Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy

phdpfej2.jpgI-95 meanders along America’s East Coast, bringing drivers from the Maine/Canada border to the Southern tip of mainland Florida. Although it follows the path of the Atlantic Ocean, I-95 offers few scenic views. These belong to US Route 1, which hugs the coastline more closely. Instead, I-95 is bedecked with the remains of burned out tires, the occasional “Welcome Home US Marine_______” banner, and overly complex construction projects.

I-95 and I are old friends. There is no road in the US that I know better. I know when to move lanes, how to avoid the potholes, and where to slow for waiting State Troopers. If ever I feel down, the battered highway restores my faith. Every Monday I drive north on I-95 for chorus practice, and in this hour with an open highway and a Honda Civic stereo, I am reminded of the possibilities of America.

My travel companions are numerous. I’ve shouted at Donald Trump during the Presidential Debates, celebrated with Big Papi as the Sox won the World Series. I’ve joined the cast of Jersey Boys, and climbed on the back of Springsteen’s motorbike. But the person who spends the most time on the road with me is not an American. It’s Elton.

I went to my first Elton John concert when I was six years old. I drew a picture of him, complete with his Diet Coke can in an ice bucket. My Dad was so impressed that he had a color photocopy made—it was the pinnacle of my young artistic career. I had a The One album poster on my bedroom wall, and dressed up in novelty pink sunglasses and my Dad’s giant red Converse to watch Top of the Pops. Understandably, neither of my parents ever corrected my version of The Bitch Is Back, and for years I happily sang, “I’m a Bisc, I’m a Bisc, I’m a Biscuit Bag”…

I’m lucky enough to have lost count of how many Elton shows I’ve been to. I’ve seen him play at Madison Square Garden for his 60th birthday, I’ve danced on stage at the Million Dollar Piano in Vegas, and I’ve heard Philadelphia Freedom in Philadelphia. In the week leading up to my wedding last year, my Mum and I danced arm in arm, wearing wellies and Niagara Falls ponchos at a rain-soaked concert in Bath, England. A Tiny Dancer Marryoke followed at my wedding a week later.Tessa and Aaron's wedding at St Nicholas; Church, Pyrford and Ham Polo ClubWhile Elton is well known for his giant shoes, eclectic eye wear, and a penchant for both flowers and Donald Duck costumes, there is a depth and richness to the Taupin/John partnership than many underestimate. Although resolutely British, they both belong in the great American songbook.

Bernie Taupin and Elton John were among the many voices that inspired my love of America. As I began my life here, it was their words—“Boston at last, and the plane’s touching down,” that echoed through my thoughts. I still hear this lyric whenever I land at Logan. From 1971’s Holiday Inn, the Taupin/John love affair with America has grown from a passing motel room to a deep understanding of this land, its peoples, its strengths, and its foibles.

Their work touches all facets of American life—heroes and hidden stories, highways and back roads. In Empty Garden they stood outside the Dakota building contemplating the loss of John Lennon. With I Feel Like a Bullet (in the Gun of Robert Ford) they used the death of Jesse James to explore the pain of break up. Equally adept at discussing celebrated figures as commonplace folk, the Taupin/John songbook gives plentiful attention to everyday Americans—from the Monalisas and Madhatters navigating daily life in Manhattan, to the unnamed Indian warrior hurling a tomahawk in 1971’s Indian Sunset.phdpfej5phdpfej6Having sat on the swing in Elvis’ Tupelo home, I can almost taste the Mississippi heat as I listen to Porch Swing in Tupelo. The lilting delay as Elton sings “Tennessee” and “Mississippi” in the second verse, perfectly captures the slow inaction of summer in the South. Delving further back into Southern history, the heavy percussive beat of Gone to Shiloh (2010) paints the reluctant dread of a Union soldier marching into battle. Their music moves across states and centuries, equally adept at bringing to life Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, a seventeenth century savant, as the tragic Norma Jean.

Taupin’s knowledge of American culture and history is encyclopedic, and his lyrics find as much fascination in Roy Rogers cartoons as the war of 1812. With the dexterity of the best intellectual scholars, he blends high and low culture, attack and praise. On 2006’s Postcards from Richard Nixon, for example, he describes the wonders of “Brian Wilson’s promised land, where Disney’s God” and Steve McQueen drives down Sunset, while also criticizing Nixon’s Vietnam policy.

With time, the partnership moved from historical reflection to political action. Ballad of the Boy in the Red Shoes, on 2001’s critically acclaimed Songs From the West Coast, lambasted President Reagan, “the old man [who] wouldn’t listen,” and his refusal to fund research and fight AIDS. Fourteen years later, Sir Elton addressed the US Congress urging them to do more to fight the disease.phdej3.jpgThis year, Bernie and Elton celebrate 50 years of musical collaboration. Two boys raised on Westerns in rural England grew to be the superheroes they always dreamed of being. Living in a dude ranch in California, Taupin, the brown dirt cowboy from Lincolnshire raises cutting horses. The young pianist from Pinner, now a Knight, has always been Captain Fantastic.

Travelling back from chorus, I-95 is empty. With years of practice on this stretch of open road, my ability to drive, sing, and dance at the same time is unmatched. In the dark I hit the hillside with Roy and Trigger, I sit with Elvis on that Tupelo porch swing, and I join George Michael in introducing, “Ladies and Gentleman, Mr. Elton John.” For the captain, the kid, and me, together on our stretch of I-95, all is well.    phdpfej4

 

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I Found The Gown

vows8.jpgSeveral years ago I was in New Jersey for the wedding of one of my dearest friends. The day before the wedding, a hurricane hit the Eastern corridor and so our 5-hour journey took us nearly 11 hours. When we finally reached our hotel, we found the largest bed I have ever seen and a welcome box from our wonderful hosts filled with personalized cookies. After hours in the car, it was such a relief to put on a dressing gown and relax.

While channel hoping, I landed on TLC and saw a wedding show was on. Usually I skip over Say Yes to the Dress but I noticed that this show had a different name—I  Found the Gown —and kept watching. Within minutes I was hooked. While Say Yes to the Dress featured expensive gowns in the gleaming decadence of Kleinfeld’s New York boutique, I Found the Gown took place at Vows salon in Massachusetts and showcased bargain designer wedding dresses. And so together with my then-boyfriend, I sat on the giant bed, eating cookies in the shape of New Jersey state, and watched episodes of I Found the Gown till I fell asleep.

Being, frankly, quite cheap by nature, I was overjoyed to consider the possibility of one day getting a bargain when purchasing a wedding dress. Not only did I witness the wedding of one of my favorite couples that weekend, but I knew where my first stop would be when I got engaged. And so, two years later when my then-boyfriend became my husband, it was time to call Vows. Vows1Reviews of the store described the experience at Vows as rushed and harried. However, as someone who previously sat on dirty floors at both Michaels and Target in order to reach bottom shelf bargains, this did not phase me—if anything it made the challenge all the more exciting. With my Mum in tow, we headed to Watertown ready to use elbows if necessary to get a dress. On arrival however, Vows could not have been more serene. We parked in the “engaged” parking spots and went into the store where our assistant met us.vows6While Vows is an authorized retailer for a handful of designers whose gowns can be custom ordered, the real attraction of the store is the sample sale designer gowns. As they are samples, there is often just one of each gown in the store and the inventory changes often. Each gown in stored in a clear garment bag and the shop is arranged by style–mermaids to the left, ball gowns to the right, etc. You are given time to peruse the floor and select the gowns you think you might like to try on. However, with all the dresses are stored in garment bags it can be hard to really tell what a dress is like. On two occasions dresses sprang out like jack-in-the-boxes when I unzipped the bag, revealing far more bling and poof than I was looking for.vows3Bit-by-bit we narrowed our options down, and I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to dress up and try different styles. There were only two other brides in the store, and we stayed much longer than the allotted one-hour appointment time. I imagine the weekend appointments are likely more crowded, but our Thursday morning appointment was bliss.  vows7I came to the store looking for a ball gown with short sleeves, so how I came to leave with a strapless trumpet style remains one of the great magical mysteries of the bridal salon. While looking for dresses, the ruching on a Romona Keveza gown had caught my eye, and so I added it to my sleeved selections. As I took it out of the bag the beautiful French silk tulle puffed out, and I felt a little rush of excitement. There was no bling just acres of delicate tulle and English net. When I put the dress on, I knew it was a contender. As I walked out into the viewing area and saw my Mum’s face I understood this was something special. With a veil on, I let out the audible gasp I had heard so many times on bridal shows. This was my gown.

vows5 copyAfter several moments parading up and down, taking photos and staring into the mirror, we had to decide what to do. With only one dress in the store, I did not want to let it go, yet I have never been one for quick decisions. We opted to put a deposit down to hold the gown for 5 days. During that time I went to another salon and tried on the sleeved ball gown I had originally been interested in, and by sending photos to my friends and family crowd sourced opinion on the gown. Romona got the most votes. Five days later, Vows kindly let me come in and try the gown with heels. It was still my gown.

And so I found a gown that was $400 under my budget and $3000 less than it originally retailed for. It was the first step in my wedding bargain hunting, and I cannot think of a better gown or place for me. The staff at Vows were incredibly helpful, and I went on to order my bridesmaids dresses with them too. There is a further discount if you order both wedding dress and bridesmaids gown at the store.VowsCome January when it was time to begin dress alterations, I finally collected my gown and went to see Anahit, the seamstress Vows recommended. The world of the seamstress is a timeless, female-dominated empire. In an age of mechanization, it is one of the few arenas in which handcraft remains king. It is a world I would have been entirely unaware if if not for the wedding dress. I felt privileged to have entered it, if only for a few brief hours.

Like the business it houses, the unassuming storefront seems to belie age. Faux ferns adorn the entranceway, and aging plastic wedding bouquets with faded glittered petals sit in delicate gold vases on the store counter. There is no website or email, no credit cards are accepted, and all bills are calculated by hand on carbon paper. The rows of thank you cards showing pictures of smiling brides are the only nod to the contemporary world outside.vows4For my first fitting, my husband helped to carry the garment bag into the store and was almost instantly sent away. An assistant whisked the dress out of my hands, and directed me to remove my shoes and stand on the towel in front of me. Walking along a carpet of white towels, I moved to the seating area and watched as Anahit pinned and repositioned the lace applique onto another bride’s intricate gown. Like many Vows customers, the bride had purchased a dress, which was too big for her. Anahit had altered it to her size and now begun the painstaking work of reapplying lace details along the seams. As the seamstress worked her magic, kneeling on the floor with a mouth full of pins, the bride offered frequent suggestions as to other alterations she felt could be done to the back of the gown. With my limited knowledge of sewing, I could see that her suggestions were impossible. The seamstress’ task, I suspect, is not always an easy one.

When it came time for my fitting, Anahit welcomed me with enthusiastic greetings and congratulations in her lilting Eastern European prose. She ohhed and ahhed as I took my dress out of the bag, and knew it was a Romona Keveza straight away. “Honey,” she said as I put on my gown, “you have the butt my previous bride wishes she had.” And instantly I loved her.

During our next three fittings Anahit continued to call me Honey. Despite the thousands of dresses she has altered she still delighted in beautiful gowns and exquisite fabrics. She seemed genuinely excited to be working on my gown and confided that she was glad to work with tulle as the royal wedding created a surge in lace. Together we designed a removable shawl to add to the top of the dress. As she put it, “we will add Oscar De La Renta to this Romona Keveza.” When it came time to cut the dress she said a wedding blessing as her scissors snipped away at the tulle. On more than one occasion she grabbed my phone and took pictures of my dress, with instructions that I must send the photos to my mother. At the final appointment, Anahit made the previous bride wait to see me in my finished gown. She was, quite simply, a supremely talented, reassuring eccentric.Tessa and Aaron's wedding at St Nicholas; Church, Pyrford and Ham Polo ClubOn the day of my wedding I accessorized my Romona Keveza dress with the tiara my Mum wore when she married my father, as well as pearls given to me by my Mum and aunt. I wanted a ball gown for a classic look, but I found it in a strapless trumpet gown of English net and French tulle. My husband cried as I walked down the aisle, and when we got outside he said the dress was Jackie Kennedy and Grace Kelly all in one, making my every dress dream come true.

In a blush pink gown, that bride from New Jersey three years ago now looked exquisite as one of my bridesmaids, unaware of what an important role her personalized wedding cookies played in my dress selection. Because of her, I found the gown.vows2

Mission Impossible in a Sofa Store

Strange as it sounds, furniture stores remind me of home. A Christmas at home in England wouldn’t be Christmas without watching the plethora of sofa ads, preferably with a glass of mulled wine in hand, and asking out loud who buys these terrible products. “There’s not one there, I would buy” is a frequent outburst in our house, often accompanied by “I wouldn’t give it house-room”—one of my late grandmother’s famed phrases.

When I first saw Jordan’s Furniture ads, I knew I had found the American equivalent. Jordan’s is a large New England furniture company that takes its local links seriously. The store’s owner is a dedicated Red Sox fan, and watching him promise free furniture if the Sox win the World Series is now part of the ritual of the New England Spring. An enthusiastic balding man with a silver ponytail, Jordan boasts about his stores’ current offers with great gusto in low budget local tv commercials. He is also not really called Jordan, I recently discovered his name is Eliot. However, to me, and I expect most of New England, he will always be Jordan.

The mysterious allure of Jordan’s Furniture deepened last Christmas when I heard Jordan (ok, Eliot) on the radio inviting people to come to the store to purchase the famous Jordan’s blueberry muffins! As I was driving at the time, I had to wait till I got home to investigate this properly. I suspect the powers that be at Jordan’s were inspired by Rowan Atkinson’s observation that “this is so much more that a bag” in Love Actually, as Jordan’s really appeared to be “so much more than a store.” In addition to the famed blueberry muffins, the store website promised an enchanted village for Christmas, and a light and water spectacular with over 9,000 water nozzles.

Having spent most of my childhood holidays in the Isle of Wight where we stoically eschewed Waltzing Waters as a matter of principle, my natural instinct was to avoid Jordan’s at all cost, however, a final attraction caught my attention: the IMAX cinema. I know this sounds like I made it up, but I swear it’s real. Our local furniture store contains an IMAX cinema!

Further investigation revealed that the 8 Story-high screen offered 12,000 watts of “mind boggling surround sound,” all brought to you while in the comfort of a memory foam Tempur-Pedic seat. I would love to have been in the marketing meetings when they dreamed this idea up. I can picture the conversation at which two executives said if we could get people to watch a movie in a memory foam chair then surely they will buy a memory foam mattress. The logic almost works, and yet somehow it doesn’t.

By this point, however, I was hooked; I had no choice but to experience this cinema for myself. Hearing that the new Mission Impossible film was playing, we decided that this would be suitably epic for the Jordan’s big screen. We drove to the store, parked in the ginormous car park and entered the revolving glass doors.

Nothing, not even my careful consultation of Jordan’s website, prepared me for the sight that met us. To our left was a Jelly Bean factory, to our right a trapeze school, and straight-ahead a giant mechanical moving statue of Wally, the Red Sox mascot (a cleaner version of Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch). Alarmingly the green creature seemed to have taken a Yankees player hostage in his giant hand, rather like King Kong and Fay Wray.phdpiefillingjordans1With some understandable trepidation, we passed under the mascot’s giant arm and found ourselves in a very normal looking furniture store. We followed small signs for the IMAX through rooms of beds, patio furniture displays, living room set-ups, sofas, and vases. The walk seemed to go on forever, and we both really doubted whether the IMAX would ever materialize. However, eventually we passed our final settee and found ourselves at a popcorn stand. We purchased tickets and entered into the cinema.phdpiefillingjordans4Utterly bemused, we discussed what had just happened. Why was there a Jelly Bean factory in a furniture store? Had Michael Jackson designed this bizarre play land? How were people walking through rooms of furniture to get to a cinema like it was a perfectly normal thing to do?

Our discussion was interrupted as the room went dark and Eliot’s giant face appeared on the 8-Story screen and his 12,000-Watt voice boomed through the cinema. This was, we were promised, the most comfortable seat we would ever sit in and the most impressive sound we would ever hear. Eliot proudly explained that our seats were not merely seats; they were “Butt Kickers” with built in subwoofers. The thought of Eliot’s voice so close to me was quite unnerving.phdpiefillingjordans3The film, however, was excellent, and fully deserving of the supersized screen and subwoofers. The storyline was gripping, I only had to close my eyes a couple of times, and the shots of London and its skyline were all the better for the 8-Story projection. As the credits rolled and the lights came up, we made our way out of the cinema and into a display of grey-striped armchairs before eventually returning to the entrance and the giant green monster. We exited the store by passing underneath a statue of George Washington on his horse made entirely out of Jelly Beans….phdpiefillingjordans2Blinking in the bright Boston sunlight we struggled to make sense of what we had just experienced. Suffice to say we will not be buying a subwoofer or a Tempur-Pedic mattress, but we might just be back to this most bizarre of institutions. If DFS or Land of Leather were to offer similar such experiences in England, maybe I would move from mocking their ads to visiting their stores. In the mean time, I watch Eliot’s ads with new appreciation, armed with the knowledge that behind the unassuming black clothes and greying ponytail there is a real American eccentric. I’m not convinced this fantasy world helps to sell furniture, but thank you for the show….

Baby, We Were Born to Run

phdpfBS1I was raised on the Promised Land, on the slam of the screen door, and the call of Thunder Road. Bruce Springsteen’s musical highway has guided much of my life. As a small child I requested “Humpy Heart” unaware the lyrics were actually “Hungry.” As a teenager I once sat in the car listening to Born in the USA and vowed that I would live here, unaware of course of the true horror of those lyrics. As an adult I drove across America casing the Promised Land.

Much like the American Dream, the beauty of Springsteen’s highway is its flexibility. As scholar Stephen Hazan Arnoff has observed Springsteen’s landscape is geographically inaccurate. More of a metaphor than a real location, the highway becomes real through the lives and stories of Springsteen’s fans. Last year I traveled down that highway to Wembley Arena, London, and got to see “The Boss” in concert. It was the stuff of dreams.

Like Moses’ exodus a Springsteen concert is a pilgrimage to the Promised Land. From Boston, New Jersey, and London, our group of friends and family came together to see the Bard of Asbury Park. Jon Stewart once observed of Springsteen, “he empties the tank.” On stage in London, he emptied that tank, providing four hours of life-affirming, soul wrenching rock and roll heaven. With Thunder Road he rekindled youthful hope in the eyes of middle-aged men. Asking Mary to climb in, he ignited teenage passions in women throughout the arena. Screaming along to “Born To Run” with my boyfriend, my Mum, and Uncle, I felt the euphoric sense of community and possibility that Springsteen’s music celebrates. Arms round each other, jumping up and down, punching the air with every “Oh,” we left our ordinary lives behind, and joined the quest for that runaway American Dream.

Last month Springsteen’s highway took me to a classroom in Boston, when my Mum, the one who raised and schooled me on The Boss, came to my undergrad class on Springsteen and the American Dream. She has never seen me teach before, and flew in especially to see me in action. I have taught this subject for several years now, however, the night before I had serious butterflies. After finding her a seat in the front row, I began my class and the nerves dissipated. Our topic of the week was Springsteen and the Promised Land, and the first class was dedicated to Springsteen’s discussion of the road. Looking at images of Springsteen, we considered how prominently cars and highways feature in his photos and album covers. We discussed Springsteen’s own Jersey upbringing, in which cars were both status symbols and a route out. Listening to Thunder Road we discussed redemption and rebirth, and in The River the class observed that Springsteen’s highway did not need to be literal.

In the front row Mum took copious notes and nodded encouraging agreement. She was the ideal student and I could see her itching to contribute to class discussion. At the end of class once all the students had left, Mum walked up to me with a huge smile and a hug, it was one of my proudest moments. Heading to the North End for celebratory cannoli we talked about the highway, the car, and The Boss in greater detail. We discussed her notes, and the ideas class had sparked, we spoke about my students’ contributions, and their strong analysis of Springsteen’s work. She praised my teaching, my students, my University, and the possibility of the American Dream demonstrated in a classroom of students of varying races, creeds, and backgrounds.

Two days later we returned to the classroom. This time Mum sat in the back as we discussed the Promised Land in terms of US immigration and religion. After watching Bruce speak about immigration in an awards ceremony at Ellis Island, the class analyzed American Land, a raucous jig detailing the hardships of 19th Century immigration. Turning from immigration to religion, we looked at Catholic imagery in Thunder Road, and discussed Springsteen as a religious storyteller. Finally, we considered the idea that Springsteen’s performances could be read as religious gatherings, with Springsteen as priest. I told my students about my experience at Wembley and we watched footage of the show, analyzing the religious elements to his performance. And so my Mum watched as our lives became lecture.

Springsteen once described himself as a “hopeful wanderer,” and through his music he has engendered hope and desire to wander in fans throughout the world. The Rattlesnake Speedway isn’t in Utah, as his song The Promised Land claims, it is in Nebraska, but such inaccuracy doesn’t matter. Thunder Road isn’t literal, but Springsteen’s highway is real. I saw it in Wembley, I saw it through my Mum’s eyes in my classroom, and I travel on it whenever I listen to a Springsteen record.

I doubt Mum ever guessed the little girl singing “Humpy Heart” would one day lecture on it. Having my Mum in class meant more than any graduation or qualification. Watching her beam with pride meant more than any student evaluation or teaching assessment. If the American Dream and the promise of the open road are about generational progress and the possibility to dream big, then in my classroom we both reached the Promised Land.

If You Build It, He Will Come

I have been to the Promised Land. It existed briefly yesterday evening in downtown Boston. My boyfriend and I joined the throngs of families, friends, couples, and fans who ventured to baseball’s most hallowed temple, Fenway Park, for the annual “Futures at Fenway” event. We spent the afternoon watching the Lowell Spinners taking on the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, surrounded by young children witnessing their first baseball game, tasting their first Fenway Frank, stepping on their first peanut shell, limbering up in their first Seventh Inning stretch, and singing their first Sweet Caroline.

As the sun began to fade and play came to an end, children hurried to meet the Minor league players handing them a glove, a bat, a ball, or a program to sign, hopeful that one day they could reminisce about meeting a future Major League superstar. For many sleepy children with cotton-candy smeared faces this was the end of the night. However, for me, the real magic began with the sinking sun and the balmy summer breeze.

As the crowds thinned out we moved to seats just behind home plate, right in front of the big screen. Half an hour after the game finished, the screen lit up, and chatter stopped. People clapped as the familiar Universal Studios logo illuminated the big screen, heralding the beginning of the 25th anniversary screening of Field of Dreams. And so we watched Field of Dreams in the field of dreams.

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The movie has been a firm favorite of mine since visiting the Louisville Slugger Factory three years ago. But sitting in the MLB’s oldest stadium, a hot dog and fries in hand elevated the film to greater importance. Suddenly it all seemed true, and the words became prophetic:-

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good.“

In the wake of 2013’s Boston Marathon bomb, it was the Red Sox who came to represent the hopes and dreams of the city, bringing Bostonians together in celebration of their World Series victory. In the face of terror it was, as W.P. Kinsella’s book suggested, baseball that formed the constant.

In a world in which Facebook friends so often pass for real relationships, emails and texts for face-to-face communication, and in a city that has experienced terrorism in its heartland, Field of Dreams took me to Iowa, to a timeless baseball diamond. In Fenway Park a group of small boys, perhaps 8 years old, ran in front of us clutching their prized ball autographed by Lowell Spinners players. Illuminated by the light of a billboard, Old Glory swayed in the breeze, and in the distance the Citco sign bathed Kenmore Square in its red and blue rays.

The audience cheered as Kevin Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, drove through Brookline searching out Terrance Mann, and roared when his wife asked “Is Fenway the one with the big green wall on the left field.” And in the darkness, underneath that big green wall my boyfriend and I, both now fatherless, cried as Ray Kinsella got to throw a pitch to his father once again and introduce him to the granddaughter he never met. Like Costner’s, my father’s eyes were piercingly blue. As the credits rolled and I struggled to contain my mascara in a tear soaked tissue, my boyfriend voiced what we were both thinking, “what I wouldn’t give for 5 minutes more.”

In Fenway Park, July 13th 2014,for a few short hours the American Dream came to Boston. It may just be Boston, but it sure felt like heaven.