Family Values

I was relating to a friend of mine a visit to an acquaintance’s house. My friend has a wry wit and a high sense of irony and amusement. My little social expedition was inconsequential except for the inventory of decor that I took in while others were engaged in polite small talk. The house, once called ranch-style, had been to the best of its ability, turned into the ubiquitous, generic, expensive, uber-suburb home that is prevalent in my neck of the woods. The property was indisputably the best asset – beautiful, untouched and adjacent to a horse farm – how could you go wrong? If it were up to me, and of course it isn’t, I would declare this a tear-down, and build something in its place that folds gently into the landscape, has at least a modicum of originality and doesn’t have a size complex. Or, let ranch be ranch.

The interior was expensively appointed but something was off. The window treatments, a term I dislike, were baroque. The furniture and do-dads were – I need Oscar Wilde for this; critiquing interior design is not my area – too coordinated as well as nonsensical. I hold to the axiom that it’s all in the mix, but that’s not what was happening here. While I was sitting at the silver-brushed wood dining table(!), I remembered a line from a movie I had just watched: Addams Family Values: “These are beautiful things! They’re from catalogs!”

This line is delivered by Debbie, played to perfection by the amazing Joan Cusack. Debbie is the grasping, kitschy, sugary, black-widow murderess who marries Uncle Fester. My friend had not seen the movie, so the conversation moved from the house of too many curtains, to telling him about the movie: mostly about the character of Debbie. I suggested that we’ve all known a Debbie, and he quizzically gave this some thought. He said that he had worked with a women who would wear at least three designer logos in evidence on her person at all times. “And, the funny thing is,” said my friend, “I’m pretty sure her name was Debbie.”

In the movie, Debbie and the other characters have enviable lines. The writing is razor-sharp. The overarching sensibility from director Barry Sonnenfeld, who has a cameo as one of the parents at Camp Chippewa’s Thanksgiving recital, is in evidence here as it is in the Men in Black franchise, Get Shorty, RV, et al. Sonnenfeld is particularly unforgiving towards suburbia. There’s a scene where Raul Julia, as Gomez Addams, delivers a horrified reaction to just that.

In the end, Debbie has her comeuppance, but not before she has a great monologue on the origins of her psychotic self. Ballerina Barbie NOT Malibu Barbie!

There was no Debbie at the house of curtains, instead our rail thin nervous hostess was wearing a Harvard University sweatshirt and informing us on the challenges of raising a German Shepard puppy. Her four children didn’t factor into the conversation. That confused me further, why does a grown woman wear a school sweatshirt? And, you need to go to Harvard for this?

I know I’m being unkind. It’s all in fun, isn’t it? I would imagine that my invitations will dwindle and my social calendar diminish – who would want me over silently collecting material at their expense? Ironically, I was supposed to go to a Buddhist prayer/chant/discussion group this morning, and instead I have penned this. For real.

So I will close, repent, and petition for forgiveness. And, I will try to be nice.

Clare Irwin

Pandora

You’re probably thinking I’m going to lay another Greek myth on you. Not exactly. Well maybe…I’m not sure where this is going. The Pandora of which I speak is the music streaming company. I forgot it was installed on a bedroom TV. I had it for my father who lived with us in the last years of his life. So, the stations are his, and as I have been listening to them these last weeks, I think of my dad and what an amazing person he was. Since it’s his selection of music, I feel him with me even more – music is one powerful force. I love how nothing is by accident, and by mere happenstance (not really), I just read an article on how music affects the brain. Even if you’ve heard a song hundreds of times, the anticipation, the frisson, is as strong as ever, and dopamine and other happy chemicals are emitted by the brain. Then, I was listening to a show on YouTube about essentially the same thing – that music is good for you, and if you want to listen to your favorite songs for the 1,000th time: go for it!

Perhaps I did open Pandora’s box –  actually in the versions of the myth it’s a jar. Nevertheless, what was released for me were not plagues and evils, but beloved memories. I was impressed by the variety of music my father enjoyed: classical – Cecelia Bartoli, Shostakovich, Brahms, Schubert, Mahler, – Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday (he adored her), Louis Armstrong (I think “What a Wonderful World” was my dad’s personal anthem), Bob Marley, Wilson Pickett, Milton Nascimento, Big Band orchestras, Jo Stafford, The Beach Boys, the Beatles, Charlie Parker, and here’s a few I found amusing: The Go-Go’s, R.E.M., ABBA and Cyndi Lauper. Where the hell did he come up with those? There’s many more – I”ll stop grocery listing – but they are indeed intriguing and genuinely eclectic.

Dad’s Pandora stations reaffirm for me his marvelous ease and joy of life, his open-mindedness, his embracing of all, his massive capacity to love, to forgive, and to endure. I’m not canonizing him, he was a beautiful wonderful flawed human being like the rest of us, but I must say that he did have an extra dazzle and sparkle that was a joy. He was a true gentleman, to the marrow, and women seemed to intuit this because they all loved him – often to my mother’s dismay. His humor and wit were superlative, and even when life threw him cataclysmic losses – they had no dominion over him. He remained the glorious generous person he always was.

Pandora in the ancient Greek means all-giving, I had forgotten that. How appropriate. It sums my father up – it is also what music does. At the end of Pandora’s story, the only thing left in the jar is Hope. Among the scholars and philosophers, Hope is another evil, a mixed bag at best. Much debate abounds – even drilling down to the meaning of the ancient Greek word, which is ambivalent at best.

Well shoot, it’s a sunny day, I’m in a good mood, and I need to wrap this up, so I’m going to go with the Pollyanna view which is hope is good thing. Hmm…isn’t that from The Shawshank Redemption?

So…Rock Out?

Clare Irwin

Rider on the Rain

I declared today a snow day. It’s more a sleet and rain mess, but I needed at-home time. I was channel surfing and caught Shopgirl with Claire Danes and Steve Martin – Martin also wrote the screenplay and novella. Danes is wonderful as the quiet and sad young woman named Mirabelle. Shopgirl is touching and lovingly human; everyone is broken in a forgiving way. A gem. Shopgirl got me thinking of other movies that may or may not be well-known, but don’t get the same amount of play, or buzz, as let’s say. The Shape of Water which I am looking forward to seeing – friends say it’s great. In that vein, Sally Hawkins, who I love, has a lot of gems. From earlier in her career, Happy-Go-Lucky, directed by Mike Leigh, is worth seeing.

This is an unorganized stream of movies that are on my mind but not on everyone’s lips. Watching all the madness in the news, I thought about King of Hearts with Alan Bates. Bates plays a Scottish soldier in France during World War I who finds himself in a French village where all who remain are the residents of the local asylum. Marvelous!

The film that started this thought process is Rider on the Rain. I originally saw it on TCM (air it again, please). It stars Charles Bronson, whose body of work, I would imagine, doesn’t come up on most top ten lists, but he has good ones (e.g.,The Magnificent Seven), and Rider on the Rain is another – at least for me. It’s from 1970 – with fun fashion as a bonus. And, it’s creepy. When I looked it up, I was pleasantly surprised that Rider on the Rain was directed by Rene Clement (Purple Noon, Forbidden Games). I found a Guardian article that described it as a, “cool, stylish, demented Hitchcockian thriller” – yup. Rider on the Rain has all five food groups: a woman in peril (named Melancolie!) , a maniac stalker/rapist, murder, a body dump, and a semi-sadistic hero.

I think I’ll end. Time to curl up and troll for more treasures. All seem content with our at-home day; there’s something baking in the oven, music is on, and the cat – to her delight – has been fed twice. More movies are clamoring in my head – I could always do a Part II – but I would much rather hear about your favorite “unsung” movies.

Delight in Discovering

Clare Irwin

Portable Magic – Part II

What to read…what to read first? I visited my local libraries and the displays were vast and tantalizing. I will enjoy reading their new books recommendations in the near future, but too many choices tend to baffle me.

So I return to the “classics” – ones I never read, and ones that deserve to be read again.The first work I picked up was a collection of Washington Irving’s short stories. I wanted to reread “The Legend of Sleep Hollow,” and while I was thumbing through the table of contents I noticed how many of Irving’s stories are part of the American lexicon, particularly Rip Van Winkle, and of course Icabod Crane and his Headless Hessian Horseman. In the introduction, I read about Irving’s life which was quite fascinating: he spent 17 years living abroad, and was highly prolific in all genres: histories, biographies, travelogues, etc. While in England he visited Walter Scott, whom Irving revered, and Scott was an admirer of Irving’s History of New York. Irving took posts with the Navy and accepted numerous diplomatic positions. Upon his return to America, Irving was nominated by Tammany Hall as mayor of New York – a position he declined. He traveled to the Oklahoma Territory which yielded A Tour of the Prairies. At 52 Irving bought the property which would later be known as Sunnyside – his home near to the locale of his famous tale. Irving is distinctly old New York: the early Dutch heritage, and the mystery and beauty of the Hudson Valley north of Manhattan island. Irving Place in Manhattan is named after him, and his family home there has enjoyed an distinguished provenance of creative people.

While thoroughly enjoying Irving’s marvelous tale and description of life in Sleepy Hollow, a memory from my childhood returned to me – of a trip my mother and I took to see Washington Irving’s home, which is open to the public. My mother planned special trips with each of us on our own with her. Irving’s home is in Irvington, and I recall the weather was beautiful. It was a wonderful day – a special day – the house was delightful and the docents were dressed in clothes of the time. At the end of the tour the kind ladies invited the visitors to a spread of tea things, lemonade and ginger spice cookies – which were excellent. The docents offered the recipe on elegant cards…in green ink and a pretty William Morris-like pattern border. It’s a sweet memory.

When I decided to write about Irving and promised the recipe, I was gripped with anxiety. How was I going to find it amid all the recipes and papers and “stuff” I inherited from my faithful departed? I pulled out the accordion file aptly labeled “cookies” and the recipe gods smiled on me: I found it right away. It’s not the original green ink card, it looks like a 5th generation xerox copy. But it is the recipe with notes from my mother – it’s both comforting and jarring to see a loved one’s handwriting – there’s an intimacy about it that reconnects me to the person. Here it is. My mother used to make the cookies at Christmastime, but the recipe is suitable anytime of year. They are not too ginger-y: they are just right. 

So Washington Irving, his lanky schoolmaster and the quiet town where people tarry, brings me to my memories – all supplied by a bite of a ginger cookie.

Enjoy!

Clare Irwin

 

 

 

 

 

 

Postscript: If anyone can’t read the recipe and would like it, I would be delighted to post it in more legible form.

Post Postscript: In the introduction of Irving’s collection of stories, Charles Neider, the editor, writes: “‘Rip Van Winkle’ is a fairy tale of bewitchment and a story of the magical changes wrought by Time. It has been insufficiently stressed that Time is one of Irving’s chief characters…he was endlessly fascinated by the effects of Time. It was an artist’s fascination.” I wonder if that is why, unconsciously, I was drawn to Irving first; for Time plays a significant role in this blog – it is the thread I hope, at least, that I weave into the fabric of the writing.