Monday, October 26, 2009

Bringin' home that fall bounty



Sunday afternoon we went pumpkin picking. We drove up and down and around the rolling hills of Midway Hollow Road in Putnam County to a pumpkin patch on Gritts Farm. I pulled a red wagon through the grass, straining from its weight and squinting in the sun. When I spotted an especially round and orange pumpkin I stopped to rip it from the vine. After I'd picked my three pumpkins I got a red and gold apple for a snack, petted the farmers' giant English wolfhound and wandered through the miniature hay maze. On our way out we admired the mums and bought butternut squash for dinner.

That night I roasted pumpkin seeds with cinnamon and salt and baked a butternut squash pie. (Tonight I made butternut soup with the leftover squash. It was almost as good as roasted butternut with crushed coriander seeds, and I ate three bowls.) Then Dad cringed and provided commentary and criticism while I carved a kitty cat face on the smallest pumpkin. Evita found the jack 'o lantern carving fascinating. She sniffed the pumpkin, batted the pumpkin guts off my spoon and even licked the seeds. She should appreciate my creative efforts because so far I've carved two pumpkins with cat themes.

The pumpkin picking was part of a perfect autumn weekend -- Saturday we hiked around the fall foliage and natural bridges of Carter Caves in Kentucky. We slipped a few times on the wet leaves but managed not to bash our skulls on the steep stone stair cases down to the caves and up across the bridges. Near the end of the trail at dusk, we heard wolf howls and shrieks. But we didn't flee in panic thinking we might be torn to pieces. No, we weren't even scared. Okay, maybe we timid Wards suffered a few chills while walking through the forest, even if we were well aware that the spooky sounds were recordings for the park's Haunted Trail.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

My new obsessions: Katie and Brandi



"You just seemed so confident," Dad said to Mom, angry and tired after realizing she was leading us to a cafe far away from our rental SUV. The Fodor's recommended bistro we'd parked in front of was closed.

"I didn't know East Alameda Street was so far from West Alameda Street," she defended herself as we entered Old Town Santa Fe.

"What's today's date?" I asked after reading "Brandi Carlile Oct. 15" on the front of the Lensic Theatre across the street.

An hour later I made my way up the balcony of the art deco Southwestern theater, once called the most splendid theater in the West, still wearing my hiking boots and puffy vest from a day of hiking. I tried not to think about my windblown hair and rosy cheeks among the knee-high boots and smoky eyes. I am so glad I got over my unkempt appearance and bought a ticket at the door -- Up there with Patty Griffin in Charleston and The GoTan Project in the Palau de Musica in Barcelona, it was a surreal night that I didn't want to end.

The stage was a dreamy night sky with a paper lantern moon and branches, like a set for an Anthropologie catalog. A singer I'd never heard of, Katie Herzig, opened the show. I resisted the urge to hate her tall, skinny blond self and cute cowgirl boots before she opened her mouth and played her guitar. She started with the whimsical and catchy Apple Tree. Katie's girlish voice and quirky indie songs made me think of Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley with an earthy Patty Griffin streak and a bit of Madeleine Peyroux jazz in her husky tone. Halfway through her set I didn't think Brandi Carlile could match her in my book. (You can download her acoustic tracks performed with her cell0 and ukele-playing band mates free at katieherzig.com like I did.)

"I don't know if it's such a good thing," Herzig said about her niece and nephew knowing the words to her songs better than she does. "My nephew asked if this next song was about him. I had to explain that it wasn't." She said now he asks "Can we play Aunt Katie's song about her relationship issues?" from his car seat. No wonder he likes that song, Hologram, because Herzig really rocks it. It's my favorite too.

When Brandi Carlile took the stage it all escalated to a new level. She started out standing in a circle with her band, waling out an a capella number in her auditorium-commanding, country voice while the guys harmonized in falsetto. She blew us all away and didn't stop for nearly two hours. I feared her vocal chords would go out.

A friend who shares appreciates the sort of music I do (perhaps the only one) introduced me to Carlile two years ago after a rough summer when I looked for solace in music. I got an abbreviated copy of her album "The Story," but after a year I was burnt out on the six tracks. I have a new respect for her after that concert -- live performance is where she shines, baring everything in her powerful, emotive voice. The leggy singer/songwriter with shoulder-length mahogany waves spoke in a voice as deep and twangy as she sings. On stage she's flawless and funny to boot. She's no pop star but a female Johnny Cash, that is if he had a startling range and real guitar skills. She and her band even unplugged their instruments and stepped in front of their microphones to perform a song or two in the raw.

Carlile recalled singing back up for an Elvis impersonator at 15 and mentioned her country singer mother. "I grew up in the Grand Ole Opry culture," the Washington state singer said. "My aunt was a saloon-style, honky tonk piano player, but my real obsession was Elton John. I dressed up as him every year for Halloween." (Elton performs a duet on her new release.) The audience ate up her stage charisma, and she played five encore songs, one which compelled the entire theater to stand and stomp and clap along. Carlile's upbringing might be a world away from my experiences, but somehow her music makes me feel something. And that's the kind I like. She released a new CD this month, "Give up the Ghost," and I'm downloading it on iTunes now.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Accidentally on The Road

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In Albuquerque Dad said I was talking too much. He suggested I get a nice New Mexico-based novel to read and pulled over at Barnes and Noble. Whenever I walk into a bookstore an overwhelming wave quiets me -- so many books to read and things to learn and not enough life to take it all in. I'm so behind!

The nice woman at the customer service desk pointed me to a bin of local authors. She suggested "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy. I ended up getting it because being a paperback it was the only one Dad would offer to buy me. And the cover said "Winner of the Pulitzer Prize."

I started reading, guessing that it might tell a story of the harsh realities of border crossings and the desperation of illegal immigration. A few pages in I realized it was a post-apocalyptic novel. New for me. Actually it turned out to be the bleakest and most brutal book I've ever read. But it read like poetry, like I thought Faulkner would. It made me never want to write another word because I could never construct such lyrical, abstract phrases.

I finished it in two days. It was the most hideous, hopeless story I'd ever read, and I couldn't stop thinking about it as I walked through the flaming golden Aspens in the Santa Fe Forest. But it was incredibly tender and touching in its rendering of a father and son relationship -- the love and the purity of it.

What if the world ended, but even a decade later some wretched souls survived? No trees. No birds. Nothing to eat or wear. Only dried corpses and ruined cities. Everywhere is cold and gray and the ashy air almost unbreathable. The blank-faced living envy the dead. "Nobody wants to be here and nobody wants to leave," McCarthy writes.

The man tries to protect the boy from the deranged cults, violence and cannibalism that reign. "Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever, he said. You might want to think about that.
You forget some things, dont you?
Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget."

If you think you can handle it, read it. Somehow it's beautiful.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Please don't stop the music

I bought tickets for another Mountain Stage concert to see Regina Spektor -- even though it was nearly three hours away in Morgantown, W.Va. A couple days earlier while listening to one of her new songs, Eet, I decided I'd regret missing the experience. I planned to spend the night with my gram and drive back in the morning. I headed up to the WVU campus, Google Map directions in hand. I made it downtown 30 minutes before the show, but I never came across the streets listed on my directions. I figured I'd find them if I drove around.
I didn't. Thirty minutes later, after nearly sliding back into the line of traffic behind me before I could switch from brake to gas at the stoplights perched on steep hilltops, I parked with hopes that I could ask directions and get there on foot. The first coed I solicited had no idea what the Creative Arts Center was. Of course only clueless freshmen would be roaming campus on a Sunday night. The next girl rambled on a five-minute list of muddled directions. She lost me after the third turn, when I noticed her tongue ring. Finally a guy with a backpack told me if I took a right and walked up the hill I'd come to the road listed on my map. I started up the hill. After 15 minutes of trekking, the sidewalk ended at a busy intersection.
By the time I made it back to my car it was dark. The concert had started 30 minutes earlier. I took out my contacts and put on my glasses. I thought about calling my parents and asking them to look up directions online, but they were at church. I drove back up the road I'd walked and found the road listed on my directions midway up the mountain. I turned onto the unlit gravel road and followed it deep into a hollow that dead ended by a trailer. By the time I managed to maneuver my Corolla around, I panicked when I saw that my gas gauge had dipped well below the E line. I was ready to call 911. Google had failed me. I'd even been extra responsible and called the venue before I left to get more specific directions because the website only listed a P.O. Box, but I only got a machine.
I made it down the hill to a BP, but I was sure I'd missed my show. I had to wait in line for a functioning pump and make an emergency run to the bathroom before I could ask the clerk for directions. How humiliating would it be to admit to my family that I'd driven three hours for a a concert and screwed it all up? I was disappointed to the point of tears. I knew the feeling well. Suddenly I was lost, frustrated and alone again in Europe.
I got back in my car in one last attempt to locate the building. I passed something big on the left and pulled in the lot. The doors were locked. I realized it was the stadium. A few minutes later I finally made it to The Creative Arts Center, more than an hour late. The box office was closed, but after 10 minutes a guy located my will-call tickets. I slipped in the doors and snagged one of the last open seats just before Regina Spektor took the stage.
And all my frustration was worth it. Soviet-born, Bronx transplant Spektor belted out the most gorgeous tracks from her new album, "Far." She's a classically trained pianist and singer who writes and arranges her own songs, all of which are distinctive with her pure, haunting voice and quirky lyrics that are both profound and funny. Some songs are abstract, and others tell stories. Sometimes she makes crazy noises with her mouth like buzzing or beatboxing and taps out rhythms on the piano. Her East Village-cultivated, alternative sound is far from the folk music I've heard on the Mountain Stage.
I was most looking forward to hearing Eet, "It’s like forgetting the words to your favorite song / You can’t believe it / You were always singing along." While she was on stage plinking the piano and belting into the attached microphone with her dark red curls and red lipstick, captivating the auditorium with her so-much-better-than-an-iTunes-track performance, I thought my favorite songs were Laughing With and Folding Chair. Sometimes a recording, no matter how professionally produced, pales after hearing a talented artist create it live. Listening to music like Spektor's gives me a particular sensation. I've read the quote "Good music makes people feel homesick for something they've never had." That statement is less inspirational than depressing, but it expresses exactly how I feel.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Shades of pumpkin







My childhood dream of experiencing the Pumpkin Festival came true last week. As a Halloween-obsessed little girl who got excited just thinking about the pumpkins of October, I never got a chance to go to the annual festival in Milton. I would have gotten giddier about the event as a kid eligible for the pumpkin painting contest, but I still appreciated the hay bales, scarecrows and piles of warty, hooked gourds.

Throughout the afternoon I paused to inhale the apple butter, pumpkin rolls and spiced fudge but passed by the tractor salesman and gutter-guard displays. I snapped a photo of the festival's winning pumpkin that weighed in at 1,140 pounds and took a smaller one home.

The fall kick continued Saturday with roasted butternut squash coated in crushed coriander seeds (the secret is to boil the squash before you attempt peeling and cutting it) and a leaf-crunching hike through the Kanawha State Forest. I further embraced the autumn season and its warm hues by dying my hair red. Yes, I'm a redhead, a full-blown ginger, nothing auburn or reddish about it. I've secretly always wanted to try out red hair, having long admired the locks of Debra Messing, Kate Walsh (of Grey's Anatomy) and Julianne Moore. I decided to try out the head-turning shade as I'm approaching my 24th birthday. I'm seizing all risk-taking opportunities in the face of my fleeting youth. Let me know if you have any daring ideas ...

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Before corn flakes

I sat at a fold-out table holding a carton of vitamin D milk. I looked at my styrofoam plate stacked with buckwheat cakes, blackened sausage patties and a container of Motts apple sauce. The room had fluorescent lighting, tiled floors and a disco ball hanging from the ceiling. The crowd wore WVU sweatshirts and jeans. I hadn't seen so many perms, camo hats and suspenders in one room since I was a little girl living in Scott Depot during the '90s.

It was a rainy Saturday in September in the little town of Kingwood, W.Va. We'd driven an hour through winding hillsides tinged with red, orange and yellow leaves and dotted with horses, hay bales and trailers on our way to Preston County for the annual Buckwheat Festival. My dad and gram had wanted to go in memory of my granddad. I liked the idea of eating buckwheat cakes at a fall festival in small-town West Virginia.

After our $7 breakfast served by the Kingwood fire department, we went to the basement to check out the arts and crafts. I spotted a couple of stands selling exquisite painted pottery, but it was far out of my price range. I settled for a chunky, Peruvian-esque bracelet. The long-haired Lewisburg artist called the pattern on the polished, burgundy stones tiger's eye. Outside I read the signs hanging over a row of food vendors: "Hot Delicious Fried Dough. 'Mountain Ears' -- Fresh Buttery Corn on the Cob. Fresh Fried Pork Rinds." The three West Virginia food groups.

Luckily the night before we'd gone to the Provence Market Cafe in Bridgeport for casual French cuisine. Gram asked me if I was going to brush my hair before we left for dinner. She's from a better kempt generation unfamiliar with today's bed-head waves. She commented on the laurels and mums around the porch on our way into the restaurant. I think that skill's been lost on my generation. To start I ordered the soup du jour, butternut squash. It ended up being a bisque, something I'd never order as I'm unable to justify the drinking of cream. Thank goodness for my ignorance because the sweet and spicy recipe was to-die-for. I ordered one of the specials for my entree, fire-roasted red peppers and tomatoes with mushrooms over homemade linguini.

I shared a bed with Gram that night. She likes to talk to me in the middle of the night. When I'm asleep. "Don't you worry Rachel," she said at 2 a.m. "It will all work out. My mother asked me if I'd ever end up getting married, but when I met George it happened so fast."

The next evening we bought her a DVD player so we could watch "Mona Lisa Smile" (love the red lipstick, synchronized swimming and bicycles with baskets). She insisted we leave her handwritten instructions so she could turn it on once we left. That night she declared the television set broken several times and told us we better fix it before she had to call the cable company.

I remember my granddad exhibiting similar frustrations with electronics. I've never been mechanically inclined either -- I still struggle with my iPod wheel, and the real reason I don't watch TV is that I can't figure out all the remotes. I started thinking that if my academic grandfather and crossword-whiz grandmother had the same problem, maybe such skills (or the lack of) were hereditary. "Technology intimidates them," my dad said when I shared my observations. "It's a fear thing." I'll take that. So I'm not too slow to work a Playstation. I have a phobia.