Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day, Alta Mesa Cemetery & Billy Collins

Alta Mesa Cemetery, very close to my home, is one of my favorite haunts (pun intended). I often walk or ride my bike through the leafy lanes lined with headstones, every now and then, stopping to read the engraved names, dates, inscriptions and images that represent the few lasting historical clues to the lives of the departed.

Life is represented in all its colors here: the joyous inscriptions of lives fully lived "Joanne Smith (1941 - 2004): she made every day feel like Saturday" and the somber laments on children's graves "Jose Antonio (1972): of such is the kingdom of God". All are equal in this final resting place. Steve Jobs and David and Lucille Packard are buried here but their burial sites (which I have not come across yet) are no different than anyone else's. Headstones have Stars of David, Crosses and Crescents, inscriptions in English, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and Farsi but all rest peacefully next to each other in the shadow of oak trees. They all understand each other.

Memorial Day is a good day to remember the dead. Today Alta Mesa is full of potted plants, freshly cut flowers, floral wreaths, rainbow pinwheels and little American flags.

Here are some photographs I have taken in Alta Mesa Memorial Park during my visits.

The former American Poet Laureate Billy Collins has a wonderful poem called "Cemetery Ride" in his collection "Horoscopes for the Dead". It is hard to better Collins's evocation of a ride through a similar cemetery.

Cemetery Ride

My new copper-colored bicycle
is looking pretty fine under a blue sky
as I pedal along one of the sandy paths
in the Palm Cemetery here in Florida,

wheeling past the headstones of the Lyons,
the Campbells, the Dunlaps, and the Davenports,
Arthur and Ethel who outlived him by 11 years
I slow down even more to notice,

but not so much as to fall sideways on the ground.
And here's a guy named Happy Grant
next to his wife in their endless bed.
Annie Sue Simms is right there and sounds

a lot more fun than Theodosia S. Hawley.
And good afternoon, Emily Polasek
and to you too, George and Jane Cooper,
facing each other in profile, two sides of a coin.

I wish I could take you all for a ride
in my wire basket on this glorious April day,
not a thing as simple as your name, Bill Smith,
even trickier than Clarence Augustus Coddington.

Then how about just you Enid Parker?
Would you like to gather up your voluminous skirts
and ride sidesaddle on the crossbar
and tell me what happened between 1863 and 1931?

I'll even let you ring the silver bell.
But if you are not ready, I can always ask
Mary Brennan to rise from her long sleep
beneath the swaying gray beards of Spanish moss

and ride with me along these halls of the dead
so I can listen to her strange laughter
as some crows flap in the blue overhead
and the spokes of my wheels catch the dazzling sun.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Henry David Thoreau & The "Facebook Effect"

You simply couldn't dodge facebook chatter in the Bay Area over the last couple of months. It has been everywhere: the mural painter who is worth hundreds of millions, the anticipated boom in angel investing, the frantic wealth managers chasing the pimpled millionaires and billionaires, And then there is supposedly the 'facebook effect' on the local real estate. Home owners in Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Los Altos and towns surrounding Facebook's new Menlo Park headquarters are salivating in anticipation of rising property values illustrated in this "only in the Bay Area" photograph:

I would happily take some of this wealth if I knew how but instead it made me think of Thoreau and his house on Walden Pond. I picked up my copy of "Walden" (purchased eleven years ago at the Walden Pond Bookstore in Concord) to re-read Thoreau's wonderful account of his time in that modest house and how he came to build and live in it. Let's have Thoreau speak for himself as who else could do a better job:

"Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have.---Shall we always study to obtain more of these things, and not sometimes to be content with less?"

"I have thus a tight shingled and plastered house, ten feet wide by fifteen long, and eight-feet posts, with a garret and closet, a large window on each side, two trap doors, one door at the end, and a brick fireplace opposite. The exact cost of my house, paying the usual price for such materials as I used, but not counting the work, all of which was done by myself, was as follows; and I give the details because very few are able to tell exactly what their houses cost, and fewer still, if any, the separate cost of the various materials which compose them:

Boards                                          $8.03&1/2 (mostly shanty boards)
Refuse shingles for roof and sides   $4.00
Laths                                             $1.25
Two second-hand windows
with glass                                      $2.43
One thousand old brick                 $4.00
Two casks of lime                         $2.40 (that was high, More than I needed)
Hair                                              $0.31
Mantle-tree iron                            $0.15
Nails                                             $3.90
Hinges and screws                        $0.14
Latch                                            $0.10
Chalk                                           $0.01
Transportation                              $1.40 (I carried a good part on my back)
                In all                             $28.12&1/2

These are all the materials excepting the timber, stones and sand, which I claimed by squatter's right. I have also a small wood-shed adjoining, made chiefly of the stuff which was left after building the house.

I intend to build me a house which will surpass any on main street in Concord in grandeur and luxury, as soon as it pleases me as much and will cost me no more than my present one."  

Replica of Thoreau's cottage at Walden Pond
In the chapter "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For" Thoreau writes:
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and to reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by exprience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion."

Modern life is infinitely distracting but "living deliberately, fronting the essential facts of life" is still all that ultimately matters whether done from lofty mansions in the most desirable zip codes or from a wooden cottage on the banks of a pond.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Ja MeiN Tose Naahin BoluN - Lata & Noor Jehan

Lata Mangeshkar is a goddess of music. She has sung a staggeringly large number of genuinely great, not just excellent, songs. One of my favorites in a long list is "Ja Tose NahiN BoluN Kanhaiyya". This beautiful duet (with Manna Dey) was composed by the great Bengali music director Salil Chowdhry for the 1956 film "Parivaar". The song (I am told) is in Raga Hamsadhwani. Lata's effortless brilliance in this number makes Manna Dey look like a rank amateur.

Noor Jehan is the only other female playback singer for whom I have the same reverence as Lata. She is the quintessential Pakistani cultural symbol. Even though she had already achieved fame by 1947, Noor Jehan was the only true mega star of the film industry to settle on the Pakistani side of the border. Enchanting romantic songs from films  "Intezaar", "Dupatta", "Haveli", "Koel" and "LaakohN meiN Aik", patriotic 'naghmas' such as "Aye Puttar HattaN Te NahiN Wikde" and lively Punjabi film numbers from "Heer Ranjha" and "Paatay Khan" all evoke cultural milestones in the country's history.  In the 50's, 60's and 70's, when she was still fortunate enough to be working with great composers like Khawaja Khurshid Anwar, Master Inayat Hussain and Rasheed Atre, Noor Jehan sang every bit as brilliantly as Lata at her peak. To experience her at her sublime best, lets listen to Noor Jehan sing very similar lyrics to Lata and Manna Dey above and enjoy her mastery of the sur. This is from the film "Mauseeqar" (1962) with music by Rasheed Atre in Raga Jaijaivanti. I have had this on repeat for the last 2 days.