18 April 2008

Speaking of Tornadoes

TMcD blogs about the Nashville Tornado that narrowly missed him 10 years ago. I wasn't in Nashvegas for that event, but I remember TMcD's telling of the tale from back then quite vividly. But reading that post got me thinking about my own Tornado experience, and realising that in these days of the 21st century interwebs, I could probably now look up pictures and read about an event from 20 years ago that was probably formative for me in some way. 

I now discover that today the event is called 'The Red River Valley Tornado Outbreak'. It occurred on 10 April 1979 and involved a total of 13 tornadoes. At the time, we lived in in the red river valley, very near to Wichita Falls. The 3 Tornadoes that hit Wichita falls (they came together to form one massive cell and basically marched through town), left 20,000 people homeless, injured 1,700, and killed 45 people. 10 more people were also killed by the Vernon tornado, and 3 in by the Lawton tornado. 

Online there is, of course, lots of good information, an amazing map,unbelievable pictures, entire websites devoted to the event, and even a 2005 AP article describing the impact of the inspection of the Wichita Falls ruins on future Tornado safety. 

My own memories are obviously filtered through the eyes of a 7 year old. We lived in a farmhouse at the end of a dirt road surrounded by mesquite trees and cows. Nearby was Electra, TX, current population 3,000 and couldn't have been much bigger back then. At that point in my life, then, Wichita Falls was 'the city', the place you went to buy things, the place with lots of traffic and street lights and noise and people. And this event equated in my head to the total destruction of that place. What imprinted itself in my head were NOT the pictures of the Tornadoes themselves, as I had seen lot of dark black funnel clouds in my life - dashing from the house to the cellar was a routine affair at that time. But the pictures of the devastation afterwards, of block after city block of houses simply gone aside from 1 closet or a bathroom - that was something I just couldn't grasp. And more than the pictures, I still remember all the stories that circulated afterwards: the near misses, the missing persons, the coke bottles blown through someone's leg, the 2x4 through someone's arm...

I also remember how badly the event messed up the adults. In small towns near small towns, everybody knows everybody, and therefore everybody had friends or friends of friends who were directly affected by the tornado (loss of home, loss of life, often both). I vividly recall an event some months after the 13 tornado catastrophe: as was usual for the time, my parents were at a huge party at the house of friends who also lived out in the country. A tornado came through, so we all crammed into the cellar, the bathroom, etc., and waited for it to pass. It rattled the windows and passed by without causing damage. Afterwards, there was some new girlfriend of someone at the party who was studying psychology and had learned something (a little knowledge is dangerous) about trauma and children, and therefore she wanted to 'interview me' about my feelings/emotions/thoughts about the event so that she could match up my reactions and her observations with what the textbook said. I remember being very conscious at the time of the fact that it was she who was fucked up and scared to death, and also of the fact that she couldn't see that I was a reflective conscious being in this process - that I could see what she was doing, and was not merely a passive object to be observed. I wasn't mad at her, but it made me worry that this long after the the big tornado the adults still didn't have it together.

09 April 2008

British bureaucracy: passive to its core

'When requesting goods be ordered you should ask that your grant code be charged'.

This sentence represents the entirety of instruction given to me by a lovely woman in the finance department here at my university in the UK. Whom? Whom do I request from? Whom do I ask that? But there is no there there. There is only the bureaucracy. And, as a colonial historian, I can tell you the Brits are the world masters.

When requesting instructions be given, you should specify that your questions be answered.

I heart passive voice.

Speaking of New Music

The tenacious one, over at Ffb, very helpfully pointed me toward the new REM album (which I hadn't heard a peep about on this side of the Atlantic). Only two listens to it so far, but wow, what a revelation. One is tempted to say it sounds like 'old REM', but that's too easy, since it's also a very mature album. I'm perhaps most impressed with the lyrics. I've always loved REM - as I said in comments over there, Automatic for the People probably makes my top 10 album list - but Michael Stipe's tendency to babble has always been their weak spot for me. So I was impressed with what's going on in the words on this album. Good stuff. I'm tempted, at this early stage, to compare it to U2's ATYCLB.

But that leads me to some musical notes and recommendations of my own. First of all, when heading to Amazon to download the new REM (by the way, everyone does know that Amazon sells albums without DRM for $8.99 in 256kbps, right???? You'll find no bigger apple fanboy than I, but I haven't given the iTunes store any money, for music that is, since Amazon opened up for mp3 business) I discovered that Counting Crows has a new album, and people are daring to compare it to their debut. Only one incomplete listen for me, so I'll withhold judgement.

I can, however, judge my friends, who have about 87 gazillion times more musical talent than I. I'll start with the second album from Soul Patch, with a wonderfully meta title of Sooner or Later. It's available on iTunes, Amazon, and everywhere else, and it's a fine piece of musicianship. This album is a bit more jazz and a bit less ska than their debut release, and I like that fact quite a lot. Soul Patch identifies their own influences as Beck and Phish, but listen carefully for some wonderful 70s and 80s influences as well. To my ear Scott's lyrics and Ryan's guitar take this album up a notch, and the production values are insanely high.

Last but not least, The Calculus Affair have also released their second album. It's a thematic album and some (including me) find the thematic content a bit intimdating, but I say ignore the theme and just listen to the damn music. Bad Quarto is the second RPM challenge release from The Calculus Affair. The first, appropriately titled RPM 0207, marked a clear departure from Mariz's early work as it opened with the rocking and raucous 'Freight Train' and continued to surprise and delight with an ecclectic mix of tunes that hooked you without your seeing the hook. This album also saw moments when Mariz's lyrics got out in front of the music and made you ask for more. If I were to criticise RPM 0207, and I should note that it clearly made my top 10 of 2007, it would only be that it was a bit uneven - unsurprising for an album made in 28 days. But this is what is so impressive about the new album: it is a complete album, not just a collection of songs. It's like a book you can't put down: you put it on to give it a listen, and then next moment at which you are conscious of listening to it is when it's over. Indeed, while the previous album had clear and striking favourite songs for me (Freight Train, Alexander, Bicycle Down the Hill, Man Who used to Hunt), I can't really name any individual songs on this album - I just love the whole album. And the days of the haunting and often transcendent, but still, I'd say, rather tentative lyrics of Mariz's debut If you Lived here..., those days are over. This is a confident and mature work that shows a wide range of style and ability. Oh, and did I mention that it's free: get it here.

07 April 2008

Further on Tibet

OpenDemocracy has some interesting articles on Tibet/China, and they are reposting or linking to older commentaries as well.

One on the Chinese blogosphere/internet reaction to the protests in Tibet - here

Discussion of the grievances and the mistakes both sides have made - here

And a piece from 2006 interviewing the Spanish lawyer and one of the Tibetan witnesses in an on-going trial of several Chinese leaders for human rights abuses - here.

This last interests me in particular because it is interspersed with art from an exhibition that included a wide range of Tibetan and western artists. I saw a presentation of some of this work at a conference a few years back, and what the images don't tell you (simply used here as illustration rather than being read in the interview in any way) is that often galleries in Lhasa exhibit Tibetan contemporary art without discrimination as to the culture or ethnicity of the artist. If you're in Tibet or interested in its particular issues--political or not--you can participate in the art scene. The presenter suggested that there were bridges being built within the art community that undermined the identity politics of 'Tibetan' and 'Han Chinese'. Some cause for hope, perhaps.

The image I've included here is fascinating because it's about Tibet and globalization--not specifically aimed at China. Each object in the Buddha form is provided in great detail in the work, so you can see little contemporary Japanese toys and other bits of capitalist detrius from around the world. Good stuff. For more on Gyatso and Tibetan art, see: Harris, Clare. In the Image of Tibet: Tibetan Painting After 1959. London: Reaktion, 1999. Link.

06 April 2008

Lost Horizon by James Hilton

At lunch today we caught coverage of the torch being carried through London. One of the Save Tibet protesters had attempted to grab the torch from a woman who used to present on Blue Peter--one of the best known kids' shows in Britain. Later someone from the protest group tried to put out the torch with a fire extinguisher. Both plots failed, protest went on peacefully, and torch progressed through the streets of Llundain without too much more ado. We watched as Gordon Brown greeted the torch (but importantly did not touch or hold it) in front of 10 Downing Street as it was transferred from to a man in a wheelchair; we watched as protesters were arrested in proximity of the torch in Trafalgar Square.

And the discussion in the house here on hollywood road was about Tibet. and the protests. and symbolism and politics, and what, exactly, the Free Tibet phenomenon was about.

This morning I finished reading Lost Horizon, published in 1933 and made into a film in 1937. It made popular and ubiquitous the term 'Shangri-la', which it (naturally) stole from Chinese narrative history. [interesting side note: Camp David was initially named Shangri-la by Roosevelt in 1942, such was the influence of this book and film. Eisenhower renamed the place after his son. Shangri-la is so much better, yes?] It is also the source of a lot of our ideas about Tibet.

One of the things we discussed over lunch was the incongruity between the 'Free Tibet' argument—which seems to be rooted in an argument for the sovereignty of Tibet as a nation grounded in some sort of adherence to an ethnic/linguistic/cultural essence—and a 'China should clean up its human rights' argument—which seems to start from an assumption that Tibet is part of China, and therefore the Chinese should clean up their human rights record there. And everywhere. I think that the alliance/elision between these two arguments is part of the fluidity of protest movements that often need to ally with groups not always in agreement with the motivating issue for others. But the unproblematic acceptance of the idea that one can put Free Tibet and human rights abuses in the same basket of protest, go down to Bloomsbury Square, and protest the torch being paraded through London (itself several steps removed from the Chinese government: London--relay--torch--Olympics--Beijing--China) seems a bit incongruous. Or at least ripe for unpacking. Toss in the guy who commandeered the BBC camera for 5 seconds to say something (he was cut off) about Cyprus, and you're off to the races.

And then we discussed the 'why Tibet' argument: why Tibet and not the Uyghurs in Xinxiang or the Naxi in Yunnan/Sichuan? Why Tibet and not the Chechens or the Basques? And this brings me back to Lost Horizon. Because the book is indeed the answer to 'why Tibet' in some ways. While Tibet romanticisations preceeded this text (it is built on them), it popularised an equation between not just hidden paradises and Tibet, but spiritual retreats of wisdom where westerners can find their humanity and Tibet.

In 1959 the Dalai Lama ran from Tibet into exile in India with many of his followers. The timing could not have been better--the Beat movement had peaked and was still active, the 'free love' sixties were on the horizon, and Asia rose as a place of spiritual haven, ganja, and finding oneself. Add in a downtrodden Buddhist leader (actually a Buddha) and you've got a cause behind which well-meaning Westerners can throw their support. They are exiled, but they're peaceful (Buddhists) and intellectual (monks) and they're from paradise (Lost Horizon)! We must save them. And suddenly we're back, not in Orientalism (which we are in of course) but in colonialism: the drive to save the east from itself.

I find the cultural genocide happening in Tibet (and other places listed above) to be horrifying and in need of some solution. I'm not sure divvying up territory along constructed ethnic/linguistic/cultural/religious lines is the answer, as history has on several occasions shown that path to be not so great in terms of lives lost and torn apart. And I know that activists rarely are able to articulate their causes (even to themselves) in coherent ways that take on board critical analyses of the international system as it stands now. So I agree that something needs to be done to deal with China's imperialism and imposition of a uniform culture on various parts (all?) of its sovereignty. And China is not alone in this. But perhaps figuring out how to live productively and politically in a multiethnic, multicultural world would be a better path? I know. crazy pie in the sky leftie thinking.

Oh, and you should read Lost Horizon. Because like all good Orientalist books, it provides an excellent picture of British and American culture and worries in the 1930s. It's quite funny ('Americans, Conway reflected, had the knack of being able to say patronising things without being offensive'. 27). Its core philosophy involves slowing down, embracing your inner lazy, and resignifying 'slacker' as a positive descriptor. And guess what. Shangri-la is multicultural. They've got folks from all over living there, in harmony, under the leadership of a lama who is not Tibetan. The world, after WWI, is going to pieces, just like Conway, the protagonist. Will he find his Shangri-la in the valley of the Blue Moon?

04 April 2008

3 papers in March

Crazy crazy crazy. Three crazies. I'm a bit tired, I must admit, after all of the paper giving in March, somewhat accidental: I transformed from roundtable participant to paper giver in one panel and then from chair/organiser into paper giver in another. No excuse, though. Too many papers in March. And of course (of course!) on three different topics. 19th c. painting, contemporary film, and mid-20th c. architecture. But it's all good. Met some interesting people and got thinking on some new paths. But I still wonder how 'real people' seem to do this sort of thing all of the time without utter exhaustion. I suppose that's why they also drink RedBull and smoke like chimneys. Ah those real people.

But: two chapters in February, 3 papers in March--now it's on to 4 somethings in April--four relaxing day-trips? Four spa days? Ah yes. Frozen Four. What was I thinking? Sadly the Gophers are not in it this year, but some great teams are. If you are in Denver (and some of you indeed might be), you should check it out. I bet tickets outside the arena at gametime will be cheap and plentiful. Plus, college hockey rocks.