Sunday, March 22, 2015

In which I submit "I Can't Keep Up" to Der Yidisher Idol in Mexico City

Jane Peppler, Ken Bloom and Jim Baird of Mappamundi recording a Yiddish songWhen I heard there was going to be the second annual "Der Yidisher Idol" this summer I decided I had to enter the competition. I hate competing but I like supporting quixotic causes. I recently held a competition on my telenovela blog and out of the 12,000 visitors we have a day, only TWO people submitted entries. That bummed me out. So if nothing else, I will swell the Mexican contest's applicant pool.

They are calling it the Yiddish version of "American Idol" but it's actually more about songwriting: there's a $750 prize for the best original Yiddish lyrics to an existing tune, and a $1000 prize for the best original Yiddish song, lyrics and tune both. I decided to submit videos in both categories. I've had bronchitis since I came back from snowy Boston a MONTH ago, so I sang these two songs with a lot of coughing in between takes. Lots and lots of coughing. For some reason the second one sounds like I inhaled helium. Oh well.

Here's the first one. A few years ago I fell in love with the 18th century German folksong Stets in trauer and the version I heard was in a Southern dialect that sounded kind of like Yiddish to me. So I decided to write Yiddish lyrics for it. It's a song I really relate to but I wish I didn't. Sadly, I do remember what it's like to be madly in love with a bum and patiently waiting for him to... to what? What do bums ever do? Anyway, here it is, with Roger Lynn Spears on the piano. There are subtitles so you can get the story! Roger did not want to be on camera so I lip-synched this afterwards, a skill I do not have.

So the second one was more of a challenge. I've only written maybe five songs in my whole life and never feel like I have anything to tell the world, so that's a roadblock. I decided to write myself an anthem, why should I not have one? This one, I had to lip-sync and play fake piano because I only have two mics so we couldn't all record it at once.

I used Nahum Stutchkoff's Yiddish Rhyming Dictionary, and his marvellous thesaurus (out of print but you can often find a copy on eBay). And a dictionary. The Yiddish equivalent of "I Can't Keep Up" is Ikh ken nit mithaltn.

I got Sheva Zucker to vet the grammar and help with words - she said some that I'd chosen were "in the dictionary but nobody uses them." Ken Bloom and Jim Baird from our band Mappamundi came for the afternoon to record this as well as priceless songs from the past which will appear here at a later date! (Yaka Hula Hiki Du af yidish and Donkey Monkey Business aka Donki Monki Biznes).

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Thursday, March 05, 2015

Story telling prompt: "Roommates."

I didn't get picked to tell a story at the Monti tonight but here's the one I prepared.

In Cambridge MA in the 70s, group houses were hippy versions of the Addams Family. I lived in one, a beautiful Victorian house with a turret, inside the turret on the third floor was a jungle of hanging plants and there you'd find Anne H. sitting on the couch when she was high, working macrame plant hangers out of jute twine and beads. I had a great bedroom jutting out over the front porch, with a bay window, stained glass at the top, a primo view of the street corner where there were frequently non-fatal traffic accidents near the liquor store. I built a tall bed out of 2x4s so I could prop myself on my elbows and watch guys jump out and curse each other over the broken glass of their fender benders.

The house was ruled by Victor S., son of the Sauerkraut King of upstate New York, making him the Prince of Sauerkraut, but he disdained the family business so was in self-imposed exile. He actually had a car! He tricked it out with a special ionizer, in the tin foil hat family, to align the car's air molecules optimally. Eventually he went back home to rule his kingdom, the money being too good to pass up.

His replacement, my college friend, music critic Jon P., rolled up in his mom's car and decanted a gaggle of friends and siblings, they made a bucket brigade from the car across the sidewalk across the porch through the front door, hand-over-handing his endless boxes of LPs up the stairs. Just a year later the process was reversed when he left for Manhattan to write for Rolling Stone and then the New York Times.

Some among us wanted the next roommate to be an uptight intellectual, others wanted a laid-back hippy. Our barely adequate compromise candidate was another Jon, one I later married, that's another story. He was a poet, and bike mechanic at the "Mystic Cycle" collective, so hip its female co-owners had rejected the patriarchy completely and had no last names.

Jon and I might never have gotten it on, because you shouldn't sleep with your roommate, but the owners of our paradise sold the place and threw us all out, so he and I went looking for a new place together. It had to be cheap - he earned $2.68 an hour and I was supporting myself writing sonnets, which is another story. We moved to working class Somerville, now gentrified but then a grotty city where men carved parking places out of snowdrifts and defended them with garbage cans and fists.

We had three roommates at 45 Spencer Avenue. There was Kathy M., an anthropologist who while doing her fieldwork in a Francophone fishing community in northern New Brunswick had fallen in love with one of her fishermen subjects. She tied up our phone chatting in French with Bernard. There was Dick P., he made a good living turning high end Renaissance recorders on his lathe, tinting them with Lady Clairol hair dye, and selling them for $700 a pop. And there was Scott, last name forgotten, he worked a graveyard shift repairing copy machines. He said he was a science fiction writer but he never wrote, he had a jazz band, Laughing Moon, but he never gigged. What he DID do was tend a massive marijuana plantation in the attic, so scientific, littlest plants out by the eaves and as they grew (robustly) he moved them towards the center of the attic where the gro-lights were higher. Every day he hauled himself up to the attic, harvested a very generous armful of weed, then baked it in our oven and consumed it all himself. Then he'd lie on his bed, tootling into his trumpet mouthpiece because he was too damn to actually stand up and play the entire trumpet.

Eventually we felt we had to leave. It wasn't the awful hippy bread made of soy flour and brewers yeast. It wasn't the deafening weekly bassoon quartet rehearsals. It wasn't the book "Hitler was a Sugar Fanatic" that Dick waved at us or the sarcastic post-it notes left anonymously on the towering piles of dishes in the sink. Nor was it the flagrant disrespect of the chore wheel.

No, it was tuna casserole. Scott baked it every week when it was his turn to make dinner, and every week Jon told him: I don't like tune casserole, and every week there it was again, finally one day we came home and smelled the smell of our house, baked marijuana and tuna casserole, and Jon lost his mind! He ran upstairs to where Scott was lying on his bed tootling into his trumpet mouthpiece and yelled "I F&*#NG HATE TUNA CASSEROLE," and so soon we went to live in a group house in an Armenian neighborhood in Belmont, with a couple of glassy eyed anthroposophists and an ancient Wiccan shrine in the back yard. But that's another story.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The story I told at tonight's Monti Story Slam on the subject of "The First Time..."

This is about the first time I heard my father's life story. He was a stern man, as a kid I didn't understand him. Why did he mock us for being soft suburbanites when he was the one who planted us in the suburbs? If we were uppity it was: "My dad would have taken down my britches and tanned me for that!" If we were barefoot it was: "When we were kids they took our shoes away in the spring and didn't give them back till fall, so you're going to wear yours, damnit!" He found the things we cared about -- foolish.

My dad was Pennsylvania Dutch. His austere Lutheran ancestors settled York county in the middle of the 1700s and never left. He grew up in an 18th century farmhouse with a hex sign on the barn. My grandmother spoke only Pennsylvania Dutch until she was taken out of school in fourth grade to roll cigars at the "English" tobacco factory.

Why didn't my dad ever ask how things were going for us? Because farming folks don't intrude on your personal space. If you're well enough to do your work, you're fine, and if you aren't, for instance if like two of my Peppler foremothers you spend most of your adult life in an asylum, they say you're poorly and don't inquire further.

So my dad never told me anything about his life until 1999, the year he was dying of leukemia. Out of the blue he called one day - astonishing, he never called me! and he asked for help writing down his memories, he'd gone blind from the cancer and couldn't do it alone. I was so excited, I grabbed my cassette recorder, jumped in the car, and drove 11 hours straight.

His story opens with descriptions of the family farm, which fields were fertile and which were rocky and how to plough a hillside so the topsoil stays where it belongs, how they butchered hogs and dried black walnuts in the attic, how when he was six for the first time he walked the two miles through the woods and across fields to the one room schoolhouse (which is still there in that cornfield, King's School).

There was so much death in his story! He didn't even mention his little sister Pauline who died at six of polio, but he gleefully recalled his the 5 cent bounty his grandfather paied for every rat killed in his barn. My dad plugged most of the rat escape routes and rigged up old license plates above the others so they'd come slamming down over the remaining holes all at once and he and his dog could wade in among the trapped rats, he clubbed them to death while his dog shook and crunched them by the dozen. When he was older, policing a barn too big for that system, he'd sit in the dark by the light switch, listening for rats' rustling, then quickly turn on the light and shoot any rats that had poked their heads above ground, then shoot others as they fled, then turn out the light and wait again. When the escape tunnels were clogged with corpses he hooked the dead rats out of their tunnels and dumped them in his collection barrel.

He shot and skinned groundhogs, muskrats, possums, foxes, weasels, and skunks: back then in the Depression the pelts fetched welcome cash. He shot rabbits and squirrels and his mom skinned them, dressed them, and turned them into stew.

All that killing! A natural segue to his getting drafted 2 weeks after his 18th birthday. He crossed the Atlantic on the USS America with 9,999 other troops. Cots were stacked 12-high in the hold, there was vomit everywhere, especially on the unfortunate guys in the bottom bunks. He won a lot of money playing cards.

They landed and commenced walking across Europe; even before reaching his unit he'd already been fired on and a good friend from training "took one in the throat." His division, the Eighth Infantry, "relieved Bastogne, crossed the Siegfried Line, crossed the Rhine and walked deep into Germany" through that muddy, snowy winter when they could rarely take off any of their clothes at all.

"His day," April 3 1945, began when he and another scout were sent over a hill to check out the village below. Turns out they were expected and so this time THEY were the rats, as they crested the hill they were both shot. The other scout was killed instantly, my dad fell to the ground in the middle of what became the battlefield. A “hot fire fight” went on for hours while my 18-year-old father lay on the field, stung by bits of the mortars falling around him, pressing his torn up face, blood gushing everywhere. He "accepted the fact that it was over and got a very calm feeling, but imagined the sadness back home."

Three or four hours later he was pulled to safety and taken by litter to a field hospital. The bullet had gone in one cheek and out the other, shattering his jaw and blowing out many teeth. His jaw was wired shut for six months. He concluded this section of the memoir with a newspaper his parents brought him when he was finally well enough to be flown to a stateside hospital. The headline read: "Army Says Not Sending 18 Year Olds Overseas."

My dad died not long after finishing this memoir, I'm so grateful he shared it in time. I thought about often when my own son was 18. No wonder dad couldn't bring himself to care about the things that mattered to the kids he raised in peacetime suburbia, no wonder he thought our concerns were foolish. After all, as the prayerbook reminds us, "things which are foolish in comparison to death are foolish in and of themselves."

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Old fashioned potato knishes

I invited my friend Paul to come over and make knishes with me, I'd never tried them before. We used the following dough recipe which is from Joe the Pastry Guy

Traditional knish dough
2 cups flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 beaten egg
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vinegar
1/2 cup water
Mix dry ingredients in a bowl, put wet ingredients into a well in the middle of the dry ones, stir vigorously until melded, knead in the bowl for a minute, cover with saran wrap and let rest for an hour.

Here is the filling we made:

Filling for potato knishes
1-1/2 pounds of potatoes cut in halves or quarters. We did not peel them.
2 onions chopped up in the food processor (next time I will use three)
A big bunch of parsley chopped up in the food processor
1 tablespoon of oil
2 tablespoon of butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
lots of pepper
an egg (or an egg white, or an egg yolk) for glazing

Put water on to boil as you scrub your potatoes and cut them. Put them in the coldish water, bring to a boil, and cook around 20 minutes. Meanwhile, start frying the onions over low heat in the salt, oil and butter. The longer, the better, we cooked ours almost half an hour, stirring constantly, but they could have cooked longer. Towards the end we added the parsley and pepper.

We each had a rolling pin. I divided the dough into four balls, he rolled out two and I rolled out two, as thin as possible, they came out about 18" long and about 4" wide. Along the long side we put a long log of filling about an inch tall, spread some oil on the still exposed part of the dough, and rolled the dough up so it wrapped around the filling almost twice.

Then you mash down on the filling about every 2-1/2 inches with your hand and where you mashed, pick up the end, twist where you mashed (like a sausage casing) and cut where you twisted. You end up with a little pillow twisted closed at both ends. Squish it around and put it with one of the twisted ends down on the baking sheet, then I pushed into the middle top (at the other twist) to make an indentation in mine but Paul didn't do that, so his are the ones that look sort of open at the top.

Beat the egg and glaze the knishes (we used our fingers). Bake for about 25 minutes at 375 degrees. This made about 25 knishes at the size you see in the picture.

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Thursday, February 05, 2015

My story for last night's Storytelling Meetup was about Mrs. Paul's Fish Sticks

I'm very much enjoying the Meetup I created for people who want to practice telling stories. I am a crummy story teller, as I'm too impatient. Most stories in my renditions skip right from the set up to the punch line. I'm trying to do better.

Our prompt for the evening was "Crime and Punishment." Either I've been pretty law abiding or my poor memory is shielding me from guilt, but few events surfaced. This is one of them, from many decades back.

The main characters are me, my mother, and my mother's twin sister MJ. My family lived in a bedroom suburb of New York City; my mother's twin sister Mary Jane lived in a studio apartment on 51st street in Manhattan.

My mother disliked her life and blamed me for it, my birth had taken her away from her glamorous job as researcher at Time Life Inc., where she drank and joked and flirted with important writers and publishers. My father had said the city was no place to raise a child, so because of me she was marooned in the suburbs, where she'd instantly alienated the neighbors by informing them their lives were boring. The adults of our suburban world were bored, unhappy hard-drinking stay at home mothers and tired, unhappy, hard-drinking fathers who every morning put on fedoras and great coats and picked up briefcases and drove to the train station and commuted to Manhattan.

I worshipped MJ, my mother's twin sister. She was feisty, funny, and independent, she was a painter and an art director, she'd been a reporter for Sports Illustrated and traveled all over the world. She'd been thrown out of Bryn Mawr for scaling the walls at night after curfew and for other reasons not shared with children in those days. She and her girlfriend fled to Italy and went to art school there and MJ would never have come back, but her mom got on a boat and sailed over the Atlantic and fetched her back, without the girlfriend.

MJ and her sister, my mom, never got along, so MJ visited rarely and it was always possible she'd blow up suddenly and leaving in a fury without saying goodbye, sometimes even walking the three miles to the train station to escape back to her own life.

MJ loved me just the way I was, which was irascible, independent, full of questions, always involved in messy projects. When my mother said "nobody will ever love you because you are so selfish," my aunt laughed and hugged me. She was the only member of my team, it was her love that kept me from a life in the loony bin.

My birthday is December 29, between Christmas and New Year's, depressing time for a birthday, cold and dark, nobody's in the mood, one birthday morning I called up the stairs, "aren't you going to wish me happy birthday?" and heard my mother say to my dad, "Oh damn, Willy, it's her birthday, go get her a present."

However in December 1962, for my ninth birthday, Mary Jane, who was visiting us, had promised an unimaginably special birthday treat: she and I would go into Manhattan together, just the two of us. I was beside myself with excitement and laid out my outfit days before, a red turtleneck the color of Target superstore and a blue jumper the color of Walmart.

At our house kids ate early, grownups ate late. The bill of fare the night before my birthday featured Mrs. Pauls' fish sticks, one of the three foods I hated most in the world, the other two being canned tomatoes and hot dogs. This time those fish sticks disgusted me so intensely, and here comes my CRIME, I threw them away. And here comes my brothers' walk-on roles, they ratted on me yelling: "JANIE THREW HER FISH STICKS AWAY."

My mother hustled into the kitchen, yup, there were the fish sticks in the trash, right on top in a row, I hadn't even thought to bury them, already you can see I am not a good sneak. I was the most incompetent liar in the family, too, I volunteered: "No, I did not throw away my fish sticks." "Of course you did, there they are in the trash." "No, I didn't."

This inane exchange went on for a while and then my aunt came in and, unaccountably to me, threw in with my mother, saying: "Janie, if you don't tell the truth, I'm not taking you to the city tomorrow."

That was a fearsome threat, so fearsome I didn't believe it. And besides, I was backed into a corner. After you've told the same lie a few times, it's hard to recant, as Lance Armstrong and numerous politicians have discovered. So I refused to confess and was sent to bed in disgrace.

The next morning, my birthday, a new day, I was so excited, cautiously optimistic I put on my outfit. Then my aunt came in the room and goes, "What are you dressed up for? I told you I wouldn't take you to the city if you didn't tell the truth."

The world came crashing down, I was speechless, she left for New York alone, without saying goodbye. I sat on my bed all morning in my special outfit, crying. I've hated those colors ever since, the Target red of that turtleneck and the Walmart blue of that jumper.

I shared this story with a friend and he said the lesson I learned from this event was the wrong one, but regardless, this is what it taught me: that there is no reprieve; even your favorite person, the only person on your team, can abandon you without saying goodbye. We never did take that special trip to the city.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Out with the old: the first night of Hanukah and squash casserole

I spent a couple hours this morning getting rid of clothes that didn't make me happy. Since most of my clothes come from the Goodwill in the first place, I didn't feel bad sending them back there. Some were skirts too short for a woman my age to wear, some were in colors I never exactly liked, some didn't fit any more, some were experiments gone wrong... some were worn out... there was a red sweater I thought of as still pretty new until I saw a photo recently of me wearing it a quarter of a century ago...

It was the first night of Hanukkah of course and my friend Paul came over to light candles. I cooked borscht and a zucchini casserole.

The casserole was part of a long-term project: to actually COOK the recipes I've torn out of newspapers or wherever over the last decades and stuffed into a box. If these long-preserved never-prepared dishes turn out lousy, I'm throwing out those recipes. Duh, right?

This one turned out well. It's a keeper.

Zucchini casserole
2-1/2 pounds of zucchini sliced into thin rounds in the food processor
1-1/2 cup shredded cheddar (or other cheese, I am never particular)
3/4 cup ricotta
6 eggs
chopped parsley to taste
1 teaspoon salt
pepper to taste
3/4 cup breadcrumbs (I used Italian seasoning breadcrumbs)
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons melted butter
1/3 cup shredded mozzarella

The original recipe said to put the rounds of zucchini in overlapping rows in a buttered lasagna pan. I actually did this and it looked beautiful but it took a long time and, as you put a topping on the casserole, nobody is ever going to see your nice design. Sprinkle each layer of zucchini with shredded cheddar.

Whip together the ricotta, eggs, parsley, salt, and pepper and pour over the zucchini.

Combine the last four ingredients and sprinkle over the top. Cook at 375 degrees for about 45 minutes. The recipe said to cover it with a tent of aluminum foil for the first 25 minutes of cooking but I forgot to do that and it turned out well anyway.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

One of our new Hanukkah songs: "Ain't Nobody's Business What I Do"

From the concert I gave with Aviva Enoch last night, The song is on our Mrs Maccabee's Kitchen cd:

Jane Peppler and Aviva Enoch of Cabaret Warsaw play Hanukkah music in North Carolina

Here are the words I wrote to this old blues tune:

There ain't nothin I can do
There's nothin I can say
That folks won't criticize me
So I'm gonna do just as I want to anyway
I don't care if they all despise me

If instead of ham and biscuit I fix bialys, borsht & brisket
Ain't nobody's business what I do
If instead of caroling I prefer to fry bimuelos and sing Maoz-tsur
Ain't no body's business what I do

If I prefer to spin the dreydl 'stead of singin 'bout that cradle
If I refuse to worship Zeus or bow to any golden goose

If instead of singing 'Deck the Halls' I stay home and eat matzah balls
Ain't nobody's business what I do
If you don't like my benediction don't give me any friction
Ain't nobody's business what I do

If I light candles every night it shouldn't provoke a fight
If I don't care for pickled prawn, if I stay up till dawn playing s'vivon

If I'd rather be studying Mishnah than chanting Hare Krishna
If I'd rather go to bed than stay up and wait for the Man in Red

If I choose New York pastrami over your artisan salami
Ain't nobody's business what I do
If I fire up my menorah sing 'Ner Li' and dance the horah
Ain't nobody's business
Ain't nobody's business
Ain't nobody's business what I do

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Chocolate pretzel toffee bark with toasted almonds on top.

Chocolate pretzel almond toffeeI published this recipe last year but I'm updating it after having made it quite a few times. Also, I wanted to make enough so the entire jelly roll pan of pretzels would be covered with toffee.

It's ridiculously compulsive and time consuming to line all the pretzels up into a grid, but it is equally ridiculously satisfying to be able to snap the toffee into perfect rectangular pieces.

Here is what you have to do before you start heating the mixture:
  1. Run very hot water into your sink (to drop the bowl and utensils into immediately after the project)
  2. Have something to do (so you don't poke the toffee before it cools, which takes HOURS)
  3. Toast the almonds - I do it in the toaster oven, 350 degrees for 5 or 6 minutes
  4. Get out your 11x17 cookie sheet and cover it with pretzels (see below). Some people put the chocolate chips right on top of the pretzels and then pour the hot goo over the top of the chips. I didn't do it that way but it might be better.

Pretzel Toffee Bark
1/2 of a 12-ounce bag of square pretzels (I used Snyder Butter Snaps)
1-3/8 cups salted butter (3 sticks)
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1-3/8 cups white sugar
2-1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
1-3/4 cup sliced toasted almonds

Melt the butter and add the sugar and corn syrup. Boil to 280 degrees (not quite hard crack), stirring CONSTANTLY. Don't guess, get one of those cheap candy thermometers at the grocery store.

Immediately pour over pretzels spreading as evenly as possible while you pour because you won't have long to spread it. If you insist on spreading the goo absolutely all the way to the wall of the pan it will be hard to get the toffee out. Drop the empty saucepan into the hot water in your sink along with the wooden spoon.

Immediately sprinkle chocolate chips and then the sliced almonds over the pan.

Put in the pre-heated oven for 5 minutes and then mash down on it with a potato ricer or any other flat thing to get the almonds and chocolate to mix together. There will be a lot of melted chocolate with almonds stuck to it on the ricer when you're done. You know what to do.

Cool completely at room temperature. Go off and do the thing you planned to do so you wouldn't poke your toffee. It takes a long time for the chocolate to harden again.

If you put it in the fridge or freezer to get the chocolate to firm up you will RUIN it, as I did last year. In the freezer it rehydrates or something and loses its charm. But people will still eat it.

AFTER the chocolate is solid again, break the toffee into pieces.

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The Triangle Jewish Chorale Hanukah Songbook - now available as a pdf digital download

sheet music for Chanukah songsAnd here is the reprinted TJC Hanukkah songbook, 2 to 4-part arrangements with chords for piano or guitar. Click the picture to buy a paperback version. For a digital download (only $5!), click here:

Al Hanisim
Banu Chosech
Cuando el Rey Nimrod
Drey dreydele
Drive Cold Winter Away
Hanerot Halalu (Chasidic version)
Hanerot halalu (Classic)
Hayo, haya
Hinei Ba
Imi nahtna leviva-li
Hanukah (Sephardic)
Khanike iz freylekh
Let Memory Keep Us All
Ma-oz Tsur (Italian version)
Ma-oz Tsur (Classic)
Mizmor xir (Sephardic)
Nerot dolkim
Oy khanukah
Oy ir kleyne likhtelekh!
Simu shemen
Shnirele perele
Svivon sov sov sov
Time to Remember the Poor
Yom Zeh l’Yisroel

Return of the New Three Log Night Songbook! Plus, new inexpensive pdf version for download.

I discovered yesterday that CreateSpace (Amazon's print-on-demand arm) had somehow unpublished my Three Log Night Songbook: Uncommon Music for Christmas and Hannukah in arrangements for mixed voices. I got it back online. You can buy a paperback copy for $9.50 from them (click the picture) or you can get a $5 pdf version from me via email by clicking here:

Angelus ad virginem
Babe of Bethlehem
Blessed Be
Boar's Head Carol
Carol of the Bagpipers
Cherry Tree Carol
Cuando el Rey Nimrod
Drey Dreydele
Drive Cold Winter Away
Gedeonis Area
Gloucester Wassail
Hanerot Halalu
Hayo Haya
Here We Come A'Wassailing
Holly and the Ivy
Holly Bears a Berry
Imi Notna Leviva-li
In a Cavern Oxen Trod
In the Bleak Midwinter
In the Dark Streets
Khanuke iz freylekh
The King
Let Memory Keep Us All
The Lord at First Did Adam Make
Ma-oz Tsur
Now Is Come Our Joyful Feast
Oy Ir Kleyne Likhtelekh
Pastime With Good Company
Quem pastores
Resonet in Laudibus
Sainte Nicholaes
Shepherds Arise
Shnirele Perele
Simu Shemen
Solis in Praevia
Sussex Mummers Carol
S'vivon Sov Sov Sov
Tappster Dryngker
Time to Remember the Poor
The Very First Blessing
A Virgin Most Pure
Wassail Song
Wexford Carol
When the Wise Men Came from Far
The Woodcutters Song

Monday, November 10, 2014

The color of my parachute.(The Peppler Sonnet Service)

Reposted from eight years ago...

Remember that book, What Color is Your Parachute? It was recommended to confounded job seekers by career counselors back when I was in college. It exhorted us to figure out what we really wanted to do, and then to go find a place to do it, and if necessary, to create a job within which we could follow our passion.

Very inspirational, but at the time I had no clue what I wanted to do, or how my talents could be utilized in the marketplace. Let's see - I was good at:
  • Writing - quickly - bad poetry which scanned correctly;

  • Every kind of fiber art from sewing and quilting and embroidery to macrame;

  • Papier maché;

  • Russian - however, I was a Russian major during the Cold War. Career options included teaching (but I knew I could never survive graduate school) or working for the government (but I was bad at keeping secrets and hated the administration);

  • Transcribing Bulgarian songs;

  • Listening to people, talking with them about their dreams and fears, and making them laugh when they were down.
I used to explain, about Peppler's Sonnet Service: "Well, I'm good at writing poetry but I have no wish to express myself. Writing for other people gives me something to express." When I thought this up in the late 1970s I was interviewed by Susan Stamberg for Morning Edition on Valentines Day; I got written up in the Boston Globe, Yankee Magazine, and the (ahem) Christian Science Monitor; I wrote hundreds of sonnets or rather "sonnets" for customers who were ALWAYS satisfied. I could knock off a correct sonnet in about twenty minutes, lauding the client's girlfriend or his mother's potato salad.

As it turns out, I never did have a career, I never did pull in a paycheck. I've spent my life slithering through ad-hoc, oddball person-for-hire situations. For a while I made my living cutting out xeroxed articles of various sizes and shapes, waxing them, and pasting them up on boards so they could be re-xeroxed for student coursepacks. I sold animated (flip-book) greeting cards; I rode a moped out to remote suburban adult education centers and taught "Songs for Non-Singers"; I learned to typeset and was the part-time head typesetter for a tall and rotund redhaired hippy in cowboy boots who unpeeled twenties from the roll in his pocket and shoved them at me when I'd done a good job. I used my papier maché skills making props for the Solstice Extravaganza, a yearly behemoth of a show I devised and produced.

Looking back, I now see what I've been best at all along:
  • Getting people excited about their dream projects, and then facilitating those projects;

  • Creating something where nothing existed before;

  • Working in obscure fields.
In other words: I'm a good muse, for those who dwell along the long tail. No wonder I'm so excited about helping my tv-producer friend with his wish to take a one-man show of Yiddish stories (some never previously translated) on the road! Would you call it quixotic for a 52-year-old woman to start from scratch and learn Yiddish? At any rate, in a week and a half I'm off to my three-week adventure, in an immersion Yiddish program at the Bibliothèque Medem. I've rented a flat, I've started packing my bag. I've found an online group at Yahoo with native speakers who are sometimes willing to help beginners, even though they can be a little testy. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Attack of the Crab Monster

I've been enjoying The Monti so much over the last year that I started a story-telling meetup for over-40s - over 40 because I was hoping to cut down on the number of stories about getting drunk on spring break and penis and booger jokes. (If you live in the Durham Chapel Hill Raleigh area and you're over 40 you can join.) I never thought I'd be able to tell a good story because I'm so impatient, I always want to get immediately to the punch line.

Anyway, for the first time I got up my nerve to throw my name into the hat for the Monti story slam tonight - the topic was FEAR - and wow, I won, or actually, I tied for first with a young guy who told a penis joke. Here is my story.

PS Apologies to my daughter for leaving her out of the story. She was there, laughing at the crab monster too.

As a kid I was so afraid of dying it kept me awake at night. My mother heard me crying once and came in to console me. In the dark she said: "You're so little, and you're afraid you won't have the time or get the chance to do all the things you want to do. When you're older it won't seem so bad."

The first thing that came close to scaring me as much as dying was the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. I was four when it opened in my home town, it was so popular they ran out of seats and lots of us crowded up front right under the giant screen. When the wicked witch loomed up over our heads I shrieked and hid in my mother's lap until she said, "I paid for you to see this movie and you're going to watch, damn it." Eventually the movie ended and we had some ice cream.

So babysitters were not allowed to let me watch scary movies. One night, though, Lucy Gilburg didn't shoo me out when she and my little brothers tuned in to "The Attack of the Crab Monsters," about a bunch of scientists in lab coats marooned on an island infested with radioactive crustaceans. I already didn't like crabs, they smell funny and walk sideways and remind me of the awful zodiac sign Cancer. So I was already nervous before it the movie started, and then it was rolling and I got more and more apprehensive ... and then...

... well for the next 30 years I'd say "and then, the crab monster put its monstrous claw round the door jam and went TAP TAP TAP, that's the last thing I saw, I ran upstairs screaming."

I was inconsolable, Lucy had to call my parents to come home. My mother knelt beside my bed smelling of booze and cigarettes and perfume, she tried to calm me down but her jewelry was jangling she was so mad, I knew she wanted to wring my neck. I didn't watch scary movies after that.

When, decades later, the crab monster came into my life, it came not for me, but for my son. Ezra was 12 when he woke up a couple times with a headache. After throwing up he felt fine so I wasn't worried when I called the pediatrician, until her voice grew low and careful. She said, come see me right away. We came. She said, go to the hospital. We went.

Usually at the hospital you wait and wait; this time doctors met us at their doors and ushered us in. When the waters part like this you know you're in trouble. We were in an exam room eating sandwiches when the door was flung open and a tall doctor stalked past us, threw an x-ray up on the window, and showed us a malignant tumor the size of a golf ball in Ezra's brain. Not looking at us, the doctor warned it could choke off the spinal fluid at any moment and kill him, so he sent us straight from that room, with our half-eaten sandwiches, to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. There was a 7-1/2 hour operation during which the surgeon had to scrape so close to the brain stem he feared, he later told us, that Ez would never wake up.

The medulloblastoma was removed through a long incision in Ezra's cerebellum. When he came to, he didn't know which way was up. Learning to focus his eyes again, to sit, to walk, to use his left hand, it was one struggle after another. Six weeks of radiation left him thin, green, bald, cold, vomiting every day, but he insisted on going back to school. The weeks crept past, hellishly. I had to make sure when I looked at him he wouldn't see the fear eating away at me.

A year and a half of chemotherapy later, Ezra didn't die. He graduated from middle school and high school and college. He lives across the driveway where I see him every day. I know when he feels sick he sometimes fears the crab is back. I'm afraid then, too: afraid he won't get time enough, get the chance to do all the things he wants to do.

Back when he was recuperating I bought an old VHS copy of "The Attack of the Crab Monsters" on eBay so we could see what had frightened me so. We laughed from the opening scene, it was clunky and beyond stupid, but I was rapt, waiting for the legendary TAP-TAP-TAP. Well, the moment came, but it was a fakeout! It was just the ceiling fan in the next room. My tortured brain had invented the monstrous claw.

We kept watching and after a lot of ominous music the crab monster did eventually shuffle onto the scene, low, sluggish, clacking laboriously, lisping threats. We could see wires holding up its claws. It was so preposterously slow that if the frightened scientists hadn't just stood there quaking in their lab coats watching it waddle sideways towards them, they could easily have strolled to safety. We mocked the crab's voice: "Thtay thtill tho I can eat you!" Eventually the movie ended and we had some ice cream.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Locavore donkeys

donkeys eat weedsWhen I was first considering getting a donkey I thought: "I know places there are lots of weeds for a donkey to eat." Came to learn there are several problems with the weed thing:
  1. Donkeys (mine at least) are incredibly picky and will only eat 1 out of 10 or 15 types of weeds present in local weed patches. Eeyore ate thistles but my donkeys don't.

    Jethro and Hector on a weed-eating walk keep their noses to the ground and after they've passed up 14 weeds they find one kind they like.

  2. Even eating as fast as they possibly can, donkeys have to eat for hours to keep up their figures. I can't stand to stand there holding the leashes that long. But they won't stay put; if they're not on leashes they instantly relocate to the neighbors' homes and eat expensive landscaping.

    So if you want your donkeys to eat weeds, you have to fence the weeds and that's very expensive. Otherwise prepare to stand around contemplating while they munch. Here you see Hector and Jethro eating the (invasive) Japanese switch grass that grows under the power line right of way.

Roger Tate Farm in MebaneSo my donkeys, after they've eaten or killed all the grass in their fenced-in fields, live on hay. I never knew there was so much to the hay business before I had Jethro. If I get stuff he doesn't like, he gets bony. (Hector is not so picky.)

They love second-cut orchard grass and today I was lucky enough to get 54 bales of it, green and fragrant, from Roger Tate's farm in Mebane. I love knowing the farmer who grows the hay. On my second trip out I met Roger's mother, who came out of the house to say she enjoys seeing a woman loading her own hay. She told me Roger was very independent as a toddler.

On the third trip I ran into Roger himself. We always talk about the weather, and today remembered with horror the summer of 2007 when the drought was so bad the grass crunched under our feet and he ran out of hay in July.

This year there was a late frost that ruined a lot of the first cut, but kinder weather recently resulted in a lovely second cut. After three trips to Mebane I'm happy our barn is almost chock-full, that's a satisfying feeling as the leaves start falling off the trees.


Wednesday, October 01, 2014

How I am like my donkey Jethro

donkeys eatingMy donkey Jethro is like me: stubborn, defiant, cowardly, and unable to compete.

Here's how I ended up with a donkey. In August 2007 my daughter and I went to Bulgaria and I fixated on the donkey carts trundling down the road. The drivers were tan, leathery old guys in no particular hurry. The harnesses were cracked, dusty old leather, the carts were homemade out of what looked like driftwood. The carts were full of weeds, why were old guys driving weeds around?

We saw one of these hand-hewn carts by the side of the road and stopped to investigate. Through some trees we saw them, the guy and his donkey, hip deep in greenery. The donkey was eating as fast as he could and the man had a scythe. So that's it: they were ambling around the countryside gathering donkey dinner.

At that moment I decided to become a donkey owner. I thought: when Armageddon arrives I'll be ready with my donkey and cart, I won't have to compete for gasoline. I thought: I know places I can steal weeds and nobody is competing for them. I thought: nobody else I know has a donkey, no competition there. I thought: I would like to live my life at this tempo, rolling down the road looking for something nobody else wants.

I found Jethro through a friend of a friend of a friend and went to meet him in Iredell County where he'd been lazing his young life away servicing hinnies. As I walked across the field I saw in his body language and the cocking of his magnificent ears that he was rebellious and fearful. That's the opposite of what you want, which is brave and obedient. I bought him instantly.

Here's why Jethro is still lazing. If you ask a donkey to do something, he asks "Why?" and unless there's an answer that satisfies him, he refuses. Jethro can do anything I ask, but generally doesn't choose to. For instance, he happily carries stones, but if I ask him to stand still so I can unload the stones, he keeps going till he finds a place with better weeds. He doesn't mind pulling a cart, but he is going to pull it in the ditch, where there are weeds. He was ok with being tied to a big heavy chicken coop I wanted him to haul, but first he stood still acting like it was too heavy and then he galloped across the field with the chicken coop bouncing heavily along behind him until the thick rope I'd tied to it snapped and the coop was upside down in the woods. Eventually I gave up and so, he lazes.

A donkey shouldn't live alone. I made a website for a gentleman farmer and he paid me with a miniature horse named Superman. Superman came stumping into our lives, short and broad and unflappable. Jethro was afraid of him at first but they eventually became pals and Superman learned to like donkey games, which involve a lot of biting.

Superman really knew how to look out for #1. He got all the treats because Jethro, three times his size, moved respectfully out of the way when Superman nosed into the bucket. I felt bad for Jethro, he got no banana peels unless I handed them to him directly. It bothered me so, I finally gave Superman away to the little girl who lives across the railroad tracks - her daddy snuck up that Christmas morning and led Superman away with a big red ribbon stuck in his mane. Now he gets brushed every day and eats ice cream sandwiches.

Superman's replacement is a little donkey with unattractive brown fur like matted dirty dog hair. Hector was cheap because his owner had expected him to be born white and had planned to use him in living creches at Christmas time. At his first performance Hector dropped to the ground, rolled in the dust, hooked his hoof under Baby Jesus's cradle, knocked Him over, and gashed his own leg. So I got him cheap. Jethro was of course afraid of Hector at first but now they're good friends.

Still, if I put down a bucket of treats, Jethro dives in enthusiastically, then little Hector trots up on his tiny hooves and pretty soon Hector's snout is in the orange peels and Jethro is at his side, staring politely off into space. I can't tell if Jethro wants treats less than Hector does, or if it's that he's too afraid to stand up for himself. For years he was afraid, of strollers, bicycles, recycling bins, flags dangling from mailboxes - and he thought everything in the world wanted to eat him. He's not afraid of recycling bins any more, but he's still afraid of being eaten and he still always loses when it comes to the treat bucket.


Monday, September 29, 2014

My great neighbor and his pet turkey Dirk

Glenn, my neighbor across the railroad tracks, is one of the reasons I can love North Carolina. Both my other close neighbors have sued me but Glenn more than makes up for them.

I first met him when I bought some land-locked acres, logged atrociously and grown up like a jungle, between my place and his. He came roaring up to my front door on his ATV with his little daughter in front of him, introduced himself and explained: he'd lived across from this land all his life and would keep an eye out for vandals and poachers.

Over time he's helped so often, cutting trees that fall over my paths, planting chufa for the wild turkeys we both hope will come back to live here some day. Recently he hauled away a deer one of my evil neighbors had complained about: it just up and died on the border between our properties and this yuppie emailed me -- "Haul it away!"

What would you do if someone told you to haul away a deer? I called Glenn, and even though it was raining cats and dogs he came on his ATV (with his daughter, in her foul weather gear, because she'll never be parted from him) and, with a scary dog barking and snarling at him for removing this delicious feast, he tied that deer to his ATV and hauled it away somewhere the vultures could recycle it.

His girl loves to be outside with him. She rode this trailer full of turkey oaks when he brought them and planted them for me where huge, beautiful trees had once stood. Their poor little trunks were feeble as reeds but over the last year they've bulked up a bit.

So now are you wondering about that turkey in his lap? Here is, more or less, the story he told:

He has a buddy in Chatham County who "wants to be country so bad." This buddy hatched a bunch of Heritage Bronze turkeys but a raccoon got them all but one, this one. So this turkey became a pet and lived in the house with the buddy and the buddy's daughters (I astutely guessed correctly there was no mom in this house).

This turkey took to roaming the neighborhood and one day he stuck his head in some lady's car to see her kid in the car seat and the lady came back from wherever she'd stepped off to, saw the turkey, and had a cow. She called animal control and what with one thing and another, the turkey had to relocate, and Glenn offered to adopt him.

Glenn texted me: the turkey, whose name is Dirk, is very curious. "Dirk may wander out your way so now you know where to bring him back." (Superman, the miniature horse I gave to Glenn's daughter, is an escape artist and has been known to wander back here to his old haunts, no doubt in search of imagined treats, perhaps next time they'll come together.)

His text continued: "I plan on getting Dirk a girlfriend." His wife is not so keen on all this but she is tolerant. His next plan: to get some wild turkey eggs and hatch them. I asked how's he going to raise them right? Without a mother to teach them not to be stupid won't they walk right into raccoons' mouths? I suggested he get a turkey suit and go out in the woods with them and point out the dangers. To be continued some day...

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Singing Circle in the Triangle rides again

People are always asking me when I will start a new singing class. I "retired" from teaching Songs for Non-Singers and Harmony Singing at the Duke Short Course program quite a few years ago, then had Rise Up Singing Circles at my house, then quit altogether. I'm hoping MeetUp will make it easier for me to run this class, which was loads of fun in the past but too hard to keep track of!

We'll meet from 7:30-9 pm at my house on a weeknight to be determined, cost $5 per session. I have seven copies of Rise Up Singing (a wonderful book chock-full of songs everybody knows and likes) and hopefully people will be inspired to buy/bring their own. I'll play piano, people can bring guitars etc. I'll give vocal coaching and tips on harmonizing to those who want them. If you just want to belt it out that will be fine too! No experience necessary.

I live between Chapel Hill and Durham, not far from Hillsborough and Carrboro. If you join the class you may bring banana peels for my donkeys to eat if you like!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

PickNBow folk music retreat weekend is this weekend! August 22-24

This is the third annual folk music camp run by Danny Gotham at the Shared Visions Center on Murphey School Road in Durham, NC, it's starting around 6 or so this Friday evening. We start with introductions, see what the "campers" want to work on, organize the workshops for the following two days, and then have an all-hands-on-deck singing and picking session.

Saturday we have about five workshops during the day, a potluck dinner, and a staff concert. I'll be doing a few of my Itzik Zhelonek songs with pianist Roger Lynn Spears!

Sunday we'll have a few workshops, lunch of course, and the camper concert which we all think is the best part of the weekend. People who come with friends/band members can show off what they do, others do solo numbers, others meet new musical friends at camp and work up numbers together. We finish off before dinner on Sunday.

For more information: PickNBow website. (Currently, erg, the site is down, but I'm confident that is temporary.) Or you can email Danny Gotham at or call him: 919-967-4934. He's easy-going.

Beginners welcome on fiddle, guitar, mandolin, ukulele, banjo, bass, and more. I'm going to be running a slow jam, a singing circle (I'm bringing Rise Up Singing), instructing in making up harmony vocals, and giving individual coaching sessions.

Staff: Danny Gotham, Joe Newberry, Julie Elkins, Bobb Head, Jane Peppler

See you there! (If you need a place to stay, email me.)

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