Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Much Ado About Nothing

A wonderful antedote to my Tosca angst -- my third viewing of Kenneth Brannagh's movie version of Much Ado About Nothing. This is one of the happiest movies I've ever seen. I was reminded of that especially in the scene with both Beatrice and Benedict realized they were in love. Beatrice swings like a child up into the sky and back and forth and Benedict walks around in a fountain splashing water about like a child. They are not being childish; they are, like children, totally lost in the joy of discovering love. Right from the opening scene, when the workers in the vineyards hear the victorious soldier are going to visit them, they react with spontaneous joy. The audience knows immediately what the theme of this movie/story is going to be -- rarely do we see a movie with more scenes of happiness. I'm sure I could add others, immediately a scene from Mama Mia comes to mind with dancing and singing. But it is rare that movie makers make joy a major component -- and not only youthful joy, we see it in the faces of the older characters as well, a joie de vivre. This makes the movie very special and possibly the only one I've ever seen three times.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Tosca - a bit edited

To care about opera and to have never seen Tosca is almost impossible. As of today I've seen it and expect never to see it again. Puccini's music is too lush for me, too caloric. Not that this story is saccharine, rather it is over the top drama and I've always avoided it for both reasons.

What I saw today on a DVD was a film producers idea that was so bad it was almost good. The wonderful Roberto Alana was Cavaradosi and his ex-wife Angela Gheorghiu was Tosca. The incredible baritone, Ruggero Raimondi, was Scarpia. The film cut from a recording session in black and white, to the lush castle [San Angelo, I believe]. Although I think this interleaving of formats was ridiculous and somewhat pretentious, it saved the experience for me from being overwhelmingly horrible. Scarpia is more evil, villianous and stomach-turning than Iago or any other character short of Hannibal Lecter and casting was perfect. Costuming and setting were as lush as the music, some camera work was over the top [no surprise]. Torture scenes are doubly painful in today's political context. So now I have seen a version of Tosca and no longer have the blank space in my education. I told the woman who had chosen the opera about Susan Sontag's The Volcano Lover and that Scapria and Tosca and the whole situation in Naples during that period are a part of Sontag's story, which is based on her careful research.

Last week I left at the break when the very dark and static production of Saint-Saens Henry VIII was putting me to sleep. I'm very happy next week's opera is The Merry Widow. I love opera but I admit to being narrow in my favorites.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A moment you'll never forget

I'm reading two other books and two magazines but I just couldn't resist beginning Jon Turk's The Raven's Gift last night. I loved hearing him speak; in five pages I already love his writing.

My assignment to my writing class for next week is to write about one of those "I'll never forget" moments. I think I'll read to them the first two pages of Turk's book because it begins with such a moment. It changed his life, as such moments sometimes do. As a lab-bound chemist he had little time outdoors but one spring day he went for a walk with his dog in the mountains [Colorado]. Dog had a frenzy of hole digging in the spongy, wet earth, sniffing and going on to dig another hole and repeat. Turk didn't understand what the dog was doing and finally began sniffing at the holes himself and discovered an earth scent that seemed the essence of spring. He began to feel he needed to be outside and became an extreme adventurer and traveler, also a very good writer and story teller.

My writing class of adults over 55, are people who have experienced a great deal, they are writing more freely now than they did at first which is the point of the class [and, I realize, not entirely due to anything I did, but to their greater comfort with one another]. I will be curious what they write. I hope it will lead them to start to write something they will feel is significant, maybe not for class but after the class is completed.

I haven't read enough yet to know Turk's process but I believe that for many people putting an incident into words on paper [or computer], i.e., into visual form rather than the amorphousness of thoughts that may be fuzzed over with visual memories and sensual memories of many sorts, is the first step to understanding something important about yourself or the world around them. This is far from an original thought, but part of whatt I'm trying to both tell and show my class -- actually, not so much show, as lead them to discover as they write. My frustration, which is not very important, is that I will not know if I have succeeded because most people will only feel and discover after the fact. It's okay that I will not know, teachers almost never how much or little they've accomplished.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Two book and their authors

In two weeks I've heard to author's talks about their new books and they couldn't have been more different. First I heard Canyon Sam [improbably name but apparently hers] speak in a most disjointed and confusing way about her book, Sky Train, which is only incidentally about the train to Lhasa, Tibet and mainly about both the plight and the strength of Tibetan women during the 60 years of occupation by Chinese in Tibet. She is supposedly a performance artist but she did no performing and spoke unconvincingly, as if she were much more ignorant of her subject than, in fact, her books shows she is, although she admits to an irritating, although very usual ignorance and naivete about Tibetan history and situation.

I purchased the book only because she has a section about Rinchen Dolma Taring, a woman I am Quite interested in. But I am now reading the book and find it full of important information about the current plight of Tibetans, especially in Lhasa - it is so wrenchingly sad I can only read about half an hour a day. The malicious destruction of the Tibetan culture and as many Tibetan people as possible [by destruction I mean extinction -- a holocaust!] makes me quite sick. This is a sincere [but awkwardly written -- I think editors are to blame as much as the author] book that will not reach nearly the audience it deserves. That, too, is painfully sad.
On the other hand I heard this evening a brilliantly presented talk by Jon Turk, a story teller by avocation, an anthropolosgist by profession, and an extreme adventurer, who writes about shamanism among the reindeer people of Siberia -- who have been dispossessed of their reindeer due to many circumstances all of which can be traced to the Communists -- but in this case not with the malice and murderous intent of the Maoist Chinese in Tibet.

Turk had a schtick and presented it charmingly. His book may have a larger audience; his publisher is more mainstream and they have arranged a nationwide book tour for him and he will speak intelligently and charmingly as he did tonight. He even told us that this was a terrible day for him because it is exactly the 5th anniversary of the day his wife was killed in an avalanche.

Turk's reindeer people live in far eastern Siberian, now in Soviet style towns. They are not nomadic like the small group of reindeer people I met on the shores of Lake Kosovo in Mongolia. And of course both his group and the Mongolians are far less comfortable than the Suomi, or Lapplanders, I met in Rouvememi in Finland. The shamanic tradition is alive, if not at all well, possibly dying out forever in Siberia, although apparently not among the nomads -- although it is the nomads themselves who are likely to die out.

I recommend both books to people who care about cultures as a part of our human ecology. When we lose a culture, we lose their wisdom and both these cultures had great wisdom that is needed to supplement what we in the so called "first world" consider our own wisdom.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Muse? Schmouz!

At brunch a woman, over 60 herself but still a little bit of a groupie of "writers", said to me and the other woman writer, "What do you consider your muse?"

Muse? At a good many months past 70, I think if I haven't lived enough to have the kind of knowledge a muse was traditionally supposed to impart, I haven't lived enough.

My patience with all kinds of pretension is extremely limited. Am I becoming more and more a crochety old lady? Quite possibly. This on top of the young woman I mentioned a couple of posts back who wanted to know what "words of wisdom" I would pass on ... I can forgive the young woman easily because she was young [well, mid-30s which seems pretty darned young to me], but today's woman should know better.

I listened to the other woman speak of her screenwriting group and simply kept my mouth shut. Perhaps I am terribly jaded but I know the odds are between nil and .00001% that any screen play being chatted about in a group with no connections to anyone in the film industry has a chance of being bought and produced. It's not "nice" to take away people's hope, is it? Or is it a kindness to tell them to put their talent into a genre where they can at least find a small audience via the more and more acceptable publish-on-demand or self-publishing arena? I've been trained to do the "ladylike" thing, "don't say anything if you can't say something nice." What a burden was laid on the mid-century generation of girls.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Beyond Small Talk

Tuesday is science news in the NYTimes. Much of the psychology news relates "discoveries" that would be common sense if anyone sat down and truly thought about it. The item I'm thinking of says that people are happier if they engage now and then in deeper conversations than the usual small talk that makes up social life for most people. I.e., forget the old prohibition against talking about politics or religion or personal feelings, and sometimes - definitely not ALL the time and not with everyone -- talk about deeper matters.

Now really -- isn't that just good sense? If you only talk about the weather, the dinner you just ate, the rate the kids, or the grass, or the price of milk is growing, you are dealing with the surface of life. Sometimes you need to look at the whys -- why did the country just have such an acrimonious fight about health care and will it continue? Why are we still at war in the Middle East? Why is the American public getting fatter and fatter, having more and more cancer, autism, school shootings? So many questions that could be delved into instead of the "isn't it terrible?" Will talking about such things make you depressed? That's a possibility but more likely you'll feel better for having thought about it and maybe begun to understand, maybe feel an urge to read a book or go to a lecture and learn something more. Occasional serious talks about serious matters with your spouse or close relatives may reveal differences but, if you love and respect one another, it will probably deepen the bonds between you -- so the article suggests, so I believe.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Little Learning here and there

For many years I've been doing the Sunday Times Crossword puzzle, for pleasure, which goes beyond the satisfaction of solving to an egotistical sense pride in how much I have stored in the tangled synapses or dendrites or whatever makes the matter in the skull gray. Today, however, I learned something from a clue. It read, "only person to win both a Nobel and an Oscar." Answer, Shaw. Wow, thought I, I didn't know that.
Off I went to Wikipedia [easiest of the several choices that popped up] where I found out how many novels he also wrote as well as much else besides plays that I was familiar with and often bored watching. I saw this picture of the little hut in the backyard where he wrote -- looks the size of most garden tool sheds -- big enough for a desk with typewriter, a chair and supply of paper. Probably a tea kettle. And all that wit and thought came pouring out. Wonderful to contemplate.

Feels Like Spring

The weather has felt like spring this week and I've been able to walk on the beach -- at last! I've seen tiny buds on trees but no green yet. The only flowers I've seen are crocuses near Rachel's mailbox.

My shell tree is ruined but about 100 yards further along the path this low tangled, dead bush was being decorated last summer and I have begun picking up shells from under the original tree and carrying them here. The bush is low, prickly and not tempting for firewood. The innocent majesty of the original tree is not a part of this site. But it satisfies me that something was begun and can be continued along the walk.
Perhaps a more springlike sign was, along the ocean side, prints of a barefoot walker. Later I settled for ten minutes on a washed up log to listen to the waves and gaze at the horizon. The barefoot walker, a young woman, came striding along. I thought of emulating her but didn't -- I still needed my jacket on although she had her jacket tied around her waist and her arms were bare. Soon, I hope, I'll feel warm enough to walk here barefoot. But spring always gives us a promissory kiss and then turns a chilly shoulder again, some years this happens repeatedly. For this morning, however, the sun is bright on my well protected patio and I think I will take a folding chair and the newspaper out.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Wise Old Woman

This is a Russian woman, not me. She seems to me a more stereotypical image of the "wise old woman" than I am. I was interviewed today by a young woman doing a college project about older people. She asked many of the questions one would expect about life experiences and I enjoyed talking about myself. Toward the end she asked how I would define wisdom and what words would I like to leave for those I care about in summary of the wisdom I have gained in my "long" life -- which feels exceedingly short to me.

I told her I could not summarize "wisdom"and I could not devise a statement of what I have learned from life. She was a little stunned -- I was not being modest and it had been established that I have lived a varied and interesting life and that I am a thoughtful person. I told her I thought the life I live has to speak for itself and the example I set for both family and acquaintances must reflect any wisdom I have. I strongly believe this is true. I will continue to write novels, essays, poems, whatever and they will contain some of what information and experience I have gained but none will ever summarize a kernel of wisdom to be passed on. Having been asked those questions I suppose I will mull them, but I doubt I will come up with answers.

I will mull instead probably why people seek wisdom distilled in a few words or sentences when great wisdom exists in the holy books and guide books of civilizations going back several thousand years and constantly expounded upon ever since. If they want wisdom, let them live thoughtfully and study, think and consider. Great wisdom, as in the I Ching, the Bible the Buddhist sutras and other writings has never stopped wars because it existed, never fed the hungry, not saved the Earth from destruction. Every wisdom formulation has lead some few people to live meaningful and compassionate lives -- far too few. I cannot be a wise old woman; I hate the word crone, witch is very negative, shaman suggests rituals of a primitive sort. No I want no category and refuse to summarize. Poor girl ... she'll have to ponder a little or simply shrug and go on to the next interviewee.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I LOVE New York

Kass commented on the previous blog that I kind of miss New York. Oh, yes! I have moved to a different world. This world is good too but it doesn't cancel all I loved about New York. My morning has started wonderfully with an acceptance by a poetry online journal of a set of poems I wrote called "7th and 8:00". Several poems describe the few minutes I spent day after day, week after week, walking from the subway at 7th Avenue and 23rd Street, two blocks south to 21st Street where I worked. In less than five minutes a day I observed a rich and varied street life the like of which I suspect exists nowhere else in the US. Here is one of the poems about an experience I had nearly every morning.

The New Seller

Invisible Oriental incense surrounds a new aluminum kiosk,
a miasma of Dehli reds, Jodpur pinks,
temple bronze, Himalayan mauves.
The Indian news seller purifies and blesses
his tiny domain to gain his share
of the dream of American prosperity,
invoking daily the hopes
that brought him across the sea.

I pass by and rarely stop, rarely buy
but breathe the complex scent
and feel my day is blessed
by his belief.
My cynicism curls and crumbles
like the ash of his incense sticks.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Looking Good

The Sunday Styles section of the NY Times always has wonderful pictures of people photographed on the street -- men and women, by Bill Cunningham who has been stalking Fifth Avenue and other likely spots for years to catch trends. I always love looking at the wonderful way people put themselves together, and I love the fact that he shows men looking both good and interesting and includes women of all ages -- sometimes he even shows dogs interestingly attired.
Yesterday another article in the Style Section caught my eye. It was called "Respecting His Edlers" and showed picture of three women who will never see 65 again [two are probably in their 80s] wonderfully coated, plus one has incredible mittens and a great hat. A blogger, Ari Seth Cohen posts street pictures of wonderfully attired men and women on his blog: I recommend it. One of these days I'll stop being lazy and do a link list here on my blog.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

You Never Know

Whatever is going on today, you simply cannot predict what will be going on a year from now. Trite, of course, but also the profound message of my favorite wisdom book, the I Ching. This simple truth can be very reassuring -- or scary. To me it's an exciting promise. A year ago I would not have imagined I'd be teaching an adult writing class and enjoying it greatly. The dancing lady cartoon here is in honor of a piece written by a talented member of my Writing With the Whole Brain Class who described a belly dancing incident in the most vivid and delightful way. In the same class others wrote about insomnia, scavenging golf balls, the pleasures of casinos and five or six assorted subjects. It's delightful to see that people are becoming freer and more expressive which is the object of the class. I feel I am achieving my fairly modest goal of helping them shed learned strictures and write expressively.

I think of the I Ching's message too, in relation to a talk with my daughter who's work situation is currently very difficult. A year from now it definitely will be different; there's reason to think it will be much better. Of course we must all live through the uncertainty. A year ago I had decided to leave NYC and wasn't sure where I was going, what I might be doing. I was in one of those states of suspension, the catalytic decision had been made to move but all else was unknown. Certainly I had no idea I'd be doing most of the things I'm doing now. And being very much a loner, I could never have guessed that in a year I would know so many new people and enjoy their company and feel liked by them. The only certainty in the world is change, as the ancient Taoists who complied the I Ching told us having observed the immutable laws of nature which included always the vicissitudes of natural forces.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Minor Epiphany

I knew we would start looking at the film version of Othello with Lawrence Fishburn and Kenneth Branagh today so I've been reading it -- and disliking it as much as I have in the past. I think it's one of the dullest plays Shakespeare ever wrote. I am not fascinated with Iago's machinations, I think many people are as devious as he for as little reason [feeling slighted and suspecting a tryst with his wife are not so slight really], and I think Othello is a Johnny One Note, with his unsophisticated, blindered code of honor. Others don't agree with me about either of those views.

I actually tossed and turned until about 1:30 last night thinking about the play and two related things became obvious to me. Othello was played in black face in the past and now is played by very talented black men like Fishburn [I also saw James Earl Jones on stage in the role -- Christopher Plumber was Iago]. But Othello is a Moor. Moors are North Africans, Arabs, or perhaps Berbers. They have Mediterranean skin and features, they are not black men from sub-Saharan Africa. Much has been said in the class about the Elizabethan feeling that those who are evil or villainous are ugly, and they are often called "dark." So the references to Othello as "black" are a traditional description. Othello is, by our standards today, not a black man. If I were a black person I would be more incensed than I am - and I"m seriously disturbed -- that Othello is always played by a black actor now and is shown, as always, to be an easy dupe and a man with uncontrollable violence toward women. It is a long, long standing slur stemming from the white English [European] sense of superiority to all things African, their hatred, fear, and long standing prejudice. I believe it is still being practiced by producers of this play and enjoyed by audiences.

My second insight was partly inspired by having seen two operas lately set in Spain, El Cid and La Forza Del Destino. In both the rigid, even rapid, Spanish code of honor leads to tragedy [or nearly in El Cid]. I also recently read Journey to Samara, which is about a journey undertaken early in the 20th century into Saharan territory where tribes were in a constant state of warfare based on honor vendettas. I don't know if ethnologists have written about the influence of this idea conveyed from the Moors in Spain to Spanish nobles but it seems very likely. Meanwhile, Othello as a Moor would have imbibed honor system, which explains his reaction to all suggests by Iago that Desdemona is untrue to him. His vengeful murder goes deeper, into more primitive areas than jealousy or ignorance of European manners. He is a product of that tribal honor system, but he is not a black African; he would probably have the same sort of complexion as most of the Mediterranean peoples. It's time to see Othello properly cast.

Some of the lasting fascination with Shakespeare's plays is that there is always more to be discovered, layers of motive, and here layers of ethnology that The Bard tapped into in the way that the most astute writers do, often without knowing the extent of what they are showing and burying in their plots. It's left to later readers and scholars to uncover all that a genius writer shows us.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Ugly Damage

Between mid-November and now, vandals have nearly destroyed my favorite folk artifact as well as destroying public property, apparently so they could build fires on the beach. I can only guess but their probably purpose was simply to have a little noticed place to party because I also assume these were young people.

My favorite place to walk by the ocean is a small nature reserve called Long Beach, a spit of land between an inlet and the ocean that is a mile long and only 50 yards or so wide except toward the end where salt marshes make it a bit wider. Years before I moved here my daughter took me walking there and we admired "the shell tree", a dead fir tree with branches festooned with conch shells which had holes in them so they could be threaded on the dead limbs.
In many places of the s I have seen folk artifacts which I liken to the impulse that made unknown walkers wish to add shells to this dead tree. In the Himalayas I usually saw cairns piled at passes, the higher the pass, the bigger the cairn. Some cairns had latse [prayer flags on poles] stuck into them, others were just piles of stones. The passerby added a stone of his own and so did I when I passed by. On the rolling steepes of Mongolia similar cairns are called oovos. Stones are fewer, of course, but they often contain prayer flags too and tokens of respect, including empty bottles from Chingas Khan beer. I understand other mountainous areas also have cairns.

Last summer I made a point of picking up shells that had been too near the ends of branches and fell of in the wind and replacing them as safely as I could. I began to feel like one of the people I thought of as "local Druids", caretakers of the shell tree. So it was with great sadness I saw that all the branches had been torn from the tree. [A few other dead trees had suffered the same fate, standing now as merely dead trunks.] This is sad and feels like a desecration of nature.

Last summer and fall I noticed that occasional laterals from the split rail fence beside the board walk that leads to the beach area, had been broken and removed. I was also aware where an unburnt end of one such lateral was beside the ashes and char of a fire. My first indication of change yesterday was noticing many laterals were now missing. I didn't count but I think 12 or 15 -- sturdy lengths of wood that of course, was well cured and dry and no doubt burned warmly for those gathered around. They are public property. I suspect they will not be replaced any time soon.

The original Vandals were a large part of the barbarian hoards that destroyed Rome and ushered in the Dark Ages in Europe. I'm not going to draw parallels here but I am deeply sorry that civilization, even into the 21st century and in this very civilized area, has these hiccups back into the dark ages when young people revert to pure selfishness and casual destruction of what was intended for the safety and enjoyment of the public.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Two POVs

In about an hour's time last night I heard two different opinions about Porgy and Bess. In a pre-concert talk Mwalim [Morgan James] Peters discussed the history of Black experience as entertainment in America. He spoke of accomplishments with the strictures of stereotype. He emphasized that both DeBose Heyward's [a white man] novel, Porgy, and Gershwin's opera gave the public what they wanted and expected to read and see and hear about black people: they lived in a ghetto, Bess was a hooker, Porgy a crippled begger, there were gamblers, drug dealers, violence, murder, gospel, pathos and no happy ending. ["Black people weren't allowed to have happy love stories," he said. He gave a history of blacks as seen in American entertainment up to the Civil Rights era and noted that even then Leontyne Price had to audition for the Metropolitan Opera in Italy. He was not on a pulpit, he was just stating facts in a scholarly way.

When the concert/lecture began musician and scholar, Robert Wyatt, emphasized Gershwin's fascination with black music, jazz and gospel. He had met the original singers, Todd Duncan and Anne Brown. He said that Brown, the first black student at the Julliard School, was discouraged after her success in the opera by how little work she could get as a classically trained soprano. She married a Swede and lived in Europe the rest of her life. But Wyatt emphasized the success of the opera on Broadway -- though not as successful as many of Gershwin's typical Broadway musicals. He did spoke, a little gleefully, I thought, of the appeal to the audience of the drugs, violence, and picturesqueness of Catfish Row.

Though both Peters and Wyatt are musicians and academics they seem to have learned their history of American music in two different ways. In my lifetime, I see that, although inequality continues to exist and stereotypes die very slowly, great strides have been taken when an essentially white community performance space presents both views to their all white audience. There is a small black population on Cape Cod but none happened to be at this performance. People went home with both stories, well told by personable speakers, and they had an evening with generally fine music as well.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Place as Touchstone

Blogger and blog reader, Kass, issued a challenge to write about a place that is a touchstone for us. The wooded path and creek above might be many places but it is in a state park near Versailles, Indiana. For several years I've been walking that particular little trail nearly every time I visit family in Indiana. I was born across a gravel road from an outer edge of that state park so it was a part of my life from the beginning although I was not a trail walker until later in life. It's a gentle kind of woodland, now there are many deer although they have come only in the past 30 years or so and were not there when I was young.

I choose it, especially, because that trail recurs twice in the novel I am writing. The novel is set mostly in that very rural part of Southern Indiana. The story is entirely fictional but the countryside, the nearby towns, the dialect of the older people, and a funeral are all true to my experience. I am second drafting it right now and so living in this landscape a few hours nearly every day. If I go visit this summer, as I am thinking of doing, I will take a great many more pictures because I have very few. I notice that I take a lot of photos of places I travel and expect to visit only once, but take for granted the places that I know well and don't think to photograph them.