Culture of One

seinfeld

A recent post, Cultural Osmosis, by WSW, World Surfing Warrior, got me thinking about how people from different cultures connect. Culture consists of so many components, large and small, some so small they may seem insignificant and superficial, but I would advise you not to blink. I have seen very little of this world, having ventured outside of the States only a handful of times. As for my own culture, I am an expert on what it means to be an American of English, Italian, German, Norwegian, Irish ancestry growing up in a densely-populated small city outside of the New York metropolitan area, who marries outside of his race, religion and nationality and adopts a child from yet another country on the far side of the globe.

Beliefs, practices, customs and traditions, these terms are often linked or even interchanged. They may be attributed to a specific society, in a fixed time and place. Does this make culture exclusive? Must I be born into it to understand its subtleties? Have I painted myself into a corner?

My culture is over here, yours over there, but every day we build little bridges and meet somewhere in the middle. This unique shared experience is a sub-culture that may evolve and expand, or simply dissolve in an instant. The catalyst for these connections is the search and discovery of something familiar, and this  essential element is often simple, basic, and instinctive.

If music be the food of love, play on.

Musicians speak of a universal language. I can listen to the sounds of an Indian raga played on an oboe or sitar and hear strains of Mississippi Delta blues. You can understand the attraction of a foreign land for the expat musician who’s art is taken for granted at home yet revered in a new world. Count off a few beats, and strangers from the far reaches of the Earth communicate through a collection of notes or dance steps.

Then, there is the quickest way to a man’s heart…

I’m not talking about Olive Garden’s Tour of Italy. Sharing a meal can be a spiritual or sensual experience.

“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.'”

This is no small thing. Whether it is rolling out dough for pierogies, or roti, or a pie crust, there is a bond formed whenever two people work shoulder to shoulder in the kitchen.

When I traveled to China to adopt my daughter, our group of adoptive parents traveled the country in a little cocoon, led by local and country travel guides. Before embarking  on side trips to the individual provinces where our little girls waited, we were given a taste of Chinese culture, visiting several famous sites in and around Beijing, the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, and the Great Wall, and tourist traps like the pearl and silk factories. We also shared all of our carefully planned meals at local restaurants. Did this experience in any way help us understand what it means to be Chinese?

I had a very different interaction while scaling the stairs on a stretch of the Great Wall. The steps are of varying heights, or rise, making it nearly impossible to find your rhythm or gain momentum. The combination of thin air, warm temperature and pollution soon had me sucking wind. Glancing to my side I noticed a chubby Chinese teenage boy struggling as well. We paused, smiled at each other, then put our arms over each others shoulders and tried to tackle the obstacle together. We laughed and stumbled and spoke in our native tongues, understanding only that we both probably looked hilarious.

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Then, there was the confrontation in a Wuhan shopping mall when a group of us parents with children in arms were shouted at by an older women who was obviously expressing her displeasure with the foreign intruders who had come for her native daughters. She said her piece until her nervously smiling daughter managed to pull her away. This was balanced by the kindness of the young women who ran a little shop in Guangzhou and loaned me a stroller for the couple of days I was in their city. Their shop near the White Swan Hotel was aptly nicknamed, “Your home away from home.”

We seek something familiar in the new. In an earlier post, Paris Redux, I expressed the loneliness and sense of isolation I often felt during my stay in a city where I couldn’t speak the language and knew nearly nothing of the culture or customs. Before I set off for Paris, my boss instructed me to “drink a lot of wine.” Others encouraged me to sample the cuisine, and while a few authentic French dishes found their way to my belly, I craved and sought out something that reminded me of home, and in doing so created my own little ad hoc sub-culture.

I didn’t drink much wine; not my thing. I usually had beer or mineral water with my meals. What was I homesick for? A hamburger and fries? Maybe pizza? –Soft, runny cheeses are popular choices on a pizza in France–No, I craved Indian food. I never got completely used to eating alone, but sitting in a quiet Indian restaurant, comfort in the familiar went beyond the menu. Speaking with the owner about home and family, knowing he was from somewhere else, I realized we were both travelers.

I’ve been married to a wonderful Indian woman for over 35 years, having met when we were just teenagers. Love at first sight, but that’s a story for another day. She was born and raised in Guyana, South America. Her family, and others like them, emigrated from India, carrying their culture with them where it blended with those of Africans, indigenous Amerindians, Chinese, and Portuguese to become something new. The story is repeated in Trinidad, Canada, Singapore, the U.K. and in the United States. The Desi experience is so incredibly varied and diverse, yet all share a common bond, mother India.

Culture is Mahatma Gandhi, discovering his destiny in South Africa, leading non-violent protests to fight for the rights of the oppressed. Culture is Kobe Bryant, speaking fluent Italian and playing American basketball as an African separated by generations from his homeland. It is a young Chinese woman, playing American jazz on her saxophone on a bridge over the Île de la Cité. And, it is legendary chef Gaggan Anand, reinventing traditional Indian cuisine in his Bangkok based restaurant, at the same time planning its closure in 2020 to continue his quest with a new venture in Fukuoka, Japan.

So it is that culture is not a fixed thing at all; it is constantly moving and evolving, both exerting its influence and adapting to the unique customs of an adopted home. “Everybody here is from someplace else,” is usually an accurate statement, no matter where you’re standing. Somehow overcoming the obstacles of language, religion and local customs, we manage to connect through our shared love of food, music, art and sports.

Featured post

WRVR Jazz Radio New York

There are music historians who profess that Jazz is America’s only native art form. They will get no argument from me. To understand the state of Jazz in America today, I’ll recount a story I read a few years ago in a local newspaper.
The f.y.e. (For Your Entertainment) store in a nearby mall received complaints that adult videos were being openly displayed on shelves where they could be easily viewed by minors or other customers who might be offended by their content. The solution? Move them next to the Jazz section, because, as the manger explained, “Hardly anybody ever goes back there.” The sad thing was that the statement was true. How can it be that there is not one 24-hour Jazz station in New York City? It has not always been so. Once upon a time there was a shining beacon of Jazz in New York that went by the call letters WRVR.
The station had a history deeply rooted in the community surrounding Riverside Church in upper Manhattan, where it broadcast hard-core Jazz for over 17 years, before moving to Woodside, Queens and updating its format to include more crossover styles of Jazz and jazz-related music. The philosophy was that the new format would appeal to a larger audience while exposing them to more traditional styles of Jazz.
For those of us who became fans of the station, we were  immensely loyal, but the hybrid never grew the audience needed to make the station financially viable, so without warning, at 12:00 P.M. on September 8, 1980 Jazz station WRVR became country station WKHK. Like every other fan, my car and home radios were locked into WRVR, so when they mysteriously disappeared, I desperately twisted and turned the dial trying to figure out WTF was going on. The station was deluged with calls from irate listeners. WKHK which went by the name Kick-FM, sure felt like a kick in the ass to the abandoned fans of WRVR.
The departure left a huge void for Jazz fans. For several years WJAZ in Stamford, CT broadcast Jazz 24 hours, frequently hosted by bassist Rick Petrone. WBGO in Newark, NJ  is still broadcasting and comes closest in style and mission to the Riverside Church broadcasts. The emergence of the smooth jazz format brought CD101.9 to the New York market and its playlist was representative of some of the crossover artists you might find on WRVR during the years they broadcast out of Woodside, but it lacked the personality and edge of my beloved station and was a bit too formulaic for my taste. However, if you were a fan, and miss the station, it’s now available streaming here:
Smooth Jazz CD101.9
To get a flavor of the WRVR sound, you can search for audio clips or clones on the various streaming services. Here is a sample playlist:
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As great as the music was, the deejays at WRVR were a big part of the emotional connection with the New York audience. The names at the bottom of the program list, Herschel, G. Keith Alexander, Batt Johnson, and especially the signature voice of the station, Les Davis, were true characters. They were funny, dedicated to the music, and genuinely loved their work and their listeners.
I still hold out hope for the resurgence of Jazz as popular music in America, and for an environment to spawn the WRVR for future generations of Jazz fans.
Featured post

Talkin’ Baseball…and elections

Regardless of your stance on players kneeling during the National Anthem, baseball is still the American pastime, rich with myths, legends and colorful language and imagery. The beloved poem, Casey at the Bat by Ernest Lawrence Thayer is the inspiration for my take on the circus surrounding the Presidential election results in Georgia.

Donnie at the Bat

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Trumpville mob that day:
The score stood three-oh-six to two-thirty-two, with but steal attempts to play,
And when Rudy dripped dye from his temples, and later farted without shame,
A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

The jubilant masses celebrated in the streets. The rest in kind
Clung to conspiracy theories which spring eternal in the misguided mind;
They thought, “If only Donnie could but get a whack at that—
We’d put up even our children’s lives, with Donnie at the bat.”

But Flynn took the fall for Donnie, as Melissa performed like a flake,
And the former was a hoodoo, while the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Donnie getting to the bat.

But Flynn received a pardon, to the wonderment of all,
And McConnell, the much despisèd, crumpled the Constitution into a ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and men saw what had occurred,
There was Graham double talking and Flynn a-hugging a-turd.

Then from five thousand throats and more there rose an unmasked yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled up from hell;
It pounded on the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Donnie, fascist Donnie, was advancing to the bat.

There was madness in Donnie’s manner as he overstepped his place;
There was false pride in Donnie’s bearing and a smirk crossed Donnie’s face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he doffed his MAGA hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt ’twas Donnie at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on the GOP’s shirt;
Then while the wisened judge gripped the law and refused to flip,
Treason flashed in Donnie’s eye, a sneer curled Donnie’s lip.

And now the leather-covered tome came hurtling through the air,
And Donnie stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the Paunchy batsman the law unheeded sped—
“That’s all fake news” said Donnie. “Strike one!” the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore;
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone on the stand;
“Proud boys stand back and stand by,” Donnie responded as he raised his hand.

With the blessings of white Evangelicals, Donnie’s orange visage shone;
He stirred the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled recount to the judge, and once more the law sphere flew;
But Donnie still ignored it and the umpire said, “Strike two!”

“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered “Fraud!”
With one approving look from Don the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his tiny fingers strain,
And they knew that Donnie wouldn’t let the truth go by again.

The sneer is gone from Donnie’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate,
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate;
And the steadfast judge still holds the line, freeing the will of the people to flow,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Donnie’s blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Trumpville—loser Donnie has struck out.

“Casey” Image courtesy of C.F. Payne

Casey at the Bat by Ernest Lawrence Thayer is in the public domain

Bridge

The Bridge is an enduring symbol of the conquest of ingenuity over physical obstacles. It is about creating connections where none previously existed. And, it is a metaphor for the basic human need to connect with others of a like mind, to be understood. I explored these cultural connections in an earlier post https://foursquaremiles.wordpress.com/2017/05/11/culture-of-one/

I’m over here, you’re over there

but every day we build little bridges

to meet somewhere in the middle

====================================================================================

“Bridges (Travessia)”
Milton Nascimento

as performed by Sergio Mendes Brasil ’88

I have crossed a thousand bridges
In my search for something real
There were great suspension bridges
Made like spiderwebs of steel
There were tiny wooden trestles
And there were bridges made of stone
I have always been a stranger
And I’ve always been alone

There’s a bridge to tomorrow
There’s a bridge from the past
There’s a bridge made of sorrow
That I pray will not last
There’s a bridge made of colors
In the sky high above
And I think that there must be
Bridges made out of love

I can see him in the distance
On the river’s other shore
An his hands reach out in longing
As my own have done before
And I call across to tell him
Where I believe the bridge must lie
And I’ll find it, yes I’ll find it!
If I search until I die

When the bridge is between us
We’ll have nothing to say
We will run through the sunlight
And he’ll meet me halfway
There’s a bridge made of colors
In the sky high above
And I’m certain that somewhere
There’s a bridge made of love

Vou seguindo pela vida
Me esquecendo de você
Eu não quero mais a morte
Tenho muito que viver
Vou querer amar de novo
E se não der não vou sofrer
Já não sonho, hoje faço
Com meu braço o meu viver

====================================================================================

To Brooklyn Bridge

Hart Crane – 1899-1931

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty—

Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
—Till elevators drop us from our day . . .

I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;

And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,—
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!

Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn . . .
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.

And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
Thy guerdon . . . Accolade thou dost bestow
Of anonymity time cannot raise:
Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show.

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry,—

Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path—condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year . . .

O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

Wall

There’s no shortage of old stone walls in Connecticut. Most have been standing for hundreds of years. They were built from materials pulled from the land. When the glaciers melted and land masses were pulled apart by the forces of nature, Long Island was blessed with rich, fertile soil, leaving New England with an unyielding rocky coastline.

Walls are built to keep things out, or in

Walls define borders

Walls are passive by nature; they are not weapons—they are defensive

I’m sitting on this one, so I can view what’s on either side…

Shadow

Though the sun is setting

and we are confronted by twilight

Know there is also potential for incredible growth

The Cross

“One Ton…One ton, it’s not gonna get any lighter.”

Rahsaan Roland Kirk at Newport Jazz Festival

Hidden behind a stone wall that borders a small brook, this stone cross is a reminder of the sacrifices that have been made for all of us, and the burdens still shouldered by our brothers and sisters.

Beyond the darkness is light

Arms spread outward in an infinite embrace

Love will endure over hardship

Heartbeat

Heartbeat    teabtraeH

HeartbeatteabtraeH

HeartbeattraeH

Heartbeat—pulse of the city street

or a country road

Heartbeat of rhythms carry me to the sea

carry me,

far away

far from shores of steel and cobblestone

and far from rooftops—stargazer’s threshold

to Heaven

And further yet from stillness

of country nights

a heartbeat riding bareback, hair flying free

riding into darkness—far from me

Heartbeat of traffic

Sirens

a hornblast

infant’s cry across the alley

padding feet upon the pavement

Far from mountains

Deep-taken breaths

and time

suspended

stretched

endless

intolerable…

Hard, fast, intense

Heartbeat of city streets

Gentle, patient, passion restrained

yet,

still a heartbeat

Different and distant

two heartbeats

two hearts beat

As one

Heartbeat    teabtraeH

HeartbeatteabtraeH

HeartbeattraeH

Heartbeat

Love Swings

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Love swings,

like Basie or Duke

As softly as a morning sunrise

streams into the day

It swings

><

Love swings,

as the breast gently rises

and her breath fills his horn

giving life to the moment

It swings

><

Oh hear,

how it soars so high

and crashes so low

and it swings

><

Hear it,

as my soul fills with color

but is left dark and empty

as it swings

low

sweet rhythm

Coming for to carry me

carry me,

but never deliver me

from love

><

Love swings,

her call irresistible,

my heart’s steady rhythm

a whisper

yet

heard by my lover

whose love is a song

that swings

WRVR Jazz NY – RNC Theme Song

In honor of the awe inspiring Republican National Convention, I profoundly present to our listeners a song from the days when America was great, when WRVR was broadcasting on the New York airwaves, Donald Trump was following in the footsteps of his father Fred, demolishing some of New York City’s finest architectural landmarks, and when men were men, women were women and, like minorities and foreigners, knew their place.

This classic, Your Mind Is on Vacation from Mose Allison, could have served as the theme song for the RNC that mercifully concluded after four mind-numbing nights.

Your Mind Is on Vacation

Mose Allison

You’re sitting there yakkin’ right in my face
I guess I’m gonna have to put you in your place
Y’know if silence was golden
You couldn’t raise a dime
Because your mind is on vacation and your mouth is
Working overtime

You’re quoting figures, you’re dropping names
You’re telling stories about the dames
You’re always laughin’ when things ain’t funny
You try to sound like you’re big money
If talk was criminal, you’d lead a life of crime
Because your mind is on vacation and your mouth is
Working overtime

You know that life is short and talk is cheap
Don’t be making promises that you can’t keep
If you don’t like the song I’m singing, just grin and
Bear it
All I can say is if the shoe fits wear it
If you must keep talking please try to make it rhyme
‘Cause your mind is on vacation and your (big) mouth is working
Overtime

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