If dancing makes you smarter, we must be geniuses…

I keep reading articles about how dancing can help improve memory and brain function and ward off the effects of aging. That makes perfect sense to me. I don’t know that any of these brain studies have focused on square dancing or other called dances, such as contra dancing or English country dancing, but it seems to me that those particular forms of dance would have even more benefits than other forms of dance. Not only are you moving your body in time to the music and getting all that good oxygen to the brain, but you must also listen to the caller and process verbal instructions, making quick decisions about what move comes next and responding to the other dancers. Furthermore, while you are doing a “left-hand allemande your corner” or “partner by the right” or “ladies chain,” you are exercising your brain as well as your body. If that doesn’t get the left brain and the right brain working in coordination to build new pathways, I don’t know what would. And then when you add in the social benefits of being in a room full of other dancers who are smiling the whole time, what’s not to like? But don’t take my word for it. Here’s the research: Dancing Makes You Smarter

Anyone who knows us knows we love to dance. We usually try to dance two to three times a month at our regular contra dances on the first and third Fridays and our regular square dance on the second Saturday of each month. But this fall has been even busier than usual. There have been several weekends where we danced Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. For example, last weekend, we went to an English country dance on Friday, a square dance on Saturday, and a school dance on Sunday. On top of that, we also play in a couple of dance bands and Jim calls many dances, so when we’re not actually dancing, we’re still heavily involved in the dance community, playing, calling, rehearsing with the bands, holding callers jam sessions, or just jamming with other musicians.

And that’s not counting the annual dance weekends held in various places around the state, such as Pilgrim’s Progress in Lawrence, Kansas, or the special dances my husband is asked to call, such as the street dance at the Urban Farm harvest celebration last August, the barn dance held in connection with a teen’s birthday celebration, the private house-warming party for a young couple who were celebrating their commitment to each other, the wedding dances, the high-school “proms” for home schoolers, the square dance and cake walk for First Night, and the costume balls for the children’s department at the public library.

We also enjoy traveling to other dance communities when we get a chance. This fall we drove to Fairfield, Iowa, one weekend for Jim to call a contra dance; our friends Dave, Amber, and Nate played for that dance. Unfortunately, we can’t get to all of the dances we would like to attend. It has been ages since we have made it to a dance in Kansas City or St. Louis. We missed Solefest in Springfield around Halloween. Last Saturday we missed two of our favorite dances that were happening the same night as the Hallsville square dance–one in the village of Elsah, Illinois, and another held in a gorgeous old mercantile building in McKittrick, Missouri.

Although I love variety in all things, I have to admit that the monthly square dances at Hallsville are my favorite. Master fiddler John White started these dances about ten years ago, modeling them after old-time square dances he remembered from years past, where the community would gather on a Saturday night at the one-room school (Lily Dale), fire up the wood stove, get out their fiddles and banjos and mandolins and guitars, and make their own fun. At first it was just the musicians who would gather to play, but as anyone who has ever heard old-time fiddle music knows, you can’t help but get up and dance once the music starts. John tells stories of how they would push the school desks back against the walls and lay their coats over them, and the babies would sleep while their parents and grandparents made music and danced late into the night.

At the Hallsville square dances, we dance in a functional but not particularly attractive building with a concrete floor, with central heat and air conditioning, and with metal folding chairs rather than school desks against the walls. But we still come together as a community–children, parents, and grandparents alike–and make our own fun. It is the epitome of “good clean fun.” The activities start about 4:00 in the afternoon, with an old-time jam that can include master fiddlers in their seventies, as well as young children who are learning some of the old tunes from John, and all ages in between. After the jam, more people show up for the carry-in dinner. John’s wife Betty, who taught school for many years, always decorates the hall in themes appropriate for the season. This month she spread brown and orange and yellow cloths on all the tables, and she brought her band of banjo- and fiddle-playing battery-operated singing and dancing turkeys for the counter near the food table, along with a large inflatable turkey.

Dinner ends about 7:00, and after dinner, the musicians pick up their instruments again, and the dancers line up for the Virginia Reel, a favorite among the children (some of whom have even learned to call the dance themselves when Jim and the other callers are not there). After the Virginia Reel, if we have a large enough group of dancers, we might do a circle dance or an Appalachian square, often ending with a figure called Wind the Ball. Then we start the regular squares. Sometimes we will have several callers present at the dance, so they will each call from within their own square. Other times Jim will put on his headset and call for the entire hall. Sometimes we dance squares that everyone knows, so we don’t need a caller. Some of the favorites include Texas Star, Two Little Hobos, Right Hand High, Little Sisters, Sally Goodin, Grandpa’s Baby, Grapevine Twist. In between square dances, the band will play a waltz or a polka or a schottische or a Two Step, depending on which musicians are there and what they feel like playing. Sometimes people will get up and do some clog dancing.

Like many other old-time square dances that, unfortunately, have become less common over the years, the Hallsville square dance is a place where people of all ages come together just for fun. There is no “club.” You don’t have to pass a series of lessons to join in. You don’t need to wear fancy outfits. There is no admission cost and no paid performers. We all just pitch in and make our own fun. And if we’re also building brain cells in the process, that’s all the better!

Here is a taste of what it’s like to be part of a rich tradition that is still alive and well in the twenty-first century.

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The happiest and the saddest day…

Every year on my birthday, for years and years, my mammaw would call to tell me she was thinking about me. She would always start off by saying, “This was the happiest and the saddest day of my life.” And then she would tell me about how my pappaw woke up the morning I turned six and said to her, “Today is our girl’s birthday.” And I could see in my mind’s eye the “life-size” doll that he had planned to give me, a “fashion doll” in a frilly formal gown, leaning against the wall in the corner of their upstairs apartment in Salyersville, Kentucky. At six years old, I preferred baby dolls but was fascinated that this doll, dressed in someone’s idea of a glamorous gown, could stand shoulder to shoulder with me.

I was the first grandchild and the only girl in the family for a long time. Eventually there would be eighteen of us cousins, but on that happiest and saddest day, the day my pappaw died, my sixth birthday, there were only four of us–me, my brother, and our cousins Randy and Timmy. What I know about that day is that my father was on his way back to Norfolk, where he was stationed in the Navy. I also know that dad and pappaw had parted on bad terms (they had recently fought, with dad refusing to get out of the Navy and take over the family grocery store). On the morning I turned six, pappaw suffered chest pains so severe that the family decided to drive to the nearest clinic, about an hour and a half over winding mountain roads.

These days doctors can save many people in my pappaw’s situation by putting in a stent or replacing a valve or performing a bypass or any number of other procedures that are so common we take them for granted. But back then, there was nothing to be done. My pappaw, who was only 49 at the time, died later that day. I don’t know if he died there at the clinic and the family had to bring him home somehow, or if he came home first with some sort of medication and then died later. I should ask my father about that. There was also at the time no email, no cellphones, no text messaging, no way to contact my dad and tell him he needed to turn around and come back for his father’s funeral, other than to send a Red Cross message, which he found on the pillow of his bunk when he returned to base. He thought it would be good news telling him his younger sister had had her baby, and he was shocked and saddened to read the contents of the brief message.

In my imagination, dad arrived by plane, in his dress white uniform, and I was thrilled to see him coming back to me so soon after he had left. But I couldn’t understand why he was crying. It was the first time I remember seeing him cry. The next thing I remember was my pappaw lying in a box in a formal living room for the visitation and all my aunts and uncles and great grandparents and second and third cousins, and cousins twice removed, and other people I didn’t know standing around in dark suits and Sunday go-to-meeting clothes, telling stories and occasionally laughing. At one point mammaw took me in to kiss pappaw goodbye, which seemed like the most natural thing to do and did not freak me out at all, although my mother, when she found out, was beside herself with worry over how it might damage me psychologically.

It has been nearly nine years since mammaw died. Although she remarried a widower who had twelve children of his own and remained married to him until he died, mammaw is now buried beside pappaw in the family plot, along with my baby cousin Connie, who died when she was only three days old. After all these years, I miss hearing mammaw tell me about her happiest and saddest day. Although everyone in the family obviously knew the facts of the matter–that pappaw died on my birthday–no one else ever brought it up. They did their best to let me have my special day and not mess it up with sad stories. But this year, when my dad called to wish me a happy birthday, it was as though he were channeling his mother, when he said, “You know this is a happy and sad day for me.”

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Thinking of my son on Veterans Day

On this day, my heart goes out to all the veterans and their families, especially those who have fought the longest wars in American history and continue to fight their own personal battles as they struggle to fit back in to a civilian world. I ache for the ones who can’t find jobs in this bad economy; who have trouble relating to the trivial concerns of civilian life; who have no response to the accusation from a spouse who says, “you’re not the person I married”; who seem to overreact when their kids fight over the video game controller; who withdraw into themselves; who feel inexplicably angry when someone thanks them for their service; who drink to try to take the edge off; who can’t sleep; who suffer from nightmares; who can’t sit through a movie in a darkened theater. I marvel at the discipline it takes to push through physical and mental pain as they learn to live with missing limbs and traumatic brain injuries. I feel incredibly guilty for all those times I felt too overwhelmed to think about the ongoing wars but had the luxury to be able to turn them off for a while–something none of the active duty service members or veterans could ever do.

When my son joined the Army just after 9-11, under a deferred enlistment program, I was heartbroken and at the same time immensely proud of him. I admired his courage, his desire to do something in response to the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, his willingness to sacrifice his own personal safety and comfort in the service of something larger than himself. If he had been a passenger on one of those doomed planes that day, he very well might have tackled the hijackers himself. He was a senior at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York at the time, majoring in criminal justice, and many of his friends and classmates knew someone personally who worked in the Towers or lived nearby or were in other ways directly affected by the attacks. Like many others of my son’s generation, they felt they had to take action; they couldn’t just sit around and do nothing after we had been attacked. I can only imagine the reactions in the residence halls and dining halls and classrooms that day in September in New York, when news of the attack first reached them. We were all so naive at the time and had no idea where things would lead.

Now, ten years and three deployments later, I still struggle to make sense of what has happened and what it means to us as a family, to our country, and to the world at large, but every day my admiration for my son grows stronger. He has lately begun to make the most incredible works of art. He creates mosaics using photos of the 6600+ servicemen and -women who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. He arranges the faces of the dead to form large images of people and places he saw while deployed. I think his art is all the more powerful because for so many years he preferred the “practical arts” over other more expressive arts, and he tends to keep his feelings to himself. But now that he has opened this window into his experiences, I am blown away by their power. I will probably never know everything he has witnessed or hear all the stories he tells himself–he still tries to protect his mom that way–but I wish with all my heart that I could do something to lighten his load and let him and all the other veterans know how very sorry I am for what we put them through.

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I really should get a hobby

My mother and I have lately taken to texting or emailing each other to set up an appointment to talk, because we are both so busy we can no longer just pick up the phone and expect the other one to be available. But this week was particularly nutsy. For someone who enjoys spending evenings at home reading or knitting or puttering around the house, I have managed to fill up every night with at least one activity. Part of the busyness is because I am playing in a band for the English Country Dance on Friday, so we scheduled extra rehearsals this week. But that was no reason to fill up the rest of the evenings, sometimes with more than one activity. Here’s how my week looks (so far):

Monday–Band rehearsal
Tuesday–Book club to discuss the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, followed by a callers’ party (where dance callers try out new dances on willing volunteers)
Wednesday–Meet with the interior designers about turning our den into a space for dance and music; and then go watch a silent movie of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at Ragtag CinemaCafe
Thursday–Band rehearsal
Friday–English Country Dance
Saturday–Square Dance
Sunday–Family Dance at Lee Elementary School

Mom’s schedule was just about as full, with lunches and birthday parties for her best friend and a trip to the car dealer to see about that “check engine” light, on top of all her regular activities. She and two of her friends have written a novel together and have been doing book signings and readings, as well as working on their next book. We’ve decided that instead of one long phone call like we prefer, we will try to catch up through a series of shorter calls during my breaks at work.

iPads! Huh! What are they good for?

I admit it. I have a love/hate relationship with technology. At my day job as an instructional designer, of course technology is essential and ever present. We all have dual monitors for our desktop computers, laptops, mobile devices, high-speed internet, fancy projectors, smart boards, clickers, lots of server space, an office full of enthusiastic early adopters, and plenty of people who will happily answer technical questions and give advice about cool new tools. I won’t lie. I was as excited as anyone to get my first iPad and start figuring out what it can do for me.

But in my other, perhaps more “real” life, I enjoy many more low-tech activities, and at our weekly lunch with the curmudgeons I often join in their conversations about the evils of being always connected, the intrusion of all the beeps and clicks in our lives, the irritation of dinner-table guests who keep glancing at their phones for updates, the absurdity of television screens installed at self-pump gas stations. Among the people I count as friends, you will find numerous artisans and craftspeople–the original DIYers–gardeners and people who are good with their hands, people who raise their own chickens for eggs or meat, bee keepers, farmers, healers and massage therapists, musicians and guitar makers, a luthier, woodworkers, weavers and spinners–but also web designers and bloggers and sound technicians and music producers. We also believe in repurposing: like the time we made a spindle for spinning wool out of a CD that arrived in the mail from AOL.

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It’s not that we are anti-technology, but we tend to be the kinds of people who, once we have found the tool that works for us, see little reason to buy each latest model as it comes out. Rather than ask, “What new tools might I get?” we try to think about, “What do I need or want to do, and what tool will help me accomplish that best?”

My husband and I got a kick out of the sales reps from Century Tel who stopped by our house recently to congratulate us on our years of being “such good customers” and to offer us this really awesome deal where we could bump our internet speed up astronomically at no charge. All we would have to do is add a cable TV package. They were all smiling and nodding until we told them that we don’t have a television. The two young men stopped cold. Then one of them said, “My mom tried to get us to watch less television. I guess that would be one way.” Then the other one said, in apparent disbelief, “You don’t have a television at all?” We smiled and said no, and they thanked us for our time and headed on down the street to knock on the doors of other good customers.

Like I said, I was thrilled to get an iPad recently and am enjoying learning what I can do with it. However, I’m trying not to get caught up completely in the “cool factor” and start downloading apps willy nilly before I even figure out what I might need them for. Rather, I am trying to take a more thoughtful approach and think about the things I already do and then find out whether there is an app that would help me do those things more easily. But I can already sense what a time bandit this device could turn out to be.

This morning I decided to get out the list of books I want to read (which I have been writing down in a little moleskin notebook that I carry with me everywhere) and enter them into a virtual bookshelf using Goodreads. Oh my! That could turn out to be very addictive. So far, I have resisted the impulse to click “buy immediately” or “download this eBook now,” but I spent way more time than I expected entering book titles (already read and to-read), remembering other books I have already ready, checking out what my virtual “friends” have read, browsing the new releases, reading reviews, looking at photos of authors. It was just as fun as browsing in a library or bookstore, but I could do it in my pajamas, Before I knew it I had added 141 books to my “to-read” list. The trick will be to actually read some of these books and not just keep playing around with this really cool app and building more and more virtual bookshelves.

November is National Writing Month

For the second day in a row I find myself wide awake at 5:00 a.m. Must be feeling the energy of all those writers who have pledged to write 50,000 words during the month of November–whether as part of National Novel Writing Month or National Blog Posting Month or Academic Writing Month or Digital Writing Month or some other challenge they have set for themselves.

I personally thought this would be a great time to get back into my blog. I can’t believe I have not posted to my blog since July. As so often happens in my life, the years when lots of stuff is happening are the years when I tend to abandon my journals and blogs. I guess that makes some kind of sense, because when I’m not doing much of anything I have plenty of time to sit in my chair and write about not doing anything or imagine things I might do some day, whereas when life is more demanding, I don’t have the time or energy to write about what’s happening. By anyone’s standards, though, this has been one heck of a year, both at work and at home.

But trying to summarize where I’ve been sometimes has the unintended consequence of causing me to miss what’s going on in the present, as though I’m trying to drive down the highway while keeping my attention on the rearview mirror. I used to find it strange that my dad, upon returning from a year or 18 months at sea, would greet people as though he just saw them that morning. He seemed to make no attempt to catch up on news, and he didn’t offer any hints at what he himself had done during all that time. He’d say, “How about them Wildcats?” or “Nice dress” or “Think it’ll rain?” or “I’ll have the usual.” Strange, perhaps, but I’m beginning to realize that dad makes more sense than most people think. How could we really ever hope to make up for lost time? We might as well jump into the present with both feet and create some new memories.

On that note, I’ll let you know that my attention is on playing at the contra dance tonight for Mid-Missouri Traditional Dancers. I will be playing keyboard with a band called The 32 Bartenders. (No, we won’t be serving up alcoholic beverages. We chose the name because all contra dances and tunes have 32 bars.) The other members of the band are Tom Verdot on fiddle and banjo, Thom Howard on guitar and mandolin, and Rebecca Logan on flute. This is the first time all four of us have played together for a dance. I am the newest member, so I’m a bit nervous, but I am having so much fun playing with these fine musicians. We will be playing mostly New England style contra dance tunes, which is somewhat new for this area. Many of the bands around here play oldtime stringband music and fiddle tunes. It’s been fun breaking out of the standard oom-pah, boom-chuck, I-V style of backup, but I have a long way to go before I am able to play the tunes the way I hear them in my head. For now, I need to focus on keeping a steady rhythm for the dancers.