Tag Archives: life before normality


A good friend visited from out of town this week. At one point she asked if I remembered a time when she lived in town and was going through a painful relationship split.

“You let me come to your house and just be there and you made me juice,” she said, and put her hand on my shoulder. “It was so nourishing. I always remember that when I think of you. That juice was amazing.”

I forget sometimes, in the middle of loving a child whose demands are mostly joyful but many, in the middle of thin and precarious economic times, that I have had the space in my heart and life to do things like open my home and make juice for a friend. We’ve lived a few hundred miles apart for a few years now, but she has somehow managed to appear at the exact moment that I needed support within that time more than once.

My juicer is currently buried in a kitchen cabinet, somewhere behind Tupperware containers and sippy cups and old Comfest mugs. I’m thinking that I need to grab some carrots and apples and ginger and pull it out again, to join a CSA to help ensure a summer of raw nourishment, to sow some karmic seeds.

I can’t believe it’s nearly June again.

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Things I remember about being younger

I spent part of the summer that I turned 20 hanging out with a guy I’ll call Ted who had the word wiggle in his last name. (Really.) He was obsessed with Stan Lee and constantly drew cartoons on the backs of envelopes, napkins and stray scraps of paper. We canvassed southern Connecticut with clipboards from Ralph Nader’s citizen action group and hung out late with our team after work on the Long Island Sound beaches we wanted to see cleaned up. I made him listen to Boogie Down Productions and we drove to Giants Stadium to see David Bowie who sang “Young Americans” only because we were there, we were certain.

I bid him an amicable goodbye and drove back to Ohio in late July, ready to take a road trip with my best childhood friend. She and I took one leg of our trip north, where we hiked the Niagara gorge, listened to a Canadian bartender hold forth about the secret meanings of songs by the Guess Who, wandered the streets of Toronto and got turned away from a Hard Rock Café because of a rip in the knee of my jeans. On our southern leg, we spent time in hostels in Baltimore and D.C. so we could go to free museums for a couple of days, but the time we planned to spend on the beach was destined to be rainy, so we turned the car back north instead.

She had moved out to Western Massachusetts, close to where I was going to college, after doing some road trip time on her own and visiting me twice. She always set her arrival date on the full moon because we have been unequivocally, comfortably silly together ever since we met in the fourth grade. She tried classes at UMass for a bit, but people and comforts in Ohio called her home that summer. She left a sort-of boyfriend out east, and he wanted to see her home state, so we made the trek back toward the Berkshires to retrieve him.

Ted was staying with one of his own childhood friends in Waterbury, Connecticut trying to figure out the next step in his life. He invited us to stop and stay on the living room futon, because our northern detour had kept us in the car for over 10 hours already and we needed a break.

Ted’s friend’s real name was Lenny, but late in high school, he insisted that everyone called him Sean because he was obsessed with Sean Penn. By the time I met Lenny, he wasn’t obsessed with Sean Penn anymore. He was obsessed with Billy Idol, but a third name change didn’t seem reasonable, so Sean he remained, except to Ted, who found the whole thing hilarious, and insisted on calling him Lenny/Sean.

We walked into Lenny/Sean’s apartment while he was still at work, so Ted greeted us alone. The shelves in the entry hallway were full of photos of Lenny/Sean’s family. Among the obvious parents and uncles and grandparents and cousins were two framed pictures of Billy Idol. He sat casually in a chair in one shot, every part of his body completely relaxed, except for his shellacked hair. He wore shades and a leather jacket in the other, giving the camera an uncharacteristically shy smile over his shoulder. Ted picked up one of the frames and handed it to me. It was clear that the pictures came from a magazine.

The living room had a more overt homage, with a giant white silk screen tapestry of sneering Billy hanging over the futon. The three of us ate pizza and collapsed on the floor, staring up at the pop star’s mean-looking mug.

“Aw… cheer up, Billy,” one of us said, which we all found unreasonably funny. We laughed, manic and punch-drunk for what seemed like a half an hour as we reassured the giant, sneering face that there was no reason to be so angry, that things weren’t so bad.

We regrouped by the time that Lenny/Sean came home from work and settled in for a visit, which was pleasant and free of any mention of “White Weddings” or “Rebel Yells.” Then he grabbed his guitar and sat on the edge of the futon. Ted shot me a slightly alarmed, but bemused look.

Lenny/Sean sang us a song that he wrote, which, to my freshly 20-year-old brain, sounded just fine enough, and thankfully, there were no sneers involved.

But then he launched into a long solo, which he dovetailed into another song that we didn’t recognize, until Lenny/Sean sang the chorus with conviction: “Flesh! Flesh for Fantasy…”

We raised our fists, sneered and sang along.

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Estrogen, euphony and domestic ennui

I have been slowly dragging music off my CD shelves and into my iPod for the past couple of weeks. Between my past (and future) life as a music reviewer and Dan’s history as a music promoter, this process is bound to take awhile.

As I made tall stacks of favorite CDs yesterday, I began to realize that the percentage of recordings I grabbed made by women was significantly smaller than I imagined. That’s strange because I think we listen to more music by women in this house than many families do. It’s also strange because for the years that I regularly wrote CD reviews, I was one of the only female music writers in town, and assigned a disproportionate number of albums by women. I didn’t mind this for two reasons – I felt it was important that a wider number of female musicians got some press exposure, and it just so happens that solid, worthwhile female songwriters and performers have been coming out of the woodwork for the last 15 years.

As I listen, I’m amazed that while some of these women are still thriving (or struggling) in the music game, a few have fallen off the map entirely. I’ve scraped together a few links of songs I find worthwhile by the critically acclaimed and the obscure for your listening and viewing pleasure. There are 30 second samples on iTunes, full videos on YouTube and a free little playlist with the same title as this post that I may grow as I can (although getting my first song choice isn’t always feasible). The process has made me consider podcasting, but we’ll see.

My rule as a reviewer has always been to listen to a recording three times. Sometimes I’ve fallen in love with records I hated the first time through, other times things that I liked on the first listen bored me to tears by the third. I hope you enjoy these:

Sam Phillips
One of my favorite songwriters and performers, period. Although her lighter stuff had its ultimate life on the TV show “The Gilmore Girls,” her records are dark, Gothic and gorgeous.
A Boot and a Shoe, “Reflecting Light”: Sam Phillips - A Boot and a Shoe - Reflecting Light (Or “I Need Love” on YouTube)

Amy Rigby
Known as the “Mod Housewife” with pigtail braids and striped stockings back in the when, a lot of her songs are domestic ennui personified. She’s now living in France.
Diary of a Mod Housewife, “We’re Stronger Than That”: Amy Rigby - Diary of a Mod Housewife - We're Stronger Than That

Angela McCluskey
I just like this woman’s voice. She has also apparently expatriated to France, where she sings with a band called Telepopmusik.
The Things We Do
, “It’s Been Done”: YouTube video, Angela McCluskey - The Things We Do - It's Been Done

Caitlin Cary

A member of alt country band Whiskeytown, her bandmate Ryan Adams went on to bigger fame, while she’s cut a few fairly well-received records.
I’m Staying Out, “Empty Rooms”: Caitlin Cary - I'm Staying Out - Empty Rooms

Rosanne Cash

I realize that she’s part of a major musical dynasty, but the emotional catharses she she shared on Rules of Travel and Black Cadillac about life, illness and death are just timeless.
Rules of Travel, “Beautiful Pain”: Rosanne Cash - Rules of Travel - Beautiful Pain
(Or, from the same record, the haunting duet with her father, “September When It Comes” on YouTube.)

Iris DeMent

I didn’t like her old-timey voice at first, but it grew on me and I love her songwriting.
The Way I Should, “The Way I Should”: Iris DeMent - The Way I Should - The Way I Should
(Or DeMent’s video on YouTube of Let the Mystery Be.)

And here is a woman who was in alt country band The Blood Oranges and had a solo record called “The Northeast Kingdom” that I adore, but it’s nowhere on iTunes or any playlist I can find. Sadly (for us anyway, probably happily for her)
, I understand that she’s making soap and raising flowers in New England, far from the turmoil of the music industry. Her name is Cheri Knight:


Here’s another woman who did some interesting things by blending music and slam poetry. She went for some easy laughs, but when I saw her live, I found her to be better than a novelty. She’s dropped of the map, but of you ever watched MTV when they actually played music, you may remember this video: Maggie Estep’s “Hey Baby“.

And here’s the playlist, with the songs I could find from these and some other artists:

What female artists do you love or feel haven’t gotten enough exposure?

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The ghost of George

A couple of months before Dan and I got married, we moved into a beautiful old arts and crafts style house. He had on his eye on it for years before, being a place where a friend of ours had thrown many a party. When she decided to move out, she called to let him know that the place was available to rent. Starting our marriage in a new space was important to Dan, so we took it.

The space was big and cheap and charming, as well as drafty and crumbling around the edges. Originally built in the early 20th century to be the elegant homes of Ohio State University faculty and administrators along a small ravine, it was flanked by a lot of old housing that had been carved into apartments, where students left couches out on porches and had neon signs that said “Open” in their living room windows.

My grandmother’s girlhood home was only a few blocks away. She was happy to hear of our move, because in her memory, the ravine was an upscale, safe place. Our house was set back from the street toward the park, behind enough trees to give us a sense of privacy, but still facing a busy thoroughfare that bustled with steady traffic and yelling students at all hours. Falling asleep to the sounds of sirens and whirring cars and drunken renditions of the OSU fight song and the really bad drummer who liked to practice late at night was the easy part.

After we’d signed the lease and started transitioning our stuff to the new place, we encountered the same refrain whenever we told someone about our move:

“Really? You’re moving into that haunted house?”

It was well known around the OSU campus that a man who had lived in the house twenty years earlier had hung himself there. His name was George.

In my life, I’ve managed to sleep in a freshly painted yellow room originally intended for a baby that had passed away, the mortar basement of a 100-year old farmhouse that had child-sized fingerprints impressed into the wall a few inches from my pillow and the former dining room of a house where Daniel Webster supped with his Whig homies across the street from an early American graveyard. Moving to the site of a suicide didn’t seem like an optimal choice, but haunting potential was nothing new.

Dan had a national show at the club almost every night of the first week we moved in, so I had to get used to nighttime alone in the new place quickly. As I worked to set up my home office on one of those evenings, I heard footsteps inside of the house. Because we had just moved from a half double, where I heard my neighbor’s footsteps regularly, it took me several minutes before I remembered that there was no good reason for me to hear footsteps. I looked at my dog, who was at my feet, and my cat, who was on my desk, and felt a chill.

Strange noises were a constant at a night those first few weeks. The attic door constantly blew open. There was enough general unevenness about the place that Dan called the previous tenant to find out more about the house’s history.

“We performed a ritual before we left to set George’s spirit free,” she told Dan. “I was hoping that you wouldn’t have any problems.”

George had lived there with his wife, who died of cancer. He killed himself in mourning. Our landlord, who had lived next door at the time, had bought the house from the grieving family. Dan asked him about George too.

“Goodness, if he is a ghost here, he’d be looking out for you, trying to help you out,” the landlord said. “He was such a nice man. I sure hope that wherever he is, he’s with his wife. It would be terrible if he isn’t. He loved her so very much.”

I avoided finding out which room was the site of George’s death, but some parts of the house were definitely creepier than others. A friend took pictures at our housewarming party and later called me to marvel over the number of strange apparitions in his photographs. There were nights when I was alone, felt that chill, and, to calm my own panic, talked out loud to the house.

“I’m just trying to live and do my work here,” I’d say to the air. “If you have to be here, please just leave me in peace. You scare me.”

Six months after we moved in, we took our 10-day honeymoon in Mexico. As an added treat, Dan hired a friend (I’ll call her Laura – not her real name) who cleans houses to work on ours while we were away. When we came home, the house was pristine and organized, every corner and cranny was swept and scrubbed. She more than cleaned the place – it felt like a new home. It smelled good. It felt mysteriously warm there for January.

A three-inch hole in the front screen door was the only odd new addition.

When I saw Laura a few days later, I saw her out at a party, hugged her and thanked her for what she had done, for how hard she had worked. She searched the room for eaves-droppers, then leaned into me and said in a half-whisper, “can I ask you something?”

I nodded.

“Does it feel better there now?”

“Absolutely,” I answered, launching into all of the therapeutic benefits of having a sunny vacation in the gray of winter and coming home to a clean house.

“No,” she said. “I mean… is it calmer, more peaceful there now?”

I looked at her as inquisitively as I could. “Well… yes.”

“Did you know there was a ghost in your house?”

I shrugged and gave her a non-committal “Uhh… I kind of thought so, maybe.”

“You don’t mean maybe, you mean yes,” she told me firmly. “You can’t fool me, I can tell that you’re the kind of woman who can pick up on these things…. Let me tell you something, I had to kick an ASSHOLE of a ghost out of your place. I was there over two days because I really wanted to make the place nice for you as a wedding gift, and that thing was just dogging me the entire time.”

“Did you see that hole in the screen door?” She asked.

I nodded.

“I was taking some garbage out, and the screen door slammed and locked me out, against gravity. I will replace that screen for you. I had no other way to get back in. I had to cut it open to get back inside.” Then, she reiterated, just in case I hadn’t gotten it the first time: “Take a look at that lock on the screen door when you go back home, you’ll see it had to lock against gravity. The ghost did it. There was no other way it could happen.”

“When I got back inside, I was pissed. I told it
‘I don’t know who you are or why you are here, and if they want you here, they can invite you back in when they get back, but right now, you have to get the hell out of here. You are not welcome in this house.'”

“Tracy, I had to physically force this thing out of your house. It was strong, and it fought me, but I got it outside and told it to stay out.”

I think I just stood there, blinking.

“Once you’ve gotten it out, it can’t come back in without your permission, you know. It shouldn’t bother you anymore, unless you want it there for some reason, but I can’t imagine why. It was a PAIN in the ASS.”

I told her about George. She looked confused.

“You think it was him?” She asked. I really didn’t know. I had never been certain that the spookiness wasn’t simply in my head because of the shadow of suicide that came with the house.

“I got more of a female sense out of it,” she said. “It was just bitchy to me the entire time. She hated the way I was cleaning, she hated anything I did to the house and she just kept nagging me and nagging me.”

For the six years we lived there, the house never completely lost its creepiness, or its charm. I’d still shudder a little when I crossed certain floorboards in the attic, and make unreasonable demands on the dog to stay at my side when I was home alone. And more than one thing happened during our time there that made the place feel a little deathly.

But the random late-night noises lessened after Laura’s cleaning. When there were jostles and bumps around the house, they became easier to dismiss as squirrels on the roof, falling ice, a tree branch. A couple of bats did get into the house through the attic, though, and there was never any question about why that was creepy.

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