The 80s: From Queen to The Cure and the Mess In Between

Much of my late teen years were spent working on an image. I lacked substance. Some people spend a lifetime caught in this phase of life. Others emerge with a ‘look’ all their own and a unique personality that effortlessly emanates beyond the threads they wear.

How It All Began: High School ‘Cool Kids’

In eleventh grade, Vanessa wore a metal upper body brace for scoliosis correction under her loose plaid flannel shirts. In my opinion, the brace passed perfectly with her metal tooth gear. Her sallow skin, too short, self cut, immobile curly hair and body brace restriction passed perfectly to stiff pogo moves at high school dances.

Kris, last year’s originally shy, chubby, blonde girl in pinstriped, pegged jeans with no stretch, appeared willow thin in autumn with a baggy Boy George look, safety pin earrings, and yellow tinged skin. The skin color came from her new hobby: epoxy glue sniffing. From time to time, she spontaneously passed out in Chemistry or creative writing class.

Matt, with his short buzzed side hair and asymmetrical swath of curls dangling over one eye, squinted and pouted in English class. His single, self-pierced ear, looked hot and angry most of the time.

In contrast to my ‘cool’ classmates, through 1984 and 85, I remained vaguely chubby cheeked, my self-cut hair frizzed to a proportion that gave me the uncool nickname ‘Poodle.’ Though I wanted a ‘Pretty In Pink’ Molly Ringwald red bob, my efforts to apply red tinted mouse over brown frizz neither straightened my hair nor tinted it any shade of red.

My father, disgusted and distressed by the ever shorter ‘short back and sides’ but stacked, verging on David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’ or poet Ezra Pound proportions of poof, once snarled that I should go to a salon rather than cut my own wild locks. The one time I did so, I got a gay stylist who pursed his lips together, signaling his own distaste with my later fad: the rat tail. He wouldn’t cut my mullet narrow enough to really look like a braided rat tail, so, when I got home, I got out the further ‘Pretty In Pink’ inspired sewing kit and took a good snip or two with my shiny scissors.

Floppin’ at the Hop

My pleated front peged leg jeans tended to unroll over white socks. The socks flashed a Michael Jackson inspired glittery diamonds over the ankle that scratched. Toughing out the no-stretch jeans and glitter scratch was nothing compared to the sweaty, hot turquoise, puff sleeved angora top. My chalky, honeysuckle scented, roll-on deodorant would cake in my armpits as I took to pogoing with the ‘cool kids’ on Fridays. I felt like a fourth wheel on a tricycle.

Sweaty angora itches like crazy and smells like a wet cat. Cheap perfumes like Coty’s Emeraude and Chantilly only gave me an extra powdered waft wavering on ‘granny worthy.’ My white with black velvet polka dot tights, paired with a short gathered pinstriped pink and white, drop waist skirt and patent purple pumps with equally flashy bows led my father, decades later, converted to Catholicism, to admit, ‘You looked like a whore.’

I never had any whore action in those high school years though. I had crushes that didn’t remedy my secret longings. The best I ever got was a slow dance to REO Speedwagon’s DJ spun ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore,’ where Bruce, the willowy boy, whose locker had stood as alphabetically-by-last-name-assigned next to mine for years, bent down close enough to my shoulder, that my lips could kiss his neck, once. Almost out of earshot, he later boasted to friends in the parking lot that he’d ‘French kissed’ a girl. My first, not even returned, kiss.

The ‘cool kids’ skipped class. They smoked in the smoking court between classes and at lunchtime. They tried LSD and smoked joints while I drove to the shopping mall and knitted model sweaters for manikins in a craft shop. I came home to endless homework. I got good grades, took up jogging and went to the midnight screening of Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall, ‘ a few times. I watched ‘Brideshead Revisited,’ read E. M. Forster and William Faulkner books, listened to operettas of Gilbert & Sullivan, wished I could step into ‘A Passage to India,’ and stared and day dreamed through lots of MTV videos.

A crush on a guy in theater class led me to listen to what he listened to: Queen. My older sister took me aside one day, when my parents were out of the family home, and asked if I was using drugs. She thought anyone who listened to Queen had drug issues. I told the truth: I don’t do drugs. Or glue. I just like music that you apparently don’t. My older sister was a Gordon Lightfoot fan. Of course I liked Brian May’s hair. Living in a humid state in the American South, I could almost poof my do into a May-worthy mop.

High school required reading in eleventh and twelfth grade English leaned heavily towards depressing: ‘Catcher in the Rye,’ ‘The Bell Jar,’ ‘The Sound and the Fury.’ Craziness. Suicide. Family Secrets. Themes that a teen can really obsess about. Music that fit the anxiety, failed dream and unfulfilled longings of teen life appealed to me.

The Bands Beginning with ‘The’

The ‘cool kids’ found their music some other, mysterious way. Vanessa listened to ‘Rock Lobster’ from the B-52s on a Walkman. Her music source was a guy from another high school in our county. He looked a bit like the lead singer in Simple Minds. I wished he was my guy. But, no. I thought the B-52s were corny and obnoxious. I liked them as much as I liked ‘Little Shop of Horrors,’ which was not at all.

U2’s ‘Boy’ and ‘October’ jangled, echoed and clinked with empty glass milk bottle sounds that appealed more than their more successful album ‘War.’ I gave them up and went in search of other bands. Soon the albums in my small collection included groups like The Alarm, The Waterboys, ‘The’ being THE quintessential first part of so many bands in those days. I never did buy anything by The The though. ‘Til Tuesday , Talk Talk and Thompson Twins carried the ‘a band beginning with T’ theme further.

College: She’s (Maybe Not) Got the Look

My younger sister, three years my junior, hip with thin dishwater blonde hair, buzzed asymmetrical and a moody, acne scarred boyfriend on the track team, was kind of an idol for me. She sewed Japanese kimono inspired over-sized shirts and listened to The Smiths, 80s era David Bowie and Modern English. When she chucked clothes and shoes into the charity box in our cellar, I’d fish out everything that appealed, even though the shoes were a size too big for my feet. I took them to my first year of college, stuffing toilet paper in the toes.

I left home for a small college in the desert south west. At Christmas break, I came back from my first semester at college with Lucille Ball colored hair, a Boy George black felt hat, a vaguely shaggy black 50s swing coat from a thrift store which sported ‘wings’ stitched in the shoulder blade regions and three huge round plastic buttons up front. Upon seeing the coat, my mother wanted me to throw it away. I refused. The red hair success was a mishap. One Friday, I drank a bottle of cheap white wine like it was lemonade, colored my hair, donned a plastic bag on the goop, and slipped back to my dorm room for a short snooze. Something like an hour later, I woke and hurried to the dorm bathroom  to puke. As I wretched over the toilet, I noticed I left some red dye marks on the white toilet bowl because I’d forgotten to remove the plastic gloves, that were still damp with dye. What a mess! Several shampoos later, my hair turned out a fried yellowish orange.

My black, side laced oxfords, stretch leggings and long Cindy Lauper skirts, slouched riveted vinyl black belt, somehow failed to produce the kind of edge I wished I could project. My face, still pale and round looked so babyish. If only I’d known about Yazoo, or Robert Smith of The Cure, I might have felt my round faced look ‘passed’ ok, but my mullet was still too wavy and heavy.

The 80s types I admired were borderline anorexic and borderline personality disordered youth. ‘The Breakfast Club’ girl combing her hair over a table, creating a kind of oily snow out of her dandruff comes to mind. In my youth, the depressed girl, buns parked on a hard floor, drawing nonsense with a crayon on a wall in The Car’s video ‘Drive’ looked worth imitating as well. I drew better than that but I must be a bit crazy, even my mother called me ‘eccentric’ after all. I wanted my locks to stand as stiff as the curly headed guitarists in The Alarm. I never found the proper hair product. My hair always flopped.

A one-time accessory disaster of mine was wearing real razor blades as dangle earrings to a dance. After a few hours of jumping and spinning around, I felt the sharp pricks and nicks on my neck. Mingled with sweat, the nicks itched like crazy. Why I didn’t hang the silvery blades with the safety side towards my bod, I’ll never know.

Dark Waves in the Desert: We All Make Mistakes

A ‘cool kid’ moved in on my dorm floor, a petite girl with a standing, dyed black, hair sprayed, shag hairdo, raccoon lidded and lined eyes, who always looked sleepy. The ‘Vegas girl’ was my first real encounter with a cutter. The razor slits, scabbing over her pale arms made her look tough and vulnerable at the same time. Rumors of ‘Vegas’s porn photos with empty beer bottles raised her questionable status further.

Taking my cue from ‘Vegas girl,’ who once painted my eyes with raccoon rings of fat black eyeliner grease for a dance she didn’t attend, I privately took my cast off razor earrings and took to slashing my arms as well. At Easter break, seeing my latest seemingly ‘petty attempts to shock and disgust,’ my furious, tight lipped mother’s response was to buy me an electric shaver. Parents just didn’t get it.

Naturally, the result of showing up at the college dances, cafeteria or any class with my sleeves rolled up was mainly to put people off. It didn’t win me any boyfriends either. It earned me a new nickname: Cutter, shouted from a second storey window off campus as I walked by. I guess it could have been ‘cool’ had I a personality that could carry such a name with a kind of dry humor. Instead, it drove me into a rather studious shell. I resolved only to cut in long sleeved seasons. My new fun was hanging out at the college library, drawing medieval inspired pictures, while tucked away in a wood study carol rather than spend long lonely nights in my boring cinder block dorm room.

At the library, I’d also scroll through early 1900s New York Times articles on microfilm, reading the tragic, usually melodramatic style, tales of disaster and crime. Sensational journalism was par for that era and totally appealing to a youth in search of something exciting an a tiny college town, but not knowing exactly what or where to turn to get it.

After a boring summer back home, working up to my elbows tubs of mint and bubble gum ice cream, at an ever-sticky ice cream parlor, I found myself back at college with unwanted groupies. Though I only went alone to dances and usually danced alone or on the edge of groups, that autumn a small group of freshmen started tagging along, dancing in my periphery. Later they showed up on my dorm floor, hanging about like moody flies, hovering around, usually angry or depressed.

Mort, once a squeaky clean farm kid, giggled he’d taken to sniffing glue. He showed up to share his razor art: cuts under his finger nails. His girlfriend, Sissy, cut words on her arms and thighs. Once, after listening to ‘October’ together at dusk, my face in profile to the fading light, the Sissy said, ‘I just have to shiver. I get the feeling of overwhelming sadness off you.’ I had no clue what she was talking about. Maybe the central heating in the dorm building was on the fritz. I never understood why they idolized me. Their self-indulgent cutting habits verged on an out of control that massively eclipsed my few quiet moments of pain.

Taking Wing

No surprise: I grew weary, tired, sick of these kids who seemed to find me ‘cool.’ The ‘cool’ I’d unwittingly created, through a few years of fashion mishaps, exploring music not always found on the radio, by quietly imitating dysfunctional youth in books, films, on my dorm floor. How had I encouraged what could only be described as creepy little imitations of a darker, mainly private, side of a not-yet 20 year old me? With some difficulty, I disowned the groupies, earning their spite and sarcasm. I admit, at first I envied their more outrageous antics and fashion creations. Then I just took a deep breath and turned completely away from them.

Winter gave way to a bright desert spring. When I left college in summer, walking the wide tree lined streets late at night, my black winged coat swept around me, blown by the cooler canyon wind. I longed for a more silly, even positive audience. I may never have been a punk, the girl every guy dreamed of, a great artist or dancer, but, without realizing it, I was on the verge of developing into a rather well-adjusted, eternally eccentric, wonderfully human being.


Tuberculosis and Tragedy in Iowa

At the end of summer, I came home from a book shopping spree at the local second hand shop run by the Lutheran Church in Germany, toting Thomas Mann’s novel ‘The Magic Mountain.’ As soon as he saw the title, my German husband said, ‘Oh no! Not THAT book.’ I wondered what was so offensive about a book full of rich characters staying at a tuberculosis (tb) clinic. Somehow the themes, gleaned from the back cover lent themselves to the tale of my grandfather, an Iowan who spent time, as did his father, combating the symptoms of tuberculosis via protracted stays at sanatoriums in Arizona, California and Iowa. In those days tb was often referred to as ‘the captain of death.’

Great-Grandpa and the ‘City of Hope’

My great grandpa, a first generation American, born to Welsh immigrants, found work as a farmer in his youth in Illinois, then as a stoker or ‘fire man’ on a train and was eventually a railroad engineer for the Chicago and Northwestern. He contracted tuberculosis while living in the mid-West. Toward the end of his life, he stayed at sanatoriums in the desert regions of Winslow, Arizona and Los Angeles, California. His treatment at those early American sanatoriums most likely consisted of a special diet (emphasizing fruit, vegetables, eggs and milk),and plenty of fresh air and rest, as these were among the few ways in which tb patients were handled in his lifetime. Patients knew they were simply biding time before ‘the captain of death’ handed them their permanent leave papers.

His last stop was the Hotel San Gabriel in the then sparsely populated, pre-Hollywood, Los Angeles, California. His departure from the ‘City of Hope,’so named because of the tb sanatoriums sprouting up there, and his return to rural Iowa, are marked on the 1900 Census where the census taker drew a line over all the pertinent information columns and simply wrote ‘left before enumeration.’ Enumeration day was June 6, 1900. Today his homeward journey would last 24 hrs, driving long highways through Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Nebraska. In his day, railroad tracks carried not just freight but passenger cars across those states. He returned to Iowa and died a few days later. Gone at 39, he missed leaving behind a rail worker’s pension, as the C & NW only started a pension plan in 1900, and a home in Sutherland, Iowa for his wife, two daughters and my grandpa, who was 3 years old at the time.

What is Tubeculosis

Tb is a contagious disease which, when caught, can lie dormant or inactive for a lifetime or suddenly activate, usually when a person’s immune system is compromised by another illness, drug abuse or alcoholism. Though also referred to as the ‘white plague,’ in America, it affected people of all colors and ethnicity around the world.

In the early decades of the 20th century, America’s various states passed their own laws and came up with their own standards for how to try and stop the spread of tb. Early on, many states passed ‘no spitting’ laws, after considering that chewing tobacco spit flying from a mouth to hit the slime in a brass spittoon might even splash and spread the contagion. There were many mishaps along the road to a cure for tb.

Thinking isolation was the answer, some states created space in existing state mental hospitals or built add-on space to house tb patients. This led to a stigma about tb patients somehow being crazy. In the 1920s, chest x-rays were the standard method of tb detection and unfortunately gave out a high dose of radiation to the potentially already compromised lungs. The practice of collapsing a lung to let it ‘rest’ and ‘heal’ from tb proved worthless. In the 1940s and 50s various drugs, thought to cure tb, led to a rise in drug resistant tb. Last resort surgeries to remove part of or all of a lung,sometimes along with as many as 6 to 8 ribs, were drastic and prolonged a life of suffering.

In my youth I thought of tb as ‘the artists’ disease’ as many famous writers and artists of the past lived with tb and died of it. Two of the better known are Aubrey Beardsley and D.H. Lawrence. Only D.H. Lawrence set foot in America. In the 1920s, he moved to Taos, New Mexico, a high arid desert with hot summers and cold winters, the recommended climate for ‘consumptives.’ He later died in France, having sought treatment in a sanatorium there. We have his poems, short stories and novels to read, his letters and many photos of him exist. I have no such literary mementos or photos of my great grandpa, but I do have a few photos of my grandpa and, through digitized Iowa newspapers, I discovered my grandpa had a bit of a creative streak himself.

Grandpa and Oakdale Sanatorium, Coraville, Iowa circa 1950s

A family story suggests my grandfather contracted tb from a tubercular corpse he embalmed in the small town basement of his home, which served as a family run, rural area funeral business for several decades. I never quite bought this macabre story and my life-long curiosity about my grandpa, who was rarely mentioned and whose photos remained absent from our home when I was growing up, led me on a quest to try and at least discover him through news articles.

Reading 1910s-1930s newspapers,  I certainly got to know my grandpa from a perspective of youth, activity, creativity, humor and adventure. In his youth he played high school football, baritone in a uniformed small town cadet band of 40 members, and he tripped the lights in small roles in the junior and senior class plays. In 1917, as a member of the Iowa National Guard’s Machine Gun Troop, he shipped out by train, first in Camp Dodge, Iowa, then Camp Hancock, Georgia, the farthest East he would ever travel in his lifetime. At Camp Hancock he became a machine gun instructor, and later served along the Mexican boarder at Camp Cody in Deming, New Mexico, where he advanced to Battalion Sargent Major. Though he never saw action abroad, he lived in a fascinating microcosm of a tent city in the desert of south west America.

Grandpa in his late teens at training camp WWI

A highly detailed WordPress blog  documents life at Camp Cody with articles and photos, offering many insights into daily life which my grandfather would experienced. Among the news from Camp Cody was the spread of tb, pneumonia and influenza. Soldiers returning from overseas duty brought the latter disease, sometimes called the Spanish Influenza, with them.

50 years after his father died of tb, my grandfather’s tb became active. He’d seemingly escaped the diseases at Camp Cody, returned to finish high school at age 23. In his mid-20s, grandpa struck out on his own, leaving Iowa for Oak Park, Illinois, to further his interest in auto mechanics, only later to return and live with one of his sisters and her husband, working in his brother-in-law’s auto shop. A family story claims he and a WWI pilot friend built their own airplane. In the late 1920s, grandpa met my grandma, whose own father and several brothers, were funeral directors in Iowa and Minnesota. A family story goes that my grandma’s father would only allow her to run a funeral home if she married. Another story is that my grandpa fell head over heels for my under five foot tall grandma, who played incidental music at the local cinema, and wrote her love letters. Letters lost to time.

In marrying my grandma, my grandfather had to change careers. The auto mechanic re-trained and became a licensed embalmer as well as director of a family run funeral home. My aunt once said he disliked the business. I imagine he still tinkered on cars in his spare time.

Through the 1930s and 40s he ran the funeral business as well as a county ambulance service but in 1951 he took a long pause when he entered a prairie sanatorium called Oakdale, located in Coraville, Iowa, just outside of Iowa City. His first stay of 18 months saw him living at this sanatorium along with a two neighbors from home. Once a week, my grandma traveled, alone or with neighbors, to visit the patients at Oakdale, a four hundred mile, one-way, journey. My grandpa missed a few Christmases at home but one year his family visited him for a special Thanksgiving dinner for patients at Oakdale.

Still wondering about the family story that he’d contracted tb when embalming a tb victim’s corspe, as part of the funeral business, I scrolled through newspapers and found a bit of gold. Or maybe a bit of brass. From 1937 onward, the Iowa Department of Health sponsored a county nurse to investigate any possible cases of tb in Iowa. People who had been in contact was tb patients or who were suffering various lung issues, were encouraged to allow the nurse to visit their home, create a case history, and suggest appropriate follow-up, as needed. Follow up included, visiting a doctor, having a chest x-ray and possibly staying at a sanatorium for treatment. Perhaps my grandpa had the nurse stop by, as in 1950, there were 10 cases of tb discovered in his county between July, when the survey began and November, when the survey ended. Ironically, a family friend, who hosted dinners for my grandparents, and my grandparents returned the favor, also had tb. She was several years older than my grandpa but joined him for three months at Oakdale and went on to live a long life, never returning to Oakdale. She was ‘cured’ of tb. Did contact with my grandpa infect her or was she the carrier who infected him? Perhaps. Another reason for so much tb was noted in a report about the tb surveys in Iowa, which revealed that for some unknown reason, tb was more prevalent in Iowa than in any other part of the United States. Why? I haven’t found an answer yet. Tb still exists in Iowa but these are few cases when compared to the number of tb patients in the 1950s.

Daily life at Oakdale consisted of a special diet which emphasized whole grains, vegetables and fruit, eggs and milk, and lots of fresh air and rest. The fresh air treatment meant patients sat or lay on bed arranged on poaches year round, whatever the weather for part of the day. Occupational therapy and physio therapy kept patients busy, and enforced rest and silence for several hours a day as well as lights out at 9:30 p.m. It was a highly regulated lifestyle punctuated by visits from medical staff, and, when one was lucky, family and friends. In those days, local newspapers gave updates on who visited who, keeping neighbors informed about friends at the sanatorium.

In pamphlets about life with tb, emphasis is placed on the importance of keeping patients’ spirits up via hobbies. Understandably, famous creative tb patients drew or wrote their time away but less talented or resourceful patients must have found the long sedentary lifestyle trying. Knowing my grandpa had been a sportsman and mechanic, I wonder what his hobbies were when the sparkling deep prairie snow of winter fell and refused to melt for weeks on end. In two news articles, one written during his second stay at Oakdale and the second after the removal of his lung and some ribs, the journalist shared his request that friends write to him, his address was provided for Oakdale and later for a Veteran’s Hospital in Minnesota. I wonder if anyone wrote to him and where those letters are now.

After almost two years at Oakdale, the doctors gave grandpa a ‘clean bill of health.’ Less than a year went by, then his health went downhill again. A second stay at Oakdale led to the last resort treatment of the 1950s, removal of a lung at a Veteran’s hospital.

Tuberculosis and Suicide

As if living with a then fatal disease wasn’t struggle enough, and the removal of part or all of one lung, another factor leading to exhaustion and depression, a blog article, ‘Cycloserine, Suicide and TB’, reveals that one of the drugs used in the 1950s, and still used today for treating tb, has known side effects of ‘anxiety, confusion, irritability, depression, nervousness, nightmares, mood changes and thoughts of suicide.’

While reading Iowa newspapers, I was shocked to find details of my grandpa’s suicide published on the front page of his former hometown’s newspaper, including the type of gun he used, how long it took him to die, and a letter he had left for my then 16 year old father. My father says he never saw that letter, nor the news article, which was published in an aunt’s town paper and not in the town paper where my grandpa died. Today such an article would probably mean suing the newspaper and/or firing the journalist due to its insensitive nature. In 1955, the letter slipped by my grandpa’s business hometown news journalists, who focused on his upstanding character and decades long involvement in the local chapter of the American Legion. I am grateful for the tacky jounalistic expose as it enabled me to share the unknown letter with my father this month, who was grateful to find more closure and who, in turn wished his sister, who passed away last year, had had the same chance to read their father’s last words and find some kind of peace.

Besides his illness and the nature of his latest treatment for tb, my grandpa had recently lost his mother, age 91, a longtime single mother, who had raised him and his sisters from 1900 to the mid-1920s. A creative woman, she won prizes at county fairs for her pastel paintings and craftwork over the years.

Grandpa in his 20s-early 30s, 1920s-30s

His mother later lived with him and his family from 1940 to a year before her death at a local nursing home. In 1944, my great grandma, then living in her son’s home, fell down a complete flight of stairs, mistaking the door to the stairway for the door to the bathroom, and lay in bed some days recovering from her injuries. In the 1950s, she helped raise my teenaged father and aunt, while my grandpa was in and out of Oakdale and Veteran’s Hospitals. My grandma kept the family funeral home afloat with the help of a brother and later a hired assistant.

The loss of a parent with whom he had shared a creative sensibility and amiable relationship was most likely a heavy blow to him. His lack of health also meant he could no longer work with embalming chemicals, and though he could have dealt with the paperwork and social requirements of the funeral business, perhaps it seemed his second career was also at an end. Though his wife was a highly capable busninesswoman, it seems her husband’s deterioration led her to claim he was ‘no longer a real man,’ or so another family story goes. It casts a shadow on a realtionship that started so seemingly full of potential, sheds light on the strain of an almost four year commitment to a long distance relationship, and makes me wonder about another family story, grandma’s alcoholism.

When I consider his years of sanatorium life, extended distance from everyday family and neighborhood life, witnessing fellow patients not surviving tb, loss of his father to tb, recent loss of his mother, potential loss of a career he may never have wanted anyway, I can imagine his sense of hoplessness. In 1955, a month after his latest discharge from the Veteran’s Hospital, he took a gun, bought a gun at a local pawn shop, got drunk, fought with my grandma, then locked himself behind the bathroom door and never opened it again. My aunt once said she later met the pawn shop owner, who told her how much he regretted having sold her father the gun. The neighbor lady, who had spent three months at Oakdale with my grandpa, lived to her late 70s, but after a dinner with my grandma, two weeks after my grandpa’s suicide, the local Iowa newspapers never mention the families having anything to do with one another socially again. Did my grandma consider the friendly hostess the cause of my grandpa’s demise? We will never know.


The story of tb can be found in Edvard Munch’s painting ‘The Sick Child,’ government pamphlets and newsreels, medical and historial articles,  statistics, films like ‘Heavenly Creatures,’ novels like, well, ‘The Magic Mountain,’ Puccini’s opera ‘La Boheme,’modern documentaries, publications for tb sanatoriums, and numerous biographies.

Special Thanks 

Special thanks to James Conway, whose blog article ‘Suicide must be a vocation,’ unwittingly inspired me to research my grandfather’s life and suicide.

Using Newspapers for Family Research

Free online access to Iowa Historical Newspapers helped me find my grandpa, whose struggle with tb ended so tragically a life begun with the kind of small town, mid-West talent and adventure that so often goes unsung, because, by today’s standards, it looks seemingly ordinary if not extraordinary at all. It’s the extraordinary in his ordinary life that makes him, for me, unforgetable.



Hipstered: A Browline Adventure

My husband suggested I try cateye glasses frames as my search for a pair of glasses to suit my aging (sagging and tired) face in Germany was proving fruitless. At the time, 2014, cateye, wayfarer and browline frames were found only in vintage shops, online at Etsy, and E-Bay as overstock from the 50s and 60s.

My first pair of Etsy ordered browlines from Bosch and Lomb sported arched black Bakelite brows with feminine aluminum detailing in the upper corner of each brow. Unfortunately these glasses had a history, shown in the original lenses: a half moon in the lower lens and a bent metal frame. The frames, shipped out of Idaho had a more serious problem: a stripped hinge which no amount of UHU glue, later applied monthly, held the ‘arm’ of the glasses intact for long.

I sometimes tried to imagine the woman in Idaho who had worn the frames in bi-focal format. Perhaps an aging Mormon in a nursing home who one day fell over, glasses still on her nose, banging her head on a hard checkered vinyl floor and bending the frame. Older Mormons in Utah and Idaho did sometimes still adhere to a pseudo-50s-60s style at least. I also wondered what it would be like to literally see the world from someone elses’ view, e.g. through their glasses lenses, with their eyes, but nothing so magical happened when wearing these wonky frames from Idaho. In fact, I later found the Russian-German optician had given me them with my reading prescription not my far sighted prescription. After a month of all day wear causing me headaches, I half-wondered if the formerly bi-focaled, aged, Idahoan was sending me a message after all.

70 Euro frames, 13 Euros import tax and my prescription 120 Euro lenses in the toilet later, I read up about NOS glasses frames ‘new old stock,’ and screwed up the courage to again invest in browlines, this time from an Etsy shop in New York. NOS also means no one bought the frames back in the day. These frames are new but have simply gathered dust in a warehouse over time. No stripped hinges at least.

My new arched black browline looked more unisex, though stamped with ‘Empress’ inside one of the arms, no feminine detailing, the wider arms looked somewhat heavy on my face, but the squared shiny aluminum rims sparkled, giving my white face a magical glow. With my new bowlines on, I suddenly felt like I could grow into these frames for all the decades to come.

The newer glasses had a dramatic effect in my workplace. One German female co-worker said outright, ‘I don’t like them.’ A Romanian female co-worker said, ‘I LOVE them! They are YOU!’ Another German female co-worker said, ‘You look so clever in those,’ like it was a threat to her. My German husband started referring to me as his ‘hipster wife.’ I didn’t know what a ‘hipster’ was.

Child guests at my work perked up when I smiled at them and my glasses twinkled. Perhaps I reminded some of them of the devious cateyed fairy in ‘Shrek’? Unfortunately a few German men seemed to think I was as loose as the red haired secretary in ‘Mad Men.’ Random teens and 20-somethings cozied up to what one called my ‘hipster’ look. The German Baptists, who remind me of Mormons and women out of ‘Mad Men’ themselves with their beehive hairdos and chiffon scarves pinned on their hair spray starched nests of hair seemed to think perhaps I was one of them as they wore grandma era glasses too. Perhaps they inherit them.

My own inspiration for the look came from my grandmother. In a happy photo of her at her second wedding, at the age of 68. She wore a pair of cateye glasses apparently worn over decades of prescription upgrades. The glasses pulled her face up, paired nicely with her high full cheekbones and illuminated her smiling pale blue eyes. The aluminum frames seemed to cast a soft sheen in her curly grey hair. A British film, ‘Nowhere Boy,’ about John Lennon’s youth, featuring the ever pale Kirsten Scott Thomas as his aunt, looking elegant in cateyes, sealed my commitment to try and find similar frames for myself.

Between 2014 and mid-2016, I observed that wayfarer glasses, at least, became mainstream and particularly with men. The online prices for NOS cateye, wayfarer and browline frames doubled and tripled. Perhaps German men felt inspired by Jürgen Klopp, the, now, football trainer for Liverpool and his relaxed, carefree no-shave today, ads for cars and alcohol free beer. Klopp sports the newer version of the browline. Perhaps the plethora of super hero series and films with characters like Ed (geek in ‘Gotham’) or psycho Silar (‘Heroes’) wearing what used to be termed the G-man (government man) glasses inspired men worldwide to emulate their fictional heroes.

I didn’t feel heroic in my browlines though. At times I felt self-conscious. Old even. Then, as I saw a middle aged man also wearing the actual vintage style, his were brown brows with gold detailing, I discovered how possibly ridiculous people look in this glasses frame. Though I genuinely complimented him on his look, he seemed as shy and defensive as I had sometimes felt wearing my own frames, when out shopping in rural Germany. The newer browlines, cateyes and wayfarer frames in Germany look chunkier and have less finesse than the originals, they are plastic take-offs that can make anyone look like they have baggy stuffed sinuses hanging on either side of their nose.

Six months ago I tucked my vintage browlines in a drawer and went back to wearing my old mainstream,lightweight, red, oval, wire frames from Apollo. A Wednesday night regular asked every few Wednesdays, ‘Where are the glasses?’ and I mumbled various excuses, anything from, ‘time for a change’ to ‘I think I look doof (rediculous) in them.’ He only insists, ‘They are classic!’ He used to show up and say, ‘These’s the lady with the beautiful glasses!’ After my doof comment he didn’t show up for a while.

Amazing what a pair of old glasses can do.

Now browlines are mainstream, I guess by wearing them again I might instantly remove myself from the hipster categorization, at least from the neck up. Perhaps I should wear the shiny glasses again, take a wintry walk out the door and around the village, knowing, no matter what anyone says, I defy categorization and, like you, am simply back to enjoying following my whims and being a ‘me.’

Where the Rainbow Ends-Roger Quilter

I came upon Roger Quilter via a CD of ‘British Light Music’ in the basement of my university library more than 20 years ago. A shiver greeted me as I first heard the ‘Children’s Overature’ to  ‘Where the Rainbow Ends.’ Something in the brassy Edwardian era stiffness mixed with tingling and tinkling joyousness swept me back to my childhood in the 70s, dressed as a green bird, flapping in a company of young ballet students on stage during a matinée of Vivian Ellis’ ‘Listen To the Wind,’ in Lower Hutt, New Zealand.

St. George in a scene from ‘Where the Rainbow Ends’ Source:

‘Where the Rainbow Ends’ was a Christmas play written by Clifford Mills and John Ramsey. Though the fantastical performance once enthralled almost five decades of theater goers, virtually no one today knows it ever existed.

On December 21, 1911, the play’s debut curtains rose before an audience of squirming children and accompanying adults who heard the orchestral sweetness of Roger Quilter’s incidental music flowing up and over the orchestral pit like a warm spell on a wintry day. The  Children’s Overature  contained snippets of children’s nursery songs like ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ as well as Quilter’s original compositions. I can imagine a chorus of spellbound children sang along back in the day. Quilter conducted the first matinée of the Christmas season for many years and hosted a cast party for child actors, among them Noel Coward, in his own home.

One of the most beloved pieces from ‘Where the Rainbow Ends,’ heard frequently on radio BBC over the years, was  ‘Rosamund’, a slow unfolding romantic piece, carried over strings and wind instruments, and punctuated by fairy light crystalline triangle ‘dings.’ Quilter’s music school friend Percy Grainger said of all Quilter’s works, this stood out as his favorite.

To its credit, ‘Where the Rainbow Ends’ imaginatively carried children and adults safely away from the horrible realities of two world wars. When the curtain went down on St. George and the Dragon, fairyland and whimsy, the excitement of Christmas just around the corner was certainly dancing in everyone’s heads.

Prior to composing music for ‘Where the Rainbow Ends,’ Quilter had attended Dr. Hoch’s Konservatorium-Musikakademie in Frankfurt-am-Main, a music school where Clara Schumann once taught. A fellow student of Quilter’s, under the tutilage of Iwan Knorr, was the brilliant young Australian pianist and composer Percy Grainger. The two members of what came to be called The Frankfurt Group, started out as strangers in Teutonicland and left Germany as musical friends for life. Both had in common not only musical composition and a stint in Germany but also that they were their mother’s favorite child (in Grainger’s case, his mother’s only child).

Described as a gentleman, Quilter didn’t feel at home with other aristocrats, preferrng the company of art lovers, whatever their age or class. His generous nature led him to offer financial support to budding artists. He also supported a number of Jews fleeing Europe during the Second World War. When his nephew, Arnold Vivian, serving overseas during that war, was captured and shot by a Nazi officer, Quilter’s often fragile world shattered. His long secreted homosexuality started to ‘show’ in public when he went about giving flowers to young men on the streets. Concerned friends and famly finally convinced him to seek treatment at St. Andrew’s Hospital. He checked in twice in his lifetime for stays from 1946-47 and again 1951-52.

Here is a narrative poem I wrote, trying to somehow capture Quilter’s sense of lost identity while seeking treatment for his plunge into depression:

Dear Arnold  (for Roger Quilter)

After news of your execution,

this old marionette fell into a cumbersome mental slump.

I wandered streets,

pressed pale roses

onto passing London boys.

I’m afraid those beautiful strangers took my meaning all too well.

They call it electroconvulsive therapy.

Humiliating how my Daddy Long Legs dance,

how hours later my dull fingers simply rest on ivory keys.

I can’t remember all the silvery songs

that made us smile and

you wouldn’t know me by my latest compositions,

they hang and drip like rain-soaked velvet curtains

pulled either side of me.

Perhaps, as children, these fresh doctors

reveled in the spectacle of my sparkling make-believe tunes,

but now my thick tongue’s stammer

sends their sharp pens whispering

over my hospital chart.

When that squatty grey pigeon of a nurse

waddles away,

you can find me slung in the over-stuffed sitting room.

I’m the aging dandy,

dressed in elegant evening attire.

I get my glazed appearance from off-white walls,

hourly tides of too much sugar in my milky tea

and boiled dinners of faded vege.

Would you fancy a hand-in-hand journey

over a stretch of hospital lawn?

We could follow the rainbow that skirts the gravel drive,

curves toward Billing Road.

Was it some poor promising musician or

fleeing Jew I helped who said,

“Quilter’s a pot of gold!”?

They were quite mistaken,

as I have come to know,

beyond this wood runs British Rail,

and home, my dear boy, lies where the rainbow ends.


Today it’s rare to meet someone who has even heard of Roger Quilter. In his own lifetime, he was known for his incidental music and for many poignant songs he wrote based upon Elizabethan texts.

As Christmas approaches, I find myself wondering how Quilter would have liked to have been remembered and, having  no answer to share with you, have simply written here how I have remembered him, in hopes you might be inspired to explore his life and music too.