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Notre Dame is Burning — Long Live Notre Dame

In No Particular Path on April 15, 2019 at 4:48 pm

Notre Dame de Paris is burning.

The date is April 15, 2019. The great cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris is burning. As I write this, the roof is destroyed, the great spire has collapsed. I do not yet know if the rose window remains, or the fate of the great works of art that lived inside the cathedral walls. Most are likely gone forever. The building itself may be rebuilt, the parts that survive the fire, the great stone works, may be restored. Yet what remains or what comes next will never be what was.
This is the way of the works of men.
An irony in the tragedy is that it seems likely that the fire struck as restoration on the cathedral was beginning. Notre Dame was dying, crumbling under the weight of more than seven centuries. And a decision had been made to restore it, to give it new life, to keep it a while longer.
I think we may suppose that, like so much else that humans have put upon the Earth, it was inevitable that humans would destroy it, or the Earth would bring it down and cover it over. But this was not supposed to be the time. This was not supposed to be the way. Surely, those who wanted to restore it must have believed they could give it at least some greater measure of immortality, of permanence, however illusionary they might prove in some distant end.
I have often wondered at this idea of the immortality of the works of humans. What is it that drives us to preserve certain select pieces of the past, with the expectation that the future will value them as we do?
There have, at times, been movements in the arts which have celebrated impermanence. The “Happenings” of the 20th century, the works of the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude are high profile examples. But how many of us have built sand castles, drawn on sidewalks with chalk, marveled at ice sculptures, or gasped at fireworks displays. Some arts are by their very nature impermanent. Any live performance is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Every time an actor or a dancer or a musician goes before an audience, the event is new, fleeting, impermanent. Even as long as there are humans to remember it, the memories themselves are shadows of the original.
We can, of course, record these things, just as we will continue to have photographs and paintings and literary descriptions of Notre Dame to helps us remember its grandeur. But our records and our recordings are not the thing itself, and neither will be what goes up where the fire has brought it down.
The truth is, I think, that our attempts at permanence, our striving for immortality for the things we create is a measure of the value we place on things precisely because they are not immortal.
We do not really value immortality for its own sake. Those things we make of plastic, which are virtually indestructible, are mostly utile, cheap, meant for ordinary consumption, meant to be discarded – how ironic to create indestructible objects for impermanent uses. And ironic, too, I suppose. To create impermanent objects for the ages.
It is our mortality, our vulnerability that makes our lives so precious, and that is also true of the things we create.
In Shelley’s “Ozymndias” we are asked to look at the arrogance and futility of our attempts at immortality. In Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Gray” the titular character forestalls his decline and demise through artistic sorcery, but in the end is, as are we all, reduced to dust. The Egyptians mummified the dead, but what remained was no more than a preserved shell of its human occupant, and if exposed to the air for too long, it too would go the way of Dorian Gray. We surround ourselves in art and literature and architecture and all the other arts with reminders of the impossibility of immortality. But we try, anyway.
Cathedrals are especially reflective of the struggle between death and eternal life. This is the central theme of all major religions, that it is possible for us both to die and to live forever.
There will be mourning for Notre Dame, as there is with any great loss. There will be also be discussions of how it might be raised from the dead, what measure of eternal life might still be possible for it. The faithful will not lose their faith, for if Notre Dame can find a way to live forever, then there is hope for us all.
For these are the ways of humans, as it is of all our works.

Off the Interstate in Oklahoma and on again into Arkansas – and Toad Suck.

In Uncategorized on April 3, 2019 at 8:25 pm

Sometimes a day seems long because it has been a day of driving by. For a New Englander on the plains, that means driving for miles and hours by lots of the same. Once we got past Fort Worth, heading north into Oklahoma, we had left the Texas megalopolis behind us, we passed by Denton and stopped at the first rest area/welcome center in the Sooner State. The visitor center part was closed when we got there, but had opened by the time we got up the next morning.
I chatted briefly with the nice lady behind the counter, and she was keen to suggest some things we might do on our way north then east. Since we were already looking to skip around Oklahoma City on a shortcut between I35 and I40, she suggested that we might want to stop in Sulphur. Sounds like a chancy thing, I know, but in fact, Sulphur is the home of the Chickasaw National Recreation Area and the Chickasaw Cultural Center. Good plan.
We got to Sulphur late morning, checked in at the visitor center there, and then crossed the street to the park, where we took a leisurely two-mile walk on a path that crossed some streams, climbed some hills, and circled a multi-acre enclosure of pasture and woods in which a small herd of bison obligingly walked past the designated bison viewpoint or stood quietly under some trees within cell phone photo distance. It really was a lovely walk, something we aren’t getting enough of on this trip.
Then we drove over to the Cultural Center for lunch at the Aaimpa’ Café. Aaimpa’ is apparently the Chicasaw word for “a place to eat.” And all the signs at the center are presented with the Native words followed by the English equivalent. We ate an Indian taco (taco style fillings on frybread), pashofa (white corn hominy cooked with pork), and grape dumplings. The taco was mild and tasty with a little salsa, the grape dumplings were small chunks of pastry in a heavy grape syrup, and the pashofa was excellent if you like bland watery food. I actually do, apparently, when the flavors of the food itself are fresh and authentic.
The Cultural Center overall, is a work in progress. The grounds and buildings are beautiful. The buildings are an orange/tan brick with copper accent walls in the interiors. The campus spills across several acres from a hilltop exhibition hall to a reproduction of a Chickasaw village in a small clearing below. There is an observation deck at the end of a long footbridge overlooking the village that is scarier than it sounds as it is narrow and the decking is wooden slats. There is also an art gallery, a research center and lots of historic markers and statues and artifacts. The museum/exhibition hall is spacious, but under-utilized. A short walk through shows several panoramas, historical discussions, and displays of pottery and weaponry and the tools of everyday life. There is also a gallery with a display of a dozen or more portraits of Chickasaw elders and luminaries. Beautiful work. The artist captures the character in his subjects faces with respect and beauty.
The art gallery has a small collection of works in fabric and paint and sculpture by native artists of all kinds. Again, wonderful stuff, but I wished for something more. This is a place worth visiting anytime, but I wonder how much will be done in the next ten years or so.
Having gotten off the interstate, we decided to take a different route up to our intended campsite in Henryetta; a public park called Nichols Park, where we had read that we could park overnight without utilities for free.
Oklahoma is a land of long straight roads that slide down one hill and up the next, then stretch out to the horizon across open plains. We took OK1 and then US75 across the southeast quarter of the state. The road would stretch out through farms and ranches and distant hills, then suddenly bend and bounce through a small town or moderate city, where proud announcements of the local high school’s athletic achievements; clean, simple libraries and civic building; and a few small businesses shared the main street with abandoned blocks sitting alongside dollar General, Conoco gas stations and Sonic drive-ins. We passed through Ada, a town I had only know existed as the answer to a crossword puzzle clue. We saw the signs announcing that this town was the birthplace of a famous steer wrestler or rodeo hero. And we drove the main streets of Wetumka and Weleetka. Weleetka, the sign at the edge of town informed us was the Creek Indian word for “flowing water,” which caused me to note that “creek” was an English word for the same thing.
(One side note: I am very careful on these travels to obey all speed limits as precisely as possible; a fact that proved its worth in Weleetka when I failed to notice a change in the limit as I drove down a seemingly insignificant little street on my way to GPS-designated turn. I was stopped by a friendly, almost jolly local policeman who turned out to be the town’s police chief. (For all I know he may have been the entire police force.) He was very understanding of the perils of traveling unknown byways for the out-of-state driver and since I was not in his database of chronic offenders or other outlaws, gave me a warning, asked if I, in fact knew where I was going, and wished us a good day. He also handed me a copy of the warning and said, “This is your copy. You can do anything you want to do with it except litter.” I don’t know if I have ever been stopped by a more pleasant officer of the law.
Eventually, we mad our way to Nichols park in Henryetta. Like much of rural America, it is in need of some tender loving care. The old park buildings are in tragic disrepair, despite the fact that the park seems in daily use by people who want to sit and fish by Nichols Lake, picnic along the water or up on the overlook, jog and walk along the roads, or take their kids to the playground on the south side of the lake. They post that they lock the gates every night at ten, which was both reassuring and concerning. We figured we’d be safe, but how would we get out if we needed to? No worries. We slept a bit later than the 8:00 opening of the gates and were apparently the only people in the park all night.
This morning, we looked out toward Arkansas and contemplated how far we might be willing to travel. This usually involves an assessment of distance we need to cover to get home within our planned timeline, thoughts about where me might stop to eat or take care of other needs, such as gasoline, and where we might choose to spend the night.
That’s how I found it. Three-and-a-half hours away down I40. Eighteen to twenty dollars a night for a gravel pad, electricity and water. Not far off the interstate, in the town of Bigelow. Right along the Arkansas River. Toad Suck Park.
Now the ease of access, the cost, and the fact that it was within a reasonable distance were, of course major factors in my decision to stay there, but, honestly, who wouldn’t want to be able to say that they spent a night in Toad Suck Park?
Getting there meant a fairly dry day of coasting along I40, but we had planned one break for lunch and gasoline; and that was serendipitously the first city in Arkansas: Forth Smith. Fort Smith, as it turns out, was once know as Hell on the Border, the place where the United States ran smack up against the Indian Territories, where the Hanging Judge, Judge Parker hanged more than seventy bandits of all descriptions, occasionally as many as six at a time. It was the place where Belle Starr was convicted of robbery and sent on up to Detroit for six months. And it was where Belle’s daughter Pearl Younger Starr ran a brothel down the street from Miss Laura’s Social Club, the most successful house of ill repute in Arkansas and the only brothel that is listed in the National Register of Historic Buildings. WE stopped there after lunch in Fort Smith, and a tour guide named Ken showed us around, telling us stories of Laura and her successors and the building’s good days and bad. We talked about outlaws and U.S. Marshalls, including Bass Reeves, the first Black U.S. Marshall, whom Judge Parker brought to town, and who was o well know for integrity and toughness, and so well respect in the Nations, that some bandits would surrender to him when they heard he was on their trail, because a confrontation would be fatal and he could be counted on for a fair shake. As for integrity, there is a photograph there of the death of a convicted murderer who asked the judge at his trial if he might be allowed to go back home and settle some family affairs before sentence was carried out. The Judge agree on the condition that the condemned man promised to return. He did.
Right across the street from Laura’s is a lovely small park along the Arkansas river. It is a short walk around the perimeter past river views a section of railroad where there is a sign telling people not to lie on top of or under the railcars. The path has markers that tell the story of the Trail of Tears, that great forced, deadly migration of the five tribes into the territories. It can be hard to read, even though the signs insist that all the tribes continue to thrive and prosper today.
We then got back up onto I40 and headed for Toad Suck. Here we will spend the night, with electricity, clean water, hot showers, and a surprise. Toad Suck is a federal area, so my Geezer Pass got us in for half price. The place is incredibly laid back. A nice older lady and gentleman sat in the office when I checked in. They instructed me where to go and choose a site, then return to pay them. Payment had to be in cash, and exact change, as they had no card reader or change on hand. We found a spot, I returned to the office to fill out the info on a small envelope, insert the cash, and deposit the whole thing in a small, brown, locked receptacle outside the office.
It’s easy to get jaded by bureaucracies and the workings of government that seem unable to do even the simplest of things. Then along come a few simply lovely parks, a historic brothel, and Toad Suck.

HonkTX! — and BBQ.

In Uncategorized on April 1, 2019 at 8:26 pm

If you hear the words “marching band” and think of Sousa marches and football half-time: if you picture layer upon layer of teenagers in epaulets and boots parading through the streets in between fire trucks and convertibles full of celebrities and beauty queens; well, one good Honk! Festival could change your life.
HonkTX! Is one of several Honk! Festivals that happen at various times around the country, including the Pronk! Festival in Providence RI.
Honk! festivals are a celebration of street music, more akin to Mardi Gras than Macy’s. These are mainly community bands, sometimes ragtag collections of trumpets and saxophones and tubas and trombones and percussion, with a smattering of clarinets, and the occasional flute or mouth piano, but rarely any strings. They tend to be eclectic and inclusive. Anyone can join in, you don’t have to be professional caliber, just committed, passionate about fun and the music, and willing to put on something outrageous and get up in front of people. The quality of the music may vary according to the musicians and the conductors, but the quality of the joy rarely flags.
People travel to see their hometown favorites play alongside and around the corner from other bands, but it’s a festival, not a competition. In Texas this weekend there are bands from Massachusetts (Somerville sent TWO), Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Ohio: and those are just the ones we’ve seen. There are bands from Brazil, El Salvador, Missouri, Washington, Illinois, New York, Kentucky, and of course, Texas. We are here because Extraordinary Rendition Band, from Providence, are friends of ours, and it was past time for a road trip in Gallivan.
The musicians are of all ages. You’ll see and eighty-year-old wearing his rub board and dancing through the streets in the same band as his son plays the sax. (That would be our dear friends Greg and Matt.) I recently discovered that a man I have known for at least thirty years plays clarinet with ERB.
A band called Big Blitz, out of Pittsburgh, consists of three incredible young men, two of them brothers. Lucas and Nick Grabigel are brothers — Lucas plays the tenor and baritone sax, Mason plays drums (also guitar, but Honk! was all about the brass). The third member of the trio is Mason Ciesielski on tenor sax. These guys rock. Only one of them (Lucas?) is out of high school.
But the distinctions are convenient, not solid. Around Austin you could hear members of various bqnds jamming and mixing it up. Some players even belong to more than one band and simply chose which one to travel to Austin with. All in all, for three days, the streets of Austin were filled with music and dancing and fun.
And costumes. The street bands are all decked out in bright colors (except a few Goth-looking groups), feathers, fancy hats, beads, ribbons, braids, and bangles.
And there is food. Turn in any direction and there are BBQ joints. Sam’s BBQ is one of the favorites. Sam has been making barbecued ribs and brisket forever. If you get there when the ribs are ready, they will literally fall off the bone. No, really, when Sam is satisfied they’re done you can pick up the bone and the meat will stay on the plate.
Austin can be hard to drive through when the traffic builds up on East 51st St. or Guadalupe Boulevard or the other major roads through downtown, but no more so than any good sized city. The difference is that Austin has grown so rapidly in the Texas tech boom, that they don’t seem to have figured out how to manage all that traffic. You can drive all the way from MLK Boulevard to 29th ST. on Guadalupe and never find a place to make a left-hand turn. If you live there, though, you can bypass all that with the rental scooters or bicycles. The city is criss-crossed with protected bike lanes.
There is a flock, by the way, of wild parakeets in Austin, mostly centered on Hemphill park. Apparently, several parakeets escaped from their cages, eventually found each other and, having few natural predators and enough natural camouflage to make them difficult to spot even a few feet away in the trumpet vines, have created an immigrant community in the heart of the city.
It was fun. It was tiring. Today, we finally said our goodbyes to Austin and our see-ya-laters to friends from Rhode Island and Connecticut, and headed up I35 toward Oklahoma. Tonight we will sleep at the Oklahoma Welcome Center and tomorrow make our way to Oklahoma City, I40, and back toward home.
Oh, and our refrigerator door broke. It’s apparently a common occurrence, as the top hinge is not well designed. But we stuck the short end of an Allen wrench into the socket, braced the door against the ravages of rough roads and potholes, and we are on our way.

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