Thursday, March 24, 2011

True Grits

Michael Keith, songwriter and Pancake Pantry fan,  lining up for grits and country ham. 
I’m still remembering and talking about our recent visit to Nashville. It was cold in Nashville last week, but that didn’t stop Michael from talking me into hiking far from our hotel (which, incidentally, serves a perfectly good breakfast) to a place he remembers visiting some twenty years ago. The Pancake Pantry, he told me, is not to be missed — a Nashville institution! He said he was pretty sure it was not far from the hotel. He said it would be a nice walk.  If you call walking two miles, in temperatures in the mid-forties, your ears ablaze with frostbite, your nose as red and shiny as Rudolf’s, with a guy next to you saying “I think it’s right down here a ways” a nice walk, it very much was.
    Our walk took us past the Vanderbilt University Hospital, where we were disheartened to see a gang of people in scrubs smoking cigarettes. Some of them even wore surgical headgear and masks, obviously heading into or coming out of surgery. There was nothing friendly or fun about the scene. They were smoking fast and hard and furiously. I thought of walking up to the closest group and offering to show them the scar that stretches from behind my right ear to the middle of my neck, my throat cancer trophy — but I didn’t. They are hospital workers. They’ve seen worse scars than mine. And such a display would have meant removing my warm scarf, and embarrassing my ever-patient husband.
    “I think we’re almost there,” he said. We walked.
    There was a line of people waiting to get into the Pancake Pantry. In line, I chatted with a woman who’d brought her pregnant daughter to Nashville for an ultrasound of the baby. She even showed us the picture of her granddaughter, still in her daughter’s belly.
    “We tried to wake her, but she was asleep,” she said.
    You gotta wonder what’s happened to a world where even the womb is no longer a private place.   
    We also talked with a friendly guy who had two cell phones, one in the breast pocket of his jacket, the other in his pants pocket. The phones kept ringing and interrupting his stories of his grandkids. It seems that people are very proud of their grandkids in Nashville. As for me, I would rather forget that I am old enough to be a granny.
Kathy with a K remembering Key West
    The food at the Pancake Pantry is divine. The grits were buttery, hot and perfect. As a Nova Scotia native, grits are very decidedly not a part of my gustatory DNA. I would challenge anyone who says they don’t like grits to not like these. My Kentucky-born friend Barbara says they probably used bacon grease to flavor them. Maybe. I don’t care. Meanwhile, Michael was very pleased with his salty country ham.  Truly delicious. The pancakes were good, too. Worth the walk. Worth the wait.
    Our waitress, Kathy “with a K” was spry and funny. They keep things moving fast at the Pancake Pantry and that includes the servers. Kathy filled our coffee cups often and on one turn asked us where we were from. Key West. She stopped mid-pour and said “I love Key West.” She told us that after her kids were grown she was still young, only 40, so she “went to Key West to sow my wild oats.”
    Michael turned around in his chair for a good look at her.
    “I thought you looked familiar,” he said.

Friday, March 18, 2011

City Folks Call Us Poor

Larry Sparks is the guy in the suit. That's the songwriter Michael Keith and his
poor old wife June.  
 America’s favorite bluegrass musician, Larry Sparks, put on a show at Nashville’s Station Inn last night and my husband Michael and I were there to see it. Four songs written by Michael and his songwriting partners are featured on Sparks’ newest album "Almost Home." Sitting in the audience, hanging with the songwriters and their wives, my handsome husband being pointed out by Larry as a writer of songs, is a thrill. Making a splash in Nashville is so fun. Nobody has to know that it has taken twenty years of rehearsals to get Michael’s music to this Nashville stage. But it’s true. It takes an immeasurable amount of hours, trials and errors, talent, hopes and dreams to create a simple country song with the power to tear open a room full of hearts and set an old wooden floor trembling with the beat of hundreds of tapping feet.
Michael realizing his dreams at the Station Inn.
    In another lifetime, way before he was mine,  Michael was a businessman with a dream of writing music. He once read that to realize his dream he should write it down on a slip of paper and keep it in his wallet so that whenever he opened it to pull out some of his hard-earned money he would be reminded of what he really wanted to do: write a song. Nashville is where songwriters mostly live, but Michael has another passion: Key West. So when he finally shucked that other life, he moved to Key West and vowed to never leave.  He writes here until he has enough ideas to hook up with his Nashville partners for a few days of intensive songwriting there. He hasn’t made a million bucks, but his efforts have enabled him to call himself a bona fide, you-can-hear-his-stuff on the radio, royalty check-receiving songwriter. And when someone asks me “what does your husband do?” I get to say “he’s a songwriter,” which doesn’t make a particularly big impression in Nashville until you add: “he’s got four songs on Larry Sparks’ new album.”
    A bluegrass band features acoustic instruments: mandolin, fiddle, banjo, guitars and angelic harmonizing voices like you might think of hearing in Heaven. No drums. No synthesizers. Just microphones to make sure your hear the words to the songs that celebrate life’s plainer pleasures: the scent of honeysuckle, bluebirds on the mountain, sitting in a rocker on the porch. Love. Home. Mama. Papa. Barefoot babies. Twilight in the valley. The moon. The stars. The old dog sleeping by the door. Leaving home. Coming home. Wishing you were home when you're not. 
     After singing songs from the new album (the best part of the whole thing for me) Larry asked the crowd for requests. Several yelled out "City Folks Call Us Poor" -- obviously a Larry Sparks favorite. It's about country people enjoying watching the streaking colors of the sunset sky because they can't afford to buy "no fancy paintings."  They love moonlight shining on grassy meadows 'cause it looks like diamonds.  And people snack on "watermelon rinds Mama puts up in a jar." Like I said, a celebration of sweeter pleasures.
     The next morning, back in the big, fast real world of our ritzy Nashville hotel where a bottle of water costs $6 and using the Internet sets you back $10 a day, we packed and dressed for the trip home. Michael told me that his feet had been cold at the concert the night before. He's not used to wearing socks under his loafers and he hadn't brought any on the trip. He doesn't need them in Paradise. But at the fancy Tennessee hotel, when he sat at the check-out desk, I noticed his naked ankles got a few odd glances from the prissy staff.
   "You see that," I said. "These city folks are calling us poor."
Available wherever you buy your music.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Key West Trolley Doesn't Stop Here Anymore

Tennessee Williams at his Key West house.
If you have suffered the betrayal of a lover you believed to be true, or the strange coming of age when you recognize that your parents are far from perfect, or the heartbreaking shock of growing old while on the inside you are the same blithe spirit you have always been -- in short, if you are a human being -- you are a Tennessee Williams fan. Nobody brings to light the tragedy of human emotion like Tennessee Williams. Alone, the titles of his great plays evoke terrible stirrings in the heart: "The Glass Menagerie"; "A Streetcar Named Desire"; "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"; "Sweet Bird of Youth"; "The Rose Tattoo".
    Tennessee Williams would have been 100 years old this month, so lately I’ve made a project of asking people how much they know about America’s greatest playwright. Turns out, not much.  Williams' star is largely faded in this part of the universe, this island he called home for the greatest part of his life.  I have referred the uninitiated to "The Rose Tattoo", the Williams play translated into film and shot right here in Key West in 1955 —these days readily available on DVD.
   Williams bought his home in Key West at the height of his literary prowess. He bought the house next door, too, because he craved privacy. He built a pool in which he swam laps daily. Fame and fortune enabled Williams to travel and live however he pleased. He roamed the planet, but in his memoir he stated that he did his best writing in the tiny studio of his Key West house.
With a fine eye for the depraved and the absurd, photographer Marie Cosindas took this photo at the Key West home of Tennessee Williams' great friend, painter Henry Faulkner. That's a Faulkner painting in the background.
    In Key West Williams kept a low profile as he labored at writing his incredible works. Falling prey to what he called the “tragedy of success” he drank way too much, took too many pills and became paranoid. He sometimes believed his house was being targeted by killers. He mistrusted those most loyal to him.
    Because he considered the day a waste if he didn’t end up in bed with someone, he needed a procurer and he found one in renowned painter Henry Faulkner, who was very loudly gay and known among the locals as “Juicy Junior.” Key West was full of sailors at that time, and Faulkner and Williams were rarely without the company of attractive and adventurous young men. Williams took up painting and gave his images more of those fantastic titles: “Fairy in a Wicker Chair”; “Great Silence of the Storm”; “Many Moons Ago”; and “Recognition of Madness.”
    I never met Tennessee Williams, but like many longtime Key Westers I have heard the stories about him, his sweetness, his charm, his ultimate madness. This event happened long after his death, but it is one of my favorite Tennessee Williams stories.
    My husband Michael, a songwriter, was for many years by day a trolley tour guide. He enthusiastically shared his love for the island, its quirky history and its stunning beauty with tourists from everywhere in the world. One day Michael drove around a trolley of Italian visitors and their translator. The Williams house is not normally on the tour, but he considered the Italian connection to be of significance and so he made the detour to Duncan Street. He pointed out Williams house and the one next door, the actual weathered cottage used in the film "The Rose Tattoo", as the home of the passionate widow Serafina, played by Anna Magnani. Magnani won an academy award for her efforts, made all the more amazing by the fact that she barely understood English at the time of the filming, and relied mostly upon her gist of the story rather than the words, to bring her memorable character to life.
    The Italian tourists went wild at the mention of Anna Magnani. They poured out of the trolley and, against Michael’s gentlemanly protests, attempted to enter the house. The Italians wanted to be where Anna Magnani had been, to breathe the same air that Anna Magnani had breathed. The current owner, who had nothing at all to do with Williams or his infamous life in Key West, came onto the porch, holding a tiny, squalling baby, and yelled to Michael: “What have you done? This is my home! Get them out! Get out!” 
    “Tell the nice lady thank you!” Michael suggested. But the Italians did not take the rejection well. Amid many shouts of “vaffanculo,” (translation: fuck you) they begrudgingly reboarded the trolley, and Michael hastily exited the scene.
    Williams died alone, in New York City in 1983, at the Hotel Elysee, which he called the “Hotel Easy Lay.” His work and life in Key West are more often celebrated here lately, it seems to me. There are more exhibits and discussions of his works. In New York, a not-well reviewed rendition of "Vieux Carre" is being mounted off Broadway. On Broadway: "The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore" starring Olympia Dukakis as an aging beauty, dying of cancer, penning her memoirs in a house by the sea. 
    Wait a minute . . . an aging beauty, with cancer, penning a memoir, in a house by the sea . . . This is exactly what I’m talking about: Williams’ themes unerringly hit home.
    If you were a character in a Tennessee Williams play, which one would you be?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

You're Still Gonna Die

You can quit smokin', but you're still gonna die.
Cut out cokin', but you're still gonna die.
Eliminate everything fatty or fried,
And you get real healthy, but you're still gonna die.
--  (the late) Key West songwriter Shel Silverstein
 I wish I had a dollar for every time some well-meaning person has advised me of the value of thinking positively when being treated for cancer. I could buy myself a new Toyota Rav-4. Or an around-the-world cruise. Or some other stuff on my bucket list. Thinking Positively seems to be everybody’s favorite remedy for cancer. If only positive thinking would make it so!  The fact is, cancer is an equal opportunity catastrophe, attacking both the happy and the sad.
     The kind doctor who has performed my needle biopsies compares battling cancer to battling Al Queda.  Writer Christopher Hitchens, currently dealing with cancer, says that “battling” is the wrong word. Sitting submissively as deadly chemo toxins are pumped into your veins is not battling; it’s surrendering.  Obviously, a positive attitude is necessary to go along with this torture designed to possibly slow down the progress of the cancer. Nobody likes a grumpy chemo patient. But will a positive attitude create some magical protective shield against cancer? Sadly, no.
    On the day my oncologist, Dr. V, outlined his plan for treating my cancer he wrapped up his presentation with this: “And then it’s up to the Man Upstairs.”  
    “I didn’t realize there was another floor on this building,” I said. “How do I get an appointment with this guy?”   
    A few weeks later Dr.V. again referred to the Man Upstairs and his part in my recovery. I envisioned a Roman emperor putting his thumb up or down before a cheering crowd to forecast my fate: life or death. Gladiator-style.
    “I’m a Buddhist,” I said. “I don’t believe in your man upstairs who decides the fate of good people suffering with cancer. If the Man Upstairs had that kind of power he wouldn’t let people get cancer at all. Let’s keep this scientific.”
    He has. Ever since that day. And yet he is not without spirituality. Nor, certainly, am I. The Man Upstairs is just too big and personal a subject to toss about in a 15-minute doctor’s appointment.
    My sweet friend Karen brought me a tiny vial of holy water, blessed by the Pope. She anointed my bald head and prayed. It felt good. I felt the intention and I felt my body warming to hers, my heart warming to the passion in her heart. I love praying with others. Many people have told me they pray for me. I’m truly thankful. I believe in prayer, but not because I believe in a Man Upstairs sorting through prayers like so many tweets. I believe in the splendor of humanity. It is here and now and not a mysterious plea into the darkness. I say Thank God. But I’m really saying Thank You.
    I’ve been told tales of people with terrible cancers who were cured by doing simple things such as drinking aloe juice, or wheatgrass, or their own urine. There are guaranteed curative potions you must travel to Chinatown to buy; an acupuncturist in Miami who sticks his needles directly into the brains of the afflicted, through the pupils of their eyeballs; ornery cancer patients who refused to have chemo or radiation or whatever was recommended by the doctors and lived on for decades, in spite of their cancer diagnosis. 
    My personal favorite is the theory that the cure for cancer is a well-kept secret. The doctors and the government know this; they keep it a secret because too many people would be without jobs if everybody with cancer was immediately cured. So the conspiracy continues. And we suckers with cancer continue to die, in spite of our expensive and painful struggles to stay alive.
    The other day at work someone came by my desk and commented on my great recovery. 
    “It’s your positive attitude,” she said, nodding her head up and down for emphasis.     
    “I know lots of dead people, who died of cancer, in spite of their very positive attitudes,” I answered.    
    “Have you ever noticed how people respond when you tell them that,” my coworker Barb said, grinning. “They can’t get away from you fast enough.” 

Key Wester Shel Silverstein penned this song in his house on William Street. In 1999, he died there.