Mina diva

I’m pretty good with knowing references around divas so it’s a bit shocking to realize I missed one. Particularly as our youngest has the same name!

Screenshot 2016-05-17 15.34.50

Can I just pretend I named my kid after her? This Italian diva is gold. This is pop so beautifully sung it is heart breaking at times.

She’s the sort of person where Chet Baker sleeps one off in her tub. The most unexpected person I ever found in my claw-foot tub was a drunken Mormon teenager sleeping it off.


And her later looks give off shades of pop artistry. Intentional camp.
And she’s on the right side of history even though she hasn’t sung since the 70s.


Screenshot 2016-05-17 15.49.25


My sister the brave

In every family there is a person that holds the center; around whose gravitational pull the other family members orbit. We refer to them as patriarch or don’t really consider their role until they’ve died and the loosely held lines of the family tree split into new directions.

I was lucky as an adult that my eldest sister decided to be such a force for cohesion. If you’ve followed along with our shared story then you know the fractured nature of our father’s relationships and the many ways the adults in our lives made poor decisions and created rifts.

Emmanuelle is quite a bit older than me but we share some similar life experience that made it possible to bridge both the generational and cultural differences between us.

I first met her when I was in my twenties. Struck mainly by the dimples all we half-sisters share, as well as our similar temperament. We stay calm and a bit aloof or inscrutable unless provoked, or unless relating a particularly entertaining story.

Screenshot 2016-04-17 12.45.59

She shared her many dramatic stories and photos and we compared our separate lives as performers as well as narrators. A person like this in a family — the one who holds everything together — is an invaluable service. Having a well-documented life in photographs is a wonderful thing for me on both sides of my family, so rife with entertainers. I get to see the life stages that I missed, spotting the moody teen years and comparing them to my own. The serious phase followed by a more contemplative mien.

Screenshot 2016-04-17 12.46.07

Screenshot 2016-04-17 12.46.17

Certainly, it takes bravery to face messy emotions and be willing to look at the past.

Screenshot 2016-04-17 12.46.26

A kind, serious, and funny person.

When my daughter was small we made a trip back to France to visit various family members. Her two strongest memories of that trip were picking strawberries in her aunt’s garden.

Screenshot 2016-04-17 12.45.21

And then check out my kid’s face when I took her into a very old abbey and we visited the stations of the cross for the first time in her life.

Screenshot 2016-04-17 12.44.35

Screenshot 2016-04-17 12.45.07

Screenshot 2016-04-17 12.44.57

Screenshot 2016-04-17 12.44.49

Screenshot 2016-04-17 12.44.42

Yep, that made an impression.

I am grateful; many other relations who learned of my existence later in life walked away from me, but my half sister Emmanuelle held out her hand and shared her stories with me. She bridged that age and cultural difference with great effort and made space for me in her life narrative. It’s because of her that I now know so much about my own history and I’m able to catalogue it here, painstakingly putting together the shards into a mosaic so someday my own kids can benefit from knowing their family history.

Screenshot 2016-04-17 12.45.51

Plus, she’s a great storyteller and I always appreciate that.

Sharing economy versus the entitled class

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of car-sharing programs like ZipCar, Modo, or Car2Go. A convenient mode of transport that benefits the environment? I’m all in. In fact, I was tickled to learn that my Danish sister-in-law was the translator who took the text of the German company Car2Go and translated it into several languages for their worldwide expansion.

Screenshot 2016-04-02 16.52.51

What I’m less fond of is the fascinating resistance I’ve encountered around these shared cars by people who drive their own vehicles and likely rarely take public transit. It’s happening enough now that I can call it a trend and I’m going to tell you about a righteous fight I engaged in this morning.

When you finish a trip with a car share, the computer system will let you “check in” the car back into the network area so someone else can “check it out” for their personal use. This means that I’m frequently ending my trips and parking near my home. Four times now various male homeowners have rushed out of their houses to inform me that I’m “not allowed” to park in front of their homes.

They’re wrong and today I’d had enough. A few days ago, a fella gave me a lecture about how I wasn’t allowed to park in front of his house because I wasn’t within the car-share zone. I thought he was trying to do me a favor so I checked both the car-share map and the city zoning rules and found that he was incorrect. From past experience I was beginning to suspect that he was using a fear-mongering tactic to dissuade me from parking in front of his house, but giving him the benefit of the doubt I figured I would park in front of his house again and if he decided to get aggressive I would explain to him the error of his ways.

So I park there with my nine-year old and this fella comes rushing out of his house again, immediately lecturing me about how he told me last time I couldn’t park there.

“Except I can. I can explain. Hang on; I’ll show you.” I started pulling up the map on my phone.

“No, you can’t. You’re not allowed to park there because it’s outside of the city limits.”

“I checked. The city limits start at your property line.” I kept trying to explain, but he was talking over me and getting shouty.

“No, the line is in the middle of the street. You can park over there.” He gesticulated, standing in the middle of the cul-de-sac showing me with his arms as though with flag semaphore where I cannot park (in front of his house) and where I can park (away from his house). If only I weren’t so stupid!

“That’s wrong. See, the system lets me lock the door because it’s within the zone. I can show you the map on my phone and explain how it works.”

“Well, I’m going to have your car towed.”

“It’s not my car. You’re welcome to have it towed but you’ll incur the costs because I’m not breaking any rules.”

He disappeared for a bit and I stood by and called the car-share company because I felt this was a righteous fight worth having. As I told the representative when she confirmed that I was legally parked and he was wrong, he wouldn’t be yelling at me if I’d parked a car I own in front of his house. He soon returned with a printed flyer supposedly explaining parking regulations and changed his tack by saying I was parked too close to his driveway.

“You have to be at least eight feet away from the driveway,” he repeated many times.

“Eight feet, you say? No, I have to not be blocking your driveway and I’ve given you about four feet of clearance there. Plus, we’re on a cul-de-sac. You literally have no obstacles coming from the direction I’m parked.”

“I will find the regulation and print it and leave it on your car.”

“This is not my car. You don’t understand how car shares work and you’re scared of them and that’s why you’re angry about these cars parking in front of your house.”

“I’ve owned my home for fifteen years! I pay taxes!”

“So what? I pay taxes. What’s your point? Do you think you own a public street?”

“You can’t park on this side of the street.”

“I’ve confirmed that you’re wrong about that. I’ve confirmed with the company and I’ve tried to show you a city map on my phone, but you aren’t listening. Listen!”

At a certain point I called my partner to explain the situation and he said he was proud of me and not to back down and he was on his way over. I finished up before he made it over as after about fifteen minutes of arguing — me leaning against the car, rebutting his points, my kid calmly standing near me reading a book about Minecraft — his voice began to take on a pleading tone, “You can park across the street. Why is it so hard for you to park right over there?”

He didn’t realize it, but my hands were shaking with anger. I *hate* bullies. He’s got two feet of height on me and he’s been yelling at me and my kid but it’s all my fault because I’m being so unreasonable? Yeah, no. I went full French Girl From New York City.

“Re-park right there? Right over there? You just want me to re-park right over there?”

“Yeah, just there.”

“Yeah, it’s not hard at all. Super easy. But you’ve been unpleasant from the first. You think you own a public street. So from now on, I’m parking in front of your house, and I’m telling all of my friends to park in front of your house, and whenever possible, I’ll grab one of these cars that scare you so much, and re-park it in front of your house, because you don’t own a public street.”

I later realized that he was in that mindset where no amount of new information would have changed his position. This wasn’t about facts, it was a pissing contest and he’s obviously comfortable bullying people into getting his way. When I finally walked away with my kid, he continued to threaten that he was going to have the car towed for “being parked too close to a driveway,” I said, “Have fun explaining to the towing company who you think will pay for that.”

Guys, my new hobby is parking car shares in front of a neighbor’s house. I know it’s childish, but you know what got me?

“I pay taxes.”

Ohhhhhhhhboy. That’s some entitled bullshit right there.

Productivity habit

Since I manage a full-time job, a part-time job, a relationship, two children, friends, a cat, volunteer work, singing in the occasional opera, fitness goals, reading many books, and writing a lot, it is only natural that my friends marvel at my ability to keep everything flowing.

It helps that I have an engaged partner in parenting who does his fair share of chores.

However, one of the best tools for keeping my life together has always been an agenda. The digital format is great; I’ll even jot writing notes and other creative reminders to myself a few days in advance. I’ll stack everything into one day and then re-arrange the items into a coherent form. I might have three reminders to buy household goods and that will become my shopping list when I go to the store. I might have a bunch of writing notes that I’ll keep pushing forward until I’ve hit the date I know I’m sitting down to write. I’ll notice when I order an item online on the confirmation gives an estimated date of delivery and I’ll pop that in my calendar so I can follow up if it’s a few days late. In conversation someone might mention a good book and I’ll write that into an upcoming Saturday so I know what to search for at the library.

I don’t like to have the various reminders spread across different programs or memo apps so I put everything into one calendar.

To be honest, the thing that’s suffered the most since I started working these two jobs is my website and personal writing! But I’ve given a time slot to that in a few weeks so I’ll relax about it and focus my efforts when that date comes around.


Maria looking 60s glam

I do enjoy pulling the celebrity-style vintage photos from my family vault to share with you guys. These are from a photo shoot my mother did in Paris for the opera in the late 1960s. Aren’t they just the most? The living end?

But with the umbrella and those buildings it’s all a bit Jacques Tati somehow.

Screenshot 2016-03-14 15.08.59 Screenshot 2016-03-14 15.09.32

The weight of personal history

The trouble with having such a deep knowledge of my family history is I find I must bite my tongue when my kids speak casually of their interests. I have no desire to bog them down with the weight of our history.

When my kid says she’d like to grow up to be a dancer I want to say, “Like your great aunt.”

50s Hermine ballet538

When they learn to ice skate and say they can never do it I want to say, “But your grandmother became quite good at it living outside of Chicago.”

59 March, IL, MC skating206

When they tell me they love swimming, I want to tell them of their great-grandmother and how she swam laps every morning.


When my daughter says she wants to grow up to be an actor or director, I glance at the posters of my father’s shows framed in our home.

Ta Bouche 001

Daniel Chardin publicity 1950s

When they say they like to sing, I have no need to tell them Cherubino and Carmen are part of the legacy.

opera 104

I’ll wait to tell them. Wait to show them the reams of photographs. Let them explore their interests without the weight of that knowledge.

I always felt a bit sorry for the children of the celebrities I knew. All of that privilege and opportunity but they’re not allowed to fail — no opportunity to play in the sandbox.

No room for failure is like a form of prison for creative people.

Family rumors and famous wine

It’s Holocaust Remembrance Day.

You’ll recall I had a grandmother who escaped a concentration camp.

In my historical digging I’ve learned of other tantalizing bits of family lore but it seems as though stories are getting mixed together and I am having trouble separating fact from fiction.

I learned from my great aunt a while ago that my great-great grandfather’s brother was an owner of Chateau St. Julien. That seems unlikely, as it’s always been owned by famous wine families and none of them appear in my family tree, but perhaps he was a co-owner or manager.

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 12.57.07 PM

I was also told that at one point in history it was the headquarters for the French Revolution as the a members of the French moderate republican party in power from 1791–1793 worked out of the chateau. The Girondins. It was so called because the party leaders were the deputies from the department of the Gironde. I do know that family lore tells us our ancestral brothers fled The Terror when it started by selling assets and passing themselves as commoners, but I had always heard they left Paris to do this. Perhaps it was actually because they were members of the Girondins that they came to grief.

In any case, the area of my hometown in France is lousy with world-famous French wine. Look at how the St. Julien is surrounded by famous labels. These are all just an hour drive of where I was born and all the kids of the family know the wines and even the families who still own and operate some of these labels.

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 12.56.31 PM
Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 12.58.18 PM

These great uncles of mine were politicians and published authors and made their money in the wine business. But any other details are fuzzy.

I also heard a family rumor that a great uncle from that same line went to a death camp during WWII but survived. he sold his share of the vineyard when he was liberated and moved to Paris to live out the rest of his life in fun and comfort instead of working.

I’m not sure about any of this. I suspect there are kernels of truth in all of these stories of accomplished and tough uncles, but it seems like stories have been conflated. It intrigues me nonetheless. I love the idea that I had two family members — one from each branch of my family tree — who survived concentration camps. I’ve read that their odds of survival was 1 in 11. It’s like reading about a family ancestor who survived getting hit by lightning.

The other part of the wine story I have heard is of a recent ancestor who had a relationship with a Petrus widow after he himself was widowed, and could have brought that famous vineyard into our family except he didn’t want to remarry. That’s like knowing of a recent ancestor who lost a winning lottery ticket.

These stories are intriguing, but they are wispy rumors compared to the first-hand accounts of Nazis taking over the house like on the night my mother was born.

Seventy years is not very long ago.

My Feminists are wrong to defend Princess Leia’s appearance

The Force Awakens is a touchstone cultural moment that’s sparked plenty of discussion and it’s no surprise that one of the topics would be the way the public is criticizing Carrie Fischer’s appearance. It’s thirty years after the forced slavery of the gold bikini and apparently we’re supposed to be upset that the public is upset that Princess Leia looks old in the new Star Wars. My feminists friends have defended her and say she looks great and Carrie Fischer herself has said it’s unfair that women in Hollywood aren’t allowed to age, but I think everyone is missing the point.

Screenshot 2016-01-01 12.24.40

Princess Leia in The Force Awakes looks old. She looks like a grandmother. She looks like a non-threatening old lady. That’s an oxymoron, by the way, but people usually want old ladies to have no agency or power.

No one can fathom that Fischer herself is only 59 when she comes across as 78-years old in the new movie. She’s dressed like a wealthy elderly aunt. Leia stands around and makes statements with moist eyes made extra brown and eyelashy in post so that she might resemble a German Shepherd puppy. Her hair is still fussy, like when she was a princess, and other characters remark with amusement that she’s not a princess anymore, she’s a general.

Really? She’s a general?

Where is her Patton moment?

Screenshot 2016-01-01 12.26.45

We know she was the type of girl who uses a blaster to escape prison, strangle mob boss Jabba with her bare hands, shout orders–she is a bad ass. That’s why we love her. It’s why we love Rey. A young prince with these inclinations, who would rise to the level of general, would be a battle-hardened asshole thirty years on. He’d be Orson Welles chomping a cigar and delighting in his fat belly as he shouts at naive recruits and kills a hundred storm troopers with one shot. He’s Henry VIII strutting and murdering and cock-of-the-walk.

That we all expect Princess Leia to be a wise grandmotherly type under circumstances of endless war is profound sexism. Instead of defending her for “looking great for her age” we should demand she look like shit! We should expect a huge facial scar and a shaved head. Fussy hair and white clothing in *battle*?

Carrie Fisher herself should have demanded it. Instead of losing 35 lbs they should have padded her with fat and given her agency and monologue about losing too many people. Here’s the speech I would have written for her, General Leia speaking to Rey:

War makes you hard, Rey. Are you sure you’re ready for that? I lost my son and my planet and a thousand other things to this fight. We’re going to win. I know that. Even if everything I love dies it will be worth it to destroy the bastards who took it away from me. If they slice my throat I will drown them in my blood. Are you ready for that?

I don’t know.

Maybe there’s another way. Maybe I wasn’t strong enough. Maybe you can finish what we started.

She could have looked like this:

Screenshot 2016-01-01 12.25.02

Fearless nerds and the great prom caper

Being considered the foreign weirdo or nerd at most schools I attended, I didn’t have a lot of friends. I was mostly mocked for my looks.

Bullied, in fact.

I certainly didn’t have a boyfriend, at least not until senior year when I attended an international boarding school.

Looking back on it I find it astounding since I am fabulous, but at the time I believed the kids were right and I was hideous.

This meant I did not attend school dances.

However, I did befriend adults and avoid my peers and consequently, on the eve of my junior prom in South Carolina, I was at home watching television and eating a pint of ice cream.

The doorbell rang. The school sports van was parked outside of our place; at the helm my gym teacher.

The van door slid open and the interior cab lit up revealing my science teacher, social studies teacher, and school counselor.
“Put on a dress and get in. You’re our date to the prom.”

Did I hesitate for a moment? Did I worry I’d be the laughstock of the school, able to attend a dance only because the adults insisted? Nope.

Like I said: I’m fabulous.

Or, in reality: Being the butt of every joke is liberating. You have no shame.

At photo time, I posed per the photographer’s awkward instruction, as though part of a couple with one elbow bent out, wearing my mother’s over-sized dress and faux jewelry, a huge grin on my face from laughing the whole drive over. I wish I’d had the foresight to get the staff to pose with me as my “date” but as you can see, the knowledge of it was enough to make the night memorable. They brought me drinks and I danced with the crowd and I laughed.

The photographer got a blurry shot (dude, seriously?), but I’ll award myself extra points for a timeless look that does not look 1990s at all.

Here’s to you, kid. Embrace your nerd status and run with it.

Screenshot 2015-12-19 16.01.46

Helene on the radio in 1959

I had a fair number of technical difficulties with this entry as the reel-to-reel from 1959 was damaged. You’ll hear some interference despite my best efforts to clean up the audio. In any case, this is an 8-minute interview my grandmother did on talk radio in Chicago in 1959, a mere 17 months after arriving in the United States. It’s delightful to hear her broken English and thick French accent. She’s talking here of her process as a portrait artist as she launched the career that would have her painting socialites and movie stars by the 1960s.

The host, Jack Taylor, is a fixture of the Chicago airwaves and became a good family friend. My grandmother was always good at making friends.

This also afforded me the opportunity to grab some of the 12,000+ family photographs I have of her. If there’s a painting in the picture or a mural in the background then it’s included because she painted it.

1945 Helene Baronnie studio profile