Monday, June 28, 2010

Dance, the ephemeral art

Athough I normally avoid reality shows (because I'm not interested in dieters, dysfunctional families, or desperate "celebrities"), E-girl and I have been making our way through taped episodes of the current season of "So You Think You Can Dance" (SYTYCD).

Why? Because E-girl loves to dance. Even in utero, I realize now, she was trying to tap. She says she wants to be a professional dancer when she's older, for a few years, before she becomes a botanist and mom. She realizes there's an end to it already.

Is there any art more ephemeral than dance? Not just the performance, over in a few minutes. But the dancer's body itself—fleetingly supple and strong, particularly for ballet (and, probably, for break-dancing and hip-hop). Picasso was still producing art into his nineties, John Updike was writing and lecturing in his seventies. Old dancers can be teachers or choreographers, but if they still dance it's probably in solitude, without the audience they once hungered for.

Ironically, dance—the art form of motion—is the most static of art forms. It stays in place and can't be easily transported or transformed into another, more mobile medium. A painting can decorate a t-shirt or become a poster; a song can be heard while jogging or driving; words can become text which can become books or magazines or newspapers. Dance doesn't become anything else—it just is.

So the young people on SYTYCD may already be at their peak as dancers, or nearing it, which makes the dancing more precious and beautiful. You wish they didn't have to be judged and voted upon and eliminated, but could just be celebrated for their skill and enthusiasm.

I don't like the results show, the evening after the individual performances, where the dancers are lined up and told which ones got the lowest number of phone-in votes from the public. The bottom three are each given a minute to dance for their survival. I watch this part of the show with a finger on fast forward because it's too painful to watch, yet I still can't not watch it either. It's like a little death each week. And then the next week, the competition begins again and the cut performer is forgotten. The dance goes on.

(The illustration is a sepia-tinted snapshot of the "Hallelujah" dance from the first competition evening of this season's SYTYSD.)

Friday, June 25, 2010

Magazines I actually read: Smithsonian Magazine

Those who are regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I've been referencing Smithsonian magazine in recent posts. The reason is simple—my in-laws give us a membership to the Smithsonian every year, and the magazine comes free with the membership. But only in recent months have I become a steady and appreciative reader.

Unlike the New Yorker, the Smithsonian arrives in my mailbox once a month—perhaps it's most important characteristic for this harried reader. But the magazine also features gorgeous photographs (which, yes, means less text to burn through in one sitting) and, even better, frequent articles on literature and/or authors.

One of its regular features, "My Kind of Town," invites prominent authors to write about their hometowns or adopted cities. (You can access the feature from this link, and search past articles both geographically and alphabetically, by author. From this site you can also upload your own "My Kind of Town" submission, both text and photos.)

Recent articles written by and about well-known writers have included:

Going Home Again (March 2010) - Joyce Carol Oates writes about the upstate New York town that influences much of her work;

Mark Twain in Love (May 2010) The woman who, for Twain, was like Dante's Beatrice;

Harper Lee's Novel Achievement (June 2010) [This was referenced in my June 21st post]

You can search its online archive for articles on:
A full electronic archive of the magazine is available, from 2007 to the present.

However, despite my promotion of the magazine's web site, for me it's still a publication that is best approached tactilely, letting the pages fall open to a beautiful photograph or an unexpected revelation.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Why it sucks to be a (visual) artist

"The Wilkersons’ costliest board was the 1972 painting Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa, a dazzling patchwork of stippled, dotted and crosshatched shapes, bought in 2000 for some $220,000—more than twice the price it had been auctioned for only three years earlier. The painting was done by Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, an original member of the Papunya cooperative and one of its most celebrated. Sadly, the artist himself had long been overlooked; in 1997, an Australian journalist found Warangkula, by then old and homeless, sleeping along with other Aboriginal people in a dry riverbed near Alice Springs. Though he reportedly received less than $150 for his best-known painting, the publicity surrounding the 1997 sale revived his career somewhat..."

From: Contemporary Aboriginal Art, Smithsonian Magazine, January 2010.

Monday, June 21, 2010

To overkill a mockingbird: fiction creates a new geography

This year is the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is getting a lot of press. Invariably, in the articles I've read so far, the authors lament the commercial enterprises in Monroeville, Ala., (Harper Lee's hometown) that have sprung up as a result of the book. These include: the Mockingbird Grill, Radley's Fountain Grille, the Mockingbird Museum, and all the Mockingbird trickets, t-shirts, hats and tote bags that are sold there at local gift shops.

I was going to join the tsk-tsking of this exploitation and then it struck me—it's actually kind of cool that what began as two-dimensional type (and fiction at that!) has now reshaped a physical environment. Admittedly, it's not what Lee might have wanted, but one still has to give a shout-out to the power of the word on the page. How many authors' works are celebrated this vividly and on such a constant basis? Those businesses sprung up because fans of the book continue to make pilgrimages there and obviously they want to buy a memento of their time there and relive moments from the book.

But my elation with fiction creating a new geography was only momentary. Lee still lives in Monroeville. When she steps out, she is confronted with what really is a bastardization of her ideas, a tacky echo of the decades-ago outrage and intent that went into her book. She is stuck in Mockingbird-ville, physically and intellectually. The success of Mockingbird also probably stymied her future writing, according to Harper Lee's Novel Achievement, an article in the June 2010 Smithsonian magazine.

Compare Monroeville to Asheville, NC (at least the Asheville I knew 28 years ago...)—the setting for Thomas Wolfe's early novels. The boarding house that Wolfe had grown up in and which he had featured in Look Homeward, Angel was still there. You could pay to walk through and see place settings, linens and furniture from his era (perhaps some actually original); there was a Thomas Wolfe playhouse nearby. That was it, as far as I remember. No gift shop selling plastic angels, no t-shirts with Wolfe's visage or quotations from his books. I sometimes drove over to the boarding house after-hours and sat on the porch, undisturbed. [I think the boarding house burned down a few years ago—I'm not sure if it was rebuilt...]

What's the difference? Look Homeward, Angel has never been as perpetually popular as To Kill a Mockingbird—as far as I know, it's not on any high school required reading lists as Mockingbird still is (perhaps it's never been a high school English assignment because of its length, or its lack of message). But the bigger difference, I think, is that Asheville had more going for it; it already had the Blue Ridge Parkway nearby and the Biltmore Estate, and lots of rich people retiring there. It didn't need Wolfe nearly as much as Monroeville obviously needed Lee.

I'm glad to see physical spaces that celebrate writers and writing, but it's probably better for the writers if the celebrations begin after they've left the town or the living—otherwise the celebration can become a trap.

* * * * * * * * * *

I was going to make a list of other destinations for literary pilgrimages, but of course someone else has already done it. I found a nice list, with additional recommendations from readers, on the Mental Floss blog: Book Your Trip Now: 12 Literary Pilgrimages.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The poetry of the dead zone

Many times in the past, I'm sure, I rolled my eyes if I saw an old person poring over the Obituaries section in the newspaper. I thought it was morbid, their trying to find a familiar face or life, perhaps also trying to see who among their elderly friends had made it through another week.

But more and more these days, my eyes are drawn to that section of the Washington Post. Maybe it's because I am getting older and I've begun to occasionally see the names of acquaintances and neighbors there. That's not the only reason, though. I've started to see beauty in the brief prose that sums up a life.

Read past the horrifyingly succinct labels in the sub-heads (e.g., "Teacher," "Jewelry Maker," "Guidance Counselor," "Church Member") and you can see a road map of a life in retrospect:
  • The "Church Member" assisted amputees for the Red Cross during WWII. (How?)
  • The "Jewelry Maker"'s first marriage ended in divorce. (Why?)
  • The "Guidance Counselor" danced professionally when she was young; her husband died 13 years before she did. (Did she miss him? Did she miss dancing?)
Most obits in the Post are written in the same four or five-paragraph format: (First p.) the person's full name, age, cause of death, and current town; (Middle paragraphs) significant events and achievements—jobs, degrees, volunteer positions; (Final p.) survivors. Were they happy? Bitter? Anxious? Regretful? Loved? The obits never say. The story, the poetry even, is in the words not written, the broad and full life that cannot be described so formulaically.

More distinct are the "In Memoriam" boxes that people put in the paper, usually on the anniversary of their loved one's death or birthday. The most heart-wrenching "In Memoriam" ads are those to children. On the first anniversary of an 11-year-old's death, her family ran a photo of her with the dates of her life beneath, and then the text of something she must have written shortly before she died: "If I were President...I would stop war. I would also want to try to stop pollution. If I can stop it, I will."... Is there anything more tragic than what is contained in these four column inches?

I still remember an "In Memoriam" I read a couple of years ago; beneath the photo of an ordinary-looking middle-aged man who had died five years before were these words: "I would give one year of my life to spend another day with you." That's a story there that could be written a hundred different ways by a hundred different people. Even the person who placed that ad could describe her life/their life a hundred different ways—and the story would never be completely and fully told.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Novel conclusions

That weird Lost finale a couple of weeks ago continues to spark my interest in how creative works reach a conclusion. I mentioned memorable TV show endings in my last post—but what about works of fiction?

Is there a written ending equivalent to Bob Newhart waking up next to the wife from his first show in his second show's finale? Or, would something like that come off too gimmicky or ridiculously absurd in a non-humorous way? (Because it really is a variation on the old "and then he woke up..." ending).

The story-with-a-twist seems better suited to shorter fiction than novels, perhaps because the reader is more invested with a longer work and would feel let down if the conclusion didn't spring somehow from all that went before. The unexpected ending works for O. Henry stories but after awhile the reader begins to expect them (making the surprise actually unsurprising). I love "The Twilight Zone" but I wouldn't want to watch it every night, nor would I want all shows (or written fictional works) to follow its usual be-ready-to-be-shocked format.

(Don't all good poems end with a little bit of surprise, though? In the best poems, the final lines can be astonishing.)

I know that the journey through a fictional work is as important, or more important, than its final pages. But there are endings I remember and relish remembering (from both novels and short stories). These are the first that came to mind as I began to ponder this topic:


He loved Big Brother. (1984)

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. ("The Dead" by James Joyce)

I do. What a hat! I like it! I like that party hat! Good-by! Good-by! (Go, Dog, Go)

"I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea." ("Goodbye, My Brother" by John Cheever)

"I'll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I will pray that you find a way to be useful. I'll pray and then I'll sleep." (Gilead)

"It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was." (Mrs. Dalloway)

There were many others that were too long to include, or which didn't end quite the way I remembered them (I thought Rabbit Angstrom's last words were about his dead daughter—but, no; I thought Madame Arnoux let down her white hair for Frederick in the last passage of A Sentimental Education, but that was pages before, etc.).

And now I come to a place where I must write a conclusion to this post—I've gone way over my usual eight inches of screen space, but I can't think of a graceful exit. The phone isn't ringing, no one is at the door, the tea kettle hasn't been put on the stove.

It is 9 a.m. and I must begin my day.