Long Weekend

Oh, the things you can get done on a long weekend (after the kitchen is cleaned). We went through all the congrats cards we brought back from the party in Ireland and made a list for thank-you notes. Started writing thank-you notes. Then I did my usual thing of displaying the cards for a while on the bookshelf. Many a birthday card, thank-you card, wedding announcements, and more have been displayed on this shelf. It prolongs the delight. 🙂

Wedding cards.

Wedding cards.

And those little bells? They were repurposed from my friend Amy’s wedding (more than a decade ago) and used by a group of friends to ring us “in” when we arrived at the Nashville Airport on 20 October.

This is the weekend for counting our blessings, and we really are blessed when it comes to friends.

Giving Up Your Language

Consider for a moment the effects of being asked to change the language you use. … Brian Friel’s play Translations, written in 1980, depicts this in an Irish setting. The action takes place in County Donegal in 1833: we follow a detachment of English soldiers who are part of an Ordnance Survey team anglicizing Gaelic place names, and their work illustrates the significance of names in framing people’s perceptions of the land, The belief that Gaelic is somehow responsible for Irish savagery, superstition and sententiousness dates back at least to the sixteenth century, when Henry VIII asserted that it was sufficient grounds for compelling the Irish to speak English. (When he declared himself king of Ireland in 1541, he did so first in English and then, as an afterthought, in the language of the people he was bringing under his rule.) Friel’s play dramatizes the moment when one language supplants another.

There are areas of Britain where people still use languages that were present before the arrival roughly 1,500 years ago of the Germanic settlers whose dialects became English. But while the central role of English has not been achieved without bloodshed and resentment, it is a largely uncontroversial fact, historically ingrained. Of the languages spoken in Britain today, Welsh has the most ancient roots. … The decline of Welsh began with the seizure of the English Crown by the part-Welsh Henry VII in 1485, and accelerated in the sixteenth century as English became the language of education and administration in Wales …

In Scotland, English arrived earlier; there were English-speaking settlers as far back as the sixth century. However, English became the de facto public language only in 1707 when the Act of Union joined Scotland to England and Wales. …

In Ireland, as Friel’s play Translations suggests, the situation is rather different. Ireland is not a part of Britain, although in my experience some otherwise knowledgeable people seem to consider this an eccentric statement. The details of Irish history are too complex to digest here. The first English-speakers to settle there arrived in the twelfth century, but it was only in the seventeenth century that Irish resistance to English plantation gave way. By the following century, the use of Gaelic was “a marker of rural, Catholic poverty” whereas English was associated with “Protestantism, ownership, and the towns,” although some towns “had a sizeable Gaelic-speaking working class until well into the nineteenth century.” Gaelic was to a large degree abandoned in the nineteenth century, but from the 1890s it was promoted as a minority language. For present purposes, it is enough to say that Gaelic has in Ireland an appreciable symbolic value; that there is a distinct Irish English with its own grammatical features, vowel sounds, stresses and vocabulary; that Irish English exists in several different forms, and that, these facts notwithstanding, English is spoken by very nearly everyone in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

—Henry Hitchings

Transcribed by me from pages 253–4 of my hardback copy of The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, © 2011, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

“Don’t Go THERE”

In the wake of the attacks in Paris—and the subsequent outrage that we haven’t paid enough attention to terrorist attacks in other cities (recently Beirut, for example)—I am reminded of a more innocent don’t-go-there story, a personal one.

It was late 2005. The American president had gone stomping off to the Middle East to kick some butt in retaliation for the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, and the French had declined to go along with the program. All over the country, outraged ignoramuses quit drinking French wine and declared that they were never eating another french fry. (Freedom fries, on the other hand … )

Gerry and I had planned a trip to Paris for the following spring, and as soon as some of these folks heard the news, we got the feedback: “Don’t go there.”

Well, we went, and we had a grand time. (You’re talking to a woman who flew from Nashville to San Jose nine days after 9-11. “Aren’t you scared?” people asked. Puh-leeze.) Wild horses could not have kept me from Paris; stupidology certainly wasn’t going to.

Me. In Paris! Can you believe it, y’all? I couldn’t. February 2006.

Me. In Paris! Can you believe it, y’all? I couldn’t. February 2006.

So I was delighted that the NY Times pulled out this travel piece by Paul Theroux, “Why We Travel,” and posted it to social media.

“Don’t go there,” the know-it-all, stay-at-home finger wagger says of many a distant place. I have heard it my whole traveling life, and in almost every case it was bad advice. In my experience these maligned countries are often the most fulfilling. I am not saying they are fun. For undiluted jollification you bake in the sun at Waikiki with a mai tai in your fist, or eat lotuses on the Côte d’Azur. As for the recognition of hard travel as rewarding, the feeling is mainly retrospective, since it is only in looking back that we see how we have been enriched. At the time, of course, the experience of being a bystander to sudden political or social change can be alarming.

Throughout history the traveler has been forced to recognize the fact that leaving home means a loss of innocence, encountering uncertainty: the wider world has typically been regarded as haunted, a place of darkness: “There Be Dragons.” Or as Othello reported, “Cannibals that each other eat, /The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads/Do grow beneath their shoulders.”

I think you’ll enjoy it.

Meanwhile, in this household we mourn the state of the world today—in Paris, Beirut, and elsewhere. But it won’t stop us from planning our next trip.

Thinking About the Next Trip … Or Not

Before I’d even left for Ireland this fall, I read a piece in Time magazine about a show (going on now through 18 January 2016) at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer

Here’s the blurb from the museum’s website:

From nobles to merchants to milkmaids, Dutch artists in the time of Rembrandt and Vermeer portrayed all levels of society in masterful detail.

Organized by the MFA, this groundbreaking exhibition proposes a new approach to understanding 17th-century Dutch painting. Through 75 carefully selected, beautifully preserved portraits, genre scenes, landscapes and seascapes borrowed from European and American public and private collections—including masterpieces never before seen in the United States—the show reflects, for the first time, the ways in which paintings represent the various socioeconomic groups of the new Dutch Republic, from the Princes of Orange to the most indigent.

Class distinctions had meaning and were expressed in the type of work depicted (or the lack thereof), costumes, a figure’s comportment and behavior, and his physical environment. Arranged according to 17th-century ideas about social stratification, paintings by artists such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, Jan Steen, Pieter de Hooch, Gerard ter Borch and Gabriel Metsu, are divided broadly into three classes—upper, middle and lower—and within them, into sub-groups.

Nobles, merchants, and milkmaids are among the figures in the thematic groupings, reflecting the social order of the new Dutch Republic. Viewers are encouraged to look closely at the images for clues that differentiate a mistress from a maid, or might distinguish a noble from a social-climbing merchant.

A final section explores the places where the classes in Dutch society met one another. Opportunities for these encounters arose in the city and the country, winter and summer, indoors and out, at leisure or at work, on the threshold of a house or of a business. Paintings depicting the meeting of the classes are among the liveliest of the era. Three table settings of objects used by each class (including salt cellars, candlesticks, mustard pots, and linens), but diverging in material and decoration—highlight material differences among the classes. The accompanying publication features essays by a team of distinguished Dutch scholars and exhibition curator Ronni Baer, the MFA’s William and Ann Elfers Senior Curator of Paintings.

If you know me, you know how I feel about the Dutch Masters. So why not do it? Fly to Boston, see the museum, have a nice meal, spend the night, fly home. Why not, indeed? Back in early September, it sounded like fun. And I really am crazy about the Dutch Masters.

Vermeer: The Astronomer (1668), Louvre, Paris. Public domain image from Wikipedia.

Vermeer: The Astronomer (1668), Louvre, Paris. Public domain image from Wikipedia.

But now, in November, even with cheap Get Away fares on Southwest Airlines, it has begun to look like a lot of work (and expense). So we’ve decided not to do it. Neither of us have been to Boston, we’d both like to go … and we’d like to see more of it than we currently have time for. (Me, I want to see the USS Constitution. How about you?) For now, we’ll forgo Rembrandt, et al.

So why did I write this blog post, for pete’s sake?

First, if you’re in the Boston area, if you’re within driving distance, you should go. I think it will be a great show, the museum has several related events, videos, and galleries scheduled, and the exhibition book (also called Class Distinctions) looks fantastic.

But that’s not why either. No, while I was looking to see if the Class Distinctions exhibit would travel (apparently not), I discovered this:

CODART—Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

CODART is “an international network for curators of art from the Low Countries. This website is the best guide to Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide.” (Read more about CODART here.)

Hello, gorgeous. If you’re a fan, this is the place for you. Aside from everything else, CODART (funded by the Dutch government) maintains a list of museums all over the world with significant collections of Dutch and Flemish art. There’s also an extensive research guide for the serious (and less-serious) art fan. All public, all in English.

So if you can’t go to Boston (or Paris, or Washington DC), perhaps you can find a museum closer to home! Enjoy—and be sure you let me know what you saw. 🙂

Lexington Thriller Parade

Last week one of my friends—a former resident of Lexington, Kentucky—posted on Facebook a video of the annual reenactment of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video that has happened in downtown Lexington every year since 2002.

Source: Thriller! Lexington Facebook page.

Source: Thriller! Lexington Facebook page.

It purely delighted me, and I have put it on my bucket list.

“When you think of Halloween in Lexington,” says the writeup at the Lexington Herald-Leader’s website,

You think of candy, pumpkins—and the Thriller community dance during the Halloween parade.

First conceived in 2002, Teresa Tomb of Mecca Dance Studio and Melissa McCartt- Smyth, who works in the office of Lexington mayor Jim Gray, refined the idea by putting out a note to see if Lexingtonians were interested in participating.

The idea was to involve Lexingtonians even if they didn’t have formal dance training.

That first year, McCartt-Smyth recalls, “We worked on it for a couple of weeks. We did a little rolling (street) blockage with the police. We did word of mouth. We even invited my parent.”

It was a modest thing.

“We thought it would be just a fun little street performance,” Tomb said.

Tomb and McCartt-Smyth thought that would be the end of it—until the next July, when they started getting calls asking when rehearsals for 2003 Thriller would start.

Here’s a clip from 2015, 2014, and 2013.

Isn’t that just fabulous? This year thousands lined the streets to watch, and they had six Michael Jacksons and more than twelve hundred zombies. The zombie walk is open even to those who have no dance or theater training, but they must learn the dance. Lexington-dot-gov says if you want to shamble along, it’ll cost you $11.00 ($6.00 if you’re sixteen or under), and you are required to attend at least one regular rehearsal and one staging rehearsal.

Now, Lexington’s a four-hour drive from here, so I don’t think I’ll be dancing in the streets, but I do think it would be fun to be there some October, don’t you?