October 25, 2005

Music is all in the family

Filed under: Art and About Family — admin @ 3:28 pm

I have always been fascinated by why I am the way I am. What components of my character are cultural or genetic? Why do I act the way I do, like the things I like, and pursue the fields I pursue?

My queries on this subject sometimes focus specifically on how my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc. passed on DNA for certain talents, interests, skills and abilities.

Sometimes I focus on my American-ness. I have studied how Americans have gotten to be so American. What portion of our collective personality came over on the Mayflower? Or on a ship through Ellis Island? Or on a slave vessel?

On an individual level, for those of us who are not of Native American descent, can we still find in ourselves a little bit of our ancestral homeland, even multiple generations removed from that geography?

From there, my question gets even broader. If I assert that England is the cultural seed of America, then how did England get to be the way it is? What part of England was Anglo before the influence of the Saxons infiltrated enough to create a hyphenated Anglo-Saxon culture? What part did the Jutes, Franks and Frisians play? And don’t forget the Romans. And the part religion played through the development of Christianity. I can literally take my ponderings back to the beginning of time. (This was my focus as a history major in college, can you tell?)

Having children only bolstered my interest in these topics. As I watch how they develop, I smile when I notice the repeating themes from my side or their dad’s side of the family. Even so, I recently learned that my interest in the past caused me to overlook family history making in the present. The lesson came via my cousin, Kelly.
My cousins on the Engelbrecht side of the family are all quite a bit older than I am. When I was born, most of them were more than a decade ahead of me. My oldest cousin is only a few months younger than my mom. None of my cousins lived in California. I saw them fairly often, but I did not have a real relationship with any of them.

When I was a teen, Kelly moved to Menlo Park and as a local relative, he became a regular at family events and holidays. I am a quiet person and he is a quiet person. He would ask me questions and keep track of what I was up to. As a teen, I didn’t think to ask him anything about himself.

Just as I entered adulthood and was ready to have more of an adult relationship with Kelly, he moved to Vienna where he has been ever since. He’s very faithful about visiting me when he’s in town, but that isn’t very often.

On one such visit, I was delighted to learn that he had an interest in Engelbrecht family history and was actively documenting and archiving as much about the past as he could. That was a major thing to have in common, but it didn’t surprise me because we have several folks in the family with that same interest in questing for our forefathers and foremothers.

But this past Labor Day, he bowled me over when he handed me a CD he had made. It was just a hand-copied version of some songs he said he had recorded with a group of musicians. I inferred that he had written the songs. I asked for no more information and he didn’t give any. After he left, I listened to the title track, “Yesterday Forever,” and thought it was catchy.

I didn’t get back to listening to the entire CD until he sent me the final version in the mail, in a real jewel box with a real booklet with photos, lyrics and credits. I didn’t read any of that, though, before popping the CD in my car player on my way to my daughter’s soccer class. So I was completely caught off guard to hear my cousin’s lyrics sharing some incredibly personal facets of his life story. I felt like he was letting me read his journal and it was very emotional for me. Through his music I was experiencing living history.

After soccer class, I rushed home so I could read the CD booklet. I needed to know more. Who was singing? Who were the musicians? Did Kelly really write the songs? I was stunned to learn that he wrote the music, lyrics, sang and played acoustic guitar on the recording. I was overcome by incredible familial pride and also ashamed that I never knew this musical side of him. We have a lot of musicians in our family. I had never grouped Kelly with them. I realized I didn’t know as much as I thought about the people I come from.

I have opened my eyes to looking for answers in the present, as well as the past. Who knows what clues to my origin lie in others who are walking and breathing and singing in the here and now.

If you’re curious, you can listen to samples of “Yesterday Forever” at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/quininetribe.

October 11, 2005

The scariest thing about Halloween

Filed under: Art and About Holidays — admin @ 4:00 pm

I dread October. The horror of Halloween haunts me all year. I should revel in a holiday that spurs people to heights of creativity in masking their true selves beneath an imagined persona. Instead, Halloween forces me to confront the ugly truth I suppress from the world: I don’t sew.

Not that I can’t sew. I own a sewing machine, and a needle and thread. I have the skill set to use them. I would rather wear holey clothes than get either of them out.
Not that every Halloween costume requires sewing. But the good ones usually do. The original, never-before-seen, did-you-make-that kind do. I value original thinking and superior execution most highly. I can do the thinking part, but my execution is lacking.

I was born of a woman who is an excellent seamstress. My childhood costumes were incredible. I may have been just a fairy, or an Indian or an angel, but my costumes were homemade, one-of-a-kind expressions of that fairy, Indian or angel as conceived by my mom and me.

Sometimes, our efforts to be unique led to frustration and foolishness. When I wanted to be a bunch of grapes, Mom made a green jumpsuit and she and I papier-mâchéd almost two dozen orbs. I painted them purple, and then we safety pinned them onto the jump suit. Since they were made of paper, and heavy from paste, many of the representational grapes didn’t last the length of the school parade as they fell off in a trail behind me. We had to do repairs before trick-or-treating that nights. That same Halloween, Mom saw another person dressed as grapes by pinning purple balloons to herself. Duh!

The pressure I put on myself to be unique took its toll, and I was greatly relieved when I reached high school and was too old for parades and trick-or-treating. I ignored Halloween for the next 15 years.

Then I made a tactical error. I had children. And much to my chagrin, they want to celebrate Halloween. My mom, now a Grammie, has done a complete 180. For the last two years, she has taken the kids to Target and (Gasp!) bought ready-made costumes. The kids looked adorable but I was still desperate to encourage them to add some original features to the cookie-cutter commonness. No go. They wanted to look like everyone else. With a sad heart, I went to my son’s first Halloween parade last year and watched as one unoriginal kid after another filed by.

I became noticeably irritable with the creative zombies who came to the door trick-or-treating having done nothing more to earn their booty than forking Mom or Dad’s cash over to some mega-mart for an instant costume, no brain cells required. I actually refused some older kids candy because “they should know better” than to simply put on a rubber mask with their street clothes and call it a costume. My 4-year-old told me he would relieve me of door duty at that point. I went and drank a bottle of wine.

This year, both kids said they want to be Jedi. Not a specific Jedi like Anakin Skywalker or Obi-wan Kenobi, but just “normal Jedi.” I asked my son, the spokesman for the pair, what he thought of when he imagined a Jedi costume. He said, “boots, pants, a shirt and a Jedi robe. Especially a Jedi robe.”

Except for the robe, that costume sounded pretty assemble-able. It looked like I could scrape by one more year without sewing, but still help my kids be their own unique Jedi. I know licensed Jedi costumes exist, but they are a bit pricey. I decided we’d see how we could do on a budget putting our own Jedi attire together.

The three of us spent two hours wandering around Target picking up the necessary costume elements. I admit, finding clothes that represented the Jedi ‘s basic wardrobe was a creative exercise in itself. The piéce de résistance was finding belts for the tunic-style shirts that reflected the space-aged primitiveness of the Star Wars universe.

Feeling victorious but exhausted, we started to head toward the checkout when my son asked, “What about the robes?” I told him I wasn’t sure if we could find robes, to which he matter-of-factly replied, “You can make them.” I let him live in his dream world overnight before I fell off my pedestal the next day when I told him I wouldn’t be able to make a Jedi robe. We agreed to purchase the pre-fab ones.

Once again, the Seamstress Ghost of Halloween Past spooked me, but I had one last chance to save face. The spandex pants I bought my young Jedi were too long and needed to be hemmed. I could still vindicate myself with needle and thread. I meticulously measured and pinned the pants legs. I did two fittings on each patient child before starting to sew. I made five Frankenstein stitches and gave up. Non-stitch hem tape is the friend of the Jedi.