Saturday, March 31, 2012

Project: travel journal

I hate feeling like a tourist. So when I travel, I don't like to have my camera out a lot. During my college travels in Europe, I carried a little notebook instead and jotted or sketched. Espresso cups, men in velvet jackets, cute babies on the Metro - it all went into the notebook. I carried a little flat watercolor set with me and added color in the evenings. I also used it to keep track of the money I was spending, partly for actual financial reasons and partly as a record of the trip - I can look back through the list and remember the details.

Jeff and I will be spending some time in Quito, Ecuador later this spring. (After I bailed on the Peace Corps four years ago, I think it's about time we do some world traveling before we're too tied down.) So I wanted a notebook to take with me. Particularly because the library and internet are full of advice about traveling in Ecuador, some of which I want and most of which I don't. This I can copy into it exactly what I want.

I covered two rectangles of cardboard in some fabric from a partly-shredded silk scarf.

Next I cut three kinds of pages: watercolor paper for drawings, lined paper for listing money spent, and graph paper because I had some. I marked the covers and pages with where I wanted the holes. I could use a hole punch for the holes in the pages, but the covers needed a drill.

I bound them together with keyrings (the kind that hinge open, because the spiral kind are too much of a pain to get through the holes).

Now begins the process of writing my own travel guide: map printouts, things I want to see, addresses, flight details, the instructions for how to take anti-malarials, and so forth. While I'm there, I'll add sketches, a spending record, and notes.

Friday, March 23, 2012

What's working, part 2: the Morris team

This is part 2 of a series on things that are going well in my life. Maybe you'll read it and think, yikes, that would never work for me. But maybe it will give you a jumping-off point.

I'm a member of a women's folk dance team, Muddy River Morris. We do traditional dances from the Cotswold region of England, as well as a lot of dances we made up in that style.

I love the pattern Morris it gives to the year: October is time for the apple orchard tour. April is New England Folk Festival time. May Day is for dancing at dawn by the banks of the Charles, and later in the month there's the Marlboro Ale in Vermont, a weekend of dancing throughout the countryside all day and drinking and singing all night. After each of these, there's usually a feast. The week is also patterned: Tuesday is Muddy practice night, followed by a trip to the bar.

We have women from their late teens through their early 60s (though mostly bi-generational, with a lot of 20-somethings and 50-somethings.) We have married, single, widowed, and divorced women. We have sets of mothers and daughters, ex-girlfriends, sisters, and sisters-in-law. We've seen each other through dissertations, deaths, births, adoptions, and the occasional goth stage.

I don't like the ways sports and political identities get antagonistic. Group identity can easily become us vs. them, which is not something I enjoy. With Muddy River, there's a solid feeling of us, and we don't really need a them. People wear purple shirts to practice because it's our team color. They get really excited to choose the theme for the team skit at Marlboro (last year: gnomes). There are Muddy River cocktail parties and potlucks. We show up to each other's concerts, plays, and weddings.

I love having a women's space. I think women feel freer to argue, drink, yell, belch, and talk in a women's space. I love that the older women started in an age when Morris was for men, and they've carried us through into a time when women's teams are normal. (Inasmuch as Morris is ever "normal.")

I like being in a community that's been chugging along since 1975. I like looking around and expecting to still be dancing with some of these women in another few decades.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

What's working, part 1: the family house

This is part 1 of a series on things that are going well in my life. Maybe you'll read it and think, yikes, that would never work for me. But maybe it will give you a jumping-off point.

It's Saturday morning at our house. Jeff and Rick are huddled over laptops at the kitchen table working on a computer program for Rick's work. I'm settled in across the table with a mug of tea and a magazine. I haven't seen Suzie, so I guess she's at work delivering a baby. Stevie's girlfriend is visiting, and they haven't yet emerged from his bedroom. I can hear Alice tuning up her fiddle in the living room.

Jeff and I recently moved back with his family. The big Victorian house currently holds Jeff's parents, one of his sisters, one of his cousins, and us. Over the years the house has hosted au pairs, relatives, tenants, and lots of visitors. Jeff's other sister and her boyfriend live a few miles away and often drop in for dinner.

With more people, we get efficiencies of scale. We have five drivers and three cars (one of which belongs to Jeff's sister's boyfriend and is left here for storage and general use), so there's always a car available when you need one. If we were living in conventional mini-households, we might have four different houses and apartments for the six of us, with four dinners to be cooked every night. There would be duplicates of dishwashers, refrigerators, washing machines, and common living areas. By combining, we only need one of any of these. We spend less time cooking, cleaning, and shopping.

Lots of cookies

There's plenty of space for hosting parties, dinners, meetings, and dance practices. If you don't want to participate, you can always retreat upstairs. None of this is possible in separate small apartments.

It's cheap, too. Rick and Suzie would own the house regardless of who else lived with them, so we chip in for utilities and groceries and some of the upkeep on the house. It costs us less than half what we paid for a studio apartment.

Serendipity happens more with more people in the house. Yesterday the office manager at Jeff's work joked that she wasn't able to get a bagpiper for the company St. Patrick's Day lunch. “Do you really want one?” he asked, and called Stevie. Stevie came home, told me, and we were off to Jeff's office. Half an hour later:

Of course, there are tensions. In my first week here Jeff and I had an exhaustive analysis of just how snarky it's permissible to be with one's mother-in-law. And I wouldn't want to stay here forever, because Jeff's parents own the house and they definitely have the final say in how the place runs. But in general we enjoy each other's company.

This wouldn't work in all families. I wouldn't want to live with my parents, partly because of how we work together and partly because of where they live. Not everybody's parents decide to buy a big house in the suburbs of a city where their kids want to live. And people definitely give you funny looks if you mention that you live with your in-laws. But historically and globally, living with extended family is a very normal thing to do. For now, at least, it's going well.

Our room on the third floor

Thursday, March 15, 2012

All together now

I was watching Fiddler on the Roof this week, and something unusual struck me about it. Like most musicals, its characters have the habit of bursting into song whenever an emotion passes over them. These spontaneous songs are accompanied by an invisible orchestra.

But what's different are the dance numbers. There are only three: One with men drinking in a tavern, one with a city boy introducing a country girl to the idea of couple dancing, and one with a whole community celebrating a wedding. Yes, the dancing is more polished than you would expect from life outside musical theater. But at the core, these are dances people really were doing in rural turn-of-the-century Russia.

In most musicals, the dance numbers come from out of the blue like the songs and orchestras. If the dancing happens for a reason it's in movies about dancers like Saturday Night Fever or Dirty Dancing. The numbers are still choreographed, professional.

But dancing used to be a normal social activity. Jane Austen indicates that the only people who "don't dance" are the physically infirm or hopelessly snobbish. She writes about other social activities (picnics, visits, parties), but dancing was obviously her top pick. That's what's lovely about the celebration scenes in Fiddler: These are normal people in a community setting. Dancing.

When Jeff and I got engaged, our friends threw us a surprise contra dance party. There were people there who had never seen anything like it. “I didn't know people still did stuff like this!” one friend gushed. “People are in a room together, looking at each other's faces and smiling!”

If you've never tried community dancing, dancing where the point participation rather than performance, do yourself a favor. Find someplace to give it a try. My personal favorite is contra dance. Depending on where you are, you might be able to find western-style line dancing in a bar, English country dancing, a ceilidh, or “international” folk dancing (European and Middle Eastern circle dances). There are also social dances like ballroom and swing, but these take longer to learn and are couple-oriented rather than group-oriented.

Go on, give it a whirl!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Turning green

It's almost St. Patrick's Day, which means the city of Boston is turning green. We already have a basketball team named the Celtics and a low-cost insurance company called Celticare whose ads feature people of color. Apparently “Celtic” is supposed to invoke Boston itself rather than an actual race or ethnicity.

By far, most of the “Irish” people in Boston have never seen Ireland and are five or six generations removed. And most by now are of fairly mixed ancestry – Italian, English, German, and whatever else. Those English and German ancestors in Boston were burning Irish convents and so forth 130 years ago. If you could pass for Anglo-Saxon at that point, it was probably very tempting.

And yet today, Irish is the most common ethnic identity in the state. Most of the country is has a plurality of self-reported German ancestry, but Southern New England claims to be very Irish.

To be fair: Boston does have actual Irish people. I have a classmate from County Mayo who spent the 90s in Boston associating only with other actually Irish people. And Boston did get a lot of Irish immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century.

Of course, if your family is recently from Nigeria, Laos, or anywhere else, your ethnicity is more than drinking green beer once a year. And many long-time Americans had their ethnic languages and cultures stolen from them by slavery. (See Mary Waters' ”Optional Ethnicities: For Whites Only?”)

Looking at children's names, Celtic names are in – Sean, Caitlin, Liam, and Maura are not just for Irish kids anymore. More obscure ones like Maeve and Callum might be for families who have some Celtic ancestry, but not necessarily. Even though most white Americans have German ancestry, nobody's naming their kids Klara or Emil. Lots of Boston-area residents have an Ashkenazi background, but those names are right out. Even people who originally had Yiddish names didn't keep them - Moishe, Schmuel, and Chavele became Morris, Sam, and Eva upon arrival on American soil.

"Celtic": not just for Celts

So why is Irishness so popular? It can't be the food.

They do have beer, but so does all of Europe and North America. They do have a firm pub culture, which might actually do a lot for a sort of ethnic identity.

Enough Irish came to Boston that they had a kind of critical mass here. It's more fun to be Irish with 3,500 of your friends than, say, Welsh with two of your cousins. And it's more worth it to open an Irish bar or dance studio.

The Irish as a whole haven't done anything too embarrassing lately (except decades of terrorism, which Americans didn't notice). German ancestry became a lot less popular with Americans after the world wars.

The Irish do have great music. Riverdance seems to have popularized Irish music and dance, albeit a quite stagey version. People seeing English traditional dance for the first time often ask me if it's Irish, maybe figuring that a cultural activity involving white people and fiddles must be Irish. And people who stare blankly when you say you like “American traditional music” smile and nod if you describe it as “Celtic” instead.

They speak English and have what's considered to be a cute accent. It's unclear whether there's something inherently appealing about an Irish accent. If only we had a way to find out if Bostonians in the era of “No Irish Need Apply” thought it was cute.

They have a body of myth, which appeals to aforementioned arty kids. But so does Scandinavia, and there's no craze to embrace your Norwegian heritage (unless in the Midwest?)

Anyway, I can't see any harm in this genealogical fad. I've been tempted to find some Irish ancestry for myself, but the best I could turn up was a lot of English people and one Scot.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Hunger hurts?

This is an ad for a food bank that appears on buses all over Boston.

Here we have a pretty young white woman hugging an older white woman. I guess the young woman is supposed to represent the food bank, since she looks happy, whereas the faceless older woman is presumably hungry and therefore in need of comfort.

Oh, wait. Except she doesn't need a hug. She needs groceries.

I have a rescue fantasy — what social worker doesn't? Somewhere inside, we love to believe that we could just hug our clients and make everything better. If we took them home and gave them a good meal and enough sympathy, we believe we could fix everything and earn their undying gratitude. But that is an inside thought. You do not tell your clients about that thought. The point is to help, not to feel helpful.

Please, people, fantasies don't belong on billboards. Everyone in the city who rides public buses — which is most of the food bank's clientèle — has seen this ad. If I needed groceries, would I really want to go someplace where I might get hugged by some misty-eyed young lady with a savior complex? No way.