Not all women marry in white, of course. My mother wore deep orange-rust velvet for her September wedding long ago. Nor has white always been traditional for European and American bridal gowns. That started after 1840, when Queen Victoria’s white wedding gown set a new fashion among the wealthy.
White was a color of conspicuous consumption because it was so hard to clean. (Nothing to do with purity or innocence.) Until well into the twentieth century, even the elites expected to wear their gowns again for other occasions. Most brides simply wore their best dress, which might or might not be new. The single-use white wedding gown did not become widespread until after World War II.
Traditions are customs, beliefs, or practices passed down through generations. In wedding fashion as in more important spheres, they’re not to be confused with eternal truth or the way things were always done.
We’re not talking cute animal videos or funniest home videos here. We’re talking a four-to-seven-minute movie complete with story line, dialogue, and action. In the 48 Hour Film Project, each team in cities around the world rushes to create a movie over a weekend. Like running a marathon, it’s structured as competition but the great achievement is to finish.
All a team is allowed to do before the Friday evening kickoff is register, scout locations, and assemble cast, crew, and equipment. At the kickoff, teams draw lots for genre and learn the required elements: a specified character, prop, and line of dialogue. Then begins the fun of plotting, script writing, costuming, shooting, editing, and submission. The films submitted Sunday evening will screen before a live audience in a local theater.
Like National Novel Writing Month, the 48 Hour Film Project can teach perfectionists the concept of “good enough.” Unlike the novel-writing challenge, the film-making challenge requires collaboration—and, I suspect, the willingness of creative people to cede individual control. Forty-eight hours is too short to thrash out all your decisions till everyone gets their way.
When I commuted to work in downtown Chicago, I sometimes crossed outdoors between moving cars on the elevated train, not to reach a different car but to practice facing a fear.
“Do one thing every day that scares you.”* Something not dangerous or foolhardy, but dysfunctionally intimidating. For some it’s public speaking, complex paperwork, or raising a touchy issue with a friend. The “Fear” I burned in a New Year’s Eve bonfire involved unfamiliar machines and bus systems. The more I use them, the less they scare me.
Two caveats. First, advice to leave your comfort zone suggests a false dichotomy between discomfort and being stuck in a rut. There are far-from-boring ways to be “in the zone”: creating, writing, learning, running on the beach. No need to break the flow just because it doesn’t scare you.
Second, desensitization isn’t the only way to ease fear. In the body, a case of nerves looks much the same as excitement. Even for those of us not adrenalin junkies, it may be easier to reframe unhappy jitters as happy ones than to calm ourselves down. A wiser adage might be, “Do one thing every day that excites you.”
*Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune, June 1997. Read here for quote history and misattributions.
Poppies shooting up in my garden are almost—not quite—in time for Memorial Day. Since its origins in the American Civil War, this holiday to honor those who died in military service has combined flowers with the sung, spoken, or written word.
John Brown’s body. At the war’s end in April 1865, former slaves in South Carolina exhumed Union soldiers from a prison camp mass grave for reburial. Then in May, ten thousand former slaves paraded at the camp, including members of black Union regiments. Children holding bouquets sang the abolitionist battle hymn, “John Brown’s Body.”
General John Logan’s proclamation. Decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers was common during and after the Civil War. In 1868, Logan called on Union veterans everywhere to strew blossoms on their fallen comrades’ graves on May 30. By 1890, Decoration Day was an official holiday in every Northern state, with similar observances on other dates across the South.
War after war. “In Flanders fields the poppies blow // Between the crosses, row on row.” After World War I, Decoration Day was extended to military personnel killed in all wars, observed on May 30 nationwide. During yet another bloody war, in 1967, it became a federal holiday under the name “Memorial Day.”
Noise : Sound : Music :: Weeds : Plants : Garden
Cement mixers growl and trucks beep endlessly as they lay a new driveway next door. If music is organized sound, noise is the sound of chaos. The human brain learns the difference early on. What counts as music varies by culture and once imprinted, rarely changes beyond early adulthood. Sorry, friends, heavy metal is still noise to my ears.
A recent public radio segment featured composers who record and organize sound from the environment, both natural and human-made. Like a wildflower garden or a collage or yard sculpture made from other people’s trash, their artistry depends not on good or bad material but the eye or ear they bring to it. Writers say it’s all grist for the mill.
How many of life’s irritants might feel less irksome if I searched them for elements to compose into artistry? For a moment, when I shift to a different mindset, the machines and voices next door become more interesting than painful. Perhaps with practice I’ll be able to make this shift for longer at a stretch. To bring a different ear and, if not create music, at least ease the noise.
Saturday, like this time every year, I drove from Madison east along Interstate 94 to Milwaukee and its beautiful Wisconsin Club, venue for the Council for Wisconsin Writers annual awards banquet. What joy to bask in a roomful of people passionate about writers and to hear readings by some of the best.
Road trips east on I-94 mark the turning of my seasons. In a couple of months, spring green along the highway replaced by verdant summer, we’ll drive on past Milwaukee to the Wisconsin/Illinois state line to revel in historical fantasy at the Bristol Renaissance Faire.
Every fall or early winter, past woodlands brilliant or bare depending on each year’s polio meeting calendar, I-94 takes me on into greater Chicago and the Rotary International headquarters in Evanston. Though a far cry from the escapist fantasy of summer, the current history of global polio eradication holds as much drama and suspense as any fiction.
As winter settles in, I hunker down to writing and look forward to the return of robins, trillium, and the next CWW awards banquet. What annual rituals mark the turning of your seasons?
Decades ago, professionally adrift, I visited the Chicago area offices of Robert Jackson & Associates to discuss a project for the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. IDNL needed someone to research and write about local conditions before agriculture and industry encroached. Narrative and landscape, history and geography: What could suit me better?
The ensuing work introduced me to the magic of the duneland. I learned the dynamics of ecological succession, the difference between bogs and fens, and the satisfaction of reporting to scientists who demanded the facts exactly as we found them.
This past February, the former national lakeshore at the southern tip of Lake Michigan was re-designated a national park. With its miles of beaches and trails, houses dating from the French fur-trading era to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, and endless diversity of wildflowers, the new IDNP is calling me for a fresh visit to old haunts.
Good novels and good movies draw the reader/viewer in. They generate emotion and make readers/viewers care. Writing conveys more unspoken thoughts and leaves more visuals to the imagination. Film does the opposite, while paring down complex story to fit within two hours.
Revising an overly introspective passage of fiction a few months ago, I wanted to make it read more like a movie. At the University of Wisconsin Writers’ Institute earlier this month, Tim Storm and Ann Garvin told why this doesn’t work. Stage business in a movie—turning the key in the ignition, taking a bite of salad—adds realism without forcing itself on your attention. On the printed page, by contrast, stage business interrupts the story. Tim and Ann advised novelists to convey only details the character would notice, leaving readers to fill in the background.
“Listen, my children, and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride . . .”
Through the night of April 26, 1777, sixteen-year-old Sybil Ludington rode forty miles in a thunderstorm to muster militiamen against the British. She roused the countryside after her father, a militia colonel, received the message that drunken Redcoats were burning Danbury, Connecticut.
The militiamen weren’t able to save Danbury, but they stopped the British advance. Soon afterward, energized by the incident, 3,000 Connecticut men joined the American army.
Statues, historical markers, and a 1975 postage stamp commemorate this hero of the American Revolution. She rode twice as far as Paul Revere, so why didn’t I learn about her in school? Perhaps because Longfellow never wrote a poem about her. Maybe he tried and gave up. Ludington is a lot harder to rhyme than Revere.
April is National Poetry Month. At the Monroe Street Library here in Madison, Wisconsin, Poet-in-Residence Susan Podebradsky writes and chats for an hour a week behind a sign that reads “The Poet Is In.”
“It gives people the opportunity to have a personal experience with poetry in real time, face to face,” she says. Adults and children suggest a word or topic, for which she writes them a poem on the spot. Others stop by to discuss their favorite poem, share one they’ve written, browse her stack of poetry books, or create a short poem from words on wooden blocks.
She’s part of a group called Spontaneous Writing Booth, which offers poetry at various community events. It doesn’t have an online presence yet. “That would take organization, and we’re spontaneous.” Her two remaining sessions at Monroe Street are Tuesday, April 16, and Wednesday, April 24, both days at four o'clock.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.