Archives for category: Culture
One for the railroad!

One for the railroad!

This Spring has brought torrential rains. More than that, the season’s been delayed. That meant I could recently capture a freight train go by without the cover of foliage. Boxcars, liquid tankers, open-topped coal and scrap cars, grainers and gondolas. Many graffiti-laden, some empty, some loaded. That engine pulled it all!

I love a good train ride. Not the commuter sort but a true “going-some-place” trip. Even better if it’s spontaneous. The steady rumble of the carriages snaking over the ties and the metal-on-metal clanks as the wheels round a curve are soothing. The clickety-clacks are rhythmically lulling. Real sounds, not intrusive noise. I’d much prefer the clatter of the rails than the clutter of loud, lazily-worded hype polluting the airwaves as I fill up. Having to press “Mute” is akin to the “2” if I want English. Even silence in this country has now become hard-earned and costly.

I digress. Or make that “derail.” But wait, the common train of thought here is freedom. Freedom to think, move, react or say. Or not to. Freed from lame commercial pitches at every turn. Friends, decibel-level and frequency do not make up for poor content.

Hobos…now they had it right. At least the general idea. And by that, I don’t mean bum with his hand out or ex-con transient. I’m talkin’ original globally mobile, small-carbon-footprint, bohemian type: the westward-bound, hard-working migrant. Which made me curious about the word’s origin. Possibly homegrown, “hobo” could come from “ho, boy,” a worker’s call on late-1800’s western US railroads. Or it may be derived from an early 19th century English dialect term, hawbuck, for “lout, clumsy fellow, bumpkin.”

How Boxcar Willie entered the picture? Whooaa, the tracks of my mind. But what a nickname! If you’re not familiar with his music, here’s your ticket. Scruffy beard, pin-studded floppy hat and jacket lapel, overalls and the trademark bandana. That’s the self-proclaimed world’s favorite hobo. Accompanied by his red bandana-necked band wearing striped conductor hats. And for the train buff, the ultimate whistle! Whoooo whoo!

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Maybe it’s May-bell-ina.

Maybe it’s May-bell-ina.

I’d love to be in France today. Not because it’s International Labor Day or May Day, but because I could easily get my hands on a bunch of lilies of the valley. Every May 1st, the French celebrate the white, bell-shaped blossoms in the Fête de muguet or Lily of the Valley Festival.

Sweethearts once gave each other bouquets or sprigs of these diminutive sprays on this day. Those in the know still do. You see, it signals the return of happiness in floral speak. The tradition also lives on for this harbinger of Spring Summer as people exchange potted plants of the dainty bubbles peering out from green-sheathed stalks. For its scent, shape, color symbolism and delicate structure, this lily’s an ever-popular, if not expensive, bridal choice. If it’s good enough for Kate Middleton….

A lily of the valley by any other name? OK, I’ll agree with Juliet on this. There’s Lady’s tears (the drooping blooms evoking such), which might explain why ladies wore a stem upside-down on their dresses…the better to catch a glimpse or waft of their inner beauty. And Mary’s tears (for those shed at the cross). The botanical name, convallaria majalis, meaning “valley” (in reference to its preference for lowland habitats) and “of May” gives us May lily and May bells as alternates.

From lush, broad leaves emerge perishable tender hoods. Images of lily of the valley were common on postcards during the mid- to late-1800’s. Yes, floral-obsessed Victorians can claim to be the original flower power culture, often setting out on a lily picnic on Whitsunday (the British associated the LOTV with the return of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles) to gather wild ones in the nearby woods.

Aahhh! Alongside fragrant gardenias and hyacinths, the sweetest things.

Marshmallow madness.

Marshmallow madness.

Argentina has its alfajores. Canadians, Australians and Brits ask for Wagon Wheels. In Japan, you eat Angel Pies. And in the southern US, it’s Moon Pies or bust.

Chocopies, however, give them all a run for their money. South Korea’s Lotte brand (among other national confectioners, such as Orion) chocolate-enrobed marshmallow sandwiches are craved by North Koreans. In fact, for those north of the border lucky enough to work at the Kaesong Industrial Complex in the DMZ, bonuses are paid in part with Chocopies (hard cash being prohibited). What’s s’more, they’re the subject of speculation and sold on the black market.

Alas, times must be tougher since the most recent escalation and ease of tensions in early-mid 2013. Before the 6.5-month long closure of the manufacturing site (where educated, skilled and Korean-fluent North Koreans work for South Korean companies, earning the motherland much-needed hard currency), workers earned up to 20 Chocopies a day in addition to their regular compensation. Yet, once the park rebooted in August, they were cut to a maximum of two per day. Said one vocal local, “Nobody better lay an eye on my Chocopie!”

Sourced: South Korea.

Kids, let's not get all excited at once now.

Kids, let’s not get all excited at once now.

Real chemistry. Fearless physics lessons. Science fairs and first place prizes. After-school projects. Curiosity. Biology experiments. Hot lab partners. Instructors that inspire us to wonder. Accidental explosions. (Make sure you’ve got on those safety goggles!)

Skimping on science is akin to apathy and signals a lack of engagement with our physical world. Science shapes us. It is everywhere. We should let it in more.

Bumper stickers. The analog, nano pre-tweet. Humorous, sobering, pithy calls-to-action. And we’re here to stay. Thank you, cars, planes, trains and unmotorized transportation, for lending some of your mobile real estate to the causes we ply.

Valentine Rituals, Part I

Valentine Rituals, Part I

It pays to root around aimlessly some times, as you never know what you will dig up. For curious types like myself, the chance to unearth possibilities, dust off the past or shape the future are must-haves in our lives. Here is a linguistic morsel paraphrased from Forgotten English by Jeffrey Kacirk:

Choice words. Originated by Chaucer himself, piggesyne (literally, a darling little pig’s eye) was once a term of endearment for one’s sweetheart. The English poet is also credited with inspiring the tradition of sending love notes on Saint Valentine’s Day.

From name drawing to destiny calling. Pre-19th century bachelors drew maidens’ names from a box or hat as their valentine for the year. The Church tried to graft a religious holiday onto this long-standing tradition by substituting saints’ names for those of the opposite sex, but this attempt proved unpopular and was abandoned by the 16th century. The drawing of names was taken somewhat seriously according to Henry Bournes in his 1725 Antiquities of the Common People: “It is a ceremony, never omitted among the vulgare, to draw…a name, which is called their Valentine, and is also look’d upon as a good omen of their being man and wife afterwards.”

Knitmare!

Knitmare!

Most of the Olympic athletes and delegates tonight sported street-smart winter gear. A lot of it will be wearable after the games. Not so the tacky garb of Team USA. A good thing they were on the back-end of the parade of nations. It was no great feat to see how hideous those über-busy sweaters are. Hide, USA! Outside the secure area, they make for easy targets. Despite the fact that the cardigans are supposedly sold out, I can’t imagine them having any long-term aftermarket value. They won’t last, for one. The boots, on the other hand, look nice.

Is it an uncanny coincidence that this fashion faux pax is a metaphor for how fragmented this country has become? The cardy is a granny quilt of feuding red and blue states squares and poorly placed verbal messaging. Has anyone counted the stars, or are they just filler? Our uniform was a chance for us to shine for two weeks. Instead, the US Olympic Committee sacrificed our brand to another big ego.

Fair warning. Taking the gold for poor execution, and embarrassing us along the way, is the self-absorbed Mr. Lauren himself. If only certain decision-makers had done some due diligence, they would have come across an October 2000 Dale Boss story about the man and his empire. Quoting Ralph: “I’ve been a big hero in this industry, and I like being a big hero.”

Made in the United States. The USOC should have selected a new designer to outfit this Olympiad’s competitors. Ralph Lauren had his chance — two, in fact — in Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Games and in Beijing’s 2008 Summer Olympics, He and his company blew both, showing everyone his lack of patriotism by choosing earnings over authenticity. Commerce over craft. Profit over pride of country. There was quite the public outcry when it was revealed that some (perhaps all?) of the official 2010 clothing was, in fact, manufactured in China.

New blood needed. As this global event so often launches athletes into stardom, the USOC could have gotten into the spirit and had the same effect by jumpstarting an aspiring artist’s career. The US has many young, yet sufficiently established designers who could have seamlessly delivered. Style, that is. Context-current, up-and-coming craftspeople who would not have taken the honor for granted. Alternatively, the The North Faces, Nikes and Patagonias could have produced something tasteful and desirable. If the USOC really wanted to get people excited about sports and attract new generations of participants and viewers, they would have signed on a Bruno Mars. Instead, what can only be aging members went with the obvious. It showed, and we deserve better.

Polo, formerly called America. As if the choice of designer weren’t bad enough, the design itself chokes. It looks committee-driven; no consensus could be reached, so a mash-up it is. The Polo word mark on the lapel is over and above the USA. In close-up shots of the athletes, that’s all you see, with part of “USA” tucked in the armpit. This placement says it all about what Mr. Lauren thinks of himself. On no other team’s outerwear did a clothing brand compete with the country name. If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought that Polo was a country. In 2010, things were better in that the Polo brand mark, the polo player, was blazer front and off-center (too far off). That alone should have been a red flag.

Off-fabric. Please…, cotton turtlenecks? I bet the bulky sweaters are also cotton. There are so many technical and new wool fabrics out there to keep you warm and looking good. Thin layering devices that perform!

Nice departures. Of note: some countries (France, Germany, Iran, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania and New Zealand) whose jackets and pants had nothing to do with their flag color. The Japanese carried small Russian and Japanese flags. And looks like the Russian women got to pick between red, white and blue parkas! Tonga’s coats-as-canvas combined the vertically placed flag along with an ocean and palm background. Well done!

Go USA!

Giant Lemming / Pudlo, 1961.

Giant Lemming / Pudlo, 1961.

This looks a little bat-like, right? Well, to the Inuit artist, Pudlo, it’s an Arctic lemming’s head. It reminded me of the figures of human skeletons (calacas) or skulls (calaveras) that are ubiquitous on the Day of the Dead. Calacas are often decked out in colorful, ornate dresses or zoot suits and grouped together in celebration. Musicians playing, rowdy fans dancing… these treats for the eyes depict the soul’s happy afterlife.

Back to lemmings, those prairie dogs of the tundra. Tunnels protect them from predators, and their winter-white fur helps them escape the keen eyes of the snowy owl, whose coat also turns with the season. These critters do not hibernate; fortunately, strong front claws help them dig through the ice and snow for grasses foraged before Old Man Winter sets in.

Bonaventure Cemetery, Thunderbolt, Georgia

Bonaventure Cemetery
Thunderbolt, Georgia

In Mexico, the Day of the Angels (el día de los angelitos) or Day of the Innocents (el día de los inocentes) is one to honor the souls of those who died young. The tree stone to little Gracie’s right symbolizes a life cut short. To her left at her feet are fern fronds, which symbolize humility, solitude and sincerity. Note the buttoned boots. A gem of a memorial.

I’ve wanted to visit Oconee Hill Cemetery for a coon’s age. The last time I tried a few years ago, the sexton was ugly (bless his heart) and wouldn’t even let me in. Yes, they had vandalism issues in the past, but that was back in the seventies. I think word got out about his unfriendliness, as well as the rumor that the burial grounds were full. It seems they’ve come ‘round to customer service, probably due more than anything to the fact that there are lots left. Today looks to be as good as any to take an old-fashioned, Victorian stroll.

The Enchanted Owl, 1960.

The Enchanted Owl, 1960.

Here’s my tribute to the pioneering Inuit artist, Kenojuak Ashevak. She was world-renowned for bringing attention to her people’s culture and mythology through her illuminating interpretations of Far North and Arctic animals…particularly birds. We lost the legend herself earlier this year at the ripe old age of 85, but not before her signature style brought happiness to many an avid collector of her drawings and sketches. Membership into the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts and her art being chosen to grace three Canadian stamps and a 25¢ Canadian circulation coin were career highlights.

In her owls and loons, head and tail feathers dance and shimmer like rays of the sun, as she said, “driving away the darkness.” Ravens and wolves, often entwined with one another, form a web of scavenging, opportunistic bodies that are intensified by color-blocked splashes of plumage or all-over fur. Crowded on the paper — croaking, gurgling, cawing and howling — you can almost hear them they are so loud.

Animals and humans transformed, communing with the beyond. Shaman knows the way.

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Hands-on clean.

Last summer I flew Canadian North, which is 100% Aboriginally-owned, from Inuvik to Norman Wells, then to Yellowknife and on to Edmonton. Really enjoyable. The aircraft interiors looked a bit worse for wear, but each boarding, deplaning and in-flight experience was what flying used to and probably never will be again most anywhere else. Genuine, courteous and attentive attendants, decent and more than enough food, on-time departures and arrivals, fee-less checked luggage that arrived when I did and respectful fellow passengers. From the counter folks to the ramp and baggage people (sometimes one in the same person), they were efficient, approachable and looked like they enjoyed their jobs. Humans. Not rude, insensitive, barking corporate bots with attitude. We’re talkin’ serious customer service.

Which brings me to the airline’s tagline: “Seriously northern.” Some 50% redundant, given their name, but the first half is a winner and with so much potential. The polar bear and midnight sun logo were spot-on geographically but seemed inconsistently illustrated (even dated) alongside the more simply drawn yet delightful in-flight branding. What I most liked, design-wise, were the hand towel packaging and the coffee cup (for another post). On the wipe: “Seriously clean.” — the native drummer dressed in traditional skins and snowy owl (ookpik) culturally reflecting the Northwest Territories’ First Nations who live near the Arctic Circle. A great start, if not messaging teasers. I’d love to see the brand really come alive through many more elements on board, at the gate, in uniform and online.

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