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Setting Times stories to music: From Cowboy Junkies to Sinatra

August 17, 2013|By Kari Howard
  • From the collection of Ernie Marquez, a Carleton Watkins photo from the early 1880s, looking north, with tents along Santa Monica canyon. The Marquez family allowed visitors to camp on the beach, which was part of their Rancho Boca de Santa Monica land grant, originally given to the Marquez family by the Mexican government in 1839.
From the collection of Ernie Marquez, a Carleton Watkins photo from the…

I was talking with one of my old correspondents the other day about a writer’s “voice.” Daily journalism may subdue that voice a bit, but in the Great Reads, I feel very Auntie Mame exclamation-pointish on the matter: Give me more!

He sent me Saul Bellow’s thoughts on the subject:

“It seems to issue from the bosom, from a place beneath the breastbone. It is more musical than verbal, and it is the characteristic signature of a person, of a soul.”

Beyond being beautiful, the quote moved me because it echoed a (slightly loopy) theory of mine: that we all have this musical tuning fork inside us. I’ve always envisioned it running vertically between the ribs, much in the same area as Bellow’s “voice.” And when you hear a song that resonates with your tuning fork, it starts humming.

For me, it’s pure pop with a touch of sadness. Example: “Ceremony,” by New Order.  (Yes, the New Order version, not the Joy Division one.) I hear the first notes of that, and ... thrum.

Anyway, in these roundups of the week gone by, I’d like to offer the first paragraphs of each Great Read (or, as they’re known in print, Column One) -- maybe they’ll buy your eye and you can settle in for a good weekend read. And you’ll also get the songs that inspired me while editing the stories, or reading them later if my fellow editor Millie Quan ushered them through. A story-song combo!

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Monday’s Great Read:

Finding his family's place in history

At long-ago gatherings of Los Angeles historians, Ernest Marquez was simultaneously impressed and dismayed to meet people who knew more about his rancho ancestors than he did.

A curator from the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History could rattle off in order the names of descendants of Marquez's great-grandfathers, the holders of the Mexican land grant that encompassed Santa Monica and Rustic canyons and parts of Pacific Palisades and Santa Monica. A genealogist could recite details about more than 200 offspring of Los Angeles' original pueblo families.

Dazzled by their knowledge, Marquez intensified his search to learn about his clan's past, a saga of ingenuous rancheros who relinquished property to cover taxes, lost it to eminent domain or sold for pennies on the acre to Americans who grew rich carving up the land to house eager arrivals to the Golden State.

Marquez found that historians had inexplicably left his family out of their great books about Old California. So he learned to forage for facts and artifacts at libraries, antique shows and flea markets. He tapped the knowledge of scholars.

Now, at 89, with a number of books to his credit, this white-haired, mustachioed chronicler is racing against his own mortality to write the definitive narrative of his family's 244-year connection to the region. He's also seeking a home for the thousands of items he has collected. His goal is to ensure that his people's contributions are recognized, however belatedly.

“Historians have ignored my family's role,” he said. “I want to correct that.”

#storysongs combo: “The Call of the Canyon,” by (a very young) Frank Sinatra.

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Tuesday’s Great Read:

Camp for stroke survivors enriches lives

At Alison McKenzie's summer camp, her counselors organize all the usual activities: arts and crafts, dance lessons, Olympics-style competitions. Like at any summer camp, people blossom, lose their fears, find strength they didn't know they had and make new friends.

McKenzie's campers are stroke survivors. Some are in wheelchairs, some can move well but struggle to speak clearly, most are somewhere in between. The youngest is still in his 30s.

As rehab costs soar and outpatient services dwindle, the 10-day Stroke Boot Camp at Chapman University is McKenzie's solution on a shoestring.

Forget sailboats and tennis courts. There are horses — but they're made from swimming pool noodles and yarn, used for a walking exercise on Western Day. For Around the World Day, the Great Wall of China is a bunch of gym mats and hurdles about a foot off the floor. On Winter Wonderland Day, there's a pile of yarn “snowballs” ready for a fight.

Most of the supplies are cobbled together from found items and 99 Cent store bargains. Campers bring their lunches.

McKenzie and her colleagues think that the camp's intensive, interdisciplinary therapy, combined with camaraderie and plenty of silliness, will make a difference in the lives of people who often face lifelong disabilities, isolation and even a second stroke.

“There are a lot of people out there who are not engaged with the world,” she says, “people who could benefit from intervention and are not getting it.”

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