Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Unfettered Performing at Seattle's Folklife Festival

As I mentioned in an earlier post, street fair season is upon us. But famous in my region are two bookends to the summer--Northwest Folklife Festival, every Memorial Day Weekend, and Bumbershoot, every Labor Day. Folklife is my favorite--a free (donations suggested) and crazy display of every type of music. Aging hippies are much in evidence, with their folk groups of banjo, guitars and--choose one from each column--washboard, fiddle, bass, tambourine, mandolin, autoharp. But equally present are ethnically-inclined groups--Polish, African, Peruvian (same guys as pictured in earlier post), Celtic, Hawaiian. Then there are the solo players--the ones with a violin and its open case. Or weirder instruments made often of gourds. The Hurdy Gurdy men, who, when I casually threw out the first line of the Donovan hit, replied, "but we don't come singing songs of love." If you get that reference, you're a boomer.

Folklife is fabulously ad hoc. Anyone can come with an instrument, or a group, and just plunk himself down anywhere and start playing to an appreciative audience. This invites a lunatic panoply of participants. Many have matted hair. Lots sport Goth black leather and spikes. Tie-dye is de rigeur. National costumes from Norway and Nigeria are equally in evidence.

In the middle of the huge complex called Seattle Center is the International Fountain, a two-story tall silver ball in the vortex of a shallow concrete bowl
several hundred yards wide. The wonderful trick of the International Fountain is that it sprays water from many holes in the silver orb, at unpredictable intervals. The arcs of water make designs in the sky, and create an exciting game for all who venture it. You run toward the sphere to touch it, trying to avoid being drenched by a strong stream of water. Most people get completely soaked, but they're all laughing. Two-year-olds and senior citizens both sprint toward the center. It used to be that the fountain's squirt was calibrated by computer to music from various parts of the world--thus the International Fountain. Lately, however, the miss-the-stream-of-water game has had only giggles for accompaniment.

One Hundred Sixty vendors' booths share the cacophany. Most are hippie independent
crafts people peddling their pottery, leather goods, tie-dye masterpieces and photography, but a large number offer imported goods. I love the Guatemalan textiles, the artist of dogs in tu-tus, and the rainbow-hued boiled wool shoes. This year, I bought some squiggly-cut wooden utensils for my kitchen.

If you don't require kosher food, you have a world of tastes to sample. For some reason, everything mango was popular this year. This is not the usual carnival food--no, here you find crepes next to African dishes next to northwest salmon. Most everything was vegetarian, though. This is Seattle.

My favorite activities at Folklife can be done simultaneously. Just noticing the people there fills me with delight. They gather in clusters around the musicians positioned every ten feet or so. As the viewers smile, tap their feet, or grope for a few coins to throw in a hard-shell instrument case, they become part of the show. Nearby, a young woman who made herself into a wings-to-toe white-clad fairy stands motionless on a pedestal until someone drops coins in her box--at which time she startles all with a series of jiggles.

From jiggles to juggles, as an astounding foursome combines acrobatics with flinging pins, swords and flaming batons, bringing oohs and ahhs from an impressed crowd. Face painters, henna-appliers, and balloon-animal creators all captivate children and their delighted parents. The International Fountain is ringed by hundreds of people, each one an observable and fascinating sight. So I combine my fun--watching people, listening to performers and--photographing it all, very subtly.

Life is always a show, but here at the Folklife festival, everyone feels freer and more joyful about making his or her own two feet of space on this earth into a stage.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Dad in the Army, Mom at Douglas Aircraft, and us on Memorial Day

It's Memorial Day, and like most Americans, we've got our flag flying in front of our house. I recall as a child in LA on this holiday seeing the veteran's cemetery on Veteran Avenue, usually like a stiff porcupine of white crosses, changed into moving, lively and even festive acres, with small flags waving from each of the graves.

I am fortunate, perhaps, that I know of none of my relatives who made the ultimate sacrifice for this country. But my father, a member of what has been termed "the greatest generation" did give several years of his life to our nation's service during World War II, rising from a private in the army to the rank of Major. He volunteered when he realized that he would soon be drafted, seeking to take the exam to enter Officer's Candidate School, which he did. The photo above has the following written by him on the reverse: "Honey--this picture is not very good--I'll send you a better one later. Taken on the Virginia V--July 4, 1941."

He was stationed at posts in California (San Diego, Watsonville), Washington state (Fort Flagler, Fort Lewis), and finally was assigned with others to run a prisoner of war camp in Anchorage, Alaska. As part of his duty there, he traveled to some of the coldest, most desolate regions of our nation, where temperatures of 50-below-zero prevailed. He told us a few tales..
.of being unable to go outside without every inch of skin covered, lest he receive instant frostbite. Of chowing down on vegetables from a magical valley where the extended sunlight yielded cabbages bigger than basketballs. Of the Italian prisoners under his charge making pasta and stringing it from the rafters to dry. The photo at left is one I found in his things after he passed away in 2004.

My father was lucky that the army chose for him assignments that kept him out of harm's way. But he inculcated us, his children, that it is a normal, expected duty to serve one's country.

My mother also served in World War II, working as a secretary at the Douglas Aircraft plant in Santa Monica, California. She wasn't a Rosy the Riveter, exactly, but she furthered the construction of the planes used in the war. The post card at right was also found in my parents' things. On the back is printed, "Douglas SBD 'Dauntless.' Fastest and most powerful dive bomber in large scale service by any air force is the Douglas 'Dauntless.' Since Pearl Harbor this is the winged weapon that has borne the brunt of our Navy's air operations in the Pacific."

We live in a privileged land, and it is our willingness to protect and preserve it that allows us to thrive. We seldom think about the many freedoms we enjoy, and the hardships endured by those who enter the military, and too often, give everything--so we can now engage in lively debate, choose where we live, receive advanced educations, enter a supermarket and be dazzled by too many cereal options. If someone wants to start a business, he can. If he wishes to publish a book, all he needs is a computer, and some cash. If someone wants to invent a new church, there's no suppression. No censorship.

I think of the refugees in Africa. The killing fields in Cambodia. The starvation imposed on my husband's relatives in Russia. God has blessed our nation, and the men and women who come forward and postpone their personal goals for the good of us all know this in a most intimate way. Their families deserve equal thanks, for each day without a dad, a daughter, a friend, is more stressful, more difficult. And the rest of us...need some humility. I am grateful to have had the father I did, and I am grateful for the message he taught me, that freedom and democracy comes with a price. Thank you to all who have contributed.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Street Fair in the Rain

The rain is battering on the metal roof, liquid so thick you can see it fall in gray sheets and bounce off the ground. This is springtime in the Northwest, and to the syncopation of the drops spattering like a snare drum, one is supposed to be able to work in earnest.

But it's Sunday, not just any Sunday but the first real Street Fair Sunday of the season. And not just any street fair, but The University District Street Fair,
where aging hippies and young hippies and toddlers dressed as hippies and downright decrepit hippies and Asian entrepreneurs all converge to ignore the weather in the interest of reviving a slice of thirty or forty years ago. We are all nineteen; we all wear tie-dye, and, with umbrellas (usually eschewed but not in today's pelting) or simply dripping head-to-squishy toes, we again peruse the thick-walled pottery, the hand-tooled leather, the bead earrings and mock-Chihuly wavy funnels, chatting hello to the same craftspeople, sharing updates since last fall's Salmon Days festival, and searching for an original concept that will inspire the wallet to open.

Though the call of the fair is strong enough for me to wander its wonders alone, my ever-trusty twin-ego-friend deigned to accompany me today. The fair is a woman's delight; any husband's presence there is a gift. Mine was engaged honorably at a Mariner's game with our daughter, spared from this appearance in the land of prancing and piercings.

Twin-ego is less cheap than me, so paid $5 to a charity for the developmentally disabled in order to park in a structure just a soggy block from the fair. Soon, the shhhhh of the rain was overtaken by the cacophony of a tutu-garbed violinist, a hard-metal rock band, several sodden buskers and the din of parents' admonitions to overly enthusiastic children. The neon-yellow vested traffic cops were poker-faced despite the distractions, directing us across the major thoroughfare dividing two snaking lines of identical white plastic cubicle-tents, each several blocks long.

The rain increased. And increased, as we noodled into the white cubbies lined up along the streets, viewing the usual merchandise and the same vendors. When I could no longer refrain I popped up my Burberry plaid one-dollar umbrella, inadvertently pricking patrons in the crowded enclosures. Every couple minutes, you could hear--and see--a vendor poking a broomstick up into the roof tarp so a stream of collected rain pattered onto the concrete. My tennis shoes became sponges, and the chill damp air barely let me inhale between the drops.

But we continued, as Northwesterners do, ignoring the rain, smiling at the booth inhabitants, occasionally seeing a clever piece of jewelry (one made of brilliant buttons!) or a particularly odd cause ("Ask an Atheist!") or an amusement ("Get your ice cold lemonade--rainy day discount!"). The Peruvian men with their flutes and red ponchos serenaded us; further down groaned the drone of a digeridoo accompanied by bongos and finger cymbals.

I parted with some cash in the parking lot sub-fair, where vendors from Nepal and Africa offer cheap baskets and recycled tin earrings, buying from the long-bearded, long-haired elderly hippie. A tie-dyed wrap skirt, with its black edged flounce was $15; I paid him and then heard the next customer bargain him down effortlessly; I could have paid $10! My other purchase was a gift for my dear friend in Los Angeles--one time I bought her a necklace she loved at the U District Fair and since then always think of her. A glass blower's marbled pendants were so unusual and delicate that I bought two--one for my friend, and one for me.

Did something wild or significant happen at the U District Fair today? Did I see an artist drawing the face of a famous Rabbi? Did I inhale the fragrance of springtime, or watch a perfect flower explode with color? Well, yes. And no.

Wild and significant is that I am part of a generation whose past remains the present. Tie-dye, independent crafts-people, crazy anti-establishment types all still revel in their uniqueness. But at the same time, they want to make money; they buy their place in a little white plastic booth, and sit there all day hoping to make a modest sale. Maybe I didn't exactly see the face of a famous Rabbi, but I saw the faces of seekers, of people spurning the commuter world for something more personalized, more expressive. And I did inhale the fragrance of springtime, though here it was greasy falafel, kettle corn, home-made soaps and the damp freshness of falling rain. The perfect flower? Several. One made of glass blown in a swirly mandala. Another the burst of blue, green and gold on my new tie-dyed skirt. A third of pink silk clipped to a mane of red hair. It's springtime in the Northwest, and the youth in all of us is set free in the rain.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Mother's Day Tips for All Children of Any Age

Tomorrow's Mother's Day, and...oops, I guess I'M the mother. I still can't get past the kid stage, the "uh oh, I better get a homemade card sent in time to arrive on Saturday, and send flowers!" identity. But now, alas, my mother's gone, and my mother-in-law, too. If you keep reading, I'll give you this mother's tips for making any of my ilk happy.

But now I will divulge what my husband just said, disdainfully: "Tomorrow is Mother's Day. I bet you're expecting us to write all sorts of poems." Me: "You know I don't care about Mother's Day." Him: "But you'd be disappointed if we didn't write you all sorts of poems."
Me: "No. Have I even mentioned Mother's Day?" Him (making disgusted face): "No, but you want poems."

The culture has prevailed. I admit, when my birthday approaches, and my family asks what I want as a gift, I always answer, "Don't buy me anything. Just make me a card." They know I always write THEM poems. They know that on the occasions they DO write me poems, I always go wild with appreciation. Now, they dread even a downplayed Mother's Day because they're afraid that it means...dum-dum-DUM...writing a poem for me.

Hey guys. Mom to family: No poem required. Especially now that I know how sincere it is. No plant, no flowers required. Remember, my hubby---you bring me flowers EVERY day! Yes, world, my husband actually DOES bring me flowers every day. Flowers he picks out himself, at the supermarket, on his way home. Every day. Believe it.

I can HEAR you! You're saying "No, he doesn't actually bring her flowers EVERY day!" OK, just every day he comes home from work. Any hour. The only days he skips are when he's out of town or the Sabbath or Sunday, when we're together...unless he goes out somewhere, in which case, he includes Sunday. Many Sunday mornings he'll go out to Starbucks and bring me back my favorite coffee. AND flowers. And the day before he goes out of town, he usually gives me TWO bouquets, saying "the other one is because I can't get you flowers tomorrow."

Do I LIKE flowers? Does my daughter like her fake Chanel earrings? Does the Pope wear a yarmulke? The answer is: DUH. Flowers are my "love language." I love them. My house feels dull without them. I treasure all of them. Wanna make my day? Go to Pike Place Market and pick up one of those amazing bouquets arranged by the deft hands of the Korean vendors there. I did a small favor for friends, and when they surprised me with such a bouquet, with the grandest striated pink and cream tulips arranged with little purple and lemon flowers...well, I was nearly speechless.

Hint to guys: I'm not the only female who feels like this. Hint to all children: Give your mom flowers. Not tomorrow, when the price has been jacked up 100%, but before Shabbos, and when you come home, unexpectedly. Write her a POEM for tomorrow. Tell her how you feel. Give her a big hug. And, most importantly: LET HER TAKE YOUR PICTURE. Smile and be pleasant about it, please? And be in several WITH her.

DO NOT buy Mom a teddy bear or any other stuffed animal. Do not buy her a figurine or a little box. Do not buy her candy because even if it's the kind she likes, she feels guilty eating it. Do not buy her clothing, because even if she doesn't care for it, she'll wear it. Do not give her purchased schlocky jewelry, though shlocky jewelry made by anyone under age 12 is most welcome and will be worn, you can be sure, every Mother's Day hence.

My daughter away at college sent me something cute. A "monk-e-mail" Mother's Day greeting. You pick out the chimp, dress him or her, pick out the background and then can either have a voice simulate your written message or you can phone in your own voice for the ape to, well...ape. I'd never seen this before, and everyone in the room was wailing with laughter. Especially to hear the simulator say "naches" and "bachorah." Make your own message:

I have lots of friends who are mothers, but it's not an obligation of one mother to send mother's day greetings to others in the same boat. Well, I must say, my dear twinnie-friend, who is the role-model of chesed, and about the most generous person on the planet, of COURSE put me to shame and gave me two dozen of the most breathtaking marbled roses AND a big bar of daaaaark chocolate. Flowers and candy from a friend, WOW.

Now that we've dispensed with the Mother's Day advice, I must address the fact that Mother's Day is not Jewish. I've heard rabbis I respect say we do not observe Mother's Day because "every day is Mother's Day" for Jews. That's a cop-out. "Honor thy father and thy mother" does not let you out of participating in our cultural celebration, sorry. Jewish mothers are not exempt from reading the Sunday advertising supplements that have been SCREAMING for the past two months, "If you love your mother, you better buy her something good!" And she knows YOU'VE seen those ads, and heard them on the radio and TV, too. It's like the Fourth of July--we love Yom Hatzmaut, but we still shoot off fireworks for American Independence Day. Treat Mom like a Queen every day, but...well, write her a poem for Mother's Day.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Invigorated by Springtime, Eh?

I seem to have a string of "awesome nature" posts going here, so I cannot resist touting my most recent communing with the bounties of spring. One might have said the Mounties of spring, since this close encounter of the plant kind happened over this last weekend in...Canada, eh?

Butchart Garden, located a pleasant half-hour bus ride outside Victoria, BC on Tod Inlet, is 55 acres that, according to their brochure, "began [in 1906] with an idea by Jennie Butchart to beautify a worked-out limestone quarry which had supplied her husband Robert Pim Butchart's nearby Portland cement plant." The quarry was dug with a mind toward profit--less valuable streaks of limestone were left as pillars and dug around, creating a moonscape bowl of rock transformed into what is now the Sunken Garden (photo, left). The surrounding acres indulged Mrs. Butchart's gardening hobby by becoming the Japanese, Italian, rose, and side gardens and an expanse with fountains where concerts are held on the lawn.

Sounds nice, the kind of thing you'd take your grandmother Then why did we make a rather expensive pilgrimage there with the family, timed precisely for THIS last weekend? I'm no grandmother (yet!). And I'm not the only one in my family who appreciates the eye candy of flowers--but we came the first weekend in May to see my passion, my delight...tulips.

You've already read about the breathtaking vistas at the Skagit Valley, where the fields striped in brilliant colors stretch to the horizon. This is nothing like that. Butchart Gardens is the Disneyland of horticulture--if there are tulips, they're
monster-sized, crazily-shaped or wildly-colored, and always under-planted with little BLUE flowers. Blue is everywhere at Butchart, which is famous for its blue poppies (in fact the restaurant there is called the Blue Poppy Cafe.) This trip we only saw a few of those precious and finicky blooms, but on my last visit, I thrilled at them from all angles (photo).

No, this trip was all about tulips. We saw deep rust-colored ones with "fringed" edges so sharp they looked like Venus Flytraps. We saw scarlet open-faced tulips with sun-yellow centers with a fillip of odd scarlet curly petal jutting forth from them (photo, below). We saw black tulips. And green tulips. All of such generous size, in such profusion, as to make me...gasp.

The weather was chilly, and rain fell as if from God's watering can, tipped and then righted with passing clouds. Available at every turn were clear plastic umbrellas, a logical choice as no one wants to miss the blooms drinking from the sky. After each cloudburst, the raindrops beaded on the petals, fresh and cool, and the flowers smiled again, aware of being even more photogenic in dewy newness.

A bus-ful of Japanese tourists, all quite small and brandishing cameras, shared my eagerness to capture the beauty on their photo cards (you can't say "on film" anymore). Watching them crouch, squat, stand on tiptoe and perch cameras on
tripods was entertaining...but made me want to emulate their positions to find out exactly what it was they found so irresistible. Could it be the navy blue Columbine? Don't know...but being in this place where the earth's rebirth was so celebrated and God's ingenuity so obvious filled me with optimism and possibility. You must go to Butchart in May--and inhale springtime.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Created for our EnJOYment

With my new view opened up, and the days now exuberantly long, it's easy to feel celebratory. And what could bring out the feelings of ecstasy and joy more than brilliant azaleas? Ho-hum, you say. What are they but bushes, right? "Stay Out da Bushes!" as Jesse Jackson famously said.

But come with me to the University of Washington's famed Japanese Garden, and you will see much more. There, in a carefully tended oasis of tranquility, are growing spheres clipped so that now, in the epitome of springtime, they become brilliant balls of magenta, scarlet and peach. Come closer. You'll see that the solid mass of shocking hue is really made up of
thousands of perfect, individual flowers, each one in itself worthy of display. Together, they sound a chorus of color. Each small, seven-petaled bloom, opening like a hungry baby bird to the sun, with its arching stamens and contrasting freckles in its throat, cries out abundance. We are given more gifts than we can collect.

The rhododendron is the state flower of Washington. It grows wild, with crimson flowers that burst forth in clusters, lighting verdant fir forests. Evergreen, rhododendrons have been cultivated as front-yard favorites, and now, at the UW Arboretum, "Azalea Way" is aflame with pinks, whites, and mottled psychedelic mounds, amid periwinkle meadows of field hyacinths, fluffy dandelions, and paths of unmown grass richly and intensely green.

Enough procrastinating. Time to be bookish...but my head turns toward my window as I unsuccessfully resist the exhilarating call of spring.