Saturday, February 17, 2018

Rants of an old, albeit famous, man . . . Mark Tobey

My parents were friends with Mark Tobey, Northwest artist, visionary, and mystic whose work is held in major museums. One evening in 1959 after Tobey had been at our house, I was struck how wise, how deep his thoughts were. (He was approaching seventy—and I nineteen.) As a university freshman, I also felt wise. After all, I'd learned to smoke cigarettes without coughing, hold my own in philosophical conversations, and stay awake half the night cramming for an exam. That particular evening it struck me how amazing it was that such a great and wise guru had been our guest—this extraordinarily talented man sitting in our living-and dining-rooms, chatting away with my family in the same relaxed way an ordinary neighbor might. The difference was that his thoughts were profound, his comments scintillating. I was enthralled by every aspect of the man and wanted to remember his words—immortalize them. As soon as Tobey departed, I began jotting down in a spiral notebook what I could remember of that evening’s conversation.

M. Tobey  Self-portrait 1949
Four years ago I discovered those notes in an old box stuffed with odds and ends, marked “Treasures.” Multiple sheets of notebook paper were folded in the box, unopened since the very night I recorded them. The notes are of a one-sided conversation only—Tobey’s—as he chatted with my parents. Although my parents provided the other half of the dialogue, Tobey’s musings were all I bothered to capture. After all, he was a great artist, wise beyond others, while my parents were just ordinary people.

What follows in italics is exactly what I wrote at age nineteen—words spoken by Tobey—but I’ve augmented a few words [in brackets] and added several footnotes to help today’s readers make sense of them a half-century later.  

Seafair: [1] I just stay away from downtown [when it’s going on]. Miss Universe, Miss Washington, Miss South Dakota, Miss Florida . . . [they] all look alike. Same smile, same crown on their heads. Glamour is substituted for spirit. They have no spirit, so they straighten their teeth, pluck their eyebrows, paint themselves with grease, and there is glamor! They look—like the devil? No. They don’t look like the devil. I’d like to imagine that the devil looks like something!
Sex: One thing about the twentieth century—we’ve discovered sex, and “they” won’t let us forget it. Aren’t we wonderful! We’ve discovered sex! Sex in soup, sex in . . . you name it, but don’t put sex in abstract art! The critics don’t like it.
Fast-paced modern times: I used to like to go into Safeway about dusk. It was nice. Now I go, push a go-cart up the aisle four times—then I ask where the coffee is. All you hear now is ‘ding, ding, ding.’ People hurry. Why, you can’t even get to know your butcher now. Occasionally an arm sticks out [from] behind [the] glass. We do all this so we have time to live. We hurry in and out, but when do we live? We don’t know the butcher. When do we live? Only humans make life—we can get as mechanized as possible, but only humans make life.  White Henry Stuart Building[2] [now has] automatic elevators—music comes on. What for? One street in Hong Kong has more life than the whole of Broadway[3] because it is completely human. Only humans make life.
Young artists cannot grow when snatched up in [their]youth—[I] don’t approve of early discovery of talent. ‘Debutante [now], then wallflower. Now days, [there is] no young, exceptional talent that hasn’t been “discovered.” Scouts all over—too many.
Urban blight: Trees soften the hardness of life—the only thing [that] rests your eyes downtown. [For instance, take the] Pike Street Market[4]—every race, creed, color, culture. Saturday – [I] took five Yale students there. Top part of their trip. Never enough time. So many things to watch, to wonder at. Color of vegetables and fruit seem to put everyone in a good  mood. If you go, take lunch up to second floor—see the whole sound. Beautiful view! Two blocks [away] at second and Pike, what is there? Nothing. Nothing. Not a thing to look at . . . except the trees in the front of the bank.

A few catalogs & books about Tobey
As a then seventy-four-year-old woman reading the newly rediscovered musings (I'm four years older now), I found myself incredulous. In retrospect, Tobey’s comments seem no more insightful than any other old person’s. Having revered him all these years, I realized the words easily could have been spoken by any one of my own peers, railing about the contemporary scene. Mark Tobey was a mortal, after all, with the same kinds of opinions and notions about the ruination of the younger generations and deterioration of services that we all notice as we age—the “wisdom” of hindsight. He continued to admire Pike Place Market, however, something that is still easy to do, despite its periodic updates and gradual gentrification.

Time changes perspective: a universal truth. That very constancy stitches us together—whether we’re rich or poor, famous or unknown—into a continuum of humanity. And what’s perceived as the decline of civilization continues to be lamented by people on the downward curve of life as they mourn “the good old days.” I still adore the work of Tobey and revere his genius, but now that I’m older than he was when last we met, he seems less a deity to me and more an ordinary mortal who happened to have extraordinary talent.                                                                                       

Copyright ©2018  by Sara J. Glerum

[1] Seafair is a Seattle month-long summer festival 
[2] A Seattle landmark  in the first three-quarters of the 20th century. Sited on Fourth Avenue and University Street, it was torn down in 1974 to make way for the home office of the then Rainier Bank  (once an inverted pyramid design, the building is currently under complete redesign) 
[3] A lively commercial street in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district
[4] Currently referred to as Pike Place Market

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

When (Aaron) BURR-r-r-r Means HOT

Finally the national tour of Hamilton arrived in Seattle, which was the long anticipated occasion for a visit from my Canadian family.  Eleven-and-a-half year-old granddaughter, Mae, is one of its biggest fans . . . so how could her grandmother not buy tickets for her (and her parents) as a family Christmas gift?

Several days before our performance date (Hamilton plays in Seattle from Feb. 6-March 18), I received an email reminding me I had tickets (as if I could possibly forget!) and informing me there was a free Hamilton App to download on cellphones. When we arrived at the theater, the ticket taker referenced the app (, as well. Yes, all this seems commercial rather than artful, but it turned out to be a great way to spend time as we waited for the curtain to rise at 1 pm.

To say that Hamilton lived up to our expectations is a considerable understatement. We laughed and cried and clapped and cheered . . . and talked about it into the evening hours, and again the next day. I feel so fortunate to have seen it. Hamilton has the power to take your breath away. But to me, the most powerful and moving thing about it is its colorblind casting--making it heartbreaking in a way that it wouldn't be if the characters were portrayed by all northern-European actors. Hamilton deserves ALL its hype. 

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Three Js Park

After Jay died, I hardly knew where to begin to get back my balance.  It’s traumatic to be alone after more than fifty years of marriage.  No, we didn’t have a perfect marriage. Of course, I got irked at him when he wouldn’t listen, peeved when he didn’t agree with me. Sometimes I wondered why I’d  thought it a good idea to ever marry anyone.  But when death grabbed him and removed him from my life forever, it was awful. Loneliness and grief took over the space formerly occupied by my best friend and loving companion. I’m not unique; ask any widow you meet.

After a full six months of  living the clich├ęd “one-day-at-a-time” —with little joy and a lot of hell—I was physically and emotionally drained.  Prior to Jay’s death, I had considered myself  a competent, independent person. I never thought much about it—it  was part of my underlying reality. Not so after those six months, though.  How had I ever become so needy and incompetent? Even the simple act of starting the day was a challenge. In the ‘old days,’ one of us turned up the thermostat while the other one pulled up mini-blinds; one of us poured the coffee while the other one retrieved the morning paper from the front porch. Now it took twice as long just to sit down with coffee and the paper! And that was just the first five minutes of the day.  What I missed most, however, was Jay’s  support for my activities. My personal ‘fan club,’ something I had taken completely for granted, had died with him. Yes, widowhood is a great breeding ground for self-pity.

Enter now three men, all unknown to me at the timeJonty, James, and Jesse—to whom I will ever be indebted. They unwittingly rescued me from my pity-party and delivered me back into a good place. They didn’t rescue me in the sense of physically riding in on white steeds to pull me back from the precipice. Instead, they restored me to a good place by raising me up from a deflated imitation of myself back to the competent, helpful woman I had been as a married woman. This all came about because the three men decided to do something about the threat of a development project that would change our neighborhood forever.

Here’s what happened: A billboard announced that the golf course in our neighborhood was being considered for rezoning. The city was entertaining an application to change this land from the gorgeous open vista with a tiny clubhouse to an upscale townhouse community for seventy-six households . I saw the billboard announcing the proposal, and considered the increased traffic with seventy-six more families dwelling across the street from me and shrugged. Progress? . . . urbanization? . . . greed? . . . all with their inevitable degradation of environment and habitat.  What could I possibly do about it?

Jesse, James, and Jonty didn’t think like defeatists who couldn’t make a difference, thank goodness. Collectively they envisioned something wonderful in place of development—a park! With intelligence, passion, and vision, they organized a coherent message and began to talk it up to their neighbors, both known and unknown. As we gathered in small groups, they informed us that WE—the people living near the golf course—WE could speak out about the loss of open space and WE could save it!

I couldn’t help but get excited hearing them describe the possibilities for the golf course and began to eagerly attend meetings they were scheduling and followed the Website they’d developed to explain their mission. The grammar-snob part of me ruffled, however, as I explored the Website’s narrative, so I sent feedback over Internet about a few sentences that (in my opinion) desperately needed fixing. Instead of writing me off as a crackpot old busybody, they thanked me and invited me to give them feedback any time.

I began to review other aspects of their communication with the public, and every time I was thanked for my suggestions. The more I worked with the three, the more I realized I was feeling needed for the first time in many months and was enjoying the interaction with them enormously. My focus on the community gradually changed too. I began to care more deeply about the golf course land and the river running through it—and beyond, to the wildlife it sustains—and beyond that, as well, to comprehend the dearth of open space depriving urban dwellers. I began to think of others’s needs, not just mine as the ‘poor-me, new-widow,’ the countless citizens who would benefit for years to come from the acquisition of a private golf course for public passive recreation, land reclamation, and habitat restoration. I could, and would,  help make the dream a reality.

And indeed, we did make the dream come true. Currently the City of Bothell is requesting help naming its newest park, the 89 acre former Wayne Golf Course! WE really did save it!

Now, whenever I see any of the three men these several years later, I want to smother them in grandma hugs. They instilled in me a growing sense of community pride, and helped restore my  meaningful-life-factor. Because they didn't know me as a married woman, the word 'condolence' wasn't in their vocabularies. They asked me for help . . . and responded appreciatively to my efforts. Because of them, I began to look up and out again—beyond my grief and loneliness.

The bottom line is they made me feel capable again, even if I still can’t change a windshield wiper or fix the switch on a lamp. Yes, I owe immeasurable thanks to these three men—and hope I never stop being grateful for their gift. And hooray for our newest park, whatever its name. If it were up to me, I'd call it "Three Js Park."