A Visit With Willy Claflin, Storyteller

Do you know Willy Claflin? If not, you should.

If you will be in the San Francisco Bay Area this weekend, you can see him perform live this Sunday, September 27, at 2:00 pm at Freight and Salvage in Berkeley. You can also see him live at Berkwood Hedge School's Telling Tales Storytelling Festival in Berkeley on October 17. The Freight and Salvage show is geared towards adults; the Berkwood Hedge School event is all ages. Willy will also be performing in the Austin, Texas public schools in a couple of weeks. If you can't make any of those performances, you can see some of his work here or on YouTube.

Willy Claflin was the first professional storyteller I ever heard. And he made such an impression on my elementary school-age self that over thirty years later, I recognized him at our gate at Logan Airport when Wyatt and I were flying back to San Francisco this August. But it's not like I did my usual thing where I think to myself, "Oh! That looks like so-and-so," and then wonder for a few days whether it was, in fact, so-and-so. This time I actually gathered my nerve and said something like, "Excuse me. Is it possible you performed at my elementary school?" To which he replied, "Yes! Where did you go to school?" And then we introduced ourselves, and the conversation took off from there. I don't exactly remember everything either of us said because I was very, very busy being starstruck fangirl at the time. 

Willy and I chatted again at baggage claim in San Francisco. He invited me to email him to find out about upcoming performance dates, so I did. A couple of email volleys later, I asked him if Wyatt and I could stop by his studio space one afternoon. To my delight, he happily agreed to see us.

As kids, we looked forward, like nothing else, to Willy Claflin's performances with his puppet friends (including Maynard Moose), fractured fairy tales and hilariously engaging songs. And you'd be wrong if you thought that by my age, I'd have outgrown my school girl off-the-charts excitement and anticipation of getting to see him. True to form, for the last week, I have been waiting for Wednesday, today, the day Wyatt and I were scheduled to visit Willy's studio.

In preparation for this visit, I assembled my Willy Claflin items so that I could ask him to sign them. The record, "Stones Along The Shore," is an album of his Wyatt and I rescued a few months ago from a bin at The Record Store in West Portal.  And in anticipation of our studio visit, my parents, who save everything important, sent me his cassette recordings from the eighties. Wyatt decided he wanted to make Willy a present, so he rolled a beeswax candle. I tucked all of these items, along with a sharpie, into a tote bag.

After I picked Wyatt up at school this afternoon, we walked the few blocks to Willy's studio. When we saw the moose-shaped door knocker, we knew we were in the right place. I lifted Wyatt up so he could reach the moose and knock on the door. Willy opened the door, and for the next 40 minutes, we enjoyed the most wonderful visit with the kind, smart, hilarious, engaging man I remember from childhood. We also met many of Willy's friends.

We met Maynard Moose, and his back-up moose, "Boris with a B." We also met Little Moose, who is the heroine of the book, The Little Moose Who Couldn't Go to Sleep.

We met Ms. Moo. She has a big voice and tells stories with strong morals.

We also met Gorf, who is a bullfrog flyswatter percussionist.

Riboculous is an inappropriate raccoon who told Wyatt a story about how once he had lots of cupcakes, and they were so delicious because they were made with sugar, "nature's most perfect food." Riboculous said his mom told him share the cupcakes, so he did, but once he had shared with all his friends, he had no more left to eat. Riboculous concluded by saying that the moral of the story was not to share. Willy chided him for that inappropriate conclusion and put him firmly back on his shelf.

We also met Dr. Al, who is a humorless tie-wearing alligator, as well as Buzzy, Willy's well-loved bear, who is in his sixties.

During our visit, I learned that Willy is an award-winning author. He has written The Uglified Ducky and The Little Moose Who Couldn't Go To Sleep, among others

I also learned that he is recording his fourth music album and is starting a long children's novel. Between all of this and his performance schedule, I find it hard to believe he's even semi-retired, but he claims to be.

We left Willy's studio with so many presents, including a copy of the album he recorded with his son, Brian Claflin, called In Yonder's Wood. It is a stunning recording of traditional tunes, mostly narrative ballads, some from the British Isles and some from Appalachia and the American West. 


Today was worth every moment of anticipation I had pinned on it. It's not often that someone can live up to a decades-old childhood memory. Today, Willy Claflin did exactly that, and I can honestly say that he's even more wonderful than I had remembered.






Just Plane Fun

"Mom. Why does everyone keep asking me if my clownfish wheelie bag is called 'Nemo?'"

Wyatt has a terrific little wheelie bag that is shaped like a clownfish, and it always draws remarks at the airport. This year, the first to comment on the bag was a TSA Security Guard, who asked, "Is that Nemo?" Had he instead said, "Hey, buddy! That's a great bag. Is that a clownfish?" Wyatt would probably enthusiastically responded that yes, it was, and he would have shown him the zipper and the retractable handle. Instead, Wyatt looked at him like he was insane. 

Two more people asked "Hey! Is that Nemo?" as we waited for our plane. Wyatt gave them both the same quizzical look, as I explained, "No, it's just a clownfish." They followed-up with an incredulous, "Really?" So I assured them, "Yes, really. It's just a clownfish,"

These are the kind of exchanges that happen to us regularly, because Wyatt doesn't watch television or movies, and he doesn't play video games. Connecting with Wyatt over pop-culture doesn't work at this point in his life.

Our decision to wait to expose Wyatt to media has been a very conscious decision, and it has proven challenging at times. Our decision is based on many of the reasons discussed in this great post and thought-provoking podcast episode, and we're incredibly glad we have taken this approach. But when people find out that we're "those no-media people," we usually get one of three reactions. The first is, "You're crazy!" The second is, "So what are you saying? I'm ruining my kids by letting them watch their favorite programs?" And the third is a sort of sheepish, "Oh. We don't let ours watch THAT much..."

We are not crazy. This approach is working for us, and we feel that we're reaping the benefits of having a child with a rich imagination who enjoys independent play. And our choice has nothing to do with what anyone else is doing with their own kids. The statement, "Wyatt doesn't watch TV or videos," when offered to explain his blank stare at a pop-culture reference, is not a judgment of anyone. But it's no wonder that people sometimes take it negatively. Media in childhood is a hot button issue. At least a few times a year, there's another article telling parents that children should have less media exposure. And infuriatingly, those reports usually offer exactly zero suggestions on how to cut back. (If you're interested in cutting back on media for young children, there is a helpful post from Janet Lansbury that you can check out here.)

Anyway. Long flights are challenging for everyone, but especially young children and the parents traveling with them. And it's easy to assume that entertainment in a confined space like an airplane requires screens. But it didn't for us. The low-tech stuff still works. 

This year, Wyatt was old enough to help decide what to put in his wheelie bag to pass the time on the plane. Here's how we amused ourselves on our flights:


Aside from the mandatory safety video, the only thing we watched on a screen was the map showing the plane's progress across the country. On our flight to Boston, a child was seated in front of Wyatt and the poor kid kept dropping his toys. So Wyatt spent a lot of time retrieving the toys for him, trading toys through the crack between the seats, or playing on his own with his cars or other things on the tray table. He also listened to some music on his headphones plugged into my 12-year old iPod, until the device finally died, giving us a terribly sad face on its big grey screen. I built him into a fort with an old swaddle blanket we always travel with. And I tried doing a couple of string figure games with him, but they weren't that fun--maybe in a few more years. On the flight back from Boston, Wyatt did some drawing, reading, resting, and listened to a couple of audio stories from Sparkle Stories (which I managed from my phone, since the old iPod was dead). I didn't get to read a book (or watch anything myself, obviously), but I did end up getting a short nap and I made a lot of progress on a knitting project. I also had some pretty fun conversations with my kid.

We brought and ate healthy, delicious snacks we rarely get at home. Plane snacks!

And we spent lots of time looking out the window, especially on take-off and landing.






Drop Spindles and Spinning Wheels

"Oh, that's great yarn you made! Mom. When are you getting a spinning wheel? Soon, yes!? But I do NOT like the smell of that wool. I know what the problem is: maybe they didn't filter it?"

Wyatt and I are just returning from ten days at my parents' house in Massachusetts. That's a new personal record for all of us. In addition to our crab apple jelly/jam concocting, we enjoyed an amazing day trip to Wingaersheek Beach with friends, blueberry picking, and visits with family. Most days, though, Wyatt stuck himself firmly to his grandparents in the morning and took the day from there. He did some work in the wood shop and garden, emptied the wading pool with water shooters, did construction projects in the sand box, tirelessly assisted in mowing the lawn on the riding lawnmower, helped with errands, and chased the dog around the yard.

My parents' place is pretty terrific, especially when you're four, and it's summertime. As an adult, I recognize I am really fortunate to have grown up there. At the same time, I vividly recall how I couldn't wait get out of my hometown, go somewhere far away, and do something awesome.

More than a month before we were scheduled to leave, I was looking at the ten days blocked-out on our calendar, and I noticed a teenager's scowl beginning to tug at the corners of my mouth. I realized I was having a tough time shaking my view of our destination as "boring." I wondered if I could plan a way to experience or learn something new while I was visiting. I started to think about New England, New Englanders, and the pleasant attributes make the people and area special. During the weeks leading up to our trip, Wyatt began to comment on all the things he was looking forward to seeing, including all of the "forests." To him, there are forests everywhere, including on the side of all the roads. 

I began to think about open space, forests and then farms, and I started to research whether there were any hyper-local farms or yarns I could check-out while I was in town. I didn't find any.* I next considered attending a fiber-related workshop. A few online searches later, I found Sheila Bosworth, who works only minutes away from my parents' house, and the Fiber Loft just down the road in Harvard. Suddenly I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to learn to spin wool in New England.

I contacted Sheila and the Fiber Loft, and both of them had good news: they would teach me to spin! Sheila would lend me a bobbin and teach me the drop spindle technique, and the Fiber Loft had room for me in a day-long beginning wheel spinning workshop. Fortunately, my parents were up for some extended grandchild time, so I was free to make plans.


My first lesson was with Sheila. I knew I was in great hands when she looked at my first wonky yarn attempt and told me, "Oh my! Look at that! You've made bouclé! I can't even do that anymore. People pay good money for artistic yarn like that." She gave me wonderfully attentive instruction, as well as little spinning mantras to say to myself to help with bringing the right amount of wool to the spindle. I bought one of her gorgeous spindles, and I left with the intention to follow her admonition to practice for 15 minutes a day.



My second lesson was just over a week later, at the Fiber Loft, with Ann Corbey. Our class was a group of four women (we all arrived solo), and none of us had ever spun wool before. Ann brought us fleece from her sheep, Lydia. 

We started with Lydia's skirted, unwashed fleece, and we learned to card it.

Once we had carded the fleece into rolags, Ann showed us how to spin it "in the grease." We worked with Lydia's wool from 10:00 am until 4:00 pm. The time flew, we all chatted, learned, messed-up, and fixed our mistakes. I left with a ball of pretty good looking handspun wool and a deep admiration for Ann and her gracious, fun approach to teaching. It was magical to watch my fingers feed fluffy rolags of wool I had just carded into a wheel I was powering with my foot and have yarn come out the other end. Bonus: my hands got a lanolin treatment. 


I was hoping I'd have fun with these lessons, but I wasn't expecting I'd love spinning or be any good at it. I certainly wasn't expecting to leave these lessons plotting how I might find a reasonably price, pre-owned, (double treadle?) Louët spinning wheel so I could take up yet another craft. But I do love it, and I am plotting. In the meantime, I have my little drop-spindle to keep me busy.

My next task will be washing and blocking my yarn...

*I'm convinced there are plenty of little local farms to visit, but the farms are not commercial enough to bother with a website.