Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Part 4: The Lees

Back at what we call "the little house" at the Putnam Ranch in Washington, there's a tiny embroidered thing in a frame that says something like "To be a Virginian, whether by birth, marriage, or even on one's mother's side is a passport to any country, and a benediction from Almighty God." That almost certainly came from my grandmother. My grandmother was left-handed, a twin, and Virginian, all things of which she was very proud. Especially the last one.

My grandpa likes to tell the story something like this: he was a soldier in World War II, on leave in Hampton, Virginia. As usual for those days, a local family came out to the church and invited soldiers back for a home-cooked meal. My grandpa went home with the nice family named Lee, and found that they had some daughters they were trying to get rid of. So, he took one of them.

The rest of the siblings, including her little brother, Henry, pictured above, spent most of their lives back east in Virginia. But Henry, himself a fighter pilot in the war, and great lover of road trips, has always been an active part of the Putnam family out west. My last opportunity to return the favor and come see the Lees in Virginia was almost fifteen years ago.

A side note. For those of you who know your American history and are putting two and two together, when I talk about the Lees of Virginia, yes, they are the Lees you're thinking of. And for the record I'd just like to say that my ancestor was asked by Lincoln to head the Union Army, and only sided with the confederacy because he couldn't bear the idea of fighting the people he grew up with in his home. Anyway, that was a long time ago, things are little different in 2010.

One thing about this branch of the family-- we keep track of ourselves. As my cousin, Regina, drove me around Hampton, she started pointing out the street named after our cousins, the house the belonged to our other cousins, the cemetery where half of our family is buried outside the 400-year old church where we have a reserved pew, where my grandparents were married and my mom and uncles were baptized. The same one where a few years ago, my grandpa visited, got to talking to someone, and told them that he and his wife had been married there sixty years before. The man responded that he'd been there and pointed to the pew where he'd been sitting for the ceremony.

Henry has a house full of history. I mean that about as literally as you can take it. I've never seen a house piled with so much old stuff. I'm six feet tall, and there were stacks and boxes I couldn't see the tops of. As we were leaving, Regina pointed to the back corner of the covered porch and said "look, there's his canon." I spent a good five seconds looking for a camera before I noticed the spoked wooden wheel peeking out from under the piles of other stuff. The one attached to the canon. The kind you fire small cannonballs with.

Henry himself is a talker. He has his way of doing things, and his way of thinking about things. Not everything he says are things you will want to hear, and if you don't agree with him, he will not let go (I wasted about ten minutes trying to explain the rationale of printing signs and instruction sheets in multiple languages in this country). But he loves his home, his friends and his family. And he loves to talk. Funnily enough, the rest of the family loves to talk about him. If there's ever a lull in the conversation in a Lee household (unlikely), just bring up Henry and everyone will have plenty to say.

Henry and my grandmother had several other siblings, including my grandmother's twin brother, Bev. I got to spend a day with Bev's kids and their families while we ate, laughed, argued, and swapped stories. Especially stories of family and friends. I've never heard of such antics performed with nail guns as when the conversation turned to the brother's work in construction. Scary. But fun.

And in case you're wondering, whatever good things you've heard about southern hospitality, it's all true. And it goes double if you're family. Regina dropped a day of work ("I'm on vacation now!") and drove me all around town, then beyond to Colonial Williamsburg, where we got to see some of our country's heritage, my favorite being an actor who sat under a tree with a cane and talked with us for over an hour in the persona of Scottish-American newspaperman Alexnder Purdie. Then after she drove us home from that, I could swim around in the pool, and was fed more food than I knew what to do with while I batted away offers of even more stuff. I might just have to come down this way more often now that I'm moving to the east coast.

No matter how long you give these visits, they always seem too short at the end. That goes for each one of the family visits I've had these past few weeks. And it especially seems true now that this round is over. I've seen most of my living relatives now. I'm writing this on a train that's taking me to Washington DC.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Part 3: The Stones

At some point around the McCarthy period, somebody in the FBI asked my dad whether his sister, Jane, (or Dane, as we call her), was a Communist. My dad, a Communist himself at the time, immediately said "no." He was telling the truth, Dane was a Trotskyite, and, as he put it, "would sooner die before calling herself a Communist."

Aside from her political activities, not just among "the reds", but also in the civil rights movement, Dane is also one of the most well-traveled people I know. At this point in my life, that's saying quite a lot. There are very few people who I can have a normal conversation with where both parties can relate stories spanning four continents. It's really nice.

Her branch of the family took the name of her late husband, Bill Stone, himself an active member of similar political lines, a union activist, and a college professor of English. I got to see a little over half of the family branch that survived him over the last week. Joyce, the carpenter was busy at home in Minnesota, and Dan, my best chess teacher was busy with the adult education program he runs on the north side of Chicago (called simply and accurately, "Fun with Learning"). So I spent a little time with their big brother, my cousin, Dave, the teacher and delegate to the  teacher's union, and his wife, Debbie, who is a lawyer for the ALA, and whose main job is legal defense for the first amendment of the American bill of rights. Then their daughter, Elizabeth (English major and improv actress), and I flew and drove out to the town of Duck, North Carolina, to see Dane at her time-share.

Duck is on the Outer Banks, a tiny strip of land between the sound and the ocean, a few minutes drive north of Kitty Hawk (and the equally oddly named but much less famous town of Kill Devil Hills). I'd never been on a time share before, and wasn't sure what to expect. It was weird. After all this time traveling all over the place, I was, for the very first time, doing the classic thing most Americans associate with travel: getting off an airplane, renting a car, and driving out to a resort where we had a reservation. Surreal. The rental car (a white Kia Rio) is clearly a special Hertz reserved for the under-25 customers. It has manual locks you have to lock individually, crank windows, and no cruise control, yet it comes with satellite radio receiver, and audio and usb jacks. It's like somebody in 2009 wanted to make a car that reminded them of 1999, then got an unexpected donation from the Sirius/XM corporation.

The apartments here are enough to fit ten. There are three of us. I have what amounts to a one-bedroom apartment to myself, a five minute walk from a beautiful Atlantic ocean beach.

It's been a good vacation. Aside from swimming, visiting Kitty Hawk, and climbing the only migratory lighthouse I'm aware of, we've been swapping stories and eating very well. I managed to go swimming in the ocean and not get horribly sunburned, which is always a victory.

But my favorite moment might have been on my second night, when I walked out around midnight to go take a look at the ocean. The weather forecast had been threatening us with thunderstorms, and the place was cloudy when I started  down the drive. I walked to the shoreline, pulled out my headphones and cued up Jamie Cullum's "I Love This," right as I hit the beach. Like magic, the clouds scattered, giving me a near-full moon and stars to walk with on the beach with the crashing Atlantic.

I think I might go see if I can't do that again.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Part 2: The Bergmans

My father, a man raised in a Jewish family in largely Jewish Chicago neighborhood, jokes that he makes a point not to marry anyone who isn't Episcopalian. Our family gets complicated that way.

In most practical senses, I grew up an only child. But I have a half-brother and half-sister through my dad's previous marriage. I've been an uncle since just before I turned nine years old (a cause of much disbelief in 4th-grade Spanish class family tree projects). As of last February, I now have five nieces. What you see here is my dad with one of the two youngest. We came out to Chicago for the baptism of my brother's new baby twins, Sophia and Madeline. As my father says, they're "clearly superior babies."

Recently, for the first time, a good friend asked me point blank why I came home. My immediate answer was my nieces. I'm not letting them grow up without their Uncle Joel around. Supposedly there was a betting pool going among some friends of mine that I'd never come back. At least one side of that pool hasn't met these girls.

Or my half-siblings, come to that. My sister lives with her family just a few blocks from my parents' place, in a gorgeous house they've remodeled from the basement on up. I say goodbye to them with pizza made from a stone oven that had been hauled up on a trailer into their driveway. Great pizza, and a great time my my sister and brother-in-law, their two daughters, and the three respective packs of friends acting as entourage. If I'm going to spend my last night in my hometown with anyone, it'll be them.

Well, them, and some theater friends later that night, but that's another story. We'll skip ahead to the 6am flight to go see my brother, and baptism of his baby girls instead.

My brother is busiest person I know. Like me, he got the travel bug, and like me, he decided to go traveling after college. The way he did it was to become a flight attendant "for a little while," and he got some travel perks that would be almost impossible for me to give up if I had them.

Well, he still hasn't. He became an active and very successful member of the union, led a strike against his company, and won. Then he decided his family could use a little more income. So, while keeping his job, he became an RN, and took another job as a nurse, specializing in hospice care. Then, while still working both jobs, he decided to run for a local political office as a democrat against an entrenched republican in a traditionally republican county of Illinois. Then his wife gave birth to twin girls.

As soon as we walk in the room, the in-laws greet us enthusiastically, and hand us envelopes to stamp for the campaign. Soon after, my brother is checking with his airline's internal system for our sister's chances to join us via standby flight. I'm swapping jokes and bouncing babies with my oldest niece, my brother's daughter by his first marriage. Meanwhile my mother and my half-brother's mother are quite happily making a salad together in the next room.

Because of my dad's legendary appetite (his friend, author Calvin Trillin once wrote him up as "an eater of serious scope"), we end up ordering eleven Indian dishes take out for nine people. I tour my end of the table around the paneer, baigan bharta, and biryani while people rip chunks of spinach and garlic naan to chew with the talk of politics, medicine, travel, and of course, the babies. After all, just like most babies, they're the cutest babies in the world.

None of us get enough time with each other, but we never feel like we do, anyway. Part of working two jobs, running a challenging, winnable political campaign, and having twins. It's all a whirlwind. We roll to the church, The babies are each in pretty white dresses longer than their heights (lengths?) combined. Someone hands me a video camera, and I get to work. Reception. Cake. Book signings. Back to the house for sandwiches, laughs, stories, and whoosh. Gone.

We need to do this more often, we think.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Travel Tip: $499, Unlimited US Air Travel for a month! (Must buy by THIS FRIDAY, August 20th)

Heads up, If you're fast, for US$499, you can fly anywhere that JetBlue flies for a specific monthlong period (Sept 7- Oct 6th), as many flights as you can stand (as long as they aren't on Fridays or Sundays).

Here's their summary:

AYCJ-5: $499* for 30 days of unlimited travel (excludes Fridays and Sundays)
  • Pass travel valid on JetBlue-operated flights in the JetBlue route network only 
  • Domestic taxes and fees included
  • International and Puerto Rico taxes and fees not included
  • On sale now, while supplies last
  • Travel dates: Tuesday, September 7, 2010 through Wednesday, October 6, 2010
  • Each flight must be booked and ticketed no later than 11:59 p.m. EDT or 11:59 p.m. local time, whichever is earlier, three (3) days prior to the flight's scheduled departure
  • Last seat availability
  • Nonrefundable/nontransferable/no name changes permitted
A couple other points I found looking through the fine print. Airports charge usage fees, and the numbers don't seem to quite add up as to how much they cover-- so most of the fee will be covered by the pass. For domestic flights, this looks like it could cost you about another $9 per flight. For international/ Puerto Rican flights however, it might charge you close to $200. (Alaskan flights also have a slight surcharge, but nothing near the three digit mark-- a moot point as Jet Blue doesn't appear to service any airports in the state). I've included fine print at the bottom.

Now this is Jet Blue, they don't fly everywhere, so before you jump on this, take a careful look at their route map.

Apparently they did this last year and it was a huge success. Traditionally airlines have very few customers this time of year. Summer vacations are ending and the holidays haven't started yet. So it's a good way for them to fill up their aircraft.

Very, VERY tempting. However seeing as I've just agreed to pay rent in Manhattan for most of that period, I think I'll be finding another way, another time.

If you do get one of these, leave a comment-- tell us all how it goes and what you're going to do with it!

Buy the Pass here.

Just for posterity, I'm including the fine print of their summary, broken down for slightly easier reading:

Monday, August 16, 2010

Part 1: The Putnams

Meet one of the best storytellers I know. No, not the cute cow chew toy on the right. The rancher in the easychair. That's my grandpa, the reigning patriarch of the Putnam clan. I'll tell you a story he told me this morning. It might explain a little about the Putnam sense of humor:

Decades ago, there was a bit of a uranium craze in the Pacific Northwest. People were looking for places to mine it all over. Including our family's ranch.

One day, a salesman came up to my great-grandfather and said "do you know you've got something up in the hills there?"

My great-grandfather raised an eyebrow and asked "can I get at it with my plough?"

The man paused and said "no."

"Well, then." Said my great-grandpa. "If I can't get at it with my plough then I'm not interested."

After getting rid of the guy, he did a little investigating, realized that they wanted Uranium, and that not all the people like them were dealing on the level. So when they came back to ask again, hoping to buy either the land or mining rights, he told them "Nope. Sorry. I've just got enough uranium up there for my purposes. There's really not enough to go around."

This continued until one day my great grandpa put a couple small piles of rocks on either side of his front gate. The man cam back, asked again, and again my great-grandpa replied, "I'm sorry, but I've only got just enough for me."

The man reportedly wandered back and got in the car with his associate and told him,

"That Putnam's completely crazy."

"Is he?" The friend replied, "Why don't you take your Geiger counter to those piles of rocks over there?"

Sure enough, they were radioactive.

I think this demonstrates (and possibly explains) a lot about the subtle kinds of jokes my mom's side of the family pulls around here.

I came out not just for my grandpa's stories but for a tradition that's happened every year since my parents got married. I've already explained a little about the place last time I was here. Now I'll explain the occasion.

Nearly thirty years ago, my parents got married on this ranch. More than 100 people showed up. They had a fantastic time. Somebody, I think my great aunt who I only ever knew as "Auntie" until she died at age 99, said they should do get together like that every year. And thus the Putnam Ranch Roundup was born.

It's a reunion that hits the second weekend of August each year, not just for family, but everyone in the surrounding community, and anyone anybody already there feels like inviting-- close friends, girl/boyfriends, colleagues, whoever. In my entire life, I've only ever missed one, and that was because I was in South Korea at the time.

The leadup varies with camper vans and tents springing up around the property, but the routine on the Saturday doesn't change. Mid-afternoon, half of us troop down to the Columbia river beach, about a ten minute walk from the main house, because it's too hot to do anything else. Six-thirty we gather at the main house and pile on every dish of food we can haul to an empty hay trailer covered in a table cloth and feast on the family classics (Nancy's tortilla soup, Warren's famous corn, etc). After that we take every chair we can over to the big machine shop where, traditionally led by my grandpa and his fiddle, we play music and sing till long after dark. The kids usually sneak off at this point to play Sardines (hide and seek, except backwards).

This year was no different. Lot of people, lots of laughs. One extremely friendly and somewhat overwhelming Airedale terrier. Lots of cool nights looking up at more shooting stars than you can see just about anywhere. And the same laid-back, sly humor that has always been a part of the ranch, ever since my grandpa first walked up to something or someone standing between him and where he wanted to go and amiably asked "are you in my way?"

It's true some things are a little bit different each time. Like the two cousins who came in playing didgeridoos. Or the massive 1970s Army truck another cousin had completely rebuilt and repainted that could run off of anything from french-fry grease to the cocktail of motor oil and transmission fluid he could get for free from his old base. But things like that aside, it all looked pretty familiar.

There's a lot more history to the place than I'll ever be able to write about here, going back to the Oregon trail pioneers, the Applegates, right up to the current Putnam Ranch llc's business dealings. But this might give you a taste of what we do around there.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Aftertrip Begins

This fuzzy little picture is what I snapped from my night tonight in Seattle. This is how I want to spend more nights: listening to a Jazz-Funk band from Mali while I alternate between dancing with childhood friends and chatting up visiting Spaniards.

So, yeah, I'd say my life's pretty good right now. Even if I haven't written here.

It's not a coincidence. This is a travel blog. It's been a long time since I've been on the road. But you're going to start seeing more posts here again soon. I'm going back to traveling for a little while.

This won't be the massive round-the-world trip like last time. This is just for a couple of weeks. They say that travel writing teaches you more about the writer's home than their destination. I guess this little trip is a way to do that a little more explicitly. This time, instead of reaching outward, I'm going to reach in.

This means my land, my history, and my family. Anyone who knows me well knows how much my family means to me. I am starting in the city I was born in, going to the cattle ranch where my mom grew up, then next to my father's childhood and my college days in Chicago. From there it's off to North Carolina with My father's sister and my cousins. Then up to Virginia where the most famous of my ancestors called home. A pit stop in my homeland's capital city, then back up to its biggest hub and the place I've decided will be my new home: New York City.

It will feel good to dust off the backpack and hit the road again. I've been reasonably busy here in Seattle, among other things, breaking into the theater scene with my first professional gig as an actor (good part, too).

But it's a weird feeling. It's almost as if I'm not entirely here sometimes. For me, it feels like I've been here ages. For everyone around me, old friends, family, I guess it feels like I basically just dropped in to say hello before I left again. When it takes you a week to plan having coffee with someone, you perceive time differently than when you spend that same amount of time visiting four or five Japanese cities, exploring the most famous Edo-style style castle, and summiting the island's tallest mountain. Everything happens so much more slowly when you're home.

Too slowly for me, now. It's time to get out and roam again.