Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Phoenix 2015 - Coming Home

At the beginning of this trip I was weary. Winter weary and as I was saying before I left, retail weary. Our Christmas season, due in part to my profession, was busy. A treasured friend had been in the process of moving to Chicago. I have been attempting to assist him in getting settled. I welcome his return to my day to day life. Our February was record breaking in it's level of cold and snow requiring extensive preparations for even the most limited of outdoor excursions. I had been fighting a resilient cold for three weeks. I was weary. I was ready, in fact in dire need of, a break from work, a break from the cold and a break from my everyday responsibilities. Still, the responsibilities, work, my home, my family and friends, provide my life with structure. They keep it from becoming a formless mass.

Speaking to my husband briefly before boarding the plane he told me that it had been temperate enough for him to open the balcony door that morning, albeit only for a short time. Looking ahead at the weather it appeared that winter may have loosened it's icy grasp. This also help at work as people would begin to venture out from their winter seclusion. Now that my friend is in town permanently I would be able to enjoy showing him the sights and sounds of the city I adopted 30 years ago and love more each day.

I got the break I needed but I felt an equal need to return to the normal rhythm of my life. To return to the familiar. To return home.

Phoenix 2015 - Old Tucson and The Forest For Free

There is a restaurant in Tucson my friends have eaten at in the past. They entered the address into their car's GPS system and we began to follow the instructions of the voice which emanates from the device, something I find slightly unsettling and eerie.  It led us out of the parking lot and to a road heading away from the museum grounds. We soon found ourselves surrounded by extraordinary natural beauty. Saguaros, in some spots standing as close together as the trees in a pine forest, swept up the hills on a blanket of green sage grasses and yellow wildflowers. The red rock formations associated with this area of the country jutted up from the hillsides, capping their summits, their hue providing a brilliant contrast to the bright blue sky above. We pulled into a scenic overlook to gaze at this spectacular sight. My friends commented that it was just like going to the national forest we had eschewed, sans the $10 per car charge collected by the park service. From the overlook we could see the road ahead. As it neared a pass in the mountains it narrowed as it winded it's way to the top. Going through the pass we began our descent into Tucson. The hills were dotted with beautiful, and presumably pricey, homes. Set a good distance from one another they would offer the inhabitants sweeping views of the desert during the day as well as the twinkling lights of the city below at night.

Unlike the sprawl that almost defines Phoenix, Tucson seemed compact and manageable. A college town, even on a Sunday afternoon buses were evident. Proof of  true public transit as opposed to a commuter transportation system found in many other cities. After lunch we took a brief drive through a historic section of the city. Early 20th century homes lined the streets. On a few corners stood the imposing yet graceful mansions of the wealthy early inhabitants of the city. Above the rooftops the venerable dome of the courthouse could be seen.

As we left Tucson we stopped briefly at one of the ubiquitous convenience store/gas station complexes that punctuate the American highway system. On a siding sat an idle freight train, it's boxcar's sides spray painted with bold graffiti tags reminiscent of the 1980's. As the train later ran along it's tracks parallel to the highway it lent a certain hip hop urban sensibility to the surrounding desert landscape.

Phoenix 2015 - The Sonora Desert Museum

We left Phoenix bound for the Sonora Desert Museum located outside of Tucson. Yellow, orange and pale rose flowers, as well as small subdivisions, punctuated the vast expanse of desert on each side of the road. On the horizon silhouettes of mountains, their twisted shapes created by almost unimaginable ages of wind and rain began to appear. The farms that came into view along the road were evidence of man's ability to tame the hot, arid surroundings. As we continued on the mountain silhouettes began to take on definition. I was told they were more verdant than usual due to the recent rains. In the Arizona desert, it seems, green appears quickly, then, just as rapidly, returns to dusty brown accentuated by the other worldly shapes and hues of the ancient stone monoliths and mountainsides.

The museum is part zoo. Desert animals are in glass walled enclosures or outdoors behind wire mesh. A puma paced back and forth, seemingly annoyed by the people lining up to see it. Ocelots and bobcats groomed each other on ledges. A small fox napped in the sun.

Although there are some areas planted to illustrate different types of flora, much like a botanical garden, most of the outdoor park, although manicured, is natural, indigenous growth. The museum blends with the desert, it's location offering beautiful vistas of it's the surroundings.

There is a man made cavern with exhibits focused on life underground. Glass cases contain spiders. Bats hung from the ceiling in one section. In one alcove a recreation of stalagmites and stalactites has been constructed. In one area is a gem collection displaying the minerals and stones that have been mined from the Arizona earth. As I sell jewelry I am extremely familiar with many of the colorful geodes shown. Still, it is wonderful to me to retain the ability to be surprised, to learn or see something I have not before known or experienced. The opal is my birthstone. In one place in the gem room a polished opal sits as a counterpoint to an example of it's raw self. From within a chunk of chalky white rock the brilliant interplay of colors, the trademark of the semi precious stone, peeks out. Azurite, I have two rings featuring this lapis blue like stone, is also on display. I learned that as this stone nears the earths surface it becomes unstable. In one example malachite's green pigment covered with it's black swirls is growing over the underlying azurite. This accounts for the bits of green in the blue stones in my rings.

In another indoor section are the reptiles, creatures almost synonymous with the desert. I have an overwhelming fear of snakes but since these were behind glass my phobia was kept under control allowing me to observe them. Some bear the dull, dusty tones of their surrounding arid landscape allowing them to hide from both predators and prey. Some, like the coral snake, are brightly colored, a warning to predators of their highly toxic venom. One, although relatively harmless, resembles the deadly coral snake, tricking predators into leaving it alone. Amazing creatures they crush or poison their prey, their elastic jaws and bodies allowing them to swallow and digest animals larger than themselves, a process that can sometimes take several days. Occasionally a bulge will appear in their slender bodies, evidence of the fate of some unwary bird or small mammal. My friends have told me of hearing the tell tell warning clatter of a rattlesnakes tail while walking the dog in their neighborhood. To me this makes living in the desert seem strangely exotic, in Chicago the most I ever see is a squirrel.

It was early afternoon. Hot and hungry we decide to skip hiking the Saguaro National Forest and head into Tuscon for lunch.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Phoenix 2015 - The Phoenix Symphony

One of my friends was ushering the performance of the symphony that evening, a recent volunteer activity he has taken up which he enjoys. The payoff is seeing the performances he works at. I have to admit a tinge of envy regarding the Diane Krall concert he would experience later this year. As the houselights dimmed a young, rather adorable viola player came onstage to give us a welcoming speech providing us with information on what we would be hearing that evening. After the viola player took his seat the first violin player entered. He is huge, tall, and it appears under his tails, broad as well. My friend whispered as he came onstage "Here comes the tall guy". I referred to him as Lurch., He apparently has been playing first violin since my friends first moved to Phoenix a number of years ago. Then the conductor, also extremely tall yet thin, entered. As the performance progressed I had to admit to being unimpressed with him. He appeared to my eye competent yet uninspired.

The first piece was by a Mexican composer neither I nor my friend was familiar with. I enjoyed the slightly atonal piece. Both of us mentioned afterward that we definitely discerned a Mexican influence. The next piece by 20th century composer Samuel Barber was a cello concerto even more atonal that the first piece. Using an instrument that we were told during the introduction was 300 years old the remarkable guest musician, using a combination of techniques including plucking, strumming as well as working with the traditional bow, created sounds with the venerable, virtually irreplaceable treasure that left me slackjawed. He received a well deserved standing ovation at the end of his performance. The age of the cello gifted it with a rich warm sound which could only have been born slowly over time. As I listened to it's tones I pondered the almost countless number of people that have heard it played over it's long life. The previous evening the musician had performed an encore. Since this apparently sent the entire orchestra into overtime, so, despite our thunderous applause, on this night the encore was eschewed.

The second half of the program was a Shubert piece. The romantic composers work provided a sharp contrast to the modern sounds of the first half.

We enjoyed a late supper at a bar and restaurant nearby. Once a men's clothing store it has been imaginatively repurposed. It references it's original life by it's retention of it's street showcase windows as well as the names of the brands it formerly carried still being emblazoned on it's walls. Convenient to several entertainment venues it is often quite busy when there is more than one event taking place in the area on a given evening. This night it seemed to be attracting a young, hipster crowd. A portion of the population of my Chicago neighborhood has a similar, although perhaps slightly less well heeled, aesthetic. In my day we shopped in thrift stores, today's fashion is culled from H&M. The existence of these crowds suggest that while times and fashions change, youthful innocence and exuberance does not.

As we neared the house Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Jo" played on the radio. I hadn't heard the wonderfully ambiguous song in a long time. It was a welcome epilogue to a lovely evening.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Phoenix 2015 - Scotch Before the Symphony

My friends have season tickets to the Phoenix symphony, and the opera and the ballet and the, well anyway. My visits have previously coincided with dates when they have these tickets. So on Saturday night we prepared to go to the symphony by showering, dressing, I in symphony appropriate clothing I had packed for that evening, and sampling my friends finest scotch and whiskey.Several years ago my friend had begun to take an interest in brown liquors. I am not ashamed to recognize and admit that his pallet is quite a bit more refined and sophisticated than mine. First up was an 18 year old rich smoky brew purchased with an unexpected Holiday bonus. Even my trailer park tastebuds could sense it's excellence. Next was a whisky touted by a liquor aficionado's magazine as the years best. This sample proved the review accurate, however you must take into account my extreme lack of experience and knowledge in this area. My friend noted that once a whiskey is touted as "the best" it becomes next to impossible to obtain. He had resorted to asking a friend in Canada to get it for him since it was a Canadian product and more widely available there. He had me taste them freshly poured, then after breathing a few minutes and then with a teaspoon of water to experience the different flavors each modification produced.

We, to quote the rock classic "comfortably numb",  headed out.

Phoenix 2015 - Think Like a Dog

Saturday, being in retail the word means little to me. At one time it was the day one wanted to work as good sales were almost guaranteed, but those days, alas, are behind us. To me, in my world, it is generally just another day. To much of the rest of the world, however, it is the beginning of those 2 days of freedom from the responsibilities of a job that having the responsibilities of a job allows them to earn. Chores are accomplished, hobbies are indulged in, small out of town trips are planed. And so I found myself on a Saturday mid morning out in the bright desert sun chatting with my friend as he walks their dog.

As we stroll through the neighborhood streets I recalled an authority on dog training on a talk show discussing, appropriately, how to train a dog. His advise was that the owner think like one. This dog, on a retractable leash, is ahead of us, my friend second, I am lagging further behind enjoying the March warmth, as well as the varieties of plants and birds I rarely get to experience. Earlier that morning I watched as a line of quail, their distinctive head feathers bobbing, walked in a line along the garden wall looking as if they were participating in a parade. The dog sniffs plants and rocks, on occasion the curb or sidewalk. I attempt to think like a dog. It is to no avail. I cannot, for the life of me, ascertain what it is that intrigues her. She seems to inhabit a world of perpetual surprise. At home our cat appears to plot her moves, each of her activities and actions requiring extensive amounts of planning. By contrast the dog seems to live in the moment.

Arriving at a small park she is allowed off her leash. She takes off running in large circles at a breakneck pace. She lopes over to us, as if saying "Look what I can do"  then takes off again. She exhibits a carefree, childlike glee. As we get to the house she is allowed off her leash again. Eschewing the more direct route to the house along the small arroyo like tumble of rocks in the front yard she opts for a more indirect, civilized route. She trots up the driveway then up the path from the driveway the leads to the front door.

I try to think like a dog. I achieve little success.

Phoenix 2015 - Rest and Relaxation

I have difficulty with the term "relaxation". At home there is always something I need "to do", tasks to accomplish, projects to finish. When traveling someplace new there is always something to see, somewhere to go or someplace to experience.

Although my friends and I always find something I haven't done before, a new museum, a new area of the city or a day trip away from it, a substantial portion of these visits are whiled away accomplishing nothing. There are dinners with their neighbors or trips to the gym, allowing me the opportunity to sample Diamondback eye candy, But there are also afternoons in a chaise, soaking up the desert sun, the dog occasionally coming out to keep me company.

Even the sounds are tranquil. I live in a densely populated urban area. I have become accustomed to the noise of traffic, trains, sirens and drunken revelers speaking louder than necessary as they stumble down the alley behind our building on random weekend nights. In my friends backyard there is the soft sound of a breeze bringing the wind chimes, with their gentle metallic tingle, to life. On occasion a bird will fly over, calling to others, conveying messages to their fellows we cannot decipher. You may hear a plane or a car but their noise too is soft, compared with the din of my home.

I love the noise of the city. I thrive on the pace. But every once in a while I enjoy rediscovering the recuperative power of doing nothing.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Phoenix 2015 - When 68 Degrees Feels Like 80

Chicago winters can be harsh. The same thing can be said about a Phoenix summer. Yet there, spring, for a thick blooded Midwesterner like myself, becomes a view days of warm, sunny paradise. I enjoy the sleeveless, shorts clad eye candy of the local gyms. Unlike home at this time of year it isn't necessary to bury the well toned bodies in down jackets heading outdoors after a workout.

The thermometer says 68 but, to my sun starved body, it feels like 80. Under a layer of sunscreen, wearing only a swimsuit I enjoy relaxing on a chaise in the backyard. It is what many would refer to as a "speedo". Some claim to find them distasteful. I don't concern myself with their sensibilities. My upper thighs enjoy the warmth at least as much as my torso and calves. I often marvel and have occasionally written about the trend towards almost extreme modesty among the men, particularly the younger ones, of today. Men call other men douches, gay and worse for wearing skimpy yet still decent swimsuits. Women follow suit, saying they find them ugly, "I don't want to see that", while donning string bikinis or lining up at male strip clubs to view men gyrating in far less.

As for me I relish a few days in my small swimsuit soaking up the desert sun before returning to the cool spring of the Midwest.

Phoenix 2015 - Phoenix Art Museum - Warhol and Such

I had not planned my visit around the Phoenix Art Museum's exhibition of portraits by the pop art icon Andy Warhol, it was an example of artistic serendipity. The images are familiar, famous people rendered in garish colors via silkscreens created from photographs. But, by having the opportunity to get close to the works the depth of the pieces becomes apparent. Some are layered, silkscreens on top of silkscreens creating, because of the imprecise nature of the process, works containing multiple outlines of the same image. Some are embellished with ink or acrylic over the silkscreened image, some silkscreens rendered on linen canvasses heavily layered in paint. Pencil and ink sketches created during his youth are included allowing me to witness the onset of his artistic point of view, including his early obsession with celebrity and celebrities. On several occasions he vowed to quit his art and concentrate on filmmaking, yet always returned to it in the end. His life cut short at the age of 58, one wonders what he might think of today's ubiquitous "famous for being famous" culture.

We moved through the rest of the museum. The collection includes a Diego Rivera work so indicative of the artists style that it is recognizable as his from across the gallery. There are other works including a Hans Hoffman and the vivid colors and harsh lines of a Thomas Hart Benton. On one hall hangs an almost poignant, uncharacteristically small Rothko showing the deeply emotional expressionist using an uncharacteristically bright pallet. Glass walled overlooks provide views of the institutions sculpture gardens and the urban landscape surrounding the museum.

As with the Magritte exhibition I saw in Chicago last year seeing this many works by a single artist massed together gave me a more complete overview of the man, his art and his vision.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Phoenix 2015 - Phoenix Art Museum - The Di Vinci Code

At the Phoenix Art Museum, an institution I had not visited before,  I had looked forward to an exhibition of Warhol Portraits. A welcome and unexpected surprise was the rare exhibition of the Codex Leicester, 18 pages of text written in the minute, precise hand of Leonardo Di Vinci. Most of the writing involved his observations of the various properties of water. On some pages he drew diagrams in the margins illustrating his thoughts. The manuscript is written in 16th century Italian and backwards so it can only be deciphered by viewing it in a mirror. It is suspected that a reason for this was that Di Vinci was left handed. Training himself to write in reverse kept his sleeve and hand from dragging through wet ink. This is a problem with which I can relate as my fingers, when writing, sometimes take on a blue or black hue myself being similarly left handed. I have to admit I feel some degree of pride in sharing this trait with the extraordinary Di Vinci.

I found it was not the viewing of the codex itself that thrilled me as much as the realization that I was given the privilege to experience a connection, seeing his writing, with this man. I have had the good fortune to see a portion of the handful (approximately 20) of the artworks attributed to him. When seeing those I appreciated the image and technique. Here I appreciated the mind. I have read that aside from his powerful and curious mind and brilliant artistic eye he also possessed astounding physical strength. He was a human aberration of the most valuable kind.

The exhibition was fleshed out with other artworks which contain water as a central theme. These included two oil paintings by Courbet, as well as two by Monet. One of the Monets is extremely lovely depicting a flower covered arched trellis reflected in the pond it stands next to. There were also a series of photos of Yellowstone Park's Old Faithful geyser by the great nature photographer Ansel Adams. These brought back memories of watching the eruption of the geyser from the snow covered ground on my trip to the amazing geological wonderland.

I learned from the exhibition that, the telescope not being invented until 100 years after his lifetime, Di Vinci thought that the moon was covered with water, the patterns we saw from earth the result of wind driven waves. Proof that even the greatest of minds can make a mistake now and then. After all, nobody's perfect!