Art & culture


Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Today I sorted through a dozen photos I’d taken when J and I saw an exhibit of model planes, trains, and automobiles at the Museum of Fine Arts last December. That exhibit is long gone, so it was fun to revisit photos I’d left on my camera and nearly forgotten about.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

I enjoy reliving art exhibits when I go through my pictures, regardless of how much time has passed in the meantime. Sometimes when I’m looking for inspiration, I’ll click through my Flickr albums of past exhibits as a way to nudge my Muse. Even if I don’t “use” any of these archived photos in a blog post, I do “use” them as visual prompts: something to look at to stir my creativity, like smelling salts used to revise an unresponsive patient.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Looking at pictures stimulates my noticing muscle, and for me, noticing anything interesting–whether that be an unusual idea or intriguing angle–quickly converts to language. When I notice something interesting, my Inner Narrator perks up and wants to understand and explain that thing. Even if I”m writing about something completely different from whatever I”m looking at, the act of looking seems helpful, even if only as a distraction: something to pull me outside myself, and something for me to fiddle with, like intellectual worry beads.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

I suppose there are people who use music in this way, a backdrop of sound serving to invigorate, inspire, and drown out distractions. For me, though, sight is more evocative than sound. I’m adept at ignoring sounds–a skill I acquired after being married to a musician for more than a decade–so sight is the sense that most directly gets me thinking. When I look at something closely, a string of sentences automatically appears and ultimately accumulates into some sort of narrative.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

This is why I stockpile pictures from museum visits. Those visits are an immediate inspiration, lighting up a visual part of my brain that isn’t accessible any other way. But long after that immediate inspiration fades, my photos remain like preserves stocked on cerebral shelves: flavors from an earlier abundance.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Henry David Thoreau famously said that firewood warms you twice: once when you chop it, and once when you burn it. In a similar vein, I find that art inspires me twice: once when I see it in person, and once when I revisit my pictures, stashed away like souvenirs from inspiration gone by.

STEAM Expo and summer reading pennants

Last week when I went to the Newton Free Library to return a book, I saw that librarians had strung a line of handmade pennants promoting the mayor’s annual Summer Reading Challenge. As a child, I loved these challenges, as I loved to read and cherished the excuse of a “challenge” to indulge in a beloved summer pastime. Summer reading programs are designed to entice children who would prefer to do anything other than read, but I didn’t need any sort of enticement.

Summer Reading pennants

When I was a kid, signing up for a summer reading challenge meant you’d be rewarded for the number of books you read, with prizes such as stickers and T-shirt decals for each milestone. Although I didn’t need such prizes to lure me to the library, every year I signed up regardless because getting rewarded to read was like piling prizes atop of prizes. What I looked forward to each summer, after all, was the freedom to read more than I could during the school year, when both classes and assigned homework got in the way. Rewarding me for reading in the summer time was like rewarding a child for eating candy.

Summer Reading pennants

In Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, Gretchen Rubin advises against using rewards to encourage someone to cultivate a habit, as the habit itself should be its own reward. If the only reason you’re reading is to earn a sticker or T-shirt, you’ll probably stop reading after those rewards have ceased. For me, summer reading prizes were more of a bonus than a bribe, but I can understand Rubin’s perspective. If you’re trying to encourage a child who doesn’t like to read, offering prizes might work in the short term, but the reading habit will “stick” only if a child discovers he or she actually enjoys reading for its own sake.

Summer Reading pennants

Even now, I look forward to summertime as a chance to catch up with reading. During the school year, I spend too much time prepping classes and grading student papers. Summer is when I remind myself that the whole reason I became an English major, after all, is the simple fact that I love to read. During the lazy days of June, July, and August, I let my curiosity lead me, reading whatever catches my interest. Sometimes I’ll read something because a friend on Goodreads recommended it, like Carine McCandless’ The Wild Truth, or sometimes I’ll read a book because it’s related to a recent news story, like Rachel Hope Cleves’ Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America. When I hear an author I like is coming out with a new book, I immediately request it from the library, content to wait my turn along with the other early-birds. This means my summer reading list is a kind of planned serendipity where new books I’d forgotten I’d requested, like Judy Blume’s new novel or Oliver Sacks’ new autobiography, suddenly show up, ready for me to read them: a surprise that is its own reward.

Rabbit overlord

The Lawn on D is exactly what its name implies: a rectangular patch of grass along D Street in South Boston, next to the Boston Convention Center. Although I’ve walked past the Convention Center on numerous occasions, I didn’t know there was a lawn there until this past weekend, when I met friends to check out a temporary installation of giant inflatable rabbits.

Beside a bunny

As I approached the Lawn on D on Saturday afternoon, I heard upbeat music blaring from loudspeakers before I spotted any enormous bunnies. “I have to let you go,” the young man walking ahead of me shouted into his phone. “I’m on my way to a party.”

And he was exactly right: there’s nothing like giant inflatable rabbits to transform an otherwise bland rectangle of lawn into a festive atmosphere. Titled “Intrude,” Amanda Parer’s installation of giant white rabbits is intended to shock and unsettle: where did these behemoth bunnies come from, and what exactly are they doing here? As an Australian, Parer knows the environmental havoc invasive rabbits cause…but in Boston this weekend, the big bunnies’ cuteness undermined any real sense of invasive threat.

Hug a bunny

As it turns out, kids of all ages love white rabbits, even if they are both invasive and alarmingly large. On Saturday, there were parents posing their kids among the rabbits, and twenty-somethings taking selfies, and a seemingly interchangeable cast of characters lounging beside and even beneath the bunnies. Rabbits are quintessentially cuddly, and giant inflatable rabbits are infinitely huggable, as soft and inviting as fluffy pillows or clouds.

Passersby

Art is something many people associate with indoor, buttoned-up places where signs and guards tell you to keep your distance: you can look, but you can’t touch (much less hug) the art. At the Lawn on D, the whole concept of art as an indoor endeavor seemed entirely irrelevant. More than an exhibit or installation, Intrude felt like a beach party or backyard cookout, with throngs of people congregating around lounge chairs, ping-pong tables, and a seemingly irresistible set of swings.

Stretch

What does it take to turn an otherwise nondescript rectangle of grass into a communal conversation piece where kids of all ages can relax and play? Nothing more than an inflatable invasion of large, cuddly creatures that are entirely out of place but immediately make themselves at home. Now that Amanda Parer’s rabbits have come and gone, I can’t imagine how empty the Lawn on D must feel without them.

One bunny, two minions

Russian nesting dolls

This month at the Newton Free Library, there is an exhibit of Russian matryoshka dolls in three glass cases in the main entrance hall. Normally I don’t pay much attention to the monthly displays in these cases: they’re simply something I pass on my way to pick-up or drop-off books. But because I know J admires Russian nesting dolls, I stopped long enough to snap a few photos, the way you do when you see something you know a loved one would love.

Russian leaders nesting dolls

What initially caught my eye was a medium-sized Mikhail Gorbachev doll that contains within him his Soviet-era predecessors. I had to snap a photo to share with J because I knew that years ago during a business trip to Prague, J bought a large Boris Yeltsin that contains within him the same sequence of Russian leaders all the way back to the tzars. Although I’m no expert when it comes to Russian history or Russian nesting dolls, I recognize the zeal in J’s voice when he recites the names of Russian leaders like a litany, the smallest tzar not much larger than a grain of rice.

Russian nesting dolls

J is a connoisseur of matryoshka dolls, but I’m just a newbie, drawn to pay attention to something simply because someone I love is an admirer. I suppose this is how parents become well-versed in dinosaurs, Legos, or anything else their children love obsessively. I have to admire a collector’s zeal, even if I know little about his or her collection. When it comes to Russian matryoshka dolls, I admire the meticulous way one figure fits into another, a single doll containing an entire collection, each individual packed with its predecessors like a person carrying his own history.

Diaphanous

Yesterday J and I went downtown to see Janet Echelman’s aerial sculpture “As If It Were Already Here,” which was unveiled (or, more accurately, installed) over a segment of the Rose Kennedy Greenway back in May. I say the sculpture was “installed” rather than “unveiled” because the piece itself is like a veil, or a net, or a web: a semi-translucent, windblown shroud that spans a section of park that used to be an ugly elevated highway.

From afar

“As If It Were Already Here” (which J and I informally dubbed The Webby Thing for lack of a better way to describe its shape and appearance) billows in the wind and invariably draws attention to the sky and skyline. Yesterday was a beautifully sunny day, and folks were lounging on Adirondack chairs and hammocks on the Greenway grass: what better way to spend a weekday lunch hour or coffee break?

Curling

A steady stream of passersby paused to take cellphone snapshots of The Webby Thing, which has a website mapping its Instagram images. Although I too took a dozen or so shots, The Webby Thing was difficult to photograph, as diaphanous things often are. Photos don’t portray the sheer size of the thing, which spans a city block and stretches from skyscrapers on one side of the now-buried highway to another. In some shots, you can see color stretched like a veil across the sky, but from other angles all you see are spiderweb-like strings.

Wispy webs

“As If It Were Already Here” was installed in May, in an operation that entailed a cadre of coordinated cranes. (Click here for a time-lapse video of its installation.) Although the piece looks flimsy, according to the artist’s website it contains over 100 miles of twine, has over half a million knots, and weighs approximately one ton. Support cables are bolted to nearby buildings, and yesterday workers were re-tensioning its tethers, making sure the web was securely anchored.

Adjustments

The Webby Thing is mirrored in the many windows of surrounding skyscrapers, making me wonder what kind of view neighboring office-workers and hotel guests have of a gossamer ghost that floats like a giant jellyfish over passing pedestrians.

Flag with reflections

Raindrops on hydrangea

This weekend I went to see “Inside Out,” Pixar’s new animated movie about the five emotions (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear) that live inside an eleven-year-old girl named Riley. I’d been reduced to a sobbing, sopping mess during the first five minutes of “Up,” which I hadn’t expected to be a tear-jerker, so I arrived at “Inside Out” with a packet of tissues, fully prepared to weep. And although I did sniffle and get misty-eyed during several scenes, what surprised me about “Inside Out” was how I reacted to the Riley’s predominant emotion, “Joy.”

Raindrops on hydrangea

Not long into the movie, I grew annoyed with Joy, voiced by an ever-enthusiastic Amy Poehler. There is a lot to love about Joy: she’s bright and bright-eyed, friendly and inquisitive, and almost pathologically positive. Poehler is a graduate of Boston College, and when I taught at BC, I was almost alarmed at how upbeat and earnest the students there were. When I taught at BC, I found it disconcerting that my students weren’t nearly as sarcastic and smart-assed as I am, so going into “Inside Out,” I was prepared to prefer the wry irony of Mindy Kaling’s Disgust and the unbridled rage of Lewis Black’s Anger. Disgust and Anger I can understand, but Joy is elusive.

Raindrops on hydrangea

Joy is, well, a joy to be with when things are going well, as they largely do for the first ten years of Riley’s life, when she is an energetic, cherished child living in Minnesota. But when Riley’s family relocates to San Francisco, Joy’s perpetual perkiness seems increasingly irrelevant. It’s not that Riley can’t be happy in San Francisco: Joy is still Joy, and the basic emotional makeup of Riley’s psyche remains unchanged. It’s more a matter of balance. In order to maintain control over Riley’s outlook, Joy kicks her hyperactive happiness into overdrive, banishing Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith) to a library of user manuals where she is instructed to read up on mental maintenance like a child sentenced to sit in a corner.

Raindrops on hydrangea

But as anyone acquainted with their own blue moods would know, Sadness cannot be contained, bursting forth spontaneously and threatening to (literally) color Riley’s childhood memories. Isn’t that exactly how it goes? When you’re blue, it feels like everything you do, ever have done, and ever will do will be blue, too. When you’re feeling down, there is nothing more maddening than Joy with her upbeat insistence to look on the bright side.

Raindrops on hydrangea

But despite Joy’s well-intentioned pep talks, ultimately it is Sadness–a droopy blue blob in owlish spectacles and a dowdy turtleneck–who is the compassionate one, able to listen when a friend (imaginary or otherwise) has a moment of despair. Whereas Joy works herself into a frenzy trying to keep Riley happy, Sadness simply reflects reality without judgement: sometimes, things make us sad. Joy is lighthearted and perpetually young, but Sadness is weighted with a wisdom beyond her years. Whereas Joy is the queen of unsolicited advice, Sadness simply sits alongside, a blue blob whose very shape suggests support.

Raindrops on hydrangea

I find it telling that when we see inside Riley’s mother’s mind, her panel of emotions is led not by Joy but by Sadness. (The emotions in Riley’s father’s head, on the other hand, answer to Anger when they aren’t all daydreaming about hockey games.) Although a child’s formative years might (we hope) be predominantly happy ones, a mother’s heart is essentially sorrowful, ever attuned to the suffering of her own or other’s children. Whereas Riley’s emotions are widely and radically different, the emotions in Riley’s mother’s head have settled into a stable similarity, working together rather than at cross purposes.

This is, ultimately, what Riley to must learn at the edge of adulthood. Ultimately Sadness should never be banished; instead, she is intended to work hand-in-hand with Joy.

The Wall at Central Square

A quick search of my blog archives reveals I often get the blog blahs–that is, an inert sense of not having anything to say or share–in August, but this year I seem to be ahead of schedule. In the past, I’ve learned that simply showing up in the midst of a dry spell can sometimes lead to the unexpected, but this time around, the blog blahs feel like a bad case of “been there, done that.”

This time around, even my morning journal pages feel sluggish and repetitive, with me repeating a seemingly endless list of undone tasks and to-dos: a litany of “shoulds” and “gottas.” When you’re in the midst of the blog blahs, you read old blog posts and journal entries with a sense of amazement and even jealousy: Who was I when I had the time and inspiration to write long and insightful essays? At the moment, saying anything profound or even positive seems ambitious and unattainable.

But, I’ve been writing (and blogging) long enough to know that even the worst case of blog blahs eventually passes: you just have to wait it out. And the best way of waiting, of course, is to keep writing, even if what you’re writing seems inane, insipid, and uninspired. Are to-do lists and whining rants fun to read? No, which is why I write them in my journal and mercifully don’t share them here. Are to-do lists and whining rants fun to write? No, but sometimes you have to flush out the gunk that’s causing your creative clog.

So, here is a post that feels both clogged and gunky: an attempt to shake off the blahs by posting something, anything. I remind myself of something Gary Snyder said when I saw him speak back in 2010: “You never know if you’re going to write another good poem.” When you’re in the midst of the blog blahs, you begin to wonder if you’re ever going to write another decent blog post, another decent journal entry, or another decent anything, but the only way out of that slump is to write your way out.

Flickr is currently down, so I’m posting this entry as-is, with only one accompanying photo. I don’t know what it is that “Everybody Knows,” so I’ll leave that to you to figure out.

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