Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Quilts, Kettlekorn, Fire Codes, and Steve Buffalo's Grandkids

AVC starts this week --- and so does the AV Fair

That time of year again: the Perseid meteor shower, long lines in the bookstore, weeks on end of 100+ degree days --- and with parades and Ferris wheels, the AV Fair has came back again too.

This past Saturday on Lancaster Blvd we had the traditional small-town, good-time, come-one-come-all parade.  Here's a sampling of life in America, 2012.

It used to be that as an evening instructor, I had a lot of requests come Fair time --- my students were showing animals in 4H events or had appearances as Miss Rodeo Buckle or some such, and needed permission to miss class. Now that I have shifted to be more on the online teaching side of the equation, I don't get to know who raises sheep or whose sister needs a ride after the concert. I still feel connected though: the fair is a good place to see old students, meet Vietnam Vet beekeepers, or take pictures of a Board member's grandkids playing with the giant chess pieces.

Again, moving on from parade to the full Fair itself, let's take another visual tour. The ride's sign says "Alien Abduction," though in some respects, you don't need to pay to take that ride to end up on another planet.  And so here we go....


The sign said "henna tattoos," and having seen real henna tattooing in India, this product seemed to me more like a different kind of India, as in, India ink, not henna.  Lovely design though, I will say that, even if there was a bit of false advertising at work.  That's okay.  Who comes to a Fair expecting drab reality?  The whole point is to escape back into Never Never Land.  We eat luridly colored food, we fling our bodies into dangerous and vomit-inducing poses, and we try to win immensely overstuffed prizes.  (Man, did my wife beat the pants off of me at Skee-Bowl this year!)  The AV Fair is a chance to wear cowboy boots and a denim mini-skirt (if a gal), or (if you're a kid) to ride a pony or play with chess pawns nearly as big as you are.  I'm just sorry that it only comes once a year, since it is a good way to take one's mind off of grim reality . . . such as how long the wait lists are for English 101 and Math 60.  Speaking of which, I had better go clear out my voice mail and my email's in-box.  "No, sorry, I know the computer shows an opening, but that's an error.  The class really is full --- trust me, I am the instructor, and I was there.  In that room we are right up against the edge of the fire code as is, so no, sorry, I can't take even one more person."

Hmm, this will be a long day.  Maybe I should run get just one more order of funnel cake, to see me through . . . .

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Waiting for a Plane, Waiting for a Class

Patience and Expectation and looking Out the Window at LAX

It seems to be a waiting time, an anxious time, for many of us.  I don't have the enrollment numbers but as a broad guess, would assume that as of now, a week before the start of fall term, about 3,000 students must be on wait lists for classes at AVC.  That means they are not IN a particular class, just on a priority list to be notified if somebody drops out.  It is a grim place to inhabit, and yet they are the (somewhat) lucky ones --- they at least got a place in line.  A few thousand more have tried to sign up for this or that class only to find that not only has the class itself been full for a month, but the wait list has been closed for weeks too.

Teachers too are waiting; speaking for myself, my final fall schedule remains potentially in flux.  I am waiting to hear from admin if it will be changed.  And I suspect that all the folks over in Building and Maintenance are waiting to see if the new Health and Science Buildings will be finished on time, and the bookstore is waiting to hear if our schedules change what that will do to pending book orders, and so it goes, up and down the launch sequence.

And then separate from campus, so much of life means waiting for a bus, for pay day, for the elections finally to be over, waiting for the lady ahead of you in line at Wal-Mart to get it together and actually manage to figure out how to use a debit card.

We think of art as being about classical themes and elevated beauty, but artists have to stand in line too.  The Velvet Underground, that Andy Warhol-era New York rock band, has a song titled "Waiting for the Man," about trying to hook up with drug dealers. The speaker needs a fix and the man, his connection, just ain't there. (Apparently drug dealers are not very reliable. I wouldn't know, personally.)

And not all waiting is bad, of course: we can be waiting for something good, as I was tonight at the airport, waiting for my wife to come home after a few weeks away, or we can merely be learning a slow, important lesson about patience, such as waiting for the soup to cool rather than rushing ahead and burning one's mouth.

Before going to the airport, I had done what I could on my side for this next juncture --- I had cleaned house and fed the pets and watered the tomatoes and had bought (and arranged) flowers.  Just waiting now for that darn airplane!

At LAX, watching the others wait too, I was thinking about the body language of waiting, one thing that artists really need to get right in order to make a convincing portrait.

Here is Salvador Dali, a painting I first saw in Madrid. He painted it in 1925.

The original is in the Sofia Reina Museum but there was a poster of it in my small hotel.  Somebody had scratched out her bottom and called her bad words (in Spanish) --- is this really that provocative? Surely the Surrealists have done much more sexualized works than this?  Her full figure apparently bothered somebody.

Another waiting picture, less well known, is in the Portland (Maine not Oregon) Museum of Art. It's a very subtle and successful oil by Winslow Homer.

Again, he captures the wistfulness -- or is it pure boredom? --- of this somber woman.  Life is outside, green and bursting, but something keeps her inside, in the dark shadows. That arrangement reminds me of something in a similar tonal range but a bit earlier, Caspar David Friedrich's wife at a window of their home by a canal, watching a passing boat.

Brighter in tonal range than either of these (and painted in Nice, in the South of France), Matisse offers a painting that also has a waiting woman in it.

She seemingly has turned to look at us as we enter the room.  Have we kept her waiting long? Matisse isn't afraid to let the carpet be as red as blood, nor to hesitate with her house dress, which seemingly is some type of architectural element in itself. You can almost smell the beach air coming in the propped-open, slated window covers. Matisse painted this in 1921; according to one reference that I checked, Matisse had discovered his model, Henriette Darricarrere, working in Nice as a film extra. She was a dancer, a violinist, and a pianist, so her time here, posing, may have been dull indeed. She is certainly waiting --- waiting for him to hurry up and finish his painting, so she can go out and do something on the esplanade.

It seems from this visual survey that only women have to wait. Where are the men? Off doing their drug buys with Velvet Underground's John Cale perhaps, or getting drunk in bars and forgetting their car keys. Of course it's not all fighting dragons and jumping motorcycles over the Snake River if you're a man. We have to wait as much as everybody else, and I doubt that there's a single person, male or female, who doesn't know that war is not about glory and gunfire, but instead, mostly about waiting. Where are the men in these pictures? They've been drafted, and they are in the army, waiting.

This painting by Rodrigo Moynihan was done in 1943, during World War II.  The Medical Officer shuffles papers, treating the men themselves with no more attention than he gives the forms themselves. Notice the jaundice yellow light that he has chosen to portray the scene under: no Matisse here and no lady dancers who can play the piano, just the grim monotony of having your life and your soul reduced down to being a number on a list.

If I was inhabited a mixture of boredom and anxiety while waiting at the airport, of course so too were all of the human sardines flying coach class back from Pittsburgh with my wife. I had checked the radar map of their flight map (thanks, United!), to see what delays they might be having. The drought in the Midwest at least made for smoother flying, and I imagined the small towns of the American prairie east of Denver as my wife passed overhead, the clusters of towns and truck stops and crop duster airfields that roll past outside the window.  These are towns without names, just junctions of lights intersecting in the blackness of the American night outside the droning monotony of a trans-continental flight.

It is hard to write about this kind of experience, though some people have tried and done quite well. The French aviator Antoine de St Exupery (the one who wrote The Little Prince) has a book titled Night Flight that is very much worth knowing. A sad footnote to the above medical painting is that the author of the Little Prince died in World War II, when his P-38 Lightning crashed into the sea. The wreck has recently been recovered; Wikipedia summarizes the events and the (probably false) claims of those who have said they shot him down. The true circumstances remain unknown.

I end my forthcoming book on Antarctic aviation with a somewhat mystical and surreal description of my exit flight from Antarctica back to New Zealand, the details of which will be covered in another post.  Until then, the poem "Flying at Night" by Ted Kooser is one of my favorite night-flight poems.  I will close by quoting it in its entirety:

Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies
like a snowflake falling on water. Below us,
some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death,
snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn
back into the little system of his care.
All night, the cities, like shimmering novas,
tug with bright streets at lonely lights like