Vinegar and floodwater

The river is rising, and more rain is coming.

I work downtown, a short stroll from the river, and the thing to do these days is to take that stroll at lunchtime and stare at the muddy water as it streams past. Levees have given way upstream, and even local neighborhoods have been evacuated. Record flooding is happening all over the place. I saw my first record-breaking flood the month I turned ten, and witnessed several similar floods over the years, which is why my childhood home was bought by the government and leveled.

I remember carrying things out of the basement when I was a child to rescue them from coming floods. I didn’t think I would be doing that again, certainly not at work. But last Wednesday the building managers had a series of worried meetings as they considered the worst-case scenario for this flood event. The building is protected by a rarely-needed sump pump. The pump had not even been checked for several years. Management hired some specialists to check the pump on Friday, but meanwhile they also considered the option that a power failure might occur over the weekend, rendering the pump powerless. So, management decided to have all the employees drop what we were doing and carry things up out of the basement.

Several different entities are in the building—some related to one another, others merely renting space. Tenants include branches of the state university, attorneys, and even a vegetarian restaurant. The building itself is part of the public library system; it contains the library’s archives, the library’s art collection (aside from objects currently on display in other library buildings), art galleries (one of which sells locally-created art), and several other library departments. The basement contained (until the end of last week) storage for the art collection and for the archival items received but not yet processed. In other words, irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind items (some quite valuable) were threatened by the flood. It made sense to bring it all upstairs.

People sometimes donate unique items to the library, which is why it maintains an archive. In the library’s archives are family records and photo albums, business records, church records, government records, and the like. The library owns letters and diaries written by soldiers during the Civil War. It holds Red Cross records, Garden Club records, school records, and thousands of photographs from earlier times. People use the library’s archives to study the history of railroads, the local fire department, historic people buried in local cemeteries, and their own families. People come to learn the history of the house where they live or of a business building they are remodeling. Not all this information was threatened by the flood—the material that has been processed is safely stored higher in the building. But who can say what information is hiding in the material not yet processed? Not to mention the art collection—it all had to be moved.

The research room is open nine hours a day, six days a week. Junior high students and university professors might be working within touching distance on their different projects. Books have been published based on information available only in this building. Many of the people who come—roughly half of them I would guess—are researching their genealogy. And, because there is a restaurant on the first floor, researchers and librarians sometimes smell the food being prepared. One day last week, the restaurant workers were roasting garlic—the scent reminded me of my mother’s zucchini recipe, fried in a skillet with garlic and herbs and a little vegetable oil. Other days the research room smells of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies.

This morning the research room smelled like Harvard beets. Those are beets cooked in vinegar. This time the restaurant was not to blame. Among the items brought up from the basement are several canisters of film. Old film made of cellulose acetate plastic can chemically disintegrate, and the most obvious symptom of that disintegration is a vinegary scent. The library has one full-time employee whose task is to convert older records, whether audio or video, into a digital format before the original is lost beyond hope of recovery. These donated films are now sitting up on the third floor, undergoing chemical change, and the scent wafts down the atrium into other parts of the building.

The river continues to rise. No one knows how many days the library’s art collection will be sitting in hallways and meeting rooms and nooks and crannies all over the building. No one knows how many days the unprocessed archives will continue to form a maze between offices. A potential catastrophe has been averted, but it was done through many hours of hard labor and with no small inconvenience to the library’s staff. J.

Advertisements

One character in search of a plot

The painting that changed Carl’s life was not even an original piece of art. It was a reproduction or imitation of a certain artist’s work. This painting hung on the wall outside the hospital’s family waiting room. During the week that followed his grandfather’s stroke, Carl walked past the painting several times a day. Its eyes followed him, challenged him, and invited his curiosity. For the rest of his life, Carl never forgot that face.

The artist in question was born in Hungary. He learned to paint in France, but then lived and worked in Sweden. His favorite and most popular subject was a gypsy girl he had known in France. Her image adorned homes and businesses all over Sweden and northern Germany, as well as in Carl’s home state of Wisconsin. Wearing a peasant smock and a colorful skirt, the gypsy girl sat in front of a background of swirling colors. Her black hair cascaded over her shoulders; her gaze always addressed the viewer. Lutherans in Europe and in North America could not even hear the word “gypsy” without thinking of these paintings.

Her image undoubtedly influenced Hollywood’s several portrayals of Esmeralda in productions of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. People who have grown up seeing her portrait remember her while listening to Bizet’s opera Carmen. Even Stanley Kubrick knew her face: in A Clockwork Orange, when Alex—the main character—has been released from prison and returns to his parents’ apartment, several paintings resembling her appearance hang on the living room walls. [Edit: Those paintings are actually by J H Lynch, a slightly later artist who also painted young women with long dark hair. I suspect that Lynch was influenced by the earlier artist’s work, as the main difference between their paintings is that Lynch has natural backgrounds. The painting Carl saw at the hospital may or may not have been by Lynch.]

Influenced by this painting, Carl preferred Jacqueline Smith to Farrah Fawcett in the caste of Charlie’s Angels. When television stations showed movie musicals, Carl favored Natalie Wood’s Maria over Julie Andrews’ Maria or Judy Garland’s Dorothy. Years later, when the musical Les Miserables was made into a movie, Carl was puzzled by Marius’ pursuit of Cosette while he remained blind to the affection and the beauty of Eponine. Many of the cheerleaders and popular girls in his high school were blonde, but Carl’s eyes were always captured by the dark-haired girls. A case in point was the girl who sat in front of him in his algebra class. Too shy to ask for a date, Carl sent her a carnation on Valentine’s Day. He was crushed to learn of her disappointment that the flower came from him and not from the boy she secretly admired.

In college Carl summoned the courage to invite young women on dates. He dated more than a dozen students during those four years, but he was most drawn to the most exotic ladies on campus. One was from Venezuela, and the other was from Korea. Both of them were more interested in receiving an education than in romance. At graduation, Carl remained unattached.

Now it is time for Carl to meet the young lady who looks just like the gypsy in the painting. But what shall be the barrier between them? Will Carl’s shyness return? Will the difference in their ages be too great? Is she already married? Let’s bring this tale into the twenty-first century: is she married, but to another woman?

I am open to suggestions. J.

The muse: a femme fatale

Last month I attended a public lecture given by a local painter. Toward the end of his talk, he began to speak of the muse. Since ancient Greece, artists and creative people spoke of the Muses as spirits who guided them in their work. This painter did not have kind words for his muse. As well as I can remember, this is what he said: “The muse cares about the art, not about the artist. She will use him to produce art until he drops dead from exhaustion, and she does not care. At any whim she can cast him off and abandon him without a second thought. The muse is not the artist’s friend, because the artist is the tool of the muse.”

I may be embellishing his words a bit, but I have captured the essence of what he said. Few creative people are in love with their muse. Writers do not write because it’s fun to write—writers are driven to write. Painters and sculptors and others involved in the visual arts feel the same way. Musicians perform music, not as a hobby but as a compulsion. I have known many musicians. I have noticed that their feelings about people who dabble in music vary between amusement and scorn. If music is just a hobby—if music is not the only reason to go on living—then that amateur performer is not considered a true musician.

Every art is populated by starving artists. Only a few in each field reach the heights of fame and wealth. Most take on another job to support themselves while their hearts remain dedicated to their art. One of my musician friends made contact with the drummer who performed with Santana at Woodstock. The man still drums in small clubs for a pittance. With his immense talent and his minutes of fame, today he is a classic image of the starving artist.

Creative people often seem to have emotional problems of one kind or another. From severe mental illness to deep depression, artists seem prone to live unhappy lives. The suicide of an Ernest Hemingway or a Robin Williams reminds the rest of the world of the pain many artists carry inside themselves day and night. Who is to blame? Is it the fault of the muse that artists suffer? Can only those afflicted by pain supply the rest of the world with entertainment and with awe?

Soren Kierkegaard compared poets to the victims in ancient Sicily who were roasted to death in a hollow bull a king commanded an artist to devise. The screams of pain generated from within the bull by the victim sounded like music passing through the contraption. Reportedly, the designer of the Sicilian bull was the first victim to be tested in its flames.

Aristotle said something to the effect of “there is no great genius without a touch of madness.” He may have been thinking of Socrates, who was often considered to be mad. Socrates claimed to be inspired by a semi-divine spirit (the actual Greek word is “demon”) and would sometimes stop and stare into space, even in the middle of a conversation. Other wise people have compared the link between genius and madness to the link between roses and thorns.

Kurt Vonnegut, on the other hand, felt that creativity comes from being an outsider. He said that the mentally ill, along with Jews and homosexuals and other outsiders, are forced to see the world in a different way because they were made outsiders. When they describe the world which they see, they are discovered to be creative.

All this seems to say that the muse is a cruel mistress, a femme fatale, who uses the artist for her own ends without regard for the artist’s happiness, comfort, or even survival. Perhaps in a perfect world art can be produced painlessly, but we do not live in a perfect world. The burden of the artist, the driving force of the muse, is part of the reality of existence in this world. In the movie A League of Their Own, the manager is talking about baseball when he says, “Of course it’s not easy! If it were easy, everyone would do it.” What is true of baseball is true of art as well. J.