I Can’t Show You This Picture, But You Must See It

I have this weird respect for copyright, so I didn’t want to embed this, but you really have to see it. Then come back and we’ll talk about it.

Yeah, that’s some kind of delicious, isn’t it just? More where that came from, at David Rankin’s website. So many sights there that reminded me of the not-so-halcyon days when I lived in Page. The only thing good about Page was the scenery. No complaints there, my friends – it’s truly dramatic. And David managed to capture an extra dollop of drama there. Fantastic.

I thought I recognized that old local icon, the Navajo Generating Station, but I wrote to him about it just to be sure. He advised, “The photo was taken with a telephoto lens from southern Utah just across the UT/AZ border looking at the Navajo Generating Station and LeChee Rock.” Four years I lived there, and I never knew that was LeChee Rock. We callow kids didn’t know the names of most of the mesas. We just kind of pointed at them and said “That one” when discussing them. I think the only reason we knew Page is built on Manson Mesa is because, hey, it’s Manson.

I used to go out at night up to the place on the edge of the mesa where it was rumored a whole settlement had blown sky-high one Halloween night back in the ’50s, and I’d stand there looking beyond the barely-lit airstrip out to the Navajo Generating Station. You wouldn’t normally think of a coal-fired plant as beautiful, but it was. Standing out there alone in the bare desert, the only light beyond Page for miles aside from the moon and stars, it looked like a ship in a sandy sea, sailing serenely among rocky icebergs. I mean, seriously. Go look at it again. Take your eyes off the lightning and really look at the plant. Doesn’t that look just like a grand old steamship, floating out there against the mesas? David captured it just as I remember it. Only he managed to capture so much more: the stark, dark cliffs standing against storm-torn skies.

This is what I was talking about when I told you about slickrock. Those mesas rose up from the desert floor, stark and still. The storms rolling in over them are bloody amazing to watch. Only you’ll want to do it from high ground. David’s shot what I’m talking about. It may not even be raining within a hundred miles of where you are, but suddenly, a sound, a roar, and water, swift and deep and treacherous. You can’t outrun it, and if you’re in a slot canyon, you can’t out-climb it, either. People have died because they didn’t understand this about the desert: even here, you can drown.

But to stand in a high place, to watch the lightning strike and the rain arrow down, to hear the wind roar through the barren rock – that you won’t trade for anything. To see the storm-light on the red rock, watch colors and hues change, dappled over ten or fifty or a hundred miles around you, painting an already painted desert – that’s a vision that will imprint itself indelibly. It stays.

I want to go back. I want to sit in the high places, and watch the sun explore ancient rocks. I want to hear a silence so profound it’s like a physical force. I want to lie back against that smooth, bare slickrock and stare into an endless sky. And I want to see the storms again, smell a petrichor so intense it tangles up and overwhelms the more prosaic scent of sand, feel that shock of chill air from a thunderstorm that washes over the skin like a mist and leaves you with goosebumps in a hundred degrees. I love and miss those things.

I’m glad I have such images to remind me.

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Chinese. Fucking. Elvis. Need I Say More?

Apparently, I do.

Today, I braved rain, floods and landslides (oh, my) in order to go see Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis at Burien Little Theatre.  If you live in the Seattle area, you have three more chances to see this show, and if you miss it, you will be reduced to a pathetic wreck of a human being, weeping with remorse until the day you die.  I mean, c’mon, how often do you get to see a show about a demotivated dominatrix, an obsessive-compulsive housecleaner, a cross-dressing drycleaner, a wanna-be ice dancing daughter, and an allegedly dead woman?  Not to mention, Chinese Elvis!

Maggie and Eric truly find some fucked-up shit to put on, but man, is it ever good.

This is one of those moments I cursed myself for not bringing the camera.  There were some strikingly artistic, truly beautiful and haunting moments in this play.  When soon-to-be-former dominatrix Josie Botting is standing at the top of the stairs, watching her daughter try to walk in her stilettos on the hapless Chinese Elvis, everything about her screamed noir.  It was a moment worthy of film.  And it wasn’t the only one.

Alas, I haven’t got a picture of it, but courtesy of Ken Holmes and Phillip Benais, you can have a taste:

Thank you, Burien Bloggers!

You can read about how outstanding the play is at the link, there, and every kind word is true.  Myself, I want to give a few particular shout-outs to the cast.  Gerald B. Browning, who plays Lionel Trills, had the hard job of making a balding transvestite sub drycleaner come across as the most admirable man in the universe – and he does.  Loved him.  Geni Hawkins, who plays the very repressed housecleaner, does the best Irish accent outside of Ireland, and let me just say she makes you root for good girls wanting to go bad.  Kelli Mohrbacher had a hard job playing Brenda Marie Botting, the “simple” twin, but she made you want to run her straight out for a pair of ice skates and a sequined costume (you’ll understand why, should you see the show).  Angelica Duncan, who is long-lost twin Louise Botting, played a difficult character to perfection (and I shall say no more, least I spoil your fun when you see it).  They were all outstanding.  They all got and deserved center stage.  Which makes me feel guilty singling out the next two for special treatment.

But Alexandra Novotny… holy damn.  I mean, honestly, she runs through the shadings of an extremely complex character flawlessly, and her expression was so fucking perfect.  Some people can act without saying a word, without even moving more than a few muscles in a face.  She is one.  She left me breathless.  And no, it didn’t have anything to do with that cocktail dress toward the end there, although it was an excellent costuming choice.  War paint, indeed!

I felt like bowing to her when I left.  Seriously did.

And yet, she very nearly got overshadowed by Ken Wong, who is the Chinese Elvis that Lionel hires for a birthday party that turns bizarre.  People, we are talking about an American who managed a Cockney-Chinese accent even while singing just like Elvis.  Everything – his timing, his delivery, his expressions, his movements – everything was perfect.  I mean, look at his face up there.  Does that not look like a hapless, rookie Chinese Elvis who’s been having a horrible night of it, and is now wondering just how to fuck he’s gotten into this mess and wishes someone would come rescue him from it?

He even delivers a line as corny as “Elvis has left the building” in a way that was funny, fresh, and brought the fucking house down.

And in case you see the play and wonder: no, he’s not lip-syncing.  That’s really him, singing Cockney-Chinese Elvis and sounding eerily like the King.

They couldn’t have found a more perfect cast for this show.  ‘Twas a delight, worth risking life and limb and missing the weekly phone call with my best friend for.  If you get a chance, go.  Just go.  You’ve got all next weekend for it.

Do not end up spending the rest of your life moaning about missing it.

Decisions, Decisions

Help me decide them.

AllPosters is evil, and has decided to have a 22% off sale.  I’ve got a blank wall wanting to be filled with prints.  Alas, I have found too many.  So it’s opinion time.  Tell me what you guys think.  Prints are after the jump.

For Chinese prints, we have the following:

For Japanese, we have got:

Right, then.  Opinions, please.  What should grace my walls?

Poetry and Flowers

In a moment, here, the Muse will be having her way with me.  But in the meantime, George brought us flowers:

Which delight not only because George is a wonderful photographer (which he is), but because when I was growing up, crocuses always meant spring had almost sprung.  It also meant we’d be out in the yard around the wishing well with toothpicks and saran wrap a day or two later, desperately trying to keep the little buggers alive.  When they bloomed, you could be assured a snowstorm was on the way.  Lousy sense of timing they had.

Ah, memories.

And my heart sister Nicole has a poetry contest going for National Poetry Month.  Really not to be missed, you poets, so break out the rhyming dictionaries and once again curse the dearth of entries under “daffodil.”

I’d love to stay and rhaposdize, but the Muse and I need to go have an argument about what one should write immediately upon seeing something as saccharine as 27 Dresses.  

The Architecture of the Unexpected

One of the books I picked up during my unexpected side trip to Half-Price Books was Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings, by Edward S. Morse.  It contains surprises.

I didn’t look at it closely before I bought it.  I needed something on non-Western architecture, and it fit the bill.  That’s all I needed to know.  Now I’ve cracked it open, and it’s given me several shocks.  For instance, I didn’t anticipate its antiquity – it was written in 1885.  As Clay Lancaster points out in the Preface to the Dover Edition, this is a good thing – Morse was able to study Japanese architecture before the West left its footprint. 

The second shock is the fact it was written by a scientist.  Morse was in Japan to study brachiopods.  He was teaching zoology at the Imperial University in Tokyo.  Things like art and architecture were a sideline to him, until his friend Dr. Bigelow told him to stop bothering himself with brachiopods.  “For the next generation the Japanese we knew will be as extinct as Belemnites,” Bigelow said.  And thus, a zoologist wrote a book about houses.

Then, reading the Preface by Morse himself, I see him thanking none other than Percival Lowell for “numerous courtesies.”  Small world, isn’t it just?  I’d had no idea that a man studying brachiopods and dwellings in Japan would have anything at all to do with my hometown astronomer, but there it is.

Perhaps the most unexpected shock is this: Morse is a wonderful writer who makes you laugh.  You don’t pick up a book on architecture expecting a good giggle, but how can you not laugh when you come across a passage like this as Morse discusses the influence of Japanese art and architecture already evident in America in the late 1880s:

It was not to be wondered at that many of our best artists – men like Coleman, Vedder, Lafarge, and others – had long before recognized the transcendent merit of Japanese decorative art.  It was however somewhat remarkable that the public at large should come so universally to recognize it, and in so short a time.  Not only our own commercial nation, but art-loving France, musical Germany, and even conservative England yielded to this invasion.  Not that new designs were evolved by us; on the contrary, we were content to adopt Japanese designs outright, oftentimes with a mixture of incongruities that would have driven a Japanese decorator stark mad.  Designs appropriate for the metal mounting of a sword blazed out on our ceilings; motives from a heavy bronze formed the theme for the decoration of friable pottery; and suggestions from the light crape were woven into hot carpets to be trodden upon.  Even with this mongrel admixture, it was a relief by any means to have driven out of our dwelling the nightmares and horrors of design we had before endured so meekly, – such objects, for example, as a child in dead brass, kneeling in perpetual supplication on a dead brass cushion, while adroitly balancing on its head a receptacle for kerosene oil; and a whole regiment of shapes equally monstrous.  Our walls no longer assailed with designs that wearied our eyes and exasperated our brains by their inanities. We were no longer doomed to wipe our feet on cupids, horns of plenty, restless tigers, or scrolls of architectural magnitudes.  Under the benign influence of this new spirit it came to be realized that it was not always necessary to tear a flower in bits to recognize its decorative value; and that teh simplest objects in Nature – a spray of bamboo, a pine cone, a cherry blossom – in the right place were quite sufficient to satisfy our craving for the beautiful.

Isn’t that delightful?  I expected a dry treatise on Japanese architecture.  What I’m getting is plenty of architectural information, but I’m also getting a lesson in style, an intimate glimpse into history, a draught of art, and the delectably dry humor of a man who has  suffered one too many brass children holding lamps.

There’s also something to learn of sociology in here.  Morse says, in his Introduction:

It is extraordinary how blind one may be to the faults and crimes of his own people, and how reluctant to admit them.  We sing heroic soldier-songs with energy and enthusiasm, and are amazed to find numbers in a Japanese audience disapproving, because of the bloody deeds celebrated in such an exultant way.  We read daily in our papers the details of the most blood-curdling crimes, and often of the most abhorrent and unnatural ones; and yet we make no special reflections on the conditions of society where such things are possible, or put ourselves much out of the way to arouse the people to a due sense of the degradation and stain on the community at large because of such things.  But we go to another country and perhaps find a new species of vice; its novelty at once arrests our attention, and forthwith we howl at the enormity of the crime and the degradation of the nation in which such a crime could originate, send home the most exaggerated accounts, malign the people without stint, and then prate to them about Christian charity!
In the study of another people one should if possible look through colorless glasses; though if one is to err in this respect, it were better that his spectacles should be rose-colored than grimed with the smoke of prejudice. 

He’s right, you know.  Utterly, absolutely right.  His observations and advice were excellent then, and they’re excellent now. 

So here we have a book that not only explores Japanese architecture, but art, society, and human nature.  Morse isn’t afraid to compare and contrast.  Many authors engage in that trick, but few are as brave as he is in exposing the warts as well as the wonders both of the society under observation and his own.  In the Introduction, in fact, as he’s mentioning that there are some Japanese houses he doesn’t like, he balances that by noting that English homes aren’t so special, either:

Still another English writer says: “It is unpleasant to live within ugly walls; it is still more unpleasant to live within unstable walls: but to be obliged to live in a tenement which is both unstable and ugly is disagreeable in a tenfold degree.”  He thinks it is quite time to evoke legislation to remedy these evils, and says: “An Englishman’s house was formerly said to be his castle; but in the hands of the speculating builder and advertising tradesman, we may be grateful that it does not oftener become his tomb.”

Morse took seriously the concept that one shouldn’t forget the beam in one’s own eye while whining about the mote in another’s.  Of course, in this case, he was dissing England, not America, but we get the sense that he’s lumping things East and West, by way of comparison – England’s faults, therefore, became our own.

Morse was writing in an age where science wasn’t as segregated as it is now.  Scientists could let their curiosity take them where it would – and if that meant throwing over brachiopods in favor of building materials, that would do.  Adding social studies to the mix, even better.  Books could breathe.  There wasn’t such a rigid focus on sticking to the subject at hand (just ask Melville, who found it perfectly reasonable to insert several chapters on cetaceans in the middle of an epic adventure story).  Tight focus is admirable, but I think sometimes we focus the beam a little too much.  We forget that things are inextricably connected, because we’re so used to erecting partitions.

That’s why it’s nice to read a nineteenth-century book on architecture.  All of the things that go in to architecture – the society, the environment, the history of the culture and the 1,001 things that influence the way a building is built and used – get explored, without apology, and without fear that a dose of opinion and humor will somehow cheapen the work.

We probably don’t need a return to the extremes of 19th century segues (and if you’re wondering what I mean by extremes, pick up an unabridged copy of Les Miserables for a weighty example).  But it certainly wouldn’t hurt if fiction and non-fiction writers of today took a hint from Japanese architecture, and instead of erecting walls, used easily-rearranged partitions instead.