Life among the Treetops

As a boy I dreamed of living among treetops, whether in elaborate tree houses or simply as some humanoid primate perched on the uppermost branches. As a forty-year-old man, however, the treetops don’t seem quite so high; I now dream of flying above them. Which gets me thinking about the way perspective changes with age. It’s not that some arboreal existence wouldn’t yield its share of amazing sights, but it’s that even the big things seem smaller now. Part of this is geographic in nature, by which I mean that a huge perspective shift occurred when I moved from Union City, Tennessee, to Nashville almost fifteen years ago–two towns only three hours apart, but worlds apart demographically and size-wise. As a child, the drive across Union City felt endless. By contrast, my morning commute these days would encompass at least five of those crosstown drives of yore. Nevertheless, I feel that this shift in perspective has to do with more than just moving to a new address.

Distance and time haven’t changed. My eyes have. And I don’t even know what to attribute the change to other than age and the unavoidable broadening of understanding that accompanies it. So there are no life answers embedded in this post, just observations. Just an excuse to write. It is true that I am writing a book, and it’s what I am most excited about. But I also have a compulsion to maintain this blog. To air out random ideas from time to time. To you who have chosen to read it, bless you. Maybe across the digisphere we can reminisce together about those dusky childhood days of climbing trees and feeling like another world had been entered. I used to climb trees with my friend Bobby. He always seemed to climb a little higher. Perhaps he was more at home in those heights. In the innocent way of children, I admired his tendency to climb higher–jealousy wasn’t a thing back then. Those trees we climbed and the house that stood nearby are all gone now, but when I think of those days, I always picture the trees. No doubt they are taller in my imagination, but so what? The trees and houses of childhood are permitted to loom as large as we need them to. The survival of the memory is what matters, not the accuracy of it.

My boys love being outside. In spite of the allure of televisions and iPads, they are drawn out-of-doors. They seem unable to resist it. I sincerely hope that they are dreaming up their own little worlds in the treetops that they see. Maybe by the time Arthur is of a solid climbing size, one of the trees I’ve planted will support a little weight (I’m counting on those fertilizer stakes I hammered into the ground a few days ago). Perhaps he will imagine elaborate tree houses, or some primordial age of tree-dwelling human life, foraging among the leaves for nuts or raining down death from above on unsuspecting prey, marking out his special place in the great chain of being. Let him imagine these kinds of things.

Today, I Became a Member

Today, I put my money where my mouth is, or I bit the bullet, or I took the plunge, or I [insert over-worn idiom]: I bought a year-long membership to Nashville’s high-profile, post-office-turned-gallery Frist Center for the Visual Arts. And it feels right. Of all the things I could support, this is a thing that makes sense–for me, I mean. This is something, culturally-speaking, worth investing in. The time was right. Of course, getting the student discount didn’t hurt. But I want to believe that I’ll continue my support beyond grad school, beyond the student discount.

After purchase of said membership, I spent two-and-a-half hours wandering through the current headlining show, Treasures from the House of Alba: 500 Years of Art and Collecting. Here are some notes scrawled with a gallery pencil:

–“Being in the presence of old paintings by old masters takes me out of myself. It doesn’t matter how unmodern the work may be–when I lean in to see the gradations of fleshy pink used to describe a man’s cheekbone or the fragility of his fatigued eyes, I am transported. It happened in front of a routine portrait (the third Duke of Alba, 1628), no doubt cranked out tediously and for a healthy sum, by Peter Paul Rubens. What is it about paint that transcends the usual? Cameras may master natural color, but paint transforms the natural into the spiritual.”

–“I rounded a corner and was awestruck by a painting that had to be at least ten feet tall, positioned for maximum effect, of a man on horseback. I got lost in it, sketching it very hastily. In my sketch, the rider appears to wear a mask, and the horse has a kangaroo’s head–Guy Fawkes in the Australian outback.”

–“The feeling of standing before something 2,400 years old–the two busts: “Head of Bacchus” and “Head of a Female Divinity.””

–“Statues that seem to breathe.”

–“A first edition of Don Quixote (1605).”

I recorded these impressions in the order that I had them. The three short ones seem random, but I wanted to stay true to my format. Think of them as an ongoing narrative, often broken but always meaningful. Most of the work in the show was from the 16th century-forward, so you can imagine my surprise at suddenly standing before two ancient Roman sculptures and all the eerie feelings of passing-time that such a position stirs, staring at the head of the god of wine and revelry and knowing that not only did ancient hands form this piece but that people probably worshiped it–real breathing, bleeding human beings, like you and me! Eerie, indeed. And certain statues were so lifelike that I would be remiss to spend an evening alone with them–too many horror movies, I suppose. But then there’s the other side of that: amazement at the craftsmanship of the sculptor, to imbue a hunk of marble with such life.

As I drove away, I began to wonder why these guardians of aristocratic “treasures” saw fit to send their art collection around the world, traveling from palaces in Spain to humble Nashville, Tennessee. Was it a desperate effort to shore up revenue for a dying, or dead, social class? Life support for an outmoded hierarchical system? As skillful and admirable as the work is, it is mostly made up of portraits of aristocracy, having little relevance for the common person. Did I benefit from seeing this work? I hope so, but I’m not sure. At my most pessimistic, I see the collection as one large reminder that I am not “to the manner born,” wandering among their gaudy, gold-gilt furniture, upholstered with French tapestry fabric. But the optimistic side of myself sees history and the artistic effort of hardworking, industrious painters and sculptors. My feelings about this show are conflicted even now: there is spectacle, but is there substance?

Note: the Frist allows no photography, not even cellphone shots without flash–even the Met allows flash-free photography! I don’t like this but I abide by it. So that’s why there are no photos of the actual show. Only my crude sketch and a couple of shots of the printed program.

A Difference of Opinion

“I heard the rain impinge upon the earth, the fine incessant needles of water playing in the sodden beds.”                                                     –from “Araby,” Dubliners. James Joyce

 

Rainy days are unpopular in many circles. I hesitate to tell people that I exult in them. A close IMG_1897friend once told me I was “just trying to be different,” and so, by the tiniest of degrees, I turned further inward. The rainy day is freighted with a stigma, like introversion, as in, the loudest among us see it as undesirable. The only time a rainy day is undesirable to me is when I am caught without an umbrella, but a lack of preparation is not the fault of the rain, out there puddling the sidewalk, pattering the leaf litter, dispersing its crystalline sheets in the gray dusk.

 

I suppose rainy days do magnify the melancholy. But, oh! How they magnify the melancholy! A land beset by weather brims with readymade stories—everybody knows this. And not only stories but imaginings. I cannot be the sole dreamer who looks out at the soggy air, the soil rendered as clay, the rain-blackened bark of the sugar maple, and has visions of monsters or shady dealings or doomed romances—hints, even, of the supernatural—all with the creeping fog as backdrop, the mist as backlit scrim. In rain, there is a somber mood (believe me) that delights, ripe with that feature whose signifier has become trite with overuse: ambience.

 

If “ambience” is overused, then “atmosphere” is vague. Maybe it is better to speak of rain in terms of space, in that it creates its own space. It narrows the field of vision, brings it close. Is not the horizon more intimate when sunlight has been muted? Whether by weather or by setting. I mean “close” as in snug, accessible. Depth perception askew, we guess things closer than they are—a coyote’s bark, a scream that we tell ourselves is a mountain lion, sticks that crack under a moving body’s weight, tires sloughing “softly on wet macadam.”[1]Darkness gathers the horizon at night; rain can do it by day, often dimming the transition from sunlight to moonlight.

 

Rainy days provide space for the imagination. Everybody knows this.

 

 

[1] In Provinces of Night, William Gay describes the sound of a patrol car rolling up behind one of his characters on a rainy night. Macadam is broken stone used to pave roads. “Slough” is a beautiful verb.