My Father: A Stern Taskmaster. A Poet at Heart.

June 19, 2011 by  
Filed under Family & Friends, Musings

It’s easy to imagine my father as a little boy, befriended by his books, his faithful dog Brindle and all the neighborhood children he met throughout his nomadic young life. He was born a few years before the stock market crash of 1929 and, though his earliest memories are inextricably linked to the Great Depression, he describes that life with unimpeachable fondness — a world of day-to-day riches. My father’s father moved the family from verdant North Carolina to dusty New Mexico, then back to North Carolina, Oregon and Kansas, first in search of work in the worst of economic times and later in professional ascent within the U.S. civil service.

Small town sensibilities, urban schooling, rural summers with his grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, and the romance of 1930s car travel along the unpaved roads out West gave my father a uniquely textured childhood. He was regularly uprooted, he says, but always felt loved and secure.

His mother was a dependable source of care and affection and made sure books were available to him wherever they lived. His father, quick to recognize Dad’s skill with the written word, paid him (as an 8-year-old!) to write movie reviews, planting a tiny seed that surely led to my father’s long and respected tenure as a newspaperman.

Did his parents know what sort of man would grow from this boy? When I was born barely a year after he and my mother said “I do,” did he yet know what kind of father he wanted to be? Did he realize that taking on the enormous responsibility of rearing five children would make him a finer man?

I’ve known my father for a long time now. I believe we understand each other. We share basic attributes and interests — a good sense of humor, a tendency toward cynicism, easy friendships, a farmer’s instincts for growing summer vegetables and an unapologetic love of books. I think my siblings would agree that Dad’s success as a father lies in the essence of who he is, an affable man with a rich inner life — an imperfect but lovable product of his time, upbringing and intellect. A good provider. A stern taskmaster. A poet at heart.

My father can be unexpectedly insensitive, but he has a masterful capacity for intimacy. People love him. He has always been at ease with expressing pride in his children. He has never been stingy with affection. He is not one to seek praise for his charitable works or wallow in self-pity. And I have never heard him utter a negative word about my mother. Not a single word.

Once his family returned to North Carolina for good, my father never lived anywhere else. His desire for stability spilled over into a commitment to his wife and children — a career spent with one publishing company and a life lived in the same grand, white clapboard house for nearly 50 years. He and my mother, now well into their 80s, live there still.

Some years ago, on a humid evening in late June, my father and I sat on their back porch swing, relaxing after my mother’s traditional summer supper of fresh local produce: corn on the cob, field peas, homegrown tomatoes, corn bread and sweet ice tea. My sisters and brothers were there with their children, so there was a lot of conversation. The sky had darkened enough to create a sensation as all the cousins chased lightning bugs through the lush vegetation of my parents’ magical garden. The scent of mimosa trees hung thickly in the air and the ceiling fans lazily pretended to cool us.

“This is what I love,” said my father. “A summer’s evening on this porch, with my grown children at home and the unrushed time to admire my progeny.”

Book Review, Geneen Roth’s Lost and Found: Dollars and Diets and Life After Madoff

April 5, 2011 by  
Filed under Books, Personal Finance

How much are you worth?

It’s a rude question at the very least, anxiety-provoking, and perhaps even unanswerable. Rude because many of us were taught that money is an unseemly topic and, frankly, our dollars are nobody else’s business. Anxiety-provoking because we are prone to view our finances from a deeply emotional place: the shame of too little or the embarrassment of too much in a culture that binds self-worth to financial worth.  And unanswerable because we tend to avoid dealing with it at all; we pretend that money just isn’t important or it’s too complicated and so we hand financial responsibility over to a spouse or an accountant or a money manager.

In her new book, Lost and Found: Unexpected Revelations About Food and Money, Geneen Roth examines, with good humor and precision, the ways our insecurities display themselves in how we handle our finances and in how we define sufficiency in an acquisition-mad society.  She looks into our fiscal hearts, and finds that money is a source of suffering for both the wealthy and the poor and a cause of suffering in the careless ways it is invested and abused.

Roth, author of the New York Times best-selling Women Food and God, built her career on analyzing how our inner lives are revealed by how we relate to food; she found that our attitudes towards physical nourishment, pairing sustenance with restrictions or overindulgence, expose the holes in our souls.

After she and her husband, and a number of their friends, lost all they had to Bernie Madoff, she discovered that her own feelings about money paralleled her lifelong struggles with food: shopping binges mirrored eating binges; budgetary belt-tightening mirrored restrictive dieting. And she realized that her obsession with acquiring a perfect item was inevitably followed by emptiness after the purchase, just as devouring forbidden foods was a temporary fix for deeper woes. Shopping simply served as a distraction to the more serious business of being near bankruptcy.  And her financial quandary was the result of her lack of awareness, her failure to take responsibility, her embrace of patterns of behavior steeped in childhood anxieties.

Roth says, “Since both food and money—nourishment and worth—are inextricably woven into the fabric of love and lack of love, they trigger feelings of deprivation, abundance, sufficiency, giving receiving, entitlement, needs, wants, pleasure, suffering—and survival  itself. And although there are many real problems about food and money, especially in third world cultures and here during the recent recession, most problems about food and money are not about either one.  Our relationships to both substances are expressions of unconscious beliefs, family messages, outdated convictions, and painful memories…”

Roth claims no expertise in financial matters, but she makes a provocative case for developing ongoing self-awareness, convincing us that we can free ourselves of old (and destructive) patterns,  preserve our precious resources, and end up on the right side of enough.

Game Time: Don’t Call it “Trivial” Pursuit

December 16, 2010 by  
Filed under Humor

(Photo: Daughter Number Three.blogspot.com.)

We may be a group of mild-mannered, middle-aged women, but when we enter the bar, we strike fear in the hearts of everyone there. We’re Team Librarian—four librarians and a couple of ringers—and we’re here to kick your ass.

You usually don’t expect  trouble from librarians. Nobody ever says,  “She’s got a Masters degree in Library Science—watch out!”

Except in the local bars that host trivia games, where we wipe the floor with you.

Trivia games come with different rules and point systems, but they’re all designed to extract that precious bit of useless knowledge stored in the back of your brain. The game host asks a question (“In the ‘Peanuts’ comic strip, what did Charlie Brown’s dad do for a living?” or “Where do the cops hang out in the Bangles song ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’?”), and the competing teams have the length of a song to come up with their best guess, scribble it down and turn it in. (The answers, by the way, are  “a barber” and “in the donut shop.”)

If you can’t remember the names of your cousin’s kids and have to run around like crazy before every family wedding trying to find them out, you’re normal. If, however, you can recall the names of Sarah Palin’s kids—Bristol, Willow, Piper, Track and Trig—at the drop of a hat, then you’re ready for pub trivia. (Maybe even for library school.)

The best part of pub trivia is the joy of groupthink. Even team leader Marjorie, who once won $15,000 on Jeopardy, couldn’t answer all the questions herself. But when you add in reference librarian Maria, circulation assistants Roz and Trina, and history professor Janet, our favorite ringer, watch out! What could be more fun for a gang of librarians and like-minded pals than putting our heads together to answer a question like “Which state capitals abut salt water?” (If you don’t know that one, call or visit your local library—we aren’t giving out all the answers.)

Sometimes being “of a certain age” is an advantage. “Mr. Green Jeans is the sidekick of what children’s television show character?” We knew it was Captain Kangaroo in a nanosecond; the youngsters in the bar came up with answers ranging from Roy Rogers to Sponge Bob. (Oh, please!)

At other times, though, we need some youthful expertise. Questions about Lady Gaga lyrics or video gaming, for instance, are tough. Not to mention the challenge that questions about football stats and the nicknames of baseball pitchers pose for a group of bookish gals. (Don’t even get us started on NASCAR.) So we’ll recruit  a “youngster” (for us, that’s under 30) for the team, as well as a guy who has spent decades on the couch watching televised sports. (That’s most of them.) Thus augmented, we’re unbeatable. Grown men quiver with fear when we take our seats at the local pub-trivia hot spot.

We won’t give you a full description of our team. Suffice to say, like Miss America contestants, we’re all lovely and talented. (And we know the year the pageant began: 1921.) Nor will we give you tips about how to avoid paying for your overdue books. (Grow up! Pay the dang fine!) But we’ll give you some winning advice.

First, every fact matters. When you read that Jack Kerouac typed at the speed of 100 words a minute, don’t just think, “That’s some fast typing.” Think: “I’ll remember that.  Forever.” Second, no showing off outside the bar. When friends describe their upcoming European vacation, don’t respond, “Did you know there are only two kinds of Europeans whose identity ends with ‘ese’—the Maltese and the Portuguese?” It is, however, acceptable to shine just a bit. If a friend mentions that she wants to plant moss around the pond, you may ask, “Have you consulted a bryologist?”

Although at times we amaze even ourselves with the factoids we pull from the backs of our brains, Team Librarian doesn’t know everything. We once missed the number of bones in the human body, even though we had  two doctors on the team. (They redeemed themselves by getting the Lady Gaga question right.) Still, when the night ends, we usually have more points than the other teams. We pay the bar tab with our winnings, tip generously, and walk out with a swagger.

True or false: They teach swaggering in library school.

“The Tree:” On Being Part of the Natural World

November 18, 2010 by  
Filed under Books, Musings

A few months ago, in the lush green of North Carolina where the Pisgah National Forest meets the Blue Ridge Mountains, I ignored a herd of no-trespassing signs and—encouraged by my college-age son, who had done this trek before (and in several feet of snow)—I scaled a padlocked farm gate flanked by barbed wire fencing to explore someone’s private mountain.

It was a steep hike and I wasn’t sure I could make it. The mountain’s elevation is over 5,500 feet. There were no trail markers, but we followed lightly used paths through a breezy meadow of undulating wildflowers, made our way through damp hardwood forest shimmering with dense and comforting foliage, and hoisted ourselves up over massive rocks dotting an alpine pasture.

We picked and ate wild blackberries along the way and wondered at the gnarled, dwarfed apple trees, not part of an abandoned orchard but growing here and there, willy nilly.  Once, we were startled by quail, flushed out of hiding by our movement. Our physical destination was the summit, from which there is a 360-degree view of the forests below, arboreal citizens of the lesser mountains. The motive for our journey was simple: my son wanted to share with me a cherished place where he could just “be” in nature.

The world has changed a great deal in the thirty years since the original publication of John Fowles’ book The Tree (HarperCollins, $13.99), a beautifully honed plea for us to “be” in the natural world, to seek human creativity through the wild. It was written before the World Wide Web compromised our solitude, before Al Gore made global warming a top ten topic, before HDTV brought naturalists’ most obscure obsessions into the comfort of our homes.

A classic recently brought back into print, this part memoir/part meditation is an excursion that begins in Fowles’ father’s maniacally pruned suburban English garden, continues through the author’s own personal indebtedness to the chaos of the natural world, and brings us finally to his deeply felt communion with the primeval Wistman’s Wood at Dartmoor in the south of England. Fowles’ gift in descriptive language (he is a fiction writer, best known for The French Lieutenant’s Woman) and his wide knowledge of natural science ease his more abstract notions, making this a particularly enjoyable read.

Fowles cherishes the tree, and then reasonably, the woods (as he says, “evolution did not intend trees to grow singly”), because the forest is uncapturable in its true form either in art or in words. And so it is our required presence there that binds us to the wilderness. The only way to understand ourselves, he says, is to be a present being in the natural world, “only by the living senses and consciousness.”

Beyond the tree and beyond the woods, Fowles challenges us to embrace the unpredictable, the untamable, the unquantifiable. For it is from that nameless, numberless chaos that human creativity emerges. Fowles says, “It [nature] can be known and entered only by each, and in its now; not by you through me, by any you through any me; only by you through yourself, or me through myself. We still have this to learn: the inalienable otherness of each, human and non-human, which may seem the prison of each, but is at heart, in the deepest of those countless million metaphorical trees for which we cannot see the wood, both the justification and the redemption.”

Book Review: Tara Parker Pope’s “For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage”

Birds do it. Bees do it. We all do it. We’re programmed to spend a good portion of our time looking for and longing for a loving partner. But once the euphoria of early love fades away, what was so simple becomes very, very complicated. Marriage is not for the faint of heart.

In her new book For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage (Dutton, $25.95), Tara Parker-Pope explores spousal dynamics with a keen eye on the facts of human interaction. She presents an easy-to-read compilation of research conducted by well-known experts in the fields of love, sex and wedded bliss. How do we fail our partners? she asks. How can we lift them up? What makes or breaks the bonds of matrimony?

Not surprisingly, she finds that sex and wealth are key players; the happiest couples have frequent sex and few money worries. But most partnerships are solidified by a series of gestures and attitudes that, over time, evolve into either distancing and contempt or intimacy and contentment. Parker-Pope says it’s the way we fight, not conflict itself, that shapes our feelings towards one another. And each partner’s rendition of the “how we met” story is a deeper tale than we might imagine, especially when the storyteller’s altered perspective reveals the true state of the marriage.

Social scientists have studied all aspects of marriage: attraction, commitment, parenting, power struggles, gender wars, division of household labor, and health impact, among others. Parker-Pope presents their scientific data in her familiar, comfortable prose. Some of the information is repetitive; some of it you may have heard before. But much of it will surprise you. For example, she discovers that the notion that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce is a myth, with current studies indicating that marriage is stronger now than it has been in years. Another interesting fact: couples who argue often have more stable relationships than those who don’t. And same-sex couples, who tend to have similar conflict styles, fight more fairly, and with less hostility, than opposite-sex couples.

Many chapters include quizzes to guide husbands and wives in assessing their own relationships, breaking the information flow into easily digestible chunks and giving the book a more magazine-like feel. The final chapter, “The Science of a Good Marriage: A Prescription for Marital Health,” presents clear lessons about what it takes to reinvigorate a union that’s gone stale.

Parker-Pope doesn’t play psychologist.  Her analysis doesn’t include theories about why we choose our spouses beyond physical attraction, or why we are so often infuriated by those we love. There’s no plan for staving off the good intentions of interfering in-laws, and no instructions about how to keep passion in the bedroom.

What she has done is produce a research-based explorer’s guide to the often mysterious world of marriage—a valuable resource for those of us who want our partnerships to be long, steady, and true.

Book Review: Dominique Browning’s Slow Love

May 25, 2010 by  
Filed under Books

Don’t miss WVFC’s exclusive two-part interview with author Dominique Browning this Thursday and Friday, May 27 and 28.– Ed.

In November of 2007, Dominique Browning was the powerful editor-in-chief of Condé Nast’s House & Garden. And then, suddenly, she wasn’t. The magazine, relaunched in 1995 under Browning’s direction, succumbed to hard times and disappeared, propelling Browning and her colleagues out of work and into the breadlines of the publishing industry.  She became, at first, an expert at crumb gathering, lunching with still-employed and generous friends and filling sleepless nights in the company of muffin-baking internet sisters at allrecipes.com—temporary substitutes for the framework of office frenzy and a balm for loneliness. Many muffins (and pounds) later, she was in the depths of despair. Where does one go and what does one do when there is nowhere to go and nothing to do?

It’s a hard question for anyone whose life shifts unexpectedly. In Ms. Browning’s case, not only does her professional life cease to exist, but she is left with an empty nest as her sons begin their own lives, she rides a years-long romantic roller coaster with the ambivalent and uncooperative married man who is her lover, and sells the beloved house she can no longer keep. It’s a lot to swallow. And when she finds herself wandering the early morning farmer’s market in pajamas (she does wear a coat) with unbrushed hair—a moment that surely is a low point—she looks around at “people running their morning errands” and understands “I am no longer alone in the world.  I have rejoined the living.”

The strength of Ms. Browning’s memoir, Slow Love, is that it celebrates the process of loss and redemption, warts and all. And her most compelling prose appears as she emerges from wallowing, when she ceases to be “attached to suffering.” Life, she says, “finally, was feeling too precious to waste time crying over self-inflicted sorrow.”

Ms. Browning moves to the small house in Rhode Island purchased several years before and slowly learns to feel grateful for the change. She at last has time to accept the pleasure that comes from observing and participating in the natural rhythm of each day: putting her hands in the soil to coax life from the earth, embracing cooking for one, observing, amazed, the habits of local marine life as she braves the waters in her own kayak. She has “begun to accept the relentless flux that is the condition of my life, of all our lives.  Not young, not old; not betrothed, not alone; thinking back, looking forward; not broken, not quite whole anymore, either. But present.”

And by learning to be present, Ms. Browning is surprised by joy.  She feels, “a slow flush of love for the world—the sheer pleasure of being here, the profound honor of witnessing life.”  She hears the earth whisper and falls gently into grace.

The Compass Rose: Finding Your Own Face in the Crowd

March 16, 2010 by  
Filed under Family & Friends, Musings


That south wall, of the former Uhl home in North Carolina.


The Uhl family in San Diego.Editor’s Note: Since June 2009, we at WVFC have had the good fortune to feature The Compass Rose, writer and editor Ainslie Jones Uhl’s chronicle of her relocation from North Carolina to California. We started yearning for her old house in View from the South Wall ,  empathized as she felt she was “living incognito,” learned to adjust to “West Coast casual,”  and rejoiced as she found a few kindred spirits. We’ve even celebrated a few holidays with her extraordinary family (above right).

Now, nearly a year later, it’s with mixed feelings that we present the very last installment of The Compass Rose. Here, Ainslie tells us that the process of relocation is over. She’s now ready to move on to other subjects in future pieces for WVFC, while still giving us glimpses of her life in Southern California.

The rich and famous aren’t the only ones whose genealogies are worth exploring. But when television turns its attention to a subject as sloggingly detailed as researching family trees, celebrities are certainly the best bait for viewers. I tuned in for every episode of the PBS series “Faces of America” with Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. I’m a sucker for the academic credentials of a Harvard professor on public television, and as I’ve acquired the wisdom of middle age, I’ve become more intrigued with the idea of connectedness, coincidence and universal energy.

It turns out that eleven of his twelve guests had a genetic connection, a common ancestor. I swear I could see the physical resemblance between Meryl Streep and Mike Nichols. Look at them! And their gift for comedy must be part of their shared DNA.

NBC is also hopping on this train with their series, “Who Do You Think You Are?”, although that particular Hollywood guest list holds less interest for me.

I believe the renewed excitement in genealogy is part of a growing trend–like the green movement or sustainable farming–that urges us to reclaim what the modern world has made us forget. As technology takes us further from daily personal contact and industry raids the family farm, we look for organic tethers that make us feel whole.

You can’t get more organic, or more personal, than birth and death.

“I found that despite all our apparent differences in terms of culture and history,” said Dr. Gates, “we are all the same.”

Well, of course.

Grasping the familial thread, documenting the ties that bind:  I’m crazy about this stuff.  But I come from a long line of archivists, paper savers, hoarders of history. My mother and brother are authors of three bound volumes: her memoirs and a short biography of her parents, and his ancestral history climbing the family tree through hundreds of years. My father spent over a year transcribing an old family diary, adding notes and photographs and cross references. No glitz, no glamour, no television or movie deals. Just many hours of looking at marriage and birth records, visiting ancient homesteads, shuffling through old letters and photographs, and standing in line at Kinko’s.

My cousin Andrew, half a generation younger than I, turned his examination of family dynamics and multigenerational research into a newly published book, Between a Church and a Hard Place.  What began as an attempt to respond to his young children’s unanswerable questions became a way of connecting the past to the present and opening a dialogue for parents looking for clues about what to tell our children about who we are.

Dr. Gates was right; we are all the same. Human beings are bound by a hunger for connectedness, and we spend much of our lives in search of ways to feed that rumbling need. Whether it’s through genealogy or politics, creative temperament or shared tragedy, we all look to others to solve the riddle of ourselves: “Who am I and why am I here?”

These questions have intrigued me more than ever since our move, nearly two years ago, to California. In an earlier essay, “Living Incognito,” I described reveling in anonymity but anxious for a way to feel connected in this strange land. I pursued my tribe through classes and workshops, where I met as many as thirty to forty fellow writers, all of whom remained acquaintances except one.

And this is the damnedest thing. Out of the 3 million people in this sprawling county, and from a chance meeting in an obscure writers’ workshop, the one creative soul who became a friend is also an old friend of one of our old friends–our son’s godfather, in fact. Beyond our mutual understanding of the writing life, beyond our connection as wives and mothers, and despite our differences in geographical identity and upbringing, my new friend and I have an unlikely, uncanny tie. A common “ancestor.”  One degree of separation.

It’s enough to help me feel somewhat tethered to this place.  I don’t have all the answers, but I’m satisfied with what I’ve learned about myself so far. Satisfied enough, whole enough, to gather these essays, look on them fondly, and move on.

The Compass Rose: Kindred Spirits

January 25, 2010 by  
Filed under Musings, Newsmakers

An attractive blonde, wine glass in hand, sidled up to my husband. I could tell she was smart. She subtly moved her gaze from one end of the room to the other, checking for eavesdroppers in the crowd, as though she and he were co-conspirators in a clandestine operation. I moved in and assumed a protective stance, prepared to prove my worth. She leaned forward and whispered furtively, “Did I hear someone say you’re from the East?”

We were in La Jolla, at a party where a few of the guests were reluctant transplants. Our gregarious host was a family friend from back home who moved out here two years ago with her scientist-husband. She loves it. She couldn’t be happier. But she’s still young, with a 5-year-old who serves as a natural ice breaker and a kindergarten community in which she finds tennis partners, play dates, babysitters and friends.

Her husband is deeply involved in the world of research and, at that moment, party or not, he was deeply involved in conversation with a cluster of fellow scientists, some of them quite famous (and I mean Nobel Prize–worthy) and all of them oblivious to the rest of us. My husband’s new career has placed us in one of the centers of biotechnology. We’ve grown accustomed to the scientific subculture of San Diego. The attractive blonde was in fact sent over by our host, and I sensed a familiar desperation in her question.

When Robert and I responded in the affirmative, that we were doubly blessed to be both New Yorkers and North Carolinians, she breathed a sigh of relief and confessed all: She could not believe she had abandoned northern Virginia for this place. She had her list ready: an itemized declaration of all the things she doesn’t like about California and evidentiary details which prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that East Coast trumps West Coast in multiple arenas.

My list matched hers line for line: the absence of cultural sophistication for a city this size; the population’s shocking lack of curiosity about the world; the dearth of authentic community and neighborliness; and the odd locations of traditional storefront enterprises, such as the flagless post office hidden in the bowels of an industrial park or the violin shop located on the third floor of a corporate office building. (My son hauls his cello up those stairs for his lesson every Thursday.) Thus began a long and wonderful conversation about our shared surprise. It was more restorative than negative and provided gratifying validation. It seems I’m not crazy after all.

Our talk reminded me of the palliative effects of simply being understood, as when my husband quietly listens, realizing that my need to vent is not necessarily a demand for resolution. Or when Henry swallows his teenage pride and patiently puts up with motherly affection. When Everett presented me with a recording of French songs for a grand escape (her personal collection from various movie soundtracks), including “Le Festin” from Ratatouille:

Or Hart gave me books which he knew I would love, lifting whatever burdens I was carrying at the time. Or when Colbern’s insight prompted her to send this John Updike poetry to me (printed in The New Yorker this past March):

Here in this place of arid clarity,
two thousand miles from where my souvenirs
collect a cozy dust, the piled produce
of bald ambition pulling ignorance,
I see clear through to the ultimate page,
the silence I dared break for my small time.
No piece was easy, but each fell finished,
in its shroud of print, into a book-shaped hole.

Be with me, words, a little longer; you
have given me my quitclaim in the sun,
sealed shut my adolescent wounds, made light
of grownup troubles, turned to my advantage
what in most lives would be pure deficit,
and formed, of those I loved, more solid ghosts.

For the record, these are the things I love about California:

Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco

ocean kayaking in La Jolla Cove in the company of sea lions, sharks and cormorants;
access to fresh local produce year round;
hiking the canyon trails, beaches, deserts;
plucking lemons from our very own tree;
weekends at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco;
the drive along the coastal highway at Torrey Pines State Reserve, where the vista of the Pacific is always magnificent.

At some point during the conversation with my newly found comrade—my memory of the exact moment is compromised by the joyful delirium of having found this kindred spirit—I said, “I love you!” and I meant it. What is it they say? You don’t make friends, you recognize them. Even if it’s just for an hour over holiday cocktails.

A recent cover of the newspaper that keeps us in a New York state of mind

Our chat turned up an important bit of information which we both had discovered on our independent journeys: For the most part, the people in this region who are personally compelling, the ones we truly like, subscribe to home delivery of The New York Times.

What a revelation! There is a certain kind of person—the lifelong scholar, the citizen of the world, the individual temporarily separated from the umbilicus of the 13 original colonies—for whom that newspaper is a lifeline. I’m one of them. My new friend was another. Several of my colleagues from a recent writing workshop were similarly addicted.

“You know,” she said, “we should form a club of subscribers. Do you think the Times would reveal their local subscription list? We could create The New York Times Society, something like The North Carolina Society or The Kentuckians of New York.”

We summoned our host, our bright, always entertaining and loveable mutual friend who’s quite pleased with her spot in Southern California. We asked if she’d like to be part of our grand scheme.

“You subscribe, right?” I said.

“Uhhh… yeah,” she said, “I will. Send me an email to remind me.”

The Compass Rose: Saving Father Christmas From Kris Kindle

December 13, 2009 by  
Filed under Books, Tech

ainslieuhlMy office, right now, is a shameless jumble of multiple typed drafts of works in progress, random but important thoughts penned on index cards, carefully considered newspaper clippings, half-filled Moleskines and yellow legal pads, and dozens of books piled not so neatly on the floor. It is a writer’s room.

Additional works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry fill two huge bookcases along the walls. More books reside in the few boxes I have yet to unpack, and more again on the very large table where I do most of my writing. Words are everywhere. Books are all around me. Although it lacks beauty and finesse, I adore this space.

AmongAinslieXmas3! the items on my desk is an early edition of Les Miserables, hard-bound in worn scarlet cloth, a gift to a wife whose husband knew her well. The inscription is dated Christmas 1917. The pages are not as fragile as you might imagine, despite edges that have aged to the color of butter pastry left in the oven a bit too long. The spine and endpapers are intact, although the glue along the binding abandoned its post years ago. Buried among the seams, where the pages are neatly stitched together, are little clues about the book’s former owner: small slips of paper with literary notations, a postcard sent from Paris in 1952, a poignant Easter greeting from a very close friend.

The book is one of a six-volume set that once belonged to and was cherished by my great-great Aunt Frances. I inherited her personal library — which is, by and large, a hefty collection of great works given to her by friends, siblings, nieces and nephews as Christmas gifts throughout her hundred years of life. She was an accomplished woman surrounded by people who understood her love of literature, knowledge and culture. To be guardian of her literary archive is an honor, and a duty I take very seriously.

I am a happy receiver and generous giver of books, but not a promiscuous reader. I want to spend my time with compelling stories told in beautiful, poetic prose.

green-apple-2

Much of what is out there in the chain gang is not for me. This is what I love: to peruse the shelves of an independent bookshop, sampling its wares, feeling the heft of this volume, admiring the dust jacket of that one, opening an enticing cover to expose crisp white pages that dare us to enter a new world. I want subtle enlightenment. I want an escape. I want to be reminded of universal truths. And I want all of that in a hard-bound book. In a recent podcast, The Writer’s Almanac  quoted writer Tom McGuane:

Literature is still the source of my greatest excitement. My prayer is that it is irreplaceable. Literature can carry the consciousness of human times and social life better than anything else. Look at the movies of the 1920s, watch the Murrow broadcasts, you can’t recognize any of the people. Now, read Fitzgerald — that’s it. That is the truth of the times. Somebody has to be committed to the idea of truth.

You can tell a lot about a person from the books they keep. Choosing a book is a deliberate intimacy. It is an organic, sensual, emotional act of intellectual generosity. This is why I was rather shaken by the seminar I attended last week on the future of book publishing.

ucsandiegoA room full of writers and would-be writers gathered at the University of California-San Diego to hear the hard facts from a panel that included authors, editors, bloggers, publishers and a literary agent. We all knew the obstacles to getting published, but what we didn’t want to hear is that once the agent says “yes” and the book is sold for less than you’d hoped and the editing is complete and you breathe a great sigh of relief, your years of work may very well go straight to an e-reader. Or even worse, to a smart phone.

The e-editors on the panel discussed a writer’s need for a platform, proof of expertise in a particular field or genre, and how the Internet is where that happens; authors spoke of the painstaking, lengthy process of creating art and the game playing that takes place among agents; the agent defended her position; the independent publishers cried poverty, and seemed to accept the futility of fighting an electronic takeover. There were no booksellers there to protest.

kindlevsnookA few weeks ago, just in time for the holidays, The New York Times devoted a section to e-readers, giving a primer in how to choose from an array of electronic devices. Should you go with the more experienced Kindle or the challenger’s Sony Reader? My local Barnes and Noble swears that their Nook is the best. Even Disney has gotten in on this trend, offering children’s books and family memberships. Are they kidding? It sounds like a health risk to me, and developmentally inappropriate. Is this really, truly, the gift that everyone wants to open on Christmas morning?

I must admit that I am intrigued with the possibility of being able to access all those works at bargain prices. It sounds like a reader’s paradise. But I don’t want to do all of my reading on a hard screen. And children already have too much technology in their lives.

Will future personal libraries be tiny breadboards encased in plastic? How can anyone discount the contribution of the organic to the reading experience — the smell of the bindings, the feel of the paper, the sound of a page being turned? How will you record your notations and epiphanies? Will book sharing among friends become extinct? Can you imagine pulling your darling grandchild onto your lap to read The Runaway Bunny from a smart phone? I keep waiting for the backlash.

davidslittleindianThe focus on electronics has sent me in the opposite direction. I have become obsessed with hunting down the long-lost and much beloved books of my (and my children’s) childhood. Last year, I was able to find and deliver a beautifully illustrated collection, Japanese Fairy Tales, to my cousin Andrew’s children. His mother, no longer with us, had given me that book in 1960, and it had changed my view of the world. And to celebrate my sister’s son’s baptism, I found a first edition of David’s Little Indian, a wonderful book of days by Margaret Wise Brown.

AinslieXmas1After last week’s seminar, I spent a desperate hour or two on alibris.com looking for out-of-print children’s literature and, specifically, for an original copy of The Tall Book of Make Believe, edited by Jane Werner, beautifully illustrated by Garth Williams and published by Harper and Brothers in 1950. My brothers, sisters and I cherished this anthology, and my children often requested the stories in it, despite the old-fashioned language. My copy has literally been loved to pieces.

I found the book at long last, but its rarity set a prohibitively high price — too much for my nephew’s Christmas gift.

fathersdragonI do think he’ll be happy with an alternative: My Father’s Dragon, a revived classic still in print.

The Compass Rose: Thicker Than Water

November 25, 2009 by  
Filed under Family & Friends, Musings

ainslieuhl“Let’s have a family Thanksgiving,” I said to my friend Mary, “without any blood relatives.” It was a time a few years ago when I had had my fill of filial histrionics and was fed up with the my-way-or-the-highway holiday hosts. I wanted a tradition without the traditional baggage, a happy feast prepared and shared by all — and lots of decent wine.

Mary and I couldn’t make it work that year; there were too many miles and too few days between us. And my frustration was a temporary thing, for as my younger siblings matured, then later found partners and had children of their own, they brought new traditions to the standard Southern mix. They nixed the tomato aspic but added organic winter salad; preserved my mother’s giblet gravy but offered vegetarian alternatives; gave in to my father’s love of sweet potatoes but acknowledged that caramelized acorn squash might be even better. They became adept at shaking up the kitchen without stepping on toes.

This was not an easy thing and, as the oldest child, I couldn’t do it alone. The centerpiece on the family table is a cornucopia of pithy opinions, fruit sometimes unpalatable or so full of seeds as to require an iron gut. I was the royal taster for quite some time.
Brussels!In the mid-1980s, when Robert and I were graduate students and newly engaged, fellow scholars interning in France and Germany joined those of us in Brussels to share the American holiday. Each of us was assigned a Thanksgiving dish, and then set out on the adventure of finding a European equivalent. I searched everywhere for yams. I found them, finally, at the African market, a tented shop that appeared at the neighborhood square every weekend and quickly filled with women of the Congo, exotically perfumed and draped in their traditional garb. Those yams had an alien destiny.

Fifteen of us, all recent college grads, devoted that foreign Thanksgiving Day to talking, laughing, music and dancing as we prepared food and drank local beer and sipped French wine. It was casual, the way student gatherings must be, and pure fun. Our feast tasted authentically American and was absolutely wonderful. We had no room left for homesickness. Incredibly, it was not a holiday without family. One of my brothers, who was taking a backpacking gap year through Europe, found his way to Brussels just in time for turkey and dressing.

Isle new 009That same brother is hosting Thanksgiving this year. Everyone will be at his 19th-century farm in Virginia, a property he acquired when he was still a bachelor and that now serves as a country retreat for his growing family. His estate consists of the rustic main house, a pre–Civil War building which sits among 15 remote acres of fields and woods; a family graveyard up on the hill, heavy with history and surrounded by wrought iron fencing; a manmade pond for fishing and muddy dog play; a shallow stone fireplace on the banks of the pond, where children can roast marshmallows as the grownups sit and sip bourbon (and eat roasted marshmallows) in the late afternoon; and several ancient outbuildings, begging to be explored, that served as kitchen, laundry, tack room and workers’ quarters when the farm was in it’s prime. The place is pure magic for children and dogs, and a great escape from the modern world for the rest of us.

It’s a pity that we can’t be there. New Ilse of Rest 002It’s just the sort of place I’d like to be for Thanksgiving, and my brother and his wife are easygoing hosts. Everyone has been asked to bring one or two platters of their culinary best, whatever that may be. My brother, not known for his cooking skills, discovered persimmon trees on the property and has succeeded in harnessing the only good that can come from that fruit. Persimmon pudding is now, proudly, his signature dish.

Here in San Diego, it will be an intimate family Thanksgiving: no extended family or friends. The children will be home for just a few days. We’ll all work together to make the feast—traditional fare from previous generations, a few family favorites and, from the next generation, a surprise, something delicious that none of us has ever tasted before.

The Compass Rose: Dealing With the DMV and Other Tales

October 27, 2009 by  
Filed under Musings

ainslieuhl

My birthday in early October was not particularly noteworthy until I realized it was the day that my North Carolina driver’s license was to expire. For years, I renewed my license with simple traffic sign tests, paid the fee and left with a new picture of an older me, a colorful mug shot set on a background of Carolina blue. Our relocation obliterated the easy routine.

I did not want any official documentation that labeled me a Californian, but it was already too late for that. The November election forced me onto the California registry of voters; I wanted to cast my vote for Mr. Obama in person, fully present, immersed in the gravity of the occasion. Although I would like to have celebrated his victory in the company of fellow Tar Heels, I will never forget the moment I marked the ballot at my assigned polling place—a designated garage down the street from our rented house, far removed from the civil rights movement of my sultry youth—with tears streaming down my face and a heart so full of the truth of my mission that I could find no words to explain.

Not long after that, The New York Times chose my letter to the editor to run in their Inauguration Day edition and, much to my dismay, there it was in black and white, fact checked and entirely accurate: “San Diego, January 19, 2009.” Ah, yes. I live there now.

If I had not voted, I might have been able to hold onto my North Carolina license, despite the deception of my former address. But once that vote was cast, residency was established and that changed everything. There was no point in fighting it. I needed a California license to function locally—to get a library card, to volunteer in the public schools (which is impossible these days without a criminal background check), to avoid having to explain constantly why the address on my license didn’t match my address anywhere else.

DMV_small[1]I knew that the wait would be long; the Department of Motor Vehicles in San Diego has few field locations to serve its burgeoning population, and the budget crunch has forced limited days and hours of operation. I therefore had plenty of time to observe the hundreds of others, many new to this country, nervously bowing to a nitpicking bureaucracy (requiring attestation that my name is my true name, even with a passport and birth certificate and social security card as proof).

I pondered the topic of two great equalizers: the powerful right to vote and the regulatory mazes that make us feel powerless in getting where we want to go. Peon. Drudge. Serf. No amount of wealth or beauty or fame or name dropping was going to put me at the front of that line. With our assigned numbers, each of us—the newly arrived Japanese woman (B 88) standing with her elderly parents, the Mexican mother (B 90) with three children in tow, and I, a Daughter of the American Revolution (B 89)—knew that our freedom, our ability to function legally, hinged on the non-negotiable points of the governmental trinity: filling out forms, providing documentation, passing the written test. It’s regulation that, in the long run, protects us.

The San Diego DMV was not too bad, actually. It’s airports that have become torture chambers for me.

sandiego.airportFirst-class, priority, Admiral’s Club or economy, you still have to pass through security. Shoes, coat, sweater, scarf off; computer out; boarding pass in hand; quart-size bag of toiletries on display. Then, uh-oh, something looks suspicious, perhaps the jewelry bag in my purse; or something beeps as I move through the detector, probably the underwire in my bra.  “Ma’am? Would you step over here please?”

I can’t help but think this is a power trip. I don’t want these strangers going through my things, fingering my grandmother’s pearls. Do I really look like a threat? No, but I might look like someone who needs to be taught a lesson. A bad attitude only delays the delay.

I understand the need for regulation. What I dislike is the irrational, indiscriminate, often laughable rule, which throws common sense out the window.

A few months ago, I arrived at San Diego’s Lindbergh Field two hours early for a domestic flight and still nearly missed the plane. The security line wound around the terminal and out the door. Then this past Monday, at Boston’s Logan Airport after a wonderful weekend with my daughter, not only did security take forever, but I was told by airport personnel that my luggage was a quarter-inch too tall for the overhead compartment. I’ve been putting that same luggage in the overhead for two years now, no problem.

I must commend my now-local Department of Motor Vehicles: They efficiently and politely dealt with the crowd, an impressive feat seeing as they offer testing in 30 different languages, including Armenian, Indonesian, Hungarian and Vietnamese. The examiner showed remarkable common sense in letting me keep my expired North Carolina license. It’s a nice memento, a good photo. I passed the vision test with flying colors, the written test (in English) by the skin of my teeth, and now carry in my wallet an official California driver’s license. On it, I see my smiling face: not the most flattering picture, but nicely done on a background of Carolina blue.

The Compass Rose: Freedom, Sunshine and West Coast Casual

September 20, 2009 by  
Filed under Emotional Wellbeing, House & Home

ainslieuhlprimavera_ani1My husband invited me to dinner last week. He made reservations at the finest restaurant in our neck of the woods: a white tablecloth sort of place, with a dining terrace positioned for viewing unobscured sunsets over the Pacific Ocean and designed for lovers anticipating the night. At last! Having the older kids in college and our youngest occupied with homework opened a small window of opportunity: a long-overdue date night for just the two of us.

I became nearly giddy at the prospect of having a reason to dress up. My closet is a testament to sophisticated sensibilities and the social whirl, full of specifically sought-out pieces for the cultured, urban life. And just as my dancing mind began a delightful choreography for beautiful clothing, important jewelry and sexy shoes, my darling man uttered those three little words, “Remember, it’s casual.”

Talk about killing the moment. But the truth is, he knew I needed a reminder that there is no dress code for southern California. By west coast standards, we’re always overdressed.

When our son wore his brass-buttoned navy blazer to an Episcopal service on Sunday (with jeans instead of khakis—our version of casual), he may as well have had “east coast” stamped on his forehead. His father and I sported an embarrassment of propriety. Out here, people wear shorts to church and no one thinks a thing about it.

I am becoming more comfortable with the informality, but it’s the nonchalance that gets to me. The latter seems to permeate everything, leaching into a mindset that easily turns an important event into a non-event, including our arrival in this lovely neighborhood during the early days of August.

san-diego4Our second move in a year, to a new house in a far better school district about 20 miles north but still within the city limits, has been a positive one for the most part. But like our former San Diego neighborhood, this residential area is a ghost town. I have not met, and seldom see, a single one of our neighbors. There are familiar cars in the driveways and barking dogs behind overly manicured fencing. Doors slam, conversations reverberate off stucco walls, children splash in their backyard pools. But human contact? Nada.

The fact that we are new to the block is meaningless to the families on either side of us, taking a casual attitude to the level of blatant disregard. In a land of transients and newcomers, the notion of neighborhood as community is easily lost. But what about good manners? What about curiosity? Many things that matter elsewhere just don’t matter here.

I think the local atmospheric conditions have a lot to do with this air of placidity. We live in a climate that makes no daily demands on its inhabitants. It is mind-numbingly sunny and temperate nearly every day of the year. Vacation weather. Vacation wardrobe. Relaxed rules. And an awful lot of people seem to like that.

Summer bleeds into autumn — but I know that only from the calendar, not from observing the natural world. There is no sense of urgency because there are no seasons. No squirrels gathering nuts, no frost on the pumpkin, no firewood to be chopped. I don’t have to buy a fall or winter wardrobe or even an umbrella.

Freedom and sunshine. California’s compelling combination naturally produced West Coast casual.

My friends in North Carolina have said, “Oh, I hear San Diego has perfect weather!” When I pose the question to others, “What brought you to Southern California?” the answer inevitably is, “The weather/” And the day I told one of my dearest friends in New York that we were moving from Raleigh to San Diego, his response was, “Great! It never rains there. Now we’ll visit you!” I even know the song in their heads.


A glimpse of North Carolina foliage. (Photo: Tripadvisor.com)

A glimpse of North Carolina foliage. (Photo: Tripadvisor.com)


I can’t help but wonder what kind of person believes that weather is a reason to pick up stakes, abandon family and friends, and turn a blind eye to personal history? It seems a shallow magnet to me.

How does one measure the passage of time when there are no seasons? How does one define the day when there is no weather? How does one feel special when every day is casual day? Oh, I long for the perfect excuse for indoor activity: that elusive stormy day. I would welcome torrential rains, lightening and thunder all deliciously hurling their insults. Then, free from the guilt of ignoring the sunshine, I could escape into the cavern of deep introspection, read a favorite book in my favorite chair and renew my soul in the company of cleansing rain.

My father understands my longing for seasons. Today I received in the mail two beautiful red leaves from the dogwood tree outside his kitchen window. Proof that autumn has come to North Carolina.

I didn’t move here for the sunny days, but I have made good use of them. I didn’t arrive dressed for the west, but I’ve learned to relax the rules. And this is a different sort of season, for me and for my husband.

Sunset_pierWhen I push past all these ruminations and focus on the simplest things, what’s left is perfectly clear: waking up to sunshine is a happy way to start each day, and watching the sun set over the Pacific with the man you love is the perfect way to end it.

Ainslie Jones Uhl is a freelance writer/editor and photographer. A native North Carolinian and former New Yorker, she holds a B.A. in English from Sweet Briar College and a Master of International Business from the University of South Carolina. She recently relocated to San Diego, Calif., with her husband of 26 years and their four children. From now on, The Compass Rose will appear monthly at WVFC, as Uhl reflects on Southern California, her family and her heart.

Labor Day’s ambivalent spark

September 6, 2009 by  
Filed under Musings

vacca Labor Day is a bittersweet time: Janus-like, the end of summer and the start of the academic year have me looking forward and back at the same time.

I don’t want summer to end— night falls sooner and cooler, a sure harbinger of cold, dark winter nights to come, when green turns dry and brown, its life drained into the earth. I know I’ll miss the fecklessness of walking out lightly clad and unencumbered, my toes unfettered in open sandals. No matter how gorgeous and gaudy nature’s last hurrah, the falling leaves spell the end of another year, a fluttering dissolution of summer’s vigor, the inexorable mortality of all living things.

fall-leaves-main_FullBut with the first crisp autumnal day, when the sky, liberated at last from its hazy, humid prison, forms a vast, azure bowl over my head, when the refreshing cool invites the embrace of soft wool and the fireplace beckons, then I think of a world of possibility, of paths as yet untrod— books to read, people to meet, friends to enjoy, ideas to explore. The kitchen stove, eschewed in summer’s heat, now tempts with the promise of sensory delights shared with good company. The holidays will follow, with fellowship and good cheer and bountiful food that will consign the dreary landscape to a view outside my window.

Fall is above all a time of extreme contrast. September 11, 2001 was a day of striking beauty, a perfection that collapsed into a heap of death and ashes. Eight years have passed, and the seeds of life frozen in the icy grip of despair were shocked into a brief awakening one day last November and again in January. They are still stirring— Give us a chance, they murmur, and this too shall pass.

ainslieuhlBasil.WCommonsAinslie Jones Uhl: The basil and I become survivalists about this time every year, struggling and striving to reach a common goal: making it past Labor Day.

My whole being is on August autopilot, making sure that each of my offspring is well-equipped physically, emotionally and materially for a new school year and a new level of independence. The last few days are always frenzied, no matter how much I’ve done in advance.

The list of “needs” grows exponentially: new laptops, new phones, new clothes, shoes, underwear, socks. My usual question, “Didn’t I just buy that?” is met with the exasperated answer, “Yes!” but for one of the other children. Who can remember? All I know is I’m exhausted, have no time to myself and an extraordinary amount of money has disappeared.

In the meantime, the poor basil is approaching the end of its summer run after a prolific season. I take the time to make sure it has plenty of water, pinch the infant flower heads and cut the leafy tops—a mental health break for me and a second chance for the culinary garden. We prop each other up.

The dill seldom survives past July and the parsley re-seeds itself. The rosemary and English thyme and lavender make it through the mild winters. I gave up on the tarragon. But the basil is different—an herb “of the moment”, fragrant and fragile with fleeting freshness. It’s easy to grow but not so easy to manage.

One year the basil made it until November, but that was extraordinary.

Our usual marker is Labor Day. That is when the last of our children departs for school; that is when the basil plants and I commit to producing and harvesting as many leaves as possible to compile an herbal legacy that can last until next spring’s planting.

I cut the plants back to encourage growth and pile the harvest into my Sussex trug. The musky sweet smell of basil crowds out everything else. I divide the kitchen island into three different stations: one a holding area for washed basil bouquets; a second with olive oil and a mini processor and tiny baggies for freezing fresh herbs; and the third for mass producing batches of pesto in my trusty Cuisinart.

Basil, walnuts, garlic. Olive oil, reggiano, pecorino. Salt. Pepper. Perfection.

I label and date the quart-sized freezer bags and fill each one with bright green, glorious pesto. I love this work. I love the purity of the process: nurturing a garden which soothes my soul and feeds my family.

Over the winter months, when the days are short and skies gray and tomatoes terrible, I reach for the frozen bright green basil pesto: a souvenir of summer, a labor that marks summer’s end, a reminder of next summer’s beginning.

Diane Vacca taught medieval literature, Spanish and Italian at several universities before becoming a journalist with specialties in politics, the arts and New York City. Her work can also be found at Talking Points Memo.com, Obit-mag.com, and New York City weekly Chelsea Now . She lives in midtown with her husband, Salvatore Vacca (they have two children and three grandchildren). Ainslie Jones Uhl, a freelance writer/editor and photographer, holds a B.A. in English from Sweet Briar College and a Master of International Business from the University of South Carolina. A native North Carolinian and former New Yorker, she relocated last year to San Diego, Calif., with her husband of 26 years and their four children.

The Compass Rose: Echoes of Divine Harmony

August 18, 2009 by  
Filed under Music, Musings

ainslieuhlHenry’s extraordinary musical gift is filling the house again. It keeps stopping me in my tracks. His fingers move so easily — from the achingly beautiful deep sobbing of his cello composer to our ebony baby grand where he pounds the ivories with the bright indie rock sounds of Coldplay. Back and forth, cello to piano to cello. He hears something isn’t quite right, adjusts the peg of the “A” string, and gets back to coaxing raw, agonizing emotion from that hollow wooden box with his bow. For a few minutes, dulcet sobs float up the stairs and then cello yields to electric guitar, less nuanced, given it is his most recent endeavor.

Henry’s struggle with the guitar reminds me that it was by default that our first family jam session took place here in California. We were the only people that any of us knew: So, without their usual friends to fill in the gaps, Robert and I were invited by the children to sing back-up vocals for a song we had never heard, by a group we had never heard of.

Uhl Family Singers006Our older son had written a new arrangement with parts for guitar, cello, violin and piano and needed more than sibling participation to make it work. We played and sang for hours, until it sounded nearly as it had been envisioned. It was an evening of hope and hard work and healing, and the most fun I had had in a while.

Ours is a house of music. Born of my battered acoustic guitar from college, re-strung to soothe sleepless infants and accompany toddler tunes, our two-bedroom apartment in New York became a mini Carnegie Hall. “Old MacDonald” never sounded so good. Lead guitar, plus kazoos, tambourines, maracas, bells and belting like Ethel all came together for a barnyard symphony, with more animals than any farmer ever imagined.

It has only now occurred to me that we may have been a nuisance to our New York City neighbors — especially after Santa Claus surprised us all with an electric keyboard, not long after Robert returned from Edinburgh with miniature yet functioning bag pipes for the children. And then there were the drums, followed, of course, by marching. No one ever complained (at least to my face) or notified the co-op board (I was on the board at the time). Pre-war plaster walls, oriental carpets and oodles of fabric may have been our salvation.

Robert and I both received a rather hefty dose of musical DNA, though weighted more toward proficiency than professionalism, and grew up taking lessons on inherited pianos — his an upright from his grandmother, mine a signed rosewood Steinway grand from the turn of the century, courtesy of great-great-Aunt Frances. Of the two of us, Robert is the far better pianist. What a luxury it is to sit before the fire, half-filled wine glass in hand, and just listen to him play! What a surprise to find that all those lessons have found their place in his skill at seduction.

My own tiny bit of talent showed up in a versatile vocal range and a natural ear for harmony, both honed over many years in our church choir. My friend Marguerite and I could sing soprano or alto, whichever was needed. As corny as it sounds, we had loads of fun harmonizing with each other. Then before my 8th birthday, Aunt Nancy presented me with a hand-me-down guitar.

The folk songs my aunt Nancy taught me in my childhood would appear in my own children’s nursery over and over again: “Puff the Magic Dragon,” performed with a coating of green face paint and a dinosaur’s claw, shed its 1960’s scales and was reincarnated for the imagination of innocents. Our children instinctively became good musicians at early ages, far outpacing their parents in talent and experience.

For a while we had our own string quartet — Colbern on first violin, Everett on second violin, Hart on viola, Henry on cello. But given their age differences, by the time they all were proficient enough to play ambitious pieces together, they had taken divergent musical paths. Colbern devoted her talents to perfecting violin; Everett abandoned violin for piano and voice; Hart added guitar and vocals and composition, just as Henry was getting his musical footing with cello.

I like to think their success came from exposure to jazz and opera and rock and Mississippi blues as much as from genetics. We danced like crazy to country tunes and twisted to the Beatles and swayed to the crying of Roy Orbison.

With so many instruments and all that playing, it was natural that we included a music room when we renovated the house in Raleigh. It was an interactive place for all seasons, with huge, paned windows on three sides and three sets of French doors, one which opened outside to the stone porch and side yard, and the two others which opened to the living room and framed its fireplace.
I could hear the strains of human musical endeavor mingle with the sounds of the birds and trees as I worked in the garden. In the evenings, a pair of Anglo Indian bell jar lanterns lit the space. And in that room were the piano, a cello, a 19th-century duet stand with candles for illumination, a viola, several violins of varying sizes, an electric violin, two acoustic guitars, an electric guitar, an electric bass, at least two amplifiers, bongos and, for a while, a borrowed drum set.

The children’s friends gravitated to that area of the house, attracted at first by the piano, then by the promise of creativity. All those instruments wanted to be played. The room witnessed the early efforts of fledgling rock bands, proof of practice in classical concerts, old-fashioned Christmas caroling and even dogs howling to accompany the singing strings. It served beautifully as the wine and champagne bar when we hosted huge parties. From time to time we hired a professional pianist to entertain our guests. The gleaming hardwoods created just enough echo for acoustical depth and provided an excellent floor for feet that could not be stilled. My parents danced in that room on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary.

Not long ago, Colbern visited Raleigh and stopped by our old house, and the new owners generously invited her in to show her the changes they’d made. It broke my heart to hear that our music room, with its architectural beauty and poetic possibilities, is, for now, an office. But, what else could it be? The music moved with us to California, and it now fills this house every day.

The Compass Rose: Talking to Strangers

ainslieuhl

I often have conversations with strangers, despite what I taught our children when they were young and much to their embarrassment now that they are grown. Why should I not? We are, above all, fellow human beings and naturally curious about one another. Every one of us has a story. And the generosity of simply listening is a gift whose value cannot be overestimated.

972 Fifth Avenue!Years ago, during a period when France suddenly required visas for all travelers, I stood in line on Fifth Avenue for hours, with hundreds of other Francophiles, waiting to gain the blessings of the French Embassy. The woman behind me and I exchanged just enough information to realize that we had a mutual acquaintance living in Hilton Head and, after getting our visas, continued our lively conversation through lunch, dining outdoors at a delightful restaurant on Madison Avenue. It was a bon voyage celebration to compensate for the idiocy of overzealous bureaucracy – but, beyond that, she was a woman at one of life’s crossroads who needed to be heard. My afternoon was free. Her secrets were safe with me. I was the perfect stranger to lend her an ear.

I have had dozens of surprisingly personal verbal exchanges with all sorts of people since we moved to California. The protective posturing and social sizing-up that comes with life in certain strata of the South, driven by religion and righteous conservatism, has been largely absent from my encounters here. I attribute that to the constant influx of new residents, the diversity of the California citizenry and a noticeable lack of tradition, a predictable paucity of the puritan ethic.

California, home to scandalous Hollywood, is thought to be progressive, even liberal—and frighteningly so–by most citizens of the other forty nine states. Isn’t this place a haven for misfits, the land of fruits and nuts, the home of kooky social experiments and surf’s-up-dude mentality?

Guided by that assumption and living with nothing to lose, I have felt no need to cloak my language or closet my opinions. As I go about my day, to the hair salon or dry cleaner, to the veterinarian or post office, I am free to chat with anyone about just about anything.

There is plenty to talk about. This state is in a mess. Out of funds and out of luck, it was recently called “ungovernable” by The New York Times, so it is not unusual to be greeted by someone anxious to promote his cause and, in doing so, request a small donation to keep the dream alive. Over the past few days I have been asked to contribute to: legalizing marijuana; building a recycling center; providing meals for the homeless; preserving the jobs of public school teachers.

Last week, outside Henry’s Market, which has become my favorite local grocery, I met a young man with a clipboard named David. He had a cause, yes, but also a compelling tale that chronicled a battle with his own personal Goliath. As a sympathizer for the little guy, I wanted to listen.

He was a grassroots educator hoping to decipher the devastating puzzle of Prop 8, the ballot proposition put forward in the November election by an organization called ProtectMarriage.

I was not invited to this table as a political commentator, some big mouth with an agenda, and my layman’s grasp of constitutional law won’t take me very far. But this talk with a stranger inspired a serious discussion of civil rights, the definition of marriage, and the use of semantics to crush perceived modern threats.

David wanted to believe that it was the power of a single word more than prejudice that kept tripping people up—that pesky word “marriage”—but I fear it is far more than that.

Proposition 8 changed the California constitution by restricting the definition of marriage to opposite-sex couples. It also eliminated the right to marry for same-sex couples, a right already established in California. In late May, the California Supreme Court ruled that Prop 8 was valid but could not be applied retroactively to the 18,000 gay marriages that had already taken place. The one dissenting justice commented that the proposition was an attempt to deny a fundamental right to a particular group of citizens and it violated the core intention of the equal protection clause of the California constitution. Federal suits have been filed recently, citing equal rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.
It has been reported that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints contributed more than half of the donations received by ProtectMarriage and made up at least 80 percent of their door-to-door volunteers, urged into such activism by church leaders. If this is true, the Mormon Church worked overtime for the legal disenfranchisement of gay men and women and played a major role at the ballot box. By the results, it seems that California, like other so-called liberal bastions, is not as progressive as everyone thought.

Our Episcopal church in North Carolina, politically moderate with a highly educated congregation, was so roiled by openly gay Gene Robinson’s election as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2005 that members left by the dozens, attacking our innocent ministers and vilifying the vestry. Hell hath no fury like the holier-than-thou. Women, whose world history is all about being stripped of personal power and fighting for their own humanity, understand the nature of this particular beast.

And yet — churches are also where folks of all sorts have come together to fight for the rights of the disenfranchised,  from advocacy for the poor to the civil rights movement of the 1960’s to the June 2009 report from the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego on “Holiness in Relationships and the Blessing of Same-Sex Relationships.”

Whether it’s shame on the Mormons or redemption for the Episcopalians, my young stranger wanted legal validation of life with his partner, without the complications of pastoral activism and legislative shenanigans. Whatever happened to separation of church and state?

hotelcommunalRobert and I were married in Brussels by an official at Hotel Communale d’Ixelles (our town hall) and then by John Lewis, the Archdeacon of Northern Europe and Rector of the Pro-Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, an Anglican church located just off Avenue de la Toison d’Or. As a clergyman, Reverend Lewis did not have the legal authority to marry us.

In civilmarriageBelgium, as in many countries, a civil ceremony is required for legal marriage, and a church wedding is the optional icing on the cake. The Belgians made gay marriage legal in 2003.  It seems that Europeans understand the American ideal envisioned by our founding fathers far better than many of our own citizens. Moral myopia is not what Mr. Jefferson et al. had in mind.

That young man David and I shared intimacies and arguments, yet civil discourse reigned. We wondered if perhaps the way for the U.S. to go is this: civil unions for everybody. We were strangers and fellows, united in our decided determination to be guaranteed equal rights under the law.