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Archive for April, 2008

Words, Words, Words (again)

It’s official.  I–to use a delicate and especially eloquent term–blow at regular blog updating.  Is it because I feel stretched thin between all the hard work I do at work (four hours a day is a long day indeed, after all, especially when it’s a mentally taxing job that involves filing paperwork, printing out certificates, invigilating English placement exams, sorting mail…I could go on…) and the hard work I do at my writing (essays don’t write themselves, obviously–as this blog is becoming a testament to!)?  Or is it because Spring, in some strange and elusive guise, is finally, almost, sort of, here?

Both, probably.  Today I went out into the garden to drop some wilting lettuce into the compost bin and discovered that our neighbors have installed a trampoline in their garden, complete with a mesh border (so that exuberant jumpers can feel safer, even if they aren’t, really).  It was so warm out that I considered lingering, maybe even sitting in the grass and reading.  But I was afraid of the slugs (they crawl into your shoes when you’re not looking), and it wasn’t sunny.  I just couldn’t get excited about a springtime saturday spent loafing in the garden without the sun.  I came back inside, locked the back door, and set to work doing boring household things that make me feel as if I’ve accomplished more than I actually have (whoever came up with the idea of filing bank statements is a genius, as is the inventor of cleaning counters).  Now I’m sprawled on the couch convincing myself that a run up the hill to Headington would be a good idea, and not a painful exercise in seeing how out of shape I really am, sipping tea, and feeling disgustingly pleased with myself.  Lord, what would I be like if I actually accomplished things?
The other day at work, we wondered what the universal term for “I kissed him” would be.  The office of an international school is a pretty good place to wonder this.  Apparently a dutch girl had come in and asked how to say it: she’d used the term “hooked up,” a quintessentially American phrase, and been giggled at by her colleagues, who either didn’t recognize the meaning or automatically assumed that it referred to sex.  All she had meant was that she had snogged the boy–except that “snog” is not a term you will ever hear, really, in America (or likely in other parts of the world except Britain).  I, for one, spent a long time thinking that “hook up” was just another way of saying “make out,” until someone pointed out that common use of the word includes all the bases; then I started to use it that way, and now I can’t go back.  Possibly she thought the same; until corrected.
  
She could have, my colleagues reasoned, said “got off with” except that this could conceivably also imply sex; she could say “got together with,” but this might not convey enough physical contact.  And of course, she could have just said “kissed,” but where’s the fun in that?  I wondered: where do these ridiculous rules come from?  And how do we know where the line is, in any given phrase, between playing innocently in the dark and inhibitions-to-the-wind-sex is if we keep moving it?  Why is “I slept with him,” or, “I shagged him” acceptable in friendly conversation, while, “I had sex with him” is only reserved for very serious discussions?  And when you get a group of people together from all over the world, how on earth are you meant to communicate with such nuanced language?  We invent these phrases to work for us; but we end up working for them. 
If language is the chosen tool of the human race, why are we so crap at letting it get the best of us all the time?  Why, when I have so many words, do I find it impossible to commit to committing them to paper with any regularity?  They hide when I seek them; and come bubbling to the surface when I need them most to be subdued.  A few cocktails in, I have all the words in the world at my fingertips, but my fingers are too clumsy to maneuver them; in the starkness of morning, I have the ability to sculpt at will, but find that either my will is gone, or the tools themselves have retreated into the darkness for a nap.  
“What do you read, my lord?” said Polonious; and
“Words, words, words,” said Hamlet, alighting upon, in my opinion, one of the greatest truths in all of literature.  And as if to prove the ridiculousness of words themselves Polonious then asks:
“What is the matter, my lord?” and Hamlet responds, (as he is well justified in doing!),
“Between who?”
“I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.”
They say that God has a sense of humour; but so, I would argue, do words.

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Fumio Kitaoka, Japan

Mehdi Qotbi, Morocco

Chéri Samba, Zaire

Robert Combas, France

Rivka Freidman, Israel

Laila Shawa, Palestine

Sandro Chia, Vatican City

Rima Farah, Jordan


Andrea Cristina Las, Brazil

John Piper, England


Robert Longo, USA


Dia Azzawi, Iraq

I have this fondness for the word juxtapositions. It appears to be constantly on the tip of my fingers, the edge of my tongue. I overuse it (we all have a few words we overuse–one of my favorite bits of Vanity Fair’s back page Proust Questionnaire was always the question “which word or phrase do you most overuse”, though most of the jaded celebrities the magazine chose to interview generally answered with something akin to “cuntsucker, of course”). So I’m going to use it again, and when I’m a famous and jaded person with enough wrinkles and sarcastic asides to warrant being featured on the last pages of magazines, I’ll tell them that the phrase I most overuse is “I’m sorry”, because I’m also going to apologize for using it, but…please note the fabulous, fantastic, phantasmagoric juxtapositions above (phantasmagoric: “characterized by fantastic imagery and incongruous juxtapositions”–I checked!).

I think images have a tendency to be seen as what they are; but overlooked for what they represent. I don’t mean reading into the art of an image, like you would a book, and coming up with symbolism and metaphor. We do that readily enough; art historians make a career of it. But the amazing thing to me about the prints above, though I find them striking and some of them even beautiful, is their story, their placement, and the fact that they all live within one international art portfolio: so that a piece of work from Iraq is literally sandwiched between one from the USA and one from England, while a print from Israel rests peacefully next to one from Palestine.

The images are all from something called the Hope & Optimism Portfolio, which was set up by a friend of ours early, early in the 1990’s as a charity to benefit the arts in young Namibia. A number of identical portfolios, each composed of about 90 original, signed, and numbered prints from nearly as many nations, were produced; but it’s been practically 20 years since it all happened, and still a few complete portfolios remain in storage. Selling them is hard work, mainly because of the sheer scope of the project: it’s difficult for a gallery to justify purchasing 90+ prints when they don’t have space to display them all. But I’m attracted to the project for what it proves: nations at odds can still be part of something greater than themselves, can still cooperate, can still, rather crucially, create rather than destruct (or do I just like the whole thing because it gives me a valid excuse to say “juxtapositions” ten times daily?). I’m both hopeful and optimistic that the right people will see that as well, and give the prints a home.

All of the prints are for sale; email info@hopeandoptimism.com for more information…

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A Cat

A few weeks ago, we acquired, briefly, a cat. I thought cats had long ago lost their ability to charm me (nasty creatures, I thought—an impression reinforced by almost every cat I have come into contact with in the last fifteen years), but I was wrong. This one, just barely old enough to no longer be called a kitten, was soft and gentle, with a white body and ash-grey marks all over. He, or she, developed a liking for our front garden, and could often be seen lounging on the low brick wall outside the house, flicking the tail, grooming a paw, watching the happenings on Hurst Street with passive grace. When one of us would come outside, our new friend would leap happily from its perch to weave between our legs, purring busily, nuzzling up against us as if the pure human contact was enough to keep it happy. Sometimes it slept just outside the front door. We didn’t know whether or not to feed it or not—it seemed well-adjusted enough to possibly belong to someone, and never acted particularly hungry, and didn’t look at all lanky—but resolved that if, within a week, the little ball of fur and fluff and friendliness was still favoring our garden, we would extend a tenuous offer of a more permanent kind of home to it, and see what happened.

I secretly hoped for the chance to find out, but I also had a feeling that such a creature had not been spawned from some seedy world of pub-dumpsters and late-night catfights. Sure enough, the visits became more infrequent; then stopped altogether, though a few blocks down the street, I can now every so often spot the flick of an ashy tail, the lick of a kind paw. I wonder if it’s because we didn’t, after all, set out milk on our front door; but I know the cat wasn’t ours to appropriate, and then I wonder how it is that such a tiny creature can evoke desires I never knew I had.

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