A Bazillion Years Old Without a Single Tattoo

I haven’t been trying to notice, because I realize it probably says something unflattering about me that I do, but it seems to me like there are suddenly a lot of old people with tattoos.

I’m not against tattoos or anything. I don’t have any, nor do I have a desire to get one, but if you are a fan and have one or two or ten of your own, I promise I’m not judging you. It’s just that it’s recently occurred to me that quite a few people who are old enough to be my grandmother now have them. And it strikes me as odd because that used to be a pretty rare thing.

Of course, the people I’m referring to are not, in fact, old enough to be my grandmother. They are the age my grandmother was when I remember her most vividly, back when most of these tattooed folks were probably under forty.

oldtatts
Again, not judging, just observing a noticeable shift. This person looks nothing like my grandmother. photo credit: Neil. Moralee If you value your life; don’t touch the bike! via photopin (license)

But time moves on, doesn’t it? A few weeks ago, my husband and I got an opportunity to attend Pointfest, a concert festival put on by a local “alternative” radio station (105.7 the Point). The festival has been a staple in St. Louis since 1993 (when fewer old people had tattoos).

This was a special event for several reasons. First, even though our nephew had tickets for us, we weren’t sure we were going to get to go because we couldn’t find childcare (ouch) and because the show was on a school/work night (double ouch). Second, this wasn’t even really Pointfest. The radio station had dubbed this event Way Back Pointfest.

Fortunately, I have an awesome sister-in-law who stepped up at the last minute so we could display poor judgment and stay out late on a school night. The lineup looked pretty much like it did when I was in college, with bands from the way back that were alternative then (meaning I was pretty sure that the fact I listened to them meant I was just a little bit cooler than you), and have now become the older alternative to the alternative. And because I still listen to them, that means I’m probably older than you.

Goldfinger
I’m young enough to take most of my pictures with my smart phone, but old enough that I do it poorly.

Given that the world wide average life expectancy is around 71 years (for women, sorry fellas, yours is a couple years shorter), there’s a decent chance that I am. Because this week I will turn 40.

In some ways this isn’t a big deal. It’s not like I’m going to wake up on the 40th anniversary of my birth and suddenly find that my hair has gone gray, my back hurts, and I have to hold books at arm’s length to be able to make out all those tiny letters.

To some extent, all of that has already happened. Or at least it’s been happening, little by little. I don’t mind so much. I know a few more gray hairs make me look wiser than I probably am. Strong backs and sharp eyes grow weaker over time, but I feel like I’ve made good use of my strength and I will continue to do so as long as I’m able. Barring the unexpected, that’s still quite a while yet.

But there are little parts of turning 40 that do kind of bug me, like when the average age of tattoo-bearing people increases noticeably, or my favorite bands are relegated to the way back, or I make a reference to something that happened twenty years ago and my college freshmen students look at me like I’ve just made a reference to an event that happed a bazillion years ago as if it happened yesterday. Of course I get it. Even though it feels like yesterday to me, for them it happened when they were babes, if they were even born at all.

To them (though they probably wouldn’t say it to my face because they’re nice people) their teacher might as well be a bazillion years old, too. And they’re not really wrong. The number 40 has all kinds of symbolic meaning across cultures and through several major world religions, the most common one being simply figurative. Forty is often used to represent a vaguely large number.

Like a bazillion.

forty cupcake
But once you get to bazillion, you can stop counting, right?

So, you might soon notice a slight change on this blog. For five and a half years, my Gravatar bio has identified me as a “thirty-something wife, mother, and writer…” Since my husband tells me there’s no such number as thirty-ten, I suppose I will have to change it.

But not for a few more days.

By the time I return to this space next Thursday to write about a topic that feels a little less personally insulting, I may have a few more gray hairs and my back will probably hurt and I might even be sitting a little farther from the computer screen so I can see all those tiny letters. I will be a bazillion-year-old wife, mother, and writer. But I still won’t have a tattoo.

To help me celebrate this momentous occasion, please enjoy this way, way back song from a ridiculously famous singer I’d never heard of because that was a bazillion years ago:

 

 

 

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A Highfalutin Riot: Fighting for the Right to Party at the Ballet

On the evening of May 29, 1913, many upstanding ladies and gentlemen of Paris, those with an appreciation for high culture and fine art, headed to the recently opened Théatre des Champs-Elysées for a night on the town. What they’d come to witness was  Rite of Spring, a highly anticipated performance by Les Ballet Russes, choreographed by the often controversial Vaslav Nijinsky with music composed by the unconventional Igor Stravinsky.

It’s unlikely any of those in attendance could have anticipated engaging in a shouting match with fellow ballet goers, being beaten with their neighbors’ canes, or having the peculiar rhythm of the music tapped out on top of their heads by the normally well mannered folks sitting behind them. But those are just the types of things that happened during what became perhaps the most notorious performance in ballet history.

RiteofSpringDancers
Riot-worthy ballet costumes. I guess. Rite of Spring Dancers. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
From almost the moment the first note sounded, the audience appeared uncomfortable and soon discussions broke out about the discordant music and the aggressive movements of the dancers in wild costumes, portraying disturbing pagan scenes. It seems some in the audience appreciated such a fresh performance while others found it to be an assault on the tasteful traditions of ballet and music composition.

Soon the disagreements turned to shouting and cane whacking, allegedly requiring police interference by Intermission and settling into a full on riot before the end of the performance.

At a ballet.

As I’m sure you know if you’ve visited this blog before,  I’m super  kind of occasionally thorough in my research, so I did listen to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring as I composed this post, and I have to say, I’m not sure I really get it. Bear with me here, because I am not qualified at all to be a music critic, but I do know what I like and don’t like. The Rite of Spring, while discordant and strange in places, strikes me as really beautiful at other times. And probably not riot-worthy.

But much more qualified music critics, some of whom consider this Stravinsky’s greatest work as well as one of the most influential compositions of the 20th century, often point out that it was a huge departure from the musical expectations of its time.

Igor_Stravinsky_Essays
Does this look like a man who would inadvertently cause a riot? Igor Stravinsky. Photographer: Robert Regassi. Publisher: J. & W. Chester, publisher, no author listed (Miniature essays: Igor Stravinsky) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
So maybe I do get it, at least a little bit. Music does after all have the potential to elicit strong emotional response. That’s the reason I tend to skip around on my iPod a lot looking for the song I’m in the right mood for, even if I don’t know what that is until I hear it. And it’s also the reason that in the family iTunes account, we have set up a bunch of different lists for cleaning, family dance-offs (not an infrequent occurrence at our house), and settling down before bed.

Each of us has our own individual list, too, and sometimes we do get into arguments about which one we should listen to while prepping dinner. There’s a lot of overlap in our musical tastes, so it isn’t always a big problem, but each of us (except for me, obviously) has our little quirks. My oldest son favors classical movie scores and great guitar riffs (tolerable), but also has an unfortunate taste for electronica. My youngest is often happy with Metallica, but still enjoys a “good” bagpipe tune. And my husband, a man I admire for so many reasons, has a regrettable and inexcusable love for the Beastie Boys.

But despite any disagreements, we still turn on the tunes. And I imagine the highfalutin folks at that first performance of Rite of Spring eventually returned for more of the ballet. And actually, there’s a little mystery surrounding this high society riot anyway.

For such an unusual event, there’re not a lot of good reliable details. What we do know rests on the eyewitness accounts of some of the performers and a few of those in attendance; and given that eyewitnesses are generally not all that reliable, it’s possible that some exaggeration may have occurred over the years.

800px-Beastie_Boys_Sonar_2007_Barcelona_Catalonia
This man, however, might tempt me to embrace my crazy. Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz By bakameh (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
And while both Stravinsky and Nijinsky were upset by the event, Sergei Diaghilev, wealthy entrepreneur and founder of Les Ballet Russes, reportedly said of the scandal that it was “just what [he] wanted.” Because controversy sells, and a ballet rumored to have started a riot, will likely sell out. There were no reports of further violence erupting at any of the remaining performances.

So it’s possible Rite of Spring didn’t really make people embrace their crazy as much as we’ve been led to believe. Still, I gotta say, when my husband occasionally decides to fight for his right to party and cranks up the Beasties, I think I could probably find myself willing to whack someone over the head with a cane.

And speaking of things totally worth getting overly worked up about, tomorrow I will be sharing some exciting news with the folks who are signed up on my e-mail list. If that isn’t you, and you’d like it to be, you can sign up here: http://eepurl.com/b3olY1

The Rich Bird-Like Timbre of the Fourth Grade

This has been a big week in the life of my fourth grade son. Something he’s been looking forward to for a long time finally happened. Because in our school district, about half way through the school year, our fourth graders embark on a brand new adventure in musical education. They receive recorders.

henry-viii
This man could have rocked Harry Champion’s “I’m Henery the Eight, I am” on the recorder. Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498–1543) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I’ve been blessed with children who love music. My oldest began piano lessons in Kindergarten and the last few years has shifted to playing the guitar in hopes of one day becoming his own one-man band. Meanwhile my youngest has a brilliant sense of pitch and rhythm, and when he’s in the mood, the voice of an angel. But a little more on the shy side than his brother, Son #2 hasn’t really taken a shine to musical performance. Other than a few months of piano lessons and a blessedly short-lived obsession with the bagpipe, he has more or less avoided playing an instrument.

So I was a little surprised he was super excited to receive his recorder. And even more surprised (and admittedly a little less delighted) that he was also super excited to practice playing it. In the living room. Pretty much all the time.

worstinstrument
Still the most unpleasant instrument in the world. photo credit: PeterThoeny Care for a scotch whiskey? via photopin (license)

I suppose it’s not the most unpleasant instrument in the world. It does have a long and glorious history, dating to at least as early as fourteenth century. Characterized as a flute with a whistle mouthpiece and seven holes in the front with one thumb hole in the back, the recorder emerged as a major musical force throughout the Renaissance. 

Valued for its narrow range and rich, bird-like timbre, it made an ideal instrument for ensembles, according to a lot of Renaissance composers who have never been in my living room when Son #1 decides to relive the glories of his fourth grade year and join in.

Even England’s King Henry VIII was a big fan, having in his possession at the time of his death a total of 78 recorders. Many of these were likely played by rotating musicians charged with providing a soundtrack for the monarch as he Supremely Headed the Church of England, warred with France, and divorced or beheaded his various wives. Rumor has it, Henry played a mean recorder, too, and just as Handel, Vivaldi, Bach, and others would later do, the king also composed for the funny little instrument.

recorderbagpipe
I think my biggest fear is that this new obsession with the recorder may rekindle his interest in the bagpipe.

Of course I have to assume that being so constantly surrounded by a chorus of recorders may have (along with the constant aches and pains of a long series of accidents and illnesses) contributed to Henry’s famous crankiness.

I know I haven’t particularly enjoyed the soundtrack at my house this past week. But at least on Saturday, when we had an almost 70 degree spring-like day (today it’s snowing, because it’s the Midwestern US), my brilliant husband suggested that my son take his practicing outside. I’m sure my neighbors enjoyed the rich, bird-like timbre.

A Hyena Caught in a Gin Trap

On November 6, 1745, Scotsman James Reid, who had been found guilty of treason and inciting a riot, was hanged in York. Reid had been a participant in the Jacobite Uprising that sought to restore the Stuart dynasty (and Catholicism) to the British throne, an uprising that finally failed at the Battle of Culloden in the Highlands of Scotland.

Nearly six hundred men were captured and taken back to England to face prosecution. But Reid’s case stands out because his defense was that he carried neither gun nor sword on the battle field.  He was guilty of nothing more, he claimed, than playing the bagpipes. The court debated, but in the end, it ruled that since Highlanders never marched without a piper to lead the charge, the bagpipe was a weapon of war.

It may look all innocent, but don't be fooled. This is a deadly weapon.  By Cyberhofi (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
It may look all innocent, but don’t be fooled. This is a deadly weapon. By Cyberhofi (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
It may not seem that strange to view the instrument that way, as the reaction to bagpipes can often seem similar to the debate over the control of firearms.

Over the years there have been a number of attempts to restrict the playing of bagpipes, from Englishman Clive Hibberts’ ultimately unsuccessful 1999 “Campaign Against Bagpipes” to the city of Edinburgh’s 2008 threat to arrest anyone playing the pipes on the Royal Mile, a move that eventually led to street musicians being forced to sign acceptable behavior contracts with the city. In parts of Edinburgh, officials have gone so far as to prohibit the playing of even recorded bagpipe music through outdoor speakers of businesses.

And in New Zealand in 2011, bagpipes were added to the list of banned items (a list that includes flares and air horns) at the Rugby World Cup. Because even though bagpipes are part of a long noble tradition, beloved by perhaps dozens of people, a lot of us might agree with sportscaster Miles Davis who compared the sound of the bagpipes to “a hyena caught in a gin trap.”

I've never heard a trapped hyena scream, but I can't imagine it's a pleasant sound. photo credit: P8237087 via photopin (license)
I’ve never heard a trapped hyena scream, but I can’t imagine it’s a pleasant sound. photo credit: P8237087 via photopin (license)

While I don’t mind the occasional bagpipes in an outdoor ceremonial setting (that I can pretty quickly excuse myself from), I tend to fall into the hyena camp. So imagine my excitement when my eight-year-old informed me he would very much like to learn to play this most delightful of Scottish instruments.

It didn’t come as a total surprise. His iPod is filled with bagpipe music and it’s not uncommon to find him rocking out to “Scotland the Brave.” He’s even suggested before that he might want to learn. He’s just never sounded this serious. So I did what any loving, supportive parent would do.

I told him he would have to wear a skirt.

He wasn’t dissuaded.

I told him the skirt would have to be a purple plaid because according to his grandfather that is the family tartan.

He was still pretty adamant.

I told him he couldn’t wear underwear under his purple plaid skirt.

He grinned.

I even tried to convince him he'd rather be a drummer.  photo credit: Shotts Highland Games_1982 via photopin (license)
I even tried to convince him he’d rather be a drummer. photo credit: Shotts Highland Games_1982 via photopin (license)

I don’t dare tell him that his favorite instrument has been declared in a court of law to be a weapon of war, because this is a battle I fear I will lose. It turns out, he’s got a lot of people on his side. I’ve had offers to borrow a chanter so he can begin to learn before we invest in the full instrument. I’ve had friends send me links to college scholarship opportunities for bagpipe players. He’s even received multiple invitations from family and friends to practice at their homes, invitations he will be accepting. Often.

Because I’m a loving, supportive mom and I truly believe, or at least I sincerely hope, that if he tries it out he will lose interest. If he doesn’t, I guess I’ll get him a purple kilt, make him sign an acceptable behavior contract, and learn to love the sound of a hyena caught in a gin trap.

One Step Closer to Rock ‘n’ Roll

On the West Bank of the Nile at the entrance to the Valley of the Kings, stands the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut, one of only a handful of women who served as Pharaoh in Ancient Egypt. Excavated by Howard Carter in 1903, the temple was designed by architect and all around important advisor Senenmut, who, according to historian locker room gossip, may have been Hatshepsut’s someone special.

The rumor is far from substantiated, but there’s a little evidence that Senenmut might have caused the Pharaoh’s heart to flutter, the most overlooked of which, I think, is that fact that near his own tomb, across the river, Senenmut honored his hired musician by having him buried nearby.

Hatshepsut, a woman worth hiring a rock star to impress. Postdlf from w [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
Hatshepsut, a woman worth hiring a rock star to impress. Posted from w [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The musician’s name was Har-Mose, and his coffin can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But that’s not the most impressive thing found in his tomb because buried with Har-Mose, about 3,500 years ago, was the oldest preserved guitar-like instrument that’s ever been found.

The instrument has only three strings, but it has an attached plectrum (or pick) as well as a carved cedar sound box and rawhide soundboard. In other words, it’s kind of a guitar. And like most rock stars, Har-Mose must have been pretty attached to his axe, since he was buried with it. Or, really, his employer Senenmut must have been attached, I’m guessing, because even in Ancient Egypt, a man with a guitar, had a good shot at getting the girl, even if she happened to be Pharaoh.

Okay, so that might be a stretch, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t to impress the ladies that at the age of six, our oldest son informed us that he would like to start a rock band. He had it all figured out, he’d explained, providing us with a list of what he would need in order to accomplish his goal. He’d need an electric guitar, of course, as well as a bass guitar. He’d need amplifiers. BIG amplifiers. Naturally he’d also need a drum set, a keyboard, and a microphone.

We said, “How ‘bout let’s start with some piano lessons?”

He thought about it for a minute and agreed that could work. And though he’s been happily playing piano more or less ever since, he’s never really given up his dream of rock ‘n’ roll. He’s already decided he’d like to drum when it comes time to start in the school band, and he’s been dropping hints about that electric guitar.

Best birthday ever.
Best birthday ever.

I love music. I studied piano a little when I was young and played the alto sax for about nine years. I’m just not really a guitar person. By that I mean that while I certainly enjoy listening to the guitar, I don’t play it or know much about it.

But I love that my son loves music and I want to encourage his interests when I can, so when he turns ten this week, he is going to totally freak out over his new electric guitar and (not-so-big) amplifier. I have to say, of all the gifts we’ve ever given him, I’m the most stoked about this one.

I anticipate that as he grows and hopefully becomes a more accomplished musician, adding to his collection the rest of the pieces of his band, and probably a nicer guitar and a MUCH bigger amplifier, this gift will long remain meaningful.

And, yes, I realize he will likely use it someday to attract the attention of the ladies. But for now, I’m going to enjoy the fact that I’m the main lady in his life and I can’t wait to hear the first butchered chords and failed attempts as he rocks out.

On Dasher. On Dancer. On Prancer. On Vixen. On Dominick, on Snoopy, on Baron von Richthofen.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas here in the Angleton home. As is tradition for our family, we decorated the tree the day after Thanksgiving (alas, I missed out on all the Black Friday deals) and the Christmas geese are shining brightly in the front yard.

It’s also beginning to sound an awful lot like Christmas, as it has become our new tradition to crank up the volume on the Christmas iTunes list to sing and dance our way through dinner prep and homework in the evenings. My six-year-old has taken to shuffling through the songs to find what he most wants to hear, which means that we skip over Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and instead listen to Lou Monte’s “Dominick the Donkey” A LOT. It also means that homework is taking a little longer these days.

But I can’t complain too much because even though there are some great songs we’re missing out on, the kid has some pretty good taste. One that he has been particularly enjoying is The Royal Guardsmen’s 1967 “Snoopy’s Christmas.”

Both of my boys like this one, which makes a practical historian mama proud, because the song indirectly honors what has to be one of my favorite moments in all of human history. It’s a follow-up to “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron,” a 1966 release that tells the tale of Charles Schultz’s lovable cartoon beagle who in October of 1965 began fantasizing about engaging the WW I German flying ace often known as the Red Baron in a dogfight.

Snoopy as "the World War I flying ace&quo...
Snoopy as “the World War I flying ace”, flying his Sopwith Camel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Red Baron’s real name was Manfred von Richthofen. He emerged from the defunct cavalry division of the German Imperial Army to train as a pilot, apparently with a fair amount of natural talent. With nearly eighty confirmed kills and most likely over a hundred in all, he was the most successful fighter pilot of the war, becoming something of a legend to both sides of the struggle.

Of course because he is such a legendary figure, there is some controversy surrounding his eventual death. Richthofen was wounded and went down (remarkably gracefully, according to reports) over France on April 21, 1918. He died from the shot to his chest, moments after landing. The trouble is that it has proven difficult to know who shot him.

Manfred von Richthofen from Sanke card #450. T...
Manfred von Richthofen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The kill was long credited to Canadian pilot Captain Arthur Brown, but there is a good deal of evidence that the fatal shot came from the ground.  Several historians have assigned credit to various anti-aircraft gunners who were in the area at the time. Still others believe that it was in fact Snoopy perched atop his flying doghouse that drove the Baron to the ground where he survived the wound and went on to start a highly successful frozen pizza business.

The problem with that last theory is that if we assume a certain degree of historical accuracy in the well-researched work of The Royal Guardsmen, then Snoopy and the Red Baron met one more time, on Christmas Eve.

This encounter ended very differently than the first. The Red Baron had Snoopy in his sights and instead of moving in for the kill, forced him to the ground for a friendly Christmas toast, after which the two parted ways peacefully.

I regret to inform you that there is no record of this encounter in the history books, nor of a similar one involving Richthofen, but there is a truly wonderful occasion documented in the history of WW I on which primarily British and German troops fighting in the trenches of the Western Front called a spontaneous truce and celebrated together on Christmas of 1914.

Accounts describe German soldiers beginning to sing carols on Christmas Eve and placing small, lighted trees along the edge of the trenches. Soon makeshift signs expressing Christmas greetings and suggesting a temporary peace started appearing on both sides and by morning, soldiers emerged to cross no-man’s land and shake hands. All day (and according to some accounts, for several after) soldiers took time to bury fallen comrades, exchange small gifts, and even play football (soccer) together.

This “Christmas Truce” was not government sanctioned and in fact followed a flat rejection on both sides of a December 7th suggestion from Pope Benedict XV that a temporary ceasefire be declared in honor of the holiday. Of course eventually the fighting started again and the war raged on for four more bloody years.

Never again in World War I nor in any conflict since has a similar truce been effectively carried out, but for one brief shining moment in history, the commonality of basic humanity triumphed over the absurdity of war. And Snoopy and the Red Baron shared a Christmas toast. I think that’s something worth singing about, even if it means I can’t always dream of a white Christmas as much as I’d like.

Merry Christmas (Bing Crosby album)
It may not appeal to the six-year-old crowd, but it’s still the greatest Christmas album of all time. (Bing Crosby album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)