Archive for December, 2011

Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt #8

The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt continues and for the first time we are looking for fish. For rules of play see the first entry, here.

Where are these pouty pisces? Use the comments to submit your answer.

High and dry. Gargoyles number 8.

I am considering moving the GSGH to its own blog, just so that people who are only interested in the hunt can follow it without having to wade through all my neo-Luddite romantic pastoralist handwringing, and those who care not a farthing for stone lions don’t have to look at so many of them. It would also be a neat way to collect and present the whole business once we’re all done with them. f you have an opinion or preference about that, feel free to comment about that, too.

I’ll just go away now, shall I?

I couldn’t prove it, but it’s likely that I am the only person in the world at whom the jazz-fusion guitarist Peter White has ever hurled a radish, not counting people related to him. Though less likely, it is also possible that I am the only person whose conversations with the singer-songwriter Al Stewart are equal in number to the occasions when I have insulted him; to be precise, in both cases that number would be two.

Al Stewart. Photo credit unknown.

Al Stewart was one of my early music heroes, and Peter White was a member of his band for twenty years before striking out on his own. Fewer and fewer younger people remember Al Stewart as years go by, but he had a number of small hits in the early ’70s — “Nostradamus” and “Roads to Moscow” from Past Present and Future — and a few big hits later in the decade — “Year of the Cat” and “On the Border” from Year of the Cat, “Time Passages”, and “Song on the Radio” from Time Passages.

Even before those latter two platinum-selling albums came out I was a devotee. Jeff’s older brother had Past Present and Future and we wore it out on the barge-sized cabinet phonograph his folks had in the living room. It is not surprising I loved it; each song on the album treated of a different decade of the 20th century. Though Al himself abjures such contrivances, it is often said of him that he invented his own genre, historic pop-rock.

Take me back in time, Al. Past Present and Future album cover image probably copyright CBS, Janus Records, or the graphic artist(s).

When Year of the Cat first hit the radio I hastened to tell Jeff that I dedicated the title song to Carolyn D., an eighth-grader on whom we both had the same secret, undeclared crush and for whom our codename was “Cat”. Jeff made what might these days be termed “whatever-face” and said, “I already dedicated that song to my cat Snowball.”

As will soon be abundantly clear, Not Getting the Effect I Hoped For is a theme that runs throughout this post.

1.

In 1985 I was in Germany, staying with a family on their farm just outside the small university town of Tübingen. When I heard that Al Stewart would be playing in nearby Reutlingen I bought a ticket and caught a train. I went by myself, but in the concert hall I sat with a young German couple whose enthusiasm for Al Stewart rivaled my own.

I believe this tour was named The Cat is Back. It supported the album Russians and Americans, one I bought but found disappointing for really spoiled-brat reasons and hadn’t played very much. I was fixated on Al’s earliest albums at that time.

When the band came onstage they tossed radishes out into the audience, Al making a joke about not having any carrots to throw — a reference to a previous album, 24 Carrots — and how they had a ton of radishes backstage. Al was thin, had long wavy hair and wore a slick shirt. They played a great concert, in my opinion, and changed up the old barnstormer “Nostradamus” in a really innovative way.

Peter White as he looked in former days wielding an axe, which was not much different from how he looked wielding a radish. Photo borrowed from LastFM, credit unknown.

Afterwards, the German kids said they were going to try to get backstage and talk to Al and invited me to join them. I don’t know how it was so easy, but we went backstage. The band were in a large dressing room, just preparing to sit down to some food. A handful of us just waltzed in there and started bugging him. A local reporter, a young woman maybe from a college paper, got in his face and asked a bunch of questions, which he was pretty gracious about answering, though I remember him saying that all he wanted to do was eat some dinner. My two young companions were dumbstruck, their eyes shining up at him like footlights, and I think they barely managed to squeak out a request for an autograph. Al sat down to eat and when it was my turn, I sat directly across the table from him and asked him — let me pause for just a moment here while I confirm with my Center of Being that I really and truly did this — asked him when he was going to get back to writing more strictly acoustic songs, like “Next Time” from Modern Times.

It had been a tough decade for artists like Al, something I hadn’t considered before opening my pie-hole. Since his big hits, punk and disco had taken over the world and the first wave of the folk revival — championed by such luminaries as Bob Dylan — had definitely spent itself, leaving Al floundering in an increasingly electronic, minimalist and forward-looking music scene with very little room to maneuver. Gentle, historic ballads weren’t moving.

Al frowned as though he’d completely forgotten about that song, and said that he didn’t know when the last time he’d played it was or whether he could even play it anymore. Peter White was standing behind Al listening, holding a radish in his hand. He said “what about ‘The Candidate’ from the new album? Do you have the new album, Russians and Americans?”

Don't remind him. Photo credit unknown, maybe RCA?

I stuttered. “Uh…Yeah, I have it, but…”

“That’s right”, said Al, visibly relieved. “That one’s completely acoustic.”

It was at this moment that Peter White assumed a playful look of disgust on his face and said something like “sure, he bought the new album but he didn’t listen to it…complains about it without even knowing what’s on it”, and then pitched a radish at my person.

It bounced off, but the indictment silenced me and loosed the voices of the band, which all rose against me as a chorus of ridicule. They riffed on Peter’s comment and chuckled, until the world began to swirl and spin in front of my eyes and everything went black. I over-exaggerate too much. Really, my moment just passed; someone else jumped in to ask him another question or beg an autograph, and I faded away and never saw myself again.

2.

The first date Angela and I went on after Mara was born was to see a much older Al Stewart play the Triple Door here in Seattle in support of his 2005 album A Beach Full of Shells. We sat in the front row. He was now a balding man with a double chin in baggy pants and comfortable shoes, but he’d only gotten better over time. In the years since I’d accosted him backstage in Germany he had made something of a comeback, and by this I mean that he started making albums again — starting with 1993′s Famous Last Words — that really sounded like Al doing what Al did best: sweet, melancholy, funny, educated, beautiful and playful songs mostly on acoustic instruments, occasionally with something louder or more produced. It was almost as though, with the pressure to chart removed and no one but his devoted fans paying any attention, he was free to remember who he was and what we all loved about his music in the first place.

Peter and Al rippin' it during one of their rare reunions. Photo borrowed from LastFM, credit unknown.

Having lost track of him after the mid ’80s, I took note of Famous Last Words, and then Al seemed to knock each album after that out of the ball park. Between the Wars (1995), Down in the Cellar (2000), and Beach Full of Shells continued what struck me as a whole new era of the best songcraft the man had ever produced.

Angela and I both enjoyed the 2005 show, so when he came back in 2008 and played the Triple Door again we went and saw him again, and this time we stood in line to have him autograph our copy of his latest album, Sparks of Ancient Light.

One of Mara's favorites, and probably Al's, too. Image copyright probably Appleseed Records or the graphic artist(s).

When our moment came, I had my speech ready. I was going to tell him I was the churl who’d impugned his artistic integrity in Reutlingen all those years ago and apologize for my behavior. Though I didn’t expect him to remember the event, I thought the story would amuse him.

Al Stewart was not amused.

I never even got to the radish part. As soon as I made reference to that concert, Al groaned and said that that tour had been terrible and that that whole year had been one of the worst years of his life. He quickly took the CD booklet out of the jewel case to sign it. He suddenly looked depressed.

Panic started to grip me. I don’t like to be the cause of anyone’s mood plummeting, but this was particularly horrifying. I had meant only to bring a lively anecdote to that brief interview and right an old wrong, and now I was making one of my cultural heroes relive a nightmare. I was making it all worse, not better.

Like a good wine, as the saying goes. Performing in Santa Monica, 2010. Image by Vandonovan licensed through Creative Commons.

Cheerfully prattling on, I insisted that the 1985 concert as I remembered it was a great one, but he wasn’t listening. He was verbally fending off the memory I had shoved under his nose. He scribbled his mark on the cover of the liner notes booklet and handed the case back to me, literally leaning toward the next person in line in an effort to be quit of me.

I stopped talking. I think Angela rolled her eyes and laughed at me all the way down the street. I’m sure it was my imagination, but as we drove away I could have sworn I heard small items like little round vegetables bouncing off the back of the car.

Rolling with the ‘Boy Reporter’

When I was eight or nine or ten, before we moved to North Carolina, I met a boy named Cam when our family went over to his family’s house on Mercer Island for dinner. Our dads worked together at a property appraisal company in Seattle. I still remember that evening. There was a girl the same age as my older sister, and another girl the same age as my younger brother, and Cameron was my age.

They had cool board games and we played lots of them that night. They were a fun family. My sister and the older girl didn’t develop any subsequent friendship, nor — understandably though perhaps not necessarily — did my brother and the younger girl, but Cam and I hit it off and were tight from the start. It is one of the only preteen friendships I ever had that I can remember the start of. It was this evening on Mercer Island. A forced dinner that none of us kids wanted to go to. We probably arrived at their house bickering, slamming car doors, dad mashing out a cigarette in the ash tray and mom giving us the Look That Put Down Back-Seat Rebellions, but when we left that night it was with promises that Cam and I would soon be allowed to meet up again.

The entrance to Fletcher Bay was the perfect setting for teenage boys to discover Tintin. Click to enlarge. Image copyright Microsoft.

To make this part of the story shorter, I’ll just say I was invited to spend a week at their summer house on Bainbridge Island. Yes, this is the OTHER Bainbridge family I mentioned when I was telling you about my island adventures with Kip and his family (here). I didn’t know Kip yet, and the little beach house Cam’s family lived in all summer on the west side of the island facing Rich Passage was my first taste of island life. Cam and I played on the beach for hours, and if it rained we played Monopoly and Mille Bornes and Yahtzee and made our own single serving pizzas out of bread, cheese and tomato paste. In the mornings we made French toast. Cam visited and stayed at our house, too, and even though I didn’t have a beach outside my bedroom window, we found stuff to do, and when it rained, we played Monopoly and Mille Bornes and Yahtzee and made triple-decker PB&Js. I loved Cam. I prayed every single night for years, Dear God, please let Cam become a Christian. (Looking back, I doubt that this monumental effort of sustained supplication was necessary on Cam’s behalf.)

When my family moved to North Carolina, Cam wrote me and I wrote him. Details about additions to our train layouts, mostly. His family sold their house on Mercer Island and bought a permanent house on Bainbridge, at the mouth of a narrow inlet. When we moved back to Bellevue, to the same house we lived in before because it hadn’t sold by the time we decided to go back west, I was old enough to ride the bus into Seattle and catch the ferry alone. Cam and I still played board games, but now we also spent hours crafting model train buildings from scratch, sometimes models of actual ones we went and studied. We also spent lots of time on the bay. After World War II the Navy had sunk some surplus landing barges right out in front of Cam’s house, and during low tides we’d row out there. We designed and built glass-bottomed boxes that we could lower over the side and stick our heads into, and with the water thus flattened we could see the rusty gunwhales covered with sponges and starfish sticking up out of the sand. We fitted the boxes with flashlights for night use. We would row far up the inlet at ebb, then ship the oars and put our boxes over, he at one end and I at the other, and drift back down with the current, watching the crabs clamber among the seaweed strands and surprised flounders suddenly fluttering off leaving a trail of disturbed sand. Once during a wicked storm we saw someone’s dinghy heading out of the bay by itself, and Cam and I donned raingear and hauled our own dinghy down to the water and chased the runaway boat down in waves that nearly overturned us.

I didn't even realize at the time that there were English translations.

By the time we were about fourteen, we were loading up the dinghy with sleeping bags and other supplies and rowing the sixty yards or so out to their family’s little sailboat, which was moored not far from the sunken barges. Swirls of light trailed after our oarstrokes as we disturbed what Cam told me was “phosphorescence”. Cam taught me a million sciencey facts like that and introduced me to a lot of fun things. And one of the things Cam introduced me to — one of the items that went into the dinghy whenever we spent the night on the sailboat besides the snacks and flashlights and pop — were Tintin books.

Professor Cuthbert Calculus following his pendulum.

I had first encountered “the boy reporter Tintin” in Spanish class in seventh grade, when I saw a Spanish copy of The Adventures of Tintin: The Shooting Star among the magazines and other materials that were there for reading practice. Then one year, Cam had discovered them (in English!) and I got hooked, starting with The Secret of the Unicorn (not the first of the Tintin books but coincidentally the one that provides the story for a computer-animated Tintin movie being released right about now). We would take a few Tintins each out to the sailboat and read them by flashlight, snickering at the clumsy antics of the detectives Thomson and Thompson — such as when one of them stumbles going through a submarine hatch and gives a warning to the other, who carefully avoids tripping but bumps his head — or the mannerisms and English phrases we thought were so funny. Hergé, as you know, was Belgian, so his adventure comics were originally drawn and published in French, but their wild popularity since the appearance of the earliest ones in the 1930s* and 1940s demanded translation into many other languages.

My younger brother caught the Tintin bug from me and began, under my tutelage, to channel every character in the books — the humor was an uncanny match to his temperament. And hitting him just when it did it went deep into his young psyche. To this day if you listen carefully you’ll notice that Ben does not say three sentences in a row without inflecting his voice à la Tintin or Captain Haddock or Thomson (and/or Thompson) or our old favorite, Professor Cuthbert Calculus.

Cover of the German version of "Prisoners of the Sun". In Germany Tintin is called "Tim".

Ben collected almost the entire set of Tintin adventures in English. For some reason I did not own any in my teens (or maybe I did but Ben ended up with them), but I picked up a few German translations in Brussels long ago when I was a traveler — Der Blaue Lotus and Der Sonnentempel –  and they’ve been kicking around my bookshelves ever since. Mara discovered them a few weeks ago and has become spellbound by them. She is not reading much on her own yet; she can sound out words and write a few things, but the font and the length of the words in the Tintin books are a challenge for her. And, oh, they’re in German. But she sits and stares at the pictures for long periods of time, studying the physical humor and facial expressions and gleaning much of the emotional subtext of the stories this way.

I was secretly thrilled. Setting aside the fact that the Tintin books are nowadays universally acknowledged to be a bad teaching tool for children because of flagrant racial and cultural stereotypes — Africans look like Al Jolson, for one thing –  I am glad she is interested in the Tintin oeuvre. It provides a solid education in humor both subtle and slapstick. We can discuss the racial depictions with her, and we will. I’m less worried about that than I am about the violence that fills these cheery little books, the endless punching and gunfire. Mara has been pretty protected so far from images of weaponry and its use. We don’t have television reception, and we’re careful about what movies she watches. She’s lately gotten to be pals with several young boys, though, and playdates at Logan’s or Silas’ house are occasions of much zapping and whacking. She loves it all.

Tintin and Captain Haddock discover a stowaway! A page from "Red Rackham's Treasure". Click to enlarge.

Oh well, so did I. I loved my little green army men and my pistol-packin’, rifle-totin’ Johnny West. I watched Batman and The Rifleman on TV and was weened on the visually addicting violence of Warner Brothers cartoons.

I took Mara out a few nights ago to buy her her first very own English Tintin book, Red Rackham’s Treasure (forgetting that it is actually the sequel to The Secret of the Unicorn). I have an idea that if she stares at the pictures long enough and is curious enough about the text, she’ll start sounding the words out and the books will actually be an enticement to start reading more on her own. Especially since she has such an infallible memory for exact phrasing. I read the book to her once (taking care to explain the comic conventions, such as: sweat drops = alarm; whirly lines above someone’s head = dizzyness; curly lines behind someone = scurrying) and she is already repeating whole sections of dialog.

Off on another adventure! Tintin and Snowy head for the door again.

I’m eager to see the fun Mara has, and then someday Millie, discovering the books’ best delights, how Tintin’s forelock only stays wet for a frame or two after he hauls himself out of a river and his clothes are likewise instantly dry, and how successive frames often contain little running gags, like the piece of “sticking plaster” that adheres to various passengers throughout a plane trip to Djakarta in…oh shoot, hey Ben, which one was that?

I just realized how nutty it’s going to be around here when Uncle Ben visits and Mara picks up his Tintin vibe. Oh well, as Tintin says “there’s nothing for it!”

*The first book, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, was actually published in 1929.

GSGH #7 winner limerick

Though it sat uncommented on for more than a week, episode 7 of our Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt, has been addressed at last, the lion in question being correctly identified by my friend and fellow history buff Pedro, who found it staring at him from the facade of the Alaska Building on the southeast corner of Second and Cherry and was so excited he couldn’t wait to comment online and phoned in his winning answer from the sidewalk, which is completely against the rules.

Gargoyle #7

I’m chagrined to report that I have no personal history with the Alaska Building, no fun stories to tell about it. Its fourteen stories were completed in 1904, and according to HistoryLink.org it remained Seattle’s tallest building until the Hoge building was raised kitty-corner across the street in 1911. It was owned until recently by the City of Seattle, but they sold it to a developer who pledged to renovate it into mixed-use retail and housing but pulled a bait-and-switch and turned it into a Marriott Hotel instead. So it goes in the Emerald City. Cheatin’ and backstabbin’ and double-crossin’ are as common in the Seattle skyline today as they were back in the post-Klondike days when the old dame was built.

Seattle's first steel-framed skyscraper, with recent addition and Marriott sign visible in back.

I was a little worried when I saw construction happening on the building a year or so ago, but all they did was add some footprint in the area that once formed the open L of the back of the building. The new portion goes all the way up in back but it is unobtrusive from most views and you can’t see it at all from the front corner. It could have been worse.

Here's a c.1925 view of the Alaska Building from further south on Second. Image property of Museum of History and Industry.

The Alaska Building from a different angle during construction in 1903 or 1904. The best part about some of the old shots of the Alaska Building are the views of the old New York Block, which stood where the Dexter Horton Building is now, here at left. The Corona and the Collins Building in the distance are still standing. Image property of University of Washington Libraries.

Thanks for playing Pedro, and for takin’ it to the streets! Like the smarty he is, Pedro requested his limerick in the ’80s gangsta rap idiom, but I wouldn’t know how to begin to comply with that request, and besides, any other meter and rhyme structure would no longer be a limerick, now would it? So to the ’80s gangsta rap request I say, “Don’t push it, buster”. But I’ll see what I can do. First, your conventional prize:

Pedro had just a spare minute
He sought for our gargoyle in it.
He strolled to the east
and found our game’s beast
Then phoned in his answer to win it.

Now, keeping in mind that I know almost nothing about rap, let alone the difference between 80s gangsta rap and any other kind, here is my best attempt.

My home skillet Pedro
was struttin’ the hood, yo
looking good,
made the drop at a stop in P Square.
While there in the fresh air he felt the stare,
the cold glare as he wandered east,
sought the beast,
until he came to a place, face to face
with the stone cat. Imagine that!
‘I’m in!’ he said with a grin and phoned it in
for the win –
but the prize ain’t a dolla, just a holla — hey!
Pedro, that’s the way, way to go, way to play.

Okay, you knuckleheads. Enough with the rule-breaking and special dispensations. From now on I’m going to be a stone grump about this.

A part of it all

Mara became interested in Morris dancing at as early as four years of age. Angela played a CD of Morris music and Mara took rather a fancy to it until it became one of her favorite discs. And she’s always known that music was for dancing to, so she started dancing around in the living room to Morris music with shakers and bells, which is just a step away — literally — from Morris dancing.

A little nervous.

Saturday we breakfasted early and high-tailed it over to a retirement and assisted living home on Queen Anne. We forgot Millie’s diaper bag but we remembered to have Mara wear red pants and a white shirt, which along with a striped sash and elf hat would identify her as a member of Seattle’s newest youngest Morris group, Peppermint Stick Morris, a “minor” version of Sound and Fury Morris led by Kimberly and Dave from that austere troupe. Mara told us that morning that she was feeling a little nervous about the dances they were to perform for the retirees there and then again at the Winterfest crafts festival being held at Phinney Ridge Neighborhood Center. We would be rushing her from one venue to the next. I was glad she was able to articulate her anxiety, and I told her how nervous I had been whenever I had to get up on a stage as a kid, and that the nervousness is completely normal.

It's about being part of something. Peppermint Stick Morris (and a half).

Eleanor (left), Ian (top), Soren (right) and Mara (bottom) perform a stick dance at Queen Anne Manor.

She has performed with members of this group before, once at an event at Seattle Center and once at a farmers’ market, but some of the parents were also dancing with them then. This would be the first time the children would dance all by themselves and would have to remember the moves without adult prodding. At her age I would have been petrified. I was particularly excited because I had not been able to be present at those earlier shows.

Jingle Bells. Mara's knee is blurry because she's rockin'.

Waiting to go on. Something about this photo gives me a panicky joy, like she's leaving us for the wide world already. The look says, "don't worry Dad. I'm all set."

How happy I was watching Mara do this activity she loves to do. It is one of the most true things about my oldest daughter that she does not allow herself to be forced through things she is not comfortable with, but when she is comfortable she can overcome any fear. I was amazed at how easily she moved through the morning, even and especially after having announced her trepidation about it. The dining hall at the retirement facility, while spacious, was pretty sparsely attended by residents, so in a way it was the perfect ice-breaker for the performance at Phinney Ridge an hour later, where scores of people were gliding in and out — including groups of adult Morrisers waiting to follow Mara’s group onstage — and the noise and bustle were constant.

Giving something to the community. What could be more fun? Peppermint Stick Morris at the Phinney Ridge Neighborhood Center.

Misty City Morris await their turn.

Mara’s group performed three dances with sticks and one with kerchiefs, the latter of which Mara did not participate in because she joined the group too late to have learned it for this time around. They also sang three Christmas carols. I was surprised and delighted that Mara did not show any nervousness at all, despite the nervousness she’d claimed. She in fact looked like she was just out for a lark with friends.

And that brings me to what I love most about this whole thing. Mara intuits a facet of performance that always seemed to escape me — that it’s fun! She feels united with her group in the activity and united with the audience in giving them a performance. It’s all about togetherness, or at least it should be. I never felt that way when I was on a stage. The fear of making mistakes always dominated the event for me, which made me miss the joy of being part of something and even made me view the audience as a sort of potential enemy. I was always just eager to get it over with. I missed a lot because of that. I’m glad that Mara seems to get it. I could see it in her antics while she was waiting with her group to go on, and in the way her little body couldn’t help but groove while she was singing the carols.

In ways I would never have predicted, my children become my teachers.


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The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt


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