“We’re Here For A Good Time, Not A Long Time”

This week, my grandfather, Dr. Ronald T. Abbott passed away. He earned his medical degree at the University of Glasgow, after his father, Dr. Sydney Gilchrist Abbott, earned his veterinary degree there, and where I am currently finishing my Master of Research in English Literature. As a young man, he loved fast cars, his country, beautiful women, alcohol, bathroom and absurdist humour, and dogs. As an older man, he loved fast cars, his country, alcohol, bathroom and absurdist humour, his dogs, and a beautiful, tender and kind lady who cared for him until his last.

Ronnie B & W 1956.jpgGrandpa was a rabble-rouser, an adventurer, and was always busy with a new object of his focus and affection, motorized or otherwise. At twelve, I heard about his adventures riding his motorcycle from Iowa to Tierra del Fuego, at fifteen, of his adventures to Alaska and close encounters with bears. At twenty, he sent a short story about the time he mistook a brothel somewhere in the wilds of Mexico for a hotel. And no, he did not speak Spanish. Throughout those years, he had a habit of showing up out of the blue (usually in a different car each time), waltzing in with a belch, a smile, and a “hi, Dearie!”, typically in that order. Seeing him was never boring and was frequently a delightful break from ordinary days.

He was, at times, an abrasive man, but was a man who thought clearly with an evident sense of charisma and confidence which carried him through life effortlessly — going through a reported approximated eighty sports cars in five years in addition to airplanes, dogs, and motorcycles. The impeccable Scottish brogue didn’t hurt either.

At the peak of his medical career, his personal choices, career, and life path often took him away from the responsibilities fathers often encounter at bedtime — checking for ghosts in the shadows, reading, and telling bedtime stories — but my own father was never less grateful for the happy times they did share despite. I would ask that he tell them, in all hilarious detail, over and over as I lay down to sleep on nights when my mother was teaching a late class at a local University. Dad would always repeat the same ones.

I would beg for more stories of this ultimate reckless adventurer-leader — camping in Yellowstone and hearing the dogs fighting with bears as the camper rocked my father and his brother, being stalked through the woods, fishing for dinner, and my Dad, riding motorcycles across the great plains with his .22, being chased by bulls — but would, more often than not, come up empty. There was a finite supply of stories to tell, and I had heard all of the ones my father wanted me to hear. I wanted desperately to have these adventures — the three of us — on our own. Grandpa was an easy character to idolise.
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But Grandpa was still busy ticking things off the list of adventures to have, and I respected that. My father painted him as a character in a story book — Mr. Toad from the Wind in the Willows was a favorite parallel, always looking for another wild ride and always captivated by the sights, sounds, and smells of a clean engine. I came to admire and adore this feature of him — for his absence was in fact a distant presence as this character, off to seek more stories, and I learned early to appreciate this from a distance.

But where Grandpa was still busy with his adventures, others filled the void. A wonderful neighbour, Professor Kent Newmeyer, came into our lives, and is always there to listen and share stories (he will probably never know how much this means to me).  My father gave up his own adventures (of which there were many) to check for ghosts in the shadows of my room, read bedtime stories, teach me to whittle, to work on cars, and take me fishing or to the flea market.  I dreamt up adventures of my own. And Grandpa was still there, too — a character to admire and adore.

The night he passed away, the streets of Glasgow were eerily vacant as if bereft of the normally-lively spirit of the population. All the pubs were empty but one, appearing equally sombre from the outside, in which an impromptu, ten-piece fiddle and cello band enjoyed some drinks while playing a lively melody to what seemed the entire population of the city. I couldn’t have known, but as he passed, I sat in that Glaswegian Whisky bar and knocked a few scotches back with an elderly, politely-vulgar Glaswegian man (with certain disdain for the English) with whom I spoke for hours about politics, culture, and current events. I thanked him for his time. I explained that Grandpa was passing and how much a simple conversation meant. We talked and laughed until the bar spilled onto the streets and bequeathed back to Glasgow the fervor it had been missing.

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I was his first-born grandchild, and I will forever respect him for the gifts he gave to the people I love and cherish: humour, adventure, and a love for the parts of life a Glaswegian cab driver named Stevie best described when he once told me “we’re here for a good time, not a long time”.

Whether right or wrong, we often pursue things in life to seek the pride of those we love, or to otherwise fill the spaces which are, to some extent, unfilled either due to our own flaws or the flaws of the characters in our lives. In seeking the adventures I have seen thus far, I hope only to have achieved the pride of my Father, for everything he has sacrificed, so that I may pursue my own ‘Miss Toad’s’ adventure.

So, if you partake, knock one back tonight for the man who in is part responsible for my globe-trodding — and if you don’t, picture my Grandfather staring at you, belching, and bluntly asking “Why not?” in perfect Scottish brogue.

 

“By Yon Bonnie Banks” – Flowers on the Bank of Loch Lomond (On Victorian Love, Lost)

While everyone back in the United States is talking about St. Patrick’s Day, Scotland is fairly quiet. One of the most iconic emblems of the holiday, choruses of “Danny Boy” will probably float from the corner pubs across the country, invariably, at one point or another. But as a Scottish-American kid, I didn’t feel that same surge of emotion which accompanies a cultural connection to a piece of music — beautiful and as perfect as Danny Boy seemed, he just wasn’t for me.

Instead, I had “The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond”, another iconic piece of folk music from the British Isles centering around themes of profound loss and departure, and this seems to fit the bill in producing the requisite overflow of tears when played at an emotional time (for best results, pair with a twelve-year Scotch, building stress from academic research, and a litany of questionable life choices).

I visited Loch Lomond in recent weeks, and despite the freezing cold weather which usually deters tourists at this time of year, it was, expectedly, as beautiful as the song suggests, and suddenly it became clear why everyone goes into a tizzy of romantic daydreams at the sight of it.

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I have to imagine that the fury of emotion associated with the triumphantly tragic tune and romantic setting is partly due to the older generations’ propensity for holding in emotions and a cultural pride in the ability to sequester them to the unaccessible depths of the psyche. It is something of an unspoken rule, particularly among men of a certain age, from certain parts of Scotland, that emotions are to be kept largely under-expressed lest weakness be shown, building pressure and tension until they are forced outward, typically by negative stimuli. The classic melody of a tender song has the ability to prod at those feelings in a different way, and on this I base my theory as to, partly, why the piece is still so incredibly popular here.

I expected to do the shoot, explore, enjoy the day, take in some lunch from a local place, chat with locals, and head back to Partick. In many ways, this is what I did. I hadn’t planned any invasive measures given the cold, and expected some generic shots as I was getting a feel for the place. Then I saw it.

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On one of the more accessible banks, a bouquet of white lilies had been placed carefully, quietly  — wrapped in celophane as they had been purchased, untouched — a gift for an unknown lost lover, lost life, or lost moment in time, placed by the hands of someone ultimately, intimately familiar with the feelings “Loch Lomond” evokes. It stopped me in my tracks and suddenly, this piece of litter, by definition, became the focus of my mind for weeks to come.

The simple image produces a thousand thoughts, a thousand questions, all never to be answered, and suddenly all the research in the world is useless. Was the person who placed the flowers young, or old? Were they mourning, or celebrating? Were they angry, or at peace? Are they still in pain? Are they still in love? Did they do it for others to see, or for themselves to enjoy — or was it for both purposes?

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But the burning question underlying any and all endeavours to understand photography, from an artist point of view, was the unpleasant rhetorical question: ‘Well. Who does this remind you of?’

I am a researcher of Victorian literature. I have read Kate Greenaway’s “Language of Flowers”, released in 1884, which captivated the attention of the people by providing significance to floral arrangements — sometimes used to express emotions which otherwise may have been sequestered just in the way I have described above. By the definition of that book, white lilies are emblems of purity, of sweetness.

I have read, of course, the origins of the song, published in the 1840s, author unknown. I have read essays on the significance of Victorian photography as an avenue by which to better understand and contextualise Victorian literature. Importantly, as noted by Jennifer Green-Lewis in her paper “Victorian Literature in the Context of Photography” for the Victorian Review in 2008:

Photographs, we note, have meanings that speak to the world beyond their immediate frames and aren’t necessarily “about” what we see at all: they may speak of our desires far more eloquently than they speak about their subjects.


I have only ever learned, in all I have learned, that in many cases, there just are no words. Sometimes, there are just reminders, signs, and things which prod at that ever-heightening emotional tension. No analyses from which to base an understanding. No discussion needing to be had. No broader context. No benefit to any of it. Sometimes it’s not a song that makes you remember.

Sometimes it’s just the privilege of imagining and empathising with the shared struggles of another human being, gifting flowers to the banks of a landmark long associated with patriotism, lost love…

And to the sustenance, in my case, of a fuzzy memory of a bus ride home, singing the chorus under my breath.

“Sky’s On Fire”: Urban vs. Rural Reactions to Fire

On March 5th, 2017, a fire tore through a Scrap Yard in Govan, Glasgow, sending plumes of billowing smoke skyward — much to the curiosity of Glasgwegians. On the streets in City Centre, on campus at the University, and in Partick near the River Clyde, bystanders at bus stops and crossing the street stood frozen in awe of the never-ending formations forming from the billowing smoke.

A few months ago, I was living and working in Northern California when wildfires tore through the hills, blackening everything in their path. Wildfire crews worked around the clock to extinguish the flames, but not before a fair amount of damage had already been done. There’s only so much which can be done for a wildfire when the fields of sun-dried grasses present an opportune tinderbox for even the smallest flame (I reflected on that experience with an essay and photo series here).

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After The Fire II, Brooks, California © Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2016

In both scenarios, a fire commands the attention of powerless bystanders who chance upon it or its effects. But in stark contrast to fires in urban areas, bystanders can be few and far between, only seeing the effects of a blaze up close and personal when it’s on their doorstep.

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Lake Berryessa Fire, Brooks, California, (c) Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2016

But in urban areas like Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city by population, human reactions happen in real-time, expressing emotion and concern for something which instantly hits close to home. The outrage, concern, fear, and sadness hits every citisen within hours of the first spark.

IMG_4214.jpgAnd fire crews in urban areas clearly have a different set of parameters to work with: tasked with extinguishing a flame in an incredibly high-risk area where human life flourishes and congregates.  Urban areas are engineered around accessibility, and while battling a blaze in a densely populated area carries with it its own logistical issues, a wildfire taking multiple acres of land per day in the midst of some of the most unforgiving terrain in the world for motorcars is not an easy task — simply getting firefighters and tools to the periphery is a critically challenging, dangerous, and very costly endeavour.

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Urban Fire Under Glass, Glasgow, Scotland, (c) Caroline C. Evans Abbott, 2017.

Even from the safety of a cozy flat, there are few views which are not inclusive of a fire’s effects in some light — and the longer it burns, the more this issue presents itself. The slightest change in vantage point in an urban area will reveal the fire’s presence even if the fire itself is not directly visible: the demeanour of bystanders going about their day to day, the chatter of a local shop, a television or radio giving updates. Concern hangs thick in the air.

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Fire’s Effects Linger in the Atmosphere, contributing to Beautiful Sunsets — themselves often a product of pollutants. Glasgow, Scotland, (c) Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2017

But in California, where the Lake Berryessa fire burned thousands of acres, outrage, while certainly felt amongst NorCal’s population, was not as personal: it wasn’t on their doorstep… yet.

We have something to learn from the discrepancy between these events not just for their obvious differences, but chiefly, for their overall commonality. It is critical for the preservation of forests and the management of wildfire, particularly, that accessibility to personalised images which demonstrate fire’s impact on human and animal populations are distributed — because otherwise, human populations will always continue to be more terrorised by a lit match in a humid cement jungle than in a massive field of hay.

New Glasgow Guardian Article Out Now: “Glasgow protests Trump’s Muslim Ban”

At the end of January, I covered Glasgow’s two protests of Trump’s ‘Seven Nation Ban’ — or ‘Muslim Ban’ in a much more ‘newsier’ style than is typical of my past work for the Guardian. I investigated two separate rallies which took place within mere blocks of each other — one sponsored by Stand Up To Racism (SUTR), and the other, a privately-organised and unaffiliated event organised by Hali Amezianne Campbell. The new article investigates the reasons for the two separate gatherings in addition to covering the events themselves. Read it here.

Covering these events and subsequently reflecting on them  has given me immense faith in the character of the global community and in humanity, but has also elucidated the fact that truly, no one is perfect — particularly political parties, individuals, organisations, and factions — no matter how worthy their cause. Critically, it has drawn to my attention the fact that the responsibility of global citisens (in an age which poses increasingly more daunting challenges to that state of being) is ‘simply’ to keep one another in check: fact-checking, remaining objective, and ensuring that we all recognise our ability to morally falter. The longer an individual remains unchecked, the higher the risk of detrimental decisions, and serious ramifications to follow. The task of democratic constituents is to continue challenging our leaders — something the American press is consistently attacked for doing, guilty of doing incorrectly, or some combination thereof.

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Protesters take on increasingly sombre expressions as protests continue, growing in numbers: Glasgow City Centre Trump Muslim Ban Protests, Glasgow, Scotland, Caroline C. Evans Abbott, January 2017.

Conjoining photography with writing through my continuing coverage of Glasgow’s reaction to Trump’s election and subsequent executive actions — and this project in particular — is an exceptional opportunity for which I am very grateful. To capture the faces whose attendance to these rallies made the difference in proving Scotland and the United Kingdom’s majority state of solidarity with United States political discord has made all the difference in the way I perceive, process, and draw conclusions from the cultural events I cover.

Reading student journalism from around the world can truly take one on a journey without ever leaving your desk — for this reason alone, I encourage everyone to reach out and take a few moments to read some content they otherwise may not have.

 

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“A Boy Called Blue”, Glasgow City Centre Trump Muslim Ban Protest, Glasgow, Scotland, Caroline C. Evans Abbott, Jan. 2017

A sample of the article, below, details my interactions with a young boy called Blue (above) whose protest sign was by far the greatest of the night. For more photos of the rally and a thank-you note to Blue, click here.

But among the swarming crowds trying to make sense of the separate rallies, a little face, bundled in hat and coat, held a sign high at the periphery and gazed into the droves of people. His name is Blue, with eyes to match, and as he bravely consented to have his photo taken with permission from his Dad, he peered over the top of the cardboard picket sign he made all by himself, it’s big letters and colourful handle conveying a very direct message: “Mr. Trump [,] Everyone is the same change your ways!”

Hues of Old Glasgow

Glasgow is a friendly city rife for exploration even on the coldest of days. The winter brings with it the evocation of drab imagery: it is expected that every day spent wandering in this bitter season will include only gales from the North Atlantic to match the monochrome surrounding denizens whose wardrobes seem to have submitted to the bleak conditions. Fortunately, aside from the frigidity of the atmosphere, none of that is accurate… at least not all of the time.

The city is, of course, unforgivingly cold in the winter. Humidity hangs motionless in the air and sinks into even the most weatherproof of clothes indiscriminately. Citisens and visitors old enough to have errands appear as regularly as ever, going about their duties, where children seem less easily affected by the cold, darting between alleys and streets chasing one another on scooters and bikes. Aside from the historic tenement flats overlooking some of the city’s most popular roads, their ancient architecture looms over modernised storefronts as occasional, glamorously sleek structures blink between them.

Living here demands recognition of this fact: it is a confluence of old and new at every turn, an undeniable embodiment of the cyclical nature of life. History is patchworked into every element of life here even in the most modernised parts. Often, this overlap is felt most strongly through the creative freedoms taken by residents of tucked-away homes and buildings: using colour and quirkiness to underline the overlapping ages through architectural self-expression.

Attn. Mr. Trump: You Are No Son of Scotland

When I arrived in Scotland this September, a cab driver told me “Scotland always welcomes back her Sons and Daughters”. This sentiment has been echoed by many for each month I have been here, often at points when I would otherwise have felt alone. Instead, I felt surrounded by a community which loves its people – all of its people.

Just like me, Donald Trump is a Scottish-American citizen. And as a Scottish American whose culture and family is rooted so deeply within this community, I can speak to the fact that that connection carries with it a great deal of pride. Pride in country, in family, and in fellow men and women.

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Peaceful Protest: Inaugural Protest a Demonstration of Varying Opinions Coming Together to Admonish Trump. Glasgow City Centre, Trump Inauguration Protest Rally. Glasgow Scotland. 20 January, 2017. Caroline C. Evans Abbott

The fire and ferocity behind Scotland’s pursuits of freedom are a well-documented (and frequently embellished) facet of our culture. That fervour was present tonight in the hearts of the people who came together in City Centre.

There were no blue faces tonight, no tartans – and no, no haggis. But there was peaceful protest, there was ferocity, and there was a sense of safe community.

Being behind a lens frequently gives you a free social pass into diplomacy — the world sees you photographing and assumes you are doing your job and are to be left alone.

I make every effort when photographing to reveal truth, to remain objective, to analyse in the moment so that others may see that truth: to capture my perspective through compositions which convey the emotional and cultural relevance of a scene. But today I am a participant as well.

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“Mary with Child”: Protesters Smile at Joke Told by Speaker. Trump Inauguration Protest Rally, Glasgow City Centre, 20 January 2017. Caroline C. Evans Abbott

Behind my lens, I was shaken and moved to tears as a man began his speech with an emphatic battle cry: “Donald Trump: I am not afraid of you”, followed by the screams of the crowd. Sons and daughters of Scotland and of the World stood together tonight in a joint effort — putting aside political and cultural differences to stand in solidarity with my American friends and family. With me. With you.

Today my heart bleeds for the millions of innocent people at home who are afraid of facing a future which jeopardizes their religious, social, and human freedoms. For my friends. For my family. For those who choose to believe the values of the Democratic Party to be so clearly portrayed by one or two examples, and who then choose to regard my loved ones and I as ‘unsaved’ because of it. If that is the saviour you follow, then I am justified in divorcing myself from your brand of faith and am further at peace with my own.

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Protesters Gather Below Donald Dewar Statue. Glasgow City Centre Trump Inauguration Protest Rally. 20 January 2017. Caroline C. Evans Abbott

Mr. Trump has taken his oath today, and it is my hope that millions of Americans do so as well. Whether they be participating in his festivities, remaining impartial, or protesting his inauguration, may they vow to keep their hearts and minds open to the opinions of their fellow Americans.

It is my hope that they vow to expand their horizons. To not get angry, but to be thoughtful. To read more. To vow to do act with the class and grace our nation deserves, to commit acts of kindness, to deny gilded temptations which gloss over the truth. To make themselves uncomfortable, and then to come to terms with why they may feel that way. To swear an oath to defend our nation from whatever evil it will encounter: to defend your brothers, your sisters, your countrymen.

Mr. Trump may not support the arts, education, equal rights, or maintaining the separation of church and state which we rely upon for democracy to function, but I do.

In protest to Mr. Trump’s ideologies concerning education, the arts, his blatant lack of support for Native American rights, and his demagogic rhetoric, I will take to mine in whatever way I can through my art and writing.

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He has taken to demeaning, to bullying, and to fighting a big story with a bigger one. He has chosen his weapon of choice in a battle for America. And I will take up mine.

Scotland took a stand today, alongside thousands of citizens all over the world to protest the entry of a man into the most powerful position in the world – a man whose clinically narcissistic temperament has been overlooked by a population which felt abandoned by our government. That abandonment is what we must address going forward: with love, with education, and with exposure to the arts. But all good things in moderation, and I feel I speak for Scotland and for many Scottish American citisens when I say:

Mr. Trump, you are no Son of Scotland.

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“Sons of Scotland”: Two Young Boys Watch Protest Unfold. Glasgow City Centre Trump Inauguration Protest. 20 January, 2017. Glasgow, Scotland. Caroline C. Evans Abbott

Big Ships Turn Slowly? : Student Mental Health Support on the Table at University of Glasgow College of Arts S.S.L.C. Meeting, Questions Raised

Today, Postgraduate Representatives on the Student Staff Liaison Committee convened in our first College of Arts meeting of the year, chaired by Barbara Burns with Adeline Callander, assisting. The meeting’s scheduled theme of ‘wellness’ brought some interesting issues to light.

Chairwoman Burns made it clear that the preferential topics of discussion for promoting wellness concerned more community based efforts to prevent slips in ‘wellness’ before they happen. An admirable goal, but not the nature of mental illness or of healthcare in general. While an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, a picnic will not prevent a heart attack no matter how good the cheese is.

A greater, more streamlined approach to promoting and establishing health-based resources by which incoming students could better navigate healthcare systems would facilitate the transition to life at Glasgow – a lack of this does not promote wellness.

As was acknowledged by Ms. Burns in so many words when I presented this issue to the floor, ‘Big Ships Turn Slowly’, and an issue of this magnitude will take some time to work through. Our responsibility as students in this department is to the future students who will take our place next year, so that their experiences can be improved, and so forth.

We are very fortunate for our close-knit faction of researchers and for the vigilance of Prof. Alice Jenkins for her close personal attention to our research, academics, our hopes and dreams, and critically, our wellbeing.

In light of our exceptional good fortune in the camaraderie department, I used the meeting as a platform to further express the fact that many students I have spoken with outside of our own group have had trouble adjusting to the health services offered through the National Health Service, feeling they were provided very little introduction into ‘life’ in the United Kingdom beyond their student status and what they could expect.

As an example of this, there are several mental health and learning disability medications which lack equivalence here across country lines – leaving students without any recourse when the doctor flounders to find a parallel drug with little information. I suggested the instatement of medical reciprocity personnel – even someone who is familiar with the medical aspects of each nation – to harbour a community at the University which is supportive of its postgraduate students’ needs.

As a College, we have not had the clearest distribution of information despite best efforts from the department – this is an established problem which, I hope, is rectified for incoming students. The deficit in clear information distribution translates to abject lack of distribution of mental health information – ergo, making it more inaccessible and perhaps even foreboding.

The need for a better introduction to life here was corroborated by several members of the committee regarding this issue and others – adjustment to academic English language requirements differing strongly from test-indicated ability, more clearly indicated quiet resting areas, and several similar points.

Other topics of discussion included the distribution, functionality, and age of computers ‘given’ up for postgraduate researchers to use (we get the computers after four years of staff use, but then the computer sit for an additional three until they no longer are in functional condition), elucidation of induction and Moodle information, and more. But the largest, unified concern has been detailed above.

Charlotte Orr is leading the charge on the development of a Student Mental Health Support Team, which aims to provide support and listening ears to those in need both to harbour community and train our postgraduates to accommodate and support one another appropriately.

Going forward, I urge everyone to keep checking in with each other. Consider involvement in Charlotte’s initiative. Send GIFs of puppies, kittens, turtles, or whatever else you’re into. Keep the inside jokes coming.

And if you have any questions, or would like to hear the funny story of how I was late to the meeting by a couple of minutes and embarrassed myself by knocking over my briefcase, following it up with forgetting to introduce myself by name, please feel free to chat me up via WordPress, Facebook, or email.

Here’s to an excellent Spring Term 2017!

How Van met Phyllis: Curley’s Diner, Stamford CT, The Ruby Slipper Project

Has anyone ever told you you have bedroom eyes?” He leaned in over the counter of the tiny diner and set down their food as her big brown eyes darted back and forth. For the confident, handsome, thirty-four-year-old veteran (a line cook for now), this interaction was easy, comfortable. For her – also a veteran, and savvy, but with a giddy laugh she never was very good at holding back – the interaction would have been a little less comfortable: she was on a date with another man. But my grandfather didn’t seem to care much.

That is the spark-flying story of how Van met Phyllis – the story of how my maternal grandparents met. Hers was an extreme caricature of a position many women have encountered over the course of history – whether to follow the head or the heart. She followed her heart, and like their memory, the diner still stands today.

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The year was 1948, and Curley’s diner in Stamford, Connecticut had been open for seven years, about the same number of years Van Gordon Evans, a southern gentleman with a strong jawline and an incurable sense of confidence, had called the north his home. There was instant chemistry, and through a series of events she never fully detailed, they were married six months later with their first of three baby girls arriving ten months after that.

My grandmother had an affinity for diners – frequently calling us from the land line of a local joint she had spontaneously arrived at to see if we would like to join her for a coffee, one of my greatest regrets in life is the one time I declined to join her on one of these occasions. But more often than not, we would end up in a booth at a diner, having a B.L.T., and talking about life: the future, the past, and the present. It was in those diners where I got my first sense of the world around me, of the community we lived in, and where she passed to me her unabatingly street-smart sense of class. Frequently, she spoke out against things she felt were wrong if the time arrived, but more frequently, she complimented that which she saw as good for the world. I gauged her reactions to the world around me partly in diners just like Curley’s, and in so doing, she taught me when to speak up and when to shut up.

Their courtship would have taken place as the height of Country-Western, Latin, and Big Band music led up to the birth of rock n’ roll. Most of their dating activities happened in and around the Southern Connecticut area where she had spent the latent parts of her childhood after immigrating with her family from Italy at the age of eight. But Curley’s diner is the stand-out landmark of their love story – itself as imperfect and inescapably charming as their relationship. The neighbourhood surrounding them abounded with visual disparity even then between the ‘rich’ sides of town and the poor, ramshackled places struggling with crime, violence, poverty, and drugs.

The diner was empty when I arrived, and admittedly, sticks out like a sore thumb in the heart of the increasingly gentrified Stamford, Connecticut, which in its efforts to beautify the neighbourhood has gone largely in favour of a more classic turn-of-the-century style. Skyscrapers and parking garages spring up all around, and construction sounds ring out in a clamour from behind the tiny parking lot, but inside there’s just silence. Across the street, town efforts to transform the neighbourhood into a bustling downtown are succeeding – it is a portrait of gentility with carefully restored brickwork and particularly-chosen lampposts. Black, Hispanic, and White workers can be seen ducking between the shadows of the buildings, working on construction crews while well-kempt Black, Hispanic, and White families enjoy the appeal of the restoration efforts below, driving into the city for a day of shopping while locals are an interesting mix of privilege and pain. But Curley’s is a quirky and quintessentially authentic New England diner, hosting senators, congressmen, and actors – DeNiro even filming a part of his film “Everybody’s Fine” at the counter.

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I love your shoes.” The waitress says in a very matter-of-fact way as she swings by the table. “Thanks! There’s actually a funny story about that – it’s kind of why I’m here”. I explain my Grandparents’ story and the shoes’ significance, hesitant at first and admittedly taken aback by the interior which looks more seventies than fifties despite the iconically original sign which still stands on the roof outside, but I am welcomed by her directness and interest. When I explain my grandfather’s opening line, she laughs and exclaims with great joy “I’d probably date him, too! And the Wizard of Oz is my favourite movie. Love it.

Opened by Herluf Svenningsen, called ‘Curley’ for his golden locks in 1941, the diner has been a stubbornly-steadfast icon of Stamford for decades, changing hands in the seventies after being bought by Maria Aposporos. It has, literally, made it through hell and high water: surviving everything from the flood of 1955 which left southern Connecticut drowning, to gentrification efforts which would have liked to do away with the diner entirely.

In 2007, then Stamford City Mayor and now Connecticut State Governor Dannel Malloy’s Urban Redevelopment Commission’s efforts to seize the diner under Eminent Domain in hopes of replacing it with an apartment complex lost to Aprosporos in a hard-fought and very public Connecticut Supreme Court battle garnering attention from everyone from The New York Times to CNN.

Curley’s didn’t ‘fit in’ with the sleek gentrification plan for Stamford, and the ground upon which it rests was valuable. It gives off an anachronous vibe: clashing heavily with the art deco style taking over the newly renovated downtown with its fifties charm and even more out of place seventies interior. Aprospros fought back with a card as political as the one she was dealt, using powerful alliances and the press to establish security on her investment – after paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to fight government claims of Eminent Domain, the battle ended in Aprosporos and her sister Begetis saving the decades-old piece of history from destruction.

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Aprosporos, a Greek emigrant with thick white hair and friendly eyes whose accent is as steadfast as her commitment to the diner, has garnered plenty of attention and support from Republican politicians and community members as a result of her public battle with Malloy, at one point supporting Tom Foley’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign for Governor in 2010, and serving on the Republican Board of Representatives in years prior. During his campaign for Governor against Foley, Malloy would later cite her involvement as a political move and claim no involvement in the Urban Redevelopment Commission’s decision to attempt to seize her property in Stamford.

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Typically, the Connecticut Democratic Party’s constituency are proponents and defenders of arts, culture, and humanist ideologies, and gentrification projects tend to reflect the democratic majority’s reverence for the arts and historic integrity, even across party lines – Willimantic, Connecticut, once much more of a heroin hotbed than it is today, has made strong and continuing comeback efforts in recent decades, presenting a swinging comeback which regards the area’s original features and historic value.

Today, restaurant is an unapologetically authentic homestead for the family clan – Maria and her daughter chat away in Greek as they serve the community. As she directs her staff, she carries herself with the wary sensibility of a street-smart mother, as though watching carefully for the next political move which may jeopardise the integrity of her legacy. She carries with her the wariness of her generation, looking out for her diner like a child from behind the front counter, ducking in and out of the kitchen in her apron.

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An African American woman and her son walk in mere moments after I take my seat – right across from the doorway my Grandfather may have walked out of so many decades before. In the quiet diner, she thwarts the boy’s requests for ham in his omelette order, explaining that it would cost more than they had — $0.50 more, to be exact – and that she had to eat, too. As they settle in and prepare to order, the waitress, who has overheard from the kitchen, comes forward to take their orders.

Excuse me, ma’am, not that it’s any of my business, but I overheard part of your conversation. This is the best value on the menu” she points at the menu, explaining the volume of food for one order. “Let him get what he wants. I’ll make sure you have enough to eat. I’ll put the extra dollar in.” She leans down to the child, shyly looking over his menu. “What do you like to study in school?” she asks. He responds happily, explaining in fragmented sentences his love of math, science, and community. He’s gotten loads of awards so far this year. He’s an area local, it’s clear he has no Daddy but he’s too young to mind, and he likes ham with his eggs.

Some time passes and a local comes in, greeting the waitress with a hug. They ask each other about business and he sets about getting some lunch. It’s the authentic place for the ‘real’ Stamford residents to come, where on the other side of the street, wealthy shoppers frequent the attractive, restored storefronts.

“Let me see if I can find something for you… Ma! I’m goin’ out for a minute” The waitress disappears into the parking lot. Moments later, she returns with two items: an old article from the Stamford Advocate featuring the diner’s story for me, and a toy truck. I pour over the collection of images, and information, and naturally, order a B.L.T., then watch as she takes the truck to the boy. “Santa told me you’ve been good this year”, she says, stooping down to deliver the gift. The boy graciously accepts, and the waitress returns with a smile, saying “you keep doin’ good in school, okay?” as she walks away.

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Curley’s diner represents a community through several parts of a very diverse whole, the underlying current of mankind uniting despite political, social, or racial differences to convene for one purpose: to enjoy some really good food and have a chat. Greek, Italian, Scottish, and Black culture, Liberal and Conservative, converging in one space with no animosity. Naturally, conditions are not always this idyllic, but for today, it was peace incarnate, and my Grandmother’s affinity for the American diner was alive both through her story and her legacy of acceptance. Their marriage was rife with differences – some more innately curable than others – but they loved each other, so they dove right in.

Maria represents a demographic which came to American in pursuit the American dream: much like my own Grandmother’s journey from Italy, and a demographic which is still very much alive and well today, but one which is challenged by hyper-conservative immigration reform proposals and adjacent media firestorms. When big business got in the way, Maria accorded with whichever political side could aid her in moving forward with her dream. But even with her conservative allies, she has not lost her socially liberal ideologies; serving food to the poor, sometimes lending money to regulars, and welcoming everyone, from white collar workers to prostitutes, to eat at her table. In the wake of the election, relations are tense even in the ‘quiet corners’ of Connecticut – but the American diner is still even ground on which to have a discussion or to learn about life from a stranger.

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Diners and community gathering places like them are hotbeds of human interaction: in them, we meet people from all walks of life and from all parts of the world. Frequently, they are tied to the romanticised ideals of American road-tripping, and frequently, that is an accurate connection, with travellers visiting from all over the country and the world. They provide common ground upon which ideas and differing philosophies can duke it out, ground upon which humanity’s most basic interests stand, and a chance for minds and hearts to meet. My grandmother’s view of diner meals as an occasional luxury was due to more than just her depression-era frugality: she saw the educational, humanist value to the interactions which took place within them.

I speak with Maria on my way out, talking about her experiences owning the Diner and the transitions which have taken place over the years. But charity isn’t new to Curley’s – in fact, Maria explains that the extent of their charity – feeding the neighbourhood poor, hungry, and prostitutes, had sometimes exceeded thousands of meals a week. She explains her battles to secure her business, her plans to eventually renovate, to keep improving, and to restore the building to a more original 1950s style: big dreams which transcend her age or any battles she may face in future.

I’m planning to fix the sign” she explains, sounding almost sheepish. But as her daughter chats with the young boy’s mother in the background of our conversation, watching the young boy play with his new truck, Maria has no idea how perfect her diner already is.

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Sources Consulted:

Some important sources consulted for anyone looking for basis to references made. It is important to note that all of these sources have been considered in light of their potential biases and most analysis within this piece has been made on the basis of interview and experience. Big thanks to Curley’s Diner for such a wonderful afternoon and for sustaining such a beautiful memory in the hearts of many people. Great food, too!

http://www.courant.com/politics/capitol-watch/hc-christie-to-appear-at-diner-where-owner-clashed-with-city-malloy-20140923-story.html

http://www.stamfordhistory.org/ph_1002_n3.htm

http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fsb/fsb_archive/2007/04/01/8403853/index.htm

“It’s Not About the Shoes”: The Ruby Slipper Project

Turn it off”, she said, almost in a whisper. It was one of the bad days nearing the end, and the frustration was bearing down on her in ways her cancer had robbed her the ability to express. I could hear the tears gathering in her eyes, but she ensured I could not see them as she turned away in the bed which took up most of the available floor space in the already-cramped living room.

My mother made her swift and decisive way toward her, weaving through furniture and boxes and plastic cups, books, and folded napkins balanced precariously on footstools, through the living room in which my maternal Grandmother, Phyllis Granata Evans, was living her last.

The colours and light levity of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ had burst through the barriers of fate onto our living room television screen – a screen blacker and less dramatic than the silver one upon which she would have first seen those dancing, vivid depictions of lovable characters and yellow brick roads reminiscent of the gold-paved streets her family had sought in coming to America from Italy so many years before. It was one of her favourite movies, and something she and I had shared for years.

Something about it all had long captivated both of us for as long as I could remember, and more times than I could remember, I on her knee in her coincidentally ruby red velvet armchair, I kicked together the heels of those shoes three times, and as promised, I was home. The vibrant colours, the vivid imagery, the powerful, understated simplicity – it was beautiful.

We would delight for hours on end in Judy Garland’s character – and as we watched together, so she became a silver-screen embodiment of Gram. That same strength and the class of its delivery, the bravery in standing up humbly with what knowledge she had, acknowledging fear, and those big, brown doe eyes. Judy Garland had been every little girl’s idol in my Grandmother’s day, surely – but only I was lucky enough to know a real-life version. We knew the lines by heart, though after the first or second time, I was really only watching her. Her undying, enduring fascination with the film reflected a great reverence for life and a joy besides which she retained to her last.

As soon as I was old enough to ask, I received and cherished my own “ruby slippers” – a plain pair of red leather Mary Jane shoes bows on the toes which I wore at every available opportunity. Gram was always the first to remind me to click my heels together and say the magic words which would get me home.

            Cancer had also robbed part of her ability to communicate in her trademark, descriptive way, and the resulting directness was always a bare, minimalist version of what she really wanted to say and a reminder of the way things were ‘before’. But in her typical grace, she drove the disparity between communications past and present with great competence and careful consideration, crafting her responses thoughtfully but quickly in order to make the most of the changes like an artist working with a new medium.

Like a dance, my Mother’s agility and competency under pressure were among the only things she could give to ease her dying mother’s finals days, and she gave them freely with that singular goal in mind. Mom turned the television off at the end of an abrupt series of motions and with it, my childhood entered its final phase. “You want it off, Mom? Okay, she wants it off; Caroline, where’s the remote?” The screen went black, and then there was silence.

In my own attempts to ease our communal, hovering state of dread, I had been the one to surreptitiously stumble across those slippers, and like Dorothy, had found an unwanted assignment as my Glinda departed. Like my Mother, it was all I could do – flipping through channels, contributing to day to day goings on – all I could offer to our dying matriarch whose self-educated grace had held our family’s seams together even at their most vulnerable. And especially then. I was incapacitated by my inability to help, or to control the rapid passage of time like so much sand through some wicked witch’s poison hourglass.

At the time, I was newly seventeen with plenty of the less endearing characteristics that brings, a petulant teenager prone to frustration and misdirection thereof. But she, of course, ever tolerant in her aged wisdom in her mid-eighties and having lost none of her astuteness to the disease which had rendered her housebound and living with us in our already-cramped house, had not lost her ability to recognise that petulance.

Once, as my Mother and I concluded an explosive, nonsensical argument concerning the criminal misplacement of my high-top Chuck Taylor shoes – too close to the radius of the front door’s inward swing – she consoled my overworked mother, saying with wisdom and understated humour; “Sandra… It’s not about the shoes”. For the years of her absence to come, both of ‘her girls’ – my Mother and I – would cite that line like a ruling from the Geneva convention, mandatorily preceding the apology for each regrettable argument of similar calibre. She was “Mom”, she was “Gram”, and she had our number until the last.
This time, it was too great on the compressed emotions of a moody high school senior – we would not watch our movie. We could not watch our movie, and that meant that things were not normal. I didn’t press the issue because I saw her pain, and so I saw her pain as it became ours. She did not want to show the sadness she would otherwise have been incapable of hiding, she wanted to hide her sadness to remain strong. She couldn’t bear to see us see the effect it would have on her, to see her in the pain her brain tumour never delivered due to its merciful placement. I did understand. It would – and had – become a sad thing. We would never watch ‘The Wizard of Oz’ together again.

Perhaps she remembered the last time we watched it together where I had forgotten it without realising its value. Perhaps she wished to keep it in her memory for its pleasantness or more frivolous circumstance. Perhaps the memory of me on her knee was too valuable to replace with these unhappy circumstances.

For years, I couldn’t grasp the emotional magnitude of her request to simply turn it off, her concession to privately experience her emotions where I denied myself the same experience. I noted my Mother’s swift follow-through and tight-lipped silence. I reeled in shocked silence, I grasped at the absence of experience, thoughts swimming in a sea of vacant space bereft of the familiar comforting songs and joyful imagery, a shock like the missed step of a staircase. I walked myself through it a thousand times.

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We had sat together in the silent living room on days just like that before, but there was never a lack of movement and life about her like there was in the moments which followed that decision – whether reading or watching my parents go about the day to day, flitting from work to chores to family time to sleep and back again to start each day, she faced the future as boldly as she had lived her past.

She died on a quiet morning as Mom and I slept on the floor next to her bedside in the living room – only after looking up one last time to be sure we were there, together. Mom put on Israel Kamkawiwo’ole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow / Wonderful World”, and to this day, I can’t listen to it without crying every tear I held in during her illness. Her soul left her body on the holy ground she had built – she had given my parents a place to raise me in her tiny nine-hundred-and-fifty-square foot home which now hosted her death bed.

The days following her death were first years, then moments, and finally seconds. Time has since quickened the course of the hourglass, only slowing down for moments in which we choose to acknowledge memory, and within those moments, more are made.

At first, her absence made home an impossible place to return to by its original definition. No matter how many times I clicked my heels, no matter how many times I closed my eyes and said the words (figuratively and sometimes in desperation, literally), I couldn’t seem to get ‘home’, and my spirit sunk. For the years which followed, and as the world threw me to the wind as it does many young people, I searched for a path by which to return to it wildly, incensed at its evermore present inaccessibility, not understanding how to return to what I would only understand to be an intangible concept after leaving it.

I felt at home only when I lived within the memories she shared which so had made our own memories as a unit, and therein her laughter would surface in my memory at last. The bitter moments of her absence would teach me that, while you really can’t go home again, the power to do so truly is within you just as it was within Dorothy.

Three years after leaving the town in which we said our goodbyes and two after leaving the state I had called home for over twenty years, I came into the belated but clear understanding that home was not a place to return to – it has no familiar qualities, no tangible way of entry, no key which directly signifies its locked up return address.            Home is the construct of memory alone, of relayed generational experience, and critically, at the centre still, anecdotes, stories, and oral tradition. We are each the construct of innumerable overlapping fractured pieces represented only by the retelling of memory and buried if not cared for – the stories which make it across generations and ages which perpetuate not only our personal and cultural identities but our sense of family and so, home. Those memories transcend genealogical significance or pure cultural pride and themselves hold the power to unite the entire human race through the commonality of this overlap. A tale of adventure from one city to the next – a snippet of someone’s life passed down over generations will reveal coincidence and irony evident only to later generations, proving global citizenship and unfolding a valuable story to understanding our humanity.

My Grandmother was a champion of liberal ideology: she won her open-minded, humanist intellect through self-bought and hard won education. She was flawed as all human beings are, but she was strong, kind, persevering, educated, and all the things I aspire to be. She believed in equality for all, she listened to all, and she cared for all, and through her stories, she imparted these values on all who knew her. Her journey through life embodies the experiences which become stories and so build the house upon which a ‘home’ stands.
Our remembrance of family stories is of integral value to broad-scale cultural acceptance in a world which desperately needs reminders of it. Within these stories, proof of cultural overlap abounds, proving both multiculturalism and global citizenship at their most deeply-rooted levels – and proving to be a powerful tool in gaining ground on cultural acceptance. No person belongs purely to a single race or culture but instead are each the construct of every culture which has, even minimally, touched our own, and within our stories, those cultures deserve recognition. It is critical to our acknowledgement of ourselves as cultural beings to examine and revisit these stories, memories, and to embark on our own journeys towards self-discovery so that we can, in turn, contribute to the cycle. To place our pride in people, not in place, is at the centre of our ability to understand ‘home’.

I can’t go home again – not to the place I knew, because her final lesson has divorced me from my faith in place and instead seen me place my faith in time and memory. Home is all about me because of what she taught me. But nearly ten years later, it’s just about time to symbolically watch that movie together.

We are living in a world which could have benefited greatly from her presence, and so, in her absence, I found a pair of modern-day ruby slippers, and for the next year, I will be undertaking a project which aims to document the stories in my family through travel, photography, and writing – travelling all over the world in these shoes on a pilgrimage which acknowledges my own origins and exemplifies the global citisenship of humanity through story to prove that there really is ‘no place like home’ in the hope that others will do the same.

This is a journey through life in her shoes, viewed through the lenses of love and will to learn through which she saw the world. It exists to exemplify the confluence of cultures in our lives and to honour her memory by illustrating the multicultural facets which construct each of our life stories. And yes, Gram, you’re right…

It’s still not about the shoes.

Winter in Storrs

I was back in the Northeastern United States for the holiday interim, back in the [strange] Connecticut town I called ‘home’ for twenty odd years once again. Same quirky neighbourhood, same interesting townsfolk, same local paper, same solitarily inexpensive coffeeshop I used to avoid for fear of bumping into the past.

Anyone who has been generally rootless for any number of years can attest to the fact that, when the world barrages you with images you’ve never before processed, your analytical side is sharpened as finely as your subjectivity is tested.

I have found over the past few years that this test has awakened an excitement for the simple things I had, maybe, missed in the past. The town which (in the high school just a few moments walk from my front door) my peers and I would minimally complain about to foster within us a unifying hatred for a common enemy has suddenly become visible through a new lens by most of us who have returned to see the colours we couldn’t before.

I once found this scenery bleak in winter — devoid of colour and bereft of life’s motions (and then I met Glasgow [haha]). Coming back to town after months away in a new city, and after over a year on the other side of the country has changed that perspective: there’s colour exploding everywhere here almost as vibrantly if not more as in autumn.

It’s still not exciting here in a cosmopolitain sense which would excite a teenager or young adult. The biggest town scandals usually centre around the neighbouring Willimantic, Connecticut (still a hotbed for drug activity despite continued success with gentrification attempts) and the latest developments near and around the University of Connecticut. The people here love puns, bookstores, eclectically sensitive musicians posted on street corners, and eccentric characters. Things change year to year, but every year, most things remain the same. It is a community of people in a beautiful setting.

It’s still a sleepy town in the winter, and when it’s this cold outside (in the subzero celsius range), no one wants to part with the fireplace, but we like our spiced alcohol, our funny stories, our town anecdotes, and I am so grateful to have this community to come back to in a life which, by all other accounts, has stripped me of static roots… though I’m definitely not complaining about that.

This was always enough for me, and if nothing else, travel has validated the fact that there truly is beauty here unlike anywhere else in the world.