BRRRR!

January 31, 2014 Comments Off

[audio] “My little body is aweary of this great world.” Does that sound whiney? Gee, I hope not, because I’ve always been annoyed by whiners and would hate to be one. If it is whiney though, lay it to the door of William Shakespeare. True, I may concur, but those are Bill’s words. He put them into the mouth of the fair Portia early-on in the Merchant of Venice as she faced that oh-so-common task of fending off suitors who were seeking her hand—and her fortune.

My cause for “aweariness” though, is occasioned by a much more contemporary task: getting dressed for the outdoors. Suiting up to go outside in this winter’s weather has been a challenge.  It’s almost a case of looking around the house, seeing what clothing there is and then putting it on: all of it.

One evening during the especially cold weather, Larry and I went out for a late-evening men’s basketball game at Notre Dame. Since we don’t live far from campus, I knew that the car was not going to get warm on the trip, so bundling was the survival-mode option. Naturally, undergarments came first. Then socks: two pair, both knee and ankle. Next came corduroy trousers—much warmer than jeans—topped with a knit shirt and a sweater. Then boots, a muffler, a coat, hat, mittens that render my hands totally ham-fisted, and finally a nice face-covering scarf so that almost no inch of flesh was exposed to the frostbite-inducing weather. Okey dokey! Now to stuff this Michelin man look-alike into the car for a short ride, and then have the opportunity to reverse the process: mostly. The temptress character in the film “Bedazzled” sure had it right when she said, “Clothes are so restrictin’.” Suiting up to go out and to return home seemed to take almost as long as the length of the basketball game. You see the source of “aweariness.”

The exhaustion caused by this dressing for the occasion called up the memory of a Dennis the Menace cartoon from the old days. A very well-bundled Dennis is shown standing on the doorstep of a home saying to the woman in the doorway, “Lady, do you know how to undo a snowsuit: fast?” Sadly, nothing much happens fast in this dress-for-that-phrase-on-the-verge of-overuse, “polar-vortex” mode.

It’s a funny thing about clothing. When the weather is warm, you eye a garment and reject it because you think that you can’t bear to wear it: way too hot-making.  Just the thought of it leaves you oppressively over-heated. Eye that same garment in the cold weather though and you think that maybe it will work if you wear a sweater or jacket over it. And that’s for in-the-house wear!

To welcome the New Year five hours earlier than we would have here in Michiana, Larry and I went to Iceland in December. It was somewhat warmer than here, but the wind is fierce, so a number of layers were required there too. That sort of challenge day after day made me marvel at the very attractive Icelandic people. Somehow, they face a long season of bundling up without losing their stylishness. I, on the other hand, find that after just a minute of the relentless cold I lose any self-respect about my appearance. Maybe it’s a function of my advanced age, but I just wanna’ be warm: no matter the visual end-effect. Those of you who know me, know that willowy, Nordic blonde status is not in the genetic cards for me anyway, no matter how active my self-esteem might be.

So, I, and you, face laboring through “aweariness” for another month or two. Anybody seen winter gear on an end-of-season sale?  Or is it just too weary-making to suit up to get out there and scout for it?

Written and recorded by Jeanette Saddler Taylor.

The Oldest Chicago Session

January 24, 2014 Comments Off

[audio] Grey city snow draped its seedy mantle over a nothing-special south side Chicago street. Nothing special about this bar one storefront east of the corner, with its red brick face framed in a wig of grey stone and splashed with sludgewater, the three sconce lanterns barely brightening the sidewalk, its inset door framing a large glass pane which illuminates no promises within. The bar’s down the hall, but don’t miss that front room. Sharing space with a dilapidated counter hiding old round tabletops and missing-leg chairs, this humble room this Sunday night hosts what may be the longest-running Irish music session in Chicago. With my fiddle I sat next to a retired roofer (harmonica and the occasional song) and a retired architect and his fiddle. The youngest person there was twenty-something; the eldest in the room was a ninety-four-year-old bodhrán player, still turning out some mighty and perfect rhythms on his Irish goat-skinned drum. There were (lemme see) four fiddles, two button accordion players, one flute, one banjo, one harmonica, one piano, and four “goats”—the bodhrán players—trying to be polite and only play one or two at a time but occasionally, irresistibly, all joining in. Four of us sang at one point or another in the two-and-a-half hours I was there. We were working-class people making working-class music, I’m proud to say, in that working-class bar, a magic elixir of joy concealed in the simple dress of colas and beer. No one played from sheet music. Never. There’s an expression you hear from old people called playing “by heart,” and if ever it was true it’s with this bunch. Everybody played for the sheer joy of it.

“Professional” Irish musicians make great music—no doubt about that. But this essentially amateur group (from the Latin, “amator,” meaning lover) is a different thing altogether. What was going on in this room Sunday night was beauty built from years of personal struggle and toil. They have spent the week eking a living, but it’s important that they get to that session, these laborers, delivery-folks, architects, roofers, teachers. Tonight is for their music. // What they do in that room may be ephemeral; I saw no recording devices at all. But they do it week in and week out. Many people who were in that same room twenty, thirty years ago have died—we buried two stalwarts in the last two months—two who barely ever played for pay in their lives. Sometimes even when the cash was there they refused to take it. But they came to that session and the others before it, for decades. The train leaves the station, and one by one the nuggets of coal are consumed as the drivers thunder down the tracks in a perfect rhythm of different moving parts. But if they’ve been doing their job right a trickle of players some decades, a wealth of players some decades, throw themselves on the fire and move that engine along. Occasionally one spark will fly higher than the rest and someone great becomes known. But they began their musical lives playing in these same working class, neighborhood, generation-upon-generation sessions. Just like this.

I looked around the room. It was almost midnight, South Bend time. Somebody—it’s not important who—started The Wise Maid, a County Donegal tune that tradition assigns to the traveller fiddler Johnny Doherty. The architect, age eighty-four, who once-upon-a-time designed huge dams in Australia, followed that one with The Thrush in the Storm, from flutist Mike Rafferty, an east Galway man who came to America in 1949, and died just two years ago, at 85—survived by daughter Mary Rafferty, box player in Cherish the Ladies. We all jumped in either on the first tune or the second, and that auld train started a-chuggin’. About halfway through the set, right there playing away, I started to cry. I didn’t care who saw me.

Written and recorded by David James. Music: an Irish session at Lannigans pub in Chicago.

The Art Show

January 10, 2014 Comments Off

[audio] The word “art” does not appear in my job description, and not the words “gallery” or “exhibit” either. But somehow I ended up helping put together an art show. This has been quite a journey, and the exhibit that came of it, now open at the big new gallery at Indiana University South Bend, is full of astonishing objects created by sixty of the most interesting artists who have lived and worked in our area. Along the way I’ve learned how many hundreds of details and arrangements go into a big art exhibit. I have become acquainted with smart, friendly people committed to their work at area archives and museums and art departments. I’ve spoken with artists who always love having a chance to share their work. And almost accidentally I’ve had a small, free education in the fine arts. What a great ride this has been.

There were phone calls and letters and emails by the bucket. There were permission forms to be signed and delivery appointments to be made and people we wanted to reach but couldn’t. I cannot remember the last time I worked on a project so drenched in details. If you are a big thinker who enjoys delegating the details to others, and someone says to you, “Wanna help with our big art exhibit,” I suggest you smile and turn and run far, far away.

But then there is the art itself. If you go to the show at IU South Bend, which is free and open to the public, you’ll find your own favorites. In this snowy season I keep thinking about a particular springtime painting of an artist’s country cottage, with sunlight washing over the roof and walls. The trees are heavy with white blossoms and leaves just emerging. In the gaps between the branches, the sky is richly blue and the whole scene heralds both a beautiful day and a fresh season unfolding. The world feels full 0f possibility when you stand in front of a painting like that. In the show there are vivid portraits, playful, mind-bending abstractions, and sweeping landscapes. There are big, beautiful tributes to big, beautiful architecture. There are completely unpredictable ceramic pieces that give the impression that artists who work in clay may be the strangest dreamers of us all.

And there are quiet moments of human experience, distilled in a few simple strokes–I’m thinking here of a drawing of one man leaning over and ministering to another man on his sickbed, selflessly tending to a fellow human being who is in peril for his life.

People who love art make big claims for it. One of our country’s finest poets, Adrienne Rich, once said, “I don’t think we can separate art from overall human dignity and hope.” That seems right. I like the extravagance of these works, too. Our area artists thrive on great big challenges, and it’s good for my morale to see people tasking themselves with the making of something grand. These artists worked really hard, and they claim the freedom to create whatever they can imagine, which is inspiring all by itself, and along the way these fabulous objects are left behind for us to feel and enjoy. Maybe I’ll see you at the show, which continues at IU South Bend until January 25th.

Written and recorded by Ken Smith.

The Book Shack

December 27, 2013 Comments Off

When I was young – fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years old – I collected cheap paperback editions of classics as passionately as I had once collected baseball cards. Down the road was The Book Shack, a small used bookstore tucked into a strip mall, the kind of place you don’t see anymore. It shared space with an appliance repair shop, and in fact the inked stamp inside every book also made mention of Watkins Appliance Service. Browsing the book crates, I would occasionally have to step aside to let a client or worker walk through to the back room with a small appliance. The shelves along the walls of the Book Shack were crammed with romances, westerns, crime novels, and other pop fiction, but I focused on the tables in the middle of the room. That’s where the classics and the more intellectual books were thrown together with the non-fiction, in no discernible order. That’s where I found my first copy of Plato’s dialogues, copies of books by Melville, Hawthorne, and Thoreau; the poems of John Keats, collections of Shakespeare’s plays, and several modern French classics, like Albert Camus’ The Stranger. The store was no bigger than a one-car garage, but it contained an entire world.

We lived in a small town bordering on Nashville, Tennessee. In that humble bookstore I could see far beyond our town, and I carried that larger world home to my room, where the books gradually filled one shelf, then another, then another. I was immensely rich in those days, despite having almost no money, because these volumes sold for 69 cents, 49 cents, 29 cents. It seemed fantastic to me that the world’s best treasures could be bought for 29 cents.

I don’t know if the Watkins Appliance people were great readers, or if a small contingent of serious and avant-garde readers lived nearby, but the selection wasn’t as limited as you might suppose. Beyond the kinds of good books one might acquire second-hand from advanced high school students, there passed through that store dozens of books that few people in my town could have recognized. I combed the tables at the Book Shack regularly, and so I easily discovered new titles. I found, for example, not just an odd, brick-shaped, pirated edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses with ads for sex toys in the back pages, but also a battered blue copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, that sad, lyrical, gritty, and sex-filled account of life in Paris in the early 1930s. This was the kind of formerly banned book that appeared with the seductive word “unexpurgated” on its cover.

When you’re young and engaged in a meaningful pursuit, you learn everything quickly, and you remember. One writer refers to other writers. An entire history of literature takes shape in your mind, with its traditions and rivalries and intellectual battles spanning decades and centuries. A good book can be an invitation to think afresh, to take sides in a battle, to join a conversation.

Once I had a car I could go to the various local library sales, where I acquired, over time, an array of classical music albums, as well as hardcover books. If you grew up around great books and great music, you may not fully appreciate my excitement, how intoxicating these excursions were for me. As a child, I had been nurtured on scripture; now I was suddenly at that stage when the aspiring writer or a literature teacher recognizes that the King James Bible is also great literature, whatever else it may be. And so the process of forgiveness began, as that youthful vengefulness towards the past slowly weakened, and I was freed from the intellectual grip of my family, my town, my country. Even my enemies seemed to take their places beside me under the great dome of the library, the massive cathedral of ideas and feelings and song.

Written and recorded by Joe Chaney.

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