Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Off the beaten path in the Dentist chair

I browse through magazines when I’m at the dentist’s office, mostly to ease the anxiety that accompanies these visits.  My experience with dentists, from a young age, evokes nightmare visions of painful toothaches and shrill loud drills.  “I just want to keep what I have for the time I have left,” I tell the dentist.  He smiles, ruefully.  He’d love to put in several implants, to the tune of over $10,000, which would be nice, but I’d rather spend the money on travel and vacations. I’m not his best patient.

So it was that I read the latest issue of the Smithsonian magazine (April 2013) from cover to cover. The travel issue. Some great articles.     
Fireworks sculpture, opening ceremony, 2008 Beijing Olympics,
 www.caiquochang, and below photo by Jason Lee, Reuters. 

My favorite was "Burning Man," by Ron Rosenbaum, about the amazing artist Cai  (pronounced Tsai) Quo-Chang, born in China and now living in New York City, who designed the awesome “fireworks sculptures” that opened the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Remember them?

I never did know much about the artist, but I was one of more than 34 million people worldwide who watched the spectacular fireworks creations in awe, the most artistic I’ve ever seen, before or since.  Not just "bombs bursting in air," but beautiful creations in the sky.  Cai creates “ethereal art traced in flames and gunpowder,” explosive art, writes Rosenbaum.  He “wants to paint the heavens like Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling..."

Cai says simply, "I want to open a dialogue with the universe.” He certainly is doing that, on super-large canvases and through super-large installations, "sculptures," in nature.  He has a fascinating personal history, including memories of his father, a calligrapher and rare book-collector,  during the “cultural revolution,” when  Mao Zedong exiled and killed thousands of intellectuals and “cultural elites.”  Cai's father secretly burned his precious collections in fear of capture. Sad. Thousands upon thousands of professors, writers, and artists were lost, or toiled in fields and factories into oblivion.  These memories burned deep into Cai's psyche, from which he derives his artistic inspiration.  It's an inspiration embellished with a mixture of Taoist and Buddhist beliefs about our eternal connections to the invisible universe, a fascination with modern technology, pyrotechnics, and physics, fear and awe of nuclear power (he worked in Japan after the tsunami), and a sense that aliens or souls from other planets and places want to communicate with us.    Such an unusual artistic vision and such unique ways of expressing it! com. I think my family
       had this in its library. These kinds of  nature
books inspired my brother Loren. . 

The April issue of the Smithsonian also has a great article by Tony Perrottet, “Birthplace of the American Vacation,” about  the travel and nature writings of  19th-century Boston preacher William H.H. Murray.  Perrottet traces the idea of a "vacation" to Murray's obsession with the Adirondack Mountains in Upper New York State, their beauty and restorative powers.  Murray wrote as eloquently about the Adirondacks as Thoreau wrote about Walden, John Muir about the American wilderness, and photographer Ansel Adams about the Southwest and California. But  Murray didn't just glorify nature, he offered specific ways of being in the mountains and experiencing them.

Murray, it turns out, published, in 1869, "one of the first guidebooks to a wilderness area in America." The country had emerged from the horrors of Civil War and industrial capitalism was taking off. It’s hard to believe that his eulogies to hiking, hunting, fishing and camping in the Adirondacks were initially condemned as threats to civilized life!  But public opinion came around soon enough.  By 1875 the Adirondacks was becoming a booming tourist attraction. Gilded age tycoons like the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and Carnegies led the way, building hide-away retreats in the mountains, and ordinary American followed. The lakes, 3000 of them, the winding roads and rivers, the forests and backwoods beckoned, generation after generation.  

I know they called to my family, living as we did in Rochester, NY.  We went to the Adirondacks to visit friends and relatives and to vacation, and my brother Loren went to summer camp there, on Lake Saranac. It meant so much to him. A more recent trip took me to the Lake Placid area, where America hosted the winter Olympics in 1980, and I got to visit with cousins Leo and Kathy in Canton.  So many of my friends have similar Adirondack memories, and we enjoy sharing the songs, folklore and traditions from that special place.  They flourish still.

"Open-wide," a voice said gently out of the blue, just as I was sharing in author Tony Perrottet’s elation upon discovering an original 1869 version of Murray’s guidebook in the archives of the New York Public Library!  Oh,  how neat....oh, right, I'm at the dentist's!

I closed the magazine as the expert hygienist Helen went to work, but I focused on visions of the Adirondacks in all their glory, in all their seasons.  “Teeth look good,” I heard Helen say, as I took a dip in Sagamore Lake and  walked on the road to Great Camp Santanoni, and then saw a sculpted explosion of light around Beijing.    

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