Ever since Mnemosyne, the mother of the muses, gave the wax tablet to mortals,
memory, writing and technology have been interconnected.
—Carolyn Guertin

The ghost in the machine was doing a clever bit of DJing this morning. Kate Bush’s “An Architect’s Dream” was followed by The Books’ “Venice”. Why clever? Both songs are about making art outside, en plein air.

The Books found a gem of a vocal sample on an old LP, then laid a loop of bass and plucked kalimba tongs beneath for just the right touch of whimsy and intrigue. In the sample, an American reporter narrates as Salvador Dali paints outside on a Venetian plaza. There is crowd noise and reaction in the background—this is all happening in the middle of pigeons and tourists. Over the kalimba loop, the reporter begins in a formal, bygone, Walter Cronkite tone:

Reporter: Maestro, as you paint this picture would you tell me what…what’s going on in your mind?

Dali: Now the cross, the mystical vertical cross.

Reporter [for his audience]: Out of black paint, a cross comes down from the top left hand side of the canvas.

But the objective description loosens as he is drawn in, child-like, by the unfolding suspense of Dali’s brush. Before long, he’s yanked in to the act of painting itself—no longer a spectator, but a participant.

Reporter: [Dali] has just thrown a bunch of gold paint which has not only hit me in the face, but has gone across the canvas to the applause of the crowd below…The canvas and the photographers are covered with paint. I might add, its black paint and gold paint on a white canvas…That was a big splash of paint!

The maestro has more surprises in store for our reporter and the crowd, but I don’t want to ruin your fun in hearing this track for the first time…so go pick up a copy of The Books’ Lost and Safe!

In “An Architect’s Dream,” Kate Bush sings of watching a sidewalk painter. She’s drawn to the flow of entwining lines—the limbs of two lovers.

Curving and sweeping

Rising and reaching

I could feel what he was feeling

But when the artist laments, “It’s raining…what has become of my painting?” as his work is rearranged by a storm, the music moves seamlessly into “The Painter’s Link”, in which Bush joyfully extols the wash of colors, as beautiful as any formalized art.

The juxtaposition of these two songs got me thinking: There’s something akin to walking a tightrope in doing art outside, exposing yourself to whims of nature and the judgment of any passer-by. A balance must be struck between the private dream and its public display. While it’s not performance art, the act of art becomes an art in itself .

Then there are the physical hazards: wind, sunburn, bug bites, downpours. A muralist friend, Kim Polomka, said he was pelted with fruit while working on his latest installment in Colorado Springs. I’m sure this was a prank and not a comment on the excellent quality of the work, but, ironically, the subject of the mural is food.

We writers sit in the dark corners of wireless saturated cafes, typing and scribbling, looking out the window with our soft daydream gazes. I suppose that’s a sort of display. But the immediate results of these doings are not public. There’s always the safety net waiting below. We can rework, revise, or simply recycle.

And, yes, there’s the improvisational nature of poetry slams, jams, and jazz.

But none of these is quite as enthralling, quite as suspenseful, as watching a visual artist conjure something to life before our eyes. Why? I think it’s because our own observation becomes part of the process of creation. We participate in the movement of chalk, the splashes of paint, the running of colors.

This is reality-bending, daring, on-the-edge art. You’re walking along, minding your own business, then whoosh!, you’re confronted with a gaping hole where terra firma should be. You’re sucked in by a riptide of energy, pulled along by its inexorable current—the same current the artist is riding.

Rafting by Julian Beever

"Rafting"--sidewalk art by Julian Beever

Art en plein air is a reminder: Stop being a spectator all the time. Occasionally make yourself vulnerable to the opinions of strangers, to the elements, to free fall. Like Icarus, defy the everyday with brazen, waxen wings.

Recommended listening:

  • Kate Bush—“An Architect’s Dream,” from Sky of Honey, off the double album Aerial

Back in the stone age of the internet, my aunt Lisa would make some extra cash by ‘flipping’ cars. She would receive the early release of the Fort Worth Star Telegram classifieds by ftp. With a day up on the print subscribers, my aunt would show up at the houses of the unsuspecting sellers, whose ads hadn’t been officially published yet. She’d snap up the best deals, then turn around to sell them a few weeks later for a nice little profit.

One car that didn’t get the boot so quickly was an old emerald green Cadillac. The family passed it around for a few months, enjoying its quirky extravagance. I got to take it on various jaunts—to the mall, to my cousin’s house, to my after school job at a a fast food joint. I was a new driver and it was a lot of car. I was always afraid of parking the thing, of wedging its girth into the tiny spaces at the busy Taco Bell. I lived in fear of the perfect pearly surface getting scratched.

Driving it was a different matter. With the windows down and the moon roof open, the luminous green would slice through the warm Texas air like a magnificent ship at sea. I always think of this car—and the terrifying freedom it brought to my teenage soul—at the start of spring.

On the Vernal Equinox, night and day are equally balanced. The egg stands on end. The whole is divided into parts, equally light and dark. It is a day of rational, harmonious symmetry.

Not so fast. The reality is different:

Symmetrical? No.

Fearful? Yes.

Spring. The word itself suggests danger. Something tightly coiled is about to unleash. In March we are surrounded by unseen energies, but we sense their vibrations in the air. Trees are alive with sap, water is flowing underground. It is a season of chaos, even violence. An early spring walk reveals the detritus of winter, like the aftermath of a disaster or the ruins of a lost civilization. Here is the pitiful corpse of a rabbit, her hibernian demise exposed at last. There are bits of trash and plastic strewn about haphazardly.

Baba Marta

Bulgarian myth personifies spring as a cranky old woman. Baba Marta, or “Grandmother March,” is a mercurial crone whose mood swings influence the weather. When she’s happy, there is sun and warmth. When she’s angry, the frost persists.

But the beginning of spring reminds me more of a giant boy-god, unaware of his size and power. He expresses his exuberant self through gusts of wind. Ignorant of his strength, he knocks garbage cans into the road and fells tree branches in our yards. He lets himself into our snug homes by bursting open windows and doors, curtains snapping in his wake.

Under this pressure cooker of energies, it’s no wonder spring is an unbalanced time, a time to become unhinged. There are powerful forces, both destructive and creative, at work. When you get caught in their paths, hold on to your hat.

Remember those Paul Simon lines from Graceland? Everybody sees you’re blown apart. Everybody feels the wind blow.

Some springs I do nearly fall apart. One March, I was determined to uproot and move from Boston to London. In my imagination I parachuted in, Mary Poppins-like, on an old umbrella. Another March, I nearly abandoned a long-standing and cherished relationship.

Lunging Man by Kim Mitchell

Lunging Man by Kim Mitchell

Other years, I’m more constructive. I temporarily renounce the long haul of novel-writing and take up short stories and poems. Once, I took a life drawing class. I still remember the goosebumps on bared limbs, the minute details of strangers’ bodies on display under the skylight of the classroom. The instructor taught us to keep our hand in constant motion, exploring the flow of energies between our eye and the curves of human flesh before us. The charcoal disintegrated in my fingers as I worked—creation and destruction bound in a single act. It was the perfect antidote to my spring madness.

My personal belief, honed over many difficult seasons, is that you never really complete what you begin at the start of spring. Your life gets cluttered with chaotic energies, extreme notions, and far flung projects. None of these are brought to full fruition. What started them is adolescent and wild. Like the boy-god, it cannot be disciplined to finish what it began.

But I say, start, nonetheless. March turns to April, the lion becomes the lamb. Invisible sap feeds budding leaves, underground water nourishes the emerging shoots of green. The difficult erratic impulses we experience will temper into something more mature and refined.

Still, somewhere on my hard drive languishes a short story I’m sure I’ll never complete. It’s about a man obsessed with seesaws. He pilfers them from playgrounds on moonlit spring nights and fills his back yard with the loot.

His getaway car? An emerald green Caddy.

“Getting down to writing a paper for a scientific journal is like trying to start an old car on a frosty morning: the would-be driver is anxious, the car is cold and reluctant, and both man and machine suffer for a while.”

This gem is from an old book I found in the library stacks today called Writing Scientific Papers in English: An ELSE-Ciba Foundations Guide for Authors. It was written by Maeve O’Connor and F. Peter Woodford and was published in 1975. Don’t clamor around all at once. Everyone will get a turn.

Within its yellowing, almost completely outdated pages is advice for “inexperienced authors and for those who write with difficulty”. It’s concerned for those hapless writers whose need to publish scientific papers in English. Need to publish in Russian? You’re out of luck.

I gently ply the brittle spine, curious what the concerned scientists have to say. What opens is window on a bygone, Selectric-and-whiteout world. Take, for instance, the chapter dedicated to typing the manuscript. Here, O’Connor and Woodford advise: “You will probably have to retype the text of most papers several times. Do not be irritated or upset by this.”

Word processing? No such thing. Oh, how far we have come. In fifteen years, this poor little book has become almost completely obsolete.

Almost.

I’m merrily perusing the quaint advice when the pages freeze, fan-like in the air. Four little words jolt me to a stop, just like the cold engine of that reluctant car. The words seem to address me—and me, specifically:

“What not to write.”

I look over my shoulder. “Who, me?” Then, “How snotty! How presumptuous! What could this brittle, yellowing book have to say about my writing?”

Of course, the inevitable moment of self-doubt kicks in. Could the authors have some wisdom to impart? Do I judge too hastily? I wrinkle my brow and studiously turn back to the book.

  • “Before you go further in planning a paper, consider whether official secrecy acts will form a barrier to publication.”
  • “Do not write an article simply because you think it is time your name appeared in print.”
  • “Never publish for self-glorification. Your motives will be only too obvious to the experienced reader.”

I’m not Tom Clancy so I’m in the clear on that first point. As for those other warnings, what writer doesn’t publish—at least in part—for self-glorification?

Emboldened, I flip to the back, where an appendix lists words the writer should never use. Avoid anticipate. Prefer expect. Give up sacrifice in favor of kill. Instead of bright red in color, simply say, bright red. Eschew species in which the hairs are lacking. Use hairless species.

“Wooly words” include: area, character, conditions, field, level, nature, problem, process, situation, structure, system. Best to forgo these altogether. Leave them, like greasy hors d’ouevres untouched on the platter.

What not to write…. I try to brush them off, but the words finally take hold with their authoritative, insidious ring. My skin prickles with sudden self-consciousness. I feel I’m being watched. I’m not a scientific writer, but O’Connor and Woodford have transported to the future and they are now pouring over my drafts in the very messy throes of creation.

Understand, this is the equivalent of peeking in someone’s underwear drawer.

My associative mind doesn’t skip a beat. After all, is the sartorial closet so different from the rhetorical one?

Enter Trinny and Susannah, What Not to Wear’s snarky fashionistas. They shove the scientists aside, throw open my wardrobe, and tug aggressively at my attire.

Trinny: My God! Look at all these layers! Baggy prose hides the real you, darling.

Susannah: And your adjectives are too showy. Get rid of them.

Trinny: These dangling prepositions have got to go. Too distracting, too distasteful.

Trin and Suze move off the to side to confer with Peter and Maeve. This is making me nervous. What could the unlikely foursome be talking about? Perhaps there’s a clue in the book.

I turn back to it, where Maeve and Peter go on to proclaim,

A good way to write the first draft is in two stages: structural and stylistic. It is a waste of time trying to improve stylistic details before you are sure that the sections, paragraphs, and sentences are in the right order, that all the essential points have been included and any superfluous ones are removed, and that the argument runs logically from hypothesis to conclusions. Start with structure…

The group has quieted now. They’re staring at me.

Susannah [breaking away from the others and tearing at my clothes]: We’ve agreed. Your problem is foundation. What do you actually have on under there?

OK, I get it. Start with structure (or your bra and knickers). There is wisdom in that. But it chafes. The style police—whether they be Trinny and Susannah, or Strunk and White—can be tyrannical and homogenizing. Follow their rules too closely and you end up like the proverbial emperor, stripped of stylistic fashionings, strutting down the street with nothing on.

So Trin, Suze, Maeve, Peter:  I know you’ve got good intentions, but here are some verses for you:

Anticipate,

bright red in color,

species in which the hairs are lacking.

Stunned, the fashionistas and the scientists slink back into the shadows.

Both a sword and a shield, dressing can be a form of truth.

Today, Antonio Vivaldi would have been 332 years old. Google is marking the occasion by giving the composer of The Four Seasons his very own doodle.

Vivaldi Googe doodle

Vivaldi Google doodle

Quite a change in fortune for a man once consigned to the dust-heap of history.

In life, the musician-priest was known for his head of red hair, his virtuosity on the violin, and his frenzied output of music, both secular & sacred. In death, he was remembered briefly as a passé composer–then forgotten.

Forgotten until the 1920s. That’s when an Italian monk found a large collection of his hand-written scores, hidden in a cabinet in a mountain monastery. This discovery initiated a Vivaldi renaissance that has culminated in The Four Seasons being appropriated by tinny hold-music and turned in to classical Muzak.

For me, Vivaldi is a figure my imagination returns to again and again. My first novel centers around him. When I began my research, the priest seemed familiar and benign on the surface, like the bucolic theme he gives the violin in the Spring movement of his most famous piece.

But dig a little deeper, wait a little longer, and what is there? Turbulence. Defiance. Melancholy. Poetry.

The nod given by the world’s most popular search engine to the Red Priest is a tad ironic: Do a Google search on him. There are millions of hits, but scant information about the man himself. From birth to death, the circumstances of Vivaldi’s life remain mysterious.

Consider:

On this day, 332 years ago, the infant Antonio needed an emergency baptism by the midwife who delivered him. He’d been born only to be in immediate danger of dying. Whether from dire illness or the consequences of an earthquake that shook Venice that day, no one can say.

Vivaldi was a prolific writer—of music, but perhaps not of letters. Only 13 missives of his have ever been identified, and they reveal precious little detail about the composer’s life.

Antonio Vivaldi

Antonio Vivaldi

Rumor has it the priest was involved with a beautiful singer, Anna Girò, who accompanied him on his travels around Europe. This mezzo-soprano was given the lead in many of Vivaldi’s operas, despite the fact that she didn’t sing very well.

Vivaldi was a violin instructor at a girl’s orphanage. He was fired from this position many times, only to be hired again weeks or months later.

The composer died in Vienna, far from his beloved Venice. Nobody quite knows why he was there.

The Viennese boarding house where he died was razed. Vivaldi, once famous throughout Europe, was buried in a pauper’s grave. A grave that no longer exists.

So despite diligent research, the Red Priest remains elusive—a remote figure off in the distance, with mysterious intentions, shrouded in crimson.

Actually, that’s not such a bad thing for a fiction writer.

Happy birthday, Antonio—whoever you are.

Late February is tough on us Northerners. Granted, most of us aren’t searching the dark corners of root cellars for sustenance, groping for that last edible tuber. We’re not foraging fields and forest for scraps of firewood. And, yes, we bask in a few more minutes of sunlight each day.

Still, we eagerly gather around those who have recently returned from warmer climes. We’re drawn to them like moths to flame. These prodigal travelers are messengers of Spring: She’s wintering down south, but she’s not gone for good.

But tonight the gloom settles thicker than usual. There is no light from moon or stars. The lamps in the house are weak and dim. I could start a fire in the hearth, but that would mean going out to the wood pile, a task too monumental to contemplate. Any spark of energy I had is snuffed out by the nihilism of the cold.

A glimmer of an idea. Going for wood requires precious effort, but I have my laptop—and I have a song in my head. A long-forgotten song. A schmaltzy, heart-on-the-sleeve song. A song my grandparents and I used to listen to in the evenings, when my grandpa was sick with lung cancer.

Their little house would be snug and cozy. We’d be working on a puzzle, comforting ourselves by making order out of chaos. Michael Crawford would be on softly in the background, singing:

When you walk through a storm
Keep your chin up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark.
At the end of the storm
Is a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark.

Songs From Stage and Screen

This record never made it into my own collection. So tonight, the golden sky at the end of my storm is Amazon.com. I fire up the laptop, eagerly scroll through Crawford’s extensive catalog, and after many pages, there’s the familiar cover to Songs From Stage and Screen.

I smile. Michael is elegant and debonair in his intimate black-and-white portrait. Yet he’s slightly rumpled, like your worldly favorite uncle on a Sunday afternoon. You want to pull up a chair next to him and indulge in tea and sympathy.

I click the link and hunt for the MP3 download. Usually, I prefer the tactile, physical experience of a CD, complete with liner notes and annoying tape over the jewel case. But I want this music now.

To my chagrin, the digital download is unavailable. And—horror of horrors—I discover that the album is out of print. Now nihilism truly takes hold.

I flounder, mute in the cold glare of the computer screen. The quiet closes in around me. I am going to walk alone.

But now something pierces the dark night of the soul, cutting through the gloom like a beacon. It’s tremulous and bright—like light refracting off a disco ball. But it’s not a light.

It’s a vibrato.

Ah-ah-hah-hah! Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.

Seriously, is there anything on earth like Barry Gibbs’ falsetto? It’s a sound so magnificent, so absurd, it wards off evil. I go to my music shelf and put my BeeGees on. I turn it up–loud. If I had any lamé, I would don it.

Whether you’re a brother
Or whether you’re a mother
You’re stayin’ alive
Stayin’ alive

It’s been a while, and I can’t remember all the words. Before my rediscovery of the BeeGees—when it was just cheesy roller-rink music—Mr. K and I would have particular fun when we heard them on the piped-in Muzak at the supermarket. We were never sure of the lyrics then either.

Instead we sang,

Wiki wiki wiki wiki
Wiki wiki wiki wiki
Stayin’ alive
Stayin’ alive

Later we joked about the futility of trying to understand the New York Times’ effect on man.

Now I picture Barry and brothers—a trio of sunny Aussies with ‘70s medallions, fluffed-out hair, and bleached teeth—singing fervently about wikis. The night doesn’t seem so dark anymore. The cold, not so biting. I will go on. I can shoulder the brunt of winter a little longer.

Thanks, Barry. Thanks, Maurice. Thanks, Robin.  Thanks for the kindling.

And, Michael, sorry, you’ll have to walk to the wood pile alone.

***

Update #1: Michael’s not exiled after all. It turns out Songs From Stage and Screen is not out of print, but reissued with a different cover. In my haste, I overlooked this. Which leads me to wonder, was it really the song  I wanted, or just old friend to keep me company?

Update #2: The BeeGees can save your life–literally.  A friend just alerted me to this.