Soap Slivers

When I was a kid, an old man named Joe Shevick lived next door.  He had to be in his nineties, wrinkled and bent over, but he lived alone and on his own terms.

My Dad used to cut Joe’s grass.  Afterward, Joe and Dad would sit on ancient Adirondack chairs in the yard and survey the freshly-cut lawn.  Sometimes I would go over too, because Joe always gave us Cokes from glass bottles with metal caps that you had to pry off with a bottle opener.

I don’t know where Joe bought those Cokes.  This was the eighties, and by then cans and plastic bottles dominated the grocery store shelves.

For a kid it was a thrill and a novelty to drink from a glass bottle.

Yesterday I thought of old Joe Shevick for the first time in at least twenty-five years.

It was when I picked up a sliver of bar soap.  It was hardly worth saving, and I started to pitch it in the trash and unwrap a new bar.

Joe used to save all his slivers of soap, and he bound them together with rubber bands to mold them into a new bar of soap.

As a kid, I just thought he was an eccentric old man.  But he wasn’t.

Capital “H” History—the kind we read about in books—is a poor teacher.  We consume stories of World War II like they are adventure novels, with Captain American as the big winner.  We study the Holocaust, never believing something like that could happen again.  We say that such-and-such will cause “another Civil War” but we don’t mean we’re going to start bayoneting each other.  We entertain ourselves with movies and novels about pandemics, wrapped in the protective cocoon of modern medicine.

But the Great Depression wasn’t capital “H” History for Joe Shevick.  It was part of his personal history, and personal history is a great teacher.  He learned not to waste anything.

Not even soap slivers.

He learned that the world could turn on a dime, that no one is as safe or as in control as modernity would have us believe.

But I’d like to think that not every lesson Joe learned in the Great Depression was about fear or scarcity.  I like to imagine that he and others uncovered an unexpected resilience in the face of adversity.  He used his wits, his grit, and creativity to make his way through.

I think he learned that he would have enough if he didn’t waste, that he could get by on less than he thought, that he could re-learn the skills of his ancestors if necessary to feed and clothe himself.

That he could take care of himself.  That we could take care of each other.

And that sort of knowledge is a hard-won gift.

Covid-19 is part of our personal history now.  It will leave its mark on us, in ways we don’t yet understand. 

It makes me wonder what we’ll learn from it.

There are things we will not take for granted again.  There are things we will lose and won’t get back again.

The world has a way of smacking us around every so often, reminding us that we’re not in charge, even if we have iPhones, and Amazon Free Delivery, and antibiotics.

And we have a way of standing back up.

We’ve done it before.  We’ll do it now.

If we’re lucky, we’ll gain some hard-won wisdom, along with a few eccentricities of our own.

And fifty years from, some neighborhood kid cutting my grass will wonder why I have eighty rolls of toilet paper and a turn-of-the-century ventilator squirreled away in my basement.

The Golden Age of Hollywood Project: The Beginning and The End

#1 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

I’ve always wanted to write a series about the Golden Age of Hollywood.  With the conclusion of my Ultimate Playlist and a worldwide pandemic keeping us all at home, it’s now or never.

In addition to my Sunday morning musings, I’m going to add a Wednesday morning post about classic movies.

Each week I’ll watch a classic film (or a few on a theme) and report my thoughts and observations on the movie as both a historical object and a piece of entertainment to be enjoyed by modern audiences.  I’ll talk about the significance of the film, gossip about the actors and actresses, and sprinkle in some movie history along the way.  

The widest definition of the Golden Age of Hollywood encompasses the first movies through 1960.  This was the most prolific period of movie-making in history, filled with technical achievements and unencumbered by competition from television.  This is where Hollywood’s greatest stars were made–Garbo, Gable, Davis, Bogart, Hepburns Katharine and Audrey, Stewart, Crawford, Olivier, and Leigh.  It was also a time of censorship, cut-throat studios with nearly unlimited power, and the ever-present perils of fame for those who shone brightest on the silver screen.

The first thing we need to decide is where, exactly, should our journey through movie history begin?We could start at the absolute beginning, back in 1888 with the Roundhay Garden Scene.  The 2.11 second film is believed to be the oldest surviving film shot with a single camera.

Perhaps we should fast-forward to 1905, when the first Nickelodeon opened on–get this–Smithfield Street in good old Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  It was a storefront theater with ninety-six seats and charged a nickel for shows that included live vaudeville acts and short films.  As nickelodeons spread across the country, people could view films on large screens rather than previously as peep shows.

Smithfield Street, Pittsburgh, PA – 1905

Or perhaps we should start in 1915 with Charlie Chaplin, bumbling across a silent screen as The Tramp.

Or in the 1920s, when the movie-making industry had consolidated to Hollywood, where the light was always good and rain rarely interrupted the production schedule.

What about 1929, when the newly established Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences handed out its first awards?

I’m teasing you, reader.  The truth is, I know exactly where we’re going to start.

And end.

For me, the Golden Age of Hollywood began on February 21, 1930, and ended on November 16, 1960.

What happened on those dates?

You’ll find out what happened in 1930 next week when The Golden Age of Hollywood blog series officially kicks off.

As for November 16, 1960, you’ll have to hang with me until the end.

Ultimate Playlist #500: The Dance

For awhile now, I’ve been thinking of the song that would end the Ultimate Playlist. It wouldn’t necessarily be my favorite song, as mostly I just add songs to the list as I think of them, and I don’t know that I could pick just one–or even a handful–of favorite songs.

But in time in became clear that there was only one song to end the playlist.

There isn’t a lot of Garth Brooks in the Ultimate Playlist, but that’s mostly because it’s very difficult to find high quality videos on You Tube. So I hope you’ll excuse the slightly lower quality.

Thank you all for following along with the Ultimate Playlist.

Stay safe.

And tune in tomorrow for a new weekly series that I’ll be kicking off (in addition to the regular Sunday morning posts).

Ultimate Playlist #497: Halley Came to Jackson

The great Southern writer Eudora Welty was born in 1909 in Jackson, Mississippi. One night in 1910, her father took her out onto the porch of the house he’d built with his own hands and watched as Halley’s comet came to town.

Welty relates this anecdote in her memoir of creativity, One Writer’s Beginnings.

Mary Chapin Carpenter read this book, and turned the story into a beautiful song of how the ones we love outlast us.

Can’t Talk About Anything Else

Let’s be honest, even when we want to, we can’t talk about anything else. 

The coronavirus has upended everyone’s life in ways both big and small.  For some, it has meant an abrupt job loss with no immediate hope of employment, or a shuttered small business.  For others, it is a health crisis for themselves or a close family member.  For others, it is about carrying on in the face of emergency—the nurses, doctors, truck drivers, grocery store clerks, stock boys, and delivery drivers.

For myself and many others, it’s thus far been—and will hopefully remain—an inconvenience. 

And a lot more time at home.

Every news outlet and magazine has been posting articles about what you should read, watch, and listen to during your self-isolation.  Most of them are content you’ve probably already heard about and have on your list. 

In times of crisis, I gravitate toward stories of resilience.  I want to watch characters triumph over seemingly impossible odds using their wits, courage, and good old-fashioned grit. If there’s a hot cowboy thrown in, all the better.

So if I may, I’d like to offer a few recommendations for your self-isolation period that are a little off the beaten path:

*Mrs. Mike, novel by Benedict and Nancy Freedman (1947)

This thin little book has survived every book purge and Marie Kondo-ing because it brings me joy.  It’s a love story set in the Canadian wilderness.  Don’t let its age fool you—Katharine and Mike have lessons to teach us in this modern time about how communities can come together to survive—and thrive—in hostile conditions. 

*McLeod’s Daughters, TV Series (2001-2009) (available on Netflix)

An Australian TV Series, McLeod’s Daughters is the story of two half-sisters.  After the death of their father, Tess returns to her sister Claire’s Australian cattle ranch.  Tess is a fish-out-of-water and has to adjust to the unforgiving life in the Australian outback.  But with love and persistence, the sisters save the ranch and find their way back to one another.

*Hex Wives, graphic novel by Ben Blacker (2019)

A group of 1950s seeming housewives can never leave their homes.  What better story to read during our current situation?  These stepford wives seem happy enough, until unusual—and supernatural—things start happening.

*Follow the River, novel by James Alexander Thom (1986)

Everyone—and I mean everyone—in my family has read this book.  Set in 1755, it is the story of Mary Ingles, a young wife and mother who is kidnapped by Shawnee Indians.  Follow the River is her unforgettable journey home.  Trust me, if Mary could make it back home, we can kick the coronavirus.

*Half Broke Horses, novel by Jeannette Walls (2010)

Jeannette Walls, author of the excellent memoir The Glass Castle, wrote this story about her grandmother.  Walls calls it a “true-life novel,” as she can’t be sure which legends passed down in the family lore are true and which are tall tales.

No matter.  You’ll fall in love with the unbreakable spirit of Lily Casey Smith, the kind of woman who can kill the pig and fry up the bacon before anyone else is even awake.  Half Broke Horses is filled with stories of living a hard life on the prairie, in a time before experts and You Tube when the only rule was survival.

*Why My Third Husband Will Be A Dog, essays by Lisa Scottoline and Francesa Serritella (2009)

This recommendation is a little different.  This is the first book in a series of books written by Lisa Scottoline and her daughter Francesca Serritella.  Scottoline writes mystery novels, but these books are essays that she and her daughter write about their ordinary life.  They are hilarious and will have you laughing and nodding your head.  There are eight books in total, and I’ve read them all—they’re even better if you listen to the audio versions.  They are the books that inspired this very blog.

So there you have it—plenty of books and shows to get you through.  Before we know it, we’ll be back to taking all the little things we miss now for granted.

Here’s hoping.