Wednesday, April 19, 2006
The funny thing is, I had decided quite randomly to write my history column on Robeson, based on a photograph in the Oakland History Room of him singing to inspire WWII shipworkers in Oakland. For lack of a better reason, I was going to tie my column in with the movie I just mentioned… but the librarian at the History Room said, “Oh, you’re writing about the exhibit?”
Turns out that serendipitously, there’s a fabulous exhibit up now at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO) with all kinds of video monitors so you can see the great man in action and hear his insanely deep baritone voice. One of the things this exhibit stresses is that Robeson was the first to underscore the importance of Negro spirituals by performing them in sanctified concert halls. They're more than just work songs—they have a depth and power and distinct philosophy about life and pain; they are a legitimate artform.
Speaking of powerful songs, the exhibit also talks about “Old Man River” and how Robeson was best known for that song, although its lyrics are stereotypical and he had to change them. I still get chills, however, at that line, “I’m tired of living and scared of dying/But Old Man River he jes keeps rolling along.” As a young girl growing up in Vermont looking through our Broadway showtunes book, I remember being awed at the desperation that lyric expressed. I’ve still never seen Showboat; I should rent it.
AAMLO is graced with six Arthur Mathews murals, out of an intended 12 (the library ran out of money, back in the early 1900s). Two panels were completed and burned in the fire associated with the 1906 earthquake (whose centennial was yesterday), so Mathews had to repaint them. My museum friend Diana says the Oakland Museum will be doing a Mathews exhibit next year: can’t wait.
Saturday, April 15, 2006
Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed the cemetery and also New York's Central Park, was adamant that cemeteries should not be like parks. I had a hard time understanding this for a while. Mountain View is designed with beautiful curving roads that sinuously and organically cut into the hillside, and its stretches of greenery are visually stunning... isn't that what you mean by park?
But yesterday I spent some time thinking about it as I climbed the cemetery's hills. I think the Victorians were into picnicking at cemeteries, bringing the whole family and a gingham blanket to sit upon. And maybe that's what park meant then: simple, mindless enjoyment -- whereas Olmsted wanted an acknowledgment of the sobriety of death...?
I think he would have approved of how I visited the cemetery yesterday. I was there initially to take a photograph of a monument for my history column, and then decided to walk for an hour (yes, the cemetery is that large) for exercise... but the tombstones I read as I walked soon had me in a thoughtful frame of mind.
The mowers had just mown the grass, so the air was filled with that staggering scent of summer, and the trees in blossom also sent their odors wafting... the grass was the bright almost translucent green of a heavily rainy winter... The lawn rolled down to a vista of ocean and distant cities. I stood there gulping down all the ecstasy the earth was serving up: dazzled; really, lucky. Lucky to still be here and experience it.
As I looked at the 1800s graves of children who lived for hours, or lived for months, with a granite lamb atop their stone to say how the parents grieved, as I smiled at some of the outlandish names, as I saw newly-placed flowers and even several true mourners crouched or on their knees, fresh in their sadness, I thought that all I could do was try to be good in my own way. This would all pass, this sensation, this brightness, my skin... my only job was to be aware and thankful.
And Olmsted's landscape made such "large" thoughts possible. It is easy to see the earth's cycle and know your place in it when nature is hand in hand with the dead.
And on to some cemetery gossip: the unendowed section of the cemetery? What a frightening mess. Gravestones buried half-cocked under grasses, split into pieces. I found a pile that looked like they had simply been thrown in a mass from wherever they once stood. I thought if ghosts exist, they're here in the unendowed section, furious, bewailing their forgotten state...
Thursday, April 13, 2006
Tuesday, April 11, 2006
Yesterday I was out photographing various Oakland landmarks that had been saved through efforts of Oakland Heritage Alliance members. Here’s a startling one: City Hall itself!
After the Loma Prieta earthquake, there was a strong push to knock it over and start over. Luckily, our gorgeous Beaux Arts building got the seismic retrofit it deserved.
Monday, April 10, 2006
Also, something very special and coincidental happened to me... more later.
Sunday, April 09, 2006
Because I was wearing high-heeled and quite pointy-toed boots*, standing and looking at the exhibits for three hours became painful. So I sat down to watch Steve McQueen’s Drumroll for a lot longer than I would have otherwise.
This is a film McQueen made with three cameras affixed in a rolling cement mixer he pushed down the street, apologizing to passersby as he went for the space he took up on the sidewalk. Two cameras were mounted inside the mixer, facing outside right and left, and one on the outside that rotates with the drum, so you can see the blur of McQueen’s body over and over. The three circular images are displayed side by side. As soon as you walk into the dark exhibit space, you’re instantly disoriented because the circling images make you feel like you’re rotating as well.
At first I thought the images were mundane, endless taxi wheels and pedestrians’ feet, but my cruel shoes encouraged me to stay and watch longer. And hey, it got really cool the longer I stayed. I’m always telling my critical thinking students to “observe longer,” and it definitely paid off here.
I started noticing little things I wouldn’t have otherwise, like how the three images fit together and share some cornerspace with each other and figuring out that the blur was the artist (of course the placard says this, but I didn’t get it until I got it, and then it was an aha). I became in tune with the rotation, breathing with the grinding sound the mixer made, at peace with being upside down. Way cool.
And I’m guessing this is not the Steve McQueen of the acting world.
The day previous, I had heard a DJ on the radio saying that the Beatles and the Beach Boys had a sort of competition to see who could be more revolutionary and groundbreaking in their music, apropos of “Yesterday” being the first rock song to use a classical quartet. And then I came to the MOMA and saw that artists were doing the same thing: Jeff Koons with his ceramic Michael Jackson and monkey, the surrealistic photographers, the artist who bounced a basketball covered with paint over a canvas and called it art, the artist who did the same with naked women’s bodies (well, I guess instead of dribbling the women, they writhed on their own.) It was a nice synchronicity to see the same principle applied to two different art forms.
I loved my afternoon there.
And then I walked to BART, seriously looking around to see if there were any shoe stores because my feet hurt that badly. And wouldn’t you know it, it was commuter rush hour after five o’clock and I didn’t get a seat. I stood all the way to Oakland thinking evil thoughts about my beautiful boots.
*my boots are taller and pointier than the ones pictured… and also less Prada.
Thursday, April 06, 2006
One of the most fun things we did was have high tea at Lovejoy's Tea Room in San Francisco. I just love those hot scones with lemon curd! And the teeny triangle sandwiches without their crusts... The place is filled with antiques, as is the store across the street, which made the redhead very happy and in her proper habitat.
We had other great adventures as well, like when she kicked a dinosaur in the head... repeatedly. So sorry about the inside joke, but she told me not to put her on my blog so I'm going very under the radar here. Miss you, Red!!!!
This week I finished a small self-inflicted revision of Hexe. Teo Ruiz, the man whose Terror of History lectures inspired the book, very kindly agreed to read it and comment on historical accuracy. He has been so patient and wonderful and answers all my follow-up email questions (every one of which I’m convinced will be the last one… but then… wait! what about 16th century window sills?) I owe him so much.
So I did a round of firming up little anachronisms and next my editor will read that version and send me her edits. I’m dying to see what she has to say.