Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Family Folklore: Why Mary's a Democrat

My dear friend Mary Connell - a talented journalist and newspaper editor - is also a gifted writer. She recently sent me this guest blog about her reasons for being a Democrat. The reasons date back to family stories that not only touch her as an adult but also reveal values that were instilled in her at a very young age. These are the gifts of family folktales.

I was going through some of my grandmother's old things the other day and was reminded yet again of why I'm a Democrat.

I came across her FHA mortgage passbook, issued by the Turtle Creek Bank & Trust of Turtle Creek, Pa. Her home, at 412 James St. in Turtle Creek, is lovely. Brick, two stories, three bedrooms upstairs. Not fancy, but comfortable. A beautiful stained glass window over the front door, a big, airy, high-ceilinged kitchen and a nice backyard.

My Uncle John took me to see it in the summer of 1980 and we met the couple who lived there. They were very gracious and sent me home with two souvenirs -- a huge, gorgeous tomato just picked from the backyard and a shiny lump of Pennsylvania coal from the cellar. I still have that chunk of coal.

It wouldn't have been my grandmother's first passbook because it begins in October 1938 and the family had rented the house at least from the mid-1920s. The FHA was created in 1934 but I can't say when my grandmother bought the house. She made monthly payments of $25.47 until May 1946, when she sold the house, leaving a balance of $867. In November, she and her younger daughter, my Aunt Gertrude, packed up their car -- a Hudson? I can't remember -- and headed West, a trip that provided my cousins and me with wonderful stories of being freed from a snow drift by hulking Texas Rangers and seeing Indian women going to the polls on Election Day, Nov. 5, in Tucumcari, N.M. with their babies on their backs. It must have been an exotic sight. Makes me want to travel the old Route 66.

Without FDR and the New Deal my widowed grandmother -- my grandfather died in November of 1930, five months after my mom graduated from high school -- would never have been able to buy that home, least of all during the Depression. She was fortunate to be hired to run a WPA - women's sewing project; I think the ladies made Civilian Conservation Corp uniforms. The FHA, Social Security, an array of farm programs and a great deal more transformed America, providing opportunities for everyday people that had previously been enjoyed only by the upper middle class -- just like the G.I. Bill would do after the war.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Is History Abridged Folklore?

The distance between folklore and history is not as vast as many would think. History basically is a way of chronicling events in a time sequence that is specific about the who, what, when, where and why. The information, more or less, has been documented in a way that is 'irrefutable', so to speak. Who can argue with an audio recording of a famous speech like The Reverend Martin Luther King's "I Had A Dream" speech or with the handwritten letters that John Quincy Adams and Thomas Jefferson sent to one another?

Folklore, too, is about chronicling events and customs that have specific value. Only, instead of recording big, cataclysmic or global events, it focuses more upon everyday lives of everyday people. Just think of weather folklore that would dictate when a farmer planted or harvested his fields or rite of passage customs like tying wedding shoes onto the back of the bride and grooms car to show that they are now under one roof.

The two - history and folklore - come together beautifully in the upcoming production of Marin Shakespeare Company's The Complete History of America (abridged) .

Tickling the funny bone of American history is a folkloric way to interpret historical data. This play takes a fast-paced look at what this country's touchstones are in a way that reveals their lighter side. And who can argue with the role of humor in our ability to make sense of ourselves?

The play, made popular by the Reduced Shakespeare Company,attempts in approximately 90 minutes to review almost 600 years of American history, staring with questions that still today incite controversy.

== Who really discovered America?
== Why did Abe Lincoln free the slaves?
== How many Democrats does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Actors (pictured L to R) Darren Bridgett, Cassidy Brown and Mick Mize under the direction of Robert Currier fill the Forest Meadows Amphitheater at Dominican University in San Rafael with a roller coaster of answers. And who's to say these answers are less accurate than any others?

It's important to note here that in history as in folklore, interpretation is everything. It alone tells us what we really think and feel about any given situation. Whoever is telling the story, so to speak, can present the facts, suppositions and suspicions in a way that best reflect his or her cultural values. An Eskimo, for example, might look at ice differently than an Australian because of their relationship to it; their personal experience of the subject.

Even historical scribes, artists and others, such as those credited with writing great historical works such as The Bible were influenced by the times they lived in. Who isn't?

So, take a historical spin across the American landscape - as written by Adam Long, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor in the mid 1990's - and recently updated by Sonoma playwright Reed Martin for this summer's Marin Shakespeare Company presentation, its second of three for its 2011 Summer Season.

Here are the details:
The Complete History of America (abridged)

July 22- September 25 (Preview: July 22, Opening night: July 30).
Forest Meadows Amphitheater, Dominican University,1475 Acacia Ave., San Rafael, CA
Box Office: (415) 499-4488

Friday, July 15, 2011

Italian Culture Marks SF Bay Area

Dane Greco - a communications intern at Sonoma State University - has been assisting me with a pr campaign for the upcoming musical concerts of Due Zighi Baci. This talented duo performs European Cafe and Neapolitan music that celebrates well-loved French and Italian melodies.

At my urging, Dane wrote this guest post about the Italian influence in California's North Bay:

What sets the North Bay apart from other regions in California is its rich and dynamic cultural layout. It is a melting pot that has adapted to many different kinds of cultural entities. Each culture brings its folklore: traditional foods, music, language, religion and other qualities that, over time, have adapted to their new setting. One of the major cultural groups to contribute to the San Francisco Bay Area are the Italians who brought with them customs and folkways that quickly took root.

Italians made up one of the first waves of immigrants to land on Ellis Island in New York during the 1892 immigration boom. They were also among the early immigrants to first settle in California. The most popular example of this can be found in North Beach in San Francisco, which has appropriately been deemed “Little Italy.”

What attracted them to this location was a familiar (Mediterranean) climate and the waterfront where there were vast amounts of docks and fishing wharves. Italians made their way into business with grocery stores, cafes, bars and delicatessens that flourished. It didn’t take long for this trend to move further north towards Marin and Sonoma County.

The rapid growth of this culture within the North Bay can be seen in the numerous music, art, and food festivals that occur throughout the region, all of which offer others a peek into this vivacious community.

Italian cultural centers, such as Sons of Italy and North Bay Italian Cultural Foundation help keep the customs and awareness about them alive. Festivities that include promotions of Italian Neapolitan (Naples, Italy) music in restaurants, art like what is produced at the annual Italian Street Painting Festival in San Rafael), and even food-related activities at local professional sports games (Oakland Athletics, etc.).

Even the Italian language and culinary arts have taken hold in the area. Courses are offered at most colleges, community centers and at many high schools.

From the myriad of authentic Italian cafes and restaurants that sweep the North bay region, to the Neapolitan melodies that local Italian folk music groups, such as Due Zighi Baci, (Two Gypsy Kisses), Their unique interpretation of time-honored Italian favorites shows how versatile music is. It can be both traditional and contemporary in its presentation.

But why is this important?

The Italian community in the North Bay is a perfect example of how our melting pot country works. The folklore of the old world becomes the folklore of the new world where many cultural traditions fuse together. Each able to co-mingle and yet preserve the essence of their own unique cultural identity.

It is healthy for communities to embrace this because understanding and participating in the folklore ways of a culture different from one’s own encourages acceptance and appreciation of diversity.

The Italian-American community of the North Bay continues to do a great job of opening its cultural doors to others.

For more information:

Sons of Italy

Knights of Columbus

North Bay Italian Cultural Foundation

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Folklore of Nose Piercing

It seemed only fitting that my friend Harminder Bhandal Singh would write a guest post about nose piercing. In India, her native land, nose piercing is commonplace and carries generations of tradition. Here's her take on the folklore of this fashion item:

Gaining main stream attention in the late 1900’s nose piercings have become very popular among many cultures and societies. The practice however, has been around for thousands of years. The earliest historic record of nose piercings comes from the Bible. Abraham gifted his daughter in law a beautiful nose ring as a wedding gift when she and Isaac married. The practice has continued through the ages and was brought to India in the 16th century by Middle Eastern Moghul emperors. It did not take long for the practice to gain in popularity.

The second most popular type of body piercing in the world after ears is the nose piercing. A part of traditional Australian Aboriginal culture, it has also long been a tradition in Nepal and India. In India the practice of nose piercings has very deep roots and, in some cases, has specific cultural significance. However, first and foremost it is believed that the nose is the most prominent feature on the face and piercing it actually accentuates the face. In some southern Indian communities a majority of women have their noses pierced sometime before their wedding. It is very common for the groom’s family to include a nose ring as part of the bride’s wedding jewelry. This item is generally made of gold and diamonds. This jewelry is given to the bride as a wedding gift and remains her security for life as it is given as an investment for the couple by the parents and other relatives.

The most common forms of nose rings are either a Phul (stud) or a Nath ( nose ring). The Phul is lighter and smaller where as a Nath is much heavier and sometimes includes a chain that is placed behind the ear for extra support. In many cultures the size and the type of nose ring can denote the family’s wealth and status.

Nose piercing is also common in India because it is linked to Ayuvedra (ancient Indian medicine). According to Ayuvedra it is believed that the left nostril contains a bundle of nerves that are linked to the female reproductive system. Having those nerves pierced is believed to make child birth less painful and to also decrease pains associated with the menstrual cycle.

Nose piercing was brought to the west in the late 1960’s by travelers. The practice made its way to the United States by the Beatles after they traveled to India on their world tour. The “Fav Four” was very impressed by this art as they toured throughout India. The practice became for American teens a form of rebellion. It was frowned upon by adults and mainstream society.

Today almost forty years later the practice has not only become acceptable but is seen as very fashionable by both adults and teens.

My daughter, now 17, had her nose pierced about two years ago. The diamond stud is delicate and looks really nice. I am glad she didn't opt for something larger and more cumbersome to wear and that she didn't receive it as a wedding gift! She's still too young!!!!!!!!!