Folk Life


The power of nature is rooted in its diversity. The same can be said of the human race. Nowhere is this more in evidence than at the annual Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle.

One Nation Under Trees
One Nation Under Trees

During this four day celebration spanning the Memorial Day weekend Seattle’s always vibrant music community explodes with talent, old and new.

The known performers get their names in the program and for the most part enjoy dry places to perform no matter what Seattle’s capricious weather gods deign to provide. But out on the sprawling clamorous grounds the raw stuff of folklife is free to take root and reach for the light. On a sunny weekend  there’s hardly a square foot without some fearless performer playing mostly real good for free, as the lady once wrote.

Boys Love Noise
Boys Love Noise

It takes more than persistent showers to dampen the creative spirit of the folk. At this year’s event the non-stop precipitation hasn’t stopped the feast of fiddling and the flow of soul. There’s something for everyone, whether your tastes run to pirate punk or sweet swing music or free-form drumming or heartfelt crooning.

Grunge Folk
Grunge Folk

It’s downright encouraging to see so many diverse peoples cheering one another on, embracing their differences, sharing their umbrellas. Gives you hope for the species.

Music hath charms, of course. Throughout human history various people have tried, without success, to get the whole world to sing the same song. But maybe that’s the wrong approach. If we could just learn to value our remarkable diversity, perhaps we would be one step closer to world harmony.

Can it ever happen? Stay tuned.

Swinging Marimbas
Swinging Marimbas
Piping in the Rain
Piping in the Rain
All Ears
All Ears

The Mongoose of Tomorrow

You lookin' at me?
You lookin' at me?

They cluster together, eyes bright, chins up, studying the mob staring at them through the glass.

And the meerkats stare back with equal intensity.

It’s Saturday morning at the Woodland Park Zoo and the facility’s newest stars, the meerkats, have already attracted a sizable crowd of jostling, jabbering, photo-shooting humans, eager to experience first-hand the meerkat mystique.

At first glance, the meerkats seem a bit small to have warranted the huge amount of attention the quirky species has been getting ever since the Animal Planet’s documentary series “Meerkat Manor” became a runaway hit. But watch them for a few minutes, even without an anthropomorphistically skewed voice-over track, and you find yourself wondering what’s going on behind those tiny pop-star eyes.

I haven’t watched a single episode of the TV show, but after seeing the little mob (a group of meerkats is called a mob) at the zoo huddled together in the glaring spotlight of their sudden fame, I felt an undeniable desire to protect them from harm. Yet although I understand the feverish desire of humans to save some of the animals whose limited existence is threatened by the unrelenting expansion and consumption of ours, it seems more and more hopeless as we hurtle forward. Species come and go. The planet, in spite of our best efforts to convince it to behave, does what it will — exploding, warming, cooling, sliding, flooding and frying. Humans excel at adapting. We move away from the heat, bundle up against the cold, curse the darkness, etc. But other species don’t seem to be equipped with as many tools. They scurry underground, climb trees, dive deeper in the ocean. Yet they can’t get away from us.

Around the world the argument continues to rage about whether or not humans are responsible for the global warming currently taking place at an unprecedented rate. But no one can argue that humans aren’t completely responsible for hunting many species into near extinction. Elephants, rhinos, tigers, and countless other high profile animals teeter on the brink. We’ve all heard the stories. Our zoos work hard to provide a kind of safety net for the most threatened species. But once it gets to the point where the only safe place for a wild animal is in a zoo, we’ve lost something irreplacable.

The meerkat, for all its current trendiness, is one of the lucky species. Its natural habitat is the Kalahari Desert in South Africa. Not a lot of human pressure on that real estate. No worries about global warming there. As long as we don’t discover oil under the sand, the meerkats have a fighting chance. And it doesn’t hurt that their diet of choice is insects, although they can also get by on scorpions if the larder runs low on cockroaches. Thus, a species with good odds for survival when the going gets rough.

Maybe that’s part of their mysterious charisma. If you look deep into their haunted little eyes you can almost see the future, after humans have gone on to the next phase or whatever.

Maybe we misheard the old saying. The meerkats shall inherit the Earth.

Spill and Spoil

Humans are a fun-loving species.

We’re born to mock. It’s in our DNA.We can even laugh when the joke’s on us, though of course, it’s always funnier when someone else slips on the banana peel.

A certain school of humor is rooted in humankind’s blithe self-assurance, as evidenced in the frequent Internet “Fixed It!” mailings, which feature hilarious photos from the duct tape and paper-clip school of do-it-yourself repair.

But when the leak to be repaired is a mile deep under turbulent seawater, the logistics are a bit daunting.

Today is May Day, a date synonymous with danger, and in the Gulf of Mexico another 200,000 gallons of oil will seep out into the water from the wreckage of the British Petroleum oil drilling facility Deepwater Horizon, which exploded on April 20. Another day, another environmental disaster.

When I first heard the expression “It’s Earth’s immune system kicking in,” it was spoken by Kurt Vonnegut, appearing as a guest on “The Daily Show”. He was talking about global warming. At the time I thought the legendary satirist had coined the phrase, but since then I’ve learned that author/environmental visionary Paul Hawken popularized the phrase in his 2008 book, “The Eleventh Hour.” The phrase exemplifies the human inclination to try to make a joke out of unpleasant facts.

Even the most obstinate ostrich can’t fail to have noticed the earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, volcanoes, even, which seem to be getting bigger, deadlier and more frequent each year. Whether you view these events as part of the normal give-and-take of the natural world, or as the inevitable consequence of human impact on the environment, or the wrath of the god of your choice, it’s getting harder to avoid acknowledging what Al Gore in his landmark book called “An Inconvenient Truth.”

This planet is in need of a fix. And duct tape ain’t going to cut it.

The current crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, where 200,000 gallons a day continue to leak into the sea, is a case in point. BP has admitted it has no system in place for dealing with such an accident. They had a cut-off valve. That’s broken. Now what?

Now, thousands of dolphins, pelicans, shrimp, herons, crabs and sea turtles are in grave danger. Now, millions of people in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida who depend on the Gulf for their jobs face yet another hardship in this difficult recession.

At this time there is no solution in sight. The oil will continue to leak and could do so for months, which would put the Deepwater event in the running for the worst oil spill in history — far worse than the headline-grabbing Exxon Valdez accident in 1989. The Valdez spilled a paltry 10.8 million gallons of oil into the Alaskan sea, and killed thousands of birds and fish, along with 2,800 sea otters. Exxon rushed to blame the drunken captain, who was eventually fined $50,000 and given 1,000 hours of community service. Doesn’t that make you feel better? No? How about this: Exxon has been fighting in court ever since to avoid paying any fines or clean-up costs. No doubt they’re counting pennies like the rest of us. Yesterday they reported only a 38 percent profit jump as oil prices leapt in response to the Deepwater mess.

Humans forgive and forget it seems. Few people remember the Bay of Campeche, Mexico, where in June of 1979 the Ixtol 1 leaked 140 million gallons of oil over the course of a year. And even it wasn’t number one on the Spill Spectacular List. That singular dishonor belongs to the June 1991 Persian Gulf War crime in Kuwait, when Saddam Hussein ordered his soldiers to dump 520 million gallons of crude in the sea rather than surrender it to US troops.

But of course, we weren’t fighting for oil. Then.

The pressure to drill in ever more dangerous and environmentally sensitive locations never stops. As recently as last month President Obama agreed to open previously off-limits areas in the Atlantic, Alaskan waters, and the eastern areas of the Gulf of Mexico. If there’s any tarnished silver lining to this whole Deepwater fiasco it’s that Obama has reversed his decision. For now.

But we all know the pressure will build again. An election will up the ante. Slogan slingers will reload and fire away.

And we, the people, will watch the oil sludge pile up our beaches. When it does, we’ll make jokes about it. Because that’s what we do.

Exit, laughing.

Write or Wrong

I can’t relate to Kindle.
The iPad leaves me cold.

I understand that the publishing industry is running scared. Fewer people read books these days. Fewer still buy them. Profit margins are shrinking, and publishers are grasping at any device to lure customers away from movies, television, and video games and back to the printed word.

I have friends who adore their high tech gadgets. But I cannot embrace a future without books. And when I say books, I mean the kind with paper pages that whisper softly as you turn them, that get stained but don’t die when you spill coffee on them.

So, being the deluded optimist that I am, after reading in  The New Yorker how Apple founder Steve Jobs asserted that forty percent of Americans read only one book or less in the last year, I choose to focus on the positive side of that statistic. Math was never my strong suit, but it seems to me that the other sixty percent must be reading at least one book a year. In fact, according to  some sources, the Americans who do read tend to read an average of twenty books a year ( Not too shabby.

However, we all know that statistics were invented to facilitate obfuscation.
What has me worried is the idea of a future in which children don’t sit in their parents’ laps listening to “Goodnight Moon,” or “Where the Wild Things Are,” but instead watch a video played on a flatscreen mounted in the crib. I suppose that seems fairly harmless to the generation whose children have grown up watching videos in the family SUV.

Of course sci-fi writers have been painting ominous pictures of dystopian futures for some time, but the disturbing truth is that reality  has a way of outdoing fiction for flat-out bizarre terror. I recently read a deeply disturbing yet brilliant book about an all-too possible future where the kind of non-stop video and internet info-slush-pile no longer takes place outside the human body in a handheld device. In “feed,” M.T. Anderson’s 2002 prize-winning young adult novel, children are implanted with a transmitter that keeps them continually updated, connected and marketed to in a world which has become toxic through pollution and corporate over-reaching. In the context of Anderson’s imaginative vision, the notion of reading a hand-held book seems laughably out-dated. But the chilling message of “feed” reveals the danger of surrendering our autonomy to giant powers outside ourselves, who decide what stories will be told, and how.

Stories have power. Every religion is founded on a story. Something precious is lost when we lose our ability to give and receive the spoken and written word. I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong with the iPad and the Kindle and the Nook, and whatever comes after them. But I hope in our rush to “improve” the technology of the book we don’t lose sight of what really matters.

Written books are the notes we pass in the classroom of human history. Pssst. Pass it on.

The Miraculously Mellow Manatee

What's Not To Love?
What's Not To Love?

What strikes you first about a manatee is not its size, or its enigmatic expression, but its almost mystic aura of calm.

This is all the more striking when you happen to be with a group of excited tourists all eagerly flapping around trying to get close enough to touch and snap pictures of the elusive creature, whose endangered status grants it some degree of protection from its admirers. But perhaps not enough.

When my son encouraged me to join him on a snorkeling adventure to see the manatees up close and personal, I was hesitant at first. Although I enjoy swimming, I’m terrified of alligators, and in Florida they’re everywhere. However, since we would be snorkeling in a group of fifteen, I swallowed my fear and banked on the safety in numbers.

We had to be at the dive shop at the crack of before dawn, since manatees are particularly sensitive to water temperatures. Too cold and they die. Too warm and they stop moving around. To catch sight of them in the shallow lagoons of Crystal River, Florida, you have to get in the 72 degree water before eight a.m. And before you leave the dock you have to get into a wet suit and watch a video informing you of all the rules and “manatee manners” which are strictly enforced to protect the manatees from their hordes of admirers.

In my naiveté I had thought that when we arrived at the site it would be just us and the manatees. But when our guide cut the engine and dropped anchor there were a half dozen other tour boats already on the scene. There were also several observers in kayaks from manatee watch groups to enforce the rules and make sure none of the snorkelers forgot their manners.

At the sight of all these humans and boats my expectations for a memorable manatee moment fell. If I were a manatee I certainly wouldn’t want to stick around while scores of gawking humans stirred up the water. But it seems that manatees are far more mellow than I.

When the first one drifted past me, its little flippers comically small in relation to its portly bulk, it floated so serenely, seemingly without effort, like an underwater dirigible. Its mild demeanor and whiskered nose put me in mind of Wimpy, the cartoon character famous for his fondness for hamburgers, although the manatee is an herbivore, its preference for grass earning it the nickname “sea cow.”

However, unlike clumsy cows, the manatee’s graceful movement and gentle calm suggest an almost magical poise. They are innately loveable creatures. It’s easy to understand how sailors seeing them in the distance long ago might have imagined they were mermaids. Obviously those long sea voyages were a strain for lonely sailors.

For the manatee, whose existence is threatened by loss of habitat, global warming, power boats and reckless human behavior, the hope for continued survival depends not only on managing the threats to its habitat, but on managing the natural human desire to get closer to the things we love. Manatees don’t appear to have the instinct to fight off intruders. Maybe it’s a miracle they’ve lasted this long. But I hope we can keep the manatee miracle going.

Out of Site, Out of Mind

Listen closely. Birds are twittering in the bushes. Teenagers are tweeting in the classrooms. The sounds of spring are everywhere. But that gnashing and grinding that you may hear off in the distance is the result of the inevitable winding up of the overworked engines of protest here in Seattle.

The causes vary. There’s the ever popular tunnel vs viaduct debate, which rages on in spite of numerous studies and referendums. There’s the hotly contested issue of naked baristas in the tiny drive-thru espresso huts. There’s endless serious concern over the health of the salmon, the clams, and the waters of the Puget Sound.

Sidewalk solo
Sidewalk solo

One recent debate seems to have been put to rest, at least temporarily. The life-size statue of Jimi Hendrix which has graced the sidewalk of Broadway Avenue in Capitol Hill for the last thirteen years is going to stay put, rather than be moved to the newly planned Jimi Hendrix Park across town. Personally, while I understand the reluctance of residents of Capitol Hill to lose the statue, I have to say that it seems somehow wrong for Jimi to be stuck out by the curb next to the recycling. I’d like to see the statue on a more elevated site, perhaps near an outdoor stage at the new park. But apparently the majority of residents don’t share that view. And that’s fine. Democracy in action, or inaction. Whatever.

The latest hot issue may generate more high profile debate, however. The proposal to create a new privately operated museum at the Seattle Center dedicated to the work of glass art genius Dale Chihuly has stirred up a pot of contention. And it’s going to be a tough call any way it goes down.

On the one hand are the people who worry that there are already too many high dollar tourist attractions at the Center at the expense of precious open space for Seattle residents. The proposed Chihuly building would take over a portion of what was once the very popular kiddie ride park, the Fun Forest. But on the other hand, the Chihuly project would generate much needed revenue for the Center as a whole, and, occupying an estimated one and a half acres, it would take only a fraction of the Center’s 74 acres.

Still, it would make one more place downtown off-limits to those without disposable income. And that’s hard to support. Not when there are so many other neighborhoods in Seattle with space to spare which could benefit from the presence of a stellar attraction. Is it really such a good idea to concentrate all of the city’s major tourist sites in one small quadrant? Or is that the idea? To contain the cruise ship influx?

I’m a fan of Chihuly’s work, of course. There are already more than a few places to see it around town, but it requires a scavenger hunt approach and a good pair of hiking shoes. To have a formal collection of it in one place makes sense. Should that place be the Seattle Center?

Debaters, start your engines.

Mythic Mountain

We’ve all seen it. On the news, in movies and cartoons. It’s a man-made icon of one of America’s most compelling products. Its image evokes a land of golden opportunities, bright stars and happy endings. And it’s threatened by development.

The Hollywood Sign has loomed in tilted splendor above sprawling Los Angeles since 1923. In the beginning, no one expected it to become a national landmark, much less a treasured symbol of an industry that markets dreams to the world. In a way, the Hollywood sign represents the imaginary romance of LA, in the same way that the Eiffel Tower represents the imaginary romance of Paris. At the time of its construction in 1889, many Parisians considered the Eiffel Tower an eyesore and a waste of money. Yet in time the city embraced the tower, and it became symbolic of all things French. In Hollywood, surely no one expected the 45-foot-high crude letters on a mountainside to become legendary, yet so they have.

In the eighty-seven years since it was first built as a temporary advertisement for “Hollywoodland” the sign has been restored a few times, most recently in 1978 when the original letters were replaced with steel thanks to the philanthropy of major Hollywood supporters including Roy Rogers and Alice Cooper. The sign itself is now owned and maintained by the Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation. But the 138 acres of open space behind the sign which provide its dramatic backdrop are now threatened by development. Supporters are trying to raise 12.5 million before April 14 to protect the mountain on which the Hollywood Sign stands for all time.

It could be argued in a world like ours, where tragedy and chaos devastate lives with depressing regularity, that to put money and effort into saving a mere symbol of the creative imagination is frivolous, if not reprehensible. But I would argue that the human ability to imagine a better life, to hope for an end to suffering, to dream of a better future, is what enables us to continue fighting to mend our world. And Hollywood, for all its flaws, feeds the flames of hope all over the world.

You can say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.

Glory Daze

It’s been a week since the Olympics in Vancouver ended, but I still can’t get that anthem out of my head. It seemed like every time you turned around somebody on a podium was getting misty-eyed as they lustily sang along to “Oh Canada.”

Why don’t we have a song like that in our country?

I know, we have a national anthem. But wouldn’t it be cool if it were the sort of song normal people – not necessarily trained in light opera or gospel powerhouse – could sing?

Controversy over national anthems is nothing new, of course. Even in Canada apparently they’ve had long-running debates over the translation of their anthem (the original was in French – mon dieu!; and they also have an Inuktitut version). Here in the fractious United States there have always been champions of other anthem contenders such as “God Bless America” – the easiest to sing by far, “My Country T’is of Thee” – the first patriotic song many public school children learn, and my personal favorite, “America the Beautiful.” Over the years there have been nominations for a handful of other spirited songs – Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” among them. But in the land of the free-for-all and the home of the reckless, it’s pretty hard to get a consensus on anything, even something as seemingly innocuous as a song.

Yet the power of music to motivate and lift the spirit is undeniable, and for that reason the importance of a national anthem which the people of the nation can actually sing is not insignificant. During the Olympics we get a chance to hear the anthems of a variety of nations (or at least any of them who happened to be sharing the podium with an American, since our television coverage gives the impression that the only medals which count are those won by Americans – but that’s another rant).

I have to say that for the most part, the anthems of other nations don’t register with me. “La Marseillaise” is an exception, thanks in part to the unforgettable scene in “Casablanca” where Victor Laszlo leads the oppressed patrons of Rick’s Café Américain in a rousing rendition which drowns out the competing Nazi oppressors at another table. A minor victory, perhaps, but a telling one.

Which illustrates the problem with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Suppose teams of singers were chosen at random from the spectators at a soccer game between the United States and France, and they had to compete in a simultaneous sing-off of national anthems. I think we all know what would happen. The US team would start off boldly, but the song wasn’t designed to be sung by average people. The melody swoops up, it swoops down, it almost never settles into a steady rhythm, and it ends with a killer high note. Thanks a lot, Francis Scott Key.

To its credit, TSSB is a stirring song. Like “La Marseillaise,” it’s a battle song, fit for football kick-offs and baseball diamonds. But, it ain’t hummable. Unlike that Canadian number. Man, there’s a catchy tune. Like a slow-moving train.

Here’s when it hit me. I was watching the men’s final of the curling event. Yeah, I know. I never thought it could happen to me, but you know how it is. You start by watching a few rounds, just for laughs, and then you realize that it’s a kind of prehistoric version of billiards crossed with shuffleboard, and it casts its own hypnotic spell. Plus there’s the pleasure to be had from any mystery, i.e., what the hell’s going on? The Canadian men were fighting for their first gold against a skilled Norwegian team who had generated a lot of media buzz due to their pants. That’s right. I said pants. When all about you are wearing sober black and you show up in harlequin red and gold, it gets noticed.

Anyway, things were rolling along in the sedate, some might say catatonic, way of the sport. A general air of civility and quiet was evident in spite of the growing excitement among the Canadian fans that they might actually make history. And then it happened. Sometime around the ninth end (a technical curling term), from the Canadian fans a soft sound grew as the familiar strains of “Oh Canada” rose on a fervent swell of national pride. This was unprecedented! Singing in the seats at a curling event? The players waited, bemused expressions on their faces, even the Norwegians, who by then could read the cursive on the wall, until the song ended, and a polite cheer went up.

This could never happen at, say, an American hockey match. And it’s not because we don’t all know the words to TSSB. It’s because the song wasn’t written for ordinary mortals to sing, not even ordinary mortals who’ve had a few beers and are feeling fairly invincible.

But “Oh, Canada” has the kind of easy-going, middle-of-the-road range that any child can sing. And it’s not about bombs bursting and rockets glaring. It’s about brotherhood and love of country. That’s all I want in a national anthem. At least until we can all agree on Bruce Springsteen.

There Is No “I” In Scream

I once went to a truly scary movie by accident. It was “Repulsion,” a riveting psychological suspense thriller starring Catherine Deneuve as a delusional young woman alone in her apartment, imagining the worst. There was very little actual blood, no monsters lurching, biting or slashing. The horror was all in the heroine’s mind, and Ms. Deneuve conveyed her terror with such conviction that I could hardly bear to sit through the entire thing.

So. Not such a big fan of the horror genre. That said, I appreciate a finely wrought suspense film or novel, and admire the mastery of Hitchcock, the snarky brilliance of Polanski. But I wonder sometimes about the current gentrification of horror. Tonight is Halloween, a holiday which once occupied a single day, and was celebrated mostly by children under the age of twelve. Now in this country, the only country where Halloween has undergone a kind of Hollywood makeover, the Halloween season lasts for the entire month of October, and adults throw themselves into it with far greater abandon than the kids. I know, because I was once one of the happy party people arrayed in wigs and sparkles and fake gore, where applicable, and it was fabulous fun.

But as I wandered past the Halloween stores in the malls near Washington, DC, last week, I found myself wondering if perhaps we haven’t taken the thing too far, and if so, why?

For myself I know that Halloween used to offer a kind of release, a temporary escape from the altogether more frightening and far more entrenched terrors of the modern world. I’d list them but I don’t see any point in Pox News. Maybe the reason Halloween has grown so huge commercially is that people are responding to the underlying paranoia that lurks like a poisonous gas beneath the surface of our slick technological confidence.

If only werewolves and vampires and zombies were all that we had to fear.

I just finished reading “Boneshaker,” a cool steampunk novel by Seattle author Cherie Priest which explores the ways in which we humans allow fears and rumors to keep us from taking positive steps to fix problems. I related to the novel not only because it was set in a kind of alternate Seattle, but because the heroine is a mother battling hordes of undead and fiendish psychopaths in addition to her own sense of inadequacy as she tries to make things right with her only son. I like a heroine who can kick ass when it’s called for, while still retaining a core of emotional vulnerability.

That’s just one reason I detest most of the “women-in-jeopardy” films and novels which purport to be entertainment. Women all over the world are in enough jeopardy, and have been since the days when they were considered chattel. To perpetuate barbaric attitudes and to depict them in such quantities that people get numb to the ideas embedded in them seems criminal to me.

However, if the annual crop of slasher films is any indication, clearly the hooligans are dictating the playbook these days. It seems a large number of people enjoy screaming in horror at the movies.

I guess I understand. In the face of of global warming, nuclear threats, terrorists and plagues, it’s easier to avert an imaginary disaster than to work to prevent the real thing. I could just scream.