Category — Lifestyle
Granite Canyon, South Fork
By Marlene Olin
Seven hundred bucks for an airplane ticket. Seven days scratched out on the calendar. Rock climbing. Mountain biking. Hiking. I was vacationing with a doppelganger, a me nobody knew.
“We raise goats,” said RayAnn. “We practice yoga. It’ll be the best week ever. Promise.”
Years ago, in another life, I met RayAnn at college. English majors, we smoked pot and wrote poetry in smoke-filled rooms. We painted our lips white and our eyes coal black. We were the epitome of cool.
Then life happened. After graduation I moved back home to Miami. Instead of becoming a writer, I married my high school sweetheart and became a stay-at-home mom. I spent the next twenty years cooking, cleaning, changing diapers, waiting for repairmen, helping with homework, wiping noses, carpooling, waiting for more repairmen, driving to the orthodontist, teaching my kids how to drive. My life had become a Good Housekeeping cliché.
“Come visit the Tetons!” said RayAnn. “Fresh air. Lots of exercise. You’ll get rebooted. You’ll start writing again.”
While I boomeranged back to my hometown, RayAnn had lived like a nomad. She moved from city to city, teaching mostly at community colleges, managing to get two novels published. She lived the life we had always talked about. One romantic liaison after another. Free and uncommitted. And her stories always ended on a high note as well. Against overwhelming odds, her heroines found happiness. During the six-hour plane ride, I read nonstop.
Sitting on a Dream: Mavis is paralyzed in a car accident. Thanks to the intervention and very hands-on caring of a small town doctor, she regains the use of her arms and legs. The climax of the book takes place on their honeymoon. Cannons fire and fireworks burst. The book sold twenty thousand copies online alone.
Hotel Hospice: Lorelei has terminal ovarian cancer. Lincoln, her only child, is fifteen-years-old and has an IQ of one fifty. A promising violinist, he steals manhole covers in his spare time. He’s the kind of kid who’s either going to end up playing Carnegie Hall or trolling the streets. Then grandpa comes to town. Lorelei’s father abandoned her, beat her mother and stole all their money. But life’s all about the second chances. And grandpa has talents no one − NOT EVEN HE!!! − suspects.
“We’ll be landing in few minutes,” says the pilot. “It’s usually a bumpy ride around now.” I shove the two paperbacks into my purse and brace myself. Below me snow- covered peaks puncture the stratosphere. I suck in air to make the plane lighter and lift myself in the seat.
It’s a small airport. Lilliputian small. I get off the plane and walk down a flight of stairs to the tarmac. The sky’s blindingly blue and cloudless. We’re ringed by the Tetons. They’re so huge they’re one dimensional. For a moment I feel like an actor in a play, the mountains a stage prop, the moon a Cheshire grin.
The people seem unreal, too. Everyone looks the same. Blue-eyed and sun-bleached hair. Tanned and toned. As soon as I find my way to the luggage area, I crane my neck for RayAnn. I figure she’ll recognize me first. I’m just an older, weathered version of the college coed I used to be. Brown frizzy hair. Splotchy skin. I might as well be wearing a sign. Jewish Housewife from Miami.
“There you are,” she says. No, her Facebook page wasn’t PhotoShopped. RayAnn still looks around twenty. Yes, she competed in an Ironman last year. Yes, she really does raise goats.
“It’s for weed control,” she tells me. “They love thistle. So instead of using weed-killer, we bring my goats to people’s yards. They eat the bad stuff and leave the good behind.”
We bump along a dirt road and stop in front of a log cabin. It truly is a log cabin. Like on the pancake syrup bottle. Somewhere I hear a rooster crow. The air smells like Christmas. My skin starts to itch.
“We use the old outhouse as a root cellar,” says RayAnn. “We’ve got indoor plumbing, the internet, the whole she-bang.”
The walls are covered with new-agey art. A hand with an eye. A web of yarn with feathers. Though her conversation is peppered with words like spirit and feelings, there are no periods or pauses, no intake of air. Sentences spill like an avalanche. We get up at five don’t forget there’s coffee. We feed the livestock grab some gloves at the door. We do our chores before sunrise don’t you love to watch the sun rise isn’t the sunrise awesome?
And she talks as if she has an invisible companion or partner only no one else is there. No photographs on the fireplace mantel. No his and hers towels. I’m used to tripping over my kids’ sneakers and finding Rob’s underwear on the floor. There’s not a lick of dust in the house.
“We keep our jackets in the closet and our shoes by the door,” says RayAnn. When I drop my purse on the couch, she picks it up. “Clutter in the house makes for clutter in the soul.”
She’s become the nature Nazi. The Fuhrer in the dell. She opens the door to the frig.
“Help yourself,” says RayAnn. It looks like a bank vault and takes up half her kitchen. “We just eat local. Local fruit. Local veggies. When she opens the door to the freezer, I could swear I see a hoof. “We’ve gotten friendly with a few hunters. They stock us in venison for the year.”
I still suffer PTSD from Bambi. The forest fire. The mother dying. Who could forget? The sandwich I ate on the plane flips.
She directs me to one of the two bedrooms. It’s Martha Stewart pretty. A bed with a blocky quilt. A bathroom with a claw tub and billowing curtains. “This is wonderful,” I tell her. It must be fifty degrees in the cabin and as the sun sets, the temperature’s dropping. In Miami, it’s sweater weather. In Wyoming, it’s a typical summer. My teeth chatter. I crave my flannel nightgown — the one I left home in a drawer.
RayAnn counts down on her fingers. “Monday’s hiking, Tuesday’s biking, Wednesday’s yoga. Once our bodies embrace positive energy, our minds will relax.”
She disappears into the kitchen and I hear cabinet doors opening and closing. Meanwhile I unpack and take a closer look at the house. There’s not a TV in sight. Her bookshelves are lined with Sitting on a Dream and Hotel Hospice. A few Tony Hillermans and Louis L’Amours. What ever happened to Kerouac and Corso? The RayAnn I used to know has become a stranger and this stranger is getting stranger by the minute. We are stranded in a wooden shed in the middle of nowhere. We are starting to panic.
Days pass. The two of us develop a routine. Like a shark, RayAnn needs to get moving. My job is to stay out of her way. When she’s not tending to her goats, RayAnn’s running up mountains, paddling a kayak through the rapids, riding her bike over moguls of Queen Anne’s lace. Most of the time I stay home swinging in her hammock, listening to the ripple of her creek. I read. I write. Even so RayAnn is grateful for the company. I don’t think she realizes how lonely she is. I don’t think she can hear herself think.
“Summer is great, but just wait until winter. D’you snowboard? D’you ski?”
“I’m afraid of heights,” I tell her. Afraid of depths. Speed. Falling. Pain. I am the anti-RayAnn. I am afraid of everything.
She looks crestfallen, her mouth like two parentheses, a sad clown kind of face. I toss out a bone.
“But there’s yoga, tomorrow! I’d love to try yoga.”
There’s maybe twenty people in the park. In the distance, I hear children playing. Ravens as big as cats sit on tree branches, caw.
“Welcome to Laughter Yoga,” says the instructor. “For the next hour I will be your leader, your guru, and your friend.”
RayAnn is standing next to me. She’s holding one of her feet directly over her head. With her elbow out she looks like the letter P.
“It’s great exercise,” she whispers. “Loosens the diaphragm. Relaxes the back.”
My lips form the letter O.
“Let your mind be drawn to the spirit of the Tetons,” says the instructor. “Become one with the universe.” We are stretching our hands over our heads then reaching for our toes. Then waving them side-to-side like cheerleaders. I look around to see if strangers are watching because I feel like an idiot. I’m sure we look like idiots.
“Now loosen the mouth.” The instructor sticks out her tongue and starts shaking her head. Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha. Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha. The last time I heard a person breathing that hard she was in labor. There’s an old man in back of me. He’s pushing eighty for sure. Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha. Then I hear someone hyperventilating. It’s either the old man or me.
The instructor moves onto another exercise. We are holding hands in a circle, moving in, moving out. This I understand. Just when I’m getting the hang of it, she changes direction. Now the group is moving from right to left like a pile of dominoes. We are clapping on each other’s backs. Banging the hell out of each other’s backs. While I’m pounding on RayAnn, the old man is pounding me. Only he misses half the time. Pounding my ass, the air, my head.
Now laugh, shouts the instructor. She forces a staccato grunt from her mouth and aims it towards the sun. Laugh! She commands.
I look around. Everyone is laughing. Sort of. The old man is wheezing. Some crazies are rolling on the ground holding their stomachs. When I look at RayAnn, her forehead is lined, her lips pursed. Meditation has made her incredibly anxious. She squeezes her eyes shut, fists her hands, and a series of machine gun rat-a-tats burst out. Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha.
“The yogina is a riot. Isn’t she a riot?” says RayAnn. Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha. “Why aren’t you laughing? Everybody’s laughing.” Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha.
I’m the only one not laughing. I’ve always hated smiling for the camera. It’s fake sincerity. A clockwork orange. Meanwhile RayAnn is chuckling like a robotic Santa Claus stuck on someone’s lawn. Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha.
When the group is exhausted, when sides ache and half the class has to pee, the instructor winds things up.
“Let your mind be drawn to the stillness,” she says. We sit in the lotus position, knees crossed, our palms facing up, forefinger and thumb touching.
“Relax the tension. Let your spine rise from the ground. Repeat the word So…ooo…ooo as you inhale. Then exhale and say hummmmm.”
I look around for hummingbirds or bumblebees but no. It’s just the sound of a dozen people collectively expelling air from their mouths. RayAnn tries so hard to relax that she looks more tense. The old man farts. The air’s so still I can hear the aspen leaves whistle, the grass crunch.
And then it occurs to me. I’m the lucky one. My life’s not bathed in Kumbaya but whose is? I love my husband, I worship my children. Our home is our nest. I may not have written the great American novel but I’ve created something of value. While everyone’s quiet, I unfold like a flower and stretch. Hummmmm.
And then I start laughing.
There is nothing louder than a laugh at the wrong time. The instructor hisses through her teeth. Everyone in the class sideglances, sending me death ray stares. Somehow I’ve found a chink in their cosmic armor, put the kibosh on their karma. RayAnn doesn’t speak to me the whole ride home.
We put together the local version of homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and eat dinner in total silence. The goo sticks to my teeth but I can’t say anything, do anything. Finally RayAnn speaks.
“While you’re a guest in my home, I would appreciate if you don’t make fun of my friends.”
We’ve known each other too long for me to bullshit my way out of this. I’ve been hiding in a cloak of sarcasm all week. Covering my insecurities by acting superior and judgmental. And assuming that RayAnn with her gosh darn small town ways wouldn’t notice.
“I think you’re terrific,” I say. “I think yoga was terrific.” I’m digging deep now. “And I really love your goats.” I’m practically choking on the words. Not because I don’t mean them but because my palate feels covered in mud. I stick in a finger and extract a dollop of brown sludge.
“That’s disgusting,” says RayAnn. Her voice is now a high shriek. “Do you know you’re disgusting?”
I stick in my finger once more, circle my mouth, and extract an even bigger dollop. The relief is overwhelming. Physically. Emotionally. “Did you know this peanut butter sucks?” I blurt. “Did you know that I’d kill for a diet coke right now?” I pull back my finger and sling the sludge. It hits RayAnn on the stomach, two inches over her belt and clings like a barnacle. The whole wad stays cemented to her shirt.
She looks down. She stays looking down for a long time. Then slowly she unpeels a grin. Her teeth are checkerboard. Brown. White. Brown. White. “I’d give it to the goats but they won’t touch the stuff.” She takes a fork, impales the brown goo that’s on her shirt, and flicks it back at me. Once we start laughing, it’s hard to stop.
“God, how I hate you,” she says. “I hate your marriage, I hate your kids, I hate the fact that you know just who you are. You’re just perfect, aren’t you? I hate the way you’re perfect.”
She’s joking. Sort of. I get up, walk around the table, and give her a big hug. “You may think you hate me but you don’t.”
She smiles and wipes away some tears. “You want a pizza? I know a place with great pizza.”
Old friendships have a habit of sticking, too. I’m the yin to RayAnn’s yang. The cream in her coffee. The perfectly timed caesura. I hang around a few extra days until it becomes an extra week. My husband and kids say they miss me. I envision a sink filled with dirty dishes and hampers stuffed with dirty clothes. It’ll wait. They’ll wait. The Tetons are calling. I’m one with the universe. Hummmm.
About the author:
Marlene Olin’s short stories have been published most recently in Upstreet Magazine, Emrys Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, Biostories, and The Jewish Literary Journal. She lives in Miami.
October 31, 2014 Comments Off on Laughter Yoga/Marlene Olin
© 2014 by Larry Vienneau
Gun National Art
Gun Nation, Under God
America’s Changing Gun Culture
By John Smelcer
I’ll preface this memoir with a few declarations. I’m a teacher, and I’ve been shot. I’m also a coward. In the current political climate, it’s too dangerous to be on either side of the fence when it comes to gun control issues. I’m no martyr. I don’t intend to be buried alive in an avalanche of hate mail. I plan to sit on the fence where it’s safe. What I want to do is to tell you about what I’ve witnessed in my own life in an attempt to discover how and when America’s gun fanaticism began.
This is no call to arms (pun intended).
You can’t turn on the television or radio without hearing about a mass shooting at a school, college, or workplace. It is a sad truth that there have been 75 school shootings since Sandy Hook (yet, amazingly, most gun shows are still held in public school gymnasiums). In response to increasingly frequent news, we have added new words like “active shooter” to our lexicon. Most classrooms now have an emergency plan posted for how to respond to an active shooter on campus.
Television, cinema, rap music, and video games have been scapegoats for America’s increased gun violence.
But I’m not convinced that’s where the blame should fall.
I was born half a century ago during the hot summer of 1963. The Cold War was at its height. President John F. Kennedy wouldn’t be assassinated for half a year. Martin Luther King, Jr. wouldn’t deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington D.C. for another month and a half. And John Wayne still swaggered across the silver screen shooting bad guys by the dozen. It seemed as if every other television show or motion picture was a western or a war movie. Looking back, I’m surprised at how much gun violence I was exposed to in my childhood.
I remember playing Cowboys and Indians or War with neighborhood boys, each of us armed with realistic-looking plastic machine guns and pistols, not like the green, yellow, and orange play guns today. Each came with a limitless supply of ammunition. No need for extra clips or reloading. Up and down our street until supper time could be heard our juvenile skirmishes.
“Bang! Bang! I got you! You’re dead! Here comes the Germans!” (or Japs or Russians; it was, after all, the Cold War) Blast ‘em to hell, Boys!”
Those of us lucky enough even had plastic bazookas and hand grenades.
“Ka-blam! Your legs just got blown off, Jimmy! You can’t run away! Come back here!”
In the absence of plastic grenades, dirt clods served perfectly well. In some ways they were better, especially the way they exploded shrapnel everywhere when they hit the ground.
I fondly recall that I once held back an entire battalion of Nazis all by myself.
Clearly, America in the ’60s and early ’70s was already a gun nation, indivisible from its firearms. And yet there were no mass school shootings or workplace massacres like there are today.
It should be stated from the start that I grew up in Alaska and that I was educated from elementary school through college in that Last Frontier. I’m also a master teacher with twenty-five years of experience in the classroom. In junior high, my brother and I were on the rifle team. Twice a week after school we lugged our .22 caliber target rifles through the school halls to the indoor shooting range for practice (do public schools still have rifle teams?). As far as I recall, no one ever shot anyone else, not even Billy Ackerman who stole my girlfriend, Clancy Monaghan.
In my senior year of high school, during the Reagan years, our school principal knew that I was a marksman and an avid outdoorsman who enjoyed hunting and fishing. In Alaska, many fishermen carry handguns in the event of unexpected, yet not infrequent, close encounters with bears. One day, the principal called me into his office over the school intercom. I wasn’t in any trouble that I knew of — it was my younger brother who usually got called into the principal’s office for fighting or some other infraction — so I entered his office curious to know why I was there.
Mr. Anderson — we’ll call him that because I don’t remember his real name, and I don’t want to get him into trouble (though he’d have to be in his mid-80s by now and long since put out to pasture) — shut the door and closed the blinds that allowed the secretary to see into his office. Our ensuing conversation went something like this:
Principal: You’re probably wondering why I’ve called you into my office?
Teen Me: Well . . . I was wondering. Does it have anything to do with the Playboy Magazine stuffed in the library bookshelves between Plato and Plutarch?
Principal: The wha . . . where?
Teen Me: Nothing. Forget I mentioned it. So, what can I do you for?
Principal: I understand that you are a hunter, that you have guns. Do you have any handguns?
Teen me: Um . . . um (shifting uncomfortably on the chair). You know it’s against the law to buy or own a handgun until you’re twenty-one, right? I mean . . . I’m still in high school.
Principal: Of course I know you’re in high school. I’m the principal. But you see, Mr. Smelcer, I plan to go fishing this weekend, and, well, I need a handgun for bear protection. I was wondering if you had a pistol powerful enough to stop a bear.
Teen Me: I’ll be honest, Mr. Anderson, no pistol is really powerful enough to stop a bear in its tracks.
Principal: Yes, yes. I’ve heard that before. But a handgun is certainly better than throwing rocks or sticks at the bear.
Teen Me: I guess. But before you go out into bear country armed with only a handgun, you should first file down the front site.
Principal: (Perplexed look). Why on earth would I do that?
Teen Me: So it won’t hurt so much when the bear shoves the barrel up your a . . .
Principal: Mr. Smelcer! May I remind you that we are in a school? So, do you or don’t you have a gun I could purchase for such a purpose?
Teen Me: It just so happens that I have a .44 special I picked up somewhere. Now, it’s not a .44 magnum like the one Dirty Harry carried, but it sure beats the hell out of throwing rocks.
Principal: How much would you be asking for such an item?
Teen Me: Hmm. How about $225? I got half a box of shells, which I’ll throw in for free.
Teen Me: Huh?
Principal: You have half a box of shells, not got. Got is not a word, Mr. Smelcer. Here’s what we’ll do. Bring the gun and ammunition to school tomorrow. Keep it hidden in your locker until I call for you during second period. Stop at your locker on the way to retrieve the, hurumph . . . item. If it’s in good condition, I think we can make a transaction.
Teen Me: I only take cash. No checks. Nothing personal.
Principal: Cash will suffice.
The next day went precisely as planned. Mr. Anderson called me on the school intercom to come to his office. Classmates taunted me thinking I was in trouble again (twice in two days). I enjoyed my new bad boy reputation. I stopped at my locker to collect the item to transact as arranged. After entering his office, Mr. Anderson hastily shut the door and closed the blinds. After some chit-chat and examination of the item, he forked over the cash. There was no bill of sale. This story and the accompanying vivid memories are all I have as proof of the veracity of the event.
But that’s not my only guns-in-schools story.
As often as public schools are involved in shootings nowadays, so too are college campuses. Fast forward to my college years only a few years later. Knowing that I worked part-time in a gun store — the very same gun store that sold a rifle to Christopher McCandless of Into the Wild fame — a friend who was a mechanical engineering major asked me to speak to the engineering club on campus about the history and technological evolution of firearms. Several days later, I lugged a pile of revolvers, automatic pistols, and rifles, including several assault rifles, across campus to the classroom where the club met. What a sight I must have seemed! Yet, amazingly, no one called 9-1-1 (In contrast, just the other day a student in my public speaking class at a Midwest university asked me if he could bring a rifle to class for his informative speech. I told him that given the current climate on college campuses, I didn’t think it was a good idea. How times have changed). Nowadays, I’d likely be shot on sight by campus police.
Better to shoot first and ask questions later.
In researching for this article, I asked over a hundred people about their position on gun rights. Aside from the expected reply of “It’s our constitutional right,” a resounding and surprising number said it was our God-given right. Their argument went something like this: God made America, and America made the Constitution; therefore, it’s our God-given right to have guns.
To such remarks, I responded that the Founding Fathers, George Washington included, stated explicitly in handwritten papers that our nation was not born from religious principles whatsoever, to which I’d get perplexed looks as if I had just said that the sky is down. Among those polled, there was a great deal of resistance to the notion of regulating the number of firearms an individual can own at one time. The standard reply was that would be an infringement of our God-given right to pursue our happiness. I pointed out that even Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett probably only had one or two rifles, and single-shots at that.
Where in Bible does it say, “Thou shalt possess guns in plenitude”?
Case in point, a state resoundingly rejected legislation to simply limit gun purchasing to one gun a month —twelve guns a year. I don’t know anyone who buys a pair of shoes every month, and yet voters of that state couldn’t live with the notion that they couldn’t buy more than one gun a month. As Americans, we have the right to own a car and to drive it pretty much anywhere we want. No one really complains when states change speed limits or establish seatbelt laws or laws regarding cell phone use while driving. But try to make the slightest change to gun laws… When did America become so resistant to limitations when it comes to guns?
Every man of conscience declares he would give his life to save a child, whether by jumping in front of a moving vehicle or rescuing a child from a burning building. And yet, unbelievably, these same individuals won’t give an inch to limit guns. I’m a father. I’d give up owning a gun for the rest of my life if it saved a single child, mine or yours. To give a child the chance to live a full life, to experience the world, to marvel, to dream, to love, to have a family…
According to recent data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control, over 31,000 Americans died in 2010 by firearms, 11,078 of them by gun homicide. That translates to 3.6 people per every 100,000 citizens. In contrast, Canada, which has a gun ownership rate approximately the same as other developed nations, reported a firearm-related-death rate of only 0.5 people per 100,000.
Clearly there’s something happening in America.
I didn’t do a very good job staying centered on the fence. I leaned too far in one direction, tipping my hat, so to speak. But I care about this country. I’m a little worried about us and our future. As Americans, can’t we examine our collective psyche and ask ourselves when and how we became so fanatical about guns. Can’t we even entertain the conversation without people going ballistic? What happened to us? How did we end up where we are? And, most importantly, where do we go from here?
About the author:
John Smelcer is the author of over 45 books, including The Trap, The Great Death, Lone Wolves, and Edge of Nowhere. His writing appears in over 400 magazines, including The Atlantic. You can read more about him in About Us, and at www.johnsmelcer.com.
About the illustrator:
Artist Larry Vienneau is Professor of Art and Seminole State University. He has collaborated with John Smelcer on numerous projects over the past twenty-five years.
October 31, 2014 Comments Off on Gun Nation, Under God
Icon for an Unknown Religion | Oil on Canvas | 39″ x 33″ | 1999
* * *
But Not Sublime
with Mike Foldes
If to describe Hawk Alfredson’s paintings as dreamlike goes without saying, why did I bother? Because they’re his dreams, not yours. To those of us simultaneously inside and outside this Swedish-American painter’s world, the images reach far and wide, as far back as Scandinavian and European legend, as far forward as tomorrow when an understanding and appreciation of his craft and skill blend seamlessly with the work itself. Easily recognizable are the armored knights and stone castles, but why then mix that into a visual cacaphony occasionally interrupted by the cold calm of river stones and embellished vortices. These images derive from a wide-ranging portfolio of influences the artist says often come to him at the threshhold of wakefulness. It is this “awakening” we are fortunate to observe in Alfredson’s art.
Alfredson was born in Orebro, Sweden in 1960. He arrived to New York City in 1995. From 2001 to 2010, he and his wife, photographer Mia Hanson, were residents of the Hotel Chelsea, where his work was commonly seen in staircases and hallways. He was interviewed by Abel Ferrara in “Chelsea On The Rocks”, and many of those paintings can be seen throughout the film. Hawk and Mia moved to Washington Heights; the hotel closed in 2012. Neither of them has a studio at the moment; Hawk paints in a small area on the floor in the apartment, and Mia works where the jobs take her. Each has numerous commercial pieces to his/her credit, including book and album covers, magazine covers and advertising.
* * *
Ragazine: What was your work like as a child, and how long did it take for you to actually develop drawing skills?
Hawk Alfredson: I just returned from Sweden two months ago and in my mother’s attic I found an old suitcase filled with childhood & teenage drawings. Early on, I remember it was in school at about age six or seven years when I realized that I was more advanced at drawing than the other kids my age and I really enjoyed doing it. Every year in school thereafter the teachers would pin my work up on the wall and the other children would crowd around to look at my work. Relating to this somehow, I’ve believed in reincarnation since I was 16, and feel today that I must have been an artist in one or several of my life-times. I guess it took a couple hundred years or many more to develop my skills, but I finally believe that I have become in this life the artist that I was always striving to be.
Q) Did you receive a lot of encouragement from your family? Were they interested in your art, or did they direct to other pursuits?
A) My father was a hobby painter and my mother and I spent a lot of time drawing and painting watercolors together when I was very young. When I was around the age of six, I vaguely remember watching a documentary about artists and realized then that this was to be my path…my calling. When I was seven or eight years old I announced to my parents that I wanted to be an artist after previously wanting to be an archaeologist. It was at this time that I finished my first oil painting, a black & white whale jumping out of the ocean. My father helped guide me through this. I remember thinking how much more difficult it was to paint well than it was to draw. It was a bit intimidating so I went back to drawing on my own for a couple years. Throughout school my teachers would often encourage my artistic skills to the point that it became natural for me to expect that I would move north to Stockholm to attend art school after finishing my compulsory education. And so this is what I did when I was 16. I left my small village in the south of Sweden and never returned.
Tight Antic II | Oil on Canvas | 59″ x 79″ | 1992-2007
Q) Your paintings remind me of Albrecht Dürer; perhaps that’s the Old World influence some reviewers have spoken about in your work. Was that an evolutionary or conscious process to arrive at that point?
A) I was never interested in artists who basically just throw some paint on a canvas & then smear it out with a broom or something. I’m always drawn to painters that work with a skillful technique. Because of this, very few contemporary artists really affect me. Visiting the great classical museums of the world, you come across great older works that share a commonality: technique. However, sometimes a painter might have “it” but they might fall short on technique. Technique in general isn’t everything. Many times the most important quality an artist must have is a life experience that comes across lucidly upon the canvas. I enjoy being surprised by work like this even more. As Dali once said, “An artist must have hands that are guided by an angel,” or words to that effect.
Q) With which of the classical surrealists did you or do you most closely identify?
A) Back when I was in art school in Stockholm in the late ’70s, it was Dali and Magritte. Today, Magritte doesn’t do much for me anymore, but Dali’s strongest work (from the ‘50s and ‘60s) is still fascinating on many levels.
While in art school I traveled all throughout Europe. And in my early 20s I had a very profound experience in Paris when I saw a Giacometti painting. It totally mesmerized me, and put me in a ghostly, dreamlike hypnotic state of mind where time and space disappeared. No other painter has ever managed to do this to me. What is absolutely unbelievable to me is that he is better known for his sculptures.
V10N5 Hawk Alfredson
Hawk Alfredson Paintings, V10N5
Q) How much a part does music play in the formulation of your work?
A) Music of all kinds has always influenced me. If I hadn’t become an artist, I probably would have found my way creating weird, uncategorizable music. The past years I don’t listen to music very often while I paint. I’ve found it to be too distracting, especially if there’s lyrics. However, if I do listen, it’s usually ambient music. The painting process needs total focus. Sometimes I get into a deep space within and nothing is of a distraction. It takes a good run of a couple days of intense work to get there, though. Generally, I’ve noticed the surrounding cacophonous noises of NYC are enough of a distraction and take the place of music. Paintings are sensitive objects. I believe they act as mystical recording devices soaking up the surrounding energy and music of their environment. If anyone can hear music seeping through my paintings, which some have said they can, then it’s most likely from all the sound energy involved in the painting process.
Q: I would imagine any artist coming to NY trying to make it in this scene would have great dreams, and unfortunately not everyone can make a living at it…. Who is your dealer now, and what would you say to someone just coming to New York who’s looking to make that kind of connection?
A: This question is actually quite complex. Basically, things have changed dramatically in NYC since I first got here in 1995. For instance, back then I had a show going on every day of the year for the first two years I was here. I would hop from one show opportunity to the next. The underground art scene was vital and still alive in the 90’s, especially in the East Village. And SoHo was of course going strong with established galleries. The neighborhood wasn’t overrun with fashion boutiques and aggressively competitive rents. These days, it seems artists have no place in a city that is desperate to make money simply to feed a machine. It’s an entirely different situation for the young artist coming to NYC now. For success, the young artist depends on an art establishment that is open to fresh ideas and is capable of taking a chance on an unproven talent. This is not the NYC we have post 9/11.
Q: Who are your current dealers?
A: I have kept an affiliation with my private art dealer in Stockholm since 1994. His name is Jan Linder. Here in the states, I’m represented by Limner Gallery in Hudson, New York. I also work closely with a couple other private art dealers here in New York City.
Q: How did you meet your wife, Mia?
A: We met at a gallery in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in 1997. I was having a solo show there and she walked in one day when I wasn’t around and took a good look at all the paintings hanging from floor to ceiling. She was immediately hooked and tracked me down. A couple years later we were living together in Stockholm. A Swedish journalist wrote about our meeting: “It was love before first sight. Mia felt Hawk’s presence, his language, yes his entire being just through studying the detailed paintings.”
Q: Your N.Y. history includes a long stint living at the Chelsea Hotel. In an artistic sense, I can only imagine it was a creatively communal experience. While you grew and prospered there, would you agree, “It’s not for everyone”?
A: Nine years at the Hotel is very difficult to put into a nutshell. We had insane neighbors sometimes. One actually accused me of painting her breasts when I had never even seen her naked… ever! I had a couple of my “Circling” paintings hanging in the 4th floor corridor where we both lived and she complained to the management that I was painting her breasts. The “Circling” paintings I had started long before I ever met her and honestly, I don’t even associate them with any part of the human form at all. For all of those nine years I had paintings hanging in the staircase, as well. Also in the lobby and in a few V.I.P. rooms. There were over 50 paintings of mine displayed in the Hotel. It was an amazing and very unique situation. The owner of the Hotel, Stanley Bard, encouraged me to hang as many paintings as I wished throughout the Hotel. And so I did. Unexpectedly, I noticed it wasn’t too long after I started hanging my oil paintings in the open spaces in the staircase that other resident artists did so, as well. There were some few paintings throughout the 10 floors of the staircase before Mia and I moved in – this was in 2001 – but it was sparse and uninspiring to be honest.
Q: Do you have any shows coming up?
A: I have work showing at Minerva Gallery, however outside of this I’m pretty open right now. I’m interested to hear from anyone who has an offer!
Q: Anything you would like to tell our readers that you always hoped someone would ask about but never did?
A: Verbal communication is not something I usually put a lot of effort into when it comes to my own artistic process. You will never see me giving a lecture or teaching a class on the subject of art. It’s difficult to talk about the intuitive artistic process so I’m glad I haven’t needed to delve into that too deeply here. To be honest, the more time advances, the more reticent I feel toward verbalizing my art. What I can say about my artistic process is that I am always hunting for the mysterious while I paint. When I begin a painting I have no definitive destination. Rather, while I work I encourage subliminal ideas and cosmic forces to collaborate with the process. In any case, I’d like to circle back to one of my favorite quotes from any artist- it’s from Jean Cocteau: “An artist cannot speak about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture.”
For more images, see www.hawkalfredson.com, and facebook:
To purchase a copy of Alfredson’s book, click on this link:
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About the interviewer:
Michael Foldes is founder and managing editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.
This interview was conducted via email between February and May 2014.
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August 29, 2014 1 Comment
Ida & Disa, photo by Mia Hanson
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Hotel Chelsea Girl
Artful existence lets the light shine in
with Mike Foldes
Mia Hanson is one of those photographers who seems to sense the aura that surrounds her subjects, and then seeks to capture it with her camera. While many of her images are portraits, what separates her from so many portrait photographers is her ability to go beyond the mechanics of finding a location, setting up lights and filters, and pushing the shutter release. It’s evident she’s looking for more and finding it. No “same old, same old” there. A California native who grew up taking the daily dose of sunshine for granted and then living in the narrow canyons and uncertain weather of New York, Hanson’s experienced eye readily goes to light and shadow – principally light, as seen in the connectedness of Ida and Disa, the pale fluidity of “Victorian Kiss,” and even the sky seen through a matrix of bare limbs.
Hanson’s credits include a number of album, magazine, and book covers, as well as extensive work in fashion photography and commissioned portraiture. Some of her experiences living in the illustrious Hotel Chelsea are documented in an interview that took place in 2006, three years before the hotel closed. Hanson lives with her artist husband Hawk Alfredson, whom she met in 1997. They live in Washington Heights, New York City. An interview with Alfredson, and a gallery of his paintings, appears here:
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Ragazine: To begin with, how did you happen to move into the Hotel Chelsea?
Mia Hanson: Hawk and I met in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in 1997- four years before we moved into the Hotel. We lived in Sweden two years after we met and decided to come back to NYC in 2001 since we soon missed the charged energy of the city. For our homecoming week, we decided to try out being Hotel Chelsea guests since we hadn’t nailed down an apartment of our own yet. It took about a day for me to realize that I didn’t want to live anywhere else in NYC but the Hotel.
Everyone we knew just assumed this wasn’t possible since we had little money and knew not a soul in the building. But I grew attached to the place quickly and knew the Hotel wanted us there. It’s a sentient building. Everyone who lives there will agree with this. If the building doesn’t like you, you will be driven mad. After the firm decision that the Hotel would be our new home, it was obvious that the next step would be to talk to owner and operations manager Stanley Bard. “Talk to Stanley about it”- that was the catch-all phrase for everything Hotel Chelsea. One day we made an appointment to show Stanley our respective art portfolios and he then immediately showed us a couple rooms from which we chose #421- located on the north-facing side, with the balconies out front. Then, we may have spoken briefly about monthly rent…and before we knew it we had the keys and were hanging up Hawk’s paintings sporadically on all 10 floors wherever there was open wall space to be found!
© 2003 Barbra Walker
Hawk & Mia, Room 421, Hotel Chelsea
Q: What was it like when you first moved in?
A: Day One kind of felt like all the Hotel days to me which was generally friendly, with an overall upbeat busy energy to the place, bordering on the chaotic at times. Even if there was a Hotel resident on the 9th floor and you lived on the 4th…they were still your neighbor in every regard. We got to closely know so many of the people who lived there and we still keep in touch with many. Everyone had a unique and diverse story. Film composers, fashion photographers, musicians, even a trans-gender cabaret performer, a U.N. associate diplomat and a kabuki knife-wielding expressionist painter!
Mia Hanson Photography, V10 N5
All images copyright Mia Hanson. Used with permission.
Q: How did the Hotel affect your photographic work?
A: There were two scenic aspects of the Hotel that I really liked to work with. The Hotel’s top floor skylight and the rooftop private garden that belonged to an eccentric cabaret raconteur for many years. The sun energizes me creatively and I like to work with it. While growing up in California, I took varying degrees of sunlight for granted most times and created photo shoots that utilized theatrical lighting both indoors and out as a way of separating myself from the sun-loving culture. It didn’t take long to realize that my most poetic images were photographed outside, in nature, utilizing sun and shadow. While at the Hotel I realized that the sun is my best creative partner. My photographs really started to feel more sensual and personal because of this, I believe.
Terezka, Hotel Chelsea rooftop, 2004, photo by Mia Hanson
Q: What do you look for through the lens when setting up a portrait?
A: I try to find the soul of the person in front of me. I try to find the essence of what makes them unique.
Q: Do you approach different people in different ways during a shoot?
A: Yes, every person requires a different approach. Not only are they entering my visual world but I am being allowed to enter theirs as well. Usually, this requires delicacy. Some I approach carefully if I know they are usually reticent with exposing themselves intimately either physically or emotionally. Others I can play with freely and guide them into uncomfortable positions. It all depends on what a person might be looking for while being photographed. The person in front of the camera has needs and goals for the shoot, too.
Q: What has been Hawk’s influence on you as a person and photographer? Can you imagine how your life and career would have evolved if you had not met?
A: We have been together now for 17 years and he has definitely helped to develop and sharpen my creative eye in many ways. We like to play a game of observation sometimes. He will ask me to study a newly finished canvas. Then a day later he will put a singular dot of paint somewhere unexpected and I must find where he placed it. (Hawk comments: She almost always find it, or if I change the colour in an area, or change the shape of something, even if it’s very subtle… she’ll usually finds it.)
Q: If you were able to work with any photographer living or dead, who would it be, and why?
A: First I would take the living. French fine-art photographer Sarah Moon, for example, or Italian Paolo Roversi. I feel these two photographers greatly exemplify the achievement of the elegant, mysterious and the sublime when photographing a person. They always maintain a fierce standard of authenticity while continuing to mystify their audience in beautiful ways.
To go back in time and visit the era of Weimar Germany through the lense of Baron Adolph De Meyer would be unforgettable. Sarah Moon has looked closely at De Meyers work, I believe.
The iconographic ideal of the feminine woman is represented by De Meyer and Moon with great ethereal glamour. Sarah Moon was a fashion model in the ’60s and became an influential fashion photographer by the mid-’70s. She’s known for bringing the “gamine-look” (of the turn-of-the-century) back into style with the pale-faced make-up, shadowy eyes and red doll-like lips. De Meyer was a homosexual man living and working in Germany at a time when being gay was a death-sentence for many; invalids and homosexuals were targeted for death camps in the ’30s along with people of of Jewish descent. I think both Moon and De Meyer are/were searching for their idealized feminine self with every photograph taken.
Q: The feminine form is well represented in your work…?
A: Most likely this can be attributed to the former situation. A search for the idealized feminine self. Now that I am in my mid-40’s, that search has narrowed to simply include a poetic representation of the idealized feminine self. I’m not searching for the mysteries of femininity any longer. There’s a wider angle to the “Unknown” as we mature. Can any camera capture this? That is a realm worth exploring.
Q: What camera equipment do you shoot with?
A: For my personal work, I shoot film. The cameras I have that accept film are a Mamiya (twin lense) that was purchased in Sweden by Hawk’s father in the 1950s. Also, I like working with the lenseless Holga camera – for it’s uncomplicated poetic nature.
The camera is just the groundwork of a photograph. The photographer from there must establish a sense of his or her own presence in the choice of diffusion lenses or diffusion materials as well as printing techniques.
Q: What is the best professional advice you have ever received as a photographer?
A: The best piece of advice took me nearly 20 years to assimilate and it came from a prominent gallery owner in Los Angeles, who only now I recognize as a wise man. The advice was to understand myself as a photographer who methodically works for the long-term to develop meaningful work. At the time I was 25 years old and had moved to NYC from San Francisco to continue my photographic studies while simultaneously landing commercial work. I took his words to be cryptic and unhelpful. But in retrospect, I am living the life he told me I would have. And it’s not a bad life at all. I set my own pace. I follow my own path.
Hawk Alfredson’s page can be seen here:
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About the interviewer:
Michael Foldes is founder and managing editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.
This interview was conducted via email between February and July 2014.
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August 29, 2014 Comments Off on Mia Hanson, Photographer/Interview
The Ultimate Responsibility
by Steve Poleskie
A reader of my previous columns wanted to know about the time I saved Peter O’Toole from being kicked out of a New York City artist’s bar. The majority of comments I got, however, were about my aviation opinions, so I will continue with that topic and save saving Peter for another time. Several people remarked that I had come down too hard on the pilots when, after all, a flight is rather a team effort. I couldn’t agree more.
An airline captain is not unlike the quarterback of a football team, who often takes the heat for a loss, even though he was sitting on the bench when the defense blew the game. One of the captain’s problems is that he often lacks information, some of which he is not given, or he has no access to, which is oftentimes vital to the completion of his flight. Nevertheless, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) it is the “pilot in command” who bears the “ultimate responsibility” for the safety of the flight. Unlike many general aviation pilots, the term applied to non-commercial aviation pilots, who often own their own airplane and therefore might have some “hands-on” experience, the airline pilot probably has little or no knowledge of the aircraft they are flying. How could they? An airliner is a vast and complex machine that requires many skilled, licensed mechanics to maintain.
When I took a course to prepare for my Air Transport Pilot written examination we studied for a test based on flying a Boeing 727 airliner. Many of the questions were about things like how many life jackets one should have on board. We were warned that one of the questions on the test, a weight and balance problem, did not have a correct answer in the multiple choices. If you got this problem on your copy of the exam, you should check the answer we were given and should not bother trying to figure it out. I got the question, and could not believe that the FAA would be so stupid as to give out a wrong answer, so tried to work out the correct answer. I could not come up with any of the numbers among the listed possibilities, so chose the one closest to what I had computed. This was incorrect. I scored a 98 on the exam.
The erroneous weight and balance was the only question that I got wrong. I did learn a few things about the Boeing 727 which made me never want to go on one. Most startling was the matter of how the pilot should use the “bleed air” function. It seems that when the 727 was being designed the FAA still allowed airplanes with only two engines to venture out across vast bodies of water. But in the middle of things the rule was changed. And so the designers hastily added a third engine, the one you can see stuck up on the tail. All well and good, except during the take-off. As the aircraft is rotated, just when it needs all the power it can get, the fuselage blocks the airflow to the engine mounted in the center. This is the time when the pilot should turn on the “bleed air” to suck a little oxygen from those two engines on the sides of the fuselage—hoping that there is enough to go around.
A few casual observations from the special course I went to in Norfolk, Virginia to prepare for the Air Transport Pilots exam. On the first break it was apparent there were three distinct groups here, ranked in their own order of perceived importance: the military pilots, airline pilots and finally general aviation pilots. There was also a group of black pilots wearing that knock-off casual wear that indicated it did not come from the country it was supposed to: for example “Brooklyn Yankees” jackets. As this group always seemed to keep to themselves, I decided to venture over and start a conversation. One of the men told me that they were captains for a Nigerian airline and flew from Lagos to London. Since they were in a class preparing to take the ATP exam, I asked how they could be captains without an Air Transport Pilot Rating. I still remember the man’s answer — told with a big smile, so I am not sure if he was putting me on or not: “Well, we were all co-pilots, and we had a big revolution in our country, and all the captains, they all supported the side that lost, so they were killed, and we became the captains, now we are here to get the proper license.”
Incredibly, for a group of high-time pilots who were about to become captains, I found some of the questions asked in the discussion periods rather basic. The kind of thing I picked up many years ago, when I was a model airplane builder. I have owned five airplanes in my life, but never more than two at a time. I’ve always worked on my airplanes, of course supervised by a licensed mechanic as required by the FAA. This is not unusual for an owner pilot. I am not saying that knowing how to fix an airplane makes you a better pilot, but it is helpful to know how things work. The airplane I used to fly airshows and aerobatic competitions, a Pitts Special bi-plane, I totally rebuilt myself, after buying it from a well-known stunt pilot in Nebraska. A fabric-covered airplane, I took it down to the bare structure, replaced the engine, propeller and other worn parts, recovered and repainted the components, and then reassembled and re-rigged the airframe, being overseen by a licensed mechanic of course, and having it passed by a FAA inspector.
Few people have experienced the sensation of going aloft for the first time in an airplane you have put together yourself. You wonder about the hundreds of bolts and screws, some in very key places, that you have installed with your own hands. In the air now, I proceed carefully. The takeoff and climb out were uneventful. Let’s try a few shallow turns; all well and good. Things are proceeding normally, but this is supposed to be a stunt airplane. I try a few rolls, beginning with a simple barrel roll. Next comes some aileron rolls: regular, slow, four-point, and eight-point. The airplane seems to be doing okay, but my timing is off, not having flown my Pitts Special since I began rebuilding it six months ago. Let’s try a loop. I line up with the runway, in this case Zeuhl Field, a private airport outside of San Antonio, Texas, which has a zone approved for aerobatic flight.
I can see about a dozen or so people standing outside the hangar where I assembled my airplane, some of whom helped me with it. They have come to see the test flight. Diving the airplane slightly to pick up speed, I watch for 140 MPH and haul back on the control stick, pulling about 4Gs. I want an easy loop, no sense ripping the wings off just yet. The airplane goes vertical and then over on its back. In the inverted position I relax the stick pressure so the loop will not seem egg-shaped. I play around a bit, doing Cuban-eights, Immelmans, and other maneuvers, feeling happy to have my bi-plane back in the sky. But the real test is yet to come — the spin.
I climb for more altitude. It is best to begin this maneuver high enough so you can use the parachute you’re wearing to bail out if the airplane won’t come out of the spin. Now a well-rigged aircraft should recover from a spin on command. But who put this airplane together? Me. I retard the throttle to fast idle, while gently pulling back on the control stick to raise the nose above the horizon. The airplane slows to stall speed, that speed at which the wings can no longer generate lift. I feel the stall buffet; this airplane has no stall warning horn like airliners do. Holding the ailerons neutral, I boot in full left rudder. The right wing comes up and the nose drops and the biplane falls off into a left rotating spin. The aircraft is pointed at the ground and beginning to revolve around its horizontal axis with increasing velocity. I only want one turn, so pop the stick forward and apply opposite rudder. The thing stops on a dime. Relieved, I climb back up to altitude and try a whole series, left and right, two and three turns, but I am not yet confident enough in the airplane to try inverted spins. I will save this for another time. I land, a little bouncy as I am out of practice, then taxi slowly up to my hangar and cut the engine. My friends greet me — they are as happy to see me as I them.
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About the author: Stephen Poleskie is a writer, artist and former aviator. He has flown in numerous airshows and aerobatic competitions and has a trunk full of trophies in his garage to show for it. He has held an Air Transport Pilot license. His artworks are in the collections of numerous museums, including the MoMA and the Metropolitan in NYC. His writing has appeared in journals in Australia, Czech Republic, Germany, India, Italy, Mexico, UK, and the USA. He has published seven novels, the most recent being Foozler Runs. He lives in Ithaca, N.Y., with his wife the author Jeanne Mackin. Web site: www.StephenPoleskie.com
June 28, 2014 Comments Off on Now & Then/Steve Poleskie
by Bill Dixon
I’m a guitar guy. Frankly, my guitar playing isn’t very good, but I love the instruments themselves, and I love to sing along with other voices. I bought my first guitar when I was thirteen, with money I earned working part-time in a neighborhood used bookstore, near The Ohio State University. The guitar was a wreck, and I’m sure that the pawn broker was glad to get rid of it for twenty bucks. He offered to sell me a dilapidated case that would fit it, for another five dollars. I told him I didn’t have another five dollars. All I had left was bus fare back to my neighborhood. He looked me over for a minute, and told me the case was on him. Astonished, I thanked him, and put my guitar into the case. Two of the four latches on the case worked, and I secured my prize. Riding home on the bus, I glanced at my fellow passengers periodically, as I proudly held my new guitar on my lap. I tried to look like a musician, but I don’t think anyone actually bought that.
In those distant days, they “taught” music in elementary schools, or at least the one I attended. Music class was once a week, and outside of recess, physical education and lunch, I think it was my favorite class. I saw lunch as a class, by the way. I got to meet, sit with, and talk to kids that lived too far away from my house to easily do so otherwise, and I moved around a lot at lunch, to do just that. In music class, about all we did was sing songs that most of the kids already knew, from exposure to them outside of school, although we also had songbooks we could refer to. We didn’t learn how to read music, or anything about music theory, but we all sang songs together, as a group. I loved singing with the other kids, so that was good enough for me.
As there would be in any group, there was lots of variation in each individual’s ability to carry a tune. Some kids were pretty good at that, but others were just not cut out for singing at all. Everyone eventually learned their musical limitations, without anyone actually having to tell them what those limitations were. That was long before building a student’s self-esteem was more important than teaching them to face harsh reality. As a result, the not-so-hot-singing folks of that era, as adults, only burst into song after having had entirely too much to drink. As I got used to singing in a group, it became apparent that if your voice could handle it, there were plenty of varying ways to sing a song. I experimented a lot with harmony, mostly because it added a degree of depth to the songs we sang, and it was different from what most of the other kids were doing. I prized individuality, and I could freely experiment with options, while I was singing with fifty or so other kids. I’d start out singing at a low volume, to see how my experimental option sounded in my head. If it didn’t turn out to be a successful experiment, I’d try out something else. If that was interesting, dead-on or particularly melodic, I’d increase my volume, and test it in different parts of the song, at volume. I should also point out that I had a big advantage in my musical education over most of the other kids.
At home, we had a huge, old, free-standing, wood-cased, Philco radio, located in my mom’s sewing room. Since she was a seamstress, she spent a lot of time there. So did I, before I was old enough to go to school. After I had started school, I stayed in during spells of bad weather or high pollen counts. I’d stay in the sewing room with my mom, and sing along with the songs on the radio and with her. That was because I was asthmatic as kid, and had to avoid the things I was allergic to, like pollen, so my sing-alongs happened fairly regularly. Mom especially liked The Weavers, and we heard them frequently on our favorite morning radio show in Columbus, Ohio. Those were sing-along songs, absolutely. Many of the songs they sang were originally written and sung by Huddie Ledbetter, more commonly known as “Leadbelly”. Leadbelly died in 1949, but his music lives on today. I especially liked singing along with “Rock Island Line”, ”Good Night Irene”, “Midnight Special” and other Leadbelly songs. The Weavers had a user-friendly harmony going on in their presentation, and it invited participation, as did the Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger songs they also sang. I participated, too. The Weavers’ voices weren’t intimidatingly professional: they sang just like us, and they sang for pleasure, I suspect, more than for money. You could hear that in their singing, even if you were just a kid. Anyway, those experiences helped me enjoy my later music classes. Everyone at my elementary school got a passing grade in music, by the way. In the process, however, you also realized whether or not you could carry a tune. Those group singing experiences hooked me on folk music and sing-alongs, and I’ve never gotten over it. I don’t want to get over it, of course. I enjoy it way too much.
After I got my first guitar, the beat-to-hell old Kay from a Columbus pawn shop, I started playing guitar with a friend, who knew how to tune and play a guitar. Once I gained enough skills to play a few songs, I practiced and practiced, until I could accompany myself. Once my fingertips were calloused enough to not ache or bleed, I started to learn a few additional chord progressions, and added some more songs to my repertoire. Part of the skills advancement process involved sneaking into coffee houses and campus-area bars, to listen to folk singers who were playing there, and learning their songs. You had to be eighteen to be in a bar, and I was two or three years away from that. It was a year or more until I got confident enough, and worked up the courage to start playing and singing on open-mic stages in the two coffee houses across the street from the University. In one of the coffee houses, The Avant Guard, or was it The Sacred Mushroom? I’d made enough surreptitious visits to both, that I became a fairly familiar face to some of the people who showed up regularly. That made it a little easier, but getting up on a stage in front of people and performing for them was a fairly daunting task for me. The crowd consisted mostly of old hippies or Folkie wannabes, equipped with beards, black turtlenecks and Camel cigarettes. They were a pretty easy group to please, comparatively speaking. Maybe they were just being kind to an earnest kid.
About everyone performing there was fairly amateurish, with the exception of Phil Ochs, who was a Journalism student at Ohio State. He was very good indeed. He always seemed to be wearing a mid-length black leather jacket, grubby Levis and be badly in need of a shampoo. He looked the part. As a secret high school student, masquerading as a college boy, I was way too clean-cut looking to pass as a genuine Folkie. Phil was doing some real gigs, where he actually got paid to perform, and he was writing his own songs. It was probably my imagination, but it seemed to me he saw through my thin disguise. He wasn’t a very friendly guy, so outside of a comradely nod of my head, as we saw each other, there was no additional communication. I don’t recall him ever nodding back to me. Actually, I don’t remember him talking to anyone else at the coffee houses either, but he’d thank people as a group, for their applause after each of his beautifully-crafted songs concluded. He always came in just at his scheduled time to sing, and he always left as soon as he finished his last song. It wasn’t too long afterward until I heard that Phil had headed for New York, and I never saw him in person again.
This brings me to what inspired this article. As I said, I’m a guitar guy. I collect guitars, and in the process of buying them, sell or trade the ones I decide I don’t want to keep, to other guitar deviates. I wrote a book about that a few years ago. In a recent pursuit of a cache of stringed instruments I heard about in St Pete, Florida, where I live in the winter, Phil Ochs surfaced again, but not in the flesh. He’d committed suicide years before, sadly. The collection of stringed instruments contained all sorts of things. The former owner had died, and the person liquidating his estate sold me all the stringed instruments and associated items as a lot; guitars, mandolins, ukes, lap steels, accessories, books, and so on. In the load of stuff I ended up with, I found a single copy of “Sing Out,” a magazine devoted to folk music. It was dated March 1965. On the cover was a photo of Leadbelly, clutching his twelve-string Stella guitar, and looking menacing. The lead story in the magazine was about him. Inside, there were lyrics to “Draft Dodger Rag” one of Phil’s songs, copyrighted in 1964, and a couple mentions of Phil in one of the minor articles. In that issue, Bob Dylan quotes, stories and news seem to be widespread in the magazine. It gave me the impression that Phil’s career was already fading in 1965. Hell: he got to New York before Dylan did, and had a much better voice! I then went to U-tube, and listened to Phil sing some of his songs, but those performances were mostly duets done with other folkies. He still needed to wash his hair, in the U-tube photographs and film strips, I noticed. The whole thing made me sad, although I already knew Phil’s story. I really liked his stuff, and I played and sang lots of it, over the years. Here was Phil resurfacing again, in an old magazine, and it brought back memories from a time long gone. As I listened to the music, I closed my eyes, and drifted back to the Avant Guard, and the Sacred Mushroom until the songs were over. So long again, Phil, from the flat-topped, high school kid back in the corner, with the black turtle neck and the raggedy old Kay guitar.
I guess that my life-long association with folk music and singing along with other like-minded souls is going to stick with me for as long as I’m around. I’m still singing and playing guitar with my friends here in Florida, during the winter, and with my Maine friends in the summer, every chance I get. When my old roomie and singing partner, Bob, makes his way to my door, or I to his, in San Diego, we go right back to the stuff we did all those years ago. We always pretend to argue about whether we called ourselves Bill and Bob, (my recollection), or Bob and Bill, (his). We played in the University area bars, mostly, when we were students, but when we visited one of our other guitar pals in Michigan, we also played in a saloon there, later in life. We only had one constant fan there, a rather peculiar lady, who knitted while she sat in the front row center chair. She never gave any sign that she noticed us, just clicked away with her knitting needles, but she always showed up. She concentrated on her knitting, and never said a word. Still, a fan is a fan, and as such, should be treated as a jewel, resting on the cushion of gratitude.
When I was playing guitar and singing with other people who sang and played along, I was always completely and perfectly happy. In my estimation, singing together as a group is a very intimate experience: much more so than almost anything else. There’s a mutual sense of purpose and communion, and in my case at least, no small amount of joy. There’s no reserve. You give it all you’ve got. Still, there’s no disappointment when you can’t reach a note or flub one, miss a word or even a verse. You’re all in it together, and that’s the real harmony in music. I’m going back to U-tube now, and sing a song with Phil Ochs, again. A little later, maybe I’ll travel, by mental time machine, to the Avant Guard, or the Mushroom, and do the open mic night show. “Thanks for listening, folks”, and I’ll say to the crowd, after my first song, and when it’s my turn to do another, “Now, let’s all sing one together. I’ll bet everyone knows ‘Hard Travelin’, by Woody Guthrie.”
Everyone will know it, and we’ll all sing along…. Together.
About the author:
Bill Dixon is author of Disorderly Conduct, a book about the group he hung with in the 1960s at Ohio State, and Guitar Collecting, a niche book about building a collection with minimal investment. Besides being a writer, his varied background includes artist, bank CEO, teacher, bartender/bouncer, zoo keeper, iron worker, political campaign manager, musician, real estate manager and smuggler of Russian Icons out of Eastern Europe. He spends his time these days pretty much between Maine and Florida. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
April 28, 2014 Comments Off on From the Edge/Bill Dixon
View from the North
by J.H. Mae
The first snowflakes of winter have started to fall. Sometimes, the first snowfall comes in a crushing, swirling blizzard around Halloween. This year, it’s arriving gradually, with tiny flakes that float in the November air and dust the grass like confectioner’s sugar.
Summer lingered well into early October, gratefully. But once the wind took away the autumn leaves, the cold came and with the cold came the comments: “Guess winter’s on its way!” “I’m not ready for the white stuff.” “I wish I could move to Florida.”“Cold out there!” People act like the snow is a surprise. Of course, this is all small talk with little meaning, meant to fill awkward spaces as people wait in line at the grocery store or in the elevator.
The ushering in of the cold means we all have to change gears; there are preparations to be made. Fill the fuel tank in November, put up the thermal curtains on the windows and pack up the garden. Outfit the car with snow tires and put a survival kit in the trunk. Restock candles and canned food and gallons of water. Dig out winter coats, sweaters, mittens, snow boats, wool socks, thermal underwear.
Most importantly, we ready for five solid months spent indoors, carefully planning any outings based on the 10-day weather forecast. Planning a shopping trip for this weekend? Well, if a squall is coming in, that will have to be postponed.
Winter is terribly inconvenient.
In early January 1998, five small ice storm systems converged over the far northeast US and stalled for 80 hours, dropping freezing rain and drizzle across Eastern Ontario, southern Quebec, northern New York and northern New England all the way to Maine. I was almost 15 years old at the time; my father was away on a Tour of Duty so my mother, 12-year-old sister and I faced two weeks alone without power.
I remember feeling small and that nature was this enormous, indifferent force. One night, after days of freezing rain, the trees began to crack under the weight of two inches of ice. The three of us huddled in my mother’s bed in our pajamas, holding each other and listening to the trees break and crash to the ground, invisible in the dark.
By morning, the power was out. A cold, dark house void of the constant electric humming of modern life is an eerie thing.
In a pale dawn light and with an alien world outside, we packed up our necessities – including our favorite Christmas presents – and walked down the road to my Aunt Kathy’s house; she had a generator. One thing resounds in my memory of that walk: silence – eternal and penetrating. The snow was encased in ice; it covered the road so thickly that you couldn’t discern asphalt from farm field. Our feet slid dangerously – we were instructed to skate, not walk. In the distance, trees continued to crash and fall, the birch branches curved like gymnasts to the ground under the weight of the ice .
The world had transformed into a black and white photo: white snow cut by the intermittent scratches of black trunks and those bizarre bent branches. It was frightening but beautiful.
The next two weeks were spent cut off from the world, dependent upon generators, washing in eight ounces of water, swallowed by deep darkness and deeper quiet. We busied ourselves with conversation, puzzles, books and Discmans with draining batteries, and of course, arguments.
The Ice Storm is a rather drastic account of winter’s worst but it can still be a nightmare in the best of seasons. Blizzards hit during the morning commute. At the end of the day, a foot of wet snow covers the cars, which takes 20 minutes and a pair of soggy gloves to sweep off. Everyone must shovel a walkway to the driveway, and then plow the driveway, just to get anywhere. People rely on state, county and town to keep the roads clear; usually, they fail. And heating the house in winter requires many to choose between warmth and medicine.
But all this isn’t unexpected. It happens every year, November to March, and yet people still moan and groan on its approach, as if that can reset time back to May. People kick, spit and fight their way to the first snowstorm.
This routine, of a coming winter and the pointless dread it inspires, mimics the rhythm of life.
Summer gives us the good days, where we frolic in sunshine, strain our muscles in the garden, play and drink lemonade on the patio. Autumn is beautiful, the death of the leaves a brilliant display that eases us into winter with a smile. The cold returns us to reality, forces us to prepare and survive and sacrifice; it makes us suffer under a dim sun and eight feet of snow. And then spring is a joy, the world awakening gradually, the days growing longer and the sun stronger; people begin to feel a resurrection in their bones and mind.
Isn’t that life? We live through sun and storm, in turn.
But people insist on complaining, evidently blind to the fact that no level of indignation can make the snow melt. People who complain about the weather are unable to accept the great forces of the world, forces that do not sway according to the whims of man. They can’t just go with the flow.
I can understand the distaste for winter. It drastically changes everyday life. We spend five minutes putting on warm clothes just to go out to the mailbox. Dirty, melted slush coats everything, everywhere. The wind blows at 10 below and peels off unprotected skin. By the end of winter, we feel imprisoned, powerless to move the seasons forward faster, out of the deep snow and into sunshine.
People complain because winter bosses them around. But then again, isn’t it a reminder that forces exist outside our own selfish minds? That we are not alone but part of a much bigger world that turns and turns without our interference? I take comfort in the notion of being small. The ice storm reminded me of my smallness, of the immensity of the world around me. It snapped me out of my teenage belief that my problems were the most important thing in the world.
I don’t fight the winter because there are only two brief windows of time during the year that I truly don’t like. The first are those weeks between the sudden disappearance of autumn leaves and the inevitable arrival of snow. I don’t like the bare, brown trees and brown grass. The second is the time after the snow melts, which renders the entire world a landscape of brown mud and soggy grass before spring officially arrives. Snow makes the world look fresh and clean; it insulates the air from biting cold; it’s a reminder that I can relax. There isn’t much you can do in the winter but stay inside and stay warm.
Winter – and any hardship – makes the summer warmer, the sun brighter, the long days longer. We can’t have freedom without imprisonment, warm without cold, light without dark. And it doesn’t matter what we do, the snow will fall even if we don’t want it to. Best just watch the flakes float to the ground, graceful as dancers, and marvel in their beauty.
Or, you can just go to Florida, and leave everyone else in peace.
About the author:
J.H. Mae is a feature journalist, columnist and short fiction writer based in rural New York.
December 31, 2013 Comments Off on JH Mae/View from the North
Sweet Jesus With a Handbag
For starters, I should state the fact that I am not religious person. I grew up in an Eastern Orthodox environment, but it appears that not much has rubbed off on me. Probably my only religious practice occurred when I was in middle school and I was praying everyday before classes so that I would get through the day without being bullied. I quickly realized my method wasn’t at all effective, so I gave it up, and along with it, my interaction with the church. I haven’t found any use for it ever since, especially in the abusive and despotic form it presents itself in the part of the world where I come from. It’s either their way or… nothing; there isn’t even a highway. I am still shocked, even to this day, how rigid the Christian Church has remained and how its leaders constantly think there is a place for them to interfere in the social and political issues of the country. Indeed there was a period when the heads of the church used to exercise considerably more power than the kings and princes, but let’s not forget that that time was called the Middle Ages. I personally like to think that we as well-rounded human beings have evolved since then, even if it’s just a tad bit.
However, I do not condone any form of blasphemous behavior. A few weeks ago, having fallen under the momentary spell of facebook, I liked a page showcasing the rivalry between science and religion, obviously in the favor of the former. Some of the stuff they were posting was somewhat interesting, but over the following few days I found more and more pictures that presented Jesus plastered all over in very common situations from a karaoke stage to a football field. I found that to be in bad taste so I instantly unliked it. I am not even sure if I can ever convince myself that Jesus, as he is presented by the Bible, actually existed. Nevertheless, others believe in it with all their hearts and souls and they let this belief rule their spiritual lives. Regardless of our own convictions, we really should be able to let others believe in what they want. I do understand the vital role that religion plays in people’s lives and I will never let my remote state of atheism blind me to the spiritual benefits that believing in something can bring.
“And what do religion and the church have to do with being gay?” you may ask me. Well, in that case my answer would be “Nothing at all!” I have given this topic quite a lot of thought, especially since the gay marriage topic has become hot once again and more states have legally allowed it. Many others have done research and held endless debates on the matter, so I’m not going to dish out extensive analyses of biblical texts in order to back up my argument. It has been said and even proven that the current versions of the Bible and the testaments are by no means the original ones. They have been modified and translated from one language to another throughout the centuries, so that they accommodated the religious beliefs of the time. So to me it would seem irrational to use ancient forged texts as a tool of shaping modern-day society. But, some are still doing it and see nothing wrong in their ways.
It is no secret that the church dismisses the idea of homosexuality, not even to mention gay marriage. I suppose they have their own more or less rational reasons for doing so, and we, the dismissed ones, have been regarding their contempt-filled attitude in a tongue-in-cheek manner for many years. I know a good number of gay men and women who attend the gay church and who have managed to extract the exact essence of Christianity and have implemented it in their religious beliefs. I do admire people with a strong spiritual side and I am glad that they can find their refuge and comfort in it. However, I’m not so sure what the clergy has to say about it.
Now I would like to tackle a topic that has been puzzling me for some time, namely the church’s opposition to gay marriage. I think that it has been stated enough that marriage is only the union between a man and a woman. We don’t need to get into that yet again. In their eyes this may be true, and I personally have nothing against this definition being applicable only for heterosexual couples. But since we are gay, and until a few years ago there had been no known precedent in history for gay marriages, I don’t think we should be following the same rules.
We have just as much of a right to make our own ways of doing things as heterosexual couples, and that does not involve the church in any way. More so, the whole idea of same-sex marriages is not to take away from the traditional values of straight unions and how the church perceives them; actually it has nothing to do with them. Gay marriages are about freedom and equality in the face of the law, not the church. They are not about stealing and mutating traditional values and concepts. When two men or two women get married, heterosexual couples don’t become less married nor does their union dissolve. In fact, nothing happens to them, because they are not involved in any way. So then why does the church oppose it so much? Well, to be quite frank, I don’t have much of an answer. As a matter of fact, neither do they, aside from, someone once said that it’s wrong (and then put it in one version or another of a testament or bible). I can counter that feeble argument by invoking those who claim that Jesus himself was gay, and in fact bring proof for it. But as I’ve already stated, it’s not my intention to be blasphemous, so I will not join those who accuse the Savior of one of the greatest sins in the Christian faith.
It’s funny though how the religious leaders are so against something whose existence they don’t even acknowledge as being mainstream. I mean, they preach homosexuality as being a disease/sin that needs to be cured/repented, which can only mean that this is but a deviation from their normality. However, this “deviation” has many followers and is now under the protection of the law, and this resonates to the depths of religious convictions. If the law recognizes it, there must be something to it…
All in all, the fact of the matter remains that marriage is mainly an institution of the state, not the church. More and more people opt to not perform a religious ceremony due to their own reasons and beliefs. People can walk down the aisle as many times as they want, but if they don’t make a quick stop at City Hall to get their marriage certificate, it’s all in vain. So basically, the religious ceremony is just an optional thing that people perform because of its traditional value. But gay people don’t really care about that. Gay men don’t fantasize about wearing white suits and carrying bouquets nor do lesbians dream about wearing pantsuits and army boots as they walk down the aisle, as it is often stereotypically depicted. We just want to have the same rights as everyone else, including the one to marry whomever we choose, and consequently to hold a ceremony in whichever fashion we desire. Should the church not permit us to perform it on their premises, as it is the case in most situations, then we’ll opt for a secluded beach, a mountain top or our own back yard, just like countless other heterosexual couples. So therefore, since the religious institutions don’t have jurisdiction over the entire planet, their representatives should not be lobbying against us and our marriages. It doesn’t make much sense, either way you regard it. Truth be told, I don’t want my marriage to be recognized in eyes of a god I don’t believe in, and who furthermore might not approve of my lifestyle, according to some. So, live and let live people, it’s makes things so much simpler.
About the author:
Mircea Filimon contributes and edits the “Gay Life” column for Ragazine.CC. You can find out more about him in “About Us.”
April 27, 2013 Comments Off on Mircea Filimon/Gay Life
What makes ‘a gay’?
By Mircea Filimon
It’s been a while now since I started asking myself the same question over and over again. ‘What makes a gay?’ I’ve researched and read, watched and listened, asked and then asked some more, and I still couldn’t come up with an all-comprising answer that would satisfy me. My first and most convenient resource was simply looking within myself. However, I soon realized I was embarking on a rather subjective and misleading path, that would barely provide a partial answer to the question ‘What makes me?’, let alone enlighten me on the topic of gay identity. So I abandoned it.
I am very well aware that we are all different individuals and we all construct our identity in our own personal manner. Yet, I still have a feeling that there is a common ground that ties us all together, just like in the case of other minorities, that have been more or less ghettoized and stereotyped. If we just take a look at the decades that followed the Stonewall events, it’s pretty easy to create a short retrospective of the gay image. We first started by standing up to the authorities and refusing to be ostracized any longer, we then created a movement, we strove to clean and sterilize such words as ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ and infuse them with positive connotations. We managed to start shaping an identity but over night we were mainly blamed for the irresponsible sexual behavior of both men and women and the wide spread of the ‘gay cancer.’
We then worked even harder to clear our name and orientation and when it was finally safe to do so, we started coming out of the closet in larger numbers. We felt patriotic and wanted to fight the more or less necessary wars initiated by our mother country, only to be told that we can do so under the strict condition that we don’t mention or act according to our sexual orientation. We then wanted to get married, but we were informed that as ordained by the all-mighty law, marriage was only the union between a man and woman. We again fought and lobbied even more ardently than before, and after years and years, we can finally wear fatigues without fearing that someone might sneak a peek at our rainbow colored socks. And probably the most notable achievement of all, we can now marry our beloved life partner, in select states, and enjoy a few of the benefits that others have been tarnishing and taking for granted for centuries.
But is that all that is to being gay? I very much doubt it. These are only mere pieces of the highly diverse puzzle that is homosexuality. We know what we used to be in the past, but the Garland days have long gone, so have the era of Studio 54 and the gay ’90s. Now we live in a different time, a more accepting and liberal one, or so I’d like to think. And what I would really like to know is what makes the contemporary gay man and woman. We have a collective identity for sure, but what is it?
Since we live in the era of technology and communication, it’s only logical that the media should be the first stop on the road to inquiring about gay identity. Nevertheless, the general image conveyed by the ruling forces in television and cinematography is not quite so comprising; actually, it’s bordering on insulting stereotypes. If we are to form a part of our identity according to the characters presented on both the big and flat screen, gay men are destined to be the single and frustrated best-friend of an even more disturbed leading female character, whereas lesbians are condemned to being the butchy lady in your building who sports a crew cut and fosters countless dangerous-looking dogs. And if the screenwriter really gets creative and steps outside the box, we might even end up being portrayed as fashion-obsessed effeminate scrawny little boys, who are only interested in shoes, gossip and new methods of hitting on married men, or even better, sex-crazed gym rats who spend their lives dancing topless in sleazy clubs. I am by no means denying that all of this is part of reality, however I am quite intrigued why this is chosen to be the main representation of probably the most diverse human community on the planet.
This comes of no surprise to me, since we are just a minority and usually the representation of such categories is done through the eyes of the majority, which coincides with normality, or better yet in this case, hetero-normality. Generally, one constructs his/her identity by using the way others see him/her. So does this mean that the identity of contemporary gays and lesbians should be forged according to the inaccurate representations in the media and television? I would say certainly not, but I am positively sure that there are many who fervently disagree.
Here is just a part of the things I have been observing vis-à-vis the widespread representation of gay life. I am certainly planning on keeping an eye out for any upcoming change and analyzing its impact on our constantly revolving identity. All in all, what I will be trying to achieve with this column is identifying the constituent pillars of modern day ‘gayness.’ As I am doing that, I will try my best to paint a clear picture of what I see to be the gay identity in the current social and political American environment. And most importantly of all, I urge you, my future eager readers, to get as involved as you desire, if this topic is of interest to you. Let me know what you think and how you regard these matters. The more input I receive, the more comprehensive and objective the assessment will be. And so, step by step, we can come up with what it means to be gay, outside all the restrictive stereotypes that are flouting out there. But for now, I bid you good reading.
About the author:
Mircea Filimon was born and raised in Romania. Upon completing his academic studies, he moved to Manhattan, where he currently resides with his partner. He holds two Master’s Degrees from the University of Bucharest in British Cultural Studies and Literary Translations. Mircea is working as a translator in New York City at the moment and is aiming at furthering his education in the field of cultural and identity studies. He lists reading, gardening and cooking amongst his hobbies.
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March 2, 2013 Comments Off on Mircea Filimon/Gay Life