Thursday
Apr092015

Stunts and House Finches

Nellie Bly, one of my heroes. Image from Wikipedia

I have a great weakness for stunt journalism. From Nellie Bly to Bill Buford to Gretchen Rubin--I'll read it all. I'm entranced by the stories of people choosing to go without seemingly essential things for a year or more, or attempting to read all of the Encyclopedia Britannica or the complete works of James Joyce, or electing to abandon their workaday lives to buy a failing/abandoned/ancient chateau/hostelry/dairy farm in Maine/Tuscany/Provence. 

The fun of it is the vicarious experience, the insider's view. Every time I finish something from the genre, I wish I could think up my own stunt, write about it, and get it published. But I haven't come up with anything original yet--at least not anything my family would put up with. (The closest I've come to stunt journalism is The Great Cinnamon Roll Project.)

Now, I'm sure there are some who would consider my daily life to be as foreign and as challenging as some of these stunts. After all, it's not every day you meet an actively publishing writer who also teaches five days a week and is the primary caregiver to five children--with two more in college. Of course, none of that seems remarkable to me, because I live it--and I didn't take any of it on for the sole purpose of spinning a good yarn about it later. It's just my life (and, unlike the above stunts, there's no end in sight).  

I've recently jumped into something rather stunt-like, however. I'm about two thirds of the way through a Sixty-Day Challenge at Bikram Yoga Pasadena. (If you like, you can read my daily diary of the experience.) To the outsider, even one session of Bikram yoga might seem like a stunt; each class entails ninety minutes working through twenty-six yoga asanas and two breathing exercises (all done twice) in a room that is heated to 105 degrees F with 40% humidity.

But Bikram aficionados try to make it to class three to five times per week, and will on occasion take on a thirty- or sixty-day challenge: doing a session every. Single. Day. For a month or two. It's that simple.

Except it's not, not if you have a life as busy as mine. Not even, apparently, if you're single and have a flexible work schedule, as Paige Williams and Aimee Macovic both were/had when they did their own Sixty-Day Challenges. Exercise this intense is demanding for the beginner, and its effects are cumulative. Ninety minutes really means more like two and a half hours when you count the prep, travel, and recovery time. Eating needs to be built around the classes, too; you don't want to eat for a couple of hours beforehand, and you don't feel like it for a long while afterward. And then there's the hydrating (bathroom), hydrating (bathroom), hydrating (bathroom). 

Given all my responsibilities, the stars really need to align for me to get to the yoga studio consistently. Sick kids, booked-solid days, and family trips to Disneyland--in other words, reality--all need to be taken into account.

Fortunately, there's a provision for days missed: you simply make up the class by doing two in one day. Which I've done twice now. Which is brutal. And which I'll have to do three times more by April 29th in order to complete my own personal Challenge.

(I have to finish! I already ordered the T-shirt.)

So, why take on something so difficult, if my life is already so complicated? I won't go into the details of some nagging health challenges, but that was definitely a factor. The bigger issue, though, is that I hope that a regular Bikram practice will be a catalyst for me in my writing life--which is really just an outgrowth of my mental/emotional/spiritual life.

Catalysts fascinate me; it's one of the reasons I love stunt journalism. What's the touchstone that allows people to make wholesale changes in their lives; whence cometh the paradigm shift? Can it be pinpointed? Can it be engineered, or does it need to drop from the sky? Can people really redefine who they are through a series of choices? Can they make the changes stick? I hope so; I choose to believe so. I've read about many others for whom Bikram has been a catalyst--for healing, for renewed energy and perspective, for professional pursuits. I figured I'd give it a try. (It is, after all, more reasonable than sailing around the world or buying a B&B in Fiji.) 

Forty days into the Challenge, I'm still floundering writing-wise, but clarity is slowly coming. Change is coming, too: new attitudes, recommitment. I have renewed faith that I need to keep working at it: keep writing, keep submitting, keep writing some more. 

As I write this post, house finches are building a nest under the eaves of my balcony, a mere six feet away from where I sit. The French doors are open, and the cool April air wafts around me. The finches--one ruby-headed, one brown, both lovely--show up with a piece of dried grass or hair or dryer lint and disappear behind the beam where their project nestles. They reappear and search for something else--just the right piece of material. I've seen them pick up and drop the same thing several times, fluttering around to consider it in between. They warble to each other as they go. Will it work? Can we make it fit? Is there something better?

The finches remind me of myself as I draft and edit. Cutting, pasting, reworking, starting from scratch when the whole thing falls apart. Or in yoga, struggling to find my balance, my edge, a new level of strength and grace. Piece by piece, moment by moment, breath by breath, choice by choice, building a new reality.

Because as energizing as the vicarious thrill of reading is, real life is ideally at least as satisfying--and if it's not, perhaps the reading inspires us to make changes necessary to bring our real lives into line with our hopes and dreams. Or to change our hopes and dreams to fit the awesome life we're already living--if we choose to see it that way. When it comes right down to it, the finches and I don't do what we're doing as a stunt; our work and our choices are who we're becoming. 

Thursday
Jan012015

Let It Be: The Best of 2014 

I'm sitting in my snuggly bed with the Rose Parade on TV. It's a gorgeous, if chilly, morning--perfect for reflecting on the year that has just past. So much good!

Our sweet foster daughter moved in with us full time back in April. I had two short stories, two essays, and a novella published or accepted for publication. (My short story "Spring Hill" won the Mormon Lit Blitz contest!) I was invited to join a legendary writing group. Patrick continues to love his job at Warner Brothers. We had a blissful trip to France. James started his first year of college (UC Berkeley), and Christian started his senior year of college (University of Mary Washington) after an exciting summer internship with the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C. 

We faced many struggles as well: James's diabetes diagnosis; my own (solvable) health issues; our cat Goldberry's death; and the everyday challenge of having five kids at home in three different schools. But we got through it all (hopefully) with grace. Below are all the things that helped--good books, music, entertainment, and food: 

Favorite Books

10) I'll Drink to That, by Betty Halbreich

9) Help for the Haunted, by John Searles

8) California Bones, by Greg van Eekhout

7) The House Next Door, by Anne Rivers Siddons

6) The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo

5) Letters to a Young Mormon, by Adam Miller

4) The Paper Magician/The Glass Magician, by Charlie N. Holmberg

3) Hild, by Nicola Griffith

2) The Magicians Trilogy, by Lev Grossman

1) The Wife of Martin Guerre, by Janet Lewis

Yes, I cheated a bit; #4 is two books, and #2 is three. Sue me. Don't sue me; read the books instead.

Caveat: I don't rank books by people I know. Outstanding examples that would have been vying for top spots this year: The Bishop's Wife, by Mette Harrison; The Scholar of Moab, by Steven Peck; and All the Truth That's in Me, by Julie Berry. 

Most Disappointing Book

Death Comes to Pemberley, by P.D. James

(Not the worst book this year; that would be Mockingjay.)

Favorite New Music 

Props to Christian for introducing me to #2 and #1. I can't get enough of these groups; check out their other songs as well.

5) "Tell the Ones I Love," by The Steep Canyon Rangers

4) "Uptown Funk," by Mark Ronson, featuring Bruno Mars

3) "Cut String Kite," by Fictionist

2) "Roll the Bones," Shakey Graves

1) "I've Been Loving You," by St. Paul and the Broken Bones

Favorite 2014 Movies

10) Cold in July

9) The Judge

8) Snowpiercer

7) Winter's Tale

6) Edge of Tomorrow

5) The Hundred-Foot Journey

4) The Grand Budapest Hotel

3) The Imitation Game

2) Interstellar

1) Ida

2014 movies that I haven't yet seen, but plan to see: American Sniper, Mr. Hublot, The Wind Rises, Locke, Million Dollar Arm, We Are the Best!, Borgman, Begin Again, Boyhood, Calvary, Magic in the Moonlight, The Trip to Italy, Le Grand Cahier, Jimi, Fury, Birdman, Big Hero Six, The Theory of Everything, The Babadook, Miss Julie, Mr. Turner, and Big Eyes. I'd better get going!

Favorite 2014 TV

5) The Leftovers

4) Gotham

3) True Detective

2) Modern Family

1) Call the Midwife

Favorite New Restaurants

3) Szechuan Impression in Alhambra

2) Auberge de Malo in Etrigny, France

1) The Church Key in West Hollywood

Budgetary constraints (two kids in college!) limited our restaurant adventures this year, but what we did eat out was spectacular. (And we had a lot of great homemade meals, too--especially in France.)

Resolutions for 2015? I plan on greater focus on my writing and a massive decluttering project à la Marie Kondo (see book #6 above). We'll see Christian graduate from college; Aolani graduate from high school; Tess graduate from middle school; and Daniel graduate from elementary school. Hope will be old enough to go to the prom. James will leave on his mission sometime in the middle of the summer. I'm sure that once again, it'll be a year to remember. Happy New Year!  

Monday
Dec292014

Svithe: Ring in the New

"Svithe" is a word coined by Th.  It means roughly "to tithe a seventh," and refers to the blog posts he puts up on Sundays.  I have used it in the past and do so now with all proper homage and deference.

In 1740, John Wesley started a new tradition in his young church. As an alternative to the usual drunken revelry that was (and is) New Year’s Eve, he held a special late evening service called “Watch-night” or “Covenant Renewal.” Worshipers would contemplate the past year, make confessions, give testimonies, and prayerfully formulate specific resolutions to keep their Christian covenants more fully. Watch-night is one of the sources of our modern-day New Year’s tradition. In late December, we think about the year that has past and the year that is to come. It’s a time of measuring and contemplation, and above all, resolution.

Judaism has a much older, if similar, tradition—but the order of events is a bit different. The faithful celebrate Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year—which usually falls some time in September. It is said that the Book of Life is opened on Rosh Hashanah in order to judge the nations, and any people found lacking have the ten days until Yom Kippur to repent and make things right in their lives so that they can be “sealed up unto life.” Observant Jews fast and attend synagogue services on Yom Kippur, repenting and making restitution for wrongdoings in the past year and resolving to become better in the new year to come.

Many of us will at least consider making a resolution or two sometime this week. Maybe we want to lose weight or save money or learn a new language. There’s a reason that every gym in America has a membership boom every January.

Of course, many (if not most) New Year’s resolutions end up failing. I know lots of people who don’t even make resolutions anymore, because they seem to lose steam any time between mid-January and March. What’s the point of making a goal that’s doomed to fail, they ask.

It can be a discouraging prospect, but perhaps it’s helpful to compare resolutions to baseball. In the only true and living sport, a player’s batting average is a calculation of the number of hits divided by the number of times he comes up to bat. A season batting average of .300, or three hits for every ten at-bats, is considered excellent, and a season average of .400, or four hits for every ten at-bats, is a nearly unachievable statistic. So, whereas a thirty to forty percent is a miserably failing grade on, say, a chemistry final, in baseball, thirty to forty percent is outstanding. Apply baseball stats to your resolutions going forward, and maybe you’ll feel a little better about your success rate.

Of course, we can’t define success by intentions alone. Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Parcells is famous for saying, “You are what your record says you are.” This can be a bleak doctrine, except for one thing. In real life, unlike in sports, repentance can change our record entirely. In Mosiah 26:30, the Lord promises “as often as my people repent will I forgive them their trespasses against me.” Further, he tells us in Doctrine & Covenants 58:42, “Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.” This, to me, is one of the great miracles of the Gospel. Jesus, our Advocate with the Father, will literally no longer remember our mistakes once we fully and sincerely repent.

LDS composer Leroy Robertson based the text for a treble chorale in his masterpiece “The Book of Mormon Oratorio,” on 3 Nephi 12:47. “Old things are done away, all have become new, fulfilled in the coming of our Savior. The Father maketh his Son to rise and smileth down in favor.” The chorale is sung at the moment the resurrected Christ descends from heaven and shows Himself to the Nephites, but the scripture has a broader application than that specific instance. When we repent and allow the Savior into our lives and hearts, old things are done away. The Holy Spirit renews us; Christ’s covenant is fulfilled again each time we fully avail ourselves of His Atonement. “Old things are done away” when we forsake sin and apply the healing, atoning blood of Christ to our wounded souls—and all becomes new.

Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for a once-a-year transformative renewal. The Lord, in his wisdom and mercy, instituted the ordinance of the Sacrament, ideally to be celebrated on a weekly basis. In Doctrine & Covenants 59:9, the Lord instructs us: “And that thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world, thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day.” By doing so, we can have the tremendous privilege of having the Holy Ghost for our companion. As we mindfully partake of the Sacrament, offering up our broken hearts and contrite spirits, we will find renewal, and peace. The Holy Spirit will give us the strength and courage to keep the commitments we’ve made.

I read a fascinating book this week written by Marie Kondo, a successful Japanese decluttering expert who has a huge following in Tokyo. Her approach to home organization resonated with me, and I found it applicable to the way we should live the Gospel. Kondo’s key to success is simple. Instead of focusing on what you want to get rid of, she explains, focus on what brings you joy. She outlines a detailed plan for the resulting decluttering process that includes the following steps: taking a thorough inventory of your belongings in a given category; picking each one up and holding it in turn; and noticing whether that particular belonging sparks joy when you touch it and contemplate it.

If it does not, Kondo recommends thanking the item for however it has served us or whatever it has taught us—and we should be specific—and then let it go. To the trash, to the charity shop, wherever—just out of the house (which includes the basement and garage). Kondo promises that if we do this thoroughly and as quickly as possible, we’ll be left with only that which makes us happy or is useful to us in our lives going forward.

I only had an hour between finishing her book and dinner preparation time last Friday, so I decided to experiment with her technique on a relatively small job: my knitting cabinet. Over the years, I’ve acquired a fair amount of yarn, most of it for unspecified purposes—projects to knit “someday.” Living in Southern California, I’ve known for a while that I should probably find another home for some of the heavier wools that simply won’t be useful to me here—but I hadn’t gotten around to doing anything about it.

On Friday, I took all the yarn out of the cabinet and held each skein individually. I found that some of the yarn I still wanted to keep; it still sparked the thrill of creation for me, and I could imagine beautiful, useful things to make with it. But I discovered I could easily part with two thirds of the stash. I’ve boxed it up and will send it to a fellow knitter in New York next week.

How does this apply to the Gospel? Too often, I think that we as members of the Church approach change with a Puritanical attitude. We look at our bad habit or poor choice or foolish behavior with disgust and shame. Regret, or “godly sorrow,” as it’s called in the scriptures, is part of the repentance process; shame is Satan’s counterfeit. Regret inspires honest, forthright change; godly sorrow recognizes the lessons learned from the mistakes made. But shame isolates and encourages us to hide. Shame brings both despair and a perverse desire to wallow in our past rather than learn from it and move on.

So, let’s not focus on what we want to discard; let’s focus on what we want to keep, and let the rest go. In 1992, Elder William Bradford gave a General Conference talk on uncluttering our spiritual lives. He cautioned against letting terrestrial pursuits take time away from celestial goals. Notice that he didn’t mention telestial pursuits, but instead reminded us that the good can often rob the best if we’re not careful. Do we make time for sincere, heartfelt prayer? Do we immerse ourselves in careful scripture study, or do we merely read a few verses in a hurried half sleep?

Do our personal relationships with the Lord and our families come before work, hobbies, or even Church callings? Both Marie Kondo’s decluttering philosophy and Elder Bradford’s talk remind me of my favorite quote by President Ezra Taft Benson: “When we put God first, all other things fall into their proper place or drop out of our lives. Our love of the Lord will govern the claims for our affection, the demands on our time, the interests we pursue, and the order of our priorities."

That’s a promise from a prophet of the Lord: when we put God first, all other things fall into their proper place or drop out of our lives. That is the very definition of holding onto what sparks joy. And as we let go of the past, we can do so with gratitude for the lessons we’ve learned. When old mistakes resurface in our memory, we can mentally thank them for how they’ve shaped us into better people, and then refuse to obsess over them. How streamlined and serene could your spiritual life be if you followed this principle faithfully?

In the days to come, consider taking a page from John Wesley’s book. We have no Watch-night service, but a visit to the temple or a quiet hour with the scriptures and our journals can accomplish similar results.

One of my very favorite hymns is #215, “Ring Out, Wild Bells.” Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote the words in 1850 to express his grief over the untimely death of a close friend. While listening to distant church bells swing wildly in the wind of a major storm, he outlined nearly every New Year’s resolution we might possibly make. Crawford Gates loved Tennyson’s poem so much that he set it to music. Gates used only the first, second, and last verses for the hymn, but the original poem is seven verses long. I find all seven to be a perfect meditation as I contemplate changes I want to make in my own life in the coming year:

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,

The flying cloud, the frosty light

The year is dying in the night;

Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

 

Ring out the old, ring in the new,

Ring, happy bells, across the snow:

The year is going, let him go;

Ring out the false, ring in the true.

 

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,

For those that here we see no more,

Ring out the feud of rich and poor,

Ring in redress to all mankind.

 

Ring out a slowly dying cause,

And ancient forms of party strife;

Ring in the nobler modes of life,

With sweeter manners, purer laws.

 

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,

The faithless coldness of the times;

Ring out, ring out thy mournful rhymes,

But ring the fuller minstrel in.

 

Ring out false pride in place and blood,

The civic slander and the spite;

Ring in the love of truth and right,

Ring in the common love of good.

 

Ring out old shapes of foul disease,

Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;

Ring out the thousand wars of old,

Ring in the thousand years of peace.

 

Ring in the valiant man and free,

The larger heart, the kindlier hand;

Ring out the darkness of the land,

Ring in the Christ that is to be.

 

Thursday
Oct162014

An Octoberish Playlist

Image from bianchibooks.com

Autumn: my favorite time of year. Last year to celebrate, I gave you lists of books and movies suitable to the season; this year, to get my Octoberish mood on, I'm turning to music--popular music, to be precise. (Maybe next year I'll do a classical music edition.) 

I tend to default to melancholy, anyway, so it wasn't hard to come up with songs to get me in an October frame of mind--and genius WMWC DJ Christian (our oldest son) came up with some other excellent ones as well.

We didn't get into any nasty stuff; there's no grindcore or screamo here. Also, I'd be just dandy if I never heard "Monster Mash" or "Ghostbusters" ever, ever again.

Instead, most of these songs tell a sad, strange, or tragic story, with haunting vocals and atmospheric accompaniment. So, light the candles, fill the candy bowl, and put on this playlist while you wait for the costumed kids to ring your doorbell. Your house will be the most Octoberish on the block. 

1) “When You’re Strange” The Doors

Okay, Jim Morrison is probably talking about getting stoned. But it doesn't have to be that. In my experience, the world is weird enough without any chemical help, and this song communicates that perfectly. "Riders on the Storm" would also have worked for this list. 

2) “Fake Palindromes” Andrew Bird

Andrew Bird is way talented and more than a little creepy at times. Someone else characterized this song as "the David Lynch movie of songs"--subtly horrifying images strung together in a way that evokes rather than narrates a tale. Even though it's perfectly "SFW," this song in on the unnerving edge for me. 

3) “The Ghost Who Walks” Karen Elson

Elson is a very successful British fashion model and designer. But apparently, that's not enough for her--and that's lucky for us. (Her former husband) Jack White produced her first album, which includes this song. Its production feels very Doors-y (especially the keyboards); Jack knew what he was doing. A very 21st-century story song with an old-school feel. 

4) "Go 'Way from My Window" Joan Baez

Folk music enthusiast John Jacob Niles collected this eerie song in his travels around the United States back in the day, and virtuoso Joan Baez tinges it with both longing and fear. Stalking is not a new invention, it seems. I love the version by bluegrass artist Sally Jones, but I couldn't find it online. 

5) “The Tinkerman's Daughter” Niamh Parsons

No one does October as well as the Irish, and you don't need ghosts or psychotics to create a chilling story song. Niahm Parsons's mournful interpretation is exquisitely accompanied by pianist Eddie Friel. Unparalleled excellence; Niamh (pronounced "Neeve") is a goddess. For other Octoberish goodness by Niamh Parsons, try "The Lakes of Coolfin," "Orphan's Wedding," and "The Water is Wide." 

6) “Nebraska” Bruce Springsteen

Whenever I tell people that Nebraska is my favorite Springsteen album, they get a little confused. No "Thunder Road," no "Born to Run," no E Street Band. Just a series of dark, moody pieces of Americana--brilliantly realized by The Boss all by his lonesome. I wonder if Bruce binge read Flannery O'Connor before he sat down to write these songs. The title track is one of its best. Love that harmonica, Bruce.

7) “Country Death Song” The Violent Femmes

This song naturally follows the one above. In the early 1980s, The Violent Femmes brought a new level of irony to the alt-country scene--which is really saying something. Gordon Gano's acerbic vocals ensure that you feel no sympathy for the delusional father who pushes his daughter down a well.

8) “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” Bauhaus

Talk about influential: this song started the whole Goth scene. Dracula. Bats in the bell tower. Somber lyrics delivered in Peter Murphy's best funereal monotone. Creepy percussive effects and a bass line that bores into your brain like no other. Pure gothic awesomeness. 

9) "She's Lost Control" Joy Division

Sad, sad story. Singer Ian Curtis wrote this song after being diagnosed with epilepsy, a condition that drastically affected his ability to perform. He committed suicide on the eve of the band's first American tour--but even without all that context, it's an unsettling piece of music. 

10) “Mad World” Michael Andrews

Let's travel even farther down the rabbit hole of gloom, shall we? "Mad World" was creepy when Tears for Fears debuted it, but in the hands of pianist Michael Andrews, who used it as part of his soundtrack to the cult classic film Donnie Darko, it's absolutely delicious. "And I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad/The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had." Shiver

11) “Wuthering Heights” Kate Bush

Kate Bush wrote this song when she was a mere eighteen years old, after finishing the novel and finding out that she and Emily Brontë shared a birthday. For me, it perfectly evokes the mood of the book. Pat Benatar's cover is equally great. (It's probably better not to watch Kate's official video; just listen. Her dancing and emoting date her badly. This was music video in its infancy, people.)

12) "Bad Moon Rising" Creedence Clearwater Revival

Dude, the bayou is inherently freaky (have you seen True Detective?), so John Fogerty has an edge when it comes to Octoberish fodder for classic rock songs. Bad Moon's catchy beat and singable melody completely belie the apocalyptic lyrics. "Hope you're quite prepared to die." Yeesh.

13) "The Killing Moon" Echo and the Bunnymen

Vocalist/songwriter Ian McCulloch isn't quite as subtle as Fogerty, but this post-punk ballad works on every level. "Fate up against your will"--that's always the struggle, isn't it? 

14) "Strange Fruit" Billie Holiday

One of the earliest and one of the best protest songs. "Strange Fruit," which describes the real-life horrors of lynchings in the American South, has October written all over it. Holiday's grace and understatement perfect the piece.

15) "Under the Milky Way" The Church

Baritones have a natural advantage in the October department, and the jangly, neo-psychedelic guitar along with the bagpipes (!) in the bridge all work together with the vocals to produce a slick but spooky song. 

16) "Miss You" The Rolling Stones

In their long history, the Stones have probably produced at least thirty-one Octoberish tracks all by themselves. "Paint it Black," "Sympathy for the Devil," and "Under My Thumb" immediately come to mind. But "Miss You," a flat-out mercenary reach for some of the crazy money that was disco, reigns supreme. Hooting, howling, and growling--this is some of Mick Jagger's best vocal work."I bin walkin' Central Park, singin' after dark/People think I'm craaaaaazy." It doesn't get better than that. 

17) "Stan" Eminem

Dido's dreamy vocals and the sounds of a thunderstorm are an ideal opening for Eminem's epistolary song. It's the story of Stan, an obsessive fan who writes increasingly erratic and menace-filled letters to his idol, Slim--ending with Stan's murder-suicide and Slim's belated response. (I love Marshall's nod to Phil Collins's "Something in the Air Tonight," which was also a contender for this list.) 

18) "Undertaker" Southern Culture on the Skids

According to Wikipedia, SCOTS usually writes music about "dancing, sex, and fried chicken," all worthy muses, to be sure. But they take a sinister turn with this tune--like James Taylor's "Handyman" gone even more wrong. Dig that musical saw at the end of the track.

19) "Long Slow Goodbye" Queens of the Stone Age

Then again, tenors can also rock the creep factor. Stalkers are bad; ghosts are worse. Ghost stalkers? We're done here, people. A simple, subtle blues riff with pared-down lyrics--this track shows off the Queens' genius, which I've only recently begun to appreciate. Thanks, Christian.

20) "Shallow Grave" The Parlor Soldiers

Here's another song introduced to me by Christian. This hip, attractive duo from Fredericksburg, Virginia describe their music as "niche pieces about outlaws, sheriffs, hookers, and whiskey." Well, alrighty, then. Hop aboard the October train, young'uns. 

21) "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine" The ‚ÄčKillers

Christian suggested "Midnight Show" for this list, but I chose instead another from The Killers' "Murder Trilogy." Brandon Flowers is a little bit messed up--and I mean that as the highest of compliments. The song's story is told from the point of view of a boy brought in for questioning regarding the murder of young Jenny. "There ain't no motive for this crime," the boy protests. "Jenny was a friend of mine." I love the minor key, and dig that funky bass line--like Duran Duran on steroids. 

22) "The Stranger" Billy Joel

I bought this album when I was thirteen, and I love it dearly still. This song muses on the masks we wear for one another--as well as what lies beneath. "Everyone goes south every now and then"--oh, yes, Billy. Yes, they do. That whistling, that piano--pure gold. 

23) "Golden Brown" The Stranglers

What's timeless and mournful about this song? The harpsichord and the minor key help; so does the compound rhythm (3/4-6/8-4/4). But it's the ambiguous lyrics, sung wistfully by Jean-Jacques Burnel, that are the key to its poignancy. Is the song about heroin? Maybe. But, as with Simon & Garfunkel's "Like a Bridge over Troubled Water," that might be part of its appeal.

24) "Gallows Pole" Great Big Sea

Folks have been singing versions of this macabre song for centuries, and it was most famously recorded by Led Zeppelin. And as much as I love that version, GBS's somehow rocks even harder. (Maybe it's the bodhran.) My best darlings Sean, Alan, and Bob usually sing very cheery, upbeat songs--even when they're about wakes, drowning, freezing to death, and other Canadian tragedies. But this time, they're unreservedly savage in telling the story of a woman willing to sacrifice everything to save the one she loves. Awesome.

25) "No Quarter" Led Zeppelin

"Close the door, put out the light/You know they won't be home tonight." I've been listening to this song for thirty-five years, and it still gives me chills. Nordic ghosts? Fallen soldiers? Barrow wights? Whoever or whatever "they" are, Robert Plant and the boys want to warn us all. 

26) "Creep" Stone Temple Pilots

True confession: I listened to almost no popular music during the 90s. (Don't judge; I was busy with Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, etc.) With Christian's help, I've been catching up ever since. In this song, the Stone Temple Pilots are unflinching in their self-examination. "Feelin' uninspired/Think I'll start a fire." Written in D minor ("the saddest key of all," as the band claims), it's a veritable hymn to despair.  

27) "Harlem River Blues" Justin Townes Earle

What's scarier than drowning? Drowning in the frickin' Harlem River, man--especially when you've got a gospel choir cheerfully backing up your suicidal intentions. Justin Townes Earle is Nashville royalty--the son of Steve Earle and godson of Townes Van Zandt--and his aesthetic, genius, and Cash-like voice reflect his heritage. 

28) "Yesterday" The Beatles

Other Beatles songs could be on this list, "Eleanor Rigby," "She's Leaving Home," and "Golden Slumbers" among them. But is there any song ever written that is more replete with regret and sadness? This is one of my favorite songs of all times, and Paul McCartney should go straight to the highest heaven just for writing it--and then singing it in such stunning, simple fashion. Perfection in 2:05; Octoberish in the extreme. 

29) "Drowned Lovers" Kate Rusby

Kate Rusby's angelic vocals weave a terrible tale; Kate, like Niamh above, can convey yearning like few else. Even her Christmas album is mournful. It makes sense; she's from Yorkshire, after all, and they know a bit about October up there on the moors.

30) "Arlington" The Wailin' Jennys

Ah, my Jennys. "Does it stray very far?" The brilliant lyrics ask questions that have no answer, celebrating the ineffable mysteries of life and death. Pair them with exquisite harmonies. Add minimal accompaniment. Gorgeous. 

31) "October" U2

An obvious way to close the list, I admit, for the title alone--not to mention the provenance of the band. But Bono himself said "October is an ominous word"; I can't argue with that. As evocative and inevitable as leaves falling from maple trees. 

My work here is done! But, tell me: what did I leave out? What would be on your Octoberish playist?

Saturday
Sep062014

Life in Burgundy--The Rest of the Trip

The thing about France is that it gets under my skin and stays. We've been home for well over a month, and I think about going back. Every. Single. Day. Could we retire there? Could we serve back-to-back senior missions there? Could Patrick's employer suddenly decide that opening a movie studio in France is imperative, and ask us to move there so he could head it up? 

I'm sure it's odd to get homesick for a place I've never lived, but there it is. So I've put off summarizing the rest of our trip, probably because I knew it would exacerbate my Francesickness. But it's time. And I'll do all the rest in one fell post.

Day Eleven--after our whirlwind weekend of family fun in Switzerland, we needed a quiet day of recovery. The kids played with Praline, our host family's rabbit. Tess and Hope rode the neighbor's horses. We shopped at the grocery store and did laundry and read and ate and dozed. One of the true luxuries of such a long vacation is the downtime. Bliss.

On Day Twelve, James enjoyed one of his graduation presents: a trip to Paris all by himself via the TGV. He explored all his favorite museums, ate lunch in the Latin Quarter, ambled along the Seine, and generally had a fabulous time.

Meanwhile, the rest of us were ready for another day of exploration. James isn't a big cheese lover, so we saved our tour of a local cheese factory for this very day. We drove up to Gevrey-Chambertin, through the "Gold Coast" wine country, getting to the Gaugry fromager in time for a light picnic lunch. After that, we took a self-guided tour through a family operation that makes some of our favorite cheeses, among them the fabulously stinky Époisses.

After the fascinating tour, we had a private cheese tasting in the little restaurant-café attached to the factory. The hostess arranged five cheeses on plates for us, from mild to strong, and we savored each one slowly and carefully. Afterward, we chose our two favorites and bought some to take home. 

Then we drove to Autun--one of my new favorite spots in all of France. We visited an ancient Roman amphitheater; the locals were gearing up for a big son et lumière, which made for some interesting scenery. Next stop, the local cathedral, was another Romanesque wonder, especially the tympanum. As we drove from amphitheater to cathedral, we'd seen signs for the "Roman pyramid," so of course we had to go see what that was.

Local oddity, indeed. It's built over a Roman necropolis, and over the centuries, treasure hunters have dug into its sides. But it's largely intact--and the view from the hill on which it stands is stunning. The Autun valley, resplendent in the late afternoon sunlight--it's a sight I won't soon forget.

On our way back to the car, we saw signs for a nearby waterfall. We figured that we had some extra time until we had to pick up James from the TGV station in Mâcon, so we took a leisurely streamside walk up to the cascade and back. We decided it wasn't very impressive--and maybe there's more to it at times other than July--but it was still a delightful ramble. 

We picked up James and heard about all his adventures over another wonderful dinner. Notably, I made my mother-in-law's carrot soup, and it was a triumph, by all accounts. 

Day Thirteen was another local day--but that doesn't mean it wasn't adventure-filled. Five minutes from our house stands the Château de Pierreclos. One of the many great things about it was how interactive it was. They had a weapon room with replicas of medieval weapons and armor, and the kids (and the parents) had a blast trying stuff on and swinging stuff around. 

On the way home, we toured the grounds of the château right next door to our house, eating wild plums and skirting the wheat fields. 

That evening was Patrick's and my Date Night. Before we'd left on our trip, I'd read that a local orchestra and choir would be performing an all-French program--including the Fauré Requiem, one of our favorite pieces of choral music--at Cluny Abbey, so we bought tickets. We thought the concert was going to be in the jaw-dropping farinier, but it ended up being held in the abbey's cloister. This was at first disappointing--but then the music was sublime, and we forgot our complaints. 

But beforehand, we visited the village of Paray-le-Monial, which boasts yet another sublime Romanesque basilica. I wanted to see the church because it was modeled on the much larger abbey church at Cluny, which was mostly destroyed centuries ago.

(Doesn't Patrick take brilliant photos? This one looks like a postcard to me.) Paray is the most visited historical site in Burgundy, and we found out why once we got there. In the 17th century, Marguerite-Marie Alacoque founded the modern devotion of the Sacred Heart in Paray after several dramatic visions she had of Christ and His atoning love. Today, Paray actively welcomes pilgrims and hosts retreats and other devotionals year round. A little church down the street from the basilica is dedicated to Marguerite-Marie's visions; we walked down to see it, but stayed outside when we found that it was packed to the gills for a daily mass. 

We explored the basilica and the cloisters and a building full of dioramas depicting Marguerite-Marie's visions, then made our way through a spectacular thunderstorm eastward to Cluny. We had a picnic of scrumptious pâté, cheese, bread, fruit, and French lemonade on the (mercifully dry) abbey grounds. Then, just after sundown, we filed into the cloister and took our seats. 

This was another unforgettable evening. Gorgeous music very well played in the haunting acoustics of an ancient monument, while a flock of starlings wheeled exultingly in the twilight sky in hypnotizing murmurations--perfection. I was moved to tears several times, especially when the choir did a surprise extra piece--Lauridsen's "Dirait-on." I get misty just reliving the memory; it was a Date Night for the record books.

We repeated our "recovery day" on Day Fourteen. Our kind, delightful neighbor, Paul, brought his horses over and gave the big girls and the little kids riding lessons. Paul speaks very little English, and our kids speak even less French, but somehow, everyone understood one another. We took a walk. We read. We ate more great food. Not exciting to retell, but oh, so satisfying to experience. 

Day Fifteen was another rainy day, such a balm to our California-droughted souls. We visited the medieval stronghold of Berzé, which was about fifteen minutes from our house. The château fort is truly ancient; parts of it date to before the tenth century. It was abandoned for a couple of centuries after the Wars of Religion, but in the early 19th century, a descendant of one of the original owners bought it and began restoring it. Since then, it has passed down through the same family and is today inhabited by them. 

The gardens in the basse-cour are extraordinary, and the food they supply supports the bulk of the family's needs. We went into the tiny chapel that is recorded as having existed in AD 991. "Five hundred years before Columbus," as Patrick kept marveling. As we left the château, we visited the 17th century chapel outside the gates that's still used for worship by the family and neighbors. Chickens and Charollais cattle grazed placidly nearby, and we ate some wild blackberries that grew along the road. 

We drove a little ways through the rain to visit the nearby monks' chapel. We'd heard the frescoes were extraordinary, and they did not disappoint. We watched a video of a modern fresco artist demonstrating the centuries-old technique, then went and sat in the tiny chapel and gaped at the ceiling. Photos were unfortunately not allowed. Amazing. 

That evening, cousin Valérie and her son Nolan arrived for a visit. After dinner, Patrick and Valérie and I took a long walk to a nearby quarry. People began quarrying limestone there in the third century AD. We talked and admired the gorgeous scenery and went to bed afterward pleasantly tired. 

On Day Sixteen, we went to church in Lyon. This was another terrific ward--warm, welcoming, interesting, kind. Amazingly, we saw people we knew. As Sacrament Meeting progressed, I realized that two rows in front of us sat a man I'd known as a missionary in the MTC in 1989--but hadn't seen since. I introduced myself after the service. He remembered me well, and then informed me that I knew his wife. He brought her over, and it turned out she was my RA when I lived at BYU's French House in 1987! I had no idea they'd married, but it made sense, since they grew up in the same stake. They're happy and have several children--just like us.

After church, we recognized other people--a French family that had visited our ward in Pasadena two years before. I had translated for the teenage daughters during the Young Women's meeting--and then they'd met our friend Sunshine and invited her to come stay with them in France for a month. Which she did. 

We chatted and took photos of our two families together, and then we ate our picnic lunch on the lawn outside the church.

Next, we drove into Vieux Lyon and visited the cathedral there. It houses a treasury, which was great fun for us all. Then we took a funicular train up an enormous hill so that we could visit the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière, "the fanciest church I've ever seen," as Daniel said. Ornamentation everywhere. Gorgeous, gilded, gigantic mosaics. Bright colors and soaring ceilings. And the stunning views outside--we loved it all.

To get back down the enormous hill, we strolled down the hairpin turns of the Rosary Walk. Every few feet, a brass rose embedded in the asphalt reminds the faithful to say a Hail Mary, and after ten of those, a larger, numbered brass medallion indicated the need for an Our Father. I loved the invitation to meditation, as well as the lush hydrangeas and roses that bordered the walk. 

At the end of the Rosary Walk, steep staircases lead back down through narrow alleyways to the plaza in front of the cathedral. Shaky-thighed at the bottom, we headed back to our car.

Our tradition for every day trip was to have a packet of Lu's Prince cookies as a snack on the drive home. This was something we'd invented on our trip to Paris years before, and it bore repeating. We often added some Haribo gummies, especially on long drives. These in no way spoiled our appetites for dinner.

Monday morning (Day Seventeen), we bid goodbye to our dear Swiss cousins. This was another rainy day, so we decided to drive about forty minutes south--back near Lyon--and visit the Château de Fléchères. I'd read that it was lovely, but I had no idea how much we'd adore this place.

First of all: rain. It makes every secluded country site more romantic. Second: this was the most "Pemberley" of any place we'd visited. Third: as nearly always on this trip, we were among the very few who were visiting, and having a gorgeous château all to oneself makes it exponentially more magical. 

Our tour guide was terrific; he was the same man who'd complimented my French at Cormatin days earlier, so he was already on my good side. But he was a fount of knowledge and obviously very passionate about the history of the site. We loved the building, with the original furnishings and the Italian murals and the textiles from Lyon, the silk capital of Europe; we loved the gardens, which were a hybrid of the sculpted, formal French style and the loose, lush English style. I was ready to move in.

By the time we got back to the car, though, certain people were getting hangry. We decided that the best course of action would be to go to the French McDonald's that was not too far away. Some of our children had never been to a McDonald's ever, so they were curious. 

The food at "MacDo," as the French call it, was definitely better than its American counterpart--but for me, after eating the simple but delicious and utterly fresh French food we'd prepared ourselves--it was unimpressive. It did the job, though, so we went with it. 

Once we got home, Patrick and I went to the lavanderie in Mâcon. Most French people have washing machines, but hang their clothes out to dry. This works brilliantly, even when one brings the racks inside on rainy days--unless one has brought only three or four outfits to France, as we had done. The rain wasn't letting up, so we went industrial. While the laundry was going, we shopped at the local Carrefour, which we found decidedly inferior to the Super U (but still better than most American groceries). We got some fancier-than-usual items, since we'd be eating our last home-cooked meal that night. 

Day Eighteen was the day of cleaning and getting ready to go. Everyone chipped in, so it didn't take long to get the bathrooms, bedrooms, kitchen, and living room into shape, and then get mostly packed up. We'd made reservations to eat that night at a very well-reviewed farm/inn/restaurant called the Auberge de Mâlo. On the way there lay the restored and (we found) somewhat Disney-ish village of Brancion, so of course we had to visit. 

People actually live in Brancion, but they have very enterprisingly turned it into a tourist destination. Just inside the ancient gates stands a well-appointed gift shop, and your ticket to tour the château fort's ruins includes the option of borrowing of medieval costumes. Daniel and Anne indulged, but the rest of us forebore. 

The ruins were enchanting, especially in the misty grey weather, and the views from the top of the donjon were spectacular. Brancion already sits on a hill, and the donjon was quite tall. But it was the empty windows that won my heart.

We had some extra time until our dinner reservation, so took the scenic route to Étrigny. Daniel had been begging us to sing a hymn together in nearly every church we visited, but I was shy of making a scene in front of other visitors, so I demurred. I promised him that we'd sing if we found an empty church--and in Ozenay, we found one. 

It was nearly dark, but we gathered in the nave of the beautiful old building and sang "Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee" in parts--literally a capella. I must say that we always sound good when we sing together, but in the flattering acoustics of an ancient stone chapel, singing words written by Bernard of Clairvaux, we were at our very best--except we missed Christian even more sorely than we already had. 

Daniel, having achieved his innermost desire, was happy; all of us had full hearts. We drove to the inn and had a glorious and abundant and very long and properly French multi-course meal. Savory, plump duck. The freshest green salad dressed with savory chicken livers and a sumptuous vinaigrette. Sumptuous charcuterie. Loads of braised chicken. Roasted potatoes and sautéed wild mushrooms. Fabulous cheeses of all shapes, tastes, and textures. And fruit tarts--apple, plum, apricot, and rhubarb.

Absolutely everything had been grown on the farm--except the mushrooms, which were gathered nearby. We ate and talked and ate and laughed and ate some more. Anne fell asleep on my lap. Our family, almost always well-behaved, looked even better in contrast to a loud, large group of Scandinavians with several rowdy,overtired children. A couple of people, clearly locals, made quite a show of leaving in Gallic contempt when one of the kids had a meltdown of some kind. I must confess that I felt more than a bit smug as my children's excellent manners continued throughout the evening. 

Full and happy, we drove home. It was late, and we had to get up early, but we couldn't resist one last episode of Buffy before bed. 

Day Nineteen, we stripped the beds and piled all the linens in the laundry room. I always feel bad on the last day of our exchanges. We generate so much laundry! But we'd arranged this beforehand, and our host family assured us that they'd simply go to the lavanderie and take care of the issue when they got back. We left the bunny with a thank you note and a bottle of wine for Paul, who would take care of things for the interim days. And we bade goodbye to our marvelous mini-château, piled into our trusty rental car, and drove to the airport in Geneva. 

The flights home were uneventful, and it made sense to get all the customs nonsense out of the way between flights in Montreal. Our car service was waiting for us in Los Angeles, and I was relieved that we had thusly splurged, because I had a hard time staying awake on the drive home. 

Our house was pristine upon our arrival, and we quickly got to bed. The next day, we picked up Moneypenny from her devoted sitter, and that was that. Another successful, life-changing house exchange!