A Bushel and A Peck (Or Two)

phdpfapples1Last weekend we began Fall. Seasons in our household are flexible, and they do not really begin until I have declared a season “open.” Once committed to a season I commit properly, however don’t ever expect to see the twee scarecrows Americans are so fond of appearing in my house. Pumpkins, leaves, candy corn, wreaths, burlap, I’m open to it all, but the flannel wearing scarecrow is too much for my English sensibilities. Every time I see one, I say to myself “what would the Dowager Countess say?”

This Fall our activities are largely being dictated by what stickers I have. My boyfriend kindly spoilt me earlier in the year with a large selection from my favorite scrapbook company, October Afternoon, and so we have to accomplish quite a lot this Fall. Apple picking, pumpkin patching, sweater wearing, pie baking, cider sipping, all must be done so that I can use my stickers. As I said, when I commit to a season, I don’t do it half-heartedly.phdpfapples4

Fall in New England is one of the most glorious sights in the world. It is more beautiful than pictures suggest, and more magical than any guidebook can describe. The air is crisp and the church spires and cobbled streets of Boston sparkle in the dazzling light of the low autumn sun. After six years in New England, the sight of the leaves still never fails to take my breath away. “The Colors,” as they call it, is serious business; there are leaf tours, train rides through the mountains, Fall foliage festivals, and in our apartment complex there is an annual leaf photography competition. Yesterday the grocery store flyer that came in the mail had 43 pumpkin products listed. These included pumpkin macaroons, pumpkin croissants, pumpkin ravioli, pumpkin pie popcorn, and of course pumpkin spiced coffee and tea. Some people actually now refer to Fall as “Pumpkin Season,” such is the plethora of pumpkin flavored goods. It makes me wish I liked coffee, as for many New Englanders Fall does not begin until you have had a Pumpkin Spice Latte.

For our first fall activity we chose apple picking, and so drove to New Hampshire with some friends of ours to a fantastic orchard. Last weekend the weather was beautiful, we could not have had a more perfect apple day. The sun shone all day, so much so that it actually made me regret my decision to combine apple picking and sweater wearing. The drive along I-95 to NH is beautiful this time of year. We are just on the cusp of Fall and thus the drive is punctuated by sudden bursts of red and gold, exploding like fireworks among the sea of green trees.

After about an hour we arrived at our chosen orchard, close to Portsmouth, NH, and found that most of New England had had the same idea. The orchard was absolutely packed. Children ran around with apples painted on their cheeks, others struggled under the weight of a freshly picked pumpkin, some raced towards the hay bales and bouncy castle, while a few cautiously approached the lamas and goats in the petting zoo with handfuls of food. We headed to the bakery section and bought some apple cider donuts, essential fuel for picking. Nothing beats the taste of these slightly spiced cake-like donuts on a beautiful Fall day.

At the orchard you purchase a bag to fill with apples and then head over to the Pick Your Own fields. We chose the one-peck bags, which we were told could hold 10 pounds of apples. I knew I could do better. Being a bit of a bargain queen, I am very adept at getting the most amount of product into a set price box or bag. You should see me at Disneyworld with Mr Potato Head parts, I am a demon. You just have to think logically, in a Tetris-like manner and make sure that every single space is filled. Our peck bag thus contained closer to 15 pounds of apples. A further few pounds surreptitiously found their way into my handbag. I know, I know, it is technically theft, but I prefer to see it as a community-sharing program. There are many young children at the orchards that get nowhere near to filling up their bags before they get bored, so I just take their overage.

The orchard was delightful; we picked five different types of apple in a range of sizes and colors ready for a vast assortment of apple baking. We crunched our way through a couple of apples each as we wandered around the rows of fruit-laden trees. I am always surprised that a tree that looks so short and flimsy can support so many apples. One of our friends is also a coupon queen and like me commits to tasks seriously. She therefore had read up about apple picking in the Martha Stewart magazine, and thus knew that you had to twist instead of pull to get the apples down. Her handbag was considerably lighter than mine but she did say she was in awe of my stealth-like ability.

phdpfapples3With picking complete we wandered back to the car and deposited our haul. Stopping, of course, for the obligatory pumpkin patch photos, and to pose with some of the face-in-a-hole boards. They are like the ones you would find at an English seaside, except pumpkin and apple-themed, naturally. My gallant boyfriend agreed to pose with very minimal complaint; he is so very accommodating of my scrapbooking ways.

Once loaded in to the car we headed to our favorite diner for lunch, listening to the apples hurtling around in the trunk as we drove. After a feast including turkey dinner, chicken pot pie, meatloaf, fried pickles, and milkshake we got back in the car. The boys chatted all the way home, and the girls on the backseat were asleep within ten minutes. What a way to begin Fall! I doubt the Dowager Countess would approve, but days like these are the very best of American life. Watching the sun dance on rows of golden trees, you understand why they call it God’s country. The apple orchards of New England are my “City Upon a Hill.”


Sounds of the Seacoast

phdpfsosI have forty mothers. And no, I am not the result some bizarre science testing, or a sociological study in experimental familial structures. Rather, I am a choir member.

For the past five years I have sung in the barbershop chorus, Sounds of the Seacoast (S.O.S). This chorus is my family away from home. I have been to their weddings, their Thanksgivings, their children’s weddings, and graduations. They have fed me when Grad School gets too much, housed me when needed, they’ve helped me up and down stairs after injuries and surgeries, and supported me through family deaths and illness. Last year my Mum had a serious accident, and my chorus members asked for her address so that they could send cards. These are the kinds of women I have been blessed to find.

Not only are they fabulous women, we are pretty amazing singers too. I’ve sung in choirs since Junior School, and wanted to continue in Grad School. In fact, it was something my Mum encouraged from the beginning of my American journey: the card she left in my luggage asked me to do her a favor and start singing again. After a few months in New Hampshire, I found Sounds. The director and a couple of members were at a local community day, and as soon as I met them I knew this was the choir for me. Then after watching rehearsals and passing my audition I was in.

Barbershop is one of only two authentic American musical forms, the other being jazz. The music is in 4 parts: Tenor is the highest, Lead is usually the melody line, Bass is the lowest, and the Baritone meanders doing the important work of providing the notes to complete each chord. Barbershop is sung a cappella, with only a single note blown on a pitch pipe to provide the initial tuning.

For a song to be considered barbershop, not only must there be 4-part a cappella harmony, but the chords in the song must progress in a certain order. The genre makes heavy use of the Dominant Seventh chord, so much so that it is often referred to as the Barbershop Seventh as it gives barbershop its distinctive sound. Another unique feature is the way the music progresses around the circle of fifths. I guess you could see this chord progression as the skeleton of barbershop melody. We do sing some a cappella songs that do not follow this structure, however, we cannot use them to compete at contests. A final feature of barbershop is that when certain chords are sung together in perfect pitch with everyone singing exactly the same vowel sound, the chord “rings.” This means that a fifth note can also be heard, even though no one is actually singing that note. It’s pretty impressive!

Sounds of the Seacoast is a member of the women’s barbershop organization Harmony Inc., and we compete every year with other Harmony members. In April we have our regional competition, which includes choruses from New England and Canada. Then if you qualify you go on to internationals in November. For the past five years, we have won first place in our area. The highest we have won at internationals is second place, however this year we are ranked number one going into our international competition in Louisville. So keep everything crossed for November.

Female barbershoppers could give professional figure skaters a run for their money with their sequins, bedazzlements, and bronze-hued foundation. I love opportunities in life when you get to enter into a world you previously knew nothing about. Barbershop is another world, and I have fully immersed myself in it. I have worn sequined costumes Nancy Reagan would be proud of, I have applied lipstick shades my normal self would never even consider, and I have mastered my jazz hands and killer-watt smile like a pro. My boyfriend calls me Barbershop Barbie.

The friendships in my chorus are supported by a strong mutual desire to be the best barbershop singers we can be. A couple of weeks ago we had our annual coaching retreat in New Hampshire. In an 80-something degree hall with no AC and a few sparse ceiling fans we sang all day. We sang while marching, and while clicking our fingers, we sang as a whole ensemble, and as smaller groups, we sang in individual parts, and in duets. The focus of the day’s coaching was on breathing. We have improved so much in recent years that we need to concentrate on the mechanics of singing now that we have (generally) mastered singing in tune. It is quite amazing how a small change like the way you inhale air, or the way you position your tongue can affect your singing. These small changes are really some of the hardest to master; it is much easier to correct a wrong note than it is to train yourself to breathe in a different way.

The focus of our afternoon activities was on rhythm. One of the songs we are taking to contest is a medley of Gershwin songs, including I’ve Got Rhythm, and Fascinating Rhythm. Our presentation involves the difficult task of singing and dancing in two different rhythms. It is the extreme sports version of that exercise where you rub your stomach and pat your head in different directions. In the remaining weeks before contest we all need to do a lot of singing while listening to a metronome, or clicking fingers until the rhythm is fully embedded in our bones. Then, hopefully, we will be able to dance to another beat as well.

By about 5 o’clock the heat in our hall was approaching 90, I had drunk all the bottles of the water I brought with me, and the emergency stash from the car. After trying running shoes, flip-flops, and then bare feet, I was now walking on tiptoes as the least painful option. But as the Harmony Inc. anthem says “We’re Harmony, We’re Strong!”

As forty-seven weary singers got down from the risers, a delivery man arrived with armloads of pizza. You know that phrase about singing for your supper… Once restored with pizza we looked forward to the evening’s entertainment: a chorus-wide Olympic games with a difference. Among other tasks, we competed for who could blow the biggest bubble of gum, who had the least points on their license, who had the most grandchildren, who could spin a coin the longest, who could make a paper airplane fly the furthest, and who could jump the highest. The jump off came down to me and our director. In a nail-biting final she out-jumped me. The prize for winning these illustrious games? A tub of Play-Doh! This is why I love these women. We can sing all day and then still take a contest over Play-Doh seriously!

As a member of Sounds of The Seacoast I have met some of funniest women I know, and made many of my best friends in America. In one of the cards my Mum received last year, one of my fellow singers wrote “Thank you for loaning us Tess, we love her!” But the truth is, the thanks should come from me. I cannot imagine my life in America without being a member of SOS.