Friday, June 29, 2007

Journeys Into Adulthood

Hello darkness, my old friend....

That's the first line of Paul Simon's I remember, from The Sound of Silence. Even then, when I was an undergraduate, what stayed in my mind was a radical inelegance in fusing words to a tune. The first stanza went this way:

Hello darkness, my old friend,
I've come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping,
Left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence.

You know where I'm going with this, right? The creepy way he and Art Garfunkel had to sing all the words that ended the 3rd and 4th lines in each stanza....

Because a vision soft-LEE-EE creep-ING

This was off-the-wall horrible, but we adored him for elevating our youthful enchantment with vague and lonely ideas and making!

If his lyrics seemed to be unremarkable in those days, his guitar playing was the key that got his music into my soul. Paul Simon played in the same folky finger picking style that I did, that we all knew how to do, but I think he made his playing sound more fluid, more natural to the music he made. In those years, he was a star and I was a grad student, reaching for a new fusion of art song with folk song. I didn't have a gift for melody, nor one for harmony, and my song lyrics were, if not admirable, workmanlike. Years later I realized that liking something and wanting to be like somebody were not the same thing as having the gifts to belong in the spotlight.

Since I'm being a critic, I owe you a brief, mercifully brief, glimpse at what passed for a song lyric in my lonely boardinghouse room when I was studying much better music in grad school:

It's been dark all day on the lonely side of town,
The light behind the clouds is slowly failing.
I will set my mind at peace before the night comes trickling down,
I'll provision all my thoughts and set them sailing.

I could do a few things pretty smoothly, you know? I could get a lyric started and then smash into a creative wall. I could do this repeatedly! The thing about "fewness" is that it wears down the listener by the third or fourth song of a set. Paul Simon developed a broader talent, learned to invent melody for his lyrics while not being what one would call a "melodist." Mozart was a melodist, and Schubert, but they didn't write their own lyrics. Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, contemporaries, groped around for their melodies in thin air. In the process they both came up with some successful surprises and song structures. Simon's sheer inventiveness got him over any number of musical and lyrical difficulties. Bridge Over Troubled Water signaled a maturing of his talent as a song-writer. Even my mom loved it! Let's celebrate inventiveness in the human soul!

I lost interest in Paul Simon until his Still Crazy After All These Years album in 1975. Those songs were amazing. What sat me down and nearly brought me to tears was a saxophone solo on that first song, the title song. It’s one of those snatches of melody that works its way in like a fishhook and stays there, and you’ve been landed, grounded as it were, in a defining moment of the soul, and it’s not a particularly happy one. It's not just the saxaphone, either, it's Simon working with Phil Ramone to "produce" an appropriate environment of sound for these songs. It's the soft background of an electronic keyboard, a muted, intimate feel of a small ensemble, so that the sax gives the impression of being a thought, a recollection of some kind, rather than a musician in the same acoustical space; and then Paul Simon comes back in and sings,

Now I sit by my window
And I watch the cars
I fear I’ll do some damage
One fine day
But I would not be convicted
By a jury of my peers
Still crazy
Still crazy
Still crazy after all these years

Like Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album the previous year, this one revolves around the breakage of love. The rhythm of the rhyme gets in your ear in Paul Simon’s lyric to “I do it for your love:”

The sting of reason
The splash of tears
The northern and the southern
Love emerges
And it disappears
I do it for your love

Eleven years later, I caught up with him again when he created the Graceland album and the tracks of South African music from Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and on the title track an image for guitar players only:

The Mississippi Delta was shining
Like a National guitar
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the Civil War

The National guitar, chrome plated, gleaming, and I know the silvery look of the river when the sun hits it right. But if you don’t know it’s a “National” guitar, you may think it’s some sort of nonsense about a “national guitar,” whatever that is! He’s on a pilgrimage, a divorced man with his nine-year-old child, thinking about the crevasse of love lost:

She comes back to tell me she's gone
As if I didn't know that
As if I didn't know my own bed
As if I'd never noticed
The way she brushed her hair from her forehead
And she said losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you're blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow

And the guilt he feels about this breakage is assuaged in a statement of faith:

But I've reason to believe
We both will be received
In Graceland

You know, that’s the kind of song that’s so personal, nobody’s cover of it carries the sense of insight or conviction Simon brought to it. The other night I heard Alison Krauss sing it at the Gala honoring Paul Simon. She was great, the band was great, and Jerry Douglas’s dobro playing was beyond words. But it was as if she was giving a “reading” of someone else’s autobiography. We have to make our own journeys, and the maps we leave behind are sometimes embedded in a song.

Paul Simon always seemed to me to operate in Bob Dylan’s shadow, way back then. But when they both left childhood behind and lived the sorrows of an adult, their careers took different turns. I’m fascinated to consider Blood on the Tracks and Still Crazy After All These Years as crowning achievements of two highly gifted song writers of about the same age, who then had to go on and figure out how to grow themselves anew after their phenomenal beginnings.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Long Sentences

A year or so after leaving Santa Fe, a place of unique beauty and a certain theatrical self-consciousness, I picked up a liking for Latin American fiction. Was I feeling nostalgia for all the tradesmen who said a quick bueno! at the end of any transaction or point of understanding? Could be; that was about 25% of my Spanish vocabulary, other than food items, and I missed my Latino neighbors and the people I had known who grew up in the Pueblos in the area. I missed saying bueno!

My intro to LA fiction was The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a Columbian writer who later won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Unlike his other books, which I then devoured, The Autumn of the Patriarch is written with the feel of an extended “rant.”

But I’m getting ahead of my story. My story begins with the energy that one usually finds in the first sentence of a novel. Here is the opening of The Autumn of the Patriarch.

“Over the weekend the vultures got into the presidential palace by pecking through the screens on the balcony windows and the flapping of their wings stirred up the stagnant time inside, and at dawn on Monday the city awoke out of its lethargy of centuries with the warm, soft breeze of a great man dead and rotting grandeur.”

The translation is by a gifted man, Gregory Rabassa, and I imagine that he has been careful to preserve the Marquez sense of pace by leaving out as many commas as Marquez presumably did. The comma is an interesting little rhythmic tool. When we learned grammar, the comma was just a clarifier of meaning. It had a structural purpose. In the sentence-world of The Autumn of the Patriarch, the comma appears to be reserved, as much as possible, to create large rhythm within even larger rhythm.

That’s a heck of an opening sentence, isn’t it? Did you like the idea of “stagnant” time being stirred up by the wings of vultures? Did you see that instead of placing a comma after “windows,” where it would ordinarily go, and a period after “inside,” where it really does belong in conventional writing, Marquez establishes this ranting by using the comma only to join two sentences that a grammar teacher would have separated with a period?

How about “lethargy of centuries?” There is something surreal about a “great man dead” who apparently held the town in his grasp for centuries.

If I quote you the three sentences that follow the opening one, you will see that Marquez is warming us up for a marathon of ultra-long sentences that, literally, take away your breath if you read them aloud. It is a feat and a feast to read this thin book!

“Only then did we dare go in without attacking the crumbling walls of reinforced stone, as the more resolute had wished, and without using oxbows to knock the main door off its hinges, as others had proposed, because all that was needed was for someone to give a push and the great armored doors that had resisted the lombards of William Dampier during the building’s heroic days gave way. It was like entering the atmosphere of another age, because the air was thinner in the rubble pits of the vast lair of power, and the silence was more ancient, and things were hard to see in the decrepit light. All across the first courtyard, where the paving stones had given way to the underground thrust of weeds, we saw the disorder of the post of the guard who had fled, the weapons abandoned in their racks, the big, long rough-planked tables and plates containing the leftovers of the Sunday lunch that had been interrupted by panic, in shadows we saw the annex where government house had been, colored fungi and pale irises among the unresolved briefs whose normal course had been slower than the pace of the driest of lives, in the center of the courtyard we saw the baptismal font where more than five generations had been christened with martial sacraments, in the rear we saw the ancient viceregal stable which had been transformed into a coach house, and among the camellias and butterflies we saw the berlin from stirring days, the wagon from the time of the plague, the coach from the year of the comet, the hearse from progress in order, the sleep-walking limousine of the first century of peace, all in good shape under the dusty cobwebs and all painted with the colors of the flag.”

I went back into Marquez after reading a new book, Dancing to “Almendra,” by the Cuban writer, Mayra Montero. The story is told by a cub reporter at a minor newspaper in Havana, who becomes fascinated with the presence of the Mafia in the casino business during the last months of 1957. There is revolution in the air, and the Batista dictatorship is cracking down, leaving bodies to be found in the street on many mornings. Here is the opening energy of her book:

“On the same day Umberto Anastasia was killed in New York, a hippopotamus escaped from the zoo in Havana. I can explain the connection. No one else, only me, and the individual who looked after the lions. His name was Juan Bulgado, but he preferred to be called Johnny: Johnny Angel or Johnny Lamb, depending on his mood. In addition to feeding the animals, he was in charge of the slaughter pen, that foul-smelling corner where they killed the beasts that were fed to the carnivores. A long chain of blood. That’s what the zoo is. And, very often, life.”

The book begins in this factual, newspaper style, and by the second page has downshifted into the run-on sentences of a youthful narrator for whom the blurt and rant come naturally. After the opening, set in 1957, the story flashes back ten years. The narrator, Joaquín, and his friend, Julián, are thirteen, and they are at the Hotel Nacional, where Julián’s mother, Aurora, works as a dining room decorator. They stumble onto a meeting of Mafiosos who are planning the execution of Bugsy Siegel, the strongman of Las Vegas. This memory of Joaquín’s is erotically-charged by his fascination with his friend’s mother, and it is in this associative memory that we learn what the novel’s title means:

“At the meeting in the Nacional, they concluded that Bugsy was a hindrance, they decided to wait six months, and then they raised their glasses to signal agreement. He was eliminated on June 20, 1947, while he sat on the sofa in his house in Los Angeles, reading the paper and waiting for his dear friend the actor George Raft, with whom he was supposed to have dinner at Jack’s. That’s what they discussed at the “convention” while Aurora, Julián’s mother, was placing orchids in the centers of the tables, removed from everything, radiant because she was in love, she’d just fallen in love again, though her son suspected nothing and neither did I; it was a secret between her and the man who’d won her. I saw them once, some time later, dancing to “Almendra,” the danzón about the almond. It seemed to me that listening to “Almendra” was like watching a pendulum; it was a melody that could hypnotize the people who danced to it, those two people in particular but also the ones who had the experience of seeing them dance. Aurora and that man, like a single seed, satisfied at last and for that reason strong, their passion spent, I understood this despite my youth. There was something solid and distinctive in the way they connected, in the honored way they followed the rhythm. There was no hope for anyone else.”

You could imagine the laid-back voice of Garrison Keillor spinning a Lake Wobegon yarn like that, or you could juice up the pace and imagine, rightly, that this is a tale spun by a man traumatized and still feeling it.

A few pages later, Joaquín sketches in his family life at home during that time in 1957:

“I asked Santiago, the brother I hardly ever saw at home except for Sunday lunch, for help. Sunday was when Mamá cooked chicken and rice, a tradition her children despised and her husband was indifferent to; my father boasted of eating anything, even stones. Santiago led an intense social life. He was only on loan to us, he barely swallowed two mouthfuls because somebody was always waiting to have lunch with him someplace else, he’d tell me about it in a quiet voice. Often he hid the food in a napkin and then threw it in the toilet. During those lunches, Lucy looked like a corpse, pale and teary-eyed, not because of the food, which after all was merely a passing revulsion, but because she felt uncomfortable in her clothes and had to sit there in front of the entire family, especially in front of my mother and father, who separately were sarcastic but together became binomial acid, above all when they attempted to overlook the ambiguity (the great ambiguity that was Lucy) and called her, not without a certain irony, señorita. Won’t the señorita have more rice?”

This breathless style carries the reader, as if the gas pedal is stuck to the floor, straight to the end of the story, a story written in Puerto Rico by a newspaper columnist who was born in Cuba, and who seems caught up in loving nostalgia for pre-Castro Havana, its popular music and night life, the tourists and gamblers from the states, and the dictatorship locked in an embrace with the Mafia; she writes of Havana as Joaquín writes of his pubescent memory of Aurora and her lover dancing to Almendra.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Person-To-Person in the Museum

I’ve been working with a group that I refer to as “The Think Tank.” They are smart, smart people who work in the museum field and serve from time to time as consultants in our charette program. We are working on a field we call Visitor-Centered Thinking. We took our cue from the superb training video from Conner Prairie Living History Museum. Its title is “Opening Doors to Great Guest Experiences.

We have all pledged to try to develop experiential, interactive learning experiences within our own institutions. We have pledged to up the ante of visitor-centered thinking in our own place so that we can be simpatico when we teach these things to others.

One of our people—shall I call them “tankers?”—operates a house museum. He and the corps of volunteer docents have been trying visitor-centered techniques. The results are remarkable!
First, the volunteers have felt liberated from the sense of duty to “tell the entire story, all of it, all the time.” Since none of them knew the entire story, or even a smidgeon of what their Director knew, they engaged visitors with a sense of inadequacy. Yet they strove on, trying to say as much as possible in whatever time was available. Does this sound exhausting?

Of course it does. And yet this is the imaginary job description of the volunteer docent at so many museums. “You have to allow 90 minutes,” they say, “or you’ll miss part of the story of our county.” Most people (I) don’t mind missing a huge chunk of that story. What we want to do is poke around. We would love to be introduced to a few, a very few, things during our visit, and if we like the experience, maybe we’ll prolong our visit. How does that sound?

The docents at the house museum I’ve mentioned tried a different approach. After welcoming the visitors, they allowed them “free range” roaming for a few minutes and they surreptitiously observed what the visitors seemed interested in. Then they reentered the room and struck up, not a monologue, but an actual conversation.

“How did you hear about our museum; what brings you here?” That’s a good place to start. “Do you collect antiques?” There are so many ways to go. With clues from the visitor, the docents take people here and there in the museum, making sure to do no more than fifty per cent of the talking. The volunteers are encouraged to mention facts or objects that they find interesting. They are not obliged to bring up anything they don’t know, don’t understand, or don’t find interesting. This has changed the life of the volunteers!

Before trying visitor-centered techniques, volunteers would typically spend “down time” at the museum with the novel they brought with them. Now that seldom happens. They are conversing about what they’ve tried with the visitors and what they’ve figured out how to do better. Or they are in the archive doing research on something that caught their interest. Or they are asking the Director something the Director never considered. Volunteers have been transformed from human recorded messages into interesting people to spend time with.

And what about the visitors? The visitors are leaving more money in the crystal bowl near the door, and they are spending more in the gift shop.

I heard a related story from Carl Morgan at the Morgan County Museum last November. A visitor was shocked to hear that the admission charge was $5. Carl said, “tell you what…I’ll give you a tour and when it’s over you can pay whatever you think it was worth.” The visitor left $20. Knowing Carl, I’m not surprised.

During a charette in the Clay County Museum a few months ago, I asked the trustees to comment on one object in the museum for which they felt particular interest. One man said he was intrigued by a loyalty oath local people had to take during the Civil War. He said he always wondered what meaning that oath had for those who took it. Did they really mean it?

I was moved by the simple eloquence of that volunteer’s personal expression of meaning. I realized that “most people” must surely respond on a personal level when given permission to “be real” in the museum. If the guide is “real,” it must be acceptable to respond in kind.

This is actually one of the truths of the field of history. It is an inherently social field. Stories are researched and written or told not into outer space but into an imaginary community of other people. But we must give things the time they deserve. If a person enters our space, we should not impose a 90-minute recitation on her. She doesn't deserve such a cruel and unusual welcome. Visitors deserve some warmth, and a touch of the personal as we take them into our story, which is the story of great human interest, if only we will take the time to release it that way. We always have a choice, of course. We can release a lot of hot air, or we can release a creative experience of mutual learning. It’s person-to-person when it works well. Why let it be any other way?