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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"Joyride" in Tacoma

Even from outside under the street lights, I felt the thrill. I could hear music and, through the windows, could see a big crowd of dancers already well into it. The old timbered building couldn't contain all that energy and rhythm. Melodies rooted in the traditions of the British Isles, French Canada, New England, and Appalachia, beckoned.

Wells Hall, part of Christ Episcopal Church in Tacoma, held a whole new experience for me. I couldn't wait to get inside. Some ancient, cultural memory stirred me as long lines of dancers stomped their feet in unison and swung their partners in a dizzying blur. I'd come to hear a band called Joyride, with caller Laura Me' Smith that night and to get my first peek at the world of contra dancing.

Joyride lives up to its name. This quartet from Portland, Oregon, excellent musicians who are also great friends, had the whole roomful of people caught up in the kind of excitement that happens when the band members are having as much fun as the dancers.

"The name is apt," says talented pianist Susan Songer. "We love to travel together. Sometimes the road trips are as good as the gigs themselves. We're a very compatible bunch, all easy going with lively senses of humor. But we are quite serious about the pursuit of musical excellence and particularly about playing well for contra dances--really taking into consideration what music and musical approach will work best to give the dancers a good time."

I could hear it in their tight ensemble work and interesting, well-done arrangements. Kathleen Towers' expert fiddle playing launched intricate ribbons of melody notes into flight, woven through with those of Erik Weberg, master of the flute, harmonica, and bombarde. Behind them, a solid base of rhythm from Jeff Kerssen-Griep, amazing on guitar and djembe, and Susan Songer's confident piano playing, gave the tunes a forward propulsion that never once faltered.

"I really just came to hear the band," I lied to myself. But I wanted to try dancing. I couldn't arrive in time for the half hour of instruction that precedes most, if not all, contra dances. But that didn't stop me from diving right in after some pointers from my sister-in-law Diane Brown, who'd invited me. A sense of rhythm helps, and an appreciation for the mathematical aspects make it fascinating. Everyone welcomes and encourages beginners.

"It's great to see new people come back time after time and watch their progress," Diane said. She's a veteran of this and other folk dance styles and has danced in the U.K. and former Soviet Union as well as many places in the United States and Canada. With her help, I found myself out on the floor doing my best not to step on feet or bump into people. Although I have a long way to go, it didn't take too long to catch on. A little dizziness at first went away when I learned to look into my partners eyes, a total stranger. If you think it's a place to make new friends you'd better make them quickly because within seconds you're in someone else's arms. In the end, everyone dances with everyone else.

On a break I headed for the stage to compliment Joyride. There is enough talent in this group to fill a much larger band. Sometimes Sue steps away from the piano to add her own fiddle to the mix, and the two volumes of The Portland Collection which she researched and published with Clyde Curley, "are used widely throughout the United States and the British Isles," she told me. Beyond his role as musician, Erik Weberg is also an outstanding caller. The two of them work together on another, larger musical entity.

"Erik and I organize the Portland Megaband contra dance every year," said Songer. "It is a unique event and draws dancers from all over the Northwest and even a few from across the States. The band is an all-volunteer orchestra or more than 75 musicians at all levels of musical experience and ability. That will happen on March 14th this year."

Contra dancing goes beyond fun. It brings an exhilarating sense of freedom and release. As you give all of your mind and body to it all there is no time for worrisome thoughts. You will see a mix of people of all ages, many of whom don't know each other, sharing what people have shared since the earliest humans first made music and compulsively learned to dance: PURE JOY.

To learn more about the world of contra dancing, the history of country dancing, where it's happening, and the band Joyride, please click on the links within this post as well as those below. Then go out and celebrate life.

Tacoma Contra Dance
Olympia Dance
Portland Country Dance
Portland Dancing

Portland Megaband Contra Dance
Saturday, March 8th, 2008
8:00 pm (newcomers' workshop at 7:30)
1825 SW Broadway
Portland, Oregon
$15 general public;/$12 PCDC and PFS Members and members of other dance organizations/$9 students with student ID and seniors (65 and over)
Erik Weberg calling

Important note to my readers...
I just want you to know that if you leave a comment I am unable to answer you because they appear as "no reply" anonymous messages if you choose that identity. I often wish I could respond. If you would like to hear back from me please include an email address or use mine, shown on the comment form. I screen the comments before publishing and will not let your email address show.

I would like to leave this message for the reader who asked about Jimmy and his Vietnamese restaurant on South Tacoma Way which I wrote about last spring. Jimmy decided to let the restaurant go and return to the east coast and the home he had kept there. My husband and I had become good friends with him and it was sad to say goodbye. I regret that more people in Tacoma didn't give his place a try. They missed out on some great food and the chance to know a wonderful man. We wish him the best.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Lessons of February

February, you fickle month, I'm hungry for spring and here in Tacoma all you do is tease. You know how "easy" I am when you flirt. You lead me on with nice weather for a day or two and soon I'm taking off (some of) my clothes, slinging the windows open in the cold, getting urges to scrub the front steps, and especially, to fill my pots with flowers. Last week I wrote about snow. The past few days have been gorgeous. Now I hear the rain is coming back. You've always been like this, can't make up your mind. I need to ignore your fickle ways and calm down.

Like the watched stockpot that never wants to boil, or the watched stock portfolio that isn't even warm, whatever we nervously give our attention and worry to persists in its ability to exasperate. I trust that the seeds in the ground, the unborn bud inside the branch, the flower within the bulb, will all complete their missions, like every year. The daffodil seems weaker than the hard packed dirt and yet its tender green tips push up out of the gritty dark and damp. I have to believe Americans are as strong as these. I have to believe, even against what seems like the unyielding obstacles of hard times, we too will make it through. We must keep faith in our strengths and our will to live in the sun.

We need to slow down, observe more closely, and appreciate what we do have and the beauty at hand. The world may seem gray and cold, with winter as persistent as bad news, but even in the absence of all but a few flowers, I've found the color I'm hungry for and reassuring signs of spring. The bare branches of red twig dogwood stand out against evergreens. Our Lily of the Valley Shrub (Pieris japonica)glows golden among rhododendrons and burgundy Oregon Grape. In the drabness of bare dirt and bark, small, variegated leaves of hardy cyclamen delight me with their patterns. The heather blooms purple again. I've always loved you February. You're never dull. You remind me that life always changes and to focus on the good in the year ahead. I love you despite the way you give hope one day and hide it behind a cloud the next. I know hope is still there.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Magic Math of Little Things

For better or worse, little things always add up. I paid no attention to the tiny snowflakes yesterday morning in Tacoma. One here, one there, they twirled and drifted weightlessly in their slow descent, only to vanish on wet ground. Like money spent on coffee, a few extra calories, one day’s thin trace of dust, or unread mail, they seemed insignificant, easy to ignore. But then around noon I looked up to notice the cumulative change. With silent and steady persistence they had multiplied into a tumultuous tumble of feathery whiteness, covering the ground, turning the bare twigs of my Japanese maples into intricacies of lace, but also weighing heavily on the pots of cyclamen I had not yet planted. I sat alone in a room filled with that luminosity particular to light reflected off snow, and pondered the importance of paying attention to the little things.

Among them are the singular moments of childhood that add up to days and years. While we’re not noticing, our kids turn into adults and we realize childhood wasn’t about big things like the size of your house, bank accounts, or vacations. It was about the number of hugs and giggles, baby steps, lesson learned, story books and goodnight kisses.

I look at little spaces on the calendar and regret how many days have passed since I called certain people just to say “I love you,” or visited an old friend. Month-by-month another year went by without enough walks on the beach. The exhaust of too many cars pollutes the air. The books I mean to read, the unused balls of yarn, the recipe clippings, the emails, the weeds, the questions I never asked my mother before it was too late, have all been little things that add up to be subtlety guilt producing, stressful or sad.

But on the positive side there are those that culminate in something good. I think of the succession of days and nights, the laughs, concerns, tender moments, mundane chores and long talks that add up to marriage, or how over the years, small kindnesses and hours shared become a beautiful friendship. Step-by-step a goal is reached. Spare change piles up in a jar. Many photos make an album and stars, the night sky. Repetitions in the gym build muscle. A quilt evolves from bits of cloth and countless stitches. Practice makes perfect. Typing one word after another, my novel comes to life.

The choices we make accumulate. Whether as individuals or whole societies, our priorities, the way we spend our money, time, resources, thought, effort and energy, all add up to the sum of our lives and the legacies of our civilizations. Even if my own life turns out to be very long, and I hope it will, it’s still half gone. I find myself assessing it, for better or worse. So here is my firm intention: to pay attention. In the end I hope to see how a lot of good little things, like snowflakes, added up to a life as beautiful in memory as a white winter day in Tacoma.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Getting History Back on Track- Northwest Railway Museum Needs Our Help

My childhood on Vashon Island held many charms, and one big flaw. We had no trains. But I loved it when we came to Tacoma and Dad drove right next to the tracks along Commencement Bay. In the 1950s and '60s trains surrounded us in life, legend and American culture, and even kids knew the importance of railroads in history. We'd seen photos of logging operations and Saturday matinee westerns with wild gunfights on top of speeding trains. We'd been to Disneyland. Our parents talked about hobos riding the rails during the Great Depression. We begged Santa for Lionels. But what about children today, or in the future? Our region's railroad legacy goes on, but floods in January of '09 shut down an important train museum.

For the past fifty years the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie, Washington has offered kids and their families a chance to experience train travel like it was in the old days, thanks to the museum's interpretive railway program. This section of track, built in 1889 as the Seattle Lake Shore and Eastern Railway Company, was acquired as a branch line by Northern Pacific Railway in 1896, whose western headquarters resided in Tacoma. These days museum visitors spend about an hour chugging along through the scenic upper Snoqualmie Valley. This happens every weekend, April through October, plus during seasonal special events and school programs. In 2008 the riders who answered the call, "All aboard!" numbered 47,000. Nearly that many more visited the historic Snoqualmie Depot and the Conservation and Restoration Center, and learned from the museum's exhibits. But it's significance extends beyond a fun afternoon.

"The Museum is far more than just a depot, train ride and a history lesson," said Executive Director Richard Anderson. "It's about a sustainable local economy, a shared community identity, and a really great gathering place for families and friends to get together for a shared experience." Indeed, many small businesses and individuals rely on tourism to make a living in this small town nestled in the Cascade Range. It's the kind of place where folks stick together during hard times. When flooding in early January left two miles of track and two timber trestles underwater, and caused numerous washouts citizens rallied, donating over 160 hours of work so far. Anderson told me, "When I asked our Mayor, Matt Larson, for a letter of support, he had it to me within twelve hours."

Although volunteers are still greatly appreciated, this problem can't be solved by volunteer labor alone. Much of the work requires special expertise and equipment and that means money. Damage costs are estimated to be at least $100,000. Because of policy changes, museums are no longer eligible for funding through F.E.M.A. for the types of repairs needed, even though they could prevent future damage. It's disconcerting to realize this is the second "hundred year flood" in two years, and one wonders about the impact of logging and development.

"The Northwest Railway Museum has experienced flooding before but this is the deepest water yet and demonstrates a disturbing trend of increasingly serious natural disasters that threatens not just the museum but the community," said Anderson. Now he hopes the public will come forth to offer financial assistance in time for the whistle of the locomotive to be heard in the hills again this spring.

"The January 7th and 8th flood has been devastating for the Northwest Railway Museum. We are grateful for all the community support we are receiving and are hopeful that together we will be able to fully recover," Anderson said. He hopes readers will visit the museum website's secure online donation page, or mail donations to Northwest Railway Museum, P.O. box 459, Snoqualmie, WA 98065. For information you can call the museum at 425-888-3030 or email Anderson at It will just take a little bit from a lot of people to get this historic railway back on track. Please help spread the word.

Photos are used with permission from the Northwest Railway Museum. Please also see the train museum blog.