Saturday, July 31, 2010

In the Minor Key

I often wake up with a song buzzing about in my head.  I don't know if this is normal or not, but most of the time, it's an awfully pleasant way to greet the day. I have started connecting it to that whole question of  "What songs would you include in the soundtrack of your life?", to which I would likely respond, "Ummm, it varies on the day..and also the song that happens to appear to me for whatever reason in the morning...put them all together and you have a soundtrack. Is that an answer?" Or, to put it more simply, "That is a very difficult question."

At 5:30 this morning, I woke up humming Lou Reed's Perfect Day, a maudlin ballad with some pretty nice little piano sections and a wonderfully impassioned Lou Reed belting out "Oh, it's such a perfect day," a sentiment I can almost always get behind. Alex pointed out that it is actually "kind of a really sad song".  Alex is not a morning person, and I made the premature assumption that he just wasn't quite on my "mornings with Lou" wavelength. Alas. The briefest bit of internet research yielded the popularly-held opinion that the song is about heroin. I suppose it should be somewhat obvious:

This disturbs me. On a few levels. For starters, as someone who can sort of groove with the bittersweet love ballad genre, I fully embraced the whole "you just keep me hanging on" can be about those moments, after all. But heroin?  A love song about heroin?  Having never even entertained the thought of experimenting with heroin, I can't really claim to know anything at all about its powers of seduction and the soporific effect that it apparently induces in musicians, thus rendering them lovesick.  Truly I only know what I witness on an all-too-frequent basis in the streets of Baltimore (if you don't live in Baltimore, watch The Wire - it will give you some insight into heroin use and its damaging dream-state). It wouldn't have even occurred to me, honestly. Which in itself is ridiculous, given the number of songs dedicated to "the altered state."  And I consider myself someone who knows a fair bit about music.

Pregnant pause.

I happen to have two other songs (among others) that would join the ranks of the hypothetical Paige soundtrack.  One is a poignant reminder of a particularly low point in my life and the sort of breathless effort it took for me to clear a couple of  Everest-sized hurdles: Running to Stand Still.  Which was kind of what my life felt like then.  I once listened to this song no less than ten times on repeat. That bit:

"You got to cry without weeping
Talk without speaking
Scream without raising your voice"

Well, it was my anthem. In my naivete, the "needle chill" was my own personal reference to the many injections, shots, blood draws etc...I underwent when I was very sick. For all of my love of nuance and the layers of the onion and all of that hooey, I can be remarkably literal. Apparently.

The song is about heroin.

The second is a song that Alex often hums: Golden Brown.  This particular version is a cover by Cult With No Name; it was originally written and performed by the Stranglers.  I falsely assumed that it was a love song and thought that it was sweet that Alex so frequently sings this (as an accomplished pianist, he tends to like songs foregrounding the piano), because I guess you could sort of call my hair that the summer...after I've been in the sun for a while.  Okay, it's a stretch.  But it is a pretty song and the piano gets me every time.

And it too is about heroin.

I have to ruefully chuckle at this, and find myself again bemused by my all-too-frequently naive impression of things in general. And though I am somewhat dismayed that my songs of love and human might and triumph actually share a slightly different story, I suppose we choose our soundtracks for what each song offers each of us...which varies, even in our disillusionment. Alex offered the logical explanation that I tend to prefer songs in the minor key, which are evocative of a certain "mood".  That could be the case. Woody Guthrie's lovely conclusion to this (as performed by Billy Bragg and Natalie Merchant) explains it better than I - and thankfully, without any references to heroin. I hope.

Way Over Yonder In the Minor Key

written by this guy, who knew what was up.  The smile says it all:

Monday, July 26, 2010


"The words were summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stoppered...Hold summer in your hand, pour summer in a glass, a tiny glass of course, the smallest tingling sip for children; change the season in your veins by raising glass to lip and tilting summer in."

It is not humid in Baltimore today.  Which is no small miracle - and this from someone who loves heat most of the time. This morning, I saw goldfinches dancing in my pond (they have their own permanent gold unitards, lucky ones). The air feels more like Maine air. And it's clear and blue. A gorgeous day. My husband just sent me this photo, with the message: "Look outside. I love you." It kind of sums things up nicely:

I live in a neighborhood that embraces summer with an optimism that is as startling as it is familiar to me in some weird way. It is sort of unreal in its genuine civility and warmth.  When we moved here, we were greeted with homemade cookies, preserves, muffins, and so many heartfelt welcomes. My next door neighbors, whom I adore and whose son I wish I could call my own, just stopped over and invited me to spend his second birthday with them on Wednesday at the National Aquarium.  I'm their plus one guest. This little angel boy is quite surely the subject of an entry all his own; suffice to say that we sat on my porch swing this evening as he battled a newly diagnosed bout with the terrible twos and I, my own long and difficult day when I wished I could have used the terrible twos as an excuse for a wee temper tantrum on the floor. And he rested his darling cherub hand on my knee and the world felt alright.

That's the thing about my neighborhood - even though the world isn't alright, I live in this little slice of I don't know - Eden? - where people say hello from their bungalow stoops and remind my heart to quiet a moment and be mindful of what a home really is. Neighbors stop and chat and wave at joggers. My new friend Beth (I really like Beth) waves at me as she drives by. Lucas, the recent high school graduate, asks me about my garden and how my grass is growing. He falls asleep at night listening to our waterfall through his open window. That makes me enormously happy. The shy, sweet girl down the street walks her beloved rescue dog while two boys who live a few houses in the opposite direction race by on their bikes, wearing Batman and cowboy Halloween costumes.  Awesome. The boy with the mop of wildly curly hair swings from a tree branch, and part of me wants to stand under him to catch him if he falls. But that child is nothing if not indestructible. He has perfected the art of swinging, and running barefoot --and jumping on the pogo stick, which he continued to do one evening with such abandon that he didn't immediately notice the blood pouring out of a spectacularly scraped big toe after a spill. Ten minutes with some hydrogen peroxide, Neosporin and a Band-Aid, and he was back outside. Tonight, I did a double take. He must have grown a foot since I saw him at  the (wait for it....) Root Beer Float Social that the neighborhood children had at the end of the school year. When he perfected his pogo stick skills. And when he seemed so much younger.

Behind our house, there are two houses with families, each of which have three little girls. It is a constant slumber party, and the girls walk to and from the backyards in their bathing suits, their nightgowns, their sundresses.  They call to my dogs from the top of their fort and they giggle and chase one another and swing in their swings and sing songs. And the parents sit on the porch, drinking a beer, and sometimes admonishing whichever wayward child (not necessarily their own) has hurt another child's feelings. Which you know, with six girls, is easy to do...

And then as I was closing my blinds this evening, I looked out to see a father teaching his son how to catch a ball. I thought of Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine.  I thought of how much I wished, at various points in my life having read and reread the book over a series of  New York and then Baltimore summers, I lived in such a place, troubled though it was in ways only Bradbury can put into words. And now I do. I also thought of Douglas Spaulding (the young boy in the novel), who declares that his summer will be a time of firsts: first root beer float, first run through the grass barefoot, first firefly caught, and so on...these firsts and lasts that define Green Town as a place where Nature and technology collide, sometimes in miraculous ways and sometimes in ways that point to evil, to a loss of something pure, to overlooking happiness when it sits right in front of you. We are lucky in this neighborhood that at this juncture, living as we do in Baltimore of all places, that a child can still have this, and that selfishly, I can witness it:

"I’m ALIVE. Thinking about it, noticing it, is new. You do things and don’t watch. Then all of a sudden you look and see what you’re doing and it’s the first time, really."

Sort of like catch.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Everyone needs their version of a gold unitard

                                                          Viola Farber

On Sunday, after perspiring mightily on a long walk to midtown Baltimore, I had a moment.  It was one of those back-of-the-neck tingling, teeter-on-the-edge-of-my-seat, exclaiming "Oh-my-heavens" under my breath repeatedly moments. I think I may have announced "I'm having a moment" to my dear friend Shannon, who walked with me from Hampden to the Meyerhoff to watch Graham II perform. For free.  In an air conditioned auditorium.

I LOVE attending modern dance performances. LOVE them. Addiction in this case is not too strong a word.  I love bearing witness to the remarkable poetry that choreography holds, releases, and explodes, using music, sets, costumes, and of course, PEOPLE.  The human body is an eloquent thing, after all.  I would venture to say that I feel more alive when I watch a dancer on stage than I do in any other performance setting. Basketball holds a similar appeal, and there is a definite balletic grace in the agility and ragged movements that fly across a basketball court -all of which seem to defy logic. Like dance.

There is something about dance, especially modern dance, that really does make me swoon and feel slightly dizzy.  In a good way. At Sarah Lawrence (where I went for undergraduate studies), I was surrounded by dancers and by a legacy of modern dance that I knew even at the time was really something extraordinary.  Viola Farber, a founding member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, was the grand dame and life-force of the Sarah Lawrence dance department, and I came to know her through my friends and one of my professors, her own dear friend. I loved Viola. She walked with the aid of a cane, and had a shorn crew cut that I often found myself wanting to touch. I can still call to memory her sing-song voice, the staccato of which was uncannily matched by her movements on stage. I saw her perform once, and it shook me to my core. I think I cried. And when she passed away, not long after I graduated, I wept bitterly. 

Viola's students (many of whom were my friends) could do things with their bodies that I can not fathom.  Is it odd that I remember so many of their choreographed pieces?  I think not. A number of them are dancers today. One of my dearest friends, Angeline, came to Sarah Lawrence all the way from Hawaii.  She knew how to hula, which basically granted her star status in my book. And when I saw her dance, I understood why my best friend had fallen so madly in love with her.  She choreographed pieces that caused me to leap to my feet in admiration (much to Gaby's embarrassment). I don't think I missed one dance performance in my four years at Sarah Lawrence, and I can still remember costumes, movements, who danced in certain pieces, and a particularly beautiful piece that had me sobbing buckets.  It was choreographed to this song, and I still get chills when I hear it (especially the end)*:

*I had forgotten Sting had a long hair phase. Huh.  And also -  the SLC choreographers blew his video out of the water. 

When I lived in New York, I saw as much dance as I possibly could: Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey, Elizabeth is insanely fun to go to dance performances in New York, a city where dance happens on subways, streets, in parks, and on sidewalks. There is a spontaneity in New York that is as infectious as its rhythmic and finely measured choreography - the perfect place for dancers and aficcionados of its art. And the feeling of walking into a performance space grasping a ticket, knowing that the next hour or two will be spent witnessing a series of small miracles...well. It rivals only the high one leaves with after the performance has ended, and one is brought back down to earth again, wanting a gold unitard. 

Shannon loves dance as much as I do.  She comes to my student dance performances with me, and we gush over the incredible talent so many of my students possess.  Seriously.  One of my former students was recently told in her first year of college that she was "too good" for the dance department and they recommended that she transfer to a university that would adequately challenge her.  Watching her dance is akin to experiencing some sort of angry angel, who has the singular gift of transforming that raw venom into a divine elixir. I could watch her dance for the rest of my life and never tire of it.  And when I first saw one of her choreographed pieces, I felt like a student at Sarah Lawrence again, memorizing the costumes, the movements, who occupied stage left, whose leg could kick higher in the air, and so on.. When Shannon first saw my former-especially-insanely-talented student dance, she GOT IT too and I remember leaving the auditorium with her, both of us giddy.  Both of us over-the-moon, ridiculously happy.

So it makes perfect sense that we would go to see Graham II together.  Sunday was the first time I had the gift of seeing any of Martha Graham's companies perform a full show. Which is kind of funny, given that she is the irrefutable mother of modern dance.  I mean, look at her and tell me that you don't feel every single emotion in the spectrum when you study this image:

If that isn't some sort of heaven, I don't know what is. How can a face be so still while the body does THAT?? How does that hand say so much?

Graham II is a company of young dancers, and on Sunday, they performed a small number of Martha Graham's pieces, choreographed during World War II, the Cold War, and so the midst of all that ugliness, people had THIS.  Had I been alive, I would have clung to these choreographies like rosary beads. One of her most famous pieces (a bit of which was performed on Sunday), Appalachian Spring, had a score of Aaron Copland and a set by Isamu Noguchi.  Collaboration at its finest.  

My favorite piece was the final performance: a section from Acts of Light, choreographed in 1981.  It has to be one of the most technically difficult performances I have ever seen, with dozens of Graham's infamous contractions unleashed in double-time. I think I held my breath through most of it. At the end of the performance, the dancers looked like I did when I walked in off the street, "glowing" profusely (as my grandmother taught me was the proper word for perspiring).  I have seen another part of Acts of Light, and it dawned on me, watching the dancers wearing nothing but these amazing gold unitards, that this piece is really kind of a painful thing. All of these contractions - so eerily beautiful, are like bee stings, and like a bee sting, they make one feel more alive than before. Which is kind of the point of most things, I think.

And so Acts of Light rivals my favorite Carracci in its celebration of the human form, and of the complicated dance that life and death engage in so arduously. "There are daily small deaths," Martha Graham once noted.  A realist thick and through, she was also able to marvel in the magic that dance offers us, while regarding dance as something that we all must do, and CAN do to keep the human spirit intact, vibrating, alive.  Donning the gold unitard (which is something I desperately covet now) is really a form of personal truth, and we need these truths to find our own planets. It is a gift to throw one's arms in the air and make magic.

"I am absorbed in the magic of movement and light. Movement never lies. It is the magic of what I call the outer space of the imagination. There is a great deal of outer space, distant from our daily lives, where I feel our imagination wanders sometimes. It will find a planet or it will not find a planet, and that is what a dancer does."
-Martha Graham