sales outlets that market nostalgia like the Vermont Country Store.

  No scientific proof, apparently, confirms Coke, flat or bubbly, in syrup form or straight from the can or bottle, as an actual cure for an upset stomach.  But, as this web site points out, it may make you FEEL BETTER none the less, if, for instance, your mom used to give it to you as a kid for this purpose.  One trusts one’s mom to know what she’s doing when you are young, right?  When she said, “This will make you feel better,” in a soothing voice, you were bound to at least attempt to feel better.

What foods and/or drinks from your childhood ease a crummy tummy?

 

Smells Like Memories, or, The Nose Knows

Some smells bring you to a different time and place.  Some smells can even change your life course.  Breathe deep and read on.

I was fighting a cold recently and tried some Vicks Vapor Rub to clear out my sinuses.  (I’ve had the same little jar of Vicks for at least twenty years, it doesn’t take much to do its job.)  The smell of eucalyptus and whatever else they put in there (menthol? I can’t read the ingredients any more on my jar) immediately brought back the memory of my mom slathering the same gooey pungent muck on my chest, and placing a very warm washcloth on top, when I was a kid.  Comforting, if a little uncomfortable, but a smell that brought the warm feeling of caring and love along with it.

The evergreen, resiny smell of a Christmas tree brings back memories of cheerful holiday times, and up to a week ago there were still cut trees littering the streets waiting for recycling pick-up.  I sometimes break off a branch of one on my way to the Metro in the morning, and just indulge in some post-holiday nostalgia sniffing.  I even stripped a branch a couple of times and put the needles in an open jar for a sort of homemade aroma therapy.  (I am thinking twice about this practice, though, after my husband pointed out that a dog had just peed on our own curbed tree last week before it was picked up.)

The smell of lilacs always reminds me of the big bush behind my beloved early childhood home.  In the same spirit as trying to preserve the Christmas tree smell, I used to pick the flowers and put them in a jar with water to make my own lilac water, dabbing it on as perfume.  Trying to capture spring in a bottle and keep it close to me.

I was doing some research on the National Heritage Fellows, in preparation for writing some features for our July/August guest edited issue of FACES magazine for kids 9 – 14.  (Shameless plug, sorry.)  I read the story of one of my favorite Fellows, Mike Vlohovich, an amazing boat restoration expert and man of the sea, who won the award in 2016.   He tells the story of studying to be a priest when he was younger, having received a calling.  He was walking in the garden of the seminary, and smelled the morning coffee.  The smell brought him back to his days on fishing boats, of the coffee brewing to wake up the early morning crew and keep them sharp for the difficult job in often dangerous waters.  He realized that he had another calling, back to the sea and ships.  (His version of the story is much better than mine, but you get the idea.)

Next time you smell a smell that brings you back into another time and place, go with it.  Linger over your memory.  It might change your life, or it might just bring you to a different, and hopefully better, place for a few moments.

Seasonal Confusion Disorder

The holidays are officially over, so life should be getting back to “normal.”  But, what is normal?  (Has there ever been a normal? Or, do things just seem less normal right now?)  We finally used up the last of the fresh garden tomatoes, which we picked as late as November and wrapped in newspapers to ripen.  This is not normal, but it is pretty impressive.

The earlier portion of this week, it was frigid, in the low double digits with wind chill even lower.  Then, it zoomed to almost 70 degrees for a couple of days and we all peeled off our winter coats and frolicked.


There’s no snow, but I did find some snowdrops blooming in the Haupt garden behind the Smithsonian Castle.  These little beauties must be as confused as we are.

Perhaps confusion is the new normal.

Tea for a New World

Tea is too often taken for granted.  Unless you are a tea aficionado, you don’t think twice about a simple cup of Lipton or Tetley, you just dunk a tea bag in the cup of hot water and have at it.   Where does tea come from, and how is it processed?  What’s the difference between black, green and white tea?  Is herbal tea really “tea”?

Most tea we drink here in America comes from afar – China, India, Indonesia.  But, there is one (and only one) tea plantation in the U.S.  A visit to the Charleston Tea Plantation will “steep” you in the history of tea and how it is brought from leaf to table.  I pun…but our own visit there was really very enlightening.

A stroll through the factory tour revealed that black, green and even white tea leaves all come from the same type of plants.  It’s all in the processing, a complicated combination of withering, oxidizing, and other stuff I can’t remember now but I recommend reading about it if you are really interested.

Boarding a trolley with a knowledgable guide/driver, you are shuttled through the plantation to see acres and acres of tea plants and learn even more.  At the greenhouse, you get up close to the propagation process, and learn things like the tea plant’s relation to the camellia, how an adapted farm machine cuts only the most tender offshoots, and how a tea tree can grow for hundreds of years if well-tended.

This visit, coupled with the book I am reading about a Japanese family entrusted with the art of the tea ceremony in mid-late 1800s Japan, and one of the winners of the Global Folklorist Challenge focusing on a tea master in Taiwan (see the entry “From Green Leaves to Green Tea”) has caused me to see tea in whole new ways.  And, no, herbal “tea” is not really tea at all in case you wonder.

Happy tea drinking in 2017!

Suspended Santamation


It’s that time of year.
The Holiday Season, which starts roughly after Thanksgiving (earlier if you are in retail) and extends into the first full week of January. I would argue with the song that claims it as “the most wonderful time of the year” for some obvious reasons: in northern climes such as ours, it is cold and dark, and of course there are those long shopping lines, the stress of holiday preparations, and various reasons why people just are in a celebratory mood and don’t need some sappy song implying there is something wrong if they aren’t feeling wonderful.  But, it can be nice nevertheless, in a multi-sensory kind of way. Colored lights illuminating the darkness, warm smells of cookies baking, Handel’s Messiah, Tchaikofsky’s Nutcracker or other favorite holiday music soothing in the background while you trim the tree and wrap presents, or do whatever else you do if you do it at all.

Okay, nothing new there, just setting the mood. What I do find curious this time of year is my own attitude toward time. I suspend my usual proclivity to planning ahead and projecting my activities into the future, and have a hard time thinking past the weeks framing Christmas. Mid-January seems like a century away (especially, this year, the date of January 20 and what comes afterwards…way too scary to think about now while in a holiday mode).

I feel as though I am living in a bubble of buoyant holiday spirit, with permission to sport tacky holiday earrings, socks, and sweaters, devour things that are sugar and cholesterol laden, and procrastinate real life matters. I tell people I should be interacting with at work, “I know this is a busy time of year, so let’s meet/talk After the Holidays.” This is holiday code for, “My brain is on leave. Blame it on the gingerbread men.” At home, I spend hours doing holiday decorating, wrapping, baking, fussing, and use this as an excuse to neglect anything non-holiday-related, like cooking healthy meals, cleaning the house, or reading edifying journals instead of the Family Circle holiday issue.

Seriously, my retired husband (who is a  bit of a grinch) does most of the cooking, cleaning the house is never a big priority for me year round, and, well, I find it hard to get myself to read edifying journals the rest of the year too…but you catch my drift. This is your brain on holiday, right? Give into it, I say, don’t feel too guilty. Deal with things post-Epiphany. Clear out the left over mini candy canes (wait – they do make good breath mints year-round, no?) and face the New Year with resolve and renewed vigor.

We’ll talk After the Holidays and see how that went.

A Web(by) of Obscure Disney Ducks

[Please note, I am not adding photos related to this post, which might have impinged on Disney Copyright.  As for the City of the Future, it may be best left up to your imagination.]

My husband and I were doing a Sporcle the other day on cartoon characters whose names started with the letter “W” and one of them bore more than a passing resemblance to a young Daisy, as in Donald Duck’s “girlfriend.”  Who was this mystery duck?  By the time the quiz time ran out, we still had no clue.  Turns out her name is Webbigail “Webby” Vanderquack, which I thought was such a silly name, I just had to find out what her character was all about.  This led me to a tangled web of all sorts of obscure (to me at least) Disney characters with equally silly names, and even sillier backstories.  Webbigail, for instance, is apparently the granddaughter of Betina Beakley, who became Scrooge McDuck’s housekeeper at some point…but enough of this nonsense.

This research led me to another character, who first made his appearance in the Disney pantheon in 1952, called Gyro Gearloose.   Among other feats, eccentric genius Gyro (is it pronounced like the Greek sandwich or the scientific instrument – I would guess the latter) at one point achieved the following (which I quote from Wikipedia, though it sounds like it might have been translated from Japanese):

“…He actually persuaded Duckburg citizens to rebuild it into a climate controlled City of the Future! Unfortunately for Gyro, his ideas worked too well-Donald Duck only worked 1 hour a day and spent 23 hours sleeping which left him more grouchy than normal, while Uncle Scrooge McDuck robot made him so much money that it actually filled up his money bin to the point where McDuck could not even burrow into his money! The final straw came when Gyro Robot helper makes a robot to replace Gyro as an inventor! Realizing Duckburg isn’t ready for the future, Gyro turns Duckburg back to its old self.”

Which leads me to the conclusion of this post, namely, are we ready for the City of the Future yet?  When I did a web search for “City of the Future” I found the City of the Future‘s official web site, which is right now in “maintenance mode.”  The following error message appears on the home page:  “Sorry for the inconvenience. Our website is currently undergoing scheduled maintenance.  Thank you for your understanding.”

Ah, what a tangled web(by) has led us here!  Clearly, the City of the Future is not ready for us.  Though Webby Vanderquack, as well as all the other Disney characters popular and obscure, will always be there to cheer us up in our darkest hours.  As long as we don’t infringe on their copyrights.

Thanksgiving Word Play

Thanksgiving comes with lots of food, family and friends – and some fun words.  My 20161124_142636favorite this year is spatchcock, which apparently means partially deconstructing your turkey before you roast it.  (Martha Stewart can explain to you why this is a good idea, I won’t bother.)  It’s a fun word to say — and if one did not know what it meant, you could make up all sorts of interesting fake definitions!  Another item which traditionally graced the Belanus holiday table is rutabagas.  (Though the Belanus-Francis holiday table rarely goes through the trouble – this hard version of a turnip, or swede, is rather a pain to peel as it usually comes covered in some waxy substance, and takes forever to cook to be soft enough to eat.)  Rutabaga, another fun word to say for sure, with roots (so to speak) in a Swedish dialect.  Not to digress, though I will anyway, I recall when our food coordinator for the 1987 Smithsonian Folklife Festival had to try to find a rutabaga totally out of season, in July, for something a cook from Michigan was cooking – I think it was pasties, which has a whole other fun etymology and double meaning…  Hmm.  Then, there are the regional terms for foodstuffs.  Take “stuffing” for instead.  Or, do you call it “dressing”?  Well, in Western Pennsylvania, they call it “filling.”  All making perfect sense, of course.

Happy Thanksgiving weekend to everyone, enjoy some leftover turkey and pie if you have any, and while you are rolling it around your tongue try out some of these Thanksgiving vocabulary words as well.

San Francisco Solace

If your only kid moves across the country, the hope is that it’s to a place you might like to visit frequently.  The San Francisco Bay area is, thankfully, such a place.  (Fog and possible earthquakes aside.)  During a week’s visit there, you barely scratch the surface of things to see and do within the city and relatively short drives around it.  A couple of highlights, besides attending a professional presentation our daughter gave at her workplace (wait – when did she become a fully grown up person?!) were Muir Woods and the UC Berkeley Botanical Gardens, maybe because the weather was deliciously warm and mostly sunny, and these two places offer walks that are both beautiful and educational.  What’s the difference between a giant sequoia and a redwood?  Now I know.  How, and why, do carnivorous plants lure their prey?  Much more well informed about that and other plant information now, too.

A walk through Muir Woods is really a spiritual experience.
20161110_115746Despite the many other people visiting there any given day, there is a sense of wonder and awe to see giant trees that have survived for millennia.  While the human world bumbles along, occasionally creating great art but just as often producing chemical run-off and Kentucky Fried Chicken, they just grow.  Sometimes being struck by lightning and then regenerating from their roots.  Sometimes being cut down by those bumbling humans.  But, still there, preserved by some forward-looking conservationists and maintained by the National Park Service for us to marvel at.  It offers some hope for humanity, despite everything and anything that might happen.  (And has in the past couple of weeks.)

Berkeley Botanical Garden offers a more curated nature experience, tastefully arranged and more or less well interpreted.  20161114_150704Climbing up and down hills and past water features, you can take a trip around the world:  native California, the Mexican desert, Australia, the Mediterranean, various parts of Asia and Southern Africa.  The Chinese Medicinal Garden groups plants by the types of illnesses they traditionally treat – and judging by the fact that there is a brochure in Chinese translating the English descriptions around the garden, it must attract many Chinese visitors.   We practically had the place to ourselves the day we were there, which was glorious, though the fog had set in and the promised view across the bay from the highest point was not to be fulfilled.

Thanks, San Francisco Bay area, for offering the peaceful refuge of ancient trees and artful landscapes in a often scary world that changes daily, not always for the better.

 

 

Miami’s World of Water


Miami
– the very name conjures pastel colors, heat, and water, water everywhere. Many people (I would say “many Americans,” but since American popular culture has permeated the globe, it is safe to keep it general) who have not been to Miami in person have a vision of it through TV shows. For me, this was the classic, Miami Vice, which aired during my graduate school years. (It was one of the reasons one of my best friends in grad school, Hanna, convinced me to invest in a VCR, then a new concept in delayed TV viewing.) Exotic, stylish, and wet were the impressions I took away from my media encounters.

A recent trip to Miami for the annual American Folklore Society meetings did not disappoint, especially in the water department. During a pre-conference stay in Miami Beach, I explored the Art Deco area of South Beach, a series of sherbert toned, wedding cake tiered confections with a slightly seedy side, still emerging from a somewhat shady past, now a tourist magnet. The beach beckons, peeking around a string of ocean-side hotels, accessible by skirting a gift shop offering Art Deco themed paraphernalia. When I encountered the beach itself in the morning after a hard rain, it was strewn with dark seaweed and devoid of beachcombers. Ocean Boulevard, one block up, was the home of the morning action – breakfast-munching, coffee-drinking and watching the world go by in open cafes.

20161019_111301The day before the conference started in earnest, a large group of us went on a tour to the Everglades. About a half hour west, the city is left behind and you enter another world, a flat infinite vista of what looks like prairie but is actually, more or less, just a thin veneer of vegetation growing over a vast wetland, punctuated by the occasional limestone hillock. We climbed aboard airboats and donned noise blocking headphones, and set off into this realm with some guides from the Miccosukee Indian tribe, whose home this has been for centuries. Cozy in speeding suspension over the liquid landscape, we admired the water lilies, dragonflies and blue expanses of water in between, but we were also warned that this is the realm of some nasty creatures: alligators, snapping turtles, and disease-bearing mosquitoes to name a few.


Finally, the conference started
, but the contact to water did not end. Our hotel backed up to the Miami River, the shortest navigable river in the U.S., which empties into the Everglades.  Although we were mostly entombed in conference rooms, the river was not be to denied. Coffee, lunch, and happy hour breaks were taken in the hotel’s back patio by the riverside, and if your head just became too full of information, you could zone out on the steps, watch pleasure boats slide by, and dream of joining them to points unknown up the river. The last day of the conference, our conference artist in residence, Losang Samten, a Philadelphia-based Tibetan mandala maker, dismantled his colorful creation and we joined him in offering it to the river. A fit ending to a week spent exploring, and being surrounded by, the many waters of Miami.