That Time My Sister and I Detasseled*

Sassy 1989

In this issue: Everything you ever wanted to know about detasseling...But were too afraid to ask!

My sister and I, as it turned out, had delicate hands. And no patience for flies.

And yet. It being Indiana and we, being pre-teens with much desire for the latest fashions as advertised by Sassy and YM, we signed up to detassel. A summer job for Hoosier kids. Get on the bus at Zero-Early a.m. and ride the combine until dusk, doing some job called detasseling. The rumor is it's essential for the pollination and therefore the fruiting of the corn.

How bad could it be, we asked, in between singing along with Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam, making mix tapes combining Rick Astley and Wang Chung, “Walk the Dinosaur” and “Toy Soldiers.” We are Indiana girls. We can do this.

So my sister and I, we pack our cooler, with Lunchables (totally adequate sustenance for a day in the fields) [1] and Diet Faygos (Frosh and Redpop, some cream soda for late in the afternoon). [2] And we board the yellow school bus, labeled by the name of the farm.

We'll make money, you betcha. And with plenty of time afterwards to watch Say Anything. Again.

The day is hot. The corn is endless. There are kids there who are made of steel. They don't have time for your Children of the Corn jokes. By 9 a.m., they do not – do not – give a shit about “Malachi.” They are unimpressed by your Nike saddle-style cheerleading shoes. They brought gloves and they're ready. By 10 a.m., these kids are looking at our bleeding hands and laughing. They are drinking their water and their Gatorade and I am wishing Faygo had been invented for the purposes of hydration and not pleasure. My sister might have been wishing the same. If I had had any spittle left in my mouth, I would have asked her. I did not.

My hands. The palms of my hands were scratched. My face was sun-burned. My shorts clung to my legs in ways I could never have predicted. There was possibly chafing. There were bugs. And then there were bugs. And some more bugs. And walking, sticky and shaking and interminably, between rows and rows of six-foot tall corn, bathed in bugs.

The first knuckle on the insides of every finger on both hands: rubbed raw. I looked at them in horror. I could see, or so I thought, bone and tendon; lashed naked by endless rows of sturdy Indiana corn, emerald leaves with knife-edges. I still don't know what a tassel is. I think I've pulled some. Not enough to please the 16-year-old screaming at me from the combine. But still. I look at my hands. I think of death. I think of Skeletor. I think of my sister, eating Doritos after school, and watching She-Ra. The Princess of Power would not bow to this. She would look at her bleeding, open fingers and still pull tassels.

I am not She-Ra. I could not possibly care less about Lunchables. Where's my sister? I want to go home.

Eventually, my sister and I go home. We do not return for Day Two of Detasseling; the part where we took Lunchables instead of gloves [3] is proving our summer income downfall.

We do, indeed, watch Say Anything. My sister and her friend K. learn how to puncture Dr. Pepper cans with pencils and guzzle them (they do this, considerately, in the bathtub, so as not to make a gloppy, sugary mess in the rest of the house. The shower curtain has drops of candy-like soda, smelling like Lip Smackers lip balm, for weeks).

I sit in my room, on my peach bedspread, and wonder how the summer, so early in, could so possibly have gone so very wrong. And how I will use my hands in the next couple days.

I dreamt, when I was younger, of being Laura Ingalls Wilder. Of being a farm girl, a pioneer girl, indomitable and tough, as sturdy as well water, as the plains, as Indiana corn or Frances Slocum being all strong and Quaker-y and not minding a bit when she's kidnapped. I am soooo nothing like these things.

Neither is my sister, which is no consolation. If the prairie is calling, our bleeding and exposed fingers can't answer. We're not made of sterner stuff.

But the summer is young. If detasseling is impossible, well, we can always read an obscene number of books. We can paint our nails peach and then pink and then iridescent. We can page through the Sears and Penney's catalogs, looking at clothes and models and daydreaming of having perfect hair, even teeth, perfect legs, and the best, tightest jeans, as we laugh, shaking our hair off our shoulders in front of a very clean locker, holding a pom pom or some color-coordinated books while a hunk in a letter jacket adores us, hygienically, but still. We can set off firecrackers we bought from Village Pantry. We can spend entire evenings weaving friendship bracelets from embroidery floss.

We can dream of being cheerleaders or honor students, pop stars or presidents. We can wonder what it would be like to have palms and fingers of titanium, able to withstand any number of corn stalks, making a bazillion dollars pulling tassels from corn.

We can always watch Say Anything. Maybe someday the boombox will be for us, and not Ione Skye. Heck, maybe we can be sorta like Ione Skye.

Summer is forever. Summer is for self-improvement. And learning how to punch a pencil into a Dr. Pepper and chug, chug, chug. Summer is for making sense of what happened in the fall, in the winter, in the past, in the future.

Detasseling? Well, that's for better people.

Say anything. Our Skeletor hands will heal. Our minds will expand. We'll draw lots of hearts and globes with Crayola markers in an '80s palette. We'll write bad poetry and fight with our sister about clothes. We'll hitch-kick and pirouette to “Rhythm is Gonna' Get You” and…we won't detassel.

We'll – I'll – always feel inadequate about that.

And yet, summer and makeovers and the sense that anything other than the damned cornfields is possible….

Adequate. More than adequate.

Tassels aside, you're okay, kid. It's a brand-new school year in front of you. Practice your handwriting. Practice your hurkey [4]. Ignore the tassels and get ready for the year when you finally get everything right.

You have a khaki skirt in the closet. Press it.

Remember that Sassy magazine said that pale pink eyeshadow is classy, subdued, and unexpected.

Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation is right around the corner. So limber up.

The world is your oyster. Corn, for other people.

Summer is going. Paint your nails, improve, and prevail. No one will know you screwed up at detasseling if you don't tell them. So don' t.

Detasseling? What's that?

I never did it. Neither did my sister.

Don't look at my hands. Just don't look at my hands.


*Fun game: this article doubles as a word search, drinking game or both. Drink/circle the word every time a 1980s pop culture reference is made.

1.) It is entirely possible our mom made us include fruit and sandwiches with our sodas and Lunchables. We were teens and old enough to know better. There's no excuse.

2.) There were probably some Capri Suns in there, too.

3.) Always listen to your mother. If she says to take gloves, take them.

4.) Fancy cheerleading jump.


Art History By Number: Fairies for Midsummer’s Eve

Fairy Art

Figure 1: Fanny Y. Cory (1877-1972), “Make Me a Mortal” (1903); Illustration from L. Frank Baum’s The Enchanted Island of Yew: Whereon Prince Marvel Encountered the High Ki of Twi and Other Surprising People (Bobbs-Merrill; 1903). L. Frank Baum, is of course, best known for his Oz books, fairy worlds, and magical creatures combined with an obvious playful love for language. In 1901, he wrote American Fairy Tales. In 1911, he wrote The Sea Fairies. In between these, in 1903, he published his tale of an enchanted island where a girl-fairy longs to live a completely different life, that of a mortal (and a mortal young man, at that). This illustration shows the fairy, “clothed in soft floating robes of rose and pearl color, and whose eyes shone…like two stars.” The fairy is asking the girls of Dawna— Seseley, Berna, and Helda— for their assistance, claiming “You are mortals, and by the laws that govern us, a mortal can change a fairy into anything she pleases.” The fairy then is transformed into the young knight, Prince Marvel, a “tall, slender youth with waving brown hair and dark eyes.” But in Fanny Cory’s first color plate for the 1903 edition of The Enchanted Island, she shows the fairy and the girls in all their delicate, pearl and rose-colored femininity, surrounded by ornamental, art nouveau iris stalks around the border of her highly-stylized composition. Cory was a popular illustrator for children’s books and periodicals in the early 1900s; in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, she became a nationally-syndicated newspaper cartoonist with her comics “Sonnysayings” and “Little Miss Muffett.” She also published her own books: a Mother Goose and a Fairy Alphabet, which the artist believed to be her best work.

In 1900, the magazine The Critic, cited the best virtues of Cory’s work as being “puckish humor and art nouveau.” These qualities are evident in this illustration: the lettering is humorous, even as the slender, etiolated ladies and fairy are juvenile and more innocent relatives to the eminently decorative women created by Alphonse Mucha and the Viennese artists working at this time. There is a distinctly draftsmanship quality to this composition—one never loses the lines—and a delicacy here which recalls Botticelli’s Young Man (compare the coloration of the eyes, nose, and mouth of the ladies and Botticelli) and is very different from Cory’s more robust later elves, gnomes, and fairies.

The artist here has chosen to depict a fairy that is an adolescent girl or, rather, a young maiden. This fairy, Baum’s “Prince Marvel,” is not written to be a pre-pubescent child and is not depicted as one. While fairy illustrations were common in England and America from the early nineteenth century to the opening of World War II, it is always an interesting comparison: does the artist skew her fay-folk as pseudo-cherubim, as tots, as virginal tweens, or as women (see Hughes)? Cory’s Fairy Alphabet shows a range of ages and moods and a more robust, harder style. But the 1903 “Make Me a Mortal” remains true to young womanhood (maybe even Cory’s?), to the organic, naturalistic, and stylized aesthetic of its time, and to Baum’s text. It is easy to think that had Cory’s near-contemporary, Cicely Mary Barker (active 1911-1962), illustrated this book, the fairy would have had innocence in common with Cory’s, but would also have skewed in Barker’s depiction as more eight than eighteen and would have been perhaps heavier on charm than on elegance (but with both in abundance). Cory is similar to the better-known Barker, but she is the flip-side to Barker’s coin. Cory’s early-twentieth-century illustrations should be remembered along with her long career in cartooning and it would be nice if her name would be listed more frequently alongside some of the other luminaries of fairy illustrators of that era: Barker, Margaret Tarrant, Arthur Rackham, and Kate Greenaway, for example. Cory is as talented as any of these.

Figure 2: Edward Robert Hughes (1851- 1914), Midsummer Eve (ca. 1907-8). There’s always been something about liminal spaces and times which seems to attract rumors of magical possibilities: crossroads and witches, equinoxes and opening of the veils between the seen and unseen worlds, similarly with dusk and dawn. Hughes, in this work, is playing with two of these at the same time: Midsummer Eve, “traditionally the time of the year when fairy power was thought to be at its strongest,” and dusk, an ambiguous time the artist represented as “mysterious and charged” in this work, as he had also done with his Twilight Phantasies and other paintings after 1905. Hughes explained “the coming of twilight is the time to see things, their harshness is softened…” and this piece demonstrates his use of color to create dim and ethereal lights which belong to softer, transitional moments.

Hughes himself, is often considered a “liminal” artist, straddling the intersections between First and Second Waves of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Symbolist artists. The intensely medieval (idealized pre-modern) aesthetic and the specificity of place (it’s very difficult to believe that tree in the right background is not tied to a particular spot in Hughes’ neck of the woods) tie Hughes firmly to the Pre-Raphaelite tradition, just as does his pedigree as the assistant of William Holman Hunt and his own sentiments: “having grown up among ardent exponents of Pre-Raphaelitism, the artistic ideals of which I share, my sympathies are reserved for that school.” It was also Pre-Raphaelitic to be connected with Symbolists: The mystical strain “typified” by Edward Burne-Jones, Solomon, and Gabriel Rossetti, no less than Hughes, has been frequently classified as Symbolist. Symbolist art often showcased poetic, mythic, or allegorical subjects and sought to replace the visual, mundane world with one they felt was more spiritually true: the often hidden world of magic, illusion, and imagination. The poetry of Charles Baudelaire is often held to be a literary example of Symbolism at its height and Hughes used the poetry of Baudelaire for the title of his Heart of Snow of 1907. While Midsummer’s Eve, with its fairy circle and magic, is thematically firmly Symbolist, the representation of the fairy as a woman, “powerfully sexualized” or “seductive” can also be seen as placing this work in the Symbolist camp, which frequently featured women who were “alluring, yet cold and forbidding…mysterious, allusive, and suggestive.” It seems most of all to be a Symbolist painting executed in Pre-Raphaelite language. And the way Hughes uses color (the lanterns) to create light demonstrates fully the reputation Hughes had among his contemporaries as a specialist in color and technical facility.

Figure 3: Johnny Gruelle (1880-1938), “The Fairy Ring” (1916); Illustration from his short story of the same name found in his book, Friendly Fairies (Bobbs-Merrill, 1960 edition; original 1916). Johnny Gruelle, an artist and illustrator (famously the creator of Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy), lost his daughter, Marcella, to smallpox in 1915. In the short story illustrated here, “The Fairy Ring,” published just one year after Marcella’s death, Gruelle is writing and depicting centuries-old beliefs in the overlap between the fairy world and the world of the dead. For centuries, especially in England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, it was believed that fairies “took” the dead, or that the beloved dead would find places, forever young, dancing in fairy rings, seen and unseen, living among the remnants of a mysterious, ancestral past; a simultaneous but secret world, known and felt, but seldom seen. In “The Fairy Ring,” Gruelle writes of a very old and down-on-his-luck street violinist, who receives a magical iron ring as a tip: It transports him and his sister to a fairy ring, where “all about, laughing and talking, were hundreds of little fairies, gnomes, and sprites, and there, too, were the playmates of long ago…In his gladness he danced with joy.” In the morning, the landlord enters the siblings’ apartment and finds only the small iron ring (the “fairy ring”) which was vehicle and gift: the elderly persons have been transformed permanently, grafted into a magical, better world. The short story itself has much in common with O. Henry’s “The Last Leaf,” Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl,” and countless fairy/death folk stories from both the Old and New Worlds. The image is faithful to other descriptions of fairy rings: note that here in Gruelle’s illustration are the “little people” of gnomes, elves, and sprites, as well as the fairies themselves, sylph-like and generic, white-gowned in the right top side. And, in Gruelle’s version, the humans (presumably “taken,” transformed, or passed) are equal participants in the magic and musical circle. This is a thought of eternity, transformation, and the overlap of death, life, and magic which goes back centuries.

Gruelle’s style is comparable to many other contemporary illustrators, much like Fanny Cory. The faces of Gruelle’s folk, be they human or fairy, seem to me to have more in relation to Blanche Fisher Wright’s than to, say, Kate Greenaway: related, but not interchangeable. Gruelle’s father was a member of the Hoosier School of artists and it is not impossible that their Impressionist influence motivated the expressive and amorphous “drip” background of the left panel of this illustration.

Gruelle’s fairies, while less detailed than their spritely and human peers, are emphatically not the sensuous women of Hughes; they are not the pre-adolescent tots of a Barker. They have, in their way, the form of a thirteen-year-old girl. Did Gruelle imagine Marcella as one of these fairies, then, and himself, perhaps, as the violinist returned to youth? It’s difficult to say. But if so, if there were any night other than All Hallow’s Eve when such a thing would be possible, it would be Midsummer’s Eve. (Even if Gruelle placed his violinist firmly in winter.) “…your soul can leave your body on St. John’s Eve and wander to the spot where body and soul will ultimately experience earthly parting.” And this is, mainly, just what happens with Gruelle’s violinist and his sister.

Figure 4: Kinuko Y. Craft (b. 1940), Faery Reflection (Claire’s Wings) (ca. 2003-4). It would be easy to see Craft’s fairy in this image as the younger version of Hughes’ sensuous woman: a portrait of the fairy as a younger girl. Craft’s painting has much in common with Hughes’ Midsummer’s Eve: the coloration (strongly, darkly in forest greens and golds), the use of light, the attention to detail in the face (Hughes, a noted portraitist, and Craft, in this case, painting a portrait into a fantasy), an emphasis on atmosphere and mood, a naturalistic detail which becomes specific. Craft refers to herself as an “Imaginary Realist,” and this seems as good a description of this work as any. Here, the fairy looks over her shoulder at her reflection in a pond. The reflection is mirror-sharp, in some ways more clear than the original. It is a theme Craft explores in her other works, notably The Transformation of Angarred and Shakespeare’s Daughter. While the work plays with ideas of fairies, it is nearly impossible not to also be reminded of the myths of Pandora and Narcissus, and there is much in this image which recalls the standard imagery of the Star card in Tarot decks— even if the requisite jugs and stars are missing. The face of this child-fairy, much like Cory’s, recalls the linear delicacy of Botticelli. The youth, freshness, and naturalism would remind one of Margaret Tarrant or even of Cicely Mary Barker, but the mannered self-consciousness of this work has far more in common with Hughes.

As with angel wings (the bird-based wings of Caravaggio or the shield-types of Giotto), it’s an interesting element of fairy art to examine what wing type the artist chooses. For Craft, this image calls on dragonfly wings (and presumably the symbolism of “new beginning” and the magic of “four:” i.e. four seasons). For Kelly, the wings are those of the moth or butterfly and for Gruelle, there are only suggestive wisps.

Figure 5: Becky Kelly, from Hallmark “Spoonful of Stars” collection (2007). Becky Kelly is an American artist who cites the Impressionists, Carl Larsson, Henriette Willebeck Le Mair, and children’s illustrators of the 1920s and 1930s as influences. In this image, from her collection for Hallmark, the watercolor artist has depicted a child-fairy that combines the naturalistic detail, freshness, and innocence of Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairy series with a frank American simplicity. This fairy of Kelly’s combines many of the aspects which Kelly writes about on her blog: “I make most of my fairy’s and children’s clothing white…” and “I use the darker foliage to contrast with the lighter peach color of awkward toes turned inward;” “Fairies have glistening wings painted to look like delicate, reflecting light, with an iridescent, opalescent quality. Her wings reflect all that surrounds.” Kelly also writes about her technique, which is additive: she works “from light to dark, starting with light glazes of watercolor, then building layers…” and she allows “parts of [the] paper to show to add shimmer and sparkles of dew on a leaf.” Kelly is no longer working for Hallmark, but her work is available to view on either of her websites (see Bibliography), one of which is about gardening, a love that is easy to understand by looking at the fresh peach in this equally fresh fairy’s hand.

Bibliography and Sources:

Aveni, Anthony. The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays. London: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Baum, L. Frank. The Enchanted Island of Yew: Whereon Prince Marvel Encountered the High Ki of Twi and Other Surprising People. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1903. (Becky Kelly) (Becky Kelly) (Becky Kelly)

Evans-Wentz, W. Y. The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. Original, 1911. New York: Kensington, 1994, 1966. (Fanny Cory)

Gruelle, Johnny. Friendly Fairies. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1919. Reprint, 1960. (Kinuko Craft) “Claire’s Wings” (Kinuko Craft)

Osborne, Victoria Jean. A British Symbolist in Pre-Raphaelite Circles: Edward Robert Hughes RWS (1851-1914). Thesis: University of Birmingham, 2009.

Wikipedia: entries for Cicely Mary Barker, Kate Greenaway, L. Frank Baum, Margaret Tarrant, Kinuko Y. Craft, Johnny Gruelle, Fanny Y. Cory, Edward Robert Hughes, The Star Card (Tarot)

Image credits: (1) The Enchanted Isle of Yew, 1903. (2) Wikimedia (circa 1907). (3) Friendly Fairies, 1919. (4) Kinuko Y. Craft, Duirwagh Gallery (2004) (5) Becky Kelly, “Spoonful of Stars,” Hallmark Cards, 2007.


Review: Puerto Vallarta

Puerto Vallarta in Greenwood, Indiana

If you’re in Greenwood, you’ve got roughly a million choices for Mexican-esque food. We’ve got all the chains: the Chipotle, the Bell, the Don Pablo’s, On the Border, Qdoba. We’ve got little, individual spots like Roscoe’s Tacos. Mainly, though, there are several similar Mexican-family-owned limited franchises like Puerto Vallarta, El Rodeo, Mexico Lindo, and El Meson. And Margarita’s. And, and, and. Most of them share the same table-and-chair scenario: brightly painted booths, tables, and chairs with burros, or sunsets, or palm trees. Or all of the above, plus fruits or native costumes or. You get the idea. The menus are similar and it’s all much more legit food than at any chain. Which is great. And one would think that, as ostensibly similar as they are, these are all interchangeable. But, God is in the details, as someone said, and Puerto Vallarta off Main Street reigns supreme among its peers in Greenwood, Indiana because they remembered to be totally awesome at the details.

Firstly, and most importantly, they have what might possibly be the best salsa in Indiana: unbelievably fresh, the overwhelming greenness of exactly enough cilantro, the sharp bite of finely diced white onion, a little garlic, maybe the brightness of citrus and maybe not, all in the perfect tomato base. I have never, ever met a fresh tortilla chip I didn’t like. But not all salsas are good. This one is very nearly perfect (Mexico Lindo, with your god-awful watery-whatever-that-is, this is why no one likes you). The only problem with the Puerto Vallarta salsa is that they don’t bring you enough of it to start with. But the service is sterling and fast and, frankly, if you ask for salsa, it’s like asking a House Elf— you’re going to get your salsa, and some good cheer, besides. (Intensely professional, and let me be very clear on this, “House Elf” = High Praise.)

And here would be a good time to point out that service is another detail the good folks at Puerto Vallarta get right. On evenings and weekends, there aren’t more friendly servers anywhere and they manage to be super-friendly without being either over-bearing, disruptive, or uncomfortably familiar. Much like the salsa, the service (on nights and weekends) is basically perfect. Nights, weekends, and weekdays, the service is super-rapid, but the lunch shift tends to the brusque: efficient but ever-so-slightly inhospitable (though not on the level of incommunicative that is reached by the servers at El Meson, who also manage to be only marginally faster than a puddle of flan moving uphill).

The menu covers the usual suspects: burritos, fajitas, tacos, you know, Mexican food. What separates Puerto Vallarta from the other Greenwood Mexican joints is quality. Puerto Vallarta has managed to hit the Goldilocks zone for tamales: They’re wrapped in a coat that is neither too thick nor too thin. This would seem to be an easy thing for a Mexican restaurant to manage but judging from the inferior tamales at El Meson, Lindo Mexico, and El Margarita, well, tamale-wrapping is a difficult craft which only the fine folks at Puerto Vallarta have mastered, at least in Greenwood, Indiana.

The fajitas always smell like a smoky and carnivorous heaven. They’ll set you back a clean fourteen dollars. I can’t tell you if they’re worth it: they smell like they are. My most-favorite dining companion can’t step away from the burritos loco (chicken, beef, rice, beans, jalapeño, tomato and cheese sauce, all for $8.25) to try the fajitas. And I can’t step back from the combination plates ever: The number 6 is one burrito (get bean), one taco, and one enchilada and the number 14 is one burrito (get bean), one enchilada, and one tamale. Both options are $7.99 and delicious (and nourishing, I’m sure) choices. I’ve never had anything else there, even though there are roughly 24 combination plates. I bet they’re all good. Fajitas aren’t on the combo plates, but who needs fajitas when you’ve got enchiladas, burritos, and tacos/tamales? There are vegetarian options, too, it should be noted, and I don’t know what to tell you if you’re gluten-free except, hey, you should avoid the chips.

If you’re looking for something that I haven’t listed, Puerto Vallarta also has (this is funny to me) shrimp cocktail and what they refer to as “Hawaiian Plate.” The Hawaiian Plate is grilled shrimp, broccoli, pineapple, and mushroom served over a bed of rice and topped with cheese sauce. Now, I get the pineapple and seafood thing, but this seems like it should be called “Cancun Beach Plate” or something. But maybe that’s because it has neither ham nor Spam and, well…it’s just funny, okay? And, probably pretty good to eat. If you like shrimp.

Margaritas are $15.25 for a pitcher. I don’t know if they have wi-fi because the service is so quick, I’ve never been not eating while at Puerto Vallarta. As a special bonus, they’ve repainted the women’s bathrooms, which are now a fresh, if intense, coral and no longer a nauseating and overpowering pepto pink. This is a good thing and if you’ve been in that restroom in the past, ladies, you know exactly what I’m talking about. And hey, they’ve got a customer loyalty card: ten meals and get one free (They use a star-shaped paper punch to mark it, squee!).

Anyway…Puerto Vallarta? Of course, you ‘arta. Ask for extra salsa.

Click to add a blog post for Puerto Vallarta on Zomato

Puerto Vallarta on Yelp


Sometimes Things are Like That

There was a day. It was spring. It was warm, surprisingly warm. A gift of a day, one of those where you knew, you just knew, the chill would return, but the day, like a pop-up shower, was a good eight hours of summertime warmth, square in the middle of early spring, nearly too good to be true – well, probably too good to be true. Good things so often are.

At any rate, it was a day. A Spring Break sort of day when March could be July could be outside of time. And you drive south. On country roads and into the hilly parts of southern Indiana where myths could be real and time becomes a sticky, taffy-like thing. Driving in southern Indiana is like daydreaming by a lake: sure you're looking at the ribbon of highway, but the damp green shade is overhead and fragrance fills your car and your head; time loses its precision. The morning spins into afternoon, and if you're lucky, it will hit evening and there will be dew. And there's the road again: a loop of memory and non-thinking and feeling but mostly leaves and hills and places you've never been but know anyway. Southern Indiana can be a gift.

And you drive yourself through- or past- a waterfall and find yourself in an 1820s kind of town: Madison, Indiana. The buildings downtown are brick, multi-story. Brick walks and crumbling brick buildings. And ferns. On a riverbank. And history pulses in the shutters hanging on the walls, in the cement lions which flank every other house. It blinks in the reflections from the river. It glances off pewter and iron and old buildings trying to remain young. Sometimes with ferns.

It's like visiting the past, for a second, and your car and your clothes are out of place. But you. You fit in, sort of. You are friends with things you have never known but still have met; the moldy bricks, the damp cement, the waved, mouth-blown glass.

So into an antique store you go. You buy a tea cup. But this is a spot for true antiquers and the river is calling. Walk on.

And there, in the unseasonable bright warmth that is this day, is a floating barge, disguising itself as a restaurant. With a white peacock hanging around the dock. Obviously this is the only place to eat. For you. For anyone. For everyone on this day in the languorous bend of the river.

It's a cross between a pontoon and Gilligan's Minnow. It's Steamboat Willie with moldy carpeting and run-down Bingo chairs and leftover Chinese Buffet tables. The tables have ketchup-crusted baskets with Captain's Wafers and Melba Toasts and Saltines. The menus are sticky and misspelled, the plastic glasses stained with the ghosts of lipsticks past and everything about your order feels like a mistake, like a haunted house you should run from, like possible ptomaine.

Nevertheless, the dip-dyed and raspy-voiced server brings you a plate of “alfredo.” This is a plate of pasta, doused in cold milk, sprinkled with green-can shake-cheese. And it is, there is no other way to put this, inedible.

And you think to yourself, looking at the nearly solid iced tea you couldn't possibly drink, and at the plate of seriously inedible food, and inhaling the fumes of forty years of neglect and mildew, as the floor of the boat-restaurant rocks with the waves, you think: this is, without doubt, the worst dining experience I've ever had.

You don't eat. You don't complain. You pay your tab. You do, however, eat a couple stale Melba Toasts— you always had a thing about melba toasts.

And you leave a tip you can't quite afford, with a growling stomach, and bizarre feeling of bereavement. History is just history. Moldy bricks are just old, not picturesque. And it's not like you really needed that chipped tea cup.

So, with your tail between your legs, you walk away from the pontoon on a swaying, rotted dock. You spend a couple minutes befriending the albino peacock. He's not having it. And so you hang your head, drive away, swear off the past, and hit the drive-thru of the first McDonald's you see.

And twenty-ish (a little more, a little less) years later, you will think of that decrepit barge, with its old crackers and its pet white exotic bird. And that restaurant will attain a luster it doesn't quite deserve.

Everything falls into place. New ferns and old brick. Cherub heads of stone and reproduction fountains. The smell and sound of a river, which has been there long before you and long before me.

And a barge with stale crackers and really bad food, saved by a peacock, in old days, a symbol of the redeemed and the redeemer. Or of vanity. And maybe, with the past, both apply.

Sometimes things are like that. Bad at first. And redeemed by memory, redeemed by time. Redeemed by an ill-tempered peacock and the capital “E” of “experience.”


Fragment: American Music, 1900-1917

American Music 1900-1917

(Clockwise from top left) 1917 Sears catalog, John Philip Sousa, Tin Pan Alley, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, 1910 Sheet Music Cover

As it seems always to have done, music filled the days and lives of the people living in the United States during the early years of the twentieth century. Music formed a vital part of both community life— bands, churches, theatres, and events such as fairs, circuses, festivals, and touring performances– and domestic life. The majority of homes at this time owned at least one instrument. The importance of music within the home is demonstrated by the simple fact that in 1905 the Sears catalog “devoted…double the space to [musical instruments] as to kitchen stoves [1].”

What truly characterizes this period for Americans, however, is how wholly popular in nature was their particular soundtrack: “popular” in this case meaning diverse, secular, and commercial. Even when produced on the amateur level or in the home, music was a shared component between Americans, helped along by the emergence of a truly popular national culture. If one thinks of the previous eras in American history, there were times when the music would have been recognizable to all, as with church music and hymns, for example, but there were also times when the music might be more appropriately characterized as regional: local ballads and folk music which were popular in regions, in the necks of woods, but not in New York as in, say, Mississippi. While the nineteenth century demonstrated an emerging national musical identity [2], it was following the Trans-Continental Railroad and the growing (and cheap) paper culture [3] which preceded the turn of the twentieth century that it coalesced into an inherent piece of a shared American experience. Songs [4] were made popular to everyone through touring musicians able to cross the country easily, the widespread sale of affordable sheet music for the ubiquitous parlor piano, the purchase of recorded cylinders, phonographs, and player piano rolls, as well as the greater mobility of Americans themselves, who were also buying these things, for the first time ever, from truly national merchants like Sears.

Sampling song titles popular during these years [5], one notices a diversity not always present in today's world of specialized genres, popular among groups of people rather than Americans as a whole. Classical songs, operatic arias, numbers from operettas, novelty songs, ragtime tunes, and “hit” songs were simultaneously and widely fashionable. In part, this resulted from the way in which people heard music: the repertoires of a performance by a community band or traveling ensemble might include all these types in a single evening of music [6]. The melodies and rhythms of differing music styles could be filtered through a band or a piano and in this way had more in common with one another than not, and for this, could be accessible or “equally” appealing to everyone.

The same sample of popular hits of the time also highlights how closely tied were the songs to popular culture. The “up-tempo, dance-oriented, novelty focus which was a feature” [7] of hit songs lent itself well to celebrating the specifics of the United States at this time, and accordingly, the songs present a virtual scrapbook of key people, trends, events, and sentiments.

The country loved its enthusiastic, boyish President Roosevelt [8] and the teddy bear created to capitalize on his popularity also made its way into song: “The Teddy Bear's Picnic: was as much about the country's leader as about innocent toys lunching al fresco. Roosevelt's equally-celebrated daughter inspired mothers to name their baby girls “Alice” and don “Alice Blue Gowns” made fashionable through the song of the same name, while bands throughout the nation invoked the feminine presidential muse by playing “Alice, Where Art Thou [9]?”

Daisy was asked to join her love on a bicycle built for two, while another love invited “Come, Josephine, In My Flying Machine;” both ladies were less the focus of the songs than the new-fangled transportation technology. The automobile could be, musically, a “Merry Oldsmobile” or, and the crankiness of the horseless carriage was indeed legendary, a cause for rueful humor: “(He'd Have to Get Under) Get Out and Get Under (To Fix Up His Automobile) [10].” In fixing his American automobile, perhaps the protagonist was giving it the old college try, singing the popular songs associated with fraternities or schools, like “On Wisconsin.” Maybe, too, he was on his way to the St. Louis International Exposition of 1904 (“Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis”) “In the Good Ol' Summertime [11].” Regardless, he and everyone else in the country had a song for every occasion and every mood.

Demonstrating the increasingly urban nature of the prosperous country, “[t]he popular song trade came more and more to be ruled by the tastes of city dwellers. [12]” This can be seen in the catalog of contemporary songs incorporating “New York” or “Chicago” within the title. The major, ongoing immigrant populations achieved musical — if not social — assimilation rapidly. There were songs for every ethnic group and culture. In America, popular music encompassed Irish ballads, Italian folk songs, and Polish mazurkas. There were songs for their carved-out communities (“Chinatown, My Chinatown”) and songs for their love affairs (“That's Yiddishe Love”) [13]. And all of them were played on home pianos from coast to coast, sea to shining sea, American songs with international timbres, welcome to the ear, even if the populations of immigrants were initially resented by too many. The industrialism at the heart of both immigration and national prosperity in the early twentieth century was enshrined in song, as well. Marie Dressler sang hopefully that “Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl” in 1910 [14], although only one year later, the Triangle Shirt Waist Fire in New York City casts doubt on the definition of “protection.”

While many of these songs were optimistic about city life, trending towards the energetic or romanticized (contrast the lyrics of songs derived from the melting pot with Jacob Riis' photographs showing their daily lives, or even Upton Sinclair's depiction in 1906's The Jungle), the inevitable homesickness and alienation also found popular musical expression in songs which captured a desire to return “home” from the big city…

Notes: (1.) Bowen, vol. I, p. 170. (2.) Ballads, sheet music sales, and band music were all nationally popular types during the 19th century. (3.) Grossman. (4.) The single “song” is itself an interesting feature of music. Popular music at this time, like in our own, became “song”-based. Individual songs were entire and complete on their own, even when they derived from operas or shows or a very lengthy classical composition. This, in itself, seems to say something. In Barzun, one of his major themes is “individualism.” Although Barzun doesn't say so, I believe that the song-as-unit is part of a larger thread of the importance of the individual that can be seen as parts of both the American and Modern identities. (5.) Especially in Shifflett, who catalogs “hit songs” and notable songs in lists, by year. (6.) Crawford and various articles in the Grove Dictionary of Music all emphasize the variety of songs played within a single performance, most notably in connection with John Phillips Sousa and his band. The popularity of revues, follies, and vaudeville (all “variety” shows in type) also attests to the diversity associated with the performance of music on a very broad level. (7.) Middleton, paragraph 1. (8.) Bowen, vol. I, p. 60 re: Roosevelt: “the country loved him for himself, too.” (9.) Bowen, vol. I, p. 180. (10.) Song titles and popularity: Shifflett, Popular songs between 1900-1917, pp. 266-269. (11.) The catalog of songs is again from Shifflett, in particular. Bowen, vol. I, and Hillier both also use song titles to capture the era. The titles are spectacularly quotable and truly time-specific. (12.) Crawford, p. 274. (13.) Shifflett. (14.) Bowen, vol. II, p. 34.

Bibliography and Sources

Barzun, Jacques. From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present. 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. New York: Harper Collins. 2000.

Bowen, Ezra, editor. This Fabulous Century: Sixty Years of American Life, Volume I. 1900-1910. Time-Life Books. New York: Time, Inc. 1969.

Bowen, Ezra, editor. This Fabulous Century: Sixty Years of American Life, Volume II. 1910-1920. Time-Life Books. New York: Time, Inc. 1969.

Crawford, Richard. An Introduction to America's Music. New York: W.W. Norton and Company. 2001.

Eksteins, Modris. Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. New York: Mariner. 2000.

Gammond, Peter. Scott Joplin and the Ragtime Era. New York: St. Martin's Press. 1975.

Grossman, John. Christmas Curiosities: Odd, Dark, and Forgotten Christmas. New York: Abrams/Stewart, Tabori, and Chang. 2008.

Grove Dictionary of Music.

Hillier (Missing Bibliography)

Middleton, Richard. Voicing the Popular: On the Subjects of Popular Music. New York: Routledge. 2006. (Most likely. Parts of the original bibliography are missing.)

Shifflett, Crandall. Victorian America: 1876-1913 (Almanacs of American Life). New York: Facts on File. 1996.

Image: (Clockwise from top left) Sears catalog #135 from 1917 (Little Wonder Records), John Philip Sousa (Wikimedia Commons), Photograph of Tin Pan Alley (Wikimedia Commons), Sheet music cover from 1910 showing Irving Berlin (songbook1), and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, painted by Francis Benjamin Johnson in 1903 (Wikimedia Commons).



A Fish Hook Called Wanda: Welcome to Church Camp

Hey, welcome to Church Camp. It's 1986 and I know you've just spent a month organizing your plastic glitter bracelets, sipping on Cherry Cokes in the glass bottles, buffing your Walkman, writing in your diary, and catching up on the adventures of Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield at Sweet Valley High. Still, it's time to unpack your travel-size VO5 and your Sears swimsuit in teal, hot pink, and purple. And your Bible! You'll need it because your shorts are too short and it's time to pray and welcome to Church Camp, 1986. There are spiders in the bathroom and high expectations for moral behavior. Don't sit next to a boy. Crafts are from one until three: you can swim, fish, or do crafts, but only one at a time, for five days running, so choose wisely.

Crafts are good because, as it turns out, it's a rainy and unseasonably cold week. Also, the one girl who went fishing sat on her hook and now she's been driven to an emergency room far, far away, and everyone knows who she is, and how clumsy*, and my god, she literally sat on a fish hook and it stuck there so bad she had to go to emergency, so don't go fishing…plus, the water is mossy and cold and there are live fish in there who will nibble your toes and bite your skin off…so you're better off with crafts, which at least you can take home to your mother, who will dutifully hang it/them on the laundry room wall and pronounce that your varnish, acrylic, baby-food-jar, sculpy masterpiece is the most beautiful thing she's ever seen.

It's just too cold for that Sears swimsuit, no matter how many ruffles it has.**

So…in the mornings, while you're at “church,” you'll secretly be memorizing your “Verse of the Day” so when Warty Wanda (who did not actually have warts) comes to “examine” you after lunch, you won't break a sweat, you'll just recite. And then you will still have time to grab a Snickers before Crafts. If you don't please Wanda, you will not make it to Crafts, let alone to the commissary to get a candy bar. Plus she'll tell you your shorts don't please God.

And that's why it's a really good thing to spend your morning memorizing the verse of the day. There will be no fun allowed for you until you do. So get it out of the way early: after the bacon and during the sermon. The sermon is not the point. The verse. The verse is the point and the only point. Just ask Warty Wanda. She'll tell you. (Actually, don't ask her. She's mean. Just recite the verse. Perfectly. Preferably in pants and on the first time.)

Warty Wanda has the tightest curls you've ever seen. They match her personality, which is also tight. And maybe her name is Marsha or Jane or, well, you don't really know, because she is cold and mean and hates you if you can't rattle off the V.O.D. (verse of the day).

But the way to make Warty Wanda hate you, really and truly hate you, so much so that Snickers lose their flavor and Craft time loses its pleasures (Sculpy notwithstanding): try out for talent night and sing “The Greatest Love of All” by Whitney Houston.

Sure, you've spent your week making up a song that Amy F. tells you is “so good.” It's called “Dancin', Dancin', Dancin,”*** and even Tracy in the top bunk thinks it's neat. But at the last minute, you chicken out and sing “The Greatest Love of All.”

Because children are our future. Treat them well and let them lead the way…

Which is approximately the moment at which Warty Wanda, hallowed be her name, loses her mind.

“That song doesn't celebrate Jesus.”

“But it's about love and children who were made by …”

“That. Is. Not. A. Godly. Song.”

At which point, despite your perfect record on Bible Verse Memorization, you will not be allowed to be in the talent show. Children are not the future. Children are a bane and a curse: their shorts are too short. They sit on fish hooks. They sing “Show them well and let them lead the way” instead of “His eye is on the sparrow.” Children are heathens. They think of her as Warty Wanda and Wanda knows. Of course Wanda knows.

Wanda hates children. Wanda hates church camp.

And still, despite Wanda, Tracy and Amy and you will be singing, late into the darkness, with Sears flashlights and Coleman sleeping bags, you all will be singing “Dancin', Dancin', Dancin'” because sometimes even Jesus likes it when 11-year olds make up their own songs and sing them, even if they are about music and godless dancing for fun, and not about Jesus or God or sermons or the V.O.D.

If he didn't, he wouldn't have made Wanda such a hard sleeper.

And he did. Praise Jesus. He did.


*Not clumsy. Sitting on a fish hook could happen to anyone. Anyone who's fishing, anyway.

**Three. Total.

***My own version. This is not like that time I thought I invented the word “incognito.” This was an original song with a common title.


Guessing the Color of Cars

There were days, a long time ago, when my sister and I sat on a porch swing. Eating popsicles, when the sun was shining, after it rained, always summer. We were children. We watched the street. We played a game I call “Guessing the color of cars.”

Here's how you play: you call out the color of the next car that will drive past. If you're right, you're right and your sister knows it. If you're wrong, you're wrong and your sister knows that, too. But it's, pardon the sorta-pun, a two-way street: if she's right, you know it, and if she's wrong, you know that, too. And that is how a summer afternoon is passed in the early 1980s or maybe the kids these days still play it. Somewhere. I doubt it, but you never know.

We didn't keep score, my sister and I. We might have tried to, but after 5 or 6 cars, well, the days were languorous in a Tennessee Williams sort of way, and when time is sticky, the point spread doesn't matter much. I'm right with a white car and then she's right with a blue.

What is magnificent isn't the game: it's the fact that you're there with your little sister and time is elastic and you rock on a swing, in the heat of a summer afternoon, and the next car could be black or maroon. You'll both be right. You'll both be wrong. No one wins. No one loses.

I miss those summers, swinging on a porch swing with my sister. I miss the times when our only mission in life was to guess the color of the next car that would drive past. I miss the times when it didn't matter if we were wrong or right, it was just waiting and guessing and seeing and it was downtime: watching the cars while part of our brains were dreaming of other things, any other things. The summer was endless. Anything was possible.

The next car is red.

If there is a heaven, time is like that there. An endless summer afternoon, sharing a swing with my sister, guessing the color of cars in a game that is no game at all. Everyone's a winner. It's summer. And the world and your life stretches in front of you, an open book with endless pages.

And perhaps it will be blue. So many of them are blue.