On this anniversary of the day France and Daguerre gave away the technology for the Daguerrotype, I have gone back into my undergrad years to my final project. I worked with a used Canon Rebel EOS from the one and only Central Camera, on Wabash under the (atmospheric) tracks. I loved it; I love it now: I love film work rather passionately. At this point, however, I have neither access to, nor space to create my own, darkroom; I’m hopeful that I will eventually be able to save up for a digital SLR, but even should I splurge on monthly Photoshop fees (and let’s face it: I probably would), it simply won’t be the same. There is an impossible beauty, really, in knowing that one’s shots are so limited, and that one must think, carefully, before setting the aperture and the shutter speed. It is about so much more than angling in and pushing a button.
In some ways, this is probably an exercise in nostalgia: I grew up in Hyde Park, a few buildings away from Stagg Field, two city blocks away from the emergency rooms. It wasn’t a perfect place, by a long shot, but it was an amazing space to be a kid. In many ways, it’s also a love song to a vanishing neighborhood. My own neighborhood is gone now, torn down to make way for new science buildings: there are no greystones, no 1920s apartment buildings, no kids racing down the block to round up the crew and look in office windows. It feels, to me, like a spectral trip down a ghost-town’s lanes, and, hardest of all, precious few of the students prowling what used to be a neighborhood have any idea that it was ever something else.
So, these are film photographs, scanned; there are a few development errors. I pushed my camera as hard as I could here, going for a rough-edged look inspired by Robert Frank’s The Americans—it being better to push aperture and shutter speed than to accidentally boil the film. (Someone did that to me once; it was kind of awful but I ended up loving the look.) But, enough with words: let the images speak for themselves, as I had originally intended.
This summer has been an intense one for me, filled with changes and with new prospects as well as unrelenting streams of (often bad) news, spiced by a record-smashing, barrier-breaking Olympics (with some unbelievably sexist coverage of female athletes, because of course). It’s been, perhaps, a little much sometimes–and so I’ve delved back into my treasure trove of graffiti , and done a shoddy job of curating some of my favorites.
Mostly they’re bright. Or funny. Or vulgar. Or all of the above. And, occasionally, it’s actually rather sweet.
Words, Words, Words
This is a pretty terrible photo, and, alas, I don’t have PhotoShop, so it will remain lousy for a bit. Nonetheless, it is EGAD!, from a mailbox on a hill in a lovely Pittsburgh neighborhood. It is about as simple as one can possibly get, and I love it so much. There’s something really hilarious about writing EGAD! as one’s tag, I think–especially with such a marvelous typeface. You do you, tagger of EGAD!s.
I have no idea if the “GO…LIKE NOW” dumpster still lives behind the Foreign Language Building and the Smith Memorial Auditorium in Urbana, on the University of Illinois campus; it did, however, live there pretty much the entire time that I did. (I last saw it when last I was in town, in August of 2015.) It’s a giant, rusty, and generally full dumpster: nothing special there. But the graffiti, much of which appears to have been stenciled (“zen” is definitely freehand, “rest” might be as well), took time and care and makes it unique. It’s very much a part of my grad school memories: and here is the dumpster I walked past every day, y’all!
It’s chalk, man. Except it definitely wasn’t written with chalk, which makes it even funnier. (I guess I don’t ask for much, but I always found it hilarious.)
This is pretty much quintessential women’s bathroom graffiti. Maybe it says something good about us, that our graffiti is so often, uh, positive? (I mean, this is super hackneyed and corny, but still.) Several stalls also bear long communal love letters to unknown girls who’ve written about the tragedies of their lives, ranging from desperate loneliness to academic issues. (It’s incredible, what folks write, usually in sharpie, on the walls of a toilet stall.) The responses are almost always sweet, and kind; some are religious, most are not, but almost all are attempting to buck up that unknown girl, and give her a reason to stick around a while. I guess I’ll choose to see that as something good about us.
Colors and Flowers and Faces
I don’t even know what this is, but these faces! How can anyone not be delighted to see them? I am ever so grateful to whatever anonymous street artist decided to make Mathews a whole lot happier with their art.
I have no idea what the above is. A piece of toast with a face? A contemporary Lascaux? Whatever it is, it’s a pretty great splash of color on the back of a mall whose future is, now, uncertain.
The blast of aqua and turquoise here–seen on Christmas Day, 2015, because obviously this is the time to walk out into Lake Michigan to see a lighthouse–is only a tiny piece of the graffiti lining the walkway and limning the lighthouse itself. The graffiti is, as befits Waukegan (where, according to the U.S. Census, 54.2 per cent of people speak a language other than English at home), bi- or tri-lingual, largely Spanish, English, and Spanglish. This piece probably says something, but I haven’t a clue; I just like the colors.
I guess the flowers above are graffiti. I don’t really know. In an oasis of concrete and construction they stand out, delicate and beautiful and believable: a small splash of beauty in the midst of chaos.
I think this guy hangs at Krannert Center, although I don’t remember for sure. I still wonder if “WF” is someone’s initials or if it’s a semi-polite version of the semi-polite WTF acronym. It’s on a campus, so I figure it could be pretty much anything.
Carved into Café Tables (in Urbana)
I think the above platitude lives–or maybe lived–carved into a table at the Espresso Royale at Goodwin and Oregon, just across the street from the magnificent Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. It’s
Likely also at Espresso
This one is definitely a matter of opinion (me, I loved them all)–but it’s also definitely hilarious.
Terribly sad robot here is terribly sad, alas.😦 I think it’s also from ’12…although that may have been put there to throw us all for a loop. This one is also likely from the same table as ESPRESSO TRUMPS PARADISO, above…but, since I’m not positive, I’ll leave it sans location.
Same table, same location. This coffee shop is right across the street from the performing arts center, and right in the midst of a large science sector. The graffiti reflects, as it were, both cultures. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I felt so at home there.
I love this one so much. I wonder who carved the first bit into the table: did they mean it? (I mean, I assume they weren’t being sarcastic?) Did they hope to spread the good word by way of graffiti on a café table in a science quad? And who was the second person? I fancy they were a scientist, or an engineer, but they may have been an actor, or a musician, or a computer scientist, or a mathematician. (It is also pretty reminiscent of the good old vulgar graffiti of Pompeii, discussed by Pompeiana, Orbilat, the Telegraph, Mental Floss, and The Heavy, among other places.) We’ve always been gleefully vulgar in our illicit writing (and etching and drawing), apparently.
Freight Trains: Or, Coming Eventually
My area is heavily frequented by freight trains, hauling their cargo to and from and through Chicago, itself dotted with depots and piers: husky, broad-shouldered brawler of a city that it is, heavy freight trains fit right in. The neighborhood in which I grew up, as well as the suburb in which I currently live, are both fortunate enough to have overpasses, so any train-watching we do is entirely voluntary. However, most of the ‘hoods around us, from South Shore to Thornton, South Holland to Chatham, aren’t as fortunate. And, since I frequent those neighborhoods (and towns) as well, I do a lot of involuntary train-watching, too. Literally the only high point of involuntary freight train watching? It’s the graffiti, helpfully added by unknown street artists to brighten our gray freight-train filled days.
And so, one of these days, when I’ve collected enough, there will be a post of transit-related graffiti, and it will likely center on trains.
It’s International Cat Day! Which is, in my book, a very important sort of day. It’s also a pretty great excuse for something a bit lighter than average current events: a celebration of the cat, in (public domain) art and in gif. It’s also a pretty great time to point out that cats are, in the words of this headline, the “unsung heroes of mental health” care. Here’s to cats!
Julie Manet looks like a pretty serious kid–she probably was, given her family’s occasionally convoluted histories and ill health–but she’s also got a good buddy there, in her friendly Cat. Julie’s probably idealized, and perhaps Cat is as well–but as a lifelong cat lady, I’d know that cat’s body language anywhere. It’s purring right now, through layers of oil on canvas.
I’m pretty sure the cat above is actually a kitten: it has that unformed, unfinished, slightly mad look of nearly every kitten I’ve ever known, looking in its way as much a baby as Sara herself. It also looks pretty interested in something just over there, but it isn’t quite sure it wants to spring yet. Sara holds it pretty well, after all.
Cat at window: it doesn’t matter where cat is looking, or what the landscape is like, or even if it’s an indoor/outdoor cat–every cat hangs out and looks out the window at the world full of (edible, right?) creatures. (It’s also worth noting that Japanese prints are a wealth of amazing, and loving, cat depictions; unfortunately, I couldn’t find that many in readily accessible public domain format, and, given the fragility and instability of prints as a medium, they are rarely on display at museums.)
The hanging scroll above–that of two little people playing with their little cat–is from the 12th Century; it dates to the Song Dynasty, and Wikimedia Commons suggests it may originally have belonged to the Royal Family. Whomever commissioned it, however, the artist caught both the kids and their kitten well, and they’ve come through the centuries as lively little creatures, intent on their game.
Whomever the lady in the green dress is, she’s clearly taking time out from her busy social whirl to hang out with her cat, who is chasing dust motes and smushing its face up against her. When she heads back out she’ll be covered in black hair, but, somehow, I doubt she cares: the purring and the affection will have more than made up for it, and, going by her dress, she likely has maids to brush cat hair off anyway. (Unless it’s on all the furniture, too.)
Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, unlike most of the artists featured here, was perhaps an early graphic designer; the commanding cat of Rudolphe Salis’ Chat Noir is an excellent piece of advertising, one which has long outlived the space for which it was designed. And how could it not? That cat is magnificent: a cat’s cat, here to lord it over us all.
There are really too many amazing medieval cats from which to choose: they are, basically, the best, as evidenced by this tragically small sampling of marginal and otherwise medieval cats. (Marginal, in this case, means marginalia, not unimportant. They are indeed on the margins of manuscripts, but that’s about their only connection to “marginal.”) They even walked all over their peoples’ work, just like they do now. Also just like cat people now, cat people then were indulgent and owned by their beasts, as evidenced by Pangur Bán, whose human was a ninth-century Irish monk. (For even more amazing cats from Medieval manuscripts, check out the cats on the amazing and fabulous Discarding Images tumblr. (Definitely check out this monkey hugging a cat, in both medieval and contemporary versions.)
Medieval cats are a pretty great transition from Serious Art Cats to gif cats. Like medieval marginalia cats, gif cats are a mix of absurd, hilarious, and catlike: the cat above, busy killing the paper emerging from that dastardly printer, is definitely catlike. (It’s also a pretty good reaction gif.)
I recently watched Disney’s adaption of Stephen Sondheim’s rather glorious Into the Woods, and–much to my surprise!–it was actually quite good, and only butchered a little, not a lot! And the Disneyfication wasn’t anywhere near as awful as it could have been, even though way too many of the great sexytimes got taken away, which was sad! And not quite as many people died, which I guess wasn’t sad! Also the deaths were different! Unlike in theatres they weren’t onstage (like, the Baker’s Wife didn’t even die onscreen, for pete’s sake), and they weren’t quite as brutal, usually (looking at you, Jack’s Mother).
gif originally from this article, which you should read because it’s genius.
I am not usually a musical person. Whatever it is that allows me to happily throw aside all disbelief and hurl myself headlong into opera, and even operetta, doesn’t really seem to be in place for (most) musicals. Instead of saying what a glorious aria! I tend to say why the hell is this moron singing? Oh my god people will see them and hear them, I am so embarrassed!–which is clearly not the necessary thought process for someone watching a musical. So, you know, musicals are kind of dicey, even though operettas aren’t, which is kind of absurd since operettas and musicals are pretty similar. But, hey, we’ve all got our thang.
look, y’all, nobody has #feelings like Prince Charming and Other Prince. from link.
However! my anti-musical thing doesn’t generally carry over to live theatre, because I f*cking love live theatre, guys. I will accept almost anything, just so long as it is live, on stage, in front of me. Ariel in triplicate? I am so there. Knife-fights between hunky dudes right in front of me? Oh my god give me MOAR. Overwrought Jacobean revenge tragedies?1 Count me in! (Although, I confess: I laughed so hard at the overwrought ending, as people dropped like bedamned flies and somebody got blinded, that I cried. Which is not my usual reaction to tragedy, at all.) But, in essence, if I see it live, I’ll buy almost anything. Alllllmost. Because there’s nothing like a good stage actor to suspend all disbelief.
This appears to be the original Broadway cast, and it’s pretty amazing, and you should take a gander before some intelligent person pulls it for copyright violations.
Sondheim’s original Into the Woods, then, got lucky: it was one of the last productions I saw, in April of 2015, at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, which was and is and shall remain one of my favorite places, and one of–maybe the only–consistent bright spot in my grad school years. The production was great; I remember the mics as being spotty–too sharp, too shrill, not quite perfect–but everything else was, in a word, marvelous. (Some day the young actors and singers of UIUC will go forth and be known, and I will have known their work first, and it will be fab.)
So, I came to Disney’s take on Into the Woods deeply wary, but also, perhaps, more receptive, since I’d already gone for it live, hook line and sinker. Sondheim’s version is, of course, pretty damn dark. Which is great! Sometimes a really, really dark musical is a good thing, even if most of us think of musicals as, perhaps, lighter fare. It’s also a really great take on an incredibly dark medium: that of the traditional (non-Disneyfied) fairy tale. Our fairy tales are dark and dangerous worlds, filled with blood and violence and sex; sometimes they offer social critiques, sometimes they just encourage women to, as it were, Stay on that Path, Young Lady!2 But they really aren’t the light and frothy confections that animated movies full of singing birds and dancing mice have tried to sell us. They’re as dark as we are, and sometimes darker.
Sondheim on Into the Woods: "I think it's very upbeat. There's a few deaths, but …" *shrug* #IntotheWoodsReunion
More of Sondheim’s take on his upbeat little musical about a bunch of people dying.
So, yeah, Into the Woods is super upbeat! Never mind that 1) Rapunzel has PTSD and probably postpartum depression and DIES along with the twins; 2) the Steward bludgeons Jack’s Mother to death; 3) the Evil Stepsisters, Florinda and Lucinda, are blinded by Cinderella’s birds (this is totally part of the fairy tale, by the way); 4) the stepsisters get bits of their feet chopped off, because “And when you’re his wife / you’ll have such a life, / You’ll never need to walk!” (also totally part of the folk tradition, btw); 5) the Baker’s Wife sorta kinda cheats!; 6)😥 the Baker’s Wife DIES!!; 7) the Giants all die (which leads to some incredible reckoning); 8) the Royal Family starves to death; 9) the Princes (“I was raised to be charming, not sincere!”), continuing on as losers, hook up with Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, because #feelings! or something. So, yeppers, it’s a light and frothy treat, indeed!
To be fair, Sondheim’s eminently quotable quote is actually in response to a question about potential Disneyfication of Into the Woods, which means that there are a whole lot of layers to that upbeat little musical. And there is a bit of Disneyfication: no twins (how could you, Disney?!?), no bludgeoning, fewer loose ends at the end; more off-screen deaths; a maybe-possibly happy ending; no Snow White or Sleeping Beauty (although the door is definitely left open, considering what a giant sleaze Prince Charming is).
And that will be my opening to how the Disney version actually got a lot right: Chris Pine as Prince Charming is amazing. Billy Magnussen as Other Prince (no, really) is amazing. The sibling rivalry of egocentric asshole brothers is incredible, and pretty much perfectly executed in “Agony,” wherein they crash around in a waterfall, as one does, trying to one-up each other. The NYTimes even ran a pretty terrific interview–titled, fabulously, “One Day Your Prince Will Come (Whining)”–with Pine and Magnussen, about both the scene and their methods for approaching Charming and Other Prince. The self-absorption and posing of the brothers Egomaniac is pretty much amazing.
Basically, everything–or almost everything–in Into the Woods should be erotic…and, surprisingly, a hell of a lot is erotic, despite the bowdlerizations. The Baker’s Wife (Emily Blount) remains a deeply complex character–a woman who is, despite her name (Baker’s Wife?), in Kathryn Funkhouser‘s words, definitely a protagonist. Hell, she even has her “moment” with the Prince, in the woods, in Act II. Meryl Streep isn’t Bernadette Peters, which is kind of a duh moment; however, I found her performance strong and believable and kind of modern, which was pretty cool. (Also some rad special effects there, special effects dudes.) Rapunzel doesn’t have twins (!!!), and she hies herself off with Other Prince at the end–but I suppose that someone might as well get a Maybe Possibly Not Horrible Ending, so why not? (Let’s face it: Other Prince is not exactly a gem either, although it’s hard to say if he’s as bad as Charming or just trying to one-up him–which is, honestly, a pretty brilliant interpretation of him.)
I loved that Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and Red (Lilla Crawford) were both believable kids–and that they were played by kids. (They were played by young-looking college kids at Krannert–which might be better, given the darkness of the source material, but hey, it’s a film.) I thought the set was pretty great. Anna Kendrick’s Cinderella is moving and loopy and sweet…and, when she jilts Prince Charming (but not sincere), she is MAGIC. Take THAT, sucker! Rapunzel’s changed fate gives MacKenzie Mauzy a chance to definitively flounce away from her tower, which is kinda awesome, actually–the hell with Other Prince, she’s gonna be fine. (And she’ll never ever have long hair again, I bet.) James Corden’s Baker is as bumbling and emotional as he should be: even with the limits of a film (it’s less immediate, usually), he is vulnerable and often sweet, and Baker and Baker’s Wife are, despite their bickering, a team–as they must be.
Yo, I am tough now. I run my own life now. From Tumblr..
In truth, I only really disliked Johnny Depp’s Wolf–but that, I think, ties back more to Tonto and to current events than anything. (I wouldn’t have minded seeing Pine or Magnussen double his role; it could, I think, have been grand, and goodness knows there’s precedent. But whatever, I guess I’m a live theatre girl at heart.)
Definitely most pressing question. Giants are normal, talking to birds isn’t. From link.
In the end, however, this is less a review of Into the Woods than a celebration–both of the bowdlerized version and of the original. (Jane Hu’s review–and discussion–of the Disney version goes into how she feels it stays true, or doesn’t.) I’m still a little surprised by how much I love the Sondheim musical: its darkness, I suppose, calls to me; I’ve never enjoyed imaginary utopias, because there’s always darkness, somewhere. (Just look at The Handmaid’s Tale, where utopia goes decisively to hell.) I like the complexities, moral and other, of old fairy and folk tales, which seem to me to delve so much deeper into our human condition than their Disneyfied counterparts. And, most of all, I love live theatre, seeing hearts laid bare in front of me, IRL. And so, as much as I think this film of Into the Woods is grand–and I do, I really, truly do–I’d jump at the chance to see it performed live again, because live theatre, though wrought by we mere mortals, is purest magic.
Whether or not you’re okay with Disneyfied Sondheim, this is a pretty great bit of acting/singing/ranting/whatever here, yo.
For those who, like me, like to read interviews and articles, here are a few:
You should read Kathryn Funkhouser‘s piece from The Toast, because it is really, really amazing, and talks about why you should love Into the Woods, far more eloquently than I (me: you should love it because it’s dark! and funny! haha go to the theatre! )
1 Believe it or not, I totally recommend going to see ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore–if you have a chance and a strong constitution! Which I typically do not have–all it takes is a good superhero movie to have me bawling–but Krannert’s production totally worked for me, in all its bizarre and frequently overwrought glory. (Also it started with a fight between hot bros on stage, which I was 100% down for.) It occasionally gets produced elsewhere, though possibly with less nudity😥 and the NYT reviews a production here.
2 And the darkness is, believe me, incredibly interesting. Some good scholars are bringing it back; see this Guardian review for a new translation with blood, guts, and sex included, and, for a really brief overview (I recommend going deeper, naturally), see Wikipedia.
In late April, as the bees woke from their winter’s sleep around Chicago, and spring flowers bloomed, Maggie Stiefvater‘s The Raven King was published, bringing the Raven Cycle, in all its heartbreak and glory, to its conclusion. We’d known from the beginning–from the first pages of The Raven Boys, first book of the cycle–that Blue would kiss her true love, and he would die. We knew shortly thereafter that her true love would be the inestimable Gansey, that Raveniest of Raven boys, and that Gansey would die. Anticipating The Raven King became almost a painful thing, made more difficult the longer the wait stretched: we could not know, we addicts, what would happen, but we knew Gansey would die, of Blue’s kiss. I think I read the last page first, when finally my copy arrived, promptly on April 26.
Waiting for The Raven King.
The first book of the Raven Cycle was published a little less than a month into my second year in grad school, coming out September 18 of 2012, in the midst of an ugly contract negotiation and my own desperate quest to 1) turn people out for bargaining (we have power together, after all, and precious little when we stand divided) and 2) to get my exam reading in, all while taking courses and teaching a heavy courseload. I would take my exams–in Colonial Spanish American literature (essentially the beginning of coloniality through the wars of independence), in Medieval Spanish literature, and in Spanish American literature, 1898-present–in the spring of ’13.
It was, all around, a terrible year,1 brightened now and again by a new book or a concert at the performing arts venue down the street from my apartment. Maybe it was in part due to my own stress that I fell so in love with the Raven Cycle‘s crew; I’m not going to psychoanalyze myself here, since I never took pysch and my area of literary theory is actually postcolonial.2 I’ve also been a Stiefvater reader for some time; I was, as it were, quite ready for The Raven Boys.
The Raven Cycle has, despite its issues (see note 2), a lot going for it. There are, to name just a few of its attractions, richly developed characters, believable magic (it is totally possible), strong worldbuilding, and terrific cars. Henrietta itself, lay line and all, becomes a character in the Cycle. The cars are characters; the land is a character; the dead walk with the living, and the living truly do live.
Blue and Co. haven’t learned this yet, but they will. <insert evil laughter here>
There is Blue Sargent, whose father is only fully revealed for what he is, good and bad and cowardly, in The Raven King: Blue, whom Stiefvater allows to have insecurities and vulnerabilities in concert with her strength: fiery Blue, Gansey’s true love. Blue is catalyst and glue, all while being a smartass kid on the cusp of adulthood. She’s an imperfect teenager, and while that isn’t always popular, I quite appreciate it. (Let’s face it: we humans are a messy lot, good and terrible, heroic and petty, all rolled into our awkward human bodies.)
There is angry Ronan, the truth of whose sexuality unfurls slowly, until he could never be anything but gay,3 and until I was as afraid of what would happen to him and to Adam as I was of Gansey’s looming death. I loved Ronan from the beginning; I was ever so glad that, in its ending, Raven King gave him–and Adam–a chance at happiness in the future, in which the scars of their uniquely ugly pasts could, perhaps, fade. I wasn’t sure whether to rejoice for Noah as he slid from the world of the living or to mourn him. (I’m still not, really.) And there is fragile Adam, broken and remade, strong as the land around him. I didn’t like him as much, when he was lusting after Blue, as I came to like him: but then, I didn’t know him as well then, either.
And Gansey? I have a strange relationship with him. He’s a difficult guy to like, in many ways–his family’s politics are opposed to mine; they are rich, and have always been so, while money has a way of running through the generations like sand in an hourglass in my family, sliding out that hole in the bottom that, apparently, no one ever thought to plug. But, like Gansey, I come of old stock, and I too learned to say that I was very well, thank you, even when I wasn’t. There is a quote from The Dream Thieves that, strange as it may be, means so much to me I’ve permanently left a bookmark to guard the spot. It comes after Ronan texts Gansey with the news that he’s total Gansey’s Pig; nonetheless, when asked, Gansey says everything is fine, because:
There were no circumstances under which he would’ve answered that question in any other way. Possibly if he’d discovered a family member had died. Possibly if one of his limbs had been separated from his body.
For there, you see, is a tiny story of my life: no matter what has happened in one’s life, one smiles in public, and does not let on. It simply isn’t done. And so I have worked through extreme pain, through health crises, through debilitating panic attacks, through deaths, with a smile that was sometimes a grimace, for it is what one does. I think that was when I really began to love Gansey as a character–we had nothing in common, really, yet we had that.
The Raven Cycle was, for me, never really about Glyndŵr.4 It was a quest in which the questing was probably more important than the arriving (which Thoreau would probably appreciate, since he thought that wisdom was in part “find[ing] the journey’s end in every step of the road“). I love that our leading folk5–Ronan and Adam, Gansey and Blue, Chang (despite appearing only in books three and four), and even Noah, the dead boy–are teenagers who will (with the exception, of course, of poor Noah) grow into young adults who will go through that amazing phase in which they know All The Things while simultaneously knowing, just like Jon Snow, nothing at all. It was appropriate, somehow, for the Cycle to end with a death and a resurrection. In truth I’d rather it had stopped there, with the resurrection, and the nameless hope it entailed.
For our heroes go onward, ceaselessly borne, one hopes, into the future, wherein someday they shall grow up, and realize they know nothing, and become the humans they were meant to be, and drive the Pig once more down the lay lines of Henrietta.
1 But! The joke was on me! It totally got even worse the next two years. 2 There are actually any number of ways in which I could analyze the Cycle using postcolonial theory, of course; like all favorites it is problematic, in places such as its depictions of race and whiteness (see this Tumblr post for some discussion of representation and whiteness among characters), in its carrying of a white Welsh king to a land long inhabited by a group of people who are then never mentioned (which is an amazing example of coloniality in narrative, really). But that is, right now, another post, for another time. 3 Other folks have written about Ronan and having a gay central character in a massively popular young adult series; they include this, this, and this (I really like this, possibly because there are Many Words and I am drawn to Many Words); Stiefvater also addresses, here, why Ronan never officially “comes out.” 4 You think I could leave this opportunity to add more info? Haha suckers! He has a character page on the Raven Boys wikia; a BBC site; and a super messy Wikipedia page, among other things. 5 Our supporting characters were, generally, quite good as well–though they got a little wonky at times.
Dr. Carla Hayden, the new Librarian of Congress! Image from Wikimedia Commons. Originally from this blog. As a US Government image, it is in the public domain. (A little copyright info seems appropriate on a blog about a librarian, yo.)
This week, in the midst of seas of bad news, my profession got good news: Carla Hayden, long the director of the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore, alumna of my alma mater as well as of the University of Chicago,1 was finally approved as the new Librarian of Congress. In one fell swoop she’s broken two glass ceilings: Dr. Hayden will be the first woman and the first person of African-American descent to become the Librarian of Congress. She’s also an actual, real librarian with (two!) real degrees in library and information science. She is going to rock this position, guys.
As a librarian, I am wildly proud and happy that Dr. Hayden will be leading the Library of Congress for the next ten years. I believe that she will bring it, forcefully if necessary, into the twenty-first century, and will help it become the leader we need and deserve in the tech and digital sectors, places where it has been rather lagging. She is in every way a trailblazer: Dr. Hayden is the first Librarian of Congress in many years to actually be a librarian (which is, yes, hugely important); she’s also the first woman, the first African-American, and indeed the first person of color. And, of course, she’s one hell of a librarian, someone to lead our national library into the future with grace and with vision.
We are, here in the Chicago area, in the heart of the three May Icemen. After a bitter day we’ve a frostalert–the tomatoes will die tonight, if they’ve been put out without protection. (They might die even with black plastic, but they’ve a slightly better chance with it than without.) They’ve always been part of my life, the Three May Icemen–I am, after all, a Midwesterner born and bred–but, until today, I’d never actually realized that they were more than an expression that I’d heard from my parents, and my grandparents (both sets) and my relations from Wisconsin.
The Three May Icemen are, evidently, saints of long ago, whose feast days bounce in a line, from May 11th through May 13th, or 15th. According to Chicago’s own Tom Skilling, the saintly ice dudes are generally Mamertus, Pancras (yeah, like that super-cool train station in London), and Servatius, although Boniface sometimes joins their number, as does Sophia, whose feast day sometimes heralds the planting season. Regardless of which dudes join in the fun, however, the days are more or less the same: roughly May 11th through the 13th, though the 14th and 15th (Saint Sophia’s day) can join in as well. Thus, we are this year quite in the midst of our Icemen–both metaphorically, as Sophia’s day will roll round in less than an hour, and literally, as we’re awaiting that ostensibly late-season frost.
If you don’t like the weather in Wisconsin, my grandma used to say, wait five minutes, and it’ll be something different–a saying which, of course, I’ve also heard here in Illinois. (According to the renowned pollster Five Thirty Eight, which has of course looked into this important factoid, Chicago isn’t even in the top ten unpredictable weather cities, which is probably just as well. Thank you Lake Michigan!) But I don’t think I’d categorize our cold May days as unpredictable, exactly: after all, they’ve been guiding the planting season in western Europe since auld lange syne, came over to the U.S. fairly early, and continued to guide plenty of hands here.
Certainly it’s been a part of my family lore. Never plant before the three May Icemen have come and gone, they’ve all of them said: keep your tomatoes safe. And certainly I’ve reminded folks that spring is always a violent season, prone to wild weather swings; I’ve even referenced the Three May Icemen, though I thought that they were nothing more than three particularly cold days, after which one trundled out to the garden and got the tomatoes in. But the three Icemen are come, this year, which means spring is well and truly here, almost to the tipping into summer: and once they’ve gone, it’ll be time to plant.
I bought a car yesterday, which meant that I didn’t give much thought to the date (other than, of course, to write it repeatedly, in an increasingly childish hand); it also meant that I avoided most of the obligatory social media posts about drinking José Cuervo or Corona or tequila or Patrón or whatever and stuffing one’s face with, presumably, Chipotle. (Chipotle is excellent, but it really isn’t Mexican cuisine.) However, despite spending a fair bit of time with the car, and then obsessing over Beyoncé’s Lemonade (quick, go read Audre Lorde’s “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” right now!), I started running into the old round of go-drink-tequila-it’s-Cinco-de-Mayo posts–and, because I am a purist, I am here, with a list of three things that Cinco de Mayo really, truly is not, and one thing that it is.
Really, it’s the first Battle of Puebla: the one fought on May 5 of 1862, between a very superior sort of French force, one under Napoleon’s command, and the vastly outnumbered Mexican army at Puebla, under Ignacio Zaragoza. (Napoleon wanted to colonize Mexico, too–Europe simply wasn’t big enough for him.) Even though Puebla would fall to the French the next year, even though the Austrian Maximilian and his Belgian wife Charlotte would briefly “rule” Mexico (no, really, it’s called the Second Mexican Empire, and it was all thanks to the French and their colonial project), the 1862 battle is a pretty big deal. It’s also kind of awkward, thanks to one of the leaders of the defense of Puebla: one Porfirio Díaz, future dictator.
Cinco de Mayo Is Not…
…about Spain, at all
It’s about the French, which I already mentioned, above. It’s also about how, during Benito Juarez’s first presidency, Mexico defaulted on its bills, which is, I think, a timely situation to discuss now, as countries are defaulting once more. (Go forth and read about Juarez, if you don’t know about him already; he was a fascinating figure, and a very important part of Mexican history.) Its celebratory status here in the U.S. apparently got kicked off during our Civil War, by Mexican-Americans from California.
…a particularly big deal in Mexico
So, it’s kind of a big deal, in some places: it’s celebrated in Puebla, which makes sense, since that’s where the battle happened in the first place. Kids get the day off school throughout Mexico, which is no doubt a great joy to all of them, and a moderate annoyance to many of their parents–maybe a bit like Polaski Day here in Chicago. It pretty much got going here in the U.S., and has, embarrassingly, since turned into one of what Time in 2011 called the “Top Ten Drunkest Holidays.” As a historical purist teetotaler, I would encourage one and all to learn about the French in Mexico rather than binge-drinking. One can hope, right?
…Mexican Independence Day, or Mexican Fourth of July, or Anything Remotely Similar
Hidalgo’s standard of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Image by Marcuse from Wikimedia Commons.
Guys, Mexican Independence Day is September 16, because that’s the day that the small-town priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla gave the Grito de Dolores, in 1810, in the town of Dolores. That had a lot to do with Spain, but it also had a lot to do with class, and race, and religion, and even the concept of “buen gobierno,” which has been a battle cry raised by many an insurgent group throughout Latin American history. As my notes from Rebels, Smugglers, & Pirates in Latin America remind me, Hidaglo wasn’t the world’s greatest strategist (good government in the name of the King! is kind of a crappy strategy for a revolution, a mi modo de ver), and everybody was basically fighting their own wars–but the Grito de Dolores definitely kicked off the Mexican Revolution, and the men who would come after Hidalgo–including José María Morelos, who was a good strategist–would lead the charge onwards. They are, every one, worth knowing, and worth reading up about–so, to celebrate the actual Mexican Independence Day in September, maybe pick up a history of Mexico, or a biography of Benito Juarez, or Morelos, or Guerrero, or even Iturbide.
So, happy Battle of Puebla Day (a day late)! Now, in lieu of ending this quite the way I want, I’ll direct you over here, to Octavio Paz writing about Los Hijos de la Chingada.
The men of Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s Sea of Lentils are frequently cold; the Englishmen are ruthlessly mercantile, capitalists of the first water, striding through worlds new to them and making of the lands and their people new markets and new buyers and new money–enough new money to build empires and to stand–and prevail–against the might of the Spanish Armada. They were a pragmatic set of folks, those Englishmen whose blood now infuses my veins, and likely not prone to flights of fancy or grand gestures of beauty; Michael Guasco, in his article “‘Free from the Tyrannous Spanyard?’ Englishmen and Africans in Spain’s Atlantic World,” comments that “English seamen were pragmatic entrepreneurs.”1 It is certainly the vision of England and its folk that sings out through the pages of Sea of Lentils: pragmatic, practical, often cold: we grim, determined folk, who grit our teeth and get done what must be done. But, at the same time as Benítez-Rojo’s hard-headed capitalists were beating back the Spanish (while doing business with them, of course), a young actor from Stratford-Upon-Avon, possessor of a golden imagination, was taking up a quill. That young man was one William Shakespeare, and his oeuvre continues to speak to us today.
It’s hard for me to say, even now, just how much Shakespeare and his works mean to me. I am dyslexic; reading came slow and painfully hard, each word a misshapen thing to be committed to memory so I might, if I were lucky, know it when I saw it again. Then, as now, I had a good memory–for stories, plotlines, action, words that came together to form a living thing. In ’95, I think, or maybe it was ’96, PBS ran Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 vision of Shakespeare’s great Much Ado About Nothing. I watched, and it was magic, words of fire writ larger than life on our small tv. I had to read it–I had to know it, intimately, as well as it’s possible to know anything.
There was no one to read it to me, and so I, mostly illiterate, able to read and write my name (I did have a good memory, after all), took to the shelves, and got down our vast and unused Complete Works. I like to say that I learned to read on Much Ado, though perhaps it were more accurate to say that I learned to read on the index, pushing myself through words bigger and grander and stranger than any I’d seen before. Within three years, I’d read the Complete Works (Titus gave me nightmares; MacBeth was glorious, but, I knew, historically inaccurate). Even now, when people tell me Shakespeare is hard to understand, I’m startled: I’ve always found him, well, ultimately relateable, a man of his time who has somehow managed to become timeless.
Now, because he was my first literary love, it is to Shakespeare’s plays that I return in times of stress or strife: even if I feel broken, I know that there’s a play for it, somewhere, a word that might turn my day and give me the courage I need for another charge at the windmills of capitalism. (I know I just mixed my authorial metaphors and I don’t even care!)
I love Shakespeare in “traditional” productions (I celebrated today by watching Henry V, from the BBC’s Hollow Crown, and crying my eyes out), and I love Shakespeare in contemporary ones. He’s one of those rare jewels whose works are, I think, pretty much perfect whenever and wherever and however2 they’re set–as long as they’re acted well and lovingly, they’re fabulous. The first Shakespeare I saw live was Midsummer Night’s Dream, at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin: Hippolyta was a flawless ice queen businesswoman; Demetrius was an L.L. Bean wearing, lantern-toting yuppie dork, and Puck was, for the duration, the sole aim and desire of, I think, everyone attracted to dudes. Live theatre can make gods of mortals, and, in Puck’s case, it did.
I’d hoped, this 400th anniversary, to be able to partake of the events. At least there will be free ones, come summer: Grant Park Symphony Orchestra will perform Shakespeare in the Park this summer, concerts of Shakespeare’s words set to music. I plan to go. And, in the meantime, I’d like to believe that someone out there will take this 400th anniversary and use it to get to know the snarky, funny, probing words of an actor from Stratford who died so long ago and whose words remain so alive, and so current.
1 Guasco, 3. 2 They’ve been performed, well and lovingly, at the Jungle at Calais and at a refugee camp in Jordan, among other places.
It’s Leap Day! We’ve had our “extra” day of February, which started like a lamb (almost) and ended rather like a lion, even though it isn’t quite March yet. But why on earth do we have an extra day? I’m going to leave that to the one and only Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has also tweeted about it. Leap Year is extra weird, since, as The Telegraph explains, it actually doesn’t happen every four years, as it didn’t happen in, say, 1900, or in 2000. The Georgian calendar is just too fancy for that, or something.
The Art Institute’s incredible exhibit “A Voyage to South America: Andean Art in the Spanish Empire” will end its run on February 28, 2016–just a few days from now. I talk a lot about Latin American history; I’ve even talked about José Gil de Castro, free man of color, who painted the tale of the wars of independence. And, now that its course has been almost run, I’ll finally write about this exhibit.
Image of Our Lady of Bethlehem with a Male Donor. 18th century Cuzco School painting by an unidentified artist. Image by Darren and Brad of Flickr.
2015 has been a strange year: not the best, but one with highlights. And so, because I don’t much enjoy the holiday season and have a tendency to focus far too much on the parts of the year that have been bad, I’ve tried to pull together a list of my highlights.
In May I graduated with my second Master’s degree, this one in Library and Information Science. I am a failure at this school spirit thing, and I can’t say that I felt any surges of school spirit when I graduated–mostly, I was just incredibly bored at the ceremony, and I really wished that they’d had a bagpiper, like we did when I got my MA in Spanish. Bagpipes ftw, guys. (Also social media, which, although it’s not as good as in-person, lets me keep in touch with my friends from grad school–wherever they may be.)
I flew for the first time in my life this year, to Pittsburgh for a job interview, and a short (but wonderful) visit with family. Flying wasn’t actually as interesting as I guess I’d thought it would be: it was kind of like Amtrak in the air, right down to the bumping around. (It turns out I don’t have air sickness, which shouldn’t be a surprise since as far as I know none of us have sea sickness issues, either.) I did feel a weird and wild surge of love for that little world down below, however. It’s the only one we’ve got, and it’s ours, now, to care for and to love.
Thanks to a course in Museum Informatics (the professor is amazing, take his classes if you’ve ever got a chance), I had the chance to actually play with technology–and, thus, to learn a hell of a lot more about it than I’d known before. (Rapid prototyping ftw!) My posts on Berthe Morisot and Édouard and Eugène Manet and Michelangelo Merisi (better known as Caravaggio) both spun out from this class, as did the timelines I created for both. And, of course, I learned to use the heck out of Northwestern University’s Timeline JS software, created by the excellent minds at the Knight Lab. It’s great and it’s easy and it’s structured interactivity, all of which is terrific! (And it really doesn’t require any coding knowledge, although some super-basic html can come in handy.)
Meanwhile, my brother S transferred to a four-year school; my brother E joined the international math honors society. And my mother had something like six or eight Messiahs this year, which is really great. I even went with her to one, and the singers were amazing, and the church was stunning. (Next year, if she plays it again, I might bump along to the Messiah at Dankmar Adler‘s grand Ebenezer Baptist, in Bronzeville. I hear the acoustics are–unsurprisingly, since we’re talking about Dankmar Adler, the grand acoustical engineer–fabulous.)
Books and Exhibits and Culture (and NASA, because why not)
JK Rowling, writing as Robert Galbraith, put out a new Cormoran Strike novel. This is obviously fantastic, because I love JK Rowling! And I love Cormoran Strike! And also Robin! But, along with my friends, I’m also kinda a member of the Please Dropkick Matthew Anywhere (Like Isn’t There a Bridge In London) club, and we’re kinda still waiting on that. But, you know, we live in hope. Next year, guys. I have no clue if the Cubs will win, but surely Matthew will get dropkicked somewhere.
Photography is one of my favorite art forms (admittedly I have a lot of favorite art forms), probably in part because it was my college art–at Roosevelt, back in the day (aka when they still had art history as a major), one had to have an applied art to graduate, and photography was mine. So, I watch a lot of sites that have a lot of photography. The Chicago Tribune‘s photojournalists are an amazing group of artists; if I could drum up more traffic for them, I’d be delighted–maybe it would help ensure that the Trib maintains full-time photojournalists. Samplings from their art consistently appear here; the page is always a highlight of my day. Similarly, The Atlantic‘s Photo blog curates some of the best from around the world. And, of course, Le Match, out of Paris, always finds amazing photography, too. (They even have good Instagram pages, one for contemporary photos, one for vintage photos.) And, at least sometimes, Time posts some tremendous photography, some of it hailing from Life. Then there’s NASA, which has this amazing ability to bridge art (photography) with science in its stunning space images. (A lot of them are available on NASA’s Tumblr.)
Medieval art is about as far from photography as one can go, yet Discarding Images–which is on Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter–is another frequent bright spot. S thinks it’s amazing how bad some of the medieval artists were, which might just show that S isn’t all that familiar with medeival art–it isn’t bad, just different. I really wonder if they were high as kites, or if, like Two Monks Inventing Things of The Toast, they just didn’t have a damn clue what those things were supposed to look like after all. (It should be noted that they pretty consistently get cats right; clearly cats are the Most Important.)
Things Coming, Things Continuing in 2016
After a year and more of job searching, I’ll be starting a job in January. It’s part-time, in my field and my area of expertise. It offers me a good personal and professional fit–and, in that wonderful and infrequent combination, it will also provide me with space for professional development. It’s an exciting new thing coming in the New Year.
In part because I’m going to be starting a new job, I’m back to scanning through the concert schedules–though I missed Merry Widow, Lyric will be showing Rosenkavalier! I’ve loved Strauss, and Rosenkavalier, for years; if I can possibly find peanut gallery tickets, I’m going to try to go. The cast looks amazing.
It’s really rare to find much of anything showcasing my instrument, which is precisely why I’ve added He Lu Ting‘s beautiful Berceuse, played by Gary Karr and Yuan Xiong Lu. I think it’s really beautiful, and I think it’s really worth watching–if only to see two virtuosic musicians performing together on an instrument whose beauty is so rarely utilized. I’m hoping for more: He Lu Ting (or Luting) may have left us in 2003, but the arranger, Blaise Ferrandino, is here and hale and hearty, and I hope he’ll bring us more beautiful music for bass.
I also get to look forward to the literary version of chocolate (or maybe something fluffier). Maggie Stiefvater will publish the final installement of the Raven Boys cycle, her Raven King, which is both terrifying and exciting since there is a prophesy that our heroine will kiss her one true love (probably Gansey)…and he will die. Clearly, I want Blue and Gansey to kiss, and I don’t want anybody to die. This is a conundrum. It is also a conundrum that I have to wait pretty much an entire year for the new Cormoran Strike novel to come out, which is incredibly frustrating. (I am, natch, rooting for Matthew to get dropkicked somewhere.) And my favorite writers of literary puffball fantasy, also known as romance, will be turning out new novels beginning midway through January. (I’m the kind of woman who keeps track of publication dates on all calendars. It’s probably not a surprise I have a degree in literature and a degree in LIS.)
I’m not really one for New Year’s Resolutions (except for the one about seeing friends more often), so instead of anything of the sort I offer a picture of the family cat, who is an amazing and oddball eight-year-old:
He probably wouldn’t actually say hi, because he’s painfully shy. (If you play an instrument he’ll come out eventually, and cry like a baby when you play out of tune. And he’ll beat up dogs, even the nicest ones in the world. Like, he’ll chase said nice dogs all over the house, terrifying them.)
May this coming year be good to you and to yours! (I’m really hoping that tomorrow doesn’t start out with another bathroom flood, because I had plenty of that today.) Here’s to 2016, and all the new experiences and new books and new concerts and new exhibits that it will bring!
It’s snowing! It’s the first snow of the year, and, though it’s hardly enough to go skiing, it’s enough to coat the world in fresh white, making it pristine and lacy and lovely. We do exist, you see, even here: we winter-lovers, for whom the first snow should really be a holiday, we who take winter vacations only to the north, for the skiing, and the skating. My parents put me on a pair of the tiniest cross-country skis you’ve ever seen (or not seen) when I was around two; I have no more memory of learning to ski than I have of learning to walk. Around the same time my late grandmother, tiny and fierce, strapped tiny skates onto my little boots and held my hands as I learned to skate on the pond on the family farm near Wisconsin Rapids, and ever since–well, likely even before–winter has been a time of warm family memories and pristine beauty for me.
A long, long time ago, when our country was very new, a Doctrine was born. The world was, it seems, innocent then, but I think it unlikely that the Doctrine was ever entirely innocent itself. The Doctrine’s origins sink back even further, to a speech given by James Monroe while he was Thomas Jefferson’s secretary of state; the Doctrine itself would be penned by John Quincy Adams, our future president, while he was secretary of state to James Monroe. We began to put that Doctrine to use long before its ink was dry: the fledgling U.S. consumed South Florida, and then, soon enough, all of Florida (never mind that the Spaniards had helped us win the Revolution).1 We had Manifest Destiny, after all. The World was well and truly Ours, and the Monroe Doctrine was elucidated to Keep Those Europeans the Hell Outta the Americas.2
In October a Russian plane went down over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. I have friends from Russia and from Egypt, and in the first panicked minutes after I heard about that crash, as it was made clear the plane was packed with Russians and a few Ukrainians, I began reaching out: are you all right? Is your family all right? Is there anything I can do? I was very lucky, or perhaps I should say my friends were: their families were all right, home in Moscow and Saint Petersburgh, and they were here.
Beirut followed close on the heels of the Russian plane: tragedy, and heartbreaking heroism, chronicled in paper after paper. I am addicted to current events; I read news in three or four languages, from multiple countries and continents. I like to be informed, though it is a singularly heartbreaking endeavor.
And then, too close to catch our collective breath, came the attack on Paris. For me, as for many Americans, Paris holds a special place. I am a musician’s daughter and a writer’s granddaughter; I grew up half on stage, half in the shadowy world of backstage, and I write as well. In many ways I am most at home in the world of the arts: for all its flaws, I know better how to navigate it than any other. Paris is, in many ways, the symbolic heart of our western artistic and cultural world; those who died were not so different from me, as they ate at cafés and went to concerts and giged.
Paris is the symbolic capital of another thing as well: the French language. My mother, born in Vermont and come to maturity in Wisconsin, is a French speaker. She spoke to us all in French, often: I think she frequently had no idea she’d slipped out of English and into her other mother tongue. Québéc and Montreal hold a special place in my heart, though of course I’ve never been–childhood vacations were exclusively to backwoods places, and though I’ve canoed the Boundary Waters and learned how to deal with sharing the woods with bears, I’ve yet to visit New York City.
And on Saturday, still reeling, still unsure if my mother’s colleagues who call Paris home were alive, if family friends’ Parisian family had come through the attacks or not, I went into Chicago. It was the sort of trip one has to make anyone: sometimes one must visit the music shops to pick up the music one has on hold, after all.
I didn’t know what to expect: Chicago is a major city, and, though authorities had said they planned to rather play it by ear, both my mother and I assumed there would be a greater police presence than usual. There was–but there was something else, too, something far more vital and organic.
There was something close to a carnival downtown on Saturday, an almost frantic performance of joie de vivre. Downtown Chicago is always packed, but on Saturday evening, though it was late and in November, the streets were so crowded that we moved shoulder-to-shoulder both north and south. It was a carnival of frenetic merrymaking, a wild and pulsing and mad joie de vivre that I don’t think I have ever quite felt, before.
Because of course we were caught up in it, a little. I dragged my mother north to see Trump Tower, since somehow she’s not registered it before. I pointed out the glories of the champaign bottle better known as the Carbide & Carbon building, designed by the Burnhams to look like their bootleg champaign bottle, because what else would one design a building to look like, during Prohibition? Champaign it is. Which, of course, fit rather perfectly with the mood in the city on Saturday evening as well.
We have a thing, in the faith in which I was raised, called “vocal ministry.” Since we have no preacher, any member, or visitor, can give vocal ministry, which is nothing more than a fancy word for getting up (well, usually getting up) and speaking, or singing, or reciting. I hate speaking in public. I have panic attacks and nightmares about speaking in public. I stutter and stumble and never know quite what to say, only to find it, later, in words: because words, it seems, are the tools of my trade.
This is one of the times, however, when it is difficult for me to find words, even in their pure written form. I remember the days that went by without knowing if my uncle had made it out of the Trade Center alive, and the agonizing relief that he had, and that my aunt’s plane had never made it off the ground that day. I worry about my friends, and about their families.
It’s hard to find the words to ask friends to be careful, to look out, when they should not have to fear. My contacts are dusted off; I’ll be in touch more often. This year’s Messiahswill mean something more to my mother, as she sees colleagues whom she feared might have lost their lives. We go on–people go on everywhere, from Kenya and Nigeria to Lebanon and Syria and France–because we have no choice.
Be careful is such a fragile setting of words, as delicate and as breakable as blown glass. Ten cuidado, tenga Ud. cuidado: fragile little words. But they are all the words I have, and so I offer them: be careful, que tenga(n) cuidado.
A few days ago, Classic FM posted a painting by one Carl Vilhelm Holsoe. It was a still life: paintings on the wall, a piano (apparently it’s actually a spinet) and, leaning oh-so-casually against the spinet–a cello. It’s worth noting that the guy apparently kept painting this theme: so far I’ve found at least three versions of it on Wiki art (the one below, in lower res, as well as this one featuring, dangerously, a cello, a chair, and a heat-producing1 old-school oven/furnace,The Music Room, featuring yet another cello leaning dangerously against yet another spinet), and then this one, totally diversified this time, with a woman’s back along with the obligatory spinet and dangerously placed cello. Look, Ma, I can paint the same thing differently!
My mother, irate, shared the image, reminding her students that one never leaves an instrument so carelessly and one deserves everything one may get if one should leave an instrument in such a precarious position. She is, lest there be any doubt, a musician; she is one of the old school of classical freelancers who played more than one instrument (cello and bass, for her), and, for any musician, an instrument is a lot more than a tool, albeit a lovely one. It’s an extension of the self. I, naturally, pointed out that a lot of artists have painted variations on a theme of precariously placed stringed instruments–I seem to recall that the old Dutch masters were particularly cavalier with their instrument-placement, although that could just be a fondness, on their parts, for including string instruments at all. It (along with picking up my bass for the first time in years), got me thinking–and so, without further ado, I present you instruments left in precious positions in art. (Almost always western art, too. To quote Lady Bracknell, it really rather “looks like carelessness” on our parts.)
See this? it is sort of okay to put an instrument on a table, and it’s great that the table’s covered with that cloth–although, let’s face it, it’s also way too easy for the dog to pull off if a wrong note is struck and it gets upset, and, for that matter, we only put instruments on tables when we’re gluing seams, or something similar. But the instrument’s also too big to fit entirely on a table, and that, my friends, is a never-ever-ever. Always support your instrument’s neck!
Carl Fabritius has given us a very nice View of Delft here–some nice architecture, some curing lines, and an instrument seller who apparently treats his wares very poorly. The larger instrument–either a cello or a gamba–is okay, as long as it really, truly isn’t going to slide off. At least the neck is supported, and it isn’t sitting on its bridge or anything equally terrible. The lute, however? That’s a different story. It’s leaning against what appears to be a masonry wall, sans any kind of protection; the body angles against the covered table, nothing present at all to keep it from slipping. If it starts to slide, well, it’s doomed. At best, the lute will slide along the wall, scraping varnish off the body and the neck and fingerboard, potentially ruining neck (and fingerboard) beyond repair. The worst-case scenario is simple: the lute will slide, unchecked, until it falls, smashing into a thousand pieces of tragedy. Do not ever leave your lute in this position. Its ghost will haunt you if it falls, for it was meant to outlive you. (Let’s face it: our musicians are still playing instruments from several hundred years ago. We are only custodians, not really owners at all.)
The guys in Saftleven’s The Duet appear to be jamming, which is great. The way they’re dumping their instruments is so not great. If you want to leave your violone (or your bass) upright, that’s great! There are actually tons of stands for exactly that purpose. (Some are, of course, better than others; use discretion when purchasing.) I also think these guys are probably drunk. Please don’t play a priceless, delicate wood instrument while drunk.
Ochtervelt’s couple have two rather major problems: they’re a menace to their bows, and they don’t support their viol’s fingerboard. Remember: always support your fingerboard. Otherwise, you could find yourself cradling the broken neck of your instrument, and that is a repair bill you won’t soon forget. (It’s also going to be entirely your fault.) If the woman in The Music Lesson does not actually touch anything with the bow she is so cavalierly waving about, everything will be fine and dandy–for the bow. The tip is easily broken, and even the frog can be damaged without effort. For that matter, the hair is itself a delicate matter: it must be rosined, but not too much, and it must be rehaired, more frequently the more often one performs. It, too, can be ruined by injudicious handling. And, of course, the bow itself is a flimsy thing, a finely worked and slender piece of wood, made to ride the strings but not to bear any other form of weight (or work).
Evaristo Baschenis appears to be rather like Holsoe: he kept painting variations on a theme of endangered instruments. Never, ever lay one’s string instrument on its belly! Best case scenario involves a crushed or displaced bridge and some damaged finish. Worst-place…well, say fare-ye-well to your instrument.
To be fair, Caravaggio cares a lot more about the model (who is likely also his lover) than he does about the instruments. But for goodness’ sake, never rest instruments on each other, and don’t just leave them lying around. They’re incredibly fragile, but they also have weight…and it’d be ever so easy to snap that lute’s fingerboard, or gouge out the neck of the violin. It’s totally possible to set up a rack for one’s instruments; we have three basses and a cello lining a wall in my mother’s studio. (There are also some folk instruments on the walls–a banjo, a dulcimer, a ukulele.) But one has to know what one’s doing to make a good rack, and one has to make it strong, and also make it soft, so that the wood won’t chafe. That, of course, is why we’ve lined ours. No damaged wood for us.
Orazio Gentileschi has a beautiful image here, of a musician at her lute. From her expression, and the way in which she’s handling the instrument, I’d say she’s tuning–it really hasn’t changed (at all) in the centuries we’ve been playing stringed instruments. I’d also guess that she’s a good musician, one with a good deal of care–for her lute. Not so much, I’d say, for her violin, its neck unsupported over the edge of the table, its body sidling towards the edge, and her bow, lying under the violin, even more ready to slip into oblivion. Perhaps our lady didn’t play violin at all; it may have been Gentileschi’s addition, and he was a wild one: boon companion and fellow-troublemaker with Caravaggio, and, later, Artemisia Gentileschi’s father. Her lutenists are always respectful of their instruments.
The Terrace‘s painter, the Art Institute tells us, has yet to be identified, although they posit one Ludolf de Jongh of Rotterdam as a possibility. It’s an interesting painting; one is rather pulled into it, wondering who the couple on the terrace are, and what they’re saying, and if they know that there’s another couple, hanging out the window nearby, possibly spying on them, or maybe flirting. And, of course, they have some string instruments in the foreground–one of which looks a hairsbreath away from sliding off the chair on which it never should have been placed and smashing to its death on the floor. I doubt I could even look at this painting without wincing. It’s got a lovely sense of spatiality, of distance and differentiation, but none of that makes up for the instruments that were most likely destroyed in its making.
This is a terrific dark still-life. Nice skull, nice hourglass. Lots of creepy touches. I am unsure, however, if the viol on the books is supposed to be one of said creepy touches, or if it’s just upsetting to those who play stringed instruments. I mean, that’s a goner, there.
I don’t have a clue what’s holding up Ann Ford’s viola da gamba, and that terrifies me. Maybe there’s an invisible servant just holding it there to look pretty? I really hope it wasn’t propped up on yet another pile of books on yet another chair, because that would have been that.
Love the painting, don’t love that there is no support at all for that poor instrument. (The curly thing to the side? It appears to belong to the basket with the screaming monkey, or whatever that thing is.) A good stand need not detract at all from the aesthetic beauty of one’s instrument. In fact, I’d say that it can even increase that beauty, as the instrument can thus be displayed for all the world as the fine piece of functional art that it truly is. Don’t just lean it on a table to die a dreadful death against the floor.
When at one’s toilette, one should have the presence of mind not to lean one’s instrument leaning against a chest. It may fall, and one’s instrument is definitely worth more than one’s makeup. Even expensive makeup.
Never lean your gamba (or viol, or bass, or other stringed instrument) against a…wall. Really, Vermeer doesn’t even bother to pull out the piles of books and random chairs; this poor, endangered instrument is just leaving against a wall. Looks like it might also be close to a window–and a string instrument should never be in direct light or right next to a source of hot or cold air. Like several other painters featured in this walk of shame, Vermeer has other paintings of bad instrument care, including The Music Lessonand The Concert, both with viols or gambas lying half-hidden under things on their backs–easy to trip over, and, if the back is curved…well, easy to damage even without tripping.
And here, wonder of wonders: Jan Verkolje gives us a gamba, safely set in a stand. It’s not on a pile of books or haphazardly sliding towards oblivion off a table. It isn’t about to tumble off a chair. It waits, safe and snug, until it will once again be played.
One never knows. It may still be played to this day.
1 Never leave an instrument of any kind directly by any direct source of heat (or cool air, for that matter). Always use a dampit when the humidity levels are too low, and never leave any instrument in the car.
This weekend is the Chicago Architecture Foundation‘s Open House Chicago! Which means that, for a very little while (only two days!), one can get into a myriad of spectacular and architecturally (and historically) significant buildings–for free. It isn’t every day one can get access to any of these buildings, and I certainly recommend taking the chance to see them. It’s also perfect timing, albeit far too short–after all, we are in the thick of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, making this the perfect time to sample what Chicago has on offer, every day, all the time, with more coming nearly every day. As I’ve written before, it truly is an exciting time in Chicago architecture.
While nearly all the buildings participating in the Open House are open to all, some few are exclusive: members’ only spaces, for those lucky souls who are members of the Chicago Architecture Foundation (if you’re interested, you can find more information on joining here). Conveniently, levels of openness are clearly marked in the Open House’s brochure, available here as a downloadable, printable pdf. The Open House extends into the North Side; naturally, my domain remains the South Side (although of course I can direct you to a good instrument shop in charming Roscoe Village!), and I am quite entertained to learn that my home turf, Hyde Park, is evidently “Far South.” One wonders what they’d call Mount Greenwood,1 if Hyde Park and South Shore are so far south! Extra-super-far-south, perhaps? So far south it’s Off the Map? That Place Whose Name Shall Never Be Uttered? That Place We Never Go Because it Isn’t Really Part of the City Anyway?2
Regardless of odd lines of demarcation, however, the Open House isn’t to be missed (except, most likely, by me). The Charnley House, designed by Louis Sullivan (without the brilliant Adler), will be open. Charnley House would be special regardless of its draftsmen, but one of them happened to be a young fellow with about a thousand kids (and a few mistresses) named Frank Lloyd Wright. As it is, Sullivan let Wright help with the house itself, far more than was normal for a draftsman, and so it is a testament to two of Chicago’s great contributions to the architectural world, Louis Sullivan (and the seed germ theory) and Frank Lloyd Wright (and organic architecture, which is almost a sidenote to the sideshow of his life). Naturally, Charnley House figures in nearly every architecture history class I’ve ever taken. In fact, it was described to those of us taking “Origins of Modern Architecture” at the School of the Art Institute as “the first modern house,” a trailblazer in every sense of the word. It is also roughly contemporary with the so-called Bootleg Houses, buildings which Wright designed, just as it sounds, on the sly, because he had so many children and a draftsman’s pay really didn’t stretch to cover them all. (And then, of course, he bolted with a mistress, but that is a tale3 for another time.)
Naturally, the Charnely House is far from the only building to see in and about Chicago during this far-too-short Open House. (I mean, really, we’re in an Architecture Biennial—shouldn’t we make this Open House a wee bit longer?!) Several buildings in the exclusive Prairie Avenue District are open for viewing, including the McCormick Place Rooftop Farm, the Clarke House (which has probably moved more times than any other Greek Revivial house in the city of Chicago), and the Wheeler Mansion. Open House also doesn’t seem to have Glessner House on their list, which really is odd—especially since the Clarke and the Glessner are at least moderately tied (see: the Glessner’s website). And, of course, if one does visit McCormick Place, one simply must look out to the east, and see Northerly Island, on its way to becoming what Burnham and Bennett dreamed it would be, so long ago when they wrote their Plan of Chicago.
Also in the Loop, or at least rather more downtown than anywhere else, are buildings like the Civic Opera House (which is amazing! lovely piece of Deco architecture!), home of the equally amazing Lyric Opera of Chicago, which everyone should have a chance to see at least sometimes. Buildings ranging from the Palmer House to the Rookery, Tribune Tower (which is for sale😦 apparently) to the Intercontinental Hotel, the Fine Arts Building (which has elevator operators!!) to the Aon Center, and pretty much everything in between. Once more, with feeling, as Buffy might say: this should happen more than once a year, and go for more than two days.
Heading south (though hardly into the “Far South Side,” which barely has any representation at all on the list—the closest they come appears to be Pullman), the Open House includes a number of buildings in Hyde Park, though not as many as one might expect—several churches, including the lovely little Bond Chapel (closed Saturday but open Sunday), the ultimate Prairie School building (Wright’s Robie House), the stunning Rockefeller, and even a building with which I am not all that familiar, Loewenburg & Loewenburg’s ’23 Grand Ballroom, on Cottage Grove. (It looks smashing, but since I’ve never been in, I can’t offer any more information than that.)
The South Shore Cultural Center, one of the buildings I recommended as a place to visit during Lolla this summer, is participating in Open House Chicago, and it’s ever and ever so much worth seeing. However, if it can’t be fit in, it, like Rockefeller, is always available for visitors: the South Shore Cultural Center, once a Gilded Age country club, is now part of the Chicago Park District, open to all. (It’s also the home of Chicago’s police horses, of course, so expect a police presence.) And the new Stony Island Arts Bank will also participate. There really are far too many amazing places to see; I really don’t think that the Open House should be but two days, but once a year, but I believe in access, which might be the issue. (Eventually I’ll be able to join the Chicago Architecture Foundation, but even if that means I get access, it still doesn’t resolve the issue of Chicagoans being able to get into their own cultural heritage.)
Despite all the glories accounted for in this year’s Open House, however, there are a number of striking absences. Remember Mount Greenwood, which I mocked so relentlessly as being Not Really Part of the City? Well, there doesn’t appear to be anything in this architectural Open House south of Pullman—and, as amazing as I consider Pullman to be (it really is incredible), it shouldn’t be the southernmost point of our Open House. That, folks, should be somewhere by the southernmost borders of the city, and Pullman isn’t even close. (Sure, it was once, but that was a very long time ago, indeed.) That said, go south, please. We aren’t the WWII Russian Front, and we’ve got a lot of lovely spaces and places, and a whole lot of history. Even if you don’t venture south of South Shore, give us a try.
It’s also worth noting that, as far as I can tell at a glance, none of this year’s Open House locations are, shall we say, endangered landmarks. In a way this makes a lot of sense—I suppose that, considering liability, it wouldn’t make sense to bring people to see what is left of the beautiful Pilgrim Baptist Church, in which gospel first rose to the rafters and about which I wrote in the late summer of this year. At the same time, I feel that this would be a perfect opportunity to highlight endangered buildings such as Pilgrim Baptist. Let the world see how beautiful it is, even in its skeletal state,4 and perhaps somehow we can pull together enough to save what is left. (Ebenezer Missionary Baptist,5 by Dankmar Adler, is on the list, and should definitely be seen—but I strongly feel that our endangered landmarks deserve to be shown as well.)
Another endangered building does not appear on the list. Now, this one is a state building; one can get in pretty much any time, or at any rate, one could, prior to Rauner. I am unsure if this has changed: the guy loves to monetize stuff, after all, so I’d guess that if he could charge for entry, he would. It is German-American architect Helmut Jahn‘s Thompson Center, or State of Illinois Building, and it is currently endangered. Jahn, we were taught, was mocking hyped-up, jingoistic
patriotism when he conceived and created the Thompson Center, with its bright red and blue and white color scheme—so American!6 We were also told, back in our Origins of Civic and Commercial Architecture course, that the building’s vary transparency was supposed to symbolize, or maybe encourage, transparency in government.7 (I’m going to guess that the closest we’ll ever come to that is having alderpeople, because they’re directly answerable to us and we can always go yell at them. I think that’s why Chicago, in my experience, works, somehow, but the ‘burb in which I live now doesn’t.)
The building is also in desperate straits—in need of basic maintenance and basic cleaning that would make it once again a star of the Chicago skyline, even if it is rather shorter than many of our conversation pieces. And, worst of all, Blair Kamin tells us that it may be destroyed, yet another Chicago gem lost to the wrecking ball. The building deserves a second chance, and, if it must be sold, as Rauner would evidently like, at least let it be sold to someone who will, as Kamin himself urges, give it the chance it needs, and deserves.
So. It is an incredibly exciting time in Chicago architecture, although I guess it almost always is. It’s also an incredible opportunity to get inside Chicago’s architectural gems, and see them with one’s own eyes—and getting inside a building, taking the opportunity to really get to know it, should never be turned down. But as one visits buildings, and figures out which ones can be seen later, when this wild weekend is done, and which should be seen right now, remember Chicago’s endangered landmarks, buildings like Pilgrim Baptist and the Thompson Center, and give a thought to the preservation of our architecture, which is surely one of our city’s greatest ongoing contributions.
1 I would argue that “Far South Side” is, in Chicago, going to start at South Deering, at its northernmost point, and extend down to Hegewisch, Riverdale, Beverly, Mount Greenwood, and Morgan Park. But I am a South Sider, and know it well, so my reckoning is likely quite different. 2 I don’t go there all that much either, as Mount Greenwood is a fair bit different than my normal stomping grounds of Hyde Park and southern Kenwood and the Loop…but it’s definitely there, and it is part of the city, and since S goes to college there, I do turn up. Occasionally. 3 Which is probably a tale I’ll tell, at some later time…because I’ve always been fond of scandal, and the arts offer it in spades. 4 I passed Pilgrim Baptist only three days ago, heading towards Hyde Park on MLK Drive; it is worse now by far than it was when I saw it only a month or so before: even the tarp over the roof is in decay, and the spires look as if they might fall. It breaks my heart that we are allowing such destruction to come to one of our great buildings. 5 The building is a Chicago landmark; its landmark designation report, a pdf, is available via the City of Chicago, here. 6 Origins of Civic and Commercial Architecture, Tim Wittman, School of the Art Institute of Chicago. 7 Ibid.
Naturally, a lot of other people have written about the Open House. My favorites (or the ones I’ve actually bothered to read) include the following:
Once upon a time, in Iberia in the fifteenth century, there was a Genoese man with fanaticism in his soul and a dream in his heart, a dream of sailing West to go East. This made absolutely no sense to anyone but our hero, because the Iberian Peninsula, thanks to its years as several Moorish caliphates, was well-versed in science. One did not sail west into nowhere in order to go to India. This was absurd.
Our hero went first to the Portuguese to sell his Great Idea. In Sagres he waited, and waited, and waited some more: the Portuguese, brilliant navigators who’d been circumventing the globe for years, were unimpressed, and thought he was nuts. The Iberians, after all, were trained by the greatest navigators Europe had ever known: the Moors.1 And then Spain and Portugal forced out the Moors, and the Jews, and began an era of inquisitions.
In Sagres our hero called himself Cristóvão Colombo. When he moved onward, to Spain, and threw himself on the tender mercies of the hard-edged Isabel of Castile and her partner in crime Ferdinand of Aragón, flush with the triumph of the fall of the great Moorish city of Granada, he called himself Cristóbal Colón. We know him, in the United States, as Christopher Columbus, and Isabel of Castile gave him the go-ahead for his westward-ho to India.
So Columbus and his team, who I seem to recall included Moriscos, Moors, and Jews (likely hiding out under the banner of conversos, who were treated terribly under los Reyes Católicos–they weren’t, after all, Old Christian), sailed west to go east, and landed in what we now know as the Bahamas archipelago. He was fabulously lost and utterly convinced that God would tell him where he was going (and where the gold was, so he could finance his fanatical dreams), and the people of the archipelago greeted him warmly, bringing food and gifts, treating the wayfaring strangers with kindness and offering up, judging from Columbus’s own journal, all possible hospitality, despite not speaking the same language. We are all human, and we do find a way.
Or perhaps some of us have so corrupted our humanity as to lose that possibility of redeeming communication. Columbus was thrilled at the kindness of his reception by the Arawak and Taíno peoples of the islands–but not because it meant that he’d found buena gente or good allies. No, he was happy because they would be easy to enslave. Naturally, being a capitalistically inclined fellow who had been promised by God all the Glory, he took many captive, and sold many off. Despite being Christian, he condoned rapes, torture, and wholesale slaughter of the indigenous people of the islands. And he was rapacious, consumed by the thirst for gold, gold, gold: he had not found the founts of gold today, he’d acknowledge in his letters to the Reyes Católicos, but tomorrow–ah, tomorrow!–God would lead him there, and those savages would either give it up to him, or die.2
Columbus revised his opinion of these indigenous people as he went through his viajes as well, depending entirely upon what he wanted from los Reyes Católicos: at first they were naïve, easy to enslave; finally, in the fourth voyage, they became flesh-eating cannibal monsters, out to consume Columbus and all other good Christian men, and even the beautiful land turned bloodthirsty. (It is worth noting that he did begin to run into resistance; people are intelligent, after all, the Taíno and Arawak quickly learned that the Spaniards meant them no good, and much ill.) Meanwhile, Columbus’s atrocities began to attract attention across the pond–as did his rather spectacular mismanagement of colonies under his thumb. People under his governance, you see, had a terrible tendency to die–European, African, indigenous, they didn’t make it long with Columbus lording it over them.
The Spanish were, understandably, not terribly fond of mismanagement; nor were they thrilled that the Taíno and Arawak people were dying off at such a terrible rate–though this had less to do with human care and concern and more to do with having a workforce already in place. One doesn’t want to kill one’s means of production, after all. Christopher Columbus was returned to Spain in chains following his third voyage, to face trial for his mismanagement. One wonders if all those rapes of Taíno and Arawak women, or the wholesale slaughter of villages, had anything to do with the decision. Regardless of his time in chains, or his mismanagement, he was able to convince Isabel of Castile to free him, as well as his brothers; they returned to sea–but he’d never govern again.
Our hero, in short, was not much of a hero at all. He stumbled across the Americas, discovering continents that had been discovered a long time before; he was welcomed, and gave death and destruction in return. And then, when Taíno and Arawak and Carib fought back, and when he didn’t find the gold he’d sought, he became more brutal, and his rhetoric turned uglier. He never ruled again, but the damage he’d started continued on apace, and soon around ninety percent of the indigenous population of the Caribbean would be dead, slaughtered by rampaging soldiers or felled by European diseases. One wonders if Columbus felt any grief for the pristine haven he’d destroyed, or the people he’d slaughtered. And then one reads his Viajes, and realizes, eh, probably not. And one is momentarily glad that one’s ancestors were still wearing kilts and skins and killing each other at home, too afraid of the dark to venture (yet) across the sea.3 So our not-hero died, not in obscurity, and was buried with almost absurd pomp, and today is remembered as the discoverer of a continent that had already been discovered, long, long before.
In the early sixteenth century, as Arawak and Taíno and Carib were tortured and enslaved and killed, as conquest and death spread their bleeding tentacles to the great empires of the Aztec lords in Tenochtitlán and, finally, to the Inca lords in Cuzco, a group of priests took action, arguing vehemently against the treatment of the indigenous peoples. Among their ranks were the Dominicans Pedro de Córdoba and Antonio de Montesinos, and they denied slave owners communion, and fought for those who had been stripped of their freedom and their lives.
A young dandy by the name of Bartolomé de las Casas heard them, and wasn’t impressed. He, after all, was a rich man’s son, and a slave owner himself; presumably Córdoba and Montesinos were denying him communion, too. He must have been delighted when Córdoba and Montesinos and their brethren were kicked off the island of Hispaniola for offending the all-powerful slave-owning class. He joined up with a group of conquistadores, and then everything changed. This new hero realized that he could not stomach the treatment of indigenous people: that those pesky Dominicans, Córdoba and Montesinos, had been right after all. And, because Bartolomé was a young friar of good, albeit slave-owning, family, he went to Córdoba, and to Montesinos, and he began to work, diligently, tirelessly, for the sake of the indigenous people. He even crossed the sea to Spain, and in the person of Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda debated the idea that indigenous people deserved to be treated with brutality. They debated throughout Spain, as Sepúlveda argued that indigenous people were born to be slaves…and de las Casas argued that, indeed, they were not, and had the right to life and safety, just like any (free-born) Spaniard.
And our second hero, this reformed dandy Bartolomé de las Casas, won the debates. The young king Carlos (Charles I of Spain, and V of the Holy Roman Empire) partially accepted de las Casas’s words, and work, and, though they did not go as far as de las Casas and Montesino and Córdoba no doubt would have liked, the Leyes Nuevas of 1548 were upheld, but not strengthened. Fray Bartolomé de las Casas became known as the defender of indigenous peoples, and Sepúlveda went down into history as something of a monster. All hail our reformed hero, ¿de verdad?
Except it is never quite that clean, not even with a man like Bartolomé de las Casas, who risks reputation and possibly life to argue for the lives of others. His Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias is a monumental work, and would tear at the heart of the most seasoned reader. Its scenes of blood and destruction and despair, without middle, without end, until the world shall end, are enough to make the strongest queasy, and to make most of us think back to our own colonizing ancestors, and flinch at the thought of what they have done. (The Brevísima relación also delighted Protestant Europe: they got to pretend that Spain was somehow worse than they, and thus was born the Leyenda Negra, or Black Legend, with men such as Theodor de Bry to illustrate it in lurid, horrific detail.) And yet, as I read the Brevísima relación (everyone who studies Spanish-American coloniality reads it, at least once), I was struck by the words used to describe the indigenous peoples. They were innocent, almost child-like: lambs, sheep, to be guided to God and protected.
At least, I suppose, they were supposed to be protected. But, having grown up on tales of the wild west ranch where my great-grandmother grew up, a ranch worked by her gun-slinging Irish father and a great many Lakota cowboys–I didn’t think that they were sheep-like innocents, but rather intelligent, reasoning people, and I seethed every time I read those words. And here one could say, ever so easily, but Caitlin, you pinko, you’re judging de las Casas by the standards of the twenty-first century, and your oddball family tree, and in a way that’s true. But, you see, Bartolomé de las Casas knew that an economy based on forced labor needed laborers to work the land, and certainly one wouldn’t get so many free laborers from Spain, would one? And so he had a suggestion: use slaves from Africa.
The Portuguese, intrepid sailors and early capitalists that they were, had been busy at the import of human flesh for rather a while–after all, the Pope had even given them permission to do so, creating a new form of slavery in the process. There were people of African descent throughout Iberia; there were also Iberians of African descent along on the conquest. Many of them fought, and some were richly rewarded for their service to the Crown.4 The brilliant Siglo de Oro playwright and poet Juan Latino5 had already obtained his degree from the University of Granada by the time de las Casas advocated bringing (more) enslaved Africans to American shores. Thus, while our deeply flawed hero was certainly not the first to encourage the kidnapping, transportation, and use of enslaved Africans, there is a particularly striking horror in his advocacy: the man who would be known as the defender of indigenous peoples, advocating for the torture and enslavement of other people.
By the end of his life, I’ve been told (and have read), Bartolomé de las Casas deeply regretted advocating for the kidnapping, transportation, and enslavement of people from Africa. It was a bit too late, by then. By the end of the 1500s, African slavery in the Americas–particularly in Brazil–would be growing at an unprecedented, and horrific, rate.6 As the great Mexican theorist Aníbal Quijano argues in “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America,” the conquerors had already created “race,” twisting it to justify slavery. He, and others, posit that the colonial brought with it the beginnings of capitalism as well as of race: a capitalism built on human blood and bondage.7 I like to think Bartolomé de las Casas would have been sickened, had he realized what he’d helped to bring,8 but I doubt Christopher Columbus would have cared. He’d have been angry only that he did not get his hands on all that Aztec gold.
In the meanwhile, we fête Columbus and his “discovery” of an undiscoverable land; we celebrate imperialism, and conquest, and despair without end. Some of us point to Bartolomé de las Casas as the better man–and, though surely he did take a stand, he too was deeply flawed, and stood, at least for a while, in support of the torture and enslavement of people from Africa. For that matter, his mentor Pedro de Córdoba became the first leader of the Inquisition in New Spain. One really has to wonder at the profound and unnerving irony: a defender of the indigenous, becoming leader of the Inquisition.
There is precious little from the Colonial we can fête without discomfort. The past is dark, the present is murky, and one can only hope that by working together, we may make the future a little brighter. We can celebrate Bartolomé de las Casas, but we must also remember, and criticize, his suggested remedy of using Africans as slaves, and thus his complicity in the transatlantic slave trade. We can acknowledge that a man named Cristóbal Colón, or Cristóvão Colombo, or Cristoforo Columbo, or Christopher Columbus, went the wrong way, and stumbled across the Americas–but we must remember that, in many ways, he was a terrible person. The past will always be there, behind us, a messy lodestone around our necks; it’s never going away, ever, and, as Faulkner once wrote, it probably isn’t even past anyway. Pretending it didn’t exist, pretending it was clean, or good, imagining that our idols9 were untarnished–it will not help us work towards a brighter future. Acknowledgement, and hard work, can do that.
NOTES 1 From notes from Colonial Latin American History and Rebels, Smugglers, and Pirates in Colonial Latin America, Prado. 2 Cortés, at least, never really pretended to be anything but what he was: a guy out for gold. 3 Admittedly, that fear of the dark continues to dog me–and, of course, they came later, and made up for lost time. 4 The most famous is likely Juan Garrido, a freedman who fought under Cortés at, among other places, Tenochtitlán; fought for decades with other conquistadores; and was, apparently, a great farmer of wheat. For more on Africans and the conquest, see:
5 Juan Latino was born a slave; he achieved great literary success, married a white Spanish woman of good family (who had been his pupil), and was eventually freed. His courtship of his wife has been immortalized in an eponymous play by Diego Jiménez de Encisco. 6 Notes, “Colonial Latin American” and “Rebels, Smugglers, and Pirates,” Prado. 7 See Coloniality at Large for more by Quijano and other theorists. 8 This may be wishful thinking on my part. 9 My idol, the Mexican intellectual and nun (because she didn’t want to get married), Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, was a slaveowner, even in her convent cell. My idol is tarnished, indeed.
This was built largely around years of study of coloniality in Spanish America, as well as a strong foundation in early United States history and a lot of research on my brother S’s part into our own dark, murky past. Information on the words of Columbus and de las Casas come directly from their works, the Quatro viajes and Testamento of Columbus and the Brevísima relación and the “Memorial” in which African slavery is advocated, by de las Casas. Specific classes deserve mention: Fabrício Prado’s “Latin America to Independence,” which he said should have been “Colonial Latin America” (since “independence” wasn’t some end goal, originally), and “Rebels, Smugglers, and Pirates in Colonial Latin America,” both taught at Chicago’s Roosevelt University; Lesley Tischauser’s survey course of Latin American history, at Prairie State; and Mariselle Meléndez’s colonial Spanish American literature courses, including “(Re)Imagining the Colonial Past” and “Geographies of Knowledge.” I owe more to Prado and to Meléndez than I will ever be able to say.
However, as always, I can and do arrogantly suggest further reading. I will try to divide it between scholarly and popular; I will also note when links are in Spanish.
Vikings occupy an outsized space in our collective imaginations, ranging from sagas and ancient art to Wagner operas and Marvel comics. Valhalla and valkyrie and Mjölnir aren’t just places and accutrements of the gods and choosers of the slain, but part and parcel of our pop culture. They’re also part and parcel of Northern European (and sometimes southern Eurpean) history. After all, while the early Norse were generally farmers (see: Ragnar, the not-so-humble farmer), they had a habit of getting around, both for trade and for other, more nefarious, purposes. The nefarious purposes included such great cultural forays as the sacking of Lindisfarne, which involved killing most of the monks, and the sacking of Iona (rather similar to that of Lindisfarne), along with the sacking and pillaging of towns and cities up and down the Isles and elsewhere.
These extracurriculars were, indeed, the root of the word by which we know the people. To go a-Viking meant to go raiding, not to be Norse or to be from Scandinavia. And, of course, nobody wore horned helmets–the things would have been, one assumes, terribly impractical. The Vikings exhibition, which closed at the Field Museum on October 4 (the day I visited), and which will now spend the next month being dismantled before moving to its next city, stressed that nobody wore those things. In fact, the exhibition posits that what was taken, by people whose imaginations were evidently as good as mine, to be horned helmets were actually Huginn and Muninn (though and mind/memory), chillin’ on Odin’s shoulders.
For some of us, this wasn’t actually news. (I’d like to believe it wasn’t news for anyone, but this is likely a rare moment of optimism on my part.) For some of us, it probably was. Either way, Vikings stressed the lack of horned helmets–and the non-Viking elements of that culture we know as “Viking.” There was little or no discussion of the wildest, worst of the Viking raids, such as those on Lindisfarne and Iona, an absence noted by the Trib’s Steve Johnson in his decidedly positive review of the exhibition. In fact, I’d say the name was rather a misnomer: the exhibition really focused more on the day-to-day lives of the Norse we call Vikings, and not on their little blood and strife-filled excursions to other lands.
Perhaps oddest of all, in light of the focus upon daily lives of farmers, was the warning at the entrance to the exhibition: we were all told that it contained human bones. (Oddly enough, I don’t recall any such warning when entering every exhibit ever on ancient Egypt–and all of those are filled chockfull of mummies, which are, you guessed it, human bones.) I’m also not entirely sure why the bones were along for the ride, although this may have more to do with crowding in the exhibit hall–it was packed almost shoulder-to-shoulder–than due to any issues with the exhibition’s choices themselves. Similarly, my own feeling of something akin to lack–it was a good exhibit, but somehow not quite–may have had something to do with all those people (I don’t much care for crowds, usually, although I’m fine on Michigan Ave, and fine on the Mag Mile, and on State Street, and can push my way through St. Paddy’s Day crowds like a champ), and with all those walls of text (I want art, man) than with any inherent flaws in the exhibition. I do know that my father would rather have had that replica longship inside the exhibit, where he could have studied it, and S made a few snide comments about all those replicas. But, in the end, it wasn’t the not-quite1 that struck me most about the exhibition. It was all those similarities to other places, past and present and, most likely, future as well.
The exhibition was filled with what were evidently Viking beads–probably at least some the result of (one assumes) peaceful trade missions with other countries. My mother took one look at one of those massive strands and pointed out that they were hippie beads, the same sort of things that her generation took to wearing, so many years after the Vikings. We truly don’t seem to be a very creative species, we humans: we keep on keeping on, doing the same things we’ve done for hundreds, and thousands, of years. (Of course, I’d totally wear those beads. There were oh so many colors strung together–how could I resist such a mad symphony of color?)
Hippie beads evidently stretched from the medieval (and before) to the modern, but they were far from the only evidence of one-track human imaginations. Well before the populations of Scandinavia and Iceland and Greenland decided to go a-Viking, the Celts–who once stretched from Germany through the British Isles and Ireland–created wild and imaginative artwork that is, in many ways, echoed by many of the later Norse designs, from swirling servants to–you guessed it–awesome hippie beads. One wonders at the extent of trade between peoples–and, most of all, at the similarities of our human imaginations. We really do seem to like to do variations of the same thing. Maybe, as Shakespeare wrote, we’ve been seeing our images in antique books for hundreds, and thousands, of years. It wouldn’t, somehow, surprise me all that much.
Along with the walls of text2 and the slave manacles and all those hippie beads (and surprisingly small drinking horns–dude, those things were smaller than lots of contemporary wine glasses, and they probably got passed around!), images of what my mother and I assumed to be reenactors of the good old Medieval Days were interspersed throughout the exhibition. At first, I paid almost no attention at all to those images–I’ve done my share of living history, and it looked exactly the same as much of what I’ve done.
Exactly the same is, of course, the keyword here. My mother also noted the sameness: she said it looked a lot like what happened around a fur trader’s home and outbuildings in Indiana,3 which it did–right down to the historic clothing. I guess we really aren’t terribly creative, we humans, and our images have been staring back at us for a millenia of change. Vikings tell us that, as the Field’s website for the exhibition notes, the Vikings were “voyagers.” I grew up steeped on tales of the North American fur trade; I devoured books about arrogant coureurs de bois, about hearty, teamwork-driven voyageurs, about traders and trappers and a wild world, here at my doorstep, yet somewhere far removed from anything I’d ever known. To me, the word voyager becomes voyageur, and immediately calls to mind the tough, teamworking French-Canadians who went deep into what was then the wilds of North America, doing a brisk business with people of the First Nations.
And, in truth, if the artifacts in Vikings were to be believed, those voyageurs had at least a wee bit in common with the raider-traders of yesteryear–although I do not believe that voyageurs generally raided anyone. Their world was a bit too perilous for any such shenanigans–after all, while it likely behooved a Norse raider to be large and impressive, the average voyageur was selected to be slight and wiry.4 Easier to fit all those lovely, pricey furs into the canoes if they’re kept moving by small men, after all. Both the teamworking voyageurs and the lone ranger coureurs likely left behind their genes on the vastness of the North American continent, though one likes to think that it was usually consensual. They must have been rather cocksure, attractive fellows, and certainly they were known, and celebrated, for their daring and their trips–in a way, not so different from those who went a-Viking. Except, of course, that the voyageurs were trading.
Like the Vikings, who left behind such exquisite pieces of art as the beautiful, terrible Valkyrie who heads this piece, and whose gods were a world unto themselves, beautiful, petty, terrible, and glorious, the voyageurs carried their gods with them–or, as they were generally quite Catholic, carried God and saints wherever they went, along with treasure troves of bawdy songs.5 (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a voyageur song that wasn’t, at the very least, filled with double entendres.) They left their mark on the land they traversed, scattering mutilated lob trees along their route. Perhaps the Vikings left something similar to a lob tree (a tree whose lower branches had been lobbed off–thus, a lob tree) behind; they also left runes, and occasionally scuttled boats and bodies and accoutrements of war. (Voyageurs had a high mortality rate, and left bodies behind sometimes, too.)
Viking raids seem, at least in some cases, to have presaged later Norse expansions–into Ireland, England, Scotland, the Isle of Man; into France, Germany, even Spain; into countries like Russia; into Greenland, and quite possibly to North America, well before Cristóbal Colón got lost on his way to India. The voyageurs, too, did the footwork of empire–though I like to think that it was unwitting (and that their lousy trades, glass beads for beaver pelts, were not so much them cheating people as their bosses–though I’ve always assumed that the coureurs were fully aware of their sleaze), whence they traveled, others would eventually follow. The voyageurs (and their cocky cousins the coureurs) were among the first men of European ancestry to traipse across vast swathes of North America. For that matter, Jean-Baptise Point du Sable6 himself, honored as the father of my city, was involved in the fur trade. Chicago’s hardly a hub for beaver, now.
Without longships, the Vikings would not have made it far; without their canoes, the voyageurs would hardly have been voyageurs at all. (Presumably, without longships the Vikings were the Norse farmers who populated that exhibition, so oddly named “Viking.”) Despite the importance of ships to what we know as “Vikings” and “Viking culture” (which might not really be a thing), that longship was outside the exhibit hall, in semidarkness; there were no longships, nor even any fine dragon prows, within the exhibition itself. But there was a ghost ship, my favorite part of the entire exhibition: rivets from a resurrected longship, removed, suspended on translucent wires from a lowered ceiling, shimmering in a symphony of light. It caught my attention far, far more than all those walls of text; it held me longer even than the walls of text about the gods, for though I am a huge fan of myth, that ghost ship was magic, and all that text…just wasn’t. It was probably also the one place in the exhibit where I stopped thinking of similarities, stopped amusing myself at the incredible affinities between Northern European folk art, and only looked at the piece before me. It was a stunning display, iron made magic.
For what it’s worth, I have trouble imagining a canoe made of light. Maybe it’s because there are no rivets in a birchbark canoe: rope and tar just don’t seem like they’d hold that ethereal shape too well. Cultural similarities drew me through that exhibition, and made me think when I left it, drawing parallels and wondering at this evident melding of creativity among Stone Age to Medieval Northern Europeans. But the ghost ship, with its rivets suspended in light and air, was its highlight.
1 It’s worth noting, in this section of not-quites, that nearly everything in the exhibition was Swedish–yet the Norse were definitely not just from Sweden. Admittedly the Swedish Museum in Stockholm was behind the exhibition’s organization, but it still seems a bit…lacking, when those who went a-Viking came from countries as diverse as Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, and the lands that they colonized elsewhere.
2 I really, really felt that those walls of text were a (potentially fatal) flaw in the exhibition as a whole. Would be nice to see it reworked somewhat…with less reliance on all that text. The text was also entirely in English, which was an uneasy choice in a city as multilingual as Chicago. For more info on linguistic demographics, see this article from Crain’s, and this dataset from the census via the City’s web portal. 3 For more on Joseph Bailly, see information on the Bailly Homestead from the National Park Service, Bailly’s Wikipedia page, and Bailly’s Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry. Not sure if any of them discuss Bailly’s fabulously innovative (ahem) accounting practices, which is a pity. 4 They really were small–no big dudes need apply. I can no longer remember all the places I’ve read about their physical requirements (I’ve been studying the fur trade my entire life); however, the Canadian government’s resources for teachers, including this one (a pdf), discuss height requirements and lifestyle. 5 If you’re interested in more about the folk music of the voyageurs, which is its own subgenre of French Canadian music, the Minnesota Historical Society has put out a CD of voyageur songs, song, as they would have been in days of yore, by a chorus of dudes. It’s available from Amazon as well as from the Minnesota Historical Society itself. There are also lyrics available, including here, and pdfs with music and words, such as this one. Many are call-and-response songs, of which I am quite fond; I do recommend them. Also worth noting that many French-Canadian folk musicians continue the tradition; my favorite may be Montréal-based Le Vent du Nord, which has a hurdy-gurdy, guys!!, but they are far from alone. 6 We know so little about du Sable; we don’t even have an image of him, though according to his contemporaries he was of African descent. Brief synopses of his life, less mysterious than his origins, can be found at Wikipedia, WILL TV/PBS, and Britannica.
I have already talked about what I thought of the exhibition, but lots of other people liked it more. (And some liked it less.) Some (real) reviews follow:
If you’re interested, there’s a whole article about the beautiful rivets, including photos. There’s also an exhibition website from the Field; this remains available even though the exhibition–and those amazing rivets!–is moving on.
Fall in Chicago brings the wild Midwestern change of seasons, complete with violent, riled lake, and high winds, and days that veer impulsively from warm to chill, leaden skies to cloudless ones. The dark comes earlier and the sun seems almost to shine fiercer for its curtailed hours. The changing of the season always brings a resurgence in the arts world, from new seasons at Lyric, the Chicago Symphony, Chicago Opera Theater, Hubbard Street, and the Joffrey (as well as Chicago’s theater scene, of which someday I hope to more fully partake) to new exhibits at Chicago’s museums–the Smart, for example, has recently re-opened following a summer of installations.
This fall is bringing some extra excitement–not just that of a nail-biting contract negotiation at the CSO (now resolved, as I found out from Chicago Business Journaland my mother learned from her friends on the barg team), nor of the final day coming down the pike for the Field Museum’s Vikings exhibition, but an architecture biennial, and the first (one hopes) annual Chicago Museum Week, coming up this first week of October. In other words–there’s going to be more than ever to do in Chicago this fall!
Chicago Architecture Biennial, 2015
Chicago has always been a great architecture city,1 or, at any rate, the “Second City,” built after we burned the first one down (oops), has left its mark on cities across the world. It makes sense, then, that we’d host what is essentially a world’s expo of contemporary architecture. The Chicago Architecture Biennial, beginning on October 3 and running until January 2016, will offer a smorgasboard of programs related to contemporary architecture, from affiliated exhibitions to talks, pavilions, and more. If you like architecture–at all, in any shape–it isn’t to be missed.
The Biennial is, not surprisingly, attracting quite a bit of press: we are, after all, the Second City, which burned itself down and rose again, better than before, contributing to the world fireproofing and Chicago School and the rise of modern civic and commercial architecture, and most of us are pretty aware of it. We have torn down far too much of our patrimony, and yet we have also preserved much of it (we seem to have a thing for Meis van der Rohe, and we’re letting Pilgrim Baptist sit, a husk of a historic building). Naturally, when we do something architecture-related, we write about it–a lot. Ranging from the Trib’s Blair Kamin to Crain’s Chicago Business, everyone is discussing the Biennial. (Crain’s, understandably, hopes that we can do our architectural legacy justice through this Biennial. Naturally, I hope that we can both do it justice–and build upon it. We’re still an exciting architectural city.) Blair Kamin (still my favorite architecture critic) has written numerous articles on the Biennial, both offering his take and providing curated lists of big events and architects,2 among others.
The Architecture Biennial comes at what is already an exciting time for Chicago architecture. The future Obama Presidential Library will come, as it were, home to the South Side; a selection process for architects is already underway (and has pulled in bids from a lot of architects, as well as good commentary from Kamin). The former Meigs Field is once again Northerly Island, which is incredibly exciting on both an architecture/landscape architecture and an environmental level: we’ve got beautifully designed open space once more, and Chicago’s rather vibrant community of wild beasts, ranging from birds to intrepid urban coyotes,3 get another space to live. The ever exciting (and innovative) Studio Gang, headed up by Jeanne Gang, has buildings going up throughout the city, including City Hyde Park, beautiful even in its unfinished state.4 (Every time I drive by I take another few pictures of its emerging balconies–I think it would be a pretty amazing place to live, myself, though most likely I’d never be able to afford it.) For those interested, Gang has written about social connectivity, architecture, and high-rises–a fascinating topic on its own merit, and even more so for those of us from cities, and those of us who work with communities. Theaster Gates is reviving the beautiful and long-abandoned Stony Island Bank, now the Stony Island Arts Banks–I nearly cried when I realized that it really was being restored, and would not be torn down. Oh, and we’re going to get the Lucas museum. Eventually.😛 (The redesign5 has recently been unveiled–not quite as overwhelming as it was last time, at any rate. But you can rest assured that we Chicagoans will critique it, whatever it turns out to be–and however much we end up loving it. We❤ our architecture.)
The depth and breadth of Museum Week’s offerings, all tied up in twelve museums, is hard to overemphasize. They range from science museums (and a zoo) to spaces of art, culture, and history, and they tell the story of a city and the folks who live there. Did you know, for instance, that Chicago’s Puerto Rican community stretches back to the mid-20th century, if not earlier? For that matter, while you’re in Humboldt Park to see the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, drop by Paseo Boricua, traditionally the heart of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community. It’s very much a part of the city worth knowing better.
I have written a few times about the DuSable Museum of African-American History, homage both to Jean-Baptise DuSable and to Chicago’s historic African-American population. Naturally, I think you should take advantage of Museum Week to see what should really not be a lesser-known museum. And, of course, if you’re prepared for some walking, you could make a day of it, visiting the Museum of Science and Industry, the Oriental Institute, the Smart Museum, and the DuSable…all in once day! (You might have some museum-induced form of shellshock afterwards, but you would have seen a lot of super cool stuff!)
The National Museum of Mexican Art also showcases an old, vibrant, and evolving Chicago community. Mexicans began coming to Chicago in numbers in the 1920s, though, as this article notes, immigration ramped up somewhat in the 1960s. I’m ashamed to say I have not gone often to the National Museum of Mexican Art–but the times I have gone are unforgettable. The museum, while small, is, in a word, amazing. It’s bright and colorful and stuffed with information, usually in both English and Spanish. You’re covered whether you are an English or a Spanish speaker, which is, I think, as it should be. And did I mention that it’s really cool? They even do awesome exhibits on Día de los Muertos, which, of course, I love. This year, they’ll be hosting a celebration of Día de los Muertos in the city of Chicago–although it comes well after Museum Week, it’ll be worth a return trip, for sure.
The Chicago History Museum (which I visited often, way back when it was the Chicago Historical Society) is a great space. It has some random Historic Chicago streets, all dolled up to look like the days of gas lights, and some trains to get into, and a rotating cast of exhibitions, and it really does tell Chicago’s story, from its beginnings to the present. (Its archives are also worth a look, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.) Interested in railroads? Disability rights? Vivian Maier? Civil rights? Objects and their histories? Boy, has the Chicago History Museum got stuff for you. And, like every other cultural institution participating in Museum Week, it’s in a nice location.
There is so much going on in Chicago–and elsewhere–right now, but if you are bound for the city, Museum Week and the Chicago Architecture Biennial are more than worth seeing. Use the opportunity to go somewhere new, or somewhere old and well-loved; learn a little more about the state of contemporary architecture, or see a few more museums. There’s so much worth seeing, out there, and Museum Week and the Architecture Biennial will pull things together (and in some ways make them more accessible), at least for a little.
1 This is probably pulled almost verbatim from my architecture history classes with Tim Wittman at SAIC, although I’d have to comb through notes to be sure. 2 Whether due to communication issues or other problems, the floating stage/music boat Point-Counterpoint II has not yet been given permission to dock and perform. Regardless of one’s fondness for brass, it seems like it has a place in an architecture Expo. Kamin goes into greater depth in his article, available here. 3 Apparently city coyotes, like city folks, get around a lot–more, in fact, than their suburban counterparts! And they even look both ways before crossing the road, as DNAInfo tells us in this article. If you’ve a yen for more urban coyote research (and who doesn’t?), there is actually an Urban Coyote Research institute out there. Have a ball! 4 I would only point out that I do not recall the strip mall was actually underused; I have no doubt that by the time Studio Gang was brought in, however, it most likely wasn’t used at all. And I think that the building will be a tremendous addition, architecturally and aesthetically, to Hyde Park. 5 I am actually strongly in favor of the Lucas Museum coming to Chicago; I am in favor of just about anything that will increase tourism, and bring people and money to the city. I am not in favor of a gigantic thing sitting on the lakefront, and I am concerned about traffic–surely, though, we can figure out ways to lessen the impact of a couple million more cars in an already congested place. More public transit, anyone?
Wishing someone a happy Labor Day has always seemed a bit strange to me. It’s a day to celebrate organized labor, to acknowledge those who fought and died for things too many take for granted today: an eight-hour workday, a five-day work week, a weekend, a day off, an age limit. It wasn’t so long ago, here in the U.S., that little kids worked factories, or were newsies; it wasn’t so long ago that workers had no guarantee of breaks or time off. (Per Illinois state law, workers are supposed to get two 15-minute breaks and a 20-minute lunch break per 7-hour day. It isn’t much, but it’s something.)
Despite coming, on my mother’s side, from an old and dignified family that probably never dipped its toes in anything connected to labor, I have the movement in my blood–from a paternal great-great-grandfather (Karl, natch) forced out of his homeland for his communism and unionizing to a mother who has belonged to a musician’s union for more than fifty years, to a grandfather who encouraged his employees to unionize and a father who was part of an ultimately futile attempt to unionize labs, to me, who spent four years active in a teachers’ union, including several as a member of its Grievance Committee, the quest for workers’ rights has been a part of my life as long as I can remember.
The Dropkick Murphys demand that their listeners think about What Side You’re On. There was really never any question for me–I never crossed a picket line, I went occasionally with my mother to stand in solidarity, I chose a graduate school in part because its TAs were unionized, and immediately became active with my union. My work wasn’t always easy: though I primarily served in a back-room capacity, much more conducive to my own issues with shyness, it was often heartbreaking work. One is endlessly reminded of how far we have yet to go, even as we know how far we have come. And, of course, one knows that one could not move towards that greater good without one’s companions: when we all stand together, we are considerably harder to defeat. For that matter, I worked with some of the most wonderful people I have ever met while a member of the grievance committee. We all gave of our time–and it was often a lot of time–to strive for the best for our membership. It was truly an exercise in striving for the greater, or the collective, good.
Now, of course, the U.S. is one of the only countries around to have its Labor celebration at the end of summer, rather than on May 1, in remembrance of the Martyrs of Haymarket. Even worse, as this article from Jacobin notes, Labor Day was signed into being after Grover Cleveland broke the great Pullman Strike–a tarnished day, a day of infamy more than celebration. (PBS posits that Cleveland was hoping to make workers forget about his strike-breaking. It didn’t work, and he lost the election.) If anything, the ugly roots make it more essential to remember that Labor Day should be both a celebration of the worker and a time to remember, and to plan. The struggle is a long way from over: across the country, anti-union and anti-worker legislation has been passed, and the flames of anti-worker sentiment have been fanned.
My union experience was perhaps a bit different from many: a teachers’ union, ours represented teaching assistants and graduate assistants at an R1 in the cornfields. Cornfields or no, our struggles were consistent with workers’ struggles everywhere, and being a member of the grievance committee required not just time but also a tremendous emotional investment. It was taxing enough, emotionally, that I had to step away–yet I know that we did good work, and I know that others continue that work now, though so many of us who served together have graduated and moved elsewhere. And, as I know from my work in the union generally, and from my service on the grievance committee specifically, many of today’s unions stand for equality.
While in many ways this began even earlier, the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, supported by Martin Luther King himself, marks a very decided turn towards workers’ rights and civil rights combined. Today, women and people of color are much more likely to receive equal pay for equal work when they are unionized.1 Today, the fight for a $15-minimum wage continues. It’s a fight led largely by women and people of color, an organizing swell that may have been, as the Guardian tells us, the largest work action of its kind by low-wage workers in U.S. history. It’s inspiring and heartbreaking–and it’s worth pointing out that someone probably can’t live on 15 bucks an hour, either, although they’ll come a lot closer to having a living wage at $15 than at, oh, $7 an hour.
Illinois’ state-wide minimum wage is currently $8.25, but a bill has been passed to raise it by 2019 to $11–still pretty low, if one lives in the Chicago area. And Chicago’s minimum wage has recently risen to $10…still a long shot from a living wage for someone in Chicago. For those wondering, it costs a fair bit to live in Chicago–though, as one of my uncles often says, it costs a fair bit to live anywhere.2 (Since he lives like an ascetic monk, he’s not exactly talking about paying for fripperies.) Unions fight for a living wage–we fought for a living wage, trying to bring our union’s base pay up to living wage level. (Spoiler alert: we’ve yet to win such a thing, though we have won such concessions as modest insurance coverage, the right to spaces for breastfeeding mothers, and tuition waivers–which are always under attack.)
I was an officer (yes! me, who prefers to blend into the background!) during a contract negotiation cycle, and my fellows and I sat around many a pizza and coffee-strewn table, debating for hours. Someone once told us that nobody had meetings as long as we did. I’m still not sure if that is a mark of honor or simply of insanity, but there we were, and there our successors will be again, soon enough. It was terrifying: if we struck, could we win? How long could we hold out? Some of us would have held out on principle, yet principle does not pay the rent or put food on the table, and many of us (me included) do not come from families with money. But for the most part we did not need to worry about being killed–something those who paved the way for us had. Striking workers in Milwaukee were massacred in the 1886 Bay View Massacre as they took a stand for an eight-hour day.3Frank Little was lynched for his work. Largely immigrant strikers in Pennsylvania were massacred by a sheriff’s posse in what is today known as the Lattimer Massacre. And tragedies such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, in which nearly 150 workers, mostly women, were killed, led to increased organizing–and, in the case of the Triangle Factory Fire, to an upswing in women’s involvement, spurred by reformers including the activist Rose Schneiderman.4
Much of what was won by the suffering, imprisonment, and deaths of those who came before us is being chipped away, sometimes overtly, sometimes more covertly. A full-time week is supposedly around 40 hours, yet a Gallop poll from 2014 shows what many of us have long known: it’s more than 40 (they figure the average is around 47 hours). And, as this BBC Labor Day article discusses, many Americans are afraid to take their vacation days, lest they be let go. (My family has not taken a vacation in around a decade, thanks at least in part to the recession and its job losses and lowered pay.)
When I became active in my own union, I found a space where my voice could, and would, be heard; where I could, occasionally, stand out, something possible for me only because I knew I had so many brilliant, dedicated people at my back. (I like to think Great-Great-Granddaddy Karl would have approved, but I don’t actually know a thing about him other than his rumored communism and his legendary labor activism, so who knows?) Despite the old, tired, and untrue stereotype of unions as a bastion of machismo and masculinity, mine was heavily female, including our co-presidents, one of whom was also our lead negotiator. (She was brilliant.) We were hardly the first women to be active in organizing, however. In 2014, the Zinn Project released a list of Women in Labor History, ranging from the quite historical (Mother Jones, Lucy Parsons, and Hattie Canty, among many others) to the contemporary (including Ai-Jen Poo, Dolores Huerta, and May Chen), though there are several (including the president of the Chicago Teachers’ Union, Karen Lewis) missing from their list.
Without women like Lucy Parsons and Emma Goldman and Mother Jones and Hattie Chanty, we might not have been taken seriously as a union, run not only by PhDs and Master’s candidates but also largely by women. We have certainly built upon their gains, just as another union–or maybe even our own, in years to come–will build off ours.5 I built on a more intimate platform: that of my mother’s years in a union, and of my father’s failed attempts, and of my great-great-granfather Karl, who arrived in this land an exile. I built it around the towns from which I come: my hometown, Chicago, with its history of unions and of manufacturing; the small, dying Wisconsin town that has been home to my father’s family for well over a century; the small Wisconsin manufacturing city to which my mother moved, after her family left the East (that town was also a union town). I also built around the faith in which I was raised–as far as I’m concerned, its testimonies (peace, equality, integrity, community, simplicity–totally not my fave–and stewardship) are completely compatible with a social justice driven union. And I worked to help build a sturdier foundation, including rulings from the Illinois Labor Board, for those who would come after me: for my brothers, S and E, and who may one day attend the same R1 institution; for my friends still there; for the grad students to come; for other unions, other workers, in Illinois and, I would like to think, elsewhere. It’s one of the incredible things about being organized: alone we are so little, both figuratively and literally, but when we stand together, we are so, so much more.