A Queasy Glimpse Into Infinity

I’ve been suffering from seasonal allergies, something that has never plagued me before.  Yes, this is a thing that can happen, called “late onset allergies.”  Coughing, sneezing, feeling general horrible and tired.  But one must soldier on, especially this time of year when work on our annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival is heating up along with the weather.  After a long day of meetings and emails at work, I go home, try to get enthusiastic about dinner although my taste buds are also off, and crash into bed to watch some Netflix.   Only to face another restless night of intermittent coughing fits.

This week after an all-day meeting outside the office let up early, instead of just high-tailing home to succumb to my sad state earlier than usual (or, heaven forbid, go back to the office for a couple of hours), I ducked into the Hirshhorn Museum to see the latest Smithsonian museum blockbuster “instagram” show, Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors.  The majority of spring breakers had been there the week before, so it was relatively quiet.

If you have not heard of this show, it includes a series of small rooms that only two or at the most three people can view at once.  These rooms are full of mirrors and either art work or tiny lanterns and lights, and the effect is supposed to induce seeing yourself reflected into infinity.  I was prepared to be thrilled.  But mostly I was just dizzy, and glad instead of disappointed when my 30 seconds was over. I braved three rooms before giving up.

Perhaps I am not ready for infinity, especially in my current state of allergy-induced lethargy.  The only photo I took was the one above, of one of Kusama’s soft sculpture art installations.  It reflected what my brain has felt like all week, kind of squiggly and squishy and a sickly color of yellow.

Not much of an exhibition review, I know, and I would not discourage anyone from experiencing infinity at this show, which only runs till mid-May and is on the whole very cool.  Just don’t do it if you feel like this sculpture.

Musing on the Museum of Appalachia

A couple of weekends ago, I was visiting my old friends Bobby and Teresa Fulcher in East Tennessee, one of my old stomping grounds and the inspiration for my novel, Seasonal.  Bobby, who had served as my supervisor on the Tennessee State Parks Folklife Project in summer of 1980, took me on a marathon nostalgia tour through the highways and byways of my youthful fieldwork days.  This included a tour of the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, TN.

The Museum is a wonderfully eclectic collection of the stuff of life, with leanings toward old-timey, traditional items such as quilts, baskets, wittlings, weavings, and that sort of thing.  It is the brainchild and more or less obsession of John Rice Irwin, who I visited at least once during my summer research to get some leads.  Say what you will about John Rice (and some people have said a lot, not all of it positive), he amassed a collection of artifacts that boggle the mind and cause one to marvel at the unending creativity and skill of East Tennessee folk.  Interpretation is not a strong point, especially if one is looking for the unobjective curatorial view.  But, if you just want to see a whole lot of East Tennessee stuff from people’s barns, attics and hidey-holes, John Rice has assembled it here for your viewing pleasure.

I had interviewed some of the craftspeople and musicians represented, as Bobby pointed out.  Memories were cloudy on some of them, but others brought back fond memories, such as whiling away an afternoon chatting with former coal miner and woodworker Troy Webb and purchasing several of his amazing “water dog” carvings.

One object that captured my imagination was Asa Jackson’s Fabulous Perpetual Motion Machine dating back to the mid-1800s  The Museum allowed a gentleman named Dave Brown to study the wheel and sketch it extensively, resulting in a book, but apparently this has brought us no closer to knowing if the wheel, when in working order, really had the capability of creating perpetual motion.

The wheel for me is a sort of metaphor for the hyperactivity of collecting frenzy that John Rice Irwin himself must have been capable of before becoming too feeble to pursue his life’s work.

This item was not labeled and I still haven’t figured out what it might be. Any ideas??

The result is something that, like the machine, is a curiosity with no clear purpose but with a great wealth of largely untapped and possibly unending potential.  Just what will become of The Museum of Appalachia and its vast collection in the future is unclear.  So, if you find yourself in East Tennessee with several hours of leisure, make a visit while it is still intact.  Be prepared to be amazed.

Spring Hopes Eternal: Visiting L.A. Landmarks While Winter Returns to D.C.

 

March is a quixotic month, offering a false sense of spring only to take it back and slap you with winter again.  It gets even more confusing if you decide to take a trip to Southern California in the middle.  When we left, all systems were go for a plus or minus March 15 peak of the famous Washington, DC Cherry Blossoms, but alas they were nipped, literally, in the bud.  We returned to snow, ice, and biting winds, huddling and shivering at the pick-up lane of Dulles airport and, once finally transported to our parked car, forced to chip ice off the windshield without an ice scraper.

Oh, cruel March.  So, transporting one’s self back to sunny 80s SoCal, if only in one’s mind, is perhaps the way to go.  One highlight of the trip was the splendid Getty Villa.  Thank goodness for eccentric ultra-rich people like J. Paul Getty who get crazy notions like reconstructing an ancient Pompeii estate in which to display his (dubiously attained?) ancient art collection.  On top of a Malibu hillside no less.

Equally philanthropic,  Griffith J. Griffiths (does it get more Welsh than that?) bequeathed L.A. and the world a temple of another sort across town.  Griffith Observatory is a temple to science, more particularly to astronomy.  With a theater named after Leonard Nimoy.  The observatory has lately been featured in the film La La Land, where Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling dance suspended in gravity and reality in the planetarium dome.  Personally, we had fun playing with the Periodic Chart exhibit, and the night sky view is stunning.

Emma and Ryan also visited the Watts Towers, and so did we on this trip.  Simon Rodia, the Italian immigrant builder of this folk art installation made of salvaged materials, was not rich and famous like Getty and Griffiths.  His legacy doesn’t sprawl for acres or add to scientific and artistic discovery.  But, it is nonetheless impressive, and an important part of the L.A. story.

It’s thawing now in D.C., and the cherry blossoms might not be a total loss.  We’ll have to get out and visit sites in our own city.  Meanwhile, the L.A. memories will keep us warm.

 

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.