Unearthly Appetites: Italo Calvino’s The Distance of the Moon

Humanity crosses increasing distances searching for new territory to explore. Is the distance between and within us threatening our survival?

Italo Calvino published Cosmicomics, a book of fantastic short stories in 1965. Each story was inspired by an accepted scientific theory. The first and most well known story is entitled “The Distance of the Moon”. It springs from the theory put forth by George H. Darwin, the son of Charles Darwin– yes, the one who wrote The Origin of the Species– that the moon was once closer to the Earth and is continually receding. Science has confirmed that the Moon is in fact drifting away from us at a rate of 3.8 cm per year. This doesn’t actually have much to do with Calvino’s tale, a story of masterful and colorful magic realism that betrays sinister undertones.

You can read “The Distance of the Moon” here. This English translation, made by William Weaver, won the National Book Award for Translation in 1969.

Public Domain Image via Pixabay

Public Domain Image via Pixabay

What at first reads as an absurdist tale of people climbing up to the Moon from Earth to harvest Moon milk evolves quickly into a story that delves into the dangers of exploration and the interplay between masculinity and femininity. You could easily see it as a very perceptive allegory for a love affair, but there is more here than a warning of the dangers of sexual exploration. “The Distance of the Moon” speaks of how the human race is constantly pulled between a desire to explore what is other or unknown and the desire to settle down with that which is familiar. Either option can involve exploitation.

We are at first proud to meet Qfwfq’s deaf cousin, who is such an excellent jumper and so adept at harvesting the delicious, but actually quite disgusting, Moon milk (a particularly successful metaphor for the fruit of duplicitous sexuality). Without understanding him, we admire his skills and savor his success, but there seems to be something a bit inappropriate in the way he touches the Moon, something lascivious in his desire to be alone up there. His deafness, as it turns out, is an allegory for insensitivity, which keeps him from caring or bonding with anything, including the territory which he is exploring. He is a true psychopath, unable to make relationships. All he can manage are conquests.

This cousin troubles me. I see in him a kinship with an element of humanity that has explored the Earth for centuries and now turns its attention toward the stars, seeing only profit and a means to fill appetites. Not all explorers have such dark motivation, but there is an unchecked masculinity– I say masculinity rather than maleness, because I think we all contain elements of it, regardless of gender– that will never lend itself to nurturing life. Life viewed through these eyes is seen as disposable, lacking in value.

Earthrise on the Moon via Pixabay

Earthrise on the Moon
via Pixabay

Qfwfq has been up on the Moon as well, but he isn’t very proficient in the skills required. He frequently misfires, getting Moon milk in his eyes. It seems our friend is prone to that blindness we call “love” or, perhaps more precisely, infatuation. Unlike his cousin, he does form attachments, as we can see in his fixation on Mrs. Vhd Vhd, who could not really care less about him. There isn’t much attractive about Qfwfq. He’s randy, awkward and indecisive. When he is heroic, it’s for all the wrong reasons. But he is capable of some attachment and affection, which is more than anyone else shows in this tale.

We are given the background story of Xlthlx, a playful teenager who enjoys catching the small animals and plants floating towards the Moon. One day, she gets caught in the Moon’s pull and floats off with them. She saves herself by eating the small animals and plants until she gets heavy enough to fall out of the Moon’s attraction, although she is marked for life. This is a creative image for teen pregnancy, which compounded by social stigma, ends this young woman’s “moon” experiences and exploration.

After waffling around on the moon for a few trips, Qfwfq makes the decision to stay on the boat and put the moves on the Captain’s wife, an attractive woman who plays sweet and piercing songs on the harp, songs that no one wants to hear. Is it that her songs make the men feel guilty for all that time spent up on the Moon? He can tell by the way she’s looking at his cousin that she’s ripe for the picking, and he’s been fancying her for some time. He’s completely ready to settle for her, at least for the moment. She chooses the very same moment to exercise her freedom and go explore the surface of the Moon with his cousin. The cousin is either unaware of or uncomfortable with her pursuit and disappears into the darkest regions of the Moon alone.

Terraced Wall Crater on the Lunar Limb, NASA

Terraced Wall Crater on the Lunar Limb, NASA

Vhd Vhd is ecstatic to see his wife off to the Moon. Her infidelity and exploration free him to indulge in his own vices. He is bored with stability, tired of the respectability that has probably contributed to his station as Captain. But he also seems bored with adventure. Surely he has been up on the Moon exploring for himself, but now he lies back on the boat to feed more earthbound appetites.

Despite all this activity, it seems that the status quo will prevail, until the final actor makes her move. The Moon picks that very moment to change her orbit, drifting far from Earth and forcing everyone else to make the decision between the Earth and herself. Xlthlx and the Captain have already put distance between themselves and the Moon. Surprisingly, the deaf cousin races back to Earth as well. Perhaps he fears what will happen if the Moon becomes too familiar. Mrs. Vhd Vhd, unfamiliar with the leap back to Earth, is unable to make the transition and floats helplessly near the Moon. Qfwfq jumps out of the boat to save her, but his efforts do not bring her back to Earth, but drop them both on the Moon’s surface. At last, he has everything he wanted– unlimited time with his lover. And yet, all he can think of is home. It is no surprise that, at the next full moon, when their friends return with a long bamboo pole, he shimmies back down to Earth.

But what of Mrs. Vhd Vhd, alone on the Moon? She has no attachment to Qfwfq, nor to Earth. She has become one with the moonscape, indifferent, distant and free of masculine influence. All of his designs and efforts have only served to push her farther away.

Earth, Moon and Lunar Module, NASA

Earth, Moon and Lunar Module, NASA

This fable points at a crisis modern humanity is facing. Our longing for freedom and our longing for home have collided, and, unless we can learn to curb our exploitive nature, we may lose both.

This is Kansas? Thoughts on a Sunrise over Lake Scott

We classify everything by our own experience. How do we keep this natural self-centeredness from blinding us to new things?

Ru, the Magic Subaru and The Dragon, our home for four weeks

Ru, the Magic Subaru and The Dragon, our home for four weeks

This summer my husband and I took our small RV camper, aka The Dragon, on a journey through state and national parks, spending a month traveling from Texas through Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Nebraska and Kansas. We saw so many wonderful places, which you will be seeing in photographs on the website over the next few months. Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Custer State Park, Devil’s Tower, Great Sand Dunes, Rocky Mountain… There are more on the list just as worthy and beautiful; it was an impressive lineup. But there was one small state park that was the surprise of the trip: Lake Scott in Kansas.

Kansas. I use this word even when speaking of places not in Kansas to describe land that isn’t exactly flat, and certainly not ugly. It’s a step or two above Texas Panhandle, which is completely flat, except where it isn’t–and that’s another post. In general, for me, Kansas means anything barely rolling, green and well…boring. The kind of land that makes for great farmland, but lacks any distinguishing feature. We’d seen some in Oklahoma, some in Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota.

Kansas (or maybe Colorado or Nebraska…)

Kansas (or maybe Colorado or Nebraska…)

This particular evening we were staying in Kansas proper, and we didn’t have hopes for interesting scenery. The GPS and road signage told us we were a mile away from Lake Scott State Park, slugging it out with the wind, which we had been fighting since we left the Rocky Mountains earlier in the day, over a prairie that had precious few trees and seemed to be getting flatter by the minute. Lake Scott? How could anything like that hide out here. We reached the turn off and left the main road. My heart was sinking. And then a surprise happened. The park road descended into a canyon, shattering the illusion of flatland.

Lake Scott lies in Ladder Creek Canyon. The area was used as a hide out by a small band of Native Americans who left Taos Pueblo in New Mexico in the late 1600s, fed up with colonial Spanish rule. They stayed here for ten years, until the Spanish found them and took them back to Taos. There are ruins of their tiny pueblo here, called El Cuartelejo, the Far Quarter. It’s easy to see why they chose this site: consistent water supply and a landscape that favors secrecy. We set up camp, trying our best to not be overcome by the pungent smell of marijuana coming from somewhere in the campground. Marijuana, or “pot”, is now legal in neighboring Colorado, so it wasn’t surprising that someone was taking advantage of that secretive quality so present at Lake Scott to enjoy the last of their cache.

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Lake Scott in the late evening

We were only staying the one night, our last night in the camper before returning to my brother’s house in Oklahoma City to retrieve the cats and go home. Lake Scott is a very pretty spot, especially at sunset, when we arrived, and even more so at sunrise. In fact, at sunrise it became magical, in a way that didn’t require pot or any other recreational drug.

Into the Morning Light

Into the Morning Light

Front Row Seat

Front Row Seat

I didn’t plan to get up just before dawn. We hadn’t made it out of the camper in the early hours once during the whole trip. But nature had something special this morning. I awoke to the calls of Canada Geese, rudely berating each other and scuffling right outside the camper. I dressed quietly and followed them, keeping my distance as I didn’t want to get bitten. They formed a jaunty and excited procession heading in the direction of Lake Scott. I dawdled behind as they slipped one by one into the waters, changing from awkward and vulgar beasts into creatures of extreme elegance. The sun was still struggling to get over the rim of Ladder Creek Canyon, so the light was gentle. I sat and listened.

Cloudy Dawn over Lake Scott

Cloudy Dawn over Lake Scott, #1

Between geese and insects, the Lake was far from quiet, and yet there was something very peaceful about it. Then the light show got started.

from Dawn Sequence

from Dawn Sequence

I realized how easy it would have been to miss this road, this place, this moment. I had to make several choices that took me away from the views I expected to see and put me here.

How humbling to realize that this fantastic beauty goes on every day, while we humans are getting ready for work, thinking we are the center of the universe. And all of this happens in, of all places, Kansas!

from Dawn Sequence

from Dawn Sequence

Want to see more? Stay tuned, I’ll be sharing my photography sets from Lake Scott as the week goes on.

Looking Down From the Mountaintop: Remember! Opens a New Season

Last Saturday, synkroniciti opened a new season with Remember!, an Open Mic devoted to the theme of memory. Guests came from Houston, Kingwood, and as far away as Austin. As usual, Lisa Sasabuki was on hand to greet and socialize, and Yuri shyly showed his face.

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Lisa and Charles are ready for the Open Mic to start.

After getting acquainted, we sat in the living room to start our exploration. We began with a memory game. Ophelia provided us with the theme of “mountain” and we each related a memory that had something, even if it was remote, to do with that theme. There were nostalgic stories that took us back to childhood: sliding down epic mountains in the snow and hiking with family. There were mountains that circled home and made us feel safe and mountains that taught us about setting goals and bringing them to completion. Humor entered when epic mountains were revealed to be baby hills and when we climbed to find cheeky ground squirrels begging for nuts and forest service employees killing innumerable flies.

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For some, mountains were an idea more than an experience. There was a little girl who got so carsick that her parents made sure she was asleep when crossing the mountains, and another girl growing up in a place named Beautiful Mountain (Beaumont) which contained no such feature, unless the clouds decided to play jokes on the flatland. We paused on the dazzling heights of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, where altitude sickness causes disorientation and hallucinations, and held our breath at the miraculous and dangerous beauty of Crater Lake, where the water is so clear and still that it becomes impossible to tell sky from lake. We smelled the scent of mountains, clean, pure and inviting. It was good.


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After the wonderful experience of trading memories, Kelly read two deep poems from the cycle she is writing about growing up in West Virginia, “Mountain Sentries Round Me” and “Unknowing of the Bones”. The presence of the mountains around her as she was born and took her first breath in the Kanawha river valley not far from Charleston established them as a safe place, a place with a guardian like presence in her life. One can see that the damage done to those mountains by industry and chemically manipulated agriculture is personal, as if it had been done to her own family. “Unknowing of the Bones” exudes a meditative stillness that explores the paradox of knowing and unknowing. Sometimes the more we understand and process, the less we feel kinship. One type of knowing can cancel out another.

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I followed with “Ode to the Black Hills”, a short poem about the glittering mica and quartz that bejewel paths in and around Custer State Park. My husband and I took an extended RV camping trip this summer and Custer was one of the stops. In looking through my photos I realized that the shining paths had not been captured by the camera, although there were many other beautiful things that had. My memory was the only place that recorded that particular piece of nature’s magic.

Cheryl was next, sharing herself generously in a reading of “Generations” from Side Roads: A Travelers Almanac, condensed from her memories and imagination. The lead character, voiced with a lilting accent as southern as a Georgia peach, recalls a stream of memories related to making fig preserves with her grandmother. Her wistful recognition that we are part of those who came before us as well as those who come after is both delightful and heartbreaking. For better or for worse, we are connected, and we might as well cultivate the best of that connection. I’d sit in the garden and talk with this woman anytime.

© synkroniciti, 2015

I returned to read Euridice Revealed. This is the piece which will serve as a springboard for synkronciti‘s first collaborative project. It is a dark piece that imagines Euridice as a bipolar, addictive personality, hidden from future generations in order to keep her memory on a pedestal and preserve the image of Orpheus. I wasn’t sure how many of the six poems I would read, but once I read the first two I was sure I had to finish. I’ve never read the entire set to an audience before and felt good to know I can get through it. It won’t be the last time I read her.

We then took a moment to consider the theme for the next Open Mic, scheduled for October 10th. The theme will be Enchantment, which I drew from the second poem of the Euridice set, a piece that speaks of the passion between Orpheus and Euridice. I asked each guest to write a few words or sentences related to enchantment, which I later used to create a word cloud. The more a word showed up, the larger it became in the cloud. Some of these words will become themes on the website leading up to the next Open Mic.

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In closing, we watched two scenes from the film Samsara, a wordless meditation on life, death, rebirth and renewal, featuring breathtaking images and music composed for those images. The first is a exploration of early cultures, showing ruined desert dwellings in Turkey, the American Midwest, and Jordan, among others. The second, which transitions seamlessly from the first, contains visions of devastation from Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast states of the U.S. The realization that we will one day be memory, just like those old civilizations, is shocking and humbling. What will we leave behind?

I am so thankful for Neil, Ofelia, Charles, Jennifer, Cheryl, MaryBeth, Chris, and Kelly for being there and being open. You made my job easy and fun. To those we missed, I look forward to seeing you here and invite you to jump in anytime. I am still looking for more partners in the Euridice Project as well. Never think that you can’t join in because you have missed something. It is you that we have missed, and we welcome you any time you are ready and able.

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There is an old  Medicine Wheel high in the Bighorn Mountains, where Native Americans and others come to pray and find their place in nature. Many bring bright strips of cloth to symbolize their prayers, while others bring stones to stack upon cairns near the main structure. As I laid my own stone on top of a cairn this summer, I realized that there were many places where that stone would have fit. The pattern readjusted itself around my stone, just as it readjusts around each of us. There is no specific plan, but there is space and creative spirit to embrace whatever materializes. This is good.

A Tale of Two Conchitas: Reflections on That Obscure Object of Desire

Why do we frequently make judgements on others based upon their appearance and manner without taking into account their actions?

The two Conchitas, Carol Bouquet and Angela Molina © Allan Tannenbaum

The two Conchitas, Carol Bouquet and Angela Molina
© Allan Tannenbaum

If you are familiar with Luis Buñuel’s 1977 film masterpiece That Obscure Object of Desire, you know that the film is unusual because two actresses play the same part, that of the heroine Conchita, a beautiful and poor flamenco dancer from Seville. From scene to scene, and occasionally within the same scene, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina alternate in the role. The actress originally cast as Conchita, incidentally neither Carole nor Angela, had a disastrous argument with Buñuel, resulting in producer Serge Silberman’s decision to discard the film. Over a few drinks, Buñuel jokingly suggested that two actresses could play Conchita. Silberman loved the idea and allowed filming to resume on the condition that this was the case.

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Whether played by one actress or two, the character of Conchita is an enigma. She is pursued by an older “gentleman”, a rich widower named Mathieu, played by the suave Fernando Rey, who finds her irresistible, although she is more than half a century younger than he is. Conchita is simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by his affections, leading him on with intimacy, but refusing to consummate the relationship and torturing him mercilessly. The two are locked in a battle for control that makes them hurt each other over and over again, the emotional pain growing more intense each time. She’s a free spirit. His old world ways of buying her attentions cut against her brand of morality and devalue her. Her teasing strips away the veneer of respectability he has amassed over his lifetime and makes him little more than a pimp or a peeping Tom. Passion that cannot abandon the struggle for dominance has no future.

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How does the introduction of two actresses affect this already engaging plot? It could be a sexist invention that renders women interchangeable. After all, the film’s title refers to Conchita as an object, and there is a fair amount of female nudity while there is no male nudity in the film. Or it could be an attempt to find different moods within Conchita, to show how varied and special she is. What struck me most about it was that I did not like both actresses equally, even though they had the same narrative. They both teased, both plotted, both alternated running from Mathieu with pursuing him. So why was I more upset when Mathieu attacked my favorite?

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Molina and Bouquet are both talented and beautiful actresses that have gone on to illustrious careers–you might remember Bouquet as a Bond girl in For Your Eyes Only–but Molina’s open face and the childlikeness that radiates from her big eyes are appealing to me, while I find Bouquet’s narrow face and eyes read more sullen, cool and withdrawn. Molina’s figure is rounder and seems more approachable than Bouquet’s model physique. Part of this may lie in the way each actress was shot, made-up, or costumed. Is my preference fair? Absolutely not, but my prejudice is undeniable, as much as it makes me uncomfortable.

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It’s easy to feel this way about actors because we don’t know them and can only react to the persona they play on film, onstage and in public appearances. But we make judgements like these in real life with far more devastating result. We avoid a person because we, for no specific reason, feel they are pretentious or angry, or we trust someone because they seem open and genuine, when the truth is that their facial structure, body language or temperament read that way. Have you ever hesitated to make friends with someone because they were good looking, because they seemed smart or because they were a different nationality or color?

We often treat people as if we have met them in a dark alley and need to ascertain whether they are friend or foe. Most of us don’t live in that kind of environment and we need to stop acting like we do before we create what we fear. We have time to see how a person behaves before we decide whether we want to be friendly or not. In the meantime, politeness doesn’t hurt.

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If we can’t abandon our struggle for cultural dominance, what future will we have?

All images used in accordance with Fair Use Policy.

Separated from our Roots: Offshore by Kelly Ledsinger

There are emotions that are universal, or nearly so. The paradox is that they feel personal and difficult to share.

Oil Platform at Night © Mark Mitchell with CCLicense

Oil Platform at Night
© Mark Mitchell with CCLicense

Kelly Ledsinger shared this poem, entitled Offshore, at our last Open Mic, The Journey. What is most striking about it for me is the honesty and extreme openness of the expression. Some poets rant and rave and amplify their emotions, while others try to forge distance between themselves and their feelings. There is nothing wrong with either approach, but Ledsinger takes another path, uniquely and refreshingly present with her emotions, full of a poetic mindfulness that allows emotion to breathe. It is a brave poet that lays the details of her life before the audience. She paves the way for empathy by sharing first.

OFFSHORE

He rises early and packs his duffle with a weeks worth of underwear and denim. He never really sleeps much before his journey. He makes a thermos of coffee for the drive to the Gulf. It will help him stay awake on those long dark stretches of Texas road

She packs him snacks for his drive, fusses and worries that he hasn’t had enough sleep. She always worries about him falling asleep behind the wheel. She can picture the officer at her door and the widow’s sob on her lips. But they have a son still in college, a mortgage and retirement to fund. So he climbs in the old beat up truck he drives. He won’t leave a nice truck sitting for the Gulf winds, the sea and the sand to corrode. No use in throwing good money after bad he says. He packs his bible, his daily devotional, a small worn copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Time magazine and a radio.

He likes to listen to NPR and classical music. He knows most of the people he works with will be listening to Fox News and country music. He knows he is different. It doesn’t matter much. He is of an age where what others think matters less. He is his own man as much as he can be without losing his job. He hates working on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. But he loves his wife of thirty-three years and their son. He is so proud of his son. He and his wife are having a rough patch right now. But they will weather it like they have everything else life has dealt them. The marriage is their lifeboat in a world of storms and they cling to it with the desperation of the drowning.

He arrives at the Heliport. Gets his duffle and secures his car. He looks around the waiting area as the other men arrive. He sees the young guy who is a vegetarian and who shares his bunk room with him. He’s alright he thinks and doesn’t mind his choice in politics or music. He wonders if the chef is going to make some of that caramelized condensed milk again. That was really good. Twelve hour plus days in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico on a rusty, corroding oil platform. Not much to think about for a week except keeping everything running, staying alive, fresh warm caramel and your wife’s voice on the phone when you call her at bedtime. They announce their helicopter is boarding he lifts his duffle, climbs up the steps of the helicopter. Finds a seat, straps himself in and says a prayer for leaving land.

~

Human beings have experienced separation at the mercy of the sea for millennia. Life requires that parents divide their time between making a living for their children and being present with those children, that explorers and innovators leave behind their homes and those who love them for a time in order to do what they must do. Life is a constant alternation between traveling and putting down roots. It is in planting roots and becoming separate from them that we find out who we are and what is important to us.

Offshore reminds me very much of a famous French song by Faure, called Les Berceaux, or The Cradles. You can watch a video of that song below, complete with translation. It’s amazing to think how little some things change, even as technology creates new experiences.

Modern Creation Myth: Thoughts on Abiogenesis by Richard Mans

In our time, the tantalizing mystery of Creation is usually explored through science or religion. Can art provide vision also?

This short film, Abiogenesis by Richard Mans, produced by Fuzzy Realms, is an interesting take on the subject of life and its origins. A machine lands on a desolate planet, finds resources there and begins to create life. The animation is beautifully detailed; mechanical and biological forms are rendered in intricate clarity. The film is a fantastic fusion of images from the scientific and technical world with those from mythological and faith sources. I am especially drawn to the pools that exist on this bleak planet, which remind me so much of the colorful geothermal areas of Yellowstone National Park, and to the glorious representation of the Tree of Life that springs, volcanic, from the ground. This is an amazing work, full of deep connotations and new flights of thought.

Abiogenesis is the generation of life from that which is not alive. It doesn’t have the same implications as spontaneous generation, which implies that living tissue can randomly generate from non-living tissue. This is exemplified in the belief, held by scientists as recently as the 19th century, that maggots generated from rotting flesh. We now know that flies lay eggs on dead flesh, which hatch maggots. I think Mans gives a nod to this when he makes the collecting units of the machine look like flies, before they transform into motorcycles and race back to the landing module, where the “magic” happens. The next sequence is breathtaking, as life erupts on the planet. Rhian Sheehan’s musical score is wonderfully effective here. Kudos to sound designers Justin Doyle, Michelle Child and Dave Whitehead who round out the impressive team of artists at Fuzzy Realms.

I love the ending, the capsule reassembling into its original form and departing, ostensibly with the purpose of creating life on other worlds. We don’t know who created this machine, or how it was made, but I think most will agree that it is delightful and exhibits forethought and purpose, as well as some sort of Providence.

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The earliest texts humanity produced were Creation myths, set down in writing after being passed down by generations of storytellers. It seems that, since we became self-aware, we’ve always wanted to know why and how we came to be on this planet. Faith has sought to deal with questions of purpose and science with the mechanics of the creative process. In modern times these two branches of inquiry have come into desperate conflict. Troubles arise most quickly when faith tackles mechanics and when science ascribes purpose. These difficulties become almost insurmountable when people seek to impose their assumptions, drawn from their own experience and training, on others. We can only believe that which we are prepared to believe. Does this mean that the modern human must make a choice between having purpose and having knowledge? What an ominous decision.

The arts are uniquely positioned to help work through this crisis. Artists do not only study or theorize about the creative process, they live it. In order to produce an artistic creation, elements of purpose and mechanical facility must come together. If anyone can integrate and synthesize faith and science it is the artist, and Mans does a wonderful job with this video.

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Each of us stands in a different place, with very different light. The more we share with one another the more expansive our sight becomes.

Images are © Fuzzy Realms and are used in accordance with Fair Use Policy.

Laughter and Light: Self Determination and Providence in the World of Wobbly Barstool

WobblyBarstool - cover low resHave you ever wondered what novels Charles Dickens might have written if he possessed a sunnier disposition? Meet Wobbly Barstool.

Jane Lowy‘s Wobbly Barstool puts a clever spin on the Victorian novel. The plot shares common elements with Dicken’s classic Great Expectations, including hidden and mistaken identities, adults scheming over the lives of their children, thwarted lives and passion, rough changes of fortune and jaw dropping revelations. Wobbly, Lowy’s hero, lives in the same world as Pip, but, due to his happy rural upbringing, he interprets that world far differently.

He’s a solid, simple lad, far from stupid, but not at all brilliant, raised by two solid and dependable parents, Horace and Nelly, in the pleasant hamlet of Restinstump. Some of you townies might find it dull, but Restinstump provides a calm and relatively idyllic alternative to London, which remains as Dickens painted it. The most heartbreaking moments of the novel concern a trip to London in which Wobbly’s father, Horace, has to work hard not to let the rough conditions of city life, especially that of poor children, drag him into depression.

Seven Dials, by Gustave Dore, 1872, depicts a busy London street full of shoe shops and swarming with children.

Seven Dials, by Gustave Dore, 1872, depicts a busy London street full of shoe shops and swarming with children.

The Barstool family is ebullient, taking on whatever life gives them with laughter and twinkle in the eye. When Wobbly makes friends with an unfortunate orphan, Tobias, who is residing in the woods with a band of dogs, they take in the newcomer (and dogs) with open arms, as we know they will. This happy friendship and familial closeness will shape the bulk of the novel even as it is tried and tested.

Life gets most interesting for Wobbly, and for us readers, when the attractive and intelligent Prunella Baddonschilde appears in Restinstump, along with her best friend, Marigold. Wobbly is smitten with Prunella from the beginning, and he doesn’t waste much time in telling her so. She’s been raised in London and her mother has groomed her to marry into the moneyed class. Pru, as she calls herself, is far from thrilled at that prospect, but she’s not ready to rush into anything with an awkward coutry boy a few years younger than herself either. Echoing the desire of Pip for Estella in Great Expectations, Wobbly vows he will make something of himself so that he may win Prunella’s hand. A great many twists and turns ensue. There is even a sea voyage that culminates in several folks plunging overboard. Between unexpected  events and extremely lovable characters, Wobbly Barstool is quite a page turner. I guarantee that there is at least one revelation you won’t see coming. Not everything is as clean and tidy as it seems.

The charm of the novel lies in its humor. Wobbly’s employment woes are hilarious, especially when a lonely older woman comes on to him, encouraging him to practice kissing her so that he’ll be an expert by the time he kisses Prunella. Unfortunately, her husband comes home unexpectedly and Wobbly is forced to escape, aided by a disgruntled goat. Humor can be very difficult to put down on the page and often falls flat, but not Lowy’s. Her dialogue positively sparkles. It is the comic qualities of the protagonists that are most endearing, from Wobbly’s almost empty-headed good humor and naiveté  to Prunella’s terrible attempts at writing poetry. Many of the character names are worth a chuckle, including the Irishman Fewan Farbetween and, my personal favorite, the loathsome Harry Backanall. This is a book you read with a smile on your face.

While humor is the hook that kept me reading, the strength of the book lies in its characters, particularly Prunella, Wobbly, Marigold and Tobias. They suffer disappointments and betrayals, but are able, ultimately, to hold on to their faith in one another and make decisions that keep them from disaster. They do something that Dickens was loathe to let his characters do–succeed through self determination. Their definition of success is different from what many people of their era, or ours, for that matter, might espouse, having little to do with the grasping for social status or cash that so often motivates Victorian characters and leads them to their ruin. Turning their back on London and the Industrial Revolution, our heroes choose the farm life of Restinstump, where they feel a connection to the community, a cast of wonderful supporting personalities, people who inspire faith in the human race. It is the hint that we can make the same choice that gives the novel its power.

Rolling hills of the Cotswolds. © Saffron Blaze with CCLicense

Rolling hills of the Cotswolds.
© W. Lloyd Mackenzie, Saffron Blaze on Flickr with CCLicense

The naiveté of the young residents of Restinstump, as they seek a balance between their dreams, many of which are quite modern, and their love for their traditional community and peaceful existence, makes their choice possible. How many dreams do we deny daily out of a sense of practicality, out of a jaded view of the world? Life is a combination of our projections meeting reality. Sometimes we short change ourselves by expecting too little. That being said, if anyone else had tied the knot during the course of the novel I think I would have been overcome by the immense rosiness of outlook. But what a sweet way to be overcome!

If hot were cold and cold were hot

And time ran backwards too-o-o

I’d give a shrug and say, “So wot?”

For I’m head over heels for you.

If cats should bark and dogs meow

And horses start to moo-o-o

I’d think it just their usual row

For I”m head over heels for you.

from Wobbly’s Song

Wobbly Barstool, a winner of the BRAG Medallion for outstanding self published books, is a splendid first novel, one that makes you ponder human nature without realizing it. Houstonians, Jane Lowy is a local talent. You can catch her and her husband reading around town and, of course, at Synkroniciti Open Mics. For the rest of you, Wobbly is available as e-book or in hardcover.

Check out these Wobbly links:

You can buy a copy of the book.

You can read an interview with Jane Lowy. Good news for us–there is a sequel in the works!

You can view her website, which contains excerpts from the novel.

The Perils of the Sea: Thoughts on Deep Water

Isolation heightens our self awareness. Is it what we lack or what we bring with us that frightens us most?

Public Domain Image by NASA

The route for the Sunday Times of London Golden Globe Race, 1968

Can you imagine sailing completely around the world alone without ever once putting into port? In 1968, nine men tried. That year the Sunday Times of London sponsored the first ever solo, nonstop, around the world boat race. Prizes were to be awarded to the man who came home first and to the man who made the quickest voyage. Competitors could leave whenever they were ready, but no later than October 31, 1968, a deadline imposed out of fear of storms off Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America. I think most of us would balk at the idea of being holed up alone on a yacht for nine or ten months, on a route that would take us through the extremely tumultuous waters of the south seas, never stopping to stretch our legs or feast our eyes upon land. These fellows made the attempt without the aid of global positioning satellite technology, which was in its infancy, and no one at that time was sure that a boat could make the trip, let alone a human being. It was a highly dangerous pursuit, and almost half left the race before exiting the Atlantic Ocean.

Deep Water, directed by Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell, sheds light on the horrific struggles they faced. It focuses on the tale of Donald Crowhurst, an amateur sailor seeking to prove himself and to win prize money to help his failing business and support his wife and children. Caught between a rash agreement with his patron, a romantic portrait painted by his publicist and his own lack of preparation and fear of disgrace, he suffered a mental breakdown and was the only one of the nine to lose his life while competing in the race.

The three men who actually completed the circumnavigation of the globe had their own difficulties. One would sail on past the turn home, finding himself unwilling and unable to return to civilization, eventually ending his journey in Tahiti and becoming a vagabond of the south seas, leaving his family behind in Europe. Another sank his boat in the mid Atlantic trying to stay ahead of Crowhurst on the return trip and would be found a few years later hanging dead from a tree dressed in woman’s lingerie. Only one man completed the task by returning to England, winning both prizes. Recalling the difficulty of the south sea, which he acknowledges as “a bastard”, that man donated the money he received for the fastest voyage to the family of Donald Crowhurst. His empathy speaks to the torture he experienced in his own isolation upon the deep sea.

Deep Water is a fascinating film that explores the sea’s uncanny ability to intensify the personality and amplify and exploit weaknesses in mind and body. It’s a strong person that can look into that mirror without looking away or going mad.

© Josh Giovo with CCLicense

© Josh Giovo with CCLicense

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)

it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.

–E.E.. Cummings, maggie and milly and molly and may

Video via MovieTime on YouTube.

A World of Earth: Yamatane by Yusuke Asai at the Rice Gallery

Modern humanity has found itself disconnected from nature by technology and civilization. Can art help us reconnect with the Earth?

Yamatane at the Rice Gallery

Yamatane at the Rice Gallery

Yesterday afternoon I made a trip to the Rice Gallery on the campus of Rice University in Houston, Texas, to see an installation by painter Yusuke Asai called Yamatane, or “mountain seed”. Painted onto the walls and floor of the gallery is an intricate and mind-blowing ecosystem of animals, plants, geometric shapes and textures that pulsates across the space. Repetitive patterns and flowing, curving lines create an impressive sense of of motion. From a distance, one notices the sweeping contours of mountains and large figures, while, up close, small insects, animals and people pop out of the texture. The piece is almost overwhelming in its detail. Creatures often morph into plants or other creatures mid stroke and orbs float like bubbles in a scene right out of the Dreamtime. Like the natural world itself, the fanciful world of Yamatane cannot be comprehended completely. Wherever we choose to focus we miss something else, making it possible to find new things with every turn and every visit.

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photo 1I begin each work thinking of the countless small things that come together to make a larger world.

–Yusuke Asai

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The images themselves are extremely arresting, but the wonder expands once you realize that the entire scene is painted with dirt. Twenty-seven colors of Texas soil, mostly collected around Houston, but also featuring samples from west Texas, have been used to realize Asai’s vision. There is a striking amount of contrast: ochres, reds, browns, grays, neutrals and greens, even pinkish and purplish highlights.

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Asai practices spontaneous or automatic painting, one of my favorite techniques, in which he allows images to come out of his work without planning them ahead of time. Everything happens in the moment and the piece itself changes until it is finished. You can watch this process in the video below.

Yusuke Asai was born in the urban environment of Tokyo, Japan in 1981. In high school, he filled his textbooks with spontaneous doodles and drawings. After graduating with a concentration in ceramics, Asai didn’t have the means to attend university. Instead he decided to teach himself to paint. His education took place in zoos and museums, where he studied animals and art and watched people create things. He was particularly inspired by folk and tribal art. This is very evident in Yamatane, which combines folk elements from around the world, including indigenous cultures from all over the southern hemisphere, reconstituted through Asai’s subconscious.

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From the beginning of his career, Asai found it difficult to purchase art supplies and was drawn to materials he could afford. Over time, he developed an affinity for dirt, a renewable resource that was readily available. Not only did soil cost nothing, collecting it was a way to connect with and explore a world that was more than technology and concrete. It tied this city born youth to nature, giving him access to new visions of what the Earth might be.

Asai has built a career from his humble beginnings. He has painted all over Japan, exhibiting at the Aomori Contemporary Art Center and the Art Center Ongoing in Tokyo. His work has been featured at the Setouchi Triennale 2013, Rokko Meets Art 2012 and the Aichi Triennale 2010. Asai has also painted a classroom at the Niranjana School in Bihar, India as part of the Wall Art Project. Wherever he paints, he prefers to draw his materials from the surrounding environment, giving him a chance to explore the places he visits through their very soil.

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When I erase the painting it is sad, but within the context of the natural world, everything is temporary.

–Yusuke Asai

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This work is by nature ephemeral and impermanent. After November 23rd, when the exhibit closes, all of these fantastic beings, mountains and suns will be washed away, never to return again. If you are in Houston, go and see Yamatane. If you have never been, the Rice Gallery is a lovely installation space that allows you to move through the art and take photos if you like. It’s in Sewell hall on the Campus of Rice University. Admission is free. This is Asai’s first exhibition in the United States– we certainly hope he returns.

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Photos by Katherine McDaniel, 10/12/14

Old Beginnings: Dara Horn’s The World to Come

Languages fade from tongue and memory. Stories are lost. Do we have a right or a duty to tell them?

Charles Edward Chambers, 1917. World War II poster in Yiddish. It reads ""Food will win the war – You came here seeking freedom, now you must help to preserve it – We must supply the Allies with wheat – Let nothing go to waste."

Charles Edward Chambers, 1917. World War II poster in Yiddish.

Dara Horn’s The World to Come is a sprawling family saga that encompasses the persecution of Jews after the Russian Revolution, the confusion of Vietnam, the disaster of Chernobyl and modern day terrorism, as well as personal struggle, love and tragedy. It might seem like a heavy read, but, thanks to a sense of humor and a penchant for magic realism derived from Jewish folktales, it never gets ponderous. The book begins with Benjamin Ziskind, a former wunderkind that has lost his edge after the death of his mother, a children’s book illustrator who immigrated from the Soviet Union as a child. Ziskind lives on autopilot, writing questions for a TV quiz show that he despises. His life is changed when he attends a singles cocktail hour at the New York Jewish Museum, only to find that a painting that once hung in his living room, a study by the famous artist Marc Chagall, is on display there. Out of a sense of ownership and a desire to reclaim his life, he takes the painting off of the wall and goes home with it, setting in motion a chain of events, rooted in the past, that will create for him a very different future.

“There used to be many families like the Ziskinds, families where each person always knew that his life was more than his alone. Families like that still exist, but because there are so few of them, they have become insular, isolated, their sentiment that the family is the center of the universe broadened to imply that nothing outside the family is worth anything.” 

Marc Chagall, front, Der Nister behind him. Public Domain Image via Wikimedia Commons

Marc Chagall, front, Der Nister behind him.
Public Domain Image via Wikimedia Commons

Hooking our attention, Horn takes us on a journey into the lives of Benjamin and his remarkable family, hopping back and forth in time between three generations, snatching at threads of commonality in an attempt to understand the theft. History is interwoven with fiction. We meet the painter Marc Chagall and the writer Pinchas Kahanovich, known as Der Nister, the Hidden One. These two men are teachers at the Malakhovka Jewish Colony for orphaned boys in the 1920s, when Boris Kulbak, Benjamin’s paternal grandfather, is a student. The ripples that begin with their friendship will shape the future of Boris and his descendants. While Chagall is fated to drift far away into a cloud of popularity and global recognition, Der Nister stays in a Russia that is increasingly intolerant of Judaism. His beautiful, witty stories become a target for a government that seeks to “purify” Soviet culture. Between the Nazis and the Russian Bolsheviks, the pinnacle of Yiddish art and thought was quickly reduced to poverty and ruin, their lives and their stories burned from memory. But there are always witnesses.

“Days and hours and years are not time, but merely vessels for it, and too often they are empty. The world stands still, timeless and empty, until an act of generosity changes it in an instant and sends it soaring through arcs of rich seasons, moment after spinning moment of racing beauty. And then, with a single unkind deed, a single withheld hand, time ceases to exist.” 

The generosity of the Kulbaks and Ziskinds: their love for one another, their responsibility to their friends and the sincere desire to do right do not save them from pain. In fact, it is usually these things that bring on their deaths. They are most often too honest, cheerfully sharing with enemies the very information that will leave them vulnerable to attack. When they are rewarded by society, it’s often for something they owe to someone else, something borrowed or even stolen, such as a piece of art or a story. But, as far as personal kindness goes, the family has riches, especially when it comes in contact with others who don’t quite fit in to the world around them.

Marc Chagall, Over Vitebsk, 1913

Marc Chagall, Over Vitebsk, 1913

Ownership is a tricky thing, especially when it comes to stories. A painting is corporeal and is thus owned by possession, typically confirmed by purchase. And yet, there is something to be said for its “image”, which can be reproduced on other objects or in the mind itself and thus “owned” in a different way. A story is much less tangible. It may not even be written down, and, when it is, it is but a copy. A story begins with an author working from a particular world view and a particular culture, but it belongs to those who embrace it, outgrowing the author and, to some extent, the culture that birthed it.

The World to Come is full of beginnings, but what Horn does not give us are endings, which she prefers to leave in shadow for us to piece together by context. If you want a neat and tidy resolution to this story, you will not find it. The fate of Benjamin is left hanging on the reader’s interpretation of the words “the world to come”. It’s a very gutsy choice and will not suit everyone’s taste, although those who enjoy ambiguity will adore it. Throughout the novel, when truth becomes too painful, we find refuge in mythology presented in the form of Yiddish folktales by Moyshe Nadir, Mani Leib, I.L. PeretzNachman of Breslov, Sholem Aleichem, Itsik Manger and Der Nister himself. These stories show through the plot of the novel like ancient wallpaper. It is the brilliance of these parables that creates the atmosphere and structure of the novel– binding gloomy realism with hopeful flights of fantasy and hope.

The world is made poorer by the loss of folktales, which is the loss of memory itself. Yiddish communities were broken and scattered across the globe. Keeping the old language became too difficult and, in some cases, too painful, for many. It would be worthwhile if The World to Come only brought attention to these stories. Horn does more. She adds her own handiwork, showing how the Yiddish culture continues in the modern Jewish voice and what it can teach us about kindness and compassion.