Sunday, September 21, 2008

Magical Realism is How You Map the Human Spirit

I have been watching the entire series of Northern Exposure. I used to watch it when I was pregnant back in 1992. I've never been a network TV watcher, so the only way I ever got to watch it way back when was when my friend Eve in Eugene used to videotape it for me and send it. So there are plenty of episodes I've never seen before. I love this show so much that I'd move to Alaska if I thought there were really places like Cicely. I wish there were more TV series like this to enjoy.

Unlike in '92, this time through watching it, I have a degree in literary studies; in other words, I have a different way to appreciate this kind of art, more tools at my disposal. At times like this I am so grateful for the things I've learned. For example, I can tell you that Northern Exposure is a rare Western example of magical realism, which is the element that gave the show its particular charm.

According to the almighty Wikipedia, Magic realism, or magical realism, is an artistic genre in which magical elements or illogical scenarios appear in an otherwise realistic or even "normal" setting. Lo real maravilloso. It's all over Hispanic literature, case in point: Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I say this completely without authority, but I can't help but wonder if the Native element in Marquez et al and Northern Exposure doesn't explain it. All I can say with authority is that I like it very much.

More of what Wikipedia has to say: "It is a fusion between scientific physical reality and psychological human reality. It incorporates aspects of human existence such as thoughts, emotions, dreams, cultural mythologies and imagination1. Through this amalgamation, magic realism can be more exact in depicting human reality."

So el real maravilloso is the only really effective way to translate the human spirit to literature. Joseph Campbell would agree.

Thanks to the internet I was able to discover that I am about the millionth person to make this observation about Northern Exposure. In reading the posts of other people, I discovered that I am in the minority in thinking that the episode where Shelly gets a hysterical sickness during which she can't speak, only sing. The people discussing the show agreed this was the worst episode ever, the point at which the show began to decline. But I love that episode.

Particularly this song she sings called "The Snake." It is the most excellent metaphor, especially this line "You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in."

The Snake (by Oscar Brown)
On her way to work one morning
Down the path along side the lake
A tender hearted woman saw a poor half frozen snake
His pretty colored skin had been all frosted with the dew
"Oh well," she cried, "I'll take you in and I'll take care of you"
Chorus: "Take me in oh tender woman
Take me in, for heaven's sake
Take me in oh tender woman," sighed the snake

She wrapped him up all cozy in a curvature of silk
And then laid him by the fireside with some honey and some milk
Now she hurried home from workthat night as soon as she arrived
She found that pretty snake she'd taking in had been revived

Now she clutched him to her bosom, "You're so beautiful," she cried
"But if I hadn't brought you in by now you might have died"
Now she stroked his pretty skin and then she kissed and held him tight
But instead of saying thanks, that snake gave her a vicious bite

"I saved you," cried that woman
"And you've bitte me, but why?
You know your bite is poisonous and now I'm going to die"
"Oh shut up, silly woman," said the reptile with a grin
"You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in

Friday, September 19, 2008

Love Affair with Mack Town Part I

I love moving to a new place and having so much exploring to do. McKinleyville lends itself well to my approach. It's an ordinary-looking town, described in travel guides as "a strip mall town." But all it takes is a closer look and there is buried treasure everywhere.

Tonight I went to Art Night, which is a custom in Eureka and Arcata too (called Arts Alive and Arts Arcata, respectively). One night a month, local artists set up shows at local businesses, complete with wine, elegant snacks and live music. The businesses stay open late and the community wanders through to look at the artwork, graze, sip wine and enjoy a good social mingle.

It was so nice! The first place I went was the Grace Good Shepherd Church, where the Presbyterians and Lutherans partnered peacefully 45 years ago. There was a wall of fading sunflowers in back that I stopped to admire on my way in. As I watched the pastor emered from it (on the other side is the church garden), his arms loaded with squash and zucchini to cook up on the grill. The people there were wonderfully friendly and the food nearly upstaged the art.

Then Angela joined me and we proceeded to indulge wholeheartedly in the night's offerings.

We chatted with dozens of cool people (like Penny Dunn of Well Dunn Design).

We ate awesome food (like organic pickled pink chard!)

And we saw incredible artwork (like this glass panel at Mirador Glass-- see the studio behind it?).

More to come, stay tuned.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

My City Was Gone

My cousin Becky, who lives in Dallas and vacations in Galveston every summer just wrote an excellent blog about post-Hurricane Ike Galveston, wondering if the character of the town she loves will be lost forever.

This made me think of Santa Cruz, where I lived from 1984 to 1991. I moved away very briefly in 1989, and while I was away, the Loma Prieta Earthquake struck, 7.1 on the Richter scale and epicentered in nearby San Francisco.

Someday I will try to describe the my main Santa Cruz hang-out to you, the Pacific Garden Mall. More than a mall, it was a cultural center, open-air, tree-shaded, full of quaint shops, cafes and beer gardens, peopled by musicians, performers, hippies, street people, apocalyptic evangelists, surfers, punks, etc. I knew it like the back of my hand.
It looked something like this (picture me behind that guitar):

But when I got back from Seattle, here is what I found:

It was so disorienting. I'll try to find more pics of before and after. They did finally rebuild, but it was different. Nice, but different. And it took YEARS!

Like any other street in any other town. *yawn*

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Language Change Starts with Irritated English Teachers

I used to hate the drive to Grants Pass because I had to pass by the sign just north of Cave Junction advertising fresh "CRON" (corn). It was similarly misspelled on both sides of the road; going north or south, it was impossible to avoid being offended by this misspelling. These signs remained in place for two years.

As an English scholar, I am often irritated by misspelled signs, of course. It bugs me because sign-making is publishing, making public, writing for mass consumption. Presumably writing for mass consumption should be subject to some review.

The book I'm teaching, Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler is on its fifth printing, complete with revamped cover art. Yet it is riddled with absurd misspellings, things the spellchecker should have caught on the first printing. Couldn't they revamp the spelling in one of the reprintings?

Some mistakes are so common, so ubiquitous that they will only perpetuate more of the same. Lead when the writer means led, for example. It's for its.

In ordinary written communiques (emails, for example), I am not nearly so picky. And with the spoken word, even less so. If people spoke in perfect grammar we'd all sound like robots. Besides, I'm a Southern woman and I have an ear for the softer enunciations and such. But there are a few common mistakes in speech that particularly irritate me. Here are the top two:

Flustrated- This is not a word!! It is the illegitimate child of frustrated and flustered. Yet, the state of being the speaker is describing is indeed often a combination of these two states. So will this eventually become a word in its own right?

Another one is "All the sudden." As far as I know, it's supposed to be "all of a sudden." But really, do either of them make sense literally?

The language is changing, that's for sure, and that is what I dearly love about language. As a matter of fact, the things that bug us now may become commonplace in the future.

Update: I found this huge list of common errors that really puts me in my place, since I'm sure I make or have made a great many of them myself. A good reminder that nobody's perfect.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Roots in West Texas

I moved away from Coahoma, Texas when I was 11. It is a small town in west Texas, population less than a thousand and probably much less when I lived there. My dad got a better job opportunity, so we started moving around through the rest of my adolescence. My parents and sister now live in central Texas, near Waco, an area I find no connection with at all. But Coahoma, with its sparseness, its sand and stones and plateaus, and its rattlesnakes and horny toads, still holds a place in my heart.

My mother is related to half the population of Coahoma, and she returns every summer for a reunion with all her many cousins and all their progeny. I have yet to attend one of these Reid Cousins Reunions, though I long to do so. Visiting hot Texas in the summertime is hard; people with MS suffer most in hot weather. But I have the cookbook they put together. I look at all the photos. I hear stories about music and food and camaraderie I wish I could participate in.

Not once but twice now these cousins have contributed scholarships to my education. Once when I was an undergrad, and once in graduate school. These modests sums mean so much to me, as I picture all these aunts and uncles, plus cousins I have never even met, taking up a collection to help and encourage us, distant kinfolk near and far, who are continuing our education. My name, the name of a middle-aged woman, comes up among all the youngsters who are embarking on their college careers. Yet I am Ritzy's daughter and considered a worthy cause. My education is a communal effort!