Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “arts”

Freeway Free in Alaska: Along the Inland Passage to Kake

P1030471docCruising along the Inland Passage of Alaska reveals few “tourist traps.”  The landscape is simply too big to allow any encroachment by man to seem significant against the surrounding mountains, glaciers, and ocean.  Just standing on the upper deck of our small cruise boat allows us to take in vistas of ice, snow, forest, and water which make the occasional human settlement seem irrelevant.  Still, we need to stretch our legs daily, and there are stops which allow us to focus our eyes on things less than 100 yards away.

One morning we stop in Kake, a traditional  Tlingit village. Our guide is a plump and charming Tlingit girl, who is learning her native language as a second language and teaching it to others  She explains that the Tlingit society is matrilineal, and divided into two moieties, the Eagles and the Ravens. Each moiety may only marry into the other to avoid incest.  A man mentors his sister’s sons, not his own, to make sure the boys understand the customs of the mother’s clan to whom they belong.  I wonder how Tlingit women speak of their fathers-in-law – how deep does role-reversal go?

P1030472webFor Alaska’s centennial the wood carvers of Kare created the worlds largest totem pole, originally 168 feet high.  Totem poles, however, are not designed as long-lived memorials;  the top twelve feet with its watchward Raven fell victim to weather and wind and now lie in the grass next to the splintered and faded pole. 

After a visit to a woodcarver’s studio where we have a chance to support the local economy, we crown our visit with a Tlingit dance performance in the local high school gym, which is brightly painted with their Thunderbird mascot in black and red. An octogenarian matriarch leads the ceremonies; the dancers range from babes in arms to very old elders.

P1030477webThe lead dancer is a black man adopted into the tribe on marriage with a Tlingit woman. He dances in a finely embroidered cape made for him by his mother-in-law as a memorial to his daughter, who was murdered while walking home from a dance the previous year by a boy from a rival clan. At the end of the dance the family of the murdered girl is presented with a ceremonial paddle marking her passage to the afterworld now that a year of mourning has passed.

At the conclusion of the ceremony we are all invited to join in the final dance, women moving more or less counterclockwise in one line, men moving in the opposite direction  in a second line.  The atmosphere was both solemn and festive, and somehow we were welcomed;  as part of the dance, we belonged.

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Freeway Free in San Francisco: A Touch of Class

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My father used to say, in justifying a splurge, “It only costs a little more to go first class.”  This is no longer true when flying across the country, perhaps, when an upgrade to first class was a two-digit expense, but it can still apply to other aspects of travel. When my childhood friend came for a visit, we decided to spend a weekend in San Francisco together, and we went in style.

Instead of paging through TripAdvisor, we simply made a list of what we wanted to do.  We wanted to have easy access to a BART station, since traveling up to the city by BART is much easier than driving and parking (not to say cheaper), and we also wanted access to public transportation.  We wanted to be able to walk to the San Francisco Modern Art Museum, as the Magritte  exhibit was on my friend’s bucket list. We wanted to be close to some good restaurants, and we wanted to be able to get to Golden Gate Park.

20180706_181641webWe ended up staying two nights at the Palace – the grand dame of San Francisco hotels, with its glass-domed atrium, high-ceilinged rooms, and courtly servitors.  Our room had two queen-sized beds, a marble bath, and cozy bathrobes to wear afterward. 

One morning we had breakfast at the Palace buffet in the sunlint atrium.  We were early, so we had first pick of a continental buffet which included yogurt, cottage cheese, excellent fruits, cold cuts, cheese, pastries, toast, jam, bagels, cream cheese, lox, juices, cereals, hard-boiled eggs, coffee, tea… we did not miss the scrambled eggs and sausage from the steam table.

We walked to SFMOMA, as planned, and spent a luxurious four hours exploring all seven floors, broken by an excellent lunch at the Café 5 on the 5th floor.  (OK, “first class” might have been down on ground level at the highly regarded but often crowded In Situ – but we decided “first class” also means “no waiting.” 20180707_124430web

That evening we walked to The Grove, a trendy restaurant half-way between the Palace and MOMA.  We people watched, ate wonderfully, and ambled back to our hotel for a swim and soak in the pool and hot tub located three floors up from our room.

The Grove is also known for its Sunday brunch, so we opted for their poached eggs on asparagus toast rather than another go-round at the Palace buffet.  Afterward we checked our baggage at the Palace and hopped the N-Judah street car to Golden Gate Park, where we took a Segway tour of the park.  (Yes, true luxury might have opted for a limo, but the N-Judah, again, involved no waiting. Actually, the N-Judah is just about everything you need to know about public transportation in San Francisco.  It starts at the King Street train station near the SF Giants’ ball park, circles the Embarcadero, dives underground past the Civic Center, and surfaces in the lower Haight on its way to Ocean Beach.  Give it a try!)

We  lunched at Nopalito’s, a top-line Mexican restaurant on 9th Avenue.  Here there was a wait, but it was made painless by the availability of a branch of the Green Apple Bookstore right across the street.

That evening  reclaimed our bags and BARTed back down the Peninsula, completely satisfied with our taste of luxurious living. And since my friend and I split the bills, it really did only cost a little more to go first class.

Freeway Free in Alaska: Stopping Along the Inland Passage – Sitka

 

P1030429webSitka is the launch point for many voyages up the inland passage. But don’t be in a hurry to leave.  In addition to the compact and diverse shopping street , Sitka offers

  • The Sitka Sound Science Center.located in a former hydroplant on the historic campus of Sheldon Jackson College, formerly a vocational training school for Alaskan natives, now a science center and working fish hatchery.
  • the Sheldon Jackson Museum,located in an historic building crammed full of over 6000 Alaskan native carvings, textiles, and other artifacts, collected by an early Presbyterian missionary  with a genuine appreciation for Alaskan native culture.

  • St. Michael’s Cathedral, a small but amazingly ornate monument to the courage and faith of early Russian Orthodox settlers, still operating as a working parish church.
  • Totem Park – Sargass National Forest, a largely open air museum of giant totem pole carvings,  and site of a battle between the native Tlingit and Russian traders.  The Park includes a very complete visitors’ center and a team of friendly rangers.

So put on your parka and gloves and walk down  Sitka’s Coastal Trail, making all the stops along the way before you board your cruise ship for points north!

Freeway Free in Alaska (actually you have no choice)

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Since there are only about 15 miles of freeway in the entire state of Alaska (built as a bit of a boondoggle between the capital city of Juneau and its airport), it is not much of a challenge to be freeway-free here.  The preferred method of travel is by water, whether by kayak, canoe, or cruise ship.

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Alaska was not exactly on my bucket list – I usually prefer to go to places where the food and language are exotic.  But once in the state I was enchanted – it still feels so WILD here.  The first day in Sitka, I strolled around the town and spotted a couple of bald eagles keeping watch over their territory from the top of the tallest tree in town.  Mt. Morecombe, which marks the entrance to the Sitka harbor, is a somnolent volcano.

The stroll of Sitka includes a main street of perhaps six blocks, with a harbor and historic park at one end, the coast range looming behind, and a second park looking out over the volcano and the bay at the other end.  The shops include quite a nice book store, a quilting shop with Alaska-themed print calicoes on offer, several craft shops offering carvings from driftwood or walrus tusks,  several small coffee shops,  and a restaurant offering fresh -caught salmon.

The standard wear for Sitka inhabitants involves jeans, down vests, and flannel. The shopkeepers and customers have an easy-going, relaxed air, as though there is nowhere else they would rather be, nowhere they need to rush off to.  I suppose those who want to be somewhere else than a small town in Alaska have already left.

The air is cool and brisk and smells faintly fishy.  I can feel myself relaxing, too.  There’s nowhere else I can be now, so I might as well be here.  I find myself a bench at the harbor, and scan the trees for eagles.  I turn, and find one perched on the apex of the church steeple, looking for all the world like a weathervane. Wild.

Freeway Free in Memphis: Browsing Around Downtown

20180511_162220cropYes, that’s Beale Street, home of the blues, looking pretty tame on a Friday afternoon.  But I am on my way to the Gibson guitar factory just a few blocks further down BB King Boulevard.  I know I am close when I see the iconic image on the corner.20180511_162010doc

Inside I latch onto a tour just starting. The production line is almost empty of workers, as they are free to leave early on a Friday afternoon once their daily quota has been met.  When I say “production line”, I don’t want you thinking of whirring machines and automated conveyor belt.  Every step of construction of a Gibson guitar is meticulously done by hand, from pressing the contours of the belly to painting and lacquering the final finish.  The last two people, still at work, must have one of the coolest jobs in the world.  It is their responsibility to test each guitar once finished, to make sure it can riff, slide, and slither up to Gibson standards.

I’m not allowed to take pictures during the tour, but I spend a lot of time lingering in the attached store.  Some of the most beautiful instruments I’ve ever seen are here, and the clerk offers to take down any one I want to try.  I’m intimidated by the price tags though, and settle for a box of Gibson guitar picks. 20180511_160944crop

After the Gibson Guitar factory visit, I still have  some time, so I wander back up BB King Boulevard to Main Street.  I’ve always heard that the way to tell a real hick town is if the main street is actually called Main Street;  in this case it looks like Main Street probably used to be major, but is now in the process of cutesification, with  former dive bars metamorphosing into upscale restaurants, and former retail stores finding new lives as souvenir shops and museums.

One of these is the Center for Southern Folklore, which includes exhibits of folk art, a room where one can view videos and hear tapes of storytellers and singers, and in the evening offers performances by classic and not-so-classic musicians.  The night I was there featured a wonderful woman who took us through the history of the blues from gospel to Jerry Lee Lewis to Paul Simon.  You might be equally lucky.
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The CSF oddly shares space in the same building with the Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art. This basement space has an amazing collection of jade carvings, plus a room devoted to contemporary Judaic art, and a Holocaust memorial room. (Unfortunately, the website doesn’t display much of this richness, but if you google “Belz Museum” you will find a lot of pix)

In the evening, the cutesification of Main Street is completed by the arrival of several lighted coaches suitable for Cinderella.  They don’t seem to have much relation to historic Memphis, but they are awfully cute and provide a fantasy end to my informal tour.20180510_210127crop

Freeway-Free in Texas – Houston’s Julia Idelson Library – a Hidden Treasure

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Some folks probably only visit’s Houston’s main library because you can get validated free parking in the library garage by making a visit to its downstairs lobby.  They miss a lot.

On my recent trip, I was attracted by the garden and wrought iron fence surrounding the OLD library building (now known as the Julia Ideson Building, located right next to the new concrete edifice which supplanted it. )Once in the garden, I had to take a look at the historic building’s insides.  And as often happens in old libraries (I am somewhat of a library junkie) I found hidden treasures.

In the downstairs lobby was an extensive exhibit of original letters and news articles in glass showcases, chronicling the struggle of Houston’s black population to gain entrance to the city’s libraries. It was fascinating and chilling to see how earnestly, politely, and stubbornly the black citizens of Houston staked their claim to equal access to the libraries their taxes helped pay for, and how circuitously, hypocritically, and stubbornly the city and the education system of 1920’s-40’s Houston resisted their claim. (Houston’s black populations did not have equal access to the libraries until the 1950’s, under pressure from returning black veterans and the Eisenhower administration.)

Upstairs we found a beautiful painted ceiling and plaster-relief fresco above the wood-paneled walls.  Off one side of the vaulted second floor landing was a wonderful old reading room, presided over by Venus de Milo herself.

And behind an updated glass door was another exhibit, featuring the first black student to enroll in a major university in the South, John S. Chase. He was an architecture student, and there was no black college in Texas where the university system could pretend to offer him a “separate but equal” education.  Despite many obstacles (e.g. Texas regulations had to be waived to allow him to get an architect’s license without having served an internship, as no architectural firm would hire him) Chase went on to become a successful architect and mentor to a generation of successors. 20180405_HLibrary1

On our way to the ladies’ room, we spotted a door at the end of the corridor marked “Authorized Researchers Only” . Of course we considered ourselves authorized researchers, and went in. Behind the oak doors was the original  children’s room of the old library, with its age-darkened bookshelves crammed with the children’s books which were too old, too little in demand, too overtly racist, or for some other inscrutable reason were deemed unsuitable for general circulation in today’s Houston Library network. 20180405_Hlibrary3

Of course, many of these books were very familiar to W and I and some had been much loved (Robert Lawson’s Smeller Martin and Elizabeth Coatsworth’s The White Horse were two I remember well and paged through once more with great glee, despite their racist stereotypes).  It was an Ali Baba’s cave to booklovers.

If you are in Houston with some hours to while away (I’m thinking maybe a rainy day, of which there are many) this would be a wonderful way to while.

 

 

Freeway Free in Texas: San Antonio’s Riverwalk

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My friend W had lived in San Antonio for several years, so when I revealed to her that despite 10 years in Texas I had never visited that most historic of Texas cities, she immediately volunteered to be my guide in and around the area. 

The Contessa Hotel where we stayed is actually a suite hotel.  We chatted up Nadja, the reception clerk, and explained how I had come from CA to see San Antonio and my old friend was acting as my guide,  so she gave us a nice set of rooms on the 12th floor with a sitting area with a view looking down the river,  or up to the Tower Life Building, a wonderful copper-roofed brick construction lit at night. We each have a double bed, and there is plenty of counter space and plugs for charging all our techno gear. The location, right up against the riverbank with an exit to the Riverwalk, could not be better. 

One of San Antonio’s soubriquets is “The Venice of America”, a name it owes to the San Antonio river which meanders through the downtown area.  Once a dank, flood-prone channel threatened with being paved over, The Riverwalk has been redeveloped over decades with charming sidewalks decorated with tilework, art, and blooming plants, plus what seems like one endless Mexican restaurant stretching end to end along both banks. It is a perfect pedestrian stroll on a balmy spring night.  We joined with folks from all over enjoying the sound of falling water, the bustle of river boats navigating up and down, the flower-decked carriages, and the cheerful babble of many voices having sipped many margaritas.

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We took a side trip to explore the art colony of La Villita (just closing down an open air street market, to W’s relief – browsing little gew-gaw shops is NOT her favorite pastime.}  Again, the bridges and plazas overlooking the river, coupled with the tilework and adobe architecture, make a place for wandering, lingering, sitting, and savoring.

20170402_184306.jpgWe had noted only a couple of restaurants which were not Mexican, and since W has a favorite Mexican place she has scheduled for us tomorrow night, we settled on the Little Rhein Steak House, which she remembered as being Germanic.  Maybe once, but now the menu is quite focused on steak, with a few shrimp and salmon and chicken dishes for the nonTexan visitors. We each ordered a salad and split a grilled salmon entree.  It turned out to be the right choice. – each salad was beautifully presented and nicely dressed, the salmon was plenty for two, we each got one asparagus spear, I ate the potato filling and W ate the skin, and we both felt quite satisfied. So our first day in San Antonio ended with the view from our window of the Tower Life Building lighting our dreams.

 

Voices from the Past

Browsing along my mother’s bookshelf, I found “The Greek Way” by Edith Hamilton – a name I recognized as the translator/curator of the book on Greek Mythology I had read for extra credit in junior high. This volume was attractively packaged as a “Time/Life Book Selection” and I took it home for bedside reading.

At first, Hamilton seems hopelessly dated.  She speaks of the contrast between vibrant, materialist Western culture (sparked in her view by the Greeks) versus the introspective,  un-worldly culture of the East.  In our current world it is China and India who are galloping into materialism. The West is urging less emphasis on things and more on simplicity in the pursuit of happiness and, incidentally,  the salvation of the planet.

Hamilton devotes almost a chapter to contrasting the elaborate color and detail of Asian art with the austerity and simplicity of Greek marble sculpture.  But the exhibit “Gods In Color”, currently finishing its run at the San Francisco Legion of Honor, explodes this comparison. We now know that those pure white marble friezes and statues gracing the Parthenon and other Greek antiquity sites were once flamboyantly painted and decorated.  It is age, not austerity, which has given them that pristine simplicity.

She devotes another chapter to Pindar.  He is, per Hamilton, a poet on the level of Shakespeare or Milton, but completely incapable of being translated because of the different aesthetics available in the original Greek. Western poetics admires metaphor, comparison, restatement in multiple ways of a central theme – traits visible in Shakespeare’s sonnets and the King James Bible, as examples.  The Greeks deplored re-statement, instead valuing the single statement of an idea with exquisite clarity.  The beauty of the Greek poetry of Pindar comes from its movement, meter,  and sonority, none of which can be translated into English.  Kipling, says Hamilton, comes the closest among English poets to using meter and movement to drive his poems, though she judges  that Kipling’s poetry is far outshone by  Pindar’s.

By this time I was a bit impatient at Hamilton’s claims for Pindar. How could I challenge them, never having read a word of Greek?  Then I recollected my struggles in China to understand the high regard the Chinese aesthetic pays to beautiful calligraphy, an art which simply has no counterpart in European culture. Perhaps the real lesson here is how many ways there are to perceive beauty, and how tragic it will be when no-one can read classical Greek any longer, and Pindar’s genius will be as irrelevant to our lives as the Mayan carvings.ChineseCalligraphy

Edith Hamilton was born in 1867, at a time when well-educated people were expected to be familiar with Greek and Latin literature in the original. This shared knowledge was an unspoken and perhaps un-realized network of connection between diplomats, rulers, businessmen and scholars throughout Europe in  the 19th and early-20th centuries.

Our local high school still offers three years of Latin as a World Language option, as well as Spanish, French, and Mandarin Chinese.  Perhaps some of the old network of shared knowledge will survive.  And more than likely a shared knowledge of the  “Analects of Confucius” in the original might prove equally useful to tomorrow’s diplomats, rulers, businessmen and scholars. 20171221_114953doc - Copy

Freeway-Free in Colorado: Boulder Beyond the Campus and the Mall

Chatauqua Hall

Chatauqua Hall

The Flat Iron Mountains loom over Boulder’s western side, and many of the hiking trails in and around these peaks begin or end at the equally picturesque Chatauqua Institute.  This is a wonderfully conceived set of Victorian-era buildings arranged around a grassy meadow with the intent of promoting adult education in a healthful and beautiful setting.  It has been in continuous operation since the late 1800’s, and continues to fulfill its mission with artists-in-residence, concerts, films, and as a bonus, delicious food available during the temperate months on a wide veranda overlooking the meadow, and in the cold season inside a cozy lounge with a huge stone fireplace. 20170817_181344web

The films and concerts take place in a huge beamed barnlike structure which has burned several times over the history of the Colorado Chatauqua , but has always been reconstsructed in the spirit of its predecessors – think of a giant barn with good acoustics and lighting.   On a recent summer evening I attended a showing of a couple of Buster Keaton silent films, with an expert live piano accompaniment providing authenticity.  The audience of about 500 only half-filled the vast space, but the gleeful giggles of the kids seeing Keaton’s acrobatic pratfalls for the first time filled the space beautifully.

 

For  a different kind experience, visit the Celestial Seasonings factory just north of Boulder.  Here you can sip samples of dozens of different teas, and take a tour of the factory where the teas are stored, processed, boxed, and prepared for shipment.  Be warned:  If you are sensitive to odors you may be in for sensory overload here;  on the other hand if you are suffering from nasal congestion a few moments in the special room where the mint tea is stored will clear you out amazingly.

If you are interested in  more modern types of architecture, the National Center for Atmospheric Research is just a bit further up the road from the Chatauqua Institue, in a fascinating building designed by I. M. Pei.  The group of rectangular forms juts out of a ledge of the Flat Irons as though created by some upheaval.  The exterior is made of red sandstone that blends perfectly with the surrounding rocks, and the views from the exterior plaze and the restaurant inside are to die for.  I have not eaten at the restaurant, but with that view how could the meal be less than delightful?  The exhibits explaining how cyclones form, how ocean currents affect climate, and so on, are also interesting, though you will likely have to compete with a busload of elementary school field trippers to get close to them. 20170727_105455doc

 

 

Freeway-Free in Colorado: Boulder Beyond the Rocks

The Flat Irons above Boulder

If you’ve heard of Boulder, CO at all, you probably know that it is one of the hippest college towns in the country, surrounded by beautiful mountain scenery, and with a tech-savvy population. (89% of households have broadband access, the highest rate in the country.)

But you might not know that Boulder  also boasts an I.M.Pei-designed National Center for Atmospheric Research, that it is home to one of the original Chatauqua Institutes (established, oddly enough, by a group of Texans who felt that the weather in their home state was just too oppressive to host conferences), and that its Leanin’ Tree Museum of Western Art had one of the largest private collections of Western-themed art in the country [Note: Unfortunately, this Hidden Gem closed in August 2017, soon after my visit. And it is also the headquarters of the Celestial Seasonings tea company.

Boulder is a wonderfully walkable town, once you get there, and happily, you can get there without having to drive.  If you fly into the Denver Airport, you can get to Boulder by bus for less than it would cost to pay the tolls on the E-470 tollway just outside the airport. 

When you land, grab your baggage and head for the whale’s-tail shaped Westin Hotel  at the east end of the lobby.  Instead of going up the escalator to the Westin lobby, hang a U-turn at the ATMs and you will find yourself in the  RTD Transportation Center. The SkyRide bus for Boulder costs $9 for a 70 minute ride to downtown Boulder, and leaves from Gate 8 at least once an hour beginning at 4:25 AM and ending at 12:55 AM.  The bus will be full of UC – Boulder students no matter what time of day or night you get on, so be sure to purchase your ticket right away and stand in line for the next bus.

Once you are in Boulder, you can take advantage of the many whimsically-painted and whimsically – named  (HOP, SKIP, JUMP, DASH, STAMPEDE…) Community Transportation buses to get just about anywhere in and around town.

Next: What to see when you get to Boulder

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