Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Halloween 1940s Style

Happy Halloween!

This weekend, at the last minute, my husband and I decided to visit the Willowbrook Ballroom. They were having a Halloween Swing Dance with full orchestra. I love the Willowbrook, in Willow Springs, Illinois, with its enormous wooden dance floor and hundreds of tables, so always a place to sit. It opened in 1921, and I think people have been dancing and dining there every since. At these events, they have swing dance lessons for the first hour, and then a band and dj for the rest. Such a lovely night...

We enjoyed snapping a few pics of our favorite costumes. Milt was the Invisible Man (from the H.G. Wells novel and then the late 1930s film adaptation) and I was an old-timey Cigarette Girl (with candy sticks of course). The nice part of our costumes was that we were able to wear our vintage. I am wearing the first vintage dress that I ever bought - a red embroidered dress (that I shortened) from the 1940s. I also have 1940s dance shoes on and vintage rhinestone jewelry. Milt has a vintage sportcoat, fedora, and tie. I made my hat and cigarette box to match old movie photos.

One man asked me how much it was for a pack. I told him they were free and offered him one. He handed them back in disgust, "They aren't real." I said, "Of course not. Why? Do you smoke?" "No!" he said, looked perturbed, and walked away. Not sure I understood that interaction.

Halloween is my husband's favorite holiday because he can come up with creative ideas and wear costumes in public. He loves to dress up as various characters. This time, he walked away with a prize! I am not as fond of costume parties as my husband, but I do have fond memories of this holiday as a child.

My grandma, who we called "Honey", was a wonderful seamstress, so she would make all of my costumes. Halloween still reminds me of those chilly nights, the exhilirating freedom of being outside and loose at that hour, stuffing pillowcases full of chocolate candy bars, running through the darkened streets, avoiding houses with creepy displays, and laughing with my friends.

As an adult, I had a magical, time-travelling sort of night, complete with vintage attire, creative costumes, big band music, and a lovely historic venue.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What Gilmore Girls Taught Me About True Community

If you have never watched Gilmore Girls or Bunheads, television series created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, then this post is not for you. Actually, you must go directly to your television and watch an episode or two or three...you are missing out on one of life's treats.

I adore both of these shows for their fast-talking, witty, wacky, and memorable characters - in fact, I love them so much that I sometimes dream of what it would be like to actually live in Stars Hollow or Paradise. Life is simpler there, more charming, less chaotic, friendlier...I could walk to work!

It occurred to me that the reason I love Amy's depiction of small-town life is that she is portraying a beautiful image of "community."

For most of us the word "community" has lost its charm. Some of our towns have "community centers" where they hold zumba classes or computer skills for seniors. We like to land on the "community chest" in Monopoloy, although it has no real connection with our every day life. We are told, in Christian circles, that "community" is a value to hold dear, but (for me) I have rarely seen it played out as beautifully as it has been in Amy Sherman-Palladino's made-for-tv towns.

Here are a few things Ms. Palladino has taught me about this highly desirable and rarely discovered value:

1. It is an idealized notion. Notice that both of the town names, Stars Hollow and Paradise, are imaginative and ethereal. They hint at a heavenly notion of what "community" could look like. They are a dream of a small town where everybody is cool, nobody is bored, and people care deeply about one another.They are small without being stagnant. They are not real - but are what we wish a community could be.

2. Her communities are made up of quirky individuals. One thing that I most love about these shows is that the characters are carefully designed to be delightfully abnormal. In Gilmore Girls, you have a diner-owner who is literally stuck in the past and a dance-studio teacher who used to be a show girl. You have an obsessive-compulsive town councilman and a wacky neighbor obsessed with cats. Rory's best friend, Paris, is an extremely driven, compulsive, over-achiever.

But, my best example, the running joke in the show, is the character of Kirk. He is consumed by night terrors, a political wannabe, scared to leave his mom, and annoyingly intrusive. Yet, instead of making these odd people repulsive, Amy weaves them together and makes each one important to the whole.

When Scripture talks about the church as a "community", it reminds us that we are called to be one body - but we are not each the same part of that body. The eye, for example, is not the foot. Amy seems to agree. Kirk is needed, but he does not play the same part as Rory, or Luke. Each is important.

3. They have cross-generational conversations. One of the weaknesses of our present-day notion of community is that we divide everybody into groups according to age. We have women's groups, senior's groups, children's church, a high school group. In Stars Hollow and Paradise, the adults interact with the teens and play into their lives. The older generation is constantly challenged by their younger neighbors. We need this! It is good to get together - to inform one another, even when it is difficult and we don't see eye to eye.

4. They fight and forgive. These characters do not always get along. There are fights that explode in a moment - like the ongoing struggles between Luke and Taylor. Or, they are fights that extend for weeks and months, like the painful division between Rory and Lorelai. In Bunheads, I love how Michelle and Fanny - both of distinctly different generations - duke it out over issues of how to divide the inherited property and how to run the dance studio. One key aspect is that for every fight, there is the possibility of forgiveness. Characters have hard conversations, resolve their differences, and still love one another. Community does not mean that we always get along...we just know how to forgive.

5. They value their elders, history and traditions. Whenever someone in Stars Hollow dies or is near death, the whole town comes out to pay tribute. One man, who threatened to die every year, would invite the community to line up and say their "final" goodbyes. The older generation is not dismissed in these communities, it is cherished. Tradition is integral to the plot line. They hold traditional town meetings and attend annual festivals. They celebrate their historical heritage. They don't forget where they came from - they listen to the stories of those who have gone before them.

 6. They stick together and help one another. We live in an increasingly individualistic society. This fights against any hope of community. We often do not know our neighbors. I remember, on an evening walk, being surprised when an older man on a nearby block asked my husband to help him start his lawn mower.We have withdrawn from this old-fashioned notion that your neighbors are community. In Gilmore Girls, when Kirk needs a place to live the whole town rallies around and takes turn sheltering him. In Bunheads, when Sasha is in trouble and is losing her way, Michelle goes out of her way to find her and draw her back into the community.

7. They celebrate together. In the final episode of Gilmore Girls, they throw an enormous party for Rory's farewell and rain threatens to destroy the celebration. Led by Luke, the town literally sews a tent together to shelter the residents of Stars Hollow. This highly improbably act of joining together is a beautiful one. They are a true community, woven together, celebrating their quirks.

No wonder I want to move to Stars Hollow!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Couple Time at Door County's Fall Fest

Milt and I have been married for 20 years now, but all it takes is a weekend away - just the two of us - for us to remember why we love being together.

This past Friday, we escaped to our favorite spot - Door County, WI - for a little r&r and uninterrupted conversations. No commuting to Chicago, no helping my daughter with Geometry homework that I can no longer remember how to do, no letting the dog out and in, no deciphering shopping lists from my mother-in-law... It was just the two of us - just the way it all started.

I love the fall - and it is definitely fall in Wisconsin - pumpkins everywhere. I loved the opalescent pink pumpkins outside a little boutique. Plus, these little animal ones were adorable.

Friday boasted crisp beautiful weather, so we roamed through the orchards and gift shops, snagged some fudge, and even took in a classic Wisconsin fish boil. Here, we did a little self-portrait as we watched the sunset. Ahhh...the romance is still alive :-).

Saturday and Sunday brought rain, rain, and more rain which put a bit of a damper on the annual Sister Bay Fest. Milt's favorite part - the car show - had only two lonely cars that survived the deluge. But that didn't stop people like this older gentleman. He comes every year and let Milt try on his special "Fest Celebration" hat. He just added an orange rain poncho, and he was good to go.

During Sister Bay's three-day festival, they close down the highway and celebrate with an art show, good food, and Wisconsin party bands. We huddled in a tent, rain streaming down the cement under our feet, and ate fried cheese curds while watching Wisconsin girls in coats, mittens, and hats dancing...

After the rainy fest, we enjoyed escaping to Pete D'Amico's Pasta Vino - he moved his great pasta restaurant to the old Hillside Inn in Ellison Bay - a beautiful building with a mid-century retro look! What a nice way to end our weekend escape. 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Vintage Chicago: The Devil in the White City

Erik Larson's The Devil in thie White City, transports you back to a Chicago that I barely recognize. It is dirty, dangerous, unplanned, risky...He explores two stories, the construction of the turn-of-the-century World's Fair and the murderous spree of a man named Holmes.
For me, the story of the fair was fascinating - not so much for the serial killer aspect, but for its careful detailing of the challenge that building an amazing World's Fair presented to these early Chicagoans. It changed the way I walk down Michigan Ave. on my daily commute. Suddenly, I stop to notice each historical plaque - recognizing the names of the architects who havecome to life for me in the pages of this book.
I also learned some great trivia about Chicago. Did you know that:
  • The Ferris Wheel was invented specifically for the Chicago World's Fair by an architect named Ferris who was trying to beat the Paris Fair that presented the Eiffel Tower?
  • Walt Disney's father, Elias, helped build the White City - the nickname given to the buildings of the fair. Perhaps it inspired the Magic Kingdom?
  • Products like Cracker Jack and Shredded Wheat were first introduced to visitors at the fair.
  • Pabst Blue Ribbon is named as such because it garnered a blue ribbon at the fair.
  • Frank Lloyd Wright, charmed by the fair's Japanese Temple, would soon be inspired to design Prairie architecture.
  • The national holiday of Columbus Day was instigated by a publicity event intended to raise the number of visitors to the fair.
  • The close of the fair was a memorial service to Mayor Harrison following his assassination.
  • Writer L. Frank Baum visited the fair and its grandeur inspired the Emerald City in Oz.
  • The new invention of electric lights graced the White City, further illuminating it against the grit and dust that usually marked the downtown of Chicago. For many visitors, it was the first time they could stroll through a well-lit neighborhood at night.
Beyond these smaller contributions, the fair proved how architecture could transform a plot of empty land to something bigger and grander and more spectacular than anyone ever dreamed. It was through the dreams and intellectual skills of men like Burnham and Sullivan and Root that the Chicago I know and love today was born.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Few of My Favorite Books on Writing

A former student asked me to give her the name of some helpful books on writing.

"Practical or inspirational?" I asked.

She wanted both.

I agree.

Most of us who love to write already understand the rudimentary skills of writing. We aren't looking for books on grammar (although refreshers don't hurt). We want to know how other writers actually do it. We want their secrets, the inside scoop. We want to know if we really need to write at the same hour a day, producing fifty pages of text each day. We want a reason to pick up a pen or sit down at our keyboard and produce text.

Okay - here are a few that I have found particularly helpful, but also deliciously comforting (in no particular order)...

1) Bird by Bird - Anne Lammott

I love this book by Anne because she makes me laugh - and she assures me that I am not alone. She understands the pain, the insecurity and the neuroses that come with being a writer. She also gives some sage advice. One of my favorite bits is to use small frames. Shrink the area you are writing about to a more narrow focus. She compares writing about elementary school to the much easier task of writing about your school lunch - or (better yet) the sandwich you took to school.

2) Walking on Water - Madeleine L'Engle

This is a book for writers and artists who want to imbue their faith into their art. They want to be known not as a "Christian" writer (if there is such a thing), but as a writer who is implicitly and uncompromisingly Christian. The author of A Wrinkle in Time speaks from her heart here in a real and open and honest way.

3) On Writing - Stephen King

I am not a horror fan. However, I found Stephen's book on writing to be fresh and funny and inspirational. He shares his autobiography - how he happened to do what he does - and also the nitty gritty details (such as the place where he writes). He says, "If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut."

4) Writing for the Soul - Jerry B. Jenkins

I know Jerry through my work at Moody Bible Institute. For someone whose books, the Left Behind series, have sold millions of copies, I find that he is amazingly down to earth and sarcastic (which I love). I appreciate this book where he tells his own writing journey and gives very helpful advice to fellow and aspiring writers. "The path is crowded and the passages long, but the reward is worth it. You can write fore the benefit of your soul. And you can write to reach the soul of another."

5) Mystery and Manners - Flannery O'Connor

Flannery writes about writing - and those who adore her short stories won't be disappointed. "As a novelist, the major part of my task is to make everything, even an ultimate concern, as solid, as concrete, as specific as possible." She is a soulful writer, and this book is filled with soul-filling advice.

6) On Writing Well - William Zinsser; Elements of Style - Struck and White; The AP Stylebook

These are the nitty gritty - the books that should sit on every serious writer's shelves. Buy them if you don't have them. Read them. Remember the basics. Look up what you don't know. Check and re-check and make sure you have it right.

If you use its instead of it's - no one will be able to "hear" what you are saying. If you want to get published (and most of us do), you need to clean up your wise and witty prose.


In addition to these books, I follow the facebook pages of Kate DiCamillo and Elizabeth Berg - both writers who I enjoy and admire. I love to hear their thoughts of the day - and even their facebook posts reveal their unique styles of prose.

Feel free to add more to my list! I love recommendations!