Baryshnikov reads the phone book

I saw Mikhail Baryshnikov dance last week in Berkeley because art is a balm to the soul in troubled times, and last week was some troubled times. Baryshnikov is 68, though he doesn’t look a day over 59. Actually, he looks darn good and can still cause a swoon with a flick of the wrist.

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Baryshnikov in Wilson’s Letter to a Man

The performance was a collaboration he did with Robert Wilson, who created works with Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson. You can tell by those names that Wilson likes it modern and likes it surreal.  Which is fine except that surrealism turns out to be better if you have context.

Modern art has that feature. For example, I have always found cubism more interesting if I can discern the original model – a woman’s face, a guitar, a mountain. When the shapes become completely random, I lose the ability to appreciate what the artist was trying to achieve. The Salvador Dali with the melting clock is easier to think about than the Salvador Dali with the melting oblong blob. Labelled Untitled #4.  My reaction becomes Untitled #5.

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The Right to Know Plus Canada

No blog today. Instead I will share a painting and important caption from Norman Rockwell from 1968.

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Norman Rockwell, “The Right to Know,” 1968

The text which accompanied the illustration in Look magazine read:

“We are the governed, but we govern too. Assume our love of country, for it is only the simplest of self-love. Worry little about our strength, for we have our history to show for it. And because we are strong, there are others who have hope. But watch closely from now on, for those of us who stand here mean to watch those we put in the seats of power. And listen to us, you who lead, for we are listening harder for the truth that you have not always offered us. Your voice must be ours, and ours speaks of cities that are not safe, and of wars we do not want, of poor in a land of plenty, and of a world that will not take the shape our arms would give it. We are not fierce, and the truth will not frighten us. Trust us, for we have given you our trust. We are the governed, remember, but we govern too.”

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It’s the Great Pumpkin, People!

Jack be Nimble
Jack be Quick
Jack’s been carving candlesticks
and putting them in hollowed out vegetables for about 300 years

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Origins of Jack o’ the Lantern
Of course, there aren’t any pumpkins in Scotland and Ireland which started the tradition of putting candlesticks in food. This lighting practice originated in turnips which are plentiful and easier to grow in the resistant soil. The jack o’ the lantern carving was reminiscent of the lights that appeared in peat bogs which represented spirits of the dead (like Gollum says, don’t look at the lights). Jack of the Lantern was also the name of a story  about an Anglo-Saxon trickster, a character who might fool the devil or fairies through cleverness rather than through strength or hard work. The same character ends up climbing beanstalks, killing giants, spreading frost, and sticking his thumb into pies.

Pumpkins are native to America, so the early colonists shifted the idea of carving to the vegetable at hand. Soon enough, we not only had jack o’ lanterns in these United States, but we had stories about pumpkin-heads from Washington Irving (1820) and L. Frank Baum (1929). Halloween as a holiday expanded and changed – with a little help from capitalism – to the major event it is today, an event which now other countries are adopting.

Halloween Then and Now
The Halloween as we know it emerged from four elements:

  • A celebration of spirits of the dead or spirits in general
  • Donning costumes to act out plays, sometimes called “mumming” and sometimes carried on by troupes traveling house to house
  • A celebration of the trickster, especially one who tricks the spirits or the devil
  • Horror and Halloween in stories, arising out of a Gothic tradition but proliferating in the United States, especially through film

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O Canada!

I have heard the Canadian  national anthem live three times this week. First, before the Toronto Blue Jays championship baseball against the Cleveland Indians, a loss which prompted derision from local young men here in British Columbia about the sorry state of their clutch hitting. Then, before Hockey Night (Saturday night as Canadians know), at a noisy brewhouse serving sweet chlii wings and poutine. The crowd grumbled as Toronto blew a four goal lead against Winnipeg, then cheered as they won in overtime. This led to derisive and drunken expletives about the sorry state of Toronto’s goaltending. Lastly, a curly-haired cowgirl rode with the flag around a Calgary Stampede ring before a horse show. The sparse crowd cheered; the only derision was next door in the Saddledome as the last place Calgary Flames lost 5-4 to St. Louis. It was a great week to tour the Western Canadian Rockies.

Shoulder of the Season
Coming in October during the shoulder of the seasons – between summer and winter tourim – had both pluses and minuses. Many museums and tours close October 15, so I made a mental note in future to come three weeks earlier. Storms at the beginning of the month have closed some passes. But our weather was good for October – only rain and fog, with a little snow, and a little sun as bookends. Most of all, off season meant not fighting with bloated RVs on scenic byways and no photo bombers at the biggest vista spots. There were busloads of Japanese tourists, but that happens all year long. Blissfully uncrowded trumped warmer weather.

Empty roads were expected. Off season timing was why we went. There were a few reminders of what Canada is like and a few surprises. The food was unexpectedly good at several of the brewhouses and diners. Not all – there was an ill-chosen coffee shop on Canadian highway 1 that served tartar sauce and salad dressing in Kraft teaspoon packets. But the salt and pepper ribs at Earl’s in Chilliwack, and the pulled pork mac ‘n’ cheese at the Noble Pig in Kamloops were both flipping delicious. Even the burgers and steaks were extra tasty; much better than we get in Cailfornia. Fewer hormones in the beef? More hormones in the beef?  Hard to say which.

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The Death of Civilized Debate

A documentary is making the rounds, in the theaters last spring and now on PBS and On Demand, that is a reminder of how politics used to be different. This is not by way of a discussion of the current political season or any commentary on the campaigns or their positions. I will not drag us there; I have promised. But this historical  view, “The Best of Enemies,” which chronicles a series of debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, hearkens back to the days when the tone of debate could be intelligent and civil. What a concept!

The popular notion is that America does not like intellectuals. Our tall tales and folk heroes are often about simple men who get the better of the fellow  with book-learnin’ through common sense and American knowhow. Conventional wisdom is to disdain “eggheads” and to embrace the Common Man.

But Americans do enjoy – or used to enjoy – the intelligent presentation of political opinions that they themselves hold dear. In 1968,  when ABC decided to host a series of conversations between two intellectual giants who held very different views, America watched and embraced – individually – their beloved smarty-pants of the Left and the Right. Continue reading “The Death of Civilized Debate”