Posted by: tuulenhaiven | July 1, 2014

Growing Things: Plants and Plots and Such

Last month crashed by at high speed, spurred on by thunderstorms and a heat wave. I began squeezing those new projects and ventures in around a still busy work-schedule, and left myself with little time to breathe for a bit there. Days off were spent at The Big Idea Bookstore, or out at Braddock Farms.

Braddock Community Farm, Braddock - June 4th 2014

The farm lies right beside one of the last steel mills still in operation in the area. Bells and whistles sound, things clatter, the air is less-than-ideal for consuming, but still the plants grow. I’ve made it out there about 5 times now and have cultivated Swiss chard and then harvested it weeks later, picked strawberries, planted cucumbers, cleared new beds, pruned tomatoes, pulled golden raspberries and thistles out of the rhubarb (this last task was undertaken with the help of my visiting Mom and sister!)

Braddock Carnegie Library - Braddock - June 18th 2014

I will often spend the morning working, then trot up the hill to the Braddock Carnegie Library, where the librarians take my dirty sun burnt appearance in stride and cheerfully hand over the key to the bathroom so I can wash up. Nothing fazes this library, I suppose, which has stood there since 1888, the first Carnegie Library in the country. Speaking of washing up, there used to be a bathhouse in the basement and a tunnel entrance where mill workers could access the baths, before heading up to make use of the billiard room and the rest of the library facilities.

Braddock is a borough of Pittsburgh and although, unlike much of the rest of the city, it still has a mill in operation, it is a shell of it’s former self, having lost about 90% of it’s population. There is a lot of community interest and effort going into the place though, and the fact that the library still stands and interesting parts of it (like the old music hall) are being restored is proof that Braddock is hanging in there. Something about the place really pricks my heart. Things seem weird but in the right way there, somehow – even if on a scorching afternoon my boyfriend saw two fist-fights break out in the space of four blocks…

Notice: More Hugs Needed - Braddock - June 18th 2014

More hugs needed, indeed.

My exploration of Braddock will continue, but other things have come to an end. My job concluded on June 22nd, and that night my Mom and little sister flew in to visit me. I kept busy for five days giving them a grand tour of Pittsburgh and touching base with the city myself. We went to some of my favorite places (Phipps Conservatory) and checked out some new places (the Duquesne Incline, the National Aviary).

Stove Room, June 25th 2014Children's Discovery Garden, June 25th 2014

National Aviary, June 27th 2014

Duquesne Incline, June 26th 2014

My Mom baked bread several times, and my boyfriend made fresh pasta. I was terrified by live clams, and made gorgeous tortillas. We volunteered in my local community garden and went up round the corner to the 52nd Street Market nearly everyday to restock the fridge. My little sister read a whole book, and my Mom beat us at cards. It was such a long, pleasant, work-free week. A vacation at home.

And now it’s July, and they’ve gone, and I started a new part-time job on Saturday, and it’s time to properly begin this new chapter. I’ll be helping with farmers markets for Clarion River Organics a few days a week, working out at Braddock Farms (where I’m plotting to build a cob oven!), staffing The Big Idea Bookstore, practicing my ukulele, looking for swimming holes, taking pictures, writing stories. The challenge will be to stay productive and not to spend all of my recently regained free time reading…but of course I have reading goals to catch up on too!

I’m hoping for a peaceful, interesting summer. See you around!

Monotropa uniflora (ghost plant, corpse plant, Indian pipe...) Rager Mountain Tail Loop, June 30th 2014

(Peaceful and interesting, like monotropa uniflora, or Ghost Plant/Corpse Plant, found yesterday along the Rager Mountain Trail in the Charles F. Lewis Natural Area, Gallitzin State Forest, PA!)

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | May 27, 2014

Lazarus!

You guys! My computer was broken for a few months, and then today when I finally got round to taking it to be repaired, it turned right on and was completely fine. The man at the Goodwill computer store is some kinda wizard. He just looked at my computer cross-eyed and Presto! – it came back to life.

Life has been interesting, meanwhile. Spring in Pittsburgh, although it came late and was chillier than normal according to the native Yinzers, has been lovely. I’ve enjoyed champagne and skipping rocks on the shores of the Allegheny, marveled at all the flowering trees, been thrilled by thunderstorms, adopted a “candy corn vine” and built a flower tower, went to my first baseball game, got lost in the woods with a cute boy in North Park, finally dared to enter the cave in Allegheny Cemetery, eaten ALL OF THE THINGS at Barb’s Corner Kitchen numerous times, finished Master and Margarita at long last, reconnected with my bike and sewing machine, and made plenty of other mischief too. I gave a month’s notice Marty’s Market and am reconstructing my life around urban farming and a volunteer job at a bookstore and building community pizza ovens (instead of working 40+ hrs serving tables and managing a frustrated restaurant scenario…)

Life is going to get even more interesting, yo! Boyfriend, new job, summer in Pittsburgh, digging into this community (literally, I hope!), and I am intent on taking up proper writing again too. Stories and such. Bad poetry. Practicing the craft, you know? Covering those scary white  pages with purple scribblings until something good materializes.

The world is getting weirder every day, but there’re still brilliant books to be read and music to make and listen to, and friends to meet and keep, and despite myself some days, and because it’s spring, I feel pretty hopeful and excited.

Cheers!

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Posted by: tuulenhaiven | April 3, 2014

Story Snippets from March

After spending much of two months with 2666, I decided to stick to shorter books in March and enjoyed 5 that were under 200 pages. Somewhat refreshed, I then dived into The Master and Margarita…

To start, I read another one of August Wilson’s plays, the second in his Pittsburgh Cycle – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. It didn’t grip me the way that Gem of the Ocean did, but I enjoyed it’s depiction of daily life among the residents of a Hill District boardinghouse in 1911 – their casual conversation, their woes and joys both little and big, the different ways each one cared about the others. Again, I’d definitely like to see this performed someday.

Next I read The Blue Fox, a strange and gorgeous tale by Sjón (trans. from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb) that I had stumbled across in January. This somewhat amusing review over on Wuthering Expectations reminded me that I owned it, so I pushed it off my TBR pile. A hunter stalks a blue fox through a snowstorm, and a man remembers the life of the lovely woman with Down syndrome who had been his charge for many years. Abba’s personal mysteries, and the supernatural mystery of the blue fox melt and reform together in the snowy quiet of the story, making something quite wondrous. There are funny moments too, and the end result is a tiny but thoroughly satisfying book. I’ll be looking for more from  Sjón soon.

Another tiny book I read was a delicious surprise – while exploring the main branch of my local library system, I found Georges Perec’s The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise (trans. from the French of course by David Bellos). I haven’t read anything by Perec in a few years, so this was a treat. As should be expected, the book is a puzzle, a game, in actual fact a computer program. Perec was challenged to replicate a computer procedure, or solve a problem as a computer would. The problem is, of course, how to ask your boss for a raise. The fly-leaf of the book has a flow-chart that is amusing to look over, and worth doing so, as the text of the book makes more sense if you kind of know what the map looks like. Because one does not simply ask your boss for a raise – it is a complex process involving innumerable factors and outcomes, based on things like: is your boss in his office when you go to see him? if so, is he in a good mood? did he eat fish for lunch (because it is Friday, or during Lent) which leads to the chance that he will have swallowed a fish bone and become ill before you pop the question? do his children have measles, because if so then you’d better abandon your task and get out of there before you catch it! etc. The text, like the flow-chart, sends you around and around and around – and gleefully tells an actual tale of how a man loses his identity and some portion of his mind to the corporate drain… It’s clever and funny, and it was an absolute delight to hang out with Perec again!

Meanwhile, alongside these books I was reading a collection of Wendell Berry’s poems – Leavings, from 2010. I like the little bits of things I’ve read by Wendell Berry, especially as he comes from a point of view I appreciate – that of a social activist farmer who is in love with the land. This collection didn’t blow me away though. The first poem of the bunch was my favorite:

‘Suppose we did our work

like the snow, quietly, quietly,

leaving nothing out.’

I should read more of his novels, as he tells a story well (some of his poems proved) and his essays would probably interest me…

I also read my first Moomin book in years…if I ever did read any of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books as a kid – I really can’t remember. Comet in Moominland was so utterly delightful that I think I’ll gush about it in a separate post. And I have two of Jansson’s adult novels checked out from the library right now, so April will be filled with the apparently charming and thought-provoking world of this Swedish-Finn author. I can’t wait.

I just have to finish the mind-twisting and grimace-inducing Master and Margarita first…!

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | March 10, 2014

Lawrenceville Walkabout

Finally some warm weather! I dug out my flip flops and went trekking about this evening, camera in hand, reveling in mid-50s temps and skies still lit at 7 o’clock.

Lately I’ve been fascinated by the urban beauty of my new city, noticing little gorgeous architectural details and loving the blunt lines of old factories and warehouses against the sky. In the late afternoon and evening sunset light, my neighborhood seemed to smolder with old and new promise.

51st Street, Lawrenceville - March 10th 2014

48th Street, Lawrenceville - March 10th 2014

44th Street, Lawrenceville - March 10th 2014

One Hundred 44th Street, Lawrenceville - March 10th 2014

REVOLT, Lawrenceville - March 10th 2014

Washington Crossing Bridge from 43rd Street, Lawrenceville - March 10th 2014

Something about the fifth and final section of 2666 reminded me of a Virginia Woolf novel – especially the beginning, with its description of the childhood of Hans Reiter. This ‘strand of seaweed‘ would someday become Benno von Archimboldi, the famously reclusive author, but for awhile he’s just a boy who would rather drown than come up for air, who goes for walks to the Village of Chattering Girls, whose speech is ‘confoundedly garbled‘, who draws pictures of his little sister as a mermaid.

As he gets older and grows taller (‘ “And who is that?” asked the former pilot. “My son,” said the the one-legged man. “He looks like a giraffe fish,” said the former pilot, and he laughed.’ p. 652) Hans has trouble in school and can’t hold down a job. He goes to Berlin and gets a taste of the arts through his friendship with a Baron’s nephew, but before long he is drafted into the Wehrmacht. He spends his bit of WWII on the very edges of the action, and while holed up in a ruined town he discovers the journal of a Jewish man who was a Soviet soldier and something of a revolutionary. These writings effect him profoundly. After a stint as a POW in an American camp, Hans goes to Cologne where he rediscovers a girl he met during the war. He and Ingeborg begin a life together and he writes his first book. Archimboldi is the name he takes as his own when this book is published.

There is more time and more adventures crammed into The Part About Archimboldi than any other section of the book, and in some ways it answers many of your questions. Threads from The Part About the Critics are picked up again, you re-encounter certain characters, even find out how Klaus Haas – the possible serial-killer locked up in a Santa Teresa prison – is connected. I found it to be a very satisfying reading experience, and conclusion to 2666 as a whole – just as much for the little puzzles that it solved as for the new questions it raised.

One thing that struck me was the reoccurring blind women. Hans’/Archimboldi’s mother is blind in one eye (p.637). Our Lady of Guadalupe has one eye scratched out in a mural that Fate sees (I lost the page number for this reference…?) This link is particularly striking. Then there’s the poor blind woman from the Balzac quote (p. 843) and the book that Archimboldi writes ‘about a blind woman who didn’t know she was blind‘ (p. 847). Considering the rampant violence against women detailed in The Part About the Crimes, this blindness of women is odd but interesting – blindness as a theme in the book overall makes sense.

Then what is this about semblance? Back in The Part About Fate, the fellow Seaman said ‘ “Metaphors are our way of losing ourselves in semblances or treading water in a sea of seeming.” ‘ p. 254

While living in Ansky’s (the Jewish Soviet soldier’s) farmhouse, Hans/Archimboldi begins to think about semblance. He feels bizarrely free and strong, despite the hardships of his current life, but what if it is nothing but semblance? ‘Semblance was an occupying force of reality, he said to himself, even the most extreme, borderline reality. It lived in people’s souls and their actions, in willpower and in pain, in the way memories and priorities were ordered.‘ p. 741

Love is semblance, although not his love for his little sister. ‘Youth is the semblance of strength, love is the semblance of peace.‘ The wanderings of the writer Ansky aren’t semblance.

What does semblance have to do with Santa Teresa? Probably everything.

Finally, The Part About Archimbaldi has a great deal to do with writing and the development of a specific writer, which ties into the greater discussion about literature that peppers a lot of Bolaño’s work. The old man who loans Archimboldi a typewriter talks about writing at length, and I particularly noted this bit:

You may say that literature doesn’t consist solely of masterpieces, but rather is populated by so-called minor works. I believed that, too. Literature is a vast forest and the masterpieces are the lakes, the towering trees or strange trees, the lovely, eloquent flowers, the hidden caves, but a forest is also made up of ordinary trees, patches of grass, puddles, clinging vines, mushrooms, and little wildflowers. I was wrong. There’s actually no such thing as a minor work.‘ p. 786

Ha! Reading further on, where frankly the old man rather confuses me, with his ramblings about the secret authors who write minor works but are not minor authors, and accept only ‘the dictates of a masterpiece‘…writers who are empty inside, who write like someone taking dictation – writers whose wives see them writing, but – ‘what she’s seen is only the outside. The shell of literature. A semblance.‘ There it is again…!

“His novel or book of poems, decent, adequate, arises not from an exercise of style or will, as the poor unfortunate believes, but as the result of an exercise of concealment. There must be many books, many lovely pines, to shield from hungry eyes the book that really matters, the wretched cave of our misfortune, the magic flower of winter! – Excuse the metaphors.” ‘ p. 786 (Metaphors helping us to lose ourselves in semblances?)

There is a connection between the concealment of masterpieces and the blind women and Santa Teresa…  Bah. This whole passage begs to be read again and studied at length – as does the whole book really – but that’s a task for another night.

For the moment, I’ll end this haphazard episode in my 2666 adventures with another delightful note on reading – something that Bolaño writes about over and over again with much more clarity than he ever does about the task of writing…although it is plucked from the middle of that old man’s crazy speech:

“Reading is pleasure and happiness to be alive or sadness to be alive and above all it’s knowledge and questions.” ‘ p. 786

That’s what you can expect to get from reading Bolaño, whether you believe his books to be masterpieces or minor works – pleasure and happiness and sadness and knowledge and questions and the reminder that you’re alive…and none of those things are semblances!

Read as part of Richard’s 2014 Caravana de recuerdos Ibero-American Readalong

Previously: 2666: ‘The world is a strange and fascinating place.’ and 2666: ‘Ugh, said the critics…’

Richard (host of The 2014 Caravana de recuerdos Ibero-American Readalong, and the group read of Bolaño’s 2666which has occupied me for the past two months) more-or-less promised me that I would enjoy the fourth section of this book – The Part About the Crimes – at least from a writing perspective, despite my quakings regarding the content. He was right.

In the first three sections Bolaño gradually tightens his narrative focus. The four critics, having arrived in Santa Teresa, Mexico, in obsessive pursuit of the mysterious German author Archimboldi, read about “the murdered women” in the paper over their breakfast orange juice. Amalfitano, the slightly mad philosophy professor, worries that his own daughter will end up as a victim. The reporter, Fate, actually meets a prisoner who is a murder suspect in the case – a giant, a German-born US Citizen, who of course you immediately think might be Archimboldi, or at the very least linked to him.

It’s time to solve the mysteries, after all, surely? Who is killing hundreds of women in Santa Teresa? And what does Archimboldi have to do with it all? Bolaño turns a microscopic gaze on the series of murders which span a decade, coldly laying out the stories on his literary slab – girl after woman after girl, killed by jealous lovers, during drug deals, kidnapped on their way home from work… It’s a brutal chronology, and you quickly figure out that there’s no super-villain to pin it all on, no not even Klaus Haas, the creepy but compelling German giant. As in the real-life scenario of Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican-U.S. border city where hundreds of women were killed in the 90s, there are no cut and paste answers.

This part of the book is almost more frustrating than it is disturbing. Both the reader, and the few living characters amid the parade of bodies – some detectives and cops, a few reporters, a seer, the director of an asylum – feel helpless, feel like they’re drowning, or suffocating. Everything is fucked here. In an atmosphere of misogyny, normalized violence, sexism, and an increasing lack of empathy, is anyone surprised that ‘We become blind (or at least partly blind) out of habit…‘?

Richard prompted a very interesting discussion about the real-life Juárez murders with his notes on La dimensión desconocida by Sergio González Rodríguez, a book about the crimes written by a reporter whom Bolaño closely mirrored in his novel. In the comments, Richard pointed out that Bolaño, through a work of fiction, was adding to the testimony regarding the Juárez murders – which have been repeatedly silenced and shelved by authorities. Taken as that, this section of 2666 is pretty incredible, while still being frustrating and horrible.

I keep thinking about a conversation between a Mexican cop and a sheriff from Huntsville, AZ – ‘Things aren’t the way they seem, whispered Ramirez. Do you think things are the way they seem, as simple as that, no complicating factors, no questions asked? No, said Harry Magaña, it’s always important to ask questions. Correct, said the Tijuana cop. It’s always important to ask questions, and it’s important to ask yourself why you ask the questions you ask. And do you know why? Because just one slip and our questions take us places we don’t want to go. Do you see what I’m getting at, Harry? Our questions are, by definition, suspect. But we have to ask them. And that’s the most fucked-up thing of all. That’s life, said Harry Magaña.

Asking those questions is kind of the opposite of becoming blind out of habit, but provokingly, that bit about becoming blind was said by the same character just a few lines before…

Even in this serious and heartbreaking section Bolaño has time to mess around, so as Richard predicted, I did enjoy it overall. There’s the Perec-like list of phobias (p.381-382), the continuing mystery of Archimboldi, and bizarre details like the mirrors in the hotel room – as related by ‘the congresswoman': ‘I paced the room. I noticed that there were two mirrors. One at one end and the other by the door, and they didn’t reflect each other. But if you stood in a certain place, you could see one mirror in the other. What you couldn’t see was me. Strange, I said to myself, and for a while, as sleep began to overtake me, I made calculations and experimented with positions. That was where I was when five o’clock struck. The more I studied the mirrors, the more uneasy I felt.‘ (p. 621)

And I loved the little sub-story of Florita Almada, a seer and a woman who could do anything she set her mind to, because after all, ‘When you know something, you know it, and when you don’t, you’d better learn.‘ (p. 429)

The detective Juan de Dios Martinez muses that ‘the world is a strange and fascinating place,‘ and Florita Almada declares ‘Every hundred feet the world changes… The idea that some places are the same as others is a lie. The world is a kind of tremor.

The last crime that Bolaño reports happens right before Christmas in 1997, and the investigation is given up after three days. The fourth section ends on a haunting, yet oddly hopeful note:

The Christmas holidays in Santa Teresa were celebrated in the usual fashion. There were posadas, piñatas were smashed, tequila and beer were drunk. Even on the poorest streets people could be heard laughing. Some of these streets were completely dark, like black holes, and the laughter that came from who knows where was the only sign, the only beacon that kept residents and strangers from getting lost.’ p. 633

I’ll save my thoughts on the fifth and final part for another post. I wrote about parts 1-3 here.

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | February 27, 2014

Hug a Cactus?

I visited the Phipps Conservatory on Tuesday to see the Winter Orchids and Tropical Bonsai Show, and while there were many impressively tiny old trees, and orchids of every size, shape, and color, it was this beautiful monster lurking in the Desert Room that captured my heart in it’s prickly tentacles – Ba-BAM!:

I call this the sea monster cactus - Feb. 25th 2014

Look at that thing. I can’t even…

Feb. 25th 2014

Desert Room - Feb. 25th 2014

Seriously, it is out of control.

Feb. 25th 2014

My mind boggles with all the sci-fi scenarios where this cactus (I guess it’s probably a giant agave plant…) would become more…er…animated, and be terrifying, or awesome – probably both!

Compared to this wonder of nature, the highly cultivated orchids and meticulously maintained bonsai rather paled…but I will give them props for style and class.

Feb. 25th 2014

Feb. 25th 2014

Very nice, yes, yes, lovely. I did thoroughly enjoy spending several hours in their company, marveling over root structure and petal detail. But the cactus was my favorite.

Marvelous things, plants.

Don’t share my cacti fascination? There are lots more pictures of orchids and bonsai here.

Also:

Hehe.

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | February 18, 2014

The View from Morelock Street

I took advantage today of LE’s need to get her hair trimmed, and tagged along when she ventured across the river to the borough of Etna. While she had a wash and cut, I trotted around the bit of town and then hiked up to Morelock Street to get a better look at a couple of bridges that I’ve driven over numerous times, but not had a chance to really see.

Etna lies within view of downtown Pittsburgh, but it has a nice small town feel – one of the things I love about the cities ‘suburbs’. Once the home of the world’s largest pipe-rolling mill and over 7,000 people, it now shelters less than 4,000 and the mill has long since closed. From what I can gather, however, the community is vibrant and increasingly full of young families. I look forward to biking across the Allegheny in the summer to check out their farmers market, and catch sight of their firework show in July. (Here’s a brief history of Etna.)

Even a pretty town can look dreary in February though, and the charms of Main Street were somewhat lost on me today. It wasn’t until I had tromped up High Street and found the First Congregational Church of Etna Cemetery that I started to get excited.

First Congregational Church of Etna Cemetery - Feb. 18th 2014

Etna is situated right on the bank of the Allegheny River, and is draped over a collection of steep slopes. The views from the tops of these hills is excellent, and I can believe that the residents of Etna congratulate themselves on their wise choice of settlement. The cemetery is tumbling off one such slope, and I cut up through it, encountering on the way a young fellow teaching a kid how to snowboard among the gravestones. Climbing onto Morelock Street, I was rewarded with my view of the two bridges, the boroughs of Etna and Sharpsburg, and a brilliantly blue bend in the Allegheny River.

View toward Sharpsburg from Morelock St - Borough of Etna, Feb. 18th 2014

Highland Park Bridge - Borough of Etna, Feb. 18th 2014

The Highland Park Bridge is the 16th crossing of the Allegheny, and was completed in 1939. It is a cantilevered Pratt deck truss bridge, and was designed by Sidney A. Shubin, who also takes credit for numerous other bridges in the county, including the South Tenth Street Bridge (over the Monongahela, which is the only other one of his that I’m familiar with – I’ll find the rest…!)

In the picture above you can see a dark line in the water directly in front of the bridge – that is the Allegheny River Lock and Dam No. 2 (the 15th crossing). It was built in 1932 by the United States Army Corps of Engineers as part of an extensive system of locks and dams on the river, and is still the most-used lock operated by them in the country. (You can also see the pillars of the Brilliant Branch Railroad Bridge behind the Highland Park Bridge…but more on that another time.)

Senator Robert D. Fleming Bridge - Borough of Etna, Feb. 18th 2014

We drove over the 62nd Street Bridge to get to Etna (or the Senator Robert D. Fleming Bridge, the 14th crossing of the Allegheny River). 62nd Street is the last of the numbered streets that begin at the Point in downtown Pittsburgh, some 6 miles away or so. There has been a bridge in this spot at least since 1876, although this cantilevered Warren deck truss business is only from 1962. The longest span is 400 ft. (compare that to the longest span on the Highland Park Bridge, which is 277.9 ft. – and why these things interest me, I could not tell you…but it is fun to see both designs!)

View up the Allegheny from Morelock St - Borough of Etna, Feb. 18th 2014

Here are both bridges, as seen from the backyard of an Etna Yinzer, complete with their Pens and Steelers flags (no Pirates flag – they’re not a fan of baseball?) Their view is great, as is the view of some folks further down Morelock Street, if they would just clear away those horrible Kudzu vines (of course that’s a nearly impossible task…)

View of Lawrenceville/Oakland from the end of Morelock St - Borough of Etna, Feb. 18th 2014

You can see the Cathedral of Learning there on the left, in Oakland, with my home neighborhood of Lawrenceville on the shore of the river. The good folks up on Morelock Street pay for their view though, perhaps, especially now – I imagine when the weather is inclement, these streets are pretty sketchy to drive up or down…

Where Morelock St and High St meet - Borough of Etna, Feb. 18th 2014

I can vouch for the fact that this road is even steeper than it looks!

Anyway, at a time of year when the snow is dirty, and the hillsides are brown, and the trees are a long way off from budding, I take comfort in the bridges of Allegheny County, which glow warmly in the sunlight and even on a grey day bring me delight with their graceful leaps and daring cantilevers. Still, I can’t wait to revisit this hillside with its rocky, rugged cemetery, when it is green and full of flowers. Snow angels are fun to make, but a nap on a grassy knoll sounds absolutely divine.

Until then!

First Congregational Church of Etna Cemetery - Borough of Etna, Feb. 18th 2014

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | February 5, 2014

Gem of the Ocean

by August Wilson

Someday I hope to see this play performed, but the hour or so I devoted to reading it was well spent. It is the first chronologically in Wilson’s 10-play cycle about the African-American experience in Pittsburgh during the 20th century. It is every bit as “fat with substance” as Wilson liked to claim. With a few characters and just one set, he deftly brought to life the restless, confused state of the country at the turn of the century, when the question of what freedom meant lay heavy on hearts and minds.

I say I got it but what is it?” asks Solly Two Kings. “I’m still trying to find out. It ain’t never been nothing but trouble.” Gentle Eli replies: “Freedom is what you make it.”

That’s what I’m saying,” says Solly. “You got to fight to make it mean something. All it mean is you got a long row to hoe and ain’t got no plow. Ain’t got no seed. Ain’t got no mule. What good is freedom if you can’t do nothing with it? I seen many a man die for freedom but he didn’t know what he was getting. If he had known he might have thought twice about it.

Solly Two Kings always fought to make his freedom mean something. Born a slave, he escaped and made it to Canada, then turned round and became a conductor on the underground railroad. He guided Union soldiers through the swamps during the Civil War, and after Emancipation he made his way to Pittsburgh, where Gem of the Ocean finds him selling dog shit as fertilizer and trying to woo Aunt Ester, the 200+ year old women whom ‘the people’ say can wash your soul clean.

Citizen Barlow arrives in Pittsburgh and isn’t there a week before his soul needs just such a washing.

In 1904, industry was driving the country. The African-American population was flooding north to work in mills in the big cities. The federal authorities wanted them to stay in the South and work with their former slaveholders to rebuild it, so not unlike the days of the underground railroad, the journey north was tough and full of dangers. Black people were denied the right to vote, and the Jim Crow laws were in full effect. The law was the new slaveholder. In the industrialized cities, the cycle of debt and poverty for recently freed slaves was almost impossible to break. Solly Two Kings says, “The people…got the law tied to their toe. Every time they try and swim the law pull them under.”

As Gem of the Ocean begins, a man has recently died, because he refused to come out of the river. Doing so would have seemingly proved him guilty of the crime of stealing a bucket of nails from the mill. He refused to live with that truth. Soon after, Citizen Barlow winds up on Aunt Ester’s porch, demanding a soul-washing.

Citizen’s spiritual journey is just one part of the story. Solly Two Kings and his fight for freedom is another. Black Mary, the young apprentice of Aunt Ester, finds her heart stirred by Citizen, although “You got to be right with yourself before you can be right with anybody else.” And then there’s the cop Caesar, Black Mary’s brother, who has gone over to the dark side, so to speak, utterly mistaking his role and responsibility toward ‘the people’.

This play is heartbreaking and beautiful. Phylicia Rashad, who played Aunt Ester in a stage production, says in her intro: ‘It is a hymn in praise of freedom and moral redemption, an ode to community, a song of love, a wellspring of wisdom, and a summons to critical thought and action.

In his intro to the entire series, John Lahr writes: ‘The blues are catastrophe expressed lyrically; so are Wilson’s play, which swing with the pulse of the African-American people, as they moved, over the decades, from property to personhood.

August Wilson was born in Pittsburgh, and although he left in his 20s and and spent his last years in Seattle, the Pittsburgh Hill District is the setting for his 10-play cycle. I wanted to read one or two, as part of my exploration of my new city, but having read Gem of the Ocean, I am floored by Wilson’s storytelling and characterization, and eager to read whatever I can get my hands on.

There is something important to me here in Wilson’s work. I was startled by how much I could relate to Citizen Barlow, as he floundered desperately in the muck of the American Democratic promise. Forced to live in the mill rooming house, where the rent was slightly more than he was paid in a week, Citizen was in debt to the company from the get-go, unable to leave to find a better job, unable to save any money to improve his situation… How many young people today are crippled by student loans that bought the education that the jobs they now cannot find demanded? Those cycles of debt and poverty still suck us in. And so many young people today are just as much disconnected from their history and cultural heritage as Citizen was from his. How often have you heard someone claim they feel “like I got a hole inside me“? We’re still a country restless and confused by the idea of freedom, and we need stories and myths and folklore and the blues to fill us up with something.

I can guess, just from reading this one play, that Wilson understood that. Phylicia Rashad called Gem of the Ocean ‘a great and mighty ship riding the waves of history. With sails at full mast, blown by the winds of charity and tireless resolve, it surges onward toward its charted destination, the port of right understanding.

Right understanding, now there’s a port I’d like to sail into someday… I’ve got 9 more of Wilson’s plays to help show me the way!

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | February 4, 2014

‘Drunkwalking’ in Lawrenceville

Last month LE and I went to a lecture presented by the Lawrenceville Historical Society which was held at a local nursing home. While the residents played a rousing game of bingo, the best turnout ever for an LHS lecture gathered upstairs. Close to 100 people were interested in hearing local writer/blogger Adam Eisenstat talk about their neighborhood and share his photographs. He had some relatively interesting stories and pictures, but my takeaway from the event was the concept of the ‘drunkwalk’, which Eisenstat claimed to have perfected.

A ‘drunkwalk’ is an exploratory walk around a neighborhood, with frequent stops into bars and pubs for much needed refreshment. Upon hearing this, LE and I turned to each other and shared a silent eureka! moment – we have been drunkwalkers for years, we just didn’t know it. I would be prepared to call myself a professional drunkwalker, in fact. And unlike Eisenstat, I don’t reserve this activity for pleasant weather only. I’ve been known to go in the rain, in freezing temps, come-what-may. I am a hardcore drunkwalker.

In fact I went drunkwalking yesterday, in a snowstorm. I left my house around 11 and walked down Butler St to Central Lawrenceville, wrote a couple of letters in Kickback Pinball Cafe while sipping a mocha, then went across the street to Hambone’s Pub. The one o’clock hour had chimed, so I wrote a few more letters while drinking several beers (notably, Southern Tier’s Old Man Winter) and eavesdropping on Shorty – an ancient fellow who is always hanging out in the corner, chatting with the bartenders.

Along 40th Street in Lawrenceville, Feb 3rd 2014

From 40th St, looking up the tracks toward Upper Lawrenceville and beyond

Southern Tier’s brews will put some pep in your step, so I found myself lightheartedly flirting with the postman in Lawrenceville’s tiny post office, before splashing through an icy pothole-filled alley and then sliding down the riverbank to check out the situation on the Allegheny. During the arctic temps of last week, the river was more-or-less frozen, but yesterday there were just ice rafts flowing energetically down to meet the Ohio River.

Washington Crossing Bridge, Feb 3rd 2014

Washington Crossing Bridge at 40th St

33rd Street Railroad Bridge and view of Downtown, Feb 3rd 2014

Looking downriver toward the 33rd St Railroad Bridge and downtown

I love this little guy! - Feb 3rd 2014

A favorite river guardian

Feb 3rd 2014

Fancy boats, waiting for spring

Feb 3rd 2014

A slightly more ferocious river guardian

Washington Crossing Bridge, Feb 3rd 2014

The river probably looked similar to this when Washington nearly drowned in it that one time…

My drunkwalk ended at Remedy, back up by my place, around 4. An evening with friends and good food followed, which should conclude any day spent drunkwalking, I’d say. I went home almost 12 hours after I’d left, a borrowed copy of Master and Margarita tucked under my arm (I have some pretty cool friends!) and fell into bed, classically tired but happy.

If you’re interested in reading about some of Adam Eisenstat’s Pittsburgh adventures, check out his blog. I especially like his post about the East Busway, something I’d like to explore myself.

Today’s drunkwalk is planned for this afternoon, with LE in tow, and we will be heading to the neighborhood of Oakland to check out the main Carnegie Library, perhaps the excellent used bookstore there as well, and probably the Union Bar and Grill, where you can get many delicious 18 oz. beers.

Whether you care to call them drunkwalks or not, happy exploring via foot in your corners of the world!

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