Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A Fond Farewell to My Southern Roots Trip

Good-Bye Louisville
Sunday morning after my high school reunion in Louisville, Dan and I met my dad's childhood friend, Jimmy Linehan, for brunch at Winston's, the Sullivan University culinary school restaurant where we had a delightful brunch and caught up on old stories and family news. In 2011, we were the lucky guests for a delicious fine dining experience that Jimmy hosted at Winston's. It was a celebration after the  Kentucky Oaksthe featured fillies' race the day before the Kentucky Derby. That's when the locals turn out in brilliant pink hats, suits, shirts, and ties. Even pink jockey silks and a pink tractor can be seen on the track in support of the Susan G. Komen Foundation's work in breast cancer. Jimmy knew how to end the day in style. What a gracious, generous man whose lifelong pursuit has been the law, and good times with family and friends.

Brother Lary, Benjamin, me, Elisha, Katrine, and Fay

Sunday night after the reunion was the family meetup at Mike Linning's on Cane Run Road, near the Ohio River. The white, screened huts, about the size of a kid's playhouse, are sprinkled around a dirt lot, along with a few dozen picnic tables, to provide the outdoor seating next to an air-conditioned building for the indoor restaurant, family-owned since it opened in 1925. Those huts bring back memories of fried fish dinners with our family of six, in the little house that was just big enough for a table, chairs, and friendly waiter. But they'd never hold the gathering of the clan that my sister-in-law Fay organized for us that night. As my two brothers, their families, and cousins from Louisville and Florida took bench seats around two long picnic tables, the chatter included updates on family news and favorite stories over fish sandwiches, french fries, soft drinks, and beer. With full bellies and lots of hugs, we figured it was the perfect send-off for the remainder of our trip, which would lead us to Cincinnati, the Smokies, and our final destination -- Nashville.

Hello Cincinnati
About 18 months before we arrived, Georgia friends Vicki and Harold moved with daughter Katie to a beautiful piece of property in New Richmond, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati. Their lovely brick home is surrounded by several acres of grass, two barns, a pond with ducks, overflowing gardens, a greenhouse, and beautiful pool, patio, and cabana. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are always a treat with Vicki, whose greens, herbs, and other produce are picked fresh from the vegetable patch, and eggs collected warm from the hen house. One of the highlights of our visit was an afternoon stroll along Cincinnati's stunning  Riverfront Park, a major attraction that curves along the Ohio River, from the Reds' Stadium past wide wooden swings, spouting fountains, and metal sculptures and play equipment.

Riverfront Park in Cincinnati
The next morning, it was a  sweet sayonara as we bade farewell to our friends and motored south to Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee, which has the highest rate of attendance of all the national parks in the United States. A bumper-to-bumper logjam on a one-way road was all the evidence we needed to testify to the number of people taking a walk in the woods. One waterfall hike and a drive to the mountaintop gave us lots of chances for photos and views. The park's web site claims that The Hunger Games was filmed there. A summer rain and purchases from the crafts show at the convention hall filled our last day in the tourist mecca of Gatlinburg. The next morning we headed west for Nashville.

Nashville Time
They call it "Music City" and there's a reason. From the moment we arrived, we knew we were in the South. Where do you find a circle of next-door-neighbors parked on lawn chairs in the middle of the afternoon for a front yard cocktail hour, with five pairs of feet soaking in a kids' pool while five hands balance beer cans and glasses? We waved and took a quick iPhone photo, with permission, of course, before we checked into our Air BnB room at the historic East Nashville home. The country music vibe came from all directions -- tunes riding the wind from next door's boom box, guitar and concert posters decorating walls throughout the vintage-furnished house, and tourist magazines packed with music venues and hot spots. Our goal: take it all in.

The Grand Ole Opry tickets were burning a hole in Dan's pocket. We started the Nashville experience that night, with  Carrie Underwood as the Grand Ole Opry headliner and anybody's guess on other performers. First, you need to know that Opryland Hotel next door to the Grand Ole Opry is more like a small town, with restaurants, street signs, lush foliage, water features, and stairways and hallways that lead to other hallways where you can easily get lost. We did. Forever fearless, we persevered and found what our hosts back at the Air Bnb house called "the most expensive place in the hotel." Eager to eat and see the show, too, we perched our bums on bar seats at the Old Hickory Steakhouse, sucked an excellent manhattan and cosmo, inhaled the Ceasar salad and appetizers to die for, and tossed a generous tip toward the bartender, who got us in and out in time for the show.

Exile at the Grand Ole Opry
Along the pathway that leads to the entrance of the Grand Ole Opry, a white-suited, rhinestone cowboy appears to direct traffic and pose for pictures. I obliged while Dan snapped. Seated inside, we had a perfect view of the shiny wood stage at the center of a considerable amphitheater hall, with 1,999 seats downstairs and 2,373 seats upstairs. (The Opry's original home at Ryan Auditorium, which we visited on a previous trip to Nashville, remains an active venue that holds 2,373 people.) Here we sat, in hallowed halls that wrote the country music history I'd heard as a kid growing up with uncles who plucked guitars and sang Hank Williams, Tex Ritter, Johnny Cash, and so many others. This wasn't the Ryman, but the variety show ambience still signaled the cork was about to pop on a down-home party. Jeannie Seeley was our emcee hostess for the night's show. If you've never seen it, and we hadn't, Opry royalty has a sense of time, place, and importance that's hard to deny. Well into her seventh decade, Jeannie took the stage like it was her living room, and welcomed everyone to a show that dates back to its first performance in a radio studio in 1925 and is still broadcast as the  Opry Radio Show. Gracious, talented, flawless, and heartfelt, Jennie delivered a song that could've been spun in honey, with a gentle touch of twang. Graced by her performance, we settled in for the ride.

From the new acts with Ashley Clark and Logan Brill, to the old-timers like Exile and Ricky Skaggs, we absorbed the music like hikers who'd reached the mountaintop to take in the view. Carrie Underwood was the last act, singing classic numbers like "Jesus Take the Wheel" in a short performance (20-30 minutes) that had the audience begging for more, but that was all we got.  As we filed out of the enormous hall, we had to admit it was the old-timers who got our five star ratings. The whole evening was a bit of hillbilly heaven.

Back at the ranch the next morning, with our lovely host and hostess, we outlined stops for the next two days and called Uber for rides to most of our destinations. Since we'd already visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on our previous trip, we skipped it this time and headed straight for the Johnny Cash Museum in downtown Nashville. It didn't compare to Graceland for size and collections, but there was plenty to draw us in. Several napkins and pages were inked or penciled in Johnny's handwriting for songs like Folsom Prison Blues and Drive On, and there were numerous videos that showed Johnny and June performing on TV and at the Grand Ole Opry, mostly familiar tunes that we recognized. Roberts Western World was our stop for authentic country sounds in a honky tonk setting. And there were plenty of places listed in Nashville's trendy restaurant scene that could shake a cocktail as well as the designer chef could cook, decorate, and stack the grub. We majored in happy hours, but ordered meals when the temptation was too strong to leave, like it was at Rolf and Daughters, a trendy, bustling eatery in a light industrial neighborhood near downtown. The Standard was a superb recommendation from our host and hostess. On Rosa Parks Blvd., this is a house turned restaurant with a long history you can read about on their Website. We were completely satiated, sipping cocktails at the elegant downstairs bar and enjoying a tasty selection of delicious appetizers. Other places in our East Nashville neighborhood were perfect for brunch, lunch and breakfast when the mood hit us.

Fully fed and honky-tonked, we left Nashville feeling that it was the perfect ending to a trip that had the explicit goal of a night at the Grand Ole Opry.  But we got so much more, from Memphis on. The music delivered everything I'd hoped for, but the whole experience made the trip unforgettable, launching us into the modern age of AirBnb and Uber! 



Thursday, September 17, 2015

Feeding America One Bag at a Time

Yesterday was a treat. Not only did the heat lift in North San Diego County, but so did my spirits. I'd forgotten what a joy it can be to volunteer and offer something so basic but so important to someone in need. I'm on the Board of Trustees for Vista Community Clinic. We hold regular meetings and events, and we hear wonderful presentations given by dedicated staff, but it doesn't compare to the pleasure of giving that comes from handing a bag of food to someone who may be hungry.

Check out the Viola Davis AARP Interview in this month's AARP magazine. This is a woman who grew up hungry and even rummaged through garbage cans looking for food when there wasn't enough money to feed all the mouths in a family of eight. Dad was a groom at the Narraganset Racetrack in Rhode Island. The pay was meager. With a successful Hollywood career, Viola lends her name to national hunger efforts. 

Robert Trachtenberg/
For several months this year, the VCC has set aside one week or more a month to offer cans of vegetables, fruit, and meat, along with bags of beans and pasta, in partnership with Feeding America. As a healthcare safety net, the Clinic serves nearly 60,000 people in five locations in North San Diego County. Many don't have health insurance when they walk through the door, and others lack the money for copays with other, more expensive providers. Without help, these patients can fall through the cracks, except they don't. The Clinic's Web site states "we're dedicated to embodying what it means to be a community clinic: offering every single person the opportunity to be healthy." 

The moms, the babies, the toddlers, and other children with big eyes, bright smiles, and shy words, expressed grateful appreciation for the gifts of life -- good health and good food. Tiny t-shirts trimmed in drools, girlie tops with lace, ribbons and sparkles, and little boy baggy pants crossed in front of the lunchroom-sized table yesterday to collect their goods in a reusable cloth shopping bag. "What's in this can?" I asked the toddler who bowed her head and pressed her cheek into her mom's soft leg. Giant circles of brown beneath the bangs peeped up at me, my arm extended so she could see the picture on the side of the can. "Carrots" was the soft response that slipped from little lips. 

"Gracias," from the lady whose leg pillowed her daughter's head and hands pushed a stroller, cuddly baby tucked inside. "Bye-bye, little one. Come again."   

Happy New School Year

Happy New (School) Year! is such a lovely post from a site to which I subscribe as a writer.  I'll try to share more of these as they touch my heart.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Next stop...Louisville

Part II: "Digging My Southern Roots" 

Big Four Bridge Photo: Nick Roberts
My hometown of Louisville sits on the Ohio River across from Indiana, with two shiny new silver bridges connecting the two states along Riverfront Park: the Big Four pedestrian and bicycle bridge (2014), and the Downtown Crossing I-65 bridge (2016). A third bridge, the East End Crossing for I- 265, is under construction. All three represent pinnacles of clean architectural design, with two already sparkling in the night sky. Last summer, I hiked the pedestrian bridge to Clarksville on a warm summer morning with my sister-in-law, Fay, to browse through quaint coffee, candy, and gift shops in the charming Hoosier town, now coming into its own with the new bridge to boost visitors.

Downtown Crossing Bridge:
I still remember the clanky older bridges and the Colgate clock on the Indiana bank. You could see it best after dark, when it glowed like a giant circle of fluorescent red and yellow that shimmied on the water below.

Mother and Daddy loved cruising the Ohio in their houseboat, along with Joey and Uncle Bill, and a handful of other boaters. On a memorable Derby Eve, my boyfriend and I took a half-dozen or so of his fellow medical students to the river for a late night ride with Captain Daddy at the wheel. Usually, my parents' jaunts ended at Sixmile Island, Twelvemile Island, or Eighteen-mile Island (see Port Kentucky) where they dropped anchor and partied for the weekend. And the trip wasn't complete unless you made a stop at Captian's Quarters for a fish dinner on the way home. As the legend (urban?) goes, my dad swam the Ohio from the Kentucky to the Indiana shore and back when he was a kid. It's probably true, since it matches the other "little rascal" escapades he described at the dinner table, like the time he climbed out the bathroom window and jumped on his bike to ride up Devil's Backbone and escape the babysitter while his mom worked at the courthouse. She was a single mom and attorney in the 1930s who owned an apartment building in the 1940s, but that's another blog article.

My parents grew up in the southend of Louisville where I went through sixth grade at Ellen C. Semple School, a few short blocks from Churchill Downs. See my memories of the Kentucky Derby in my blog article: The Meaning of Horses and Home. In eighth grade, our family moved to a house that Daddy designed and built off of Gardiner Lane, not far from the plantation-style mansion that serves as national headquarters for YUM Brands (formerly Kentucky Fried Chicken), a major sponsor of the Derby and Ali Center (below). My sister, Mila, and I enrolled in Durrett High School, a sprawling modern building with grades seven through twelve. Our old school, Southern Junior High, only had grades seven through nine in a dated brick building our parents attended, so we were moving up in the world and eventually graduated from Durrett. Which brings me to the reason for this trip -- my high school reunion.  But first...

After the girls' trip to Memphis, I met up with Dan at the Louisville airport. We had dinner at Captain's Quarters on the river, and a great visit and good night's sleep at my cousins' house before we took off for downtown the next day. I was eager to see a museum we somehow missed on previous visits.

The Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville is a museum and community center established by a man who believes in serving his fellow man. The temperature outside was threatening 100 when we arrived at the bold contemporary structure near the river. The perfect place to chill until the reunion that night. But the chills we experienced from Ali's story registered much more on an emotional scale than a mercury thermometer.

I can still hear a TV broadcaster announce that an 18-year-old boxer named Cassius Clay, from Louisville, Kentucky, won a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. What a moment of pride for our city and country. But it was short-lived for the man. When he returned home, the ugly face of racism refused him a seat in an all-white restaurant. The story goes that he was so upset he threw his gold medal into the Ohio River. But a 2012 Guardian article refutes the story because Clay later admitted in a TV interview he misplaced the medal:  50 Stunning Olympic Moments: No. 17 Cassius Clay Wins Gold in 1960

Four years later, at the age of 22, he would become the heavyweight champion of the world. With a mountain of titles and records from a celebrated career, Muhammad Ali is considered by many to be the best boxer ever, and always makes the list of top heavyweight boxers in the sport. Nicknaming himself "The Greatest," and egged on by an engaging TV sportscaster named Howard Kosell, Ali displayed a gift of rhyme, gab, and controversy that propelled the sport into sheer entertainment and the topic of everyday conversation. He repeated his iconic "Float like a butterfly sting like a bee" slogan until it generated instant recognition worldwide. The "Rumble in the Jungle" poem about the fight with George Forman is a classic example of Ali's self-promotional, unapologetic poetry. If you somehow missed this amazing guy, give yourself a treat. You can see him perform and pontificate in his prime, and hear what others say at: Muhammad Ali Bio.

When he declared conscientious objection to the war in Vietnam and refused to serve in the military, Ali was charged with draft evasion,  sentenced to five years in prison, and stripped of his titles. Fortunately, he remained free, and even more fortunately, the charges were overturned in 1967. He changed his name to Muhammad Ali when he became a devotee of the Nation of Islam religion. But more than that, with an international following from his boxing titles, Ali set out to change the world around him. His passion for sports and human rights, and his dedication to the plight of populations around the globe, led to accolades and awards from the United Nations, Amnesty International, and others. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and was chosen to light the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996. The Ali Center in Louisville was created in 2005 with a focus on the six principles he believes are critical for living a fulfilled life: confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect, and spirituality.

The substantial exhibits at the Ali Center in Louisville occupy several floors and display a long career in boxing, as well as leadership in human rights and civil rights. I was genuinely surprised to see, read, and hear of the many injustices that the young Cassius Clay confronted while growing up in Louisville. Encouraged to become a boxer by a policeman he met when he reported a stolen bike, Ali used the harsh experiences of racism to develop his drive and prove to the world that he was as good as any white man. His example, contributions, and leadership left me with a sense of humility and respect. This is a man who still inspires countless youth, forgotten people in other countries, and leaders around the globe.

Since 2012, the Ali Center has given the annual Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award to "honor individuals around the world who have made significant contributions toward the attainment of peace, social justice, or other positive actions pertaining to human or social capital." Harry Belafonte and Geena Davis are among the 2015 recipients: Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards

The Durrett High School reunion on July 18 was at the lovely Audubon Country Club, nestled in a 1908 neighborhood, now called the City of Audubon Park, with historic homes, high-canopied trees, and graceful pink and white dogwoods in the Spring. As you enter the area, the Craftsman, Tudor Revival, Dutch Colonial, Neo-Federal, and Neo-Colonial houses and surrounding lawns provide a backdrop to a melodic drive on winding streets like Nightingale, Meadowlark, Dove, Robin, Oriole, and Wren. The welcoming brick Tudor clubhouse was the location for our meet-up with classmates one usually sees only at reunions, especially if you live in California. Some might say the event is a chance to pause, reflect, and reconnect to the good ole days. But we were adolescents, so were they always the good ole days?  Maybe not, with the angst that accompanies that stage of life. Some memories weren't so good, but they now reside in the basement of the memory bank.

For me, the Saturday night gathering had all the elements of an old home week as we recalled characters and stories, compared life notes and careers, and skipped some history best left in the archives. I'd been to the past two reunions and managed to keep in touch with a handful of alums. A few of us even took girls' trips, starting in 2007 to San Diego (Dan had to sleep in the RV), and a few years later to Asheville (drummed on the back deck at sunset), Vail (shopped the ski resort sales for fluffy down jackets and artsy sweaters), and Memphis (jingled instruments and sang and danced to the blues). But I was eager to reconnect with friends who'd been out of touch for years. I even made a few calls months before, and was delighted to see Betsy, who lived in one of those lovely homes on Oriole; Janice, who kept me company every morning at a table in the cafeteria until the bell rang for home room; and Glen, who gave me rides to college our freshman year as commuters. Before dinner, the class photo was taken on the steps of the country club in 99-degree heat, with lengthy staging that had us gasping for the AC. Back at our tables, after an informal welcome, one classmate read a poem he wrote about our teen days, and the rest of the evening we table-hopped, danced, and enjoyed the company of those who knew us when.

Jay May Photography
To tell the truth, as I reflect, I realize people don't really change that much, if you discount hair color and weight. Same look, with a few more years, and same personalities, with more confidence and experience. Though I do wonder if it's like going to the beach. Only the good bodies show up. The others stay at home. I found myself gravitating to the same people I liked in high school, but eager to connect with others I didn't know as well. It was fun to hear about Glen's passion for golf, which meant he and Dan talked for quite a while. And his wife, Audrey, whom I knew from college, showed me the lovely gold jewelry her daughter makes in NY: Satya Jewelry. There was also my friend Bob, who shared his loneliness after a big loss. I remember him as one of a group of guys who invited me to be one of the girls they honored at an annual Demolay or Rainbow Girls dance. I bumped into Rick, another of those guys, to remind him that he chose a speech I wrote to give for a contest he entered. Unfortunately, he didn't win, he reminded me. Maybe third place.

Table favors were two CDs, an event program with a few yearbook pictures, and two blue martini glasses that we've put to excellent use. After I returned home, I thumbed through the program and played the CDs. One CD included almost our entire senior yearbook, with everyone's senior picture, which I was delighted to have since mine was lost in a move years ago. But the last part, In Memoriam, struck me as sad. Too many classmates gone. The second CD was loaded with songs of the day, but again, so many sad songs, reminders of the difficult days of adolescence. I wondered if the absentees at the reunion skip it because they want to leave that part in the basement. For me, the feeling in the room was joyful and the laughs were about the fun we had and the crazy stupid things we did. It was a time to celebrate, and to acknowledge how far we'd come since we cheered the Durrett Demons, blew out 16 candles on a birthday cake, and collected trinkets for our silver charm bracelets. I'll say to those who passed on the reunion, we miss seeing you. And rest assured, any skeletons of the good ole days were buried long ago.