FutuRetro

One of the things I so love about travel and touring is getting a much more powerful sense of history; standing in and on the places where events and lives long past have happened, whether grand or insignificant, utterly changes my understanding of those people and occurrences. My first trip overseas, that Grand Tour I was so privileged to take in college with my older sister, was an awakening I never expected. I hoped the trip would be a cure for my sophomore blues, and indeed it was, beyond anything I could have planned or dreamt before, but more than that I was startled by how connected I felt to history.

The drizzly and cold autumn day when we visited Canterbury Cathedral was atmospheric enough in its way, but I remember standing on stone steps worn into a soft bowl by the thousands of footsteps that had passed over them in the centuries of its existence, looking up into a palely gold ray from a lamp, seeing the motes of dust whirling in it, and feeling that time itself was floating down around me in delicate pieces, that the spirit of every person who had ever set foot on that same smooth hollow in the stone was present there with me in that very moment. It was almost as though I could hear their voices and see the scenes of the past play out in the faint gloom around me, all overlapping and yet perfectly present. I felt my own place in the whole of the human timeline in an entirely different way than I ever expected, tinier than ever, yet surprisingly more concrete and tangible.

This was reinforced later in the same journey many times, as we passed through or visited (not necessarily in this order) England, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland and stood in the very footprints of many a person, going down the winding passages and cobbled side-streets that had seen multitudes of significant moments long since fled. As this was the first time I visited Norway, the rooting ground of my ancestors from every branch of my family tree, it is no surprise in retrospect that many of those potent realizations came to me in that place—but as usual, hindsight is ever so much clearer than was my youthful wisdom in those days. It was moving, more meaningful than I can express, to get to know the relatives in Norway with whom my family had maintained contact: my maternal grandfather’s sisters and brother-in-law, nieces and nephew. These were days before cheap telephonic long distance, let alone email and internet communiqués, so we had only briefly even met most of these people when they visited America once in my younger years, yet they not only took us in as visitors, Tante Anna and Onkel Alf kept my sister and me with them for a full month and took us to see the family’s two longtime farms, the graves where many of our ancestors were sleeping underfoot. This was incredibly touching, a genealogical history lesson, but the more so because it was taught by the eldest of our remaining family there.

What moved me the most, in fact, was when on arriving in Oslo at our mother’s cousin’s home before we even came down south to be with his parents, we explored the great city a little on our own during the days, while he was at work and his wife and children off having their own day of adventures. It was all so humbling and so magical to feel for the first time that I understood a tiny bit more of my own family lineage and how our people fit into the larger world. We did visit many of the obligatory and famous tourist sites, knowing that there was no direct link to our ancestors, only cultural ones. So I was quite stunned when we visited the Viking Ship Museum and, standing before these ancient vessels, I was absolutely electrified with a sense of shared history coursing through my veins. My forebears were undoubtedly humble subsistence farmers, not the bold and violent and adventurous Viking strain we know through film and television, never mind through the great Sagas—but I felt for the first time something connecting me to those long-gone people all the same.
Photo: Enter the Time Machine

By now I have traveled a fair amount more. I have been on this planet more than twice as long, and I think I might even be a little bit wiser through my experiences in that life than I was back then. But I approach every narrow stone passageway, every weathered door, every window with its rippling antique panes presenting everything that’s beyond them like a warped post-impressionist fiction of itself, I expect to learn something not only about what is there in front of me and around me, but what is inside me. And I know that I will learn something, too, about how I fit into that larger, and ever so mysterious, world if I am wise and patient and alert enough to notice it. So much has gone by. So much remains ahead, yet unknown.

Get Me Some Book-Larnin’

Drawing: Samuel ClemensJust because I have had the benefit of a decent education doesn’t mean I am smart. We all know that it’s entirely possible to have any number of degrees and diplomas, plaques and endorsements, letters and titles decorating your name and still be a complete fool. Idiocy is a far less rare condition than the number of high school and university graduates would have us believe.

Indeed, I have read a great quantity of writings during the course of my life, but I would never go so far as to say that I am well read. Among other contradictions to that claim would be my incredible slowness as a reader, both in speed and in comprehension: as a multifaceted dyslexic, able to turn words, letters, numbers, directions and relative spatial placements all inside out and upside down without even trying, I can easily spend four times the amount of energy and hours reading that any decent reader would need to get through the same amount of text. And of course that doesn’t guarantee that I will actually understand what I read in precisely the way the authors intended.

A more important reason that I don’t consider myself well read is that I have managed to conquer only a relatively small segment of the library most scholarly and literate persons would consider to be well written, informative, accurately researched and defended, or just plain must-read, important stuff among books. Long before I knew why it took me so long and so many tries to read a mere paragraph, let alone a book, I was required to tackle a handful of the so-called Classics of literature, and a bit of contemporary contenders for the title as well. It’s just as well I didn’t imagine I had such an anomalous reading style or that it was considered a disability by others, because I might have had yet more frustrations and difficulties in trying to fit the mold of how one was expected to overcome such things, instead of finding that by plodding through in my own backward way, I became attached to some of the books and stories to an equally unexpected depth. Whom should I, as a struggling reader, admire most among authors but those champions of the dense and complicated, say, Charles Dickens and Robertson Davies.

On the other hand, it’s probably less surprising that I also favor the purveyors of the most outlandish and appalling and ridiculous, from Ogden Nash, Evelyn Waugh, and Edgar Allan Poe to Mark Twain, S.J. Perelman and Franz Kafka. This part at least makes some sense, if you tend to believe I’d read writers who reflect something of my own mind’s workings or the weird ways in which I see the world. In any event, this latter crew might explain a little more about my tending to choose the least arduous paths in life, since I find a certain sort of familiarity in the strangest of their inventions and so can perhaps navigate their writings with a surer strength than otherwise.

So while I may not be the sharpest pencil in the drawer or the most edified of readers, I have at least a few pieces of proclamatory paper in my coffers to prove that I did my homework somewhat dutifully if not doggedly. My degrees don’t confer any special wisdom upon me, but they at least excuse my curmudgeonly attitude about how long it takes me to read my own posts, let alone anyone else’s books and articles and poems and proposals, no matter how brilliant and scintillating and clever and beautiful they are. I’m still trying, but give me plenty of time!

My One and Only

Despite its title, this post isn’t about my marvelous spouse. But it could be. After all, like the actual topic of the day, marrying him is one of the most meaningful, fun and satisfying achievements in my life, and an act I intend to perform exactly one time ever.

But don’t we all have those? There are certain life experiences that we are so glad happened or are so pleased we did, yet there’s no intention whatsoever of our repeating the episode. Whether it, like my marriage, simply cannot be replicated in all of its fabulous fantastic-ositude-inous-ness, or it’s too expensive or difficult or ephemeral to do more than once in a lifetime, there are just things that will only occur once in our lives.

Making a stone sculpture is one such thing, for me. It was a required project somewhere along the course of my art studies, and I am glad it was required, because I doubt I’d ever have attempted it if the materials hadn’t been put right into my hands, the techniques taught to me on the spot, and the work necessary for me to fulfill the requirements of the class. I’m old enough by now to have figured out that there are a whole lot of activities and things in life I’d never have dared try, let alone figured out how happy I was to pursue them, if I hadn’t had to do them. Stone sculpting is one of those things that fell into the been-there-done-that category, finally, but besides having a decent little piece of art to show for it I am glad there was that one chance in the beginning.

Photo: Alabaster Sculpture

My very own [Untitled] alabaster sculpture, the one and only. Approximately 7.5″ (19 cm) H x 8″ (20.5 cm) W x 11″ (28 cm) W.

Luck and happenstance, of course, have their own parts to play in the determination of whether any new experience becomes a one-off or a lifelong passion. Or, like my marriage, a one-time event that turns into a lifelong passion.

In the case of the rock sculpting, there were a few particulars that [ahem] shaped my attitude about the experience. One was that when the pile of alabaster hunks appeared on the table in front of my sculpture class, I chose a piece, lone among the heap as far as I remember, that had no major, unavoidable fissures in it. This allowed me to make a piece that was not a lot smaller than the original stone without having large parts of it crack and fall off. And my bit of alabaster had some nice coloration, attractive pale veining, and a natural overall shape that guided my sculpting choices. So all I did was refine the existing form and exaggerated it, and that led to the abstraction I made in the end. I just aimed for a sort of rounded Henry Moore-ish sculptural curvaceousness to showcase the silky, milky beauty of the alabaster as best I could. It was a slow and fussy process to chisel out an alabaster sculpture, and it made me ever so much more appreciative of and awestruck regarding the accomplishments of all real stone sculptors throughout the ages. Also, glad not to put my perpetual laziness into extended servitude to stone carving.

So, yeah. I made an alabaster sculpture, and I kind of like the result. And I’m happy that I did it, that I had the experience and learned a deeper appreciation of that art form. And yes, I am also pleased that I don’t ever have to make another alabaster sculpture, with the possible exception of the if-and-when instance of my deciding someday to have another go at it. Meanwhile, I have a decent memento of the experience. And if I get tired of it as a decorative object, it’s big and heavy enough to make a decent doorstop. If not beauty, then utility: that’s kind of how those once-or-more decisions can go.

My Baroque Gesture

The first time I heard Early Music performed in period-appropriate style I experienced, not surprisingly I suppose, a full mixture of amusement, bemusement, mild horror and deep curiosity. It was in a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s seminal opera Orfeo at the English National Opera; I was a mere college stripling who had probably not even heard the phrase Early Music at the time let alone known what it might mean, and ‘performance practice’ was in something of a time of transition. Anthony Rolfe Johnson sang the title role with, if I remember properly, a rather nice overall sound, but a straight-tone and senza vibrato style and a strangely stuttering kind of ornamentation that might well have been an authentic recollection of the opera’s original character and an accurate and historically informed version of the way it would have been presented by its composer and first performers. I, having never been taught such things, merely heard sounds quite foreign not only to my ear but to my concept of skilled and artful performance, let alone prettiness. I do remember thinking that either this was all far over my head (entirely possible) or it was a pointless and poor imitation of what the ENO imagined the average amateurish opera company of Monteverdi’s day must have been capable of doing (less likely), or poor Mr. Johnson, who later went on to receive his OBE, just plain wasn’t up to the job despite a naturally pleasant voice.

Years later, I may not be much smarter than the young squirt of those days, but I’m far more experienced and have heard worlds more music, both the great and the terrible and, of course, a massive quantity in between. And I’ve been taught a thing or two about the fine points of what is beautiful and magical when it comes to singing or playing with any amount of vibrato–or none–and the many elements that combine to create tone and color and variety and character in a performance. I’ve learned some useful stuff that changes how I perceive both the level of virtuosity in playing or singing and its aesthetic appeal, two aspects that do not always coincide in my ear, mind and heart but when they do, that combine to create a kind of joy that is virtually unattainable in any other way.

When my husband conducted a production of Orfeo over a quarter century after the first one I’d heard, I had a whole different understanding and appreciation for what the many performers were doing and why the stage director would expect them to do so both from a visual standpoint–training them, along with other coaches, in appropriate ways of moving and posing and gesturing as well as in those of vocal ornamentation, since she is a superb and well-trained Early Music singer herself–and an historically suited musical one. Just as there are countless styles and types of music known to us nowadays, which you can multiply by the number of individual teachers, performers and audience members to get a rough sense of the variety you’ll encounter, there were historical strictures and structures and stylistic trends and ideas that shaped earlier generations (centuries) of music and musicians and listeners, and while some have perhaps remained relatively unchanged since their inception, many more evolved over the ages. Our expectations of music have certainly changed, and our guesses as to how it was first conceived and perceived are only as good as the lines of scholarly inquiry and oral tradition can attempt to make them.

In all, it makes rich fodder indeed for both the ear and the imagination, and I for one am mightily pleased that I have had the opportunity to live a life immersed in all kinds of music and to learn along the way. I still like much of what I heard, whether ignorantly or not, in my younger days, and much of what I like now I learned to love along the way. While my form may be far from historically accurate or artistically impressive, I will still happily bow and curtsey to all the musicians who have shared their gifts with me in my life, and to all of those who work and are inspired to play more, to sing onward.graphite drawing

Drawing on Your Beginner’s Luck

The nice blogger from Zara–A Writing Story stopped by recently and her post said she is working at starting to draw. I’m delighted to have another person join the ranks of happy visual artists via drawing–a collection of skills that come in quite handy (no pun intended, especially since there are artists who use their mouths or their feet to make artworks) for far more than strictly a pleasurable activity or visual entertainment. Drawing, a foundational skill in all sorts of visual art, is also a means of communication that differs from and can work in wonderful tandem with writing, singing, signing, and any number of other ways of personal interaction and transmission of information. In addition to the practical application of the end product of the process, the practice of drawing itself has great power as a mnemonic device, a tool for problem-solving, and the training of the brain in such useful skills as eye-hand coordination and (as I know from experience) the correlated motor control of working through tremors to achieve refined movements.

But beyond that, as I said to my blogger colleague, the act of drawing has elements of physical pleasure in the mere action of arm and hand and body that can be worth the pursuit, not to mention the mental and/or emotional pleasures possible. The act of drawing as a form of meditation, even without regard to any possible ‘product’, is quite desirable on its own.

As I said to my correspondent, she needn’t be intimidated in the least even if she’s a rank beginner: By even making the effort to learn, you’re worlds ahead of lots of others! A book I often referenced when teaching my beginner students in college was Betty Edwards’ classic Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain–it has exercises that aren’t too hard even for someone who’s never attempted to draw before, and because her focus is on how the brain works in visual activity, she offers insights into the process and possibilities that few others do. There are, of course, innumerable excellent how-to books for those who want to draw, many of them favorites of mine as well, but because of Dr. Edwards’ [then] ground-breaking work in recognizing the character of right-vs-left brain function and how it played out in drawing, I always found her work particularly helpful.

Because drawing can engage so many diverse cognitive processes like this, it can be complicated and overwhelming to know just where to start learning how to draw. As I remarked in my note to my fellow blogger, All of that aside, simply making marks on a surface is the beginning of drawing. Sometimes the least intimidating way to begin is to take a piece of paper, make some totally random marks on it, and then see where that takes you. Even if all it does is make you comfortable making the arm movements for a start, that’s helpful. If, as with most people, you look at it and think ‘that looks like . . . ‘ or ‘that doesn’t look quite right . . . ‘–well, then, you’re already making editorial decisions that can help you move toward drawing the way you want to draw.

The bottom line, if you will, for me is that I feel more alert, more attuned to potential solutions when everyday problems arise, and generally just plain happier when I draw. It’s not because every drawing turns into something fabulous–far from it–but because the process of drawing opens up my brain and spirits in useful and unexpected ways. Many times, my drawing produces nothing more than scratches that are shorthand for bigger and more complex and, I hope, better things to come. But the exercise itself is valuable to me, and a glance back through my sketches can often kick-start me into drawing a work that is more successful than the twenty previous ones.

line drawing

Exploring pattern in a sketch.

line drawing

Playing around with volume.

line drawing

Faces and flowers show up often in my sketchbooks.

line drawing

Hands can be pesky subjects, so I play with sketches of them frequently too.

line drawing

Any little vignette that pops into my mind is worth scribbling at least a few times.

Ultimately, whether I’m in gear for serious drawing or just fiddling with a pen or pencil to pass the time, it’s good practice and feels worthwhile. If nothing else happens, at least I have given my brain some thinking-room between the lines and I might figure out what to make for supper, how to cut through the piece of metal that is in the way of my completing a repair in the garage, or who knows–I might even remember where I set down that book I was reading days ago before it ‘disappeared’. It’s doubtful I’ll come up with any Nobel Prize-worthy inspirations while drawing, but then again, if I don’t draw, I’ll never find out!

Where Carryings-on could Lead to Carrion

digital illustrationSaturday Night Study Group

Lo, the lazy morning passes,

Finds the weary lads and lasses

Still abed, or on their asses,

Half awake and half a-snore,

‘Mid detritus of the pizza,

Hot wings, chips and other treats a

Sober student seldom eats, a-

Strewn in heaps upon the floor–

Partied late; what was it for?

Shattering the blissful quiet

Suddenly, a loud impiety

Is screamed and starts a riot

Right among the corpse-like corps:

All a-scramble, grabbing trousers,

Shirts and shoes, these late carousers

Start remembering the wowsers

Of the night they’d passed before,

Though recall was rather poor–

Finally, wakening more fully,

One of them, if somewhat dully,

Crawled across, his brain still woolly,

To fling wide the knocked-on door

And reveal the dawning horror

Come to waken every snorer,

Standing, looking faintly, more or

Less, like someone seen before–

Somehow shook him to the core–

Ay! It’s Mother stands there staring,

Arms akimbo, nostrils flaring,

Challenging his story, daring

Him amain: Explain this war!

What’s this wreckage, who these bodies

Strewn among the butts and toddies,

Some dressed only in their naughties,

Covered all in festive gore?

He stood gawping, nothing more.

In the cursèd silence stretching,

From a distance came a retching

Sound and instantly, all fetching

Up as though a manticore

Chased them out of their reclining,

They responded to this shining

Call and left the poor repining

Lad, with Mother, at the door,

Beast and trembling matador.

Dust now settling, son and mother

Gazed intently on each other,

Understood this bit of bother

Must be rectified, the score

Evened out: this was the chore.

Mother, calm now and quite cool,

Explains to him that, while in school,

Her son shall still observe the rule

Of sober thought. The lad’s encore:

Will I party? Nevermore!

(And means well, just as before.)digital illustration

Arithmetic, Thou art No Friend of Mine

photoAnd lo, how my thoughts go round and round upon the subject.

It must come as no surprise whatsoever that I am among the multitudinous math-phobes peopling (pimpling?) the world of the creative soul. Why do you think we really all took those arty, wondrous, supposedly “Easy-A” classes, eh? Escape Route, we thought, freedom from the horrors that lie between the covers of every arithmetic text known to humankind. Only to find out we’d been hoodwinked and were expected to know how to disassemble and reassemble an ellipsoidal reflector in under ten minutes and with fewer than two “nonessential” parts left over after completion (what is this word “two”?), or whether one could type 200 words of dazzling script per minute while trying not to be hopelessly hypnotized by Mr. Young’s* blindingly mustard-colored toupee. I was able to accomplish the former task, by the way, but the latter, not quite so fully. However, I only lost consciousness for a split second and did not actually fall off of my chair.

*Name has been changed to protect someone vain’s glabrous secret.

In fact, by taking uni-approved ‘alternative’ courses (“I’ll take the class behind Door Number, uhhh, B, Dave!”) I managed to go all the way from 9th grade algebra, passed mainly by babysitting for the teacher’s kids on the weekends, to grad school without having taken a single other mathematics class. Then I got stuck: first those lousy entrance exams, which are now a blissful blank in my memory bank, followed by Graduate Statistics for Pedagogy, or whatever they called it. Hell, I tells ya! The only thing that saved me was that my older sister had survived the same course with the same prof a year earlier and coached me every cotton picking minute of the way through it. While I wept copious and bitter tears. I squeeeeeeeaked by with the B grade needed to pass the course and ran screaming all the way to graduation. Which commencement ceremony I skipped to go to Mt. Rainier with friends from Australia, because once you’ve paraded down the catwalk in those hot mortarboard and gown get-ups, never mind adding a hotter yet academic hood, on a sweltering summer day, in an auditorium full of people you don’t care to know, to grip that rolled-up piece of parchment that says “Redeem for Actual Diploma at Registrar‘s Office on Tuesday after 4 pm or for a Free Pizza at Gianni’s on Main after 5 pm”–well, once you’ve gone that route there’s really no need for a repeat, is there.

Although come to think of it, skipping The Forced March may mean that I didn’t in fact officially graduate and so taught college for two decades under false pretenses, and what’s not to like about that! In any event, I did finally, truly knock down that last class on the looming list, if without particular distinction or panache.photoMath, though, remained a bane. It was hideously disappointing to realize that a grasp of basic functional math was the only thing that stood between me and, say, a growling, slavering pack of credit card representatives or perhaps the growling stomach of starvation after having demolished the pantry stores by reversing the quantities of salt and sugar in yet another foolproof recipe. On the other hand, it was something of a relief when I finally realized that I was worrying needlessly about something I could never, ever fix. Between my dyslexia (or more accurately in this instance, dysnumerica) and my utter disinterest in getting better at math for the sheer unfathomable pleasure of it, I could see that this was something I should learn to put aside and compartmentalize safely to keep it away from unnecessarily pestering me in my everyday Happy Place.

Not to say that I didn’t have to find some truly inventive ways to do a (cough!) number of things. Balance my bank accounts. Figure out the current time/date in another time zone. Calculate the distance and ETA to work locations. Without GPS and Google Maps, because I do predate plenty of Modern Miracles by a significant margin. Teach drawing students how to draw in two-point perspective. Memorize ridiculous chains of randomly generated numbers to have even the remote hope of regaining access to umpteen kinds of personal accounts, not least of all ones containing personal information or money.

That is where you find me today, where numbers serve only the most rudimentary decorative purposes in my quotidian existence, for the most part (some of them being visually pleasing as abstract shapes, at least), but still occasionally rising up to help me remember my home telephone number so that I can call my more numerically astute husband to solve all of my more knotty mathematical problems. Because no matter how crummy my skills and how limited my knowledge when it comes to things numerical, I have what is for me a far more useful piece of wisdom, which is: one should always have great resource persons to call upon when one lacks the required smarts, information and/or tool handling artistry to accomplish the task of the moment. Stand ready, y’all.photoThe only sort of geometry at which I am expert, apparently, is circular thinking. But look where it’s gotten me thus far!