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Friday, September 28, 2007

Scenes from Childhood: Johnson Bones

People who have bones that float, that are filled with air, can swim easily. Buoyed by their bones, they stay afloat with little effort and their swimming energy can be devoted to the business of propelling themselves forward.


My Johnson bones are dense. Oh, I know, that's the goal established by today's medical gurus. And I don't know whether the lifelong density of my bone structure is the same kind of density that the doctors are exhorting us to achieve.


Let me put this a lot more simply: I am a terrible swimmer. The history of my body in water is not a pretty story.


We had no swimming pool (or Old Swimming Hole, either) where I grew up. But one summer when I was 13, our high school gym department organized swimming classes at a pool in Lafayette, twenty miles down the road. The classes were to be taught by our own Coach Miller, who coached all the Delphi High School sports teams.


Coach Miller was over six feet tall, young, and handsome by anyone's standards. He was the kind of teacher who inspires high school boys to great loyalty and high school girls to ardent crushes.


Here's what I remember about that first swimming class. We beginners were in the water, hanging on to the edge of the pool. On a signal from Coach Miller, we were to push off and float on our backs. Coach Miller described what this would be like, this floating. We would be able, he said, to extend our arms, relax our legs and torsos, and just float, breathing naturally.


On the signal, all ten of us little fledgling fish pushed off and floated. I relaxed. I kept my eyes closed so as to concentrate better on what I was doing, or to keep the chlorine out. But I was floating. I was relieved to know that I had passed the first test of the class. Look, ma! I'm floating on my back!


The next thing I knew Coach Miller had jumped into the water and was lifting me up. It seems I was doing everything exactly right. I was indeed floating. Unfortunately, I was floating a foot below the surface and thus in danger of drowning should I try to take a breath.


My body does not float.


This was the start of my ignominious relationship with water.


A one-term swimming class was compulsory for freshmen girls at my university. The teacher was Miss Somebody (her name is gone, but I can see her as clearly as if I'd seen her yesterday). She assigned me a position right next to the pool wall. And as I swam, pluckily attempting all the strokes she was teaching us, Miss Somebody walked along the edge of the pool. Right beside me.


I thought nothing of this. Someone had to be in that lane, after all.


It was only years later that I learned that my sister Sari, who entered that same university four years after me, also had Miss Somebody as her swimming teacher. And she also was assigned to the lane beside the wall. And Miss Somebody walked alongside her through every exercise.


These Johnson bones: long and lanky, and apparently as dense as cement blocks.


Copyright 2007 Ann Tudor

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Scenes from Childhood: Musical Genes

The cement that holds our family together is music. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? How many music stories can I fit into a little essay?


Baby Mary Eileen was the youngest of us all by far, and she is the only professional musician in my generation of Johnsons. Our father never tired of telling the story of Mary's first piano recital. She was six. Imagine beautiful, blue-eyed Mary, with her curly dark hair and classically pale Irish skin. Imagine little Mary timidly walking up to the big baby grand in the church, the pews filled with the relatives of all her fellow-recitalists as well as her own. She's been taking piano lessons for a year and she never has been too fond of practicing. Nonetheless, here she is at her first piano recital.


Mary approaches the keyboard, as they say, and she looks for middle C, the opening note for her little piece. She has been taught to find it by tracing her finger down from the first letter of the manufacturer's name on the upright board above the keys. Whoops! This is a different piano. There is a different placement of the manufacturer's name. Middle C is nowhere to be found.


Mary chooses a note that might be the right one and tries out her piece. Nope. Doesn't sound right. She stops and chooses another note. No luck. She tries three times in all, after which she simply chooses a note at random and plays the piece on whatever notes present themselves under her fingers. Relatively speaking, she plays the piece well: all the notes are in place relative to that first note. But the first note was not middle C, so the piece ends up being in an obscure Lydian or Mixolydian mode instead of in C major. Mary knows it's wrong, but what can she do? This piano obviously has no middle C. She finishes, bows to the applause, and takes her seat. She's done the best she could do.


In the meantime her father, Myron, and her sister Sara are in hysterics in the back pew. Myron has tears in his eyes from laughing so hard. Sara has nearly wet her pants from laughing.


And the story becomes legend, to be retold at every family feast, as regularly as a Scandinavian edda at the banquet of long-ago warriors.


Our father, the tease, never lets go of a good tale.


Lest you think he was all malice, however, here's my own piano recital story. I was an advanced pupil of Mrs. Eikenberry, whom I adored as a teacher. I was a senior in high school and the recital, held in Mrs. Eikenberry's house, was for her "advanced" students. I was to play a Beethoven theme and variations that I'd been working on forever.


We arrived—parents and nervous performer. Suddenly I realized I was not wearing "my ring." This was a "friendship ring" my father had given me several years previously for my birthday. I laver realized that my father never in his life bought a gift for any of his children or for his wife, so the ring purportedly from my father was actually from my mother. But at the time, when I still thought it was possible to be my father's beloved daughter, I believed that he had given me my friendship ring.


But where was it? I had left it at home! Oh no, my lucky ring!! My ring that I nervously twiddled between my fingers, using pinky and long-man to twirl the ring that was on my right-hand ringman. Oh, and I was SO nervous that day. I knew I'd never be able to play without my ring. It was my talisman.


I asked my father to go home and get it for me. I couldn't play without it. Please Daddy! He thought the request was ridiculous and pooh-poohed the whole idea. I pleaded, tears in my eyes. Finally my mother took my side and said, "Myron, just go home and get the ring!" And he did. (This was NOT across the city, you understand. This was a three-minute drive in our old station wagon.) So he brought me the ring and I put it on, feeling immediately more at ease, or so I said. When my turn came I played the Beethoven as well as could be expected. And certainly no better than I would have without the ring.


And in the generation after ours, do we have musicians? The "children"—now ranging from 30 to 50—are either totally musical or totally lacking in musical interest. (The latter circumstance is obviously what happens when we marry outside our musical gene-pool.)


We have drummers, keyboardists, an acoustic bass, a couple of singers. Some are part-time professionals (as in, "Don't quit your day job!"); some just do it for fun. But the music gene is still strong among at least half of them and goes into the next generation. All the young parents watch the new babies for extraordinary talent—although why they would is a mystery. Since they have seen the difficulties of the full-time musician's life, you'd think they would want to stomp out any musical talent, not encourage it.


I remember Coleman saying about baby Hannah (only a month or two old at the time): "I was singing the mockingbird song and she hummed it along with me!!"


Well, maybe.



Copyright 2007 Ann Tudor

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Scenes from Childhood: Farmhouse Grates

When I was little, we and our cousins used to eavesdrop on the adults when we went to the farm for holidays. The two-story farmhouse was very simply built, with no heating vents on the second floor. Instead, each room had an opening to the first floor, predicated on the notion that "hot air rises." The openings were covered with cast-iron grates, to keep the children from falling through, and the heat from the first floor was supposed to rise up and then warm the upstairs rooms.


This never worked very well, but the grated openings were ideal for eavesdropping.


The adults knew where all the grates were, and they surely knew that we clustered around them. But in the flush of gossiping or arguing, they always forgot that they had an audience. They held nothing back until one of them would suddenly mutter, "Little pitchers . . ." and they'd all look toward the kitchen ceiling and become silent. For a moment or two. But then they'd be irresistibly drawn again into unguarded, delicious, adult conversation.


I can see us now. Four or five of us and at least two of our three boy-cousins, huddled on the bedroom floor around the grate that overlooked the farm kitchen, where the adults always congregated. We looked like a scene from a Busby Berkeley movie, heads to the grate, legs and feet straight out behind us making a star-wheel. We knew how to be silent, since our silence was the key to hearing the good stuff. Inevitably one of us would bump another (accidentally on purpose) and the whispered bickering that followed would escalate into sounds that the adults could hear. And then it was, "You kids get away from that grate!" and we'd scurry away, scattering to the farthest corners of the upstairs rooms, only to creep back again as soon as they'd forgotten us.


What on earth did we hear? I implied above that there was "good stuff." Actually, we heard about the state of the farm crops and the chickens (at one point Uncle John T. had been seduced into investing in an egg-farm facility—the kind with caged hens and automated egg collecting). There were interminable discussions of the mileage and routes of recent trips to Indianapolis. Or death reports on old people in the county—people we'd never heard of and about whom we cared not at all. Perhaps we occasionally heard a cross word exchanged between our mother, Eileen, and her sister-in-law, our Aunt Jeannette, who was almost permanently green with jealousy over Eileen's high-achieving offspring.


We really never heard anything juicy. But the very act of getting away with eavesdropping was its own reward.


Copyright 2007 Ann Tudor

Monday, September 17, 2007

Scenes from Childhood: Thinking Good Thoughts

Scenes from Childhood: Thinking Good Thoughts


When I was in my teens, we used to call our mother an ostrich. We children felt that she kept her head in the sand. She would not look at the world squarely. I remember being incensed by this when I was an adolescent. I was trying to figure out the world and I could have used some help. But I got none from her. Instead she tried to lead me to be more like her, less judgmental, less critical. I'll admit that being less judgmental might have improved my prospects, but this was not something that I was willing to learn from my mother. She refused to see the world as it was (i.e., as I saw it), and this drove me crazy.


One day my mother and I were discussing a family that attended our church. Their older daughter, whom I'll call Jane, was a year ahead of me in school.


Jane was very polite to all the older folk at our church, passing the time of day with them after Sunday Mass, while my own inclination was to avoid contact with anyone at all; I just wanted to get away from people, to race home and put my nose in a book.


One day Eileen and I, sitting at the dining room table, were discussing Jane and her family, and Eileen was extolling Jane's virtues, along the lines of "why can't you be more like . . .?"


This approach has never, to my knowledge, changed any teenager's behavior in any way. In order to defend myself and perhaps open Eileen's eyes a little, I said, "Jane has a bad reputation at school."


"What does that mean?" asked Eileen.


"You know. Everyone says she's loose. Everyone says she makes out a lot. You know. With boys." I was stumbling a bit, not really sure what this all might mean.


There was a silence. At last, I thought, Eileen is coming face to face with reality. After all, she had always emphasized that sexual misbehavior was the worst shame a teenager could inflict on her family. Finally Eileen would have to admit that not everything is the way she thinks it is.


The silence continued.


And then Eileen said, "Oh no, that can't be true. I know it isn't true. Jane is always so nice to older people."


And that was the end of that discussion.


Copyright 2007 Ann Tudor

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Scenes from Childhood: Swings and Swifts

I've told you that I spent hours lying on our local merry-go-round when I was little, listening to its metallic groans. I implied that that was all I ever did when I was at the playground. Not true.

The playground had two large swing sets, with four swings on each set. These were the old-fashioned, heavy-duty kind of swing, sturdy 2x6 boards supported by strong linked chains. The supports were heavy steel tubes, with the usual angled posts at the ends and a crossbar at the top from which the swings were suspended. The angled posts were perfect for shinnying up, if that's what you liked to do. (Climbing poles was difficult for me as a child, since the only exercise my arms got was turning pages and carrying stacks of books home from the library. So I seldom tried to shinny up a pole. But I liked to watch others do it.) And after you shinnied up the pole you could, if you were strong and brave enough, perch on the crossbar at the top and taunt your friends who couldn't make it to the top.

But all that happened during the day, during recess.

At dusk I had the playground to myself. I don't know why I was never called home. Well, I do know. I was never missed. Most of my time at home was spent curled up in a chair, out of the way, my nose in a book. If I wasn't visible, they just assumed that I was reading in some corner. But instead, often on a summer evening I was at the playground, either lying on that merry-go-round or sitting in a swing.

Because the swings had long chains, they were perfect for winding and unwinding. Using your feet, you would twirl around and around, twisting the chains as tight as you could. Then you'd give yourself a shove and let the chains unwind. As the chains sought their normal stasis of hanging parallel, first you'd go around and around one way, and then the momentum would carry you into rewinding them in the other direction and then the other way and then the other way. While it lasted, it was as good as a carnival ride.

So that's one thing I did while sitting on the playground swing at dusk.

But mostly what I did was I watched the chimney swifts. I knew nothing about kinds of birds.

I just knew that there were hundreds of birds that darted through the air at dusk, all around the chimney. There were so many and they flew so fast and so erratically that my eye couldn't pick out just one to follow. The sky above the school's tall chimney was black with them, even as the light faded and a cloak of darkness began to fall over the playground. And finally, just when dusk turned into dark, all the birds were sucked into the chimney in a single fluid motion, like water being sucked down a drain. And then they were gone and I knew it was time to go home.

Just as I still feel in my bones the groaning vibrations of the merry-go-round, I can still remember the peace of sitting in a swing, barely moving the swing with little pushes of my legs, and watching the chimney swifts. I didn't attach any meaning to them, and I certainly didn't attach a name to them; it was only years later that I read about chimney swifts and made the connection. But I remember watching them as they wheeled and darted, changing direction on a dime--those typically swiftian movements that make them so efficient at catching bugs.

In Wolfville, N.S., half a block from our daughter and son-in-law's restaurant, Tempest, there's a little market-place, with a visitor's bureau right at its center. The area used to be home to a factory with a tall chimney. In a flurry of urban renewal, the factory was torn down, but the chimney was allowed to stay, specifically because of the swifts that inhabited it. From the restaurant windows you can see the tall free-standing chimney rising from the empty market-place. (If you look in the other direction you see the local tidal basin that is either mud or an extension of the Atlantic Ocean, depending on the tide.)

Every evening, the swifts that live in the chimney come home from their daily activities. Tourists gather in the marketplace to watch, and the local mosquitoes think of this as their own private restaurant. At first you can barely see the swifts. The tourists with the sharpest eyes call out, "Here they come!" Finally everyone can see them dart and circle. Oohs and aahs unite the group of strangers. Two or three bold swifts disappear in a wink down into the chimney (wanting to get the best nest location, perhaps) while the others continue to circle. And finally, just as all the tourists have been bled dry by the giant Nova Scotia mosquitoes, the rest of the swifts spiral down the chimney. If you blink you'll miss it, so fast do they disappear. The tourists leave immediately for their own evening activities, still scratching and slapping but satisfied to have seen the magic of the chimney swifts.

I revel in the connection between my childhood playground swifts and the swifts that my daughter and her children see every summer night.

Copyright 2007 Ann Tudor

Friday, September 7, 2007

Scenes from Childhood: The Merry-go-round

It's the biggest chunk of time in my memory, those hours I spent on my merry-go-round. We lived across the street from the elementary school playground, and when school was over the playground belonged to the neighborhood. So picture this: one little girl. Was I 7? Or 9? 10? 12? All of those. Add one large, empty school playground. It couldn't have been always empty, of course, but in my mind I see it empty. Except for me.

There were actually two merry-go-rounds on that playground. One was ordinary: red, low, and designed to spin fast, faster, fastest. But it didn't interest me.

My merry-go-round was the other one. It sat in the corner of the playground nearest our house. It was hexagonal, made of wood and iron, and the planks that formed the seat were high off the ground, so that if you lay on your back and trailed a foot, that foot only barely reached the asphalt surface of the playground.

This merry-go-round was a pumper. I don't know that I've ever seen another like it. It had three pumping stations. You sat with your feet on the bottom bar of the pump, hands clutching the top bar. Then you put your whole body into making that heavy, clunky merry-go-round go around. First giving it a shove with your foot was easier than trying to pump it from a dead stop. Its inertia was hard to overcome. And of course it was even easier to pump up to speed if you had someone working at each of the pumps—three kids in all.

But all of this is beside the point. Here's the point of that merry-go-round. The iron works, the axle (what do you call a vertical axle?), was never oiled. And both the iron and the wood were effective transmitters of sound. You lay on your stomach on the wooden seat, your length perfectly fitting along one of the six boards that formed the hexagon. One ear rested on the wood. Then you reached down with your foot and gave enough of a shove to start the merry-go-round moving. And then you heard the music of the spheres.

Your ear caught those groaning tones as the merry-go-round moved. No, it didn't just "catch" those tones. By lying there, ear down, you were able to become the sounds themselves. Those universal tones were like the winds of the solar system deeply twanging the wires that hold each planet in the sky, each star in its Milky Way spot. The tones were both low and high and were always different from the time before. The sound penetrated whoever lay with ear against the wood. Who was always just me.

Did I really spend hours doing that? I think so. No one missed me at home, and if they had called me I could have heard them from across the street. But they didn't, and I stayed, belly down, ear against the thick oak plank, listening to the universe.

You know how people start making "life lists" of things they want to do before they die? Like "see Rio," or "see the Northern Lights," or "travel alone through India" or "take a hallucinogenic drug." I find it hard to make lists like that, because my nature seems to be to accept what is rather than to create wants. But this is my exception: before I die, I want to find a merry-go-round like that one: hexagonal, wood and iron, with three pumper stations. And I want to lie on it, ear to the board, and give it a little shove with one long leg reaching to the ground. And I will lie there, listening, until I die.

Tell me if you know of one.

Copyright 2007 Ann Tudor

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Scenes from Childhood: Whistling

At dinner time or bedtime, our parents used to call us in from play by
whistling a two-note descending phrase that meant, "All Johnson children
come home now!" In pitch, it was a descending fourth.

I am essentially whistle-less, though that isn't quite true. I learned to
whistle when I was ten and a half. I was walking from home down to Riley
Park to take part in some summer activity organized by the town to keep the
school kids out of mischief.

I was wearing shorts and a shirt (an ironed sleeveless shirt with a collar,
since this was well before the days of the ubiquitous t-shirt). The warm and
humid air promised a scorcher later on, but it was still pleasant enough in

The whistling was a conscious undertaking. I couldn't whistle. Siblings,
older and younger, could whistle, so it was clear that there was no genetic
deformation of the tongue/teeth/jaw. That summer morning I was determined to
learn to whistle.

I passed the Hannas' big house at the corner of Main and Monroe and then,
crossing Main Street, I went along the little-used street that curved around
the edge of the downtown, bordered on one side by the wooded hill leading
down to Deer Creek.

W-w-w-w, I went. W-w-w-w-w-w. I moved my tongue. Re-pursed my lips. W-w-w-w.
Nothing but air would come out.

In those days I was ever-hopeful, unaware of the possibility of failure, so
I persisted. At a later age, I might have given up and resigned myself to
being a non-whistler. But at ten and a half, I knew I could do it if I just
kept trying, forcing the air out through those pursed lips, moving my tongue
to new positions behind the teeth, closer to, then farther from the pursed
lips, tongue curved, pointed, broadened-all possible configurations.

At the place where that little back street-the curved extension of Monroe
Street--met Washington Street, there was a set of pedestrian steps that led
down, down, to the bridge over Deer Creek. The steps were broad, maybe eight
feet across, in two flights of sic or eight steps each. The hand rail was
made from two-inch iron pipe.

Just as I reached those steps, I made a whistling sound! From my pursed lips
came a peeping piping tone that was a whistle. I was ecstatic. It was only a
beginning, but I knew it would progress. I could become a fluent whistler, a
professional purser of lips.

During the rest of the trip-across the bridge and along the path into the
park, walking beside Deer Creek toward the big oval that was our combined
track and football field, I practiced. I expanded on my piping sound until I
had two, then three notes in my repertory. What an accomplishment! I had
taught myself to whistle!

But no matter how hard I tried, that day and for months after, I never went
beyond those three notes. Three feeble little notes, not loud enough to call
a dog or express my appreciation for a concert. Barely worth the title of

In compensation for my own deficiencies, I later married a man whose best
parlour trick was to whistle "American Patrol" with his best friend, in
perfect harmony. The marriage didn't last, and these days I still can
whistle only three feeble notes.

Copyright 2007 Ann Tudor