07 November 2010

It Happened at the Museum

Last night I set out to attend Denver's Night at the Museums. 

In the early evening, I circled around and around the Museum of Contemporary Art looking for a parking place.  No luck. 

So I abandoned downtown and drove through the Denver night east, toward my alternate choice museum for the free admission event:  Denver Museum of Nature and Science. 

Eventually finding a space in the underground parking there, I headed into the museum. People--most of them with kids--were out in droves last night.

I figured I would hit the temporary exhibit, Amazon Voyage: Vicious Fishes & Other Riches.  As the title suggests, and as their website has it, the exhibit "mixes real scientific research, light humor, and whimsical artwork into a fun, interactive experience for visitors of all ages. . ."

I had a good time watching groups attempt to lift the 60-pound rubber Anaconda and pose for pictures, and was interested in the interactive video time line showing how once-saltwater creatures became part of the biologically diverse Amazon ecosystem. I could not believe that I had lived all these years without knowing or realizing that the Amazon rises 30 feet in the rainy season, and that many villages are therefore either floating structures or built on stilts.

The exhibit opened with Captain Mo telling us about the 7 Perils of the Amazon, being various huge fish and snakes and amazing creatures that want nothing more than to eat us.  At the end of his video spiel, the jolly riverboat captain said, "Well,that's what I tell the tourists, anyway" and suggested we now enter the exhibit to find out the truth about the Amazon and its burgeoning flora and fauna.

With all this concentration on the Amazon's biodiversity, the irony was that there were precious few actual living things in the exhibit. A few tropical fish in a big tank over here, some piranhas segregated over there.   And then there were the cockroaches.

I approached a mild gray-haired woman who stood behind a waist-high exhibit table.  On the table in front of her was a shoebox-sized clear plastic box.  And in the box were 20 or so large flattish brown winged creatures.  They were Amazon Cockroaches. All males, the docent told me, remarking that "we don't want to get into the business of raising cockroaches here."

The bugs were about 2 inches long by an inch and a half wide.  They were light brown with darker markings.  They had some sticks in the box to climb on, and a paper towel, that, wet once a day, supplied all the water they needed.  

The bugs in the box were almost entirely still.  One in the corner was fussing around a bit, and this was the main question the woman got to speculate on:  what was this guy doing?  And why were the others so still?

Well, they actually have two boxes of Amazon Cockroaches.  One is kept under the exhibit table, in the dark. The bugs like that.  Apparently they are very active down there in the dark, and remain active for only a few minutes after brought out into the glaring museum light which shone right down on this table.  Slowly, they would slow down and eventually stop, settling into the lethargic state we saw them in.

I hung around a bit and watched, fascinated.  The woman was equipped (or should I say "armed") with a long red plastic stick.  There were holes in the cockroach box, and she could reach in there and move things around a bit.  Not that she was going to bug the bugs.  She might move their food pellets ("dog poop," she told me) around, or their leaves and sticks.

She had great, decorous respect for the creatures in her charge.

People came up to look at the bugs.  She explained about the lights and the second box in the dark. She speculated as to why the one roach in the corner was the only one moving. People left.

Eventually a fellow docent came over to see how she was doing.  This younger guy, in his thirties, had apparently manned the cockroach gig at times.  The lady was explaining to some new guests about the other roaches in the box in the dark and why these weren't moving.

"So, if you took the other box out of the dark, how long would they be moving?" I asked.

"Oh, about two or three minutes," she said, "then they'll settle down again like this."

"I usually just shake 'em," her fellow docent chimed in.

We all chuckled nervously.  "Don't do that!" I think I said.

The lady continued with her spiel about the roaches.  The new guests nodded their heads.

The younger docent reached out and grabbed the box.

"No! Don''t!" said the docent woman.

"You just close your eyes or turn around," said the younger man.

I might have said "Don't do it," or I should have, but I was riveted by the horrible thing about to happen.

The guy turned the box over and--shake! shake! shake!--gave it three vigorous ones.  Cockroaches rattled against the sides like wooden nickels.

He put the box down on the table again.  "See?  There!"  swaggered this schoolyard lout of a docent as the cockroaches scrambled around in terror.  One had climbed to the very top of a stick and clung there.

It was a moment both hilarious and horrible.  In that moment, all scientific objectivity was gone, all respect for nature trashed.  The whole enterprise, this museum all around us, crumbled down into dust.

It only lasted a moment.

Then: "How long do they live?" asked one of the guests.

"They have a lifespan of about a year, in captivity," the lady docent replied.


"That is, if we don't shake them," she added.

18 September 2010

William Carlos Williams' Birthday Tribute

William Carlos Williams was born on September 17, 1883 in Rutherford, New Jersey.

He lived for 79 years, until March 4, 1963.  

I was 5 years old, living just 18 miles away in blissful ignorance of the great poet when he died.

Roger Ebert posted a marvelous birthday tribute to WCW on his blog yesterday.  It consists of a series of paintings, artworks, songs and video pieces all illustrating or inspired by "The Red Wheelbarrow." 

Well worth a look, here.

18 July 2010

Precious Images

In 1986, I was working at the Denver Center Cinema (a repertory film theater in the Denver Center for the Performing Arts), when we were chosen as one of a handful of small theaters in the country to participate in an exciting year-long program by the Directors Guild of America (DGA). In celebration of DGA'S 50th Anniversary, the DCC would host a different American film director each month. Throughout a weekend, a famous director would make appearances, speak, answer questions, and present a selection of his favorite films. It was a film nut's dream come true!

However, the precarious situation of such movie houses in the late 80s, when ready availability of home video kept people away from art and repertory cinemas in droves, affected even such an auspicious program as the DGA's. After just four months the DGA could no longer sustain the countrywide directors-in-person offerings. Like animated dots on the map showing one, then another and another Kane newspaper dying, the program went dark in revival movie theaters across the country. As if to teach us landlocked masses where true culture resided, the DGA continued the series event at only 2 locations: one cinema each in New York City and Los Angeles.

It was a fantastically exciting program while it lasted, though. Legendary American directors came. They talked at length about their films and their careers. They answered questions. Alan J. Pakula showed Klute and All the President's Men. Peter Bogdanovich arranged last-minute shipping of his own personal print of The Last Picture Show when the good-but-not-perfect one we had obtained just wouldn't do. The great renegade director, Samuel Fuller, strode back and forth restlessly, telling stories, answering questions, and alternatively gesturing with and chomping on his trademark cigar. I don't remember if it was lit or not.

The program was kicked off in January with a visit by the affable, gracious once-President of the Director's Guild, Robert Wise. I'm hesitating to call him a genius, but only because it is a misunderstood term. Look at just a handful of the films he helmed: The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, The Haunting, The Sound of Music, The Andromeda Strain. Lesser-known gems of his include the great boxing film noir with Robert Ryan, The Set-Up, and the Oscar-winning performance by Susan Hayward in the riveting death-penalty melodrama, I Want to Live! (one of the films that Wise chose to present when he came to the Cinema.)

OK, "genius" will do.

Wise arrived at the Denver Center Cinema carrying
under his arm a special treasure in a film can. He had brought a brand-new short film with him, a film produced by the Director's Guild "in honor of the 100th Anniversary of Film," as an opening title says. Wise was visibly excited and very eager to share this film with us. Except for some screenings for DGA members, no one had seen it.

As we few employees of the Denver Center Cinema joined Robert Wise in the dark of our 255-seat theater, we wondered what we were in for. What could have this great director so fired up?

By the end of the 8-minute short we knew.

That extraordinary short film was called Precious Images.

Precious Images is a moving tribute to the hundred-year history of film, made entirely of short film clips set to various pieces of classic film music. The approximately 470 clips are recognizable and often iconic gems from a kaleidoscopic variety of mostly American films: sound and silent, black-and-white and color, comedies, dramas, westerns, thrillers, musicals, even a few animated features.

From these beautifully-chosen raw materials, director Chuck Workman has fashioned a marvel and a wonder. Brilliantly arranging these fleeting images by first grouping them into broad thematic categories
and then very cleverly juxtaposing individual clips in subtle, witty, and emotionally powerful ways, Workman's film carries the viewer along on a ride that's alternatively heartwarming, funny, thrilling, stirring, and intellectually satisfying.

Precious Images is aimed squarely at film lovers. Watching it is a fascinating kind of meta-film experience. Its power relies on how many of these films you have seen. As its scores of images cascade by, an image here and an image there sparks recognition: I know that film, seen this one, or, look, that's Bette Davis/Gary Cooper/Sissy Spacek/Edward G. Robinson/Marlene Dietrich/Paul Newman/Lauren Bacall! The clips flit so fast (at an average of a second per clip but in some sections much faster) that there's often no time to attach a film title or a actor's name to a particular image before ten more catch the eye. These multiple sparks of recognition transcend the verbal, and quickly become visceral. They hit the eyes and the neural pathways like a clattering shower of gems. They evoke memories, and flashes of strong emotion accumulate like a lightning storm. And very soon, even if you've only seen one in ten of these films, you find yourself awash in emotion woven from these connected flashes of recognition.

This crude, basic description of technique barely touches the miraculous emotional power of this film. Workman's editing choices are subtle, clever, often brilliant. They show his understanding of the history of American film, of the meaning of particular images, and of deep correspondences across the decades. It's a huge understatement to say that Precious Images stands up to multiple viewings. I have seen it dozens of times and always am able to pick out some clever juxtaposition of images or music that I'd never noticed before.

Look at the first two images in the film. It starts off with the snow globe resting in the hand of the dying Charles Foster Kane from the first scene of Citizen Kane. Cut to Casablanca: Ingrid Bergman in closeup, saying "Sing it, Sam," and Sam (Dooley Wilson) does: "You must remember this. . ." On the word "this," and as the song continues on the soundtrack, we switch to a clip-after-clip section of couples embracing or kissing, bang-bang-bang-bang, including Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen and the eating-spaghetti kiss from Lady and the Tramp. Now we know that Sam is singing not just to Ilsa in Rick's Cafe, but to us and to our memories of films: "You must remember this..." That word "this" kicks off the whole 8-minute memory cascade.

But go back to that first image: Kane is still holding the snow globe when we see it at the beginning of Precious Images. We have to wait to the very end of the film to see Kane's lips pronounce "Rosebud," and for the globe to fall and break. It is as if all the other truly precious images, all our memories from films down through 100 years, are contained within that glass globe. They are the illusions that break when Charles Foster Kane dies.

These are just a couple of examples of the really well-considered editing choices that Workman makes throughout the film. The deeper you look, the more you discover. His use of music is perfect as well, with individual lyrics or musical cues underlining the images, sometimes brilliantly.

After that first screening of Precious Images at the Denver Center Cinema, we could not get enough of it, and neither could our audiences. We programmed it before films as often as we could, and soon it spread to other theaters in Denver. It was common in the summer of 1986 to see Precious Images before your feature at several theaters in Denver.

The film won a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Live Action Short for 1986. In 2009, it was named to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress as a film "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" to be preserved for all time.

I started wondering about the film again a few years ago. I found that it was not available on DVD, and more recently saw that it had been pulled from YouTube. Some sources stated that it cannot be shown anymore, due to a massive tangle of copyright issues.

Chuck Workman, however, dispelled these ideas in a recent email. He assured me that not only is the film available to any theater in the world from the Director's Guild (dga.org), but that it can also be obtained by museums, schools, and other media arts centers. Non-profit organizations can get the film from the Film-Makers Cooperative in New York (film-makerscoop.com).

So I urge you to urge your local film organization to investigate getting a copy of this really extraordinary film.

For my readers in Denver, you have an upcoming chance to see Precious Images on the big screen. Word at the moment is that it will show at the Starz Film Center on the first Saturday of August, at 7pm, before that month's Tattered Cover Free Classic. Call the theater to make sure, however!

At this writing, you can view Precious Images here.

13 June 2010

Time Machine

We often can benefit from other people's obsessions.

Nowhere is this more truly or more often dramatically demonstrated than on the internet. How many times have you just discovered or been told about what to you was a new, bizarre, but fascinating topic, only to find that there is an extensive Wikipedia article about it, as well as a healthy selection of websites where variously driven people have explored the obscurantist subject thoroughly?

One of these came to me today by way of my brother, Roger, in Germany.

Roger is a big baseball fan. He also has a burrowing mind that delights in origins, in history, in the roots of things. Through an investigation of the source of the song "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," Roger chanced upon a marvelous page of old recordings.

Here's where the obsession comes in. Glenn Sage, who apparently is behind the site www.tinfoil.com, is gloriously obsessed with and very knowledgeable about old recordings.

And when I say old, I'm not talking lps or 45s or even 78s. This is a site entirely dedicated to wax cylinder recordings, an early improvement on the very first recording medium, invented by Thomas Edison.

In case you have never heard of or seen these amazing, original recordings, there is an excellent, concise, illustrated history of them at the tinfoil site. But briefly, Edison invented the pioneer recording machine in 1877. With the first device, a needle scratched grooves in tinfoil strips wrapped around a 4-inch-diameter cylinder. This primitive and ephemeral tinfoil recording medium was replaced ten years later by a more durable standard: 4-inch-long and 2-inch-diameter waxlike cylinders.

[A brief detour back to my New Jersey childhood. Following a family outing to Edison's laboratories in West Orange, that same brother, Roger, maybe 11 years old?, built a replica of the original recording machine. It recorded on aluminum foil wrapped around a tin can. And it actually worked! I'm pretty much in awe of my brother!]

Edison used the machine to record hundreds of bands, performers, and speakers. And Edison's was only one of dozens of companies that recorded on wax cylinders during the last years of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th century.

The delicious, wondrous bounty of the tinfoil site, however, can be found at its Cylinders of the Month Archive. Since 1997, Sage has been posting detailed information about one interesting or special wax cylinder recording each month. So now we have this mammoth page, a compendium of all the past Cylinders of the Month. Just click on the highlighted date to the left of each entry's title and you are transported to a detailed page about that particular recording.

Best of all, though: from the detailed page it is only one more click to the recording itself. Yes, you can LISTEN TO any of these more-than-hundred-year-old audio documents!

And taken together, they compose an enchanted aural time machine! These are songs, speeches, comedy bits and musical numbers such as you have never heard, and that you'll never hear anywhere else. Just listening to the scratchy, ancient recordings takes you back to another time, and the content of the pieces places you firmly there. We're not in Kansas anymore.

Or, technically, we ARE in Kansas in one comic song that spoofs the violent temperance reformer, Carrie Nation. It's called "Carrie Nation in Kansas." There are "ethnic specialities" here that have long ago fallen to the axes of political correctness. Listen, for instance, to an Irish comedy bit, "Casey as Umpire at a Ball Game." (I found this piece--from 1898!--hilariously pertinent, considering the recent Detroit Tigers "near perfect" game debacle!) Where else would you be able to listen to several hundred-year-old "minstrel" numbers?!

The "category" column of the Archive page indicates the variety you'll find here. In just a random listing, there are selections tagged as "Band," "Clarinet Solo," "Hebrew monologue," "Talking & banjo," "Baritone," "Tenor solo," "Serio-comic song". . ."Minstrels." Here you'll find orations by William Jennings Bryan and William H. Taft, numbers by Sophie Tucker and "Sousa's Band" (Stars and Stripes Forever March recorded in 1901!). But mostly you'll see no-longer-familiar groups such as Polk Miller & His Old South Quartette, Issler's Popular Orchestra, Herr Dr. Professor & George Donahue, and many individual performers.

Though there is tremendous variety here, I found that all the pieces I listened to worked mysterious magic on my nervous system, transporting me, for two or three scratchy, pop-punctuated minutes at a time, to a strange world of very different assumptions, ideas, and styles than our quotidian own.

It is a trip well worth the taking.

21 May 2010

Canterbury Tales Rap

Since there can never be too many viewings of this absolutely marvelous and ingenious setting of the Prologue from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, I throw it out here on my blog, on the off-off chance that it catches a new pair of eyes. If you have not seen this before, please leave me a comment!

This gem was the brainchild of Jon Wilkerson. The slick video editing, direction, and organization were done by Kirk Anderson. The piece is performed by Jon, Kirk, and DeShawn Jones, to music created by Darren Lawless.

I feel like I've become an evangelist for this piece over the past couple of days. I can't explain why. The music, the beat, the images, and the middle English words have routed my defenses and now have taken possession of a small but significant plot in my brain.

It has gotten tens of thousands of viewings on YouTube, and there are lots of testimonial comments from high school students who used it to help them memorize the beginning of Chaucer's Prologue. Teachers have also weighed in, saying that this is now required viewing for their English Literature classes.

And it should be.

So, surely you know a teacher, a student, or a word nerd friend who would get a kick out of this.

If you like it, pass it on. Tell somebody about it!

16 May 2010

Fear Friday

For a variety of reasons, mostly involving neglect, disinterest, and sheer laziness, I do not have TV service at home.

What I do have is a 20-year-old 19-inch TV that I use to watch my DVDs on.

Recently I am thinking that this has got to change.

One of the reasons I can state in two words. Fear Friday.

On many Fridays, I go down to Littleton to spend the afternoon and evening with my stepmother, Amy. We'll do errands and go out to eat, then come home and inevitably watch some TV.

So, these Fridays are my only real TV viewing time for the week. I'm devoted to the rantings on The McLaughlin report. We'll usually watch the local news at 10 pm.

Amy will nod and drift off and fall asleep on one end of the couch as I sit flipping channels on the other. She'll stay dozing there for quite a while before she wakes up just enough to decide to go to bed. She always tells me to stay as long as I like.

I used to leave just shortly after Amy went to bed.

But a few times I stayed and channel-surfed through the dreck of her Utterly Basic Cable, which she got really just so she could continue to receive the local channels. And sometime about a year ago I chanced upon it: Fear Friday.

Of course, as of yet I didn't know what Fear Friday was. Nor did I have any devotion to it. All I knew was that they were showing the original classic Night of the Living Dead, and I couldn't resist watching the last 45 minutes or so of the ur-zombie movie. Then, I noticed, the station followed it with another, highly inferior, zombie flick. I watched just a little bit of that one and hit the road.

But there was something fun about being up in the middle of the night here in the family room at one end of the darkened house while Amy slept at the other end, watching the beloved low-budget film that launched the whole zombie cult. In between the ads I saw AMC's promos for upcoming film series, tied together always with their new slogan "Story Matters Here." And always just before the movie itself was firing up again, the words FEAR FRIDAY jerkily staggering around the screen and finally aligning themselves in lurid black on red. (Or maybe white on red?)

I didn't think anything of it, never crossed my mind, until maybe a couple or three weeks later, when the end of a Friday of errands and dinner with Amy found me once more settling down on the couch to see what a little channel surfing might turn up.

And this time it was both the old and the new versions of The Fly, back-to-back! I got sucked in again, this time just in time to watch the disgusting, unlikely, horrifying and somehow hilarious climax of David Cronenberg's The Fly, with the creature that used to be Jeff Goldblum sliming up his laboratory and Geena Davis, who finally blasts him to pieces with a shotgun. Really a tour-de-force of disturbing imagery, that film! Wow. I either missed or purposely left without seeing the Vincent Price version, which has a few joys of its own.

But Fear Friday had bit me again.

After two or three chance run-ins with the show like this, I began to realize that it was a show. The facts started to coalesce in my brain like so many zombies converging on the big white house where the still-living are holed up.

Fear Friday is a Friday night horror movie festival on AMC. They show two or maybe three horror films in a row, often connected thematically.

Part of the fun of the presentation, for me at least, comes with AMC's plugs for the week's upcoming (non-horror) film series. They throw films together under an umbrella theme, and the little ads feature well-edited film clips of a bunch of disparate movies. The fun lies partly in trying to ldentify all these films from just a shot here and a shot there. And the promos reveal progressively a little more each time. It is a clever promotion. Fun to watch and it keeps you guessing.

So now I knew just what Fear Friday was, and approximately when it comes on. But I wasn't obsessed with it.


I didn't yet look forward to the next Friday night's selection, wonder what they might be showing. I didn't yet talk at length to people at work about it. I hadn't yet even really spoken the words "Fear Friday."

But I would. I would.

In recent weeks, some of the joys offered up by AMC on Fear Friday have been:

Poltergeist - Utterly ridiculous fun which could be described in TV Guide as: "Suburban family is menaced by over-the-top self-indulgent state-of-the-art special effects!" But the film's core and its germ, I'm sure, and its worthy, lasting place in American culture, is that it enshrines the now-lost-but-not-forgotten eerie moment when the TV stations go off in the middle of the night, abandoning you to the existential challenge of snow and white noise. The first thing you hear in Poltergeist is the Star-Spangled Banner, signalling, you soon find out, the horrifying end of another broadcast day.

The Amityville Horror - Creepy film from an older era, before special effects took over. I kept seeing parallels between this evil-house-that-caused-previous-owner-to-kill-his-entire-family film and Stanley Kubrick's masterful The Shining. Was Kubrick. . .or possibly Stephen King. . .influenced by this film? The creepiness here revolves mostly around everyday things, like flies and toilets backing up and unsettled dogs. But these items are put together in odd ways, exaggerated, played up. As in The Shining, one child has an evil imaginary friend. And then there's the great performance by Rod Steiger, as a priest who is brought in to bless the house, and whom the house progressively takes apart, blinds, and ruins. Fun film. Terrible ending.

The Shining - We were sitting there on the couch, Amy and I, when I chanced to tune in to the baseball bat scene in this terrific film. What an amazing scene, in how it develops and how long it goes on, and the escalating dialogue as Jack Nicholson threatens the pleading Shelley Duvall across the lobby, eventually backing her up the stairs as she swipes at the air pathetically, ineffectually with the bat! The scene is sustained for unbelievably long! The actors are so well-matched here, Nicholson sarcastic and terrifying and insane, and Duvall's Wendy beaten down and whimpering but fiercely protecting her son. Jack keeps cajoling her, "Give me the bat, Wendy!" and eventually, she does. She gives it to him. Right in the side of the head.

I appreciated that film more than ever viewing it that night. It is so wildly over-the-top, so fiercely hilarious! I cackle with laughter as Nicholson sails off the deep end!

Then there was the great double-billing of Bram Stoker's Dracula and the original Bela Lugosi classic. This was inspired. The Frances Ford Coppola film, so deliciously lush and visually inventive, contains so many self-conscious hat-tips to its 1931 inspiration. Gary Oldman intones lines that we all know from Bela's delivery of them: "I am Dracula. I bid you wel-come!" Playing the two films back-to-back like this really showed how excellent they both are, and what a worthy successor the Coppola film is to the original.

So now Fear Friday's got me.

I might just have to buy a TV.

11 April 2010

Off the Cuff

Just off the cuff here.

I am working on a blogpiece of some length touching on events of childhood visits to my grandparents' farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Been working on this piece for some time. The date where it is stored in the Blogger Dashboard astonishes me:
9/30/09. I have been slogging away at this piece, albeit in a sometimes desultory fashion, now for six months and 10 days. Or so.


In the mean time, after I started that piece, I have published a couple of others.

And I thought it was high time for another.

As the title suggests, this blog is pure spew. Just me tapping away on my tippy-tappy laptoppy, sitting here at my accustomed perch in a corner at a local Village Inn Pancake House. And, its nature being such, it might end up demonstrating why most of my pieces are more planned out! We'll see.

A blog is supposed to have a bit of spontaneity about it, isn't it? A journal-like quality of frequent postings? That sort of thing?

The Red Wheelbarrow has never been a thing of frequent postings, anyway. And I do feel a little guilty about it!

Well, it is what it is and it will be what it will be.

For the moment, though, I'd like to talk just a little about the vagaries of memory. I wrote "vagaries of memory" out of a kind of lazy impulse. It is a hackneyed phrase, isn't it?

But, looking up "vagary" in my online dictionary I find this definition:

"an unexpected and inexplicable change in a situation or in someone's behavior."

Fantastic! Could not be more apt to my discussion here.

After writing a few paragraphs on the legendary Bucks County farm piece, I felt like running them by my two brothers, Bill and Rog, to see how my brief sketches of a few places and things compared with their memories of them. I sent them each an email with my descriptions and a few questions.

They each responded very quickly, and it launched a short but intense discussion among the three of us about some details of the old farm that we took such pleasure in visiting when we were kids.

Our memories, needless to say, differed. For instance, in talking about a marvelous and ancient machine, The Corn Sheller, out in the barn: I remember it clearly as being painted a dullish red-brown with fading yellow trim, while both brothers have no memory of it being painted at all. We even differed over what it was called. To me there is no question that it was The Corn Sheller, but my elder brother, Bill, who is 6 years older than me and thus should remember better calls it The Corn Shucker.

Hmmmmm. . .

Even more interesting is the way those vagaries have rendered our memories of the physical landscape at the farm. Back behind the main house there were a couple of ancient and fascinating outbuildings. Both were square, thick-walled stone buildings. One had been an old smokehouse, with the other being called The Woodshed.

I recall us being slightly forbidden to go in these buildings, and so we went in them when we could get away with it. The Smokehouse had not been in use for years. It was a dirt-floored, empty square. On hot summer days it was a great refuge from the heat, being naturally cool, but there was really nowhere to sit nor much of anything to do in there. The Woodshed I remember as very dark and somewhat scary and definitely forbidden. The main thing in there was a big stump on the floor with a hatchet's blade buried in it. This darkly suggested a place where chickens had been beheaded, and there was a delicious scariness in it for us.

But before I make the mistake of speaking too much for "us," let me show how that could be a big mistake.

Though we visited our grandparents' farm many times in our childhoods, and surely skulked around and daringly crept inside these two small old buildings lots of times, they show up very differently in our three distinct brotherly memories. Or, more accurately, they don't show up there.

In the ensuing 40 years since we were kids, our mental landscapes of the farm have shifted and altered, blurred here and there, sometimes changed completely. Those outbuildings, The Smokehouse, The Woodshed: they have flickered and fluxed, and in some cases winked out entirely.

Roger, 15 months older than me, does not remember The Woodshed at all. And Bill had this to say:

"But strange - I don't remember anything about any smokehouse, even after reading Jim's description of it's location."

As the three of us continued to compare memories by email, it came back to me once again that memory is not any kind of a documentary, recording function. We are constantly revising and rewriting the scripts of our lives. We cobble together this memory with another, far removed in space or time. We visualize things people have told us and then swear we were present where we could not have been. Even with single objects or events, we all color these in our own ways, according to the mysterious dictates of our own personalities. My memory landscape contains a barn with an old wooden red and yellow painted corn shelling machine. My brothers' show a different device.

Memory is a creative function.

04 January 2010

Dolce Far Niente

I thought of Ben Sweet today.

Lovely, irascible, erudite, puckish, Ben Sweet.

Ben--no one I knew called him "Professor Sweet"--was a wonderful portly professor who taught for a time out at what was then called Community College of Denver, Red Rocks Campus. I know little else about his life or his death. He was in theater, I know, but where I knew him from was his classes out at Red Rocks.

He taught several classes on British history, and British Literature, I believe.

One of my proudest achievements in all my academic career was a comment that Ben Sweet made on a poem I had turned in to him. I was consciously mimicking the delicious over-the-top euphony of Gerard Manley Hopkins. I still remember this ancient poem of mine word-for-word. . .but would not, I'm sure, save for Sweet's delicious critique.

You have to understand that Sweet was an exacting critic. He was not mean--anything but--but he wore a flinty, no-nonsense exterior when it came to the subjects he loved. Here the subject was the English language. More than that: Poetry. Here he did not kid around. . .though that flinty mask always held a gaily glinting eye beneath a bushy eyebrow.

I had labored on the poem, working hard to get the sounds just right. It was short and not very deep, but stuffed with sound.

I waited for it to come back from the teacher. Ben Sweet was one whose opinion really mattered.

The single note-book paper sheet came back with Ben's comment at the top. "Almost good," it said.

From this man, those two words meant more to me than any number of facile As on papers from other teachers. It still thrills me, and I think of it often: "Almost good." Wow.

In addition to his British History and Literature classes, Ben taught his own invented course, one that was personally important to him. It was called "Jesus and the Challenge of Being Human."

Sweet's idea of Jesus was very particular and often at odds with popular images, and he spent the first class period making that very clear. His Jesus was muscular, bold, radical, and above all, socialist. Ben Sweet told us in that first class that he embraced socialism to begin with because Jesus was so deeply a commited socialist.

This afternoon I sat in a bar. Since I don't drink, I don't often sit in bars. But this place is right across the street from where I live, and it is a pleasant little place. Suddenly something Ben Sweet once said came back to me, and, thinking about it, slowly the whole amazing man appeared in my imagination.

He said it in that first class period of his Jesus class. It was a quote I so loved that I immediately wrote it down, repeated it often, and have never forgotten it.

Ben was in a fine fury about Jesus and who he really was. He was dissing most popular conceptions. With his feet planted wide, arms gesticulating, he said with rascally hellfire, "He's not just some bleedin' heart, hangin' on the cross, telling you not to have a beer or say damn!"

Sleep peacefully, Ben Sweet.