Monday, January 11, 2016

Ashes to Ashes, Funk to Funky


My husband told me this morning at the breakfast table.

"Something happened today that's going to upset you."

"Something in world news?"

"Yes. And it will affect you personally. Should I tell you?"

"I don't know." I was thinking about getting the kids off to school and I didn't want to sink into a whirlpool of grief until they were dressed and out the door.

"It's going to ruin your day," he said. "But you'll hear about it other ways."

"Okay," I said. "Tell me."

"David Bowie died."

I let loose with an expletive and immediately hid my face. Crash, crash. No. Not him.

He had cancer for 18 months, my husband told me, and somehow the world didn't know as he put together Lazarus. Interesting name, that. I went to Facebook briefly and saw that I had posted a lot about Bowie recently (was someone releasing a lot to bolster his sense of his impact on the world before he left...I had interpreted it as just publicity around Blackstar), and with one revolving gif that showed all his different identities, I had titled it "Always and forever." As I knew somehow.

I'm forever grateful to Amy Carpenter for introducing me to David Bowie with a mixed tape back in the '80s. He was then popular for Let's Dance, but she gave me the wierder 1970s stuff that opened strange doors that I'd never close again. I loved David Bowie's music, his mutability, his creativity, his vocal idiosyncrasies. His work was filled with emotion and I responded to that.

I'm also forever grateful to my college boyfriend who orchestrated our going to a Bowie concert in Stuttgart, Germany. We were there visiting his brother in Ansbach (we were both on junior year abroad), and we heard on the radio that Bowie was playing in Stuttgart, not too far away. We had Interrail passes which gave us unlimited travel on the railway systems of Europe since we were considered temporary European residents for attending college for a year there, so we said goodbye to his brother and sister-in-law and hopped a train for Stuttgart. We headed for the concert hall there, bought scalped tickets outside, and proceeded in.

It was an amazing show. It was BEYOND AMAZING. It was the Sound + Vision tour, and I'm forever grateful that if I only got to see Bowie perform live one time, it was when he was playing the songs of the '70s that I loved. Sound + Vision was almost like a "greatest hits" tour. And I personally love the song Sound and Vision and what it says about the creative process. He was one of the first to play with video footage and there was a giant three-story David Bowie that accompanied the real man on the stage, interacting with him in clever and sometimes mindblowing ways, bending down to talk with him and the like. It was extraordinary and so freaking cool.

We spend so much on the scalped tickets that we didn't have enough money for a place to stay afterwards (and I think we didn't return to Ansbach because it would be so late at night and we didn't want to wake them--they had a small daughter too. Man, that girl is probably in her early thirties now...whoa...). So, instead we rode the trains for the rest of the night, picking a destination at the end of the line, trying to sleep as best we could, then deboarding and randomly picking the next train going the furthest away, all with that tired exhilaration that comes from watching a great concert, strains of music still in your ears.

We were doing just what he said, "driving like demons from station to station."

I'm sad to have to say goodbye to a musical hero that has filled (and will continue to fill) my life with so much pleasure and ...well, feelings. You can't just have his music on as a background; it's impossible not to dance to it or sing along and wish that you could tell him personally how much his words and music meant to you. I now have to erase one fantasy off my list, the backyard BBQ where we sing Under Pressure together. I guess that means I need to get moving on my other fantasies.

Ain't there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?
Yes, David: all of yours.

My sympathies to his wife and family.

. . . . .

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Downton meets Pride & Prejudice

Wickham and Miss Lydia Bennet, courtesy

The season opener for Season 6 of Downton Abbey held a few fun surprises for those just coming off their bingefest of Pride & Prejudice (book and movie version, both).

Firstly, on two occasions I could've sworn I heard the Crawleys refer to Meryton. Secondly, and more verifiably, I caught glimpse of the actor who played Wickham in Pride and Prejudice (the definitive 1995 version), Adrian Lukis. He played the gentlemen who was dismantling his manor and selling off its goods. The one who warned Lord Crawley that he should learn from his example.

It did occur to me that Julian Fellowes was lightly suggesting that years after the events of P&P, Wickham had to let go of all his worldly possessions (and Lydia off or dead?), but he would never have been able to have such a grand manor in the first place, even with Darcy's rescue.

Either way, it was lovely to see that wonderful actor again in his breeches and Regency splendor.

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Monday, December 14, 2015

The Downton Abbey un-pre-view

"Drinks before dinner? Wait 'til Carson catches you," says Lady Mary

This year, a babysitting snafu led to my not being able to attend the Downton Abbey sneak preview night at the beautiful Crest Theater in downtown Sacramento. I had the tickets in hand! Sadness...woe...I felt much like Sybil did when she was forbidden to attend suffrage rallies...

But good cheer came when my friend Jeannine, who attended with her mom, gave me a little gift the next day. Downton label French Bordeaux! So cool of her! I can't wait to crack it open. And also, the funny cocktail napkins. Thank you, Jeannine dear.

I had passed my tickets back to the Crest so hopefully someone on the waiting list got in. Here's where I blogged the first year I attended, in 2013, with costume contest and trivia and fun hoopla. In the meantime, I will await the official presentation on PBS. Thank you, KVIE, for a fantastic event although I didn't attend!

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Monday, December 07, 2015

Manly and me

I've been returning to the Little House on the Prairie books I loved when I was a girl, sharing them with my own children. The books contain so many references to the songs Pa played on the fiddle, including several stanzas of lyrics in nearly every chapter. There was one description of a song that made me excited to find it online. The song is "Gypsy King," and Laura describes how Pa's voice descends lower and lower on the main chorus until it's almost impossibly deep. I couldn't wait to hear what the song really sounded like.

My online searching brought me to a website where I could buy a CD with Pa's fiddle music. I ordered it right away and couldn't wait to listen. I emailed back and forth with the contact at this site and was bowled over when I opened the package to find this autographed photo inside. It turns out the person who is very humbly answering questions is Dean Butler himself! I was emailing with Manly!

My family laughed at my excited reaction when I figured it all out. You see, watching the Little House on the Prairie series was a big deal for my family when I was growing up. We loved the show. I loved seeing part of the set when I lived in Tucson. I have strong memories of being mystified by my mom crying at the episodes and now guess what...I cry myself.

It turns out Butler took a strong interest in his character and produced a documentary on the real-life Almanzo. Back in 2011, he was part of a PBS special that brought musicians together to play the fiddle songs from the books, and now that music is on CD (there are at least three to choose from). Best of all, the CD booklet has great liner notes about the songs' provenances by musicologist Dale Cockrell. It is sad that the rendition of Gypsy King on the CD titled Arkansas Traveler doesn't solve the mystery of how Pa performed it. From Cockrell's note:

"Wilder remembers Pa's voice doing 'deep, deep, deeper than the very oldest bullfrog.' No sheet music of this song captures that gesture, however, a theatrical moment that was probably improvised by Pa Ingalls, ever the showman it seems."

At any rate, my holiday gift recommendation is a CD from this site for the LHOP lover in your life! I hope to read through the whole series again, pausing to match the text to the music.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Parsons Family Reunion 2015

One of the nicest things about the publication of The Witch's Trinity is that I gained a family out of it. Although I'm from the east coast, the Parsons family has a west coast reunion with people who warmly welcome me as one of their own. I first attended the annual reunion as a guest speaker about our shared ancestor Mary Bliss Parsons, accused of witchcraft in 1600s Massachusetts, but now I go as a "regular."

Pictured are Gary Parsons, our leader and historian, and Harriet Parsons, who sews a quilt to memorialize each reunion. We each decorate a square with fabric pens and she builds a beautiful quilt around them. It's a joy to go through each year's quilt and see the squares of years gone by.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The crimes of my ancestor

This is NOT Mary Bliss Parsons, but a woman of the era
One thing I found fascinating when researching my ancestor Mary Bliss Parsons: learning what her “crimes” were.

In 1600s Springfield, Massachusetts, Mary began having spells while in church, at the same time that the minister’s children underwent the same fits. She was a grown woman with four children of her own at this point. Here’s what’s strange: another woman named Mary Lewis Parsons was accused of causing those fits. The two similarly-named women were not related.

Mary Bliss Parsons actually had to be carried out of Sabbath meeting along with those children. How dearly I would love to know what exactly was meant by “fits”—one description from later testimony was, “Shee would looke fearfully somtymes as if shee saw something & then bow downe her head, as others did on theire fits about that time.”

Mary cried out a warning that witches would creep under someone’s bed.  She struggled so hard in those church fits that it took two men to restrain her. It was said that Mary’s fits arose out of being locked in her own cellar by her husband, where she was tormented by spirits that would not leave her alone.

A neighbor testified that Mary told her she had gone to the river to wash clothes, and there spirits appeared to her in the shape of dolls. Whether this was hallucinated “truth” or a neighbor’s yarns, I feel anguish on her behalf if such terrifying visions presented themselves.

Three years later, Mary and her family moved to nearby Northampton, which her husband and others had purchased from the Native Americans for 200 yards of wampum (shells on strings), ten coats and a few trinkets. She had several more children.

In Northampton, Mary became viewed as not just a victim of witchcraft, but the source of it. When 11-year-old John Bridgman went into the woods to chase down the family cows, a force struck him on the back of the head. A while later, he stumbled and put his knee out of joint. The surgeon treated him once he had made his way home, but he was in agony for a month. In the early hours one morning, he cried out, waking his parents. He said Goody Parsons was trying to pull off his knee and was sitting, visible only to him, on the shelf.

(Goody is short for goodwife, a less prestigious version of “Mrs.”)

John was not the only one to point a finger at Mary. She was said to make spun yarn diminish in volume (clearly a bicker over reimbursement for cottage work); accused of making a cow die, an ox die and even a sow; and said to have the ability to go into water and come out dry. Another accusation that makes one worry for her domestic situation with her husband: she could always find the house key even when he hid it against her. Locked in the basement, locked out of (or in?) the house… Even without witchcraft, Mary’s life seemed full of trouble.

The most chilling accusation came from a woman besieged by bad luck. Sarah Bridgman, the mother of John whose knee had been so grieviously injured in the woods, had lost three newborns in succession. She blamed Mary for the death of baby James.

It’s one thing to make an ox die from rattlesnake bite on its tongue; quite another to cause a child to die. The stakes were suddenly much higher for Mary.

Talk was dangerous, and so to address the situation before it became worse, Mary’s husband filed a slander suit against Sarah Bridgman for calling his wife a witch. Dozens of people testified in this suit, and Mary’s husband won. Sarah was found guilty of slander and forced to either publicly apologize to Mary or pay a £10 fine (unknown which she chose).

Eighteen years later, Mary was again accused by the Bridgman family, this time of using witchcraft to murder Mary Bridgman Bartlett, Sarah’s grown and married daughter. Sarah was long dead by this time. Mary spent three months in a grim dirt-floored prison in Boston awaiting the trial where she was acquitted.

Mary lived a long life, dying in 1712 at the age of about 85. She had outlived her husband by 30 years. She escaped execution as a witch, but it is certain that gossip and suspicion must have followed her all her days.

My novel The Witch’s Trinity is set in medieval Germany where researchers say some villages burned a witch every three or four years over hundreds of years, as just a matter of course. There were even two villages where the women had been so systematically executed that only one remained. Can you imagine being that one woman left standing?

I chose to write about a character who was accused of witchcraft by her own daughter-in-law, and was not completely certain she wasn’t a witch. While in the course of writing the book, I first learned about Mary Bliss Parsons. It seemed an extraordinary coincidence that I only learned of my witchcraft lineage while writing a book on the topic.

I dedicated my book to her, because her story was so compelling and unfair and clearly illustrated how much she was a victim of her time.

My novel contains an Afterword about Mary, with more details about her life and neighbors’ testimony against her. If you are interested in googling Mary, please be sure to use her entire name (Mary Bliss Parsons) to avoid confusion with Mary Lewis Parsons.

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P.S. In looking for an image to accompany this post, I learned Mary Bliss Parsons has her own Facebook page. The web/world is so odd.....

P.P.S. I ended up using an image that is often identified as being a painting of Mary Bliss Parsons but is most definitely not her. I blogged about it in the past:

P.P.P.S. I'm participating in a Twitterchat tonight under the hashtag #HistoricalFix with bestselling authors Katherine Howe and Cat Winter. It takes place 5:30-6:30 PST (8:30-9:30 ET) October 20, 2015. Lots of questions and giveaways: join us.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Reinventing ghosts

It's October 13, also known as Halloween for the Dyslexic.

I was thinking today about The Shining, one of my all-time favorite books and movies, and how genius it was that Stephen King broke one of the foremost rules about ghosts in it: that they have no substance.

That used to be the wonderful thing we could rely on about ghosts, that you could get through the night in the haunted house if you could just keep your eyes closed and chant the Barry Manilow libretto. But King gleefully dashed our hopes on the diaphanous wraith front.

I'll never forget how terrified I felt when Danny was actually displaying strangle marks on his neck. Thanks, Mr. King, for taking ghosts to a whole new level. And also for giving my sister Red Sox tickets off the radio.

A few other scary reads to recommend for this pumpkin-spice-infused month: