Boston


Stage from our seats

Last weekend J and I saw the musical Fun Home at the Boston Opera House. Ever since Fun Home debuted on Broadway in 2015, I’ve been quietly skeptical that Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir could be adapted for the stage, even after the show won multiple Tony awards and A (not her real initial) had seen and raved about it. Despite these glowing reviews, I wasn’t completely convinced a playwright could translate Bechdel’s book, which is masterfully told and powerfully illustrated, into another genre. I so closely associated the content of Bechdel’s memoir with its visual format featuring cartoon drawings of her childhood memories, journals, and family photos juxtaposed with her middle-aged commentary, I couldn’t imagine telling that complex and complicated story any other way.

Washington Street

Clearly I wasn’t imaginative enough. From its opening scene, Fun Home drew me and other audience members into Alison Bechdel’s unique family history. The daughter of a small town funeral director, Bechdel came out as a lesbian in college, discovered soon after that her father was secretly gay, and then lost him to an apparent suicide. On stage, this story is told with three different actresses playing Bechdel: young Alison, college Alison, and grown-up Alison, who observes from the margins, sketchbook in hand, as her life literally plays out before her (and the audience’s) eyes.

Set before the show

As a musical, Fun Home doesn’t try to replicate the visual format of the book. A small desk represents adult Alison’s cartoonist studio, the place where she struggles to understand and portray her conflicted relationship with her father, and individual props stand in for significant scenes in her life: the couch and piano in her meticulously restored, museum-like childhood home; a coffin in the funeral home (dubbed the “Fun Home” by Alison and her young brothers) that is the family business; and the door to the Gay Union where she came out as a lesbian in college. Audiences have to imagine the rest of the story.

Boston Opera House

The hand-drawn map of her father’s life that Bechdel provides in the book, for example–his birthplace, home, and site of death all contained within a tiny circle of rural Pennsylvania–is described in song but never shown. Instead, we imagine the vista of Bechdel’s childhood from her own imagined perspective as she plays airplane with her father and imagines a bird’s-eye view of her life.

Audience members also have to imagine a nameless character who plays a brief but pivotal role in Bechdel’s childhood: a butch truck driver who walks into a diner where young Alison is eating with her father. In the book, we see Bechdel’s drawing of a woman who never knew the impact she had on a girl who bridled against the dresses and barrettes her father forced her to wear. In the musical, young Alison stares at an off-stage, invisible figure who is invoked only through a recitation of her emblematic appearance: short hair, dungarees, lace-up boots, and a large ring of keys. The outfit and its impression are magical to young Alison: her first realization that people like her exist in the world outside her small circle.

Ladies' lounge

Fun Home the book bills itself as “a family tragicomic,” and I have no shame in admitting I wept as the show turned toward its conclusion. Yes, there are moments of comedy in the story, such as the over-the-top, 70s-psychedelic dance number young Alison and her brothers create to advertise the family funeral home or the awkward bumbling of college Alison’s first sexual encounter. But college Alison’s earnest interactions with her father are heartbreakingly powerful without even a hint of sentimentality. Desperate to understand and be understood by her father, both college and adult Alison encounter instead silence, her questions cut off as abruptly as the oncoming truck that took her father’s life.

Overhead

Whereas I approached Fun Home the musical with high expectations based on multiple readings of Alison Bechdel’s book, J intentionally did no research into the musical beforehand, knowing nothing more than my brief explanation that the show was based on a memoir by a lesbian cartoonist. His reaction to the show was the highest form of praise, as he said he was immediately drawn into Alison’s life not because it was a “gay story” but because it was an engaging and relatable story about an ordinary person who happens to be gay. Although the exact details of Alison Bechdel’s family upbringing are unique, her story is easy to relate to if you’ve ever had a family member (or a childhood) you’ve struggled to understand.

Alongside the World Trade Center

Today J and I went downtown to see the Tall Ships that are in town for this week’s Sail Boston festivities. It was a warm and sunny day, and there were thousands of people strolling along the waterfront, many of them queued to board the ships in port. J and I didn’t board any ships, but we walked alongside them, admiring and taking pictures from shore.

Happy kid

Security for the event was tight: earlier this week, I heard a radio interview with the Massachusetts Undersecretary of Homeland Security, who explained Sail Boston had received the highest possible risk rating from the Department of Homeland Security given the large number of people it was expected to attract to a variety of land and sea venues over a large area. Today, J and I saw local and state police everywhere, a mobile Homeland Security command center, and massive plows and salt trucks parked at every intersection to prevent unauthorized vehicles from gaining access.

Our Lady of Good Voyage

On our way home, J and I stopped at Our Lady of Good Voyage, a new church built in the Seaport neighborhood to replace a tiny chapel that once bore the same name. The new church is on a now-busy corner with new skyscrapers, upscale offices, and luxury apartments on all sides: an island of calm in the city’s hottest (and rapidly developing) new neighborhood.

Inside Our Lady of Good Voyage

One thing that traditionally Catholic cities do well, I think, is provide places for contemplation in otherwise bustling neighborhoods. Our Lady of Good Voyage was open to passersby today, so Jim and I went inside to sit a spell, admiring the maritime-themed decor and relishing the chance to sit somewhere quiet, apart from the bustling crowds.

Ship models and stained glass

When I lived in Beacon Hill as a stressed and over-worked graduate student, I occasionally visited two Franciscan shrines in the heart of downtown Boston: the St. Anthony Shrine on Arch Street, and the St. Francis Chapel in the Prudential Center. Although both shrines offered frequent Masses for nearby workers to attend on weekdays, I never actually went to Mass at either. Instead, I appreciated them as open and available spaces where anyone could step inside, take a seat, and enjoy a quiet moment of private contemplation.

At a time of my life that was busy and bustling, those sacred spaces provided a safe and reliable harbor in the midst of my own personal storms, and I trust Our Lady of Good Voyage will do the same for its new neighbors.

Henri Matisse at the MFA

This week when J and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts to see Botticelli’s Venus, we also saw “Matisse in the Studio,” which places the personal belongings of Henri Matisse alongside the paintings they inspired.

Henri Matisse at the MFA

The exhibit does a wonderful job juxtaposing art and the ordinary. It’s obviously true that every artist paints in a particular place, surrounded by furniture and decor. What this exhibit explores, however, is the direct connection between artistic creation and its material environment. How do the paintings of Matisse provide a window into not merely his mind, but his actual studio?

Henri Matisse at the MFA

An artist might start with a blank canvas, but that artist isn’t a blank canvas. Artists are visual creatures, so it’s no surprise they surround themselves with visually interesting objects that subsequently appear in their works.

We don’t normally think about the material conditions of an artist when we view their art, however. Usually, we mentally erase any image of an artist standing in a studio or behind an easel, focusing on what the artist saw rather than the place from which he saw it.

Henri Matisse at the MFA

“Matisse in the Studio” invites viewers to place the artist back into his artworks, suggesting that Matisse wasn’t merely a painter of images but an assembler of objects. Before a museum curator decided which artworks and objects to include in an exhibit, Matisse’s studio was curated by the artist himself, who handpicked these objects to be his domestic cohabitants.

Henri Matisse at the MFA

Browsing “Matisse in the Studio” is an almost magical experience: at several points, J burst into laughter upon seeing a painting of a chair or vase displayed alongside said chair or vase. There is an electric moment of recognition–the satisfaction of turning a key within its fitted lock–when you recognize this pot, figurine, tapestry, or table as the very one depicted in a painting nearby.

Henri Matisse at the MFA

It’s the same satisfaction you feel when you’re sorting socks and set one alongside its mate: a perfect match. In an ideal world, art and the ordinary walk hand in hand, and it’s the job of a skilled curator to reconcile them.

Botticelli at the MFA

Yesterday J and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts to see “Botticelli and the Search for the Divine,” a small but impressive exhibit of paintings from Renaissance Florence.

Botticelli at the MFA

The highlight of “The Search for the Divine” is Botticelli’s Venus, a life-size painting of the goddess of love. Whereas Botticelli’s earlier, more well-known Birth of Venus depicts the goddess arising from a shell attended by mythological figures, the painting currently on view at the MFA is deceptively simple. Set against a plain black background, Venus gleams like a diamond set on velvet, her skin glowing and flawless, her limbs long and languid, and her hair snaking free from an elaborate tangle of braids and curls.

Botticelli at the MFA

Equally impressive is a large crucifix painted on a cut-out wood panel, as if to be carried in procession. Looking at this crucifix, I was struck by the physical similarities between Botticelli’s Jesus and Venus. Both figures are idealized, nearly nude figures almost entirely free from blemish, and both exude an air of restful power and athletic grace.

Admiring Venus

Venus and Jesus both represent the best of human nature embodied: two complementary answers to the question of what love looks like in the flesh. Venus represents carnal love and Jesus represents spiritual love, but both are beautiful, flawless beings because they represent love’s transformative power. Viewed through the lens of love, all is perfect and well-formed.

Above

This past Friday, I went to Boston’s Logan International Airport to pick J up from a two-week business trip. I got to the airport early, not knowing how bad the Memorial Day weekend traffic would be, so I had time to seek out the airport’s 9/11 Memorial, which commemorates the passengers and crew lost on two flights out of Boston that were hijacked and flown into New York’s World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001.

Departed

I like airports, despite (or maybe because of) their nervous bustle. Even if you yourself aren’t going anywhere, at an airport you can pretend you are while walking for what seems like miles within a labyrinthine warren of networked corridors. To get to the 9/11 Memorial on Friday, I walked the long corridor connecting Terminal E in one direction and Terminal A in the other, encountering along the way a disoriented fellow who was trying to find the arrivals terminal without knowing which airline his “arrival” was flying on. Pointing this man toward the closest of the airport’s terminals, I hoped someone would be able to help him once he got there.

Gingko grove

Once I found it, the 9/11 memorial at Logan Airport was underwhelming: a translucent glass cube in a grove of young gingko trees. To me, the trees were the most attractive aspect of the memorial–in autumn, they must be spectacular as they gleam golden. But the cube itself felt sterile and disconnected, nestled into a wedge of green between the central parking garage, the airport Hilton, and a noisy highway interchange.

American Airlines Flight 11

I’m guessing the cube is more impressive at night, when its panels are lit by ground-level lights. But by day, it looks like an empty bus-stop shelter or a giant glass Rubik’s cube. Whereas the 9/11 Memorial in New York City is fluid with paired waterfalls marking the spot where the Twin Towers stood, Logan Airport’s memorial to the two flights that were hijacked out of Boston is literally unmoving: the one thing in the landscape that never changes.

United Airlines Flight 175

While the parking garage next to the memorial is sided with countless metal flaps that swing in the breeze, creating a mesmerizing ripple effect like wind tousling a dog’s fur or a bird’s feathers, the memorial cube has solid glass sides and an open-air “roof” with glass tiles affixed on two slanted planes of parallel wires. The effect is of glass fragments caught in mid-air, and perhaps that is the intended impression. But while those mid-air shards evoke the shattered glass of the wrecked Twin Towers and the subsequent confetti-like fall of paper, glass, and other debris, this image of shattered-glass-frozen-in-abeyance seems an odd choice to commemorate two planes that were turned by hijackers into missiles, the exact opposite of an unmoving cube.

Departed

Inside the cube are panels listing the passengers and crew lost on the two flights out of Boston that crashed into the Twin Towers: American Airlines Flight 11, which departed Boston at 7:59 a.m, and United Airlines Flight 175, which departed at 8:14 a.m. The cube commemorates the moment each of these planes departed, not the moments they were hijacked and crashed into the North and South Towers. If you wanted to freeze in time any moment from that day, it would be the moment of takeoff, not the moment of impact. At the moment of takeoff, all but five passengers on each place were blithely unaware of their fates, laboring under the sunny illusion that their lives like their travels were going somewhere.

Memorial cube

Airports are places of promise and opportunity–Bon Voyage!–except when they aren’t. A sterile glass cube tucked into a forgotten corner between a hotel and a parking garage at Boston’s Logan Airport reminds us that sometimes the dearly departed are not destined to arrive.

Snowy campus with Steelworker

This past Saturday was a gray and sleeting day to cap off a gray and drizzly week. Despite the weather, I drove to UMass Boston for this year’s Engaging Practices conference: a chance to swap teaching techniques with area composition instructors. This is the third year I’ve gone to this conference, and I always get a bit lost either going or coming. UMass is south of Boston proper on a lip of land that juts into the Harbor, and on Saturday the campus felt even more liminal than usual as the grim, overcast sky scrubbed the horizon with pelting rain.

Campus Center

Because of an interminable construction project that currently encloses much of the UMass campus in chain link fences and concrete barriers, I had to park in a different lot than I have in past years. This parking lot would be within comfortable walking distance of my destination on a pleasant day, but Saturday (unfortunately) wasn’t pleasant. I was mildly doused with sideways-sleet by the time I’d made my way from car to conference, my umbrella being no match for a fierce April wind.

After lunch I took a quick walk from McCormack Hall to the Campus Center and back, these and other campus buildings being connected by a maze of enclosed catwalks. It was a perfect day to be inside talking shop with other Boston-area writing instructors, the sound of slanting sleet on glass the only reminder of the spring nor’easter raging outside.

Antique instruments

Last week, J and I went to a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert:  the last of three such concerts we’ve gone to this season.  The program featured a symphony by Sibelius and a piano concerto by Busoni, two composers I wasn’t familiar with.  The soloist who played the Busoni piece, Kirill Gerstein, was amazing:  the concerto was long, fast, and complicated, and Gerstein performed it without sheet music, committing more than 70 minutes of emphatic, keyboard-pounding music to muscle-memory.

I don’t know much about classical music, and during any given concert, my mind sometimes wanders.  But I’m always inspired by the mastery both regular symphony members and visiting soloists demonstrate as they perform long, intricately orchestrated pieces.  I’m not a musician, so playing an instrument seems difficult enough, and playing an instrument in unison with an entire orchestra of others seems downright miraculous.

Antique instruments

My favorite moments in any concert are the quiet ones, when all eyes are on the conductor and you can almost hear the musicians holding their collective breath.  These expectant moments thrill me in a way the dramatic crescendos and flourishes do not.  Playing loudly seems easy enough:  even I could make a lot of noise with a horn or drum.  But it takes talent and a well-tamed temperament to ride the crests and troughs of a well-written concerto, the music and surging and subsiding in unexpected and ultimately satisfying ways.

 

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