The Secret Lives of Tortillas, Part 5.

So if you’ve been following along with the tortilla posts,you might remember back in June when we got this tortilla:

All Will be Revealed at 600 Members
All Will be Revealed at 600 Members

Well, in March, we reached 600 members.  We received a message via Reddit: “The second of the fourth is the real holiday.”

So we waited almost a whole month for April second.  April second was the date set for a local event called Trailer Wars… an event in which local amateur film makers produce trailers for films that will never exist.  I had gotten the opportunity to act in one of those trailers and so I was going to be going anyway, and we figured we would stop at the Redlight afterwards.  We let the Tortilla Society know about our plans for the night in question, but otherwise didn’t make a big deal about it.

The morning of the second came, and it seemed like any other day.  No tortillas, no messages on Twitter or Reddit.  There was a tension among members of the society… Django confessed to me that he had hoped to see a whole mess of new tortillas when he woke up, and was a little disappointed.  I had several conversations in which I told people that I was sure that the Tortilla Bomber wasn’t going to let us down.  This was, of course, bluster.  I had know idea what was going to happen or not happen… I just felt like it was a part of my job to reassure people.

The rest of the day passed uneventfully, and the tension built.  Then, around nine at night, we all filed into the theater and sat down to watch Trailer Wars.  There were nine trailers in all.  Ours was third, if I recall correctly.

We didn’t win, by the way, but we put in a good showing.

It was the seventh or eighth trailer when our entire row leaned forward and started to murmur.  Because it appeared to be a trailer by the Tortilla Bomber.

We looked around wide-eyed at one another and spoke in whispered voices.  I felt anxious… not the dreadful kind, but the kind that galvanizes one to action.  I was shaking with excitement and had broken out in gooseflesh.  Not a month before, when we had first received the message that the second of the fourth was the real holiday, Django had said to me that it was the same day as Trailer Wars, and I told him, “well, I bet he’s going to make us a trailer.”  And here it was; it had happened, and I was bathed in the electricity of prophecy fulfilled.  I left after voting was complete, and while we had been in the theater, this video had been uploaded to YouTube and provided to us through Reddit:

This is an approximation of the trailer we had seen in the theater. It’s flipped the other way around, and the Trailer Wars version didn’t have the female voice.  The intro and the outro on the first video show that the Trailer Wars version had been spliced into the middle of an old Trailer Wars entry.  And the Trailer Wars version has footage of the Tortilla Bomber placing a tortilla on the outside of the theater building.  I went and found the spot that had been shown in the video, and sure enough, there was a tortilla hanging there.

If I Win Turn Over
If I Win Turn Over

You see, the winner of Trailer Wars gets to choose the theme for the next batch of trailers.  I turned the tortilla over, and on the other side was written “Theme: Cults.”

The Tortilla Bomber didn’t win Trailer Wars either.  A very deserving entry did, though, and you can find it here.

We recovered the Trailer Wars version of the video on DVD from someone on staff there.  He said that the DVD had been dropped off anonymously in the middle of the night.  We will be posting the Trailer Wars version as soon as we get the time to do so.

When we got to the bar, I had several drinks in quick succession and discussed the events of the evening with other interested parties.  I was still a little numb… I had been preparing myself over the intervening weeks for the thing to come to an end… after all, once all is revealed, the game is done.  And now, I was sitting here, ready for it to be over, and it wasn’t over.

I went home early, around midnight, and lay in bed turning things over in my mind and watching sunrise grow closer and closer.  There was so much there; I wanted to figure it out, but I couldn’t do it right then, or on my own.  I think I did eventually sleep for about four hours before my alarm went off, relinquishing those worries and speculating thoughts.

I want to talk a little bit more about the video.  It seems complicated but very deliberate.  There’s a wealth of information in there, in layers, and it’s going to take a while for us to tease it apart, but we’re already working on it.  I’m certain that some of the things in the video are intended to be false positives… things that look like data but are really just noise and misdirection.

Much of the speech is composed of text from previously found tortillas, but there are a few parts that I found interesting.  First, this:

00:30 You have named me otherwise, but you have named me.
00:36 Does that make you my mother?
00:40 I created your reason to be and I instruct you in mysterious ways
00:47 Does that make me your god?
00:50 I do not believe so.

I found the word choices that were made here to be very interesting.  First, he states that we have named him, which is true enough, but then asks if we are his mother.  This inherently assigns a gender to the subject… a subject which is presumably the tortilla group.  Why feminize the group?  Why mother and not father?  Fathers can certainly name their children.  Perhaps this is a reflection of the relationship of parent to opposite-gendered child… a daddy’s girl or a mamma’s boy.

When he goes on to ask if he is our god, it speaks to me of a male presence (likely due to my having grown up in a western nation), with the feminine presence of the mother in prior lines.  This feels very sexual to me.  Not titillating or sexual in a personal sense, but in a kind of ritualistic sense.  The congress of deities was once used to explain all manner of phenomenon.

In addition, he uses “God” rather than “king” or “master” or any number of words that might refer to someone who directs subordinates, but he chose deity to describe his relationship to the group instead.  I’m curious as to why this choice was made.

A little over a minute in, he says the following:

01:06 This message will not self destruct.
01:10 Perhaps it should self deconstruct.
01:14 Unnecesary, I know as you will likely deconstruct it yourselves.

This seems to indicate that he has watched us working on these puzzles in the past, presumably on the Facebook page.  I found it a little flattering, honestly, but maybe I shouldn’t.  Perhaps it was said with derision.

I don’t know.  There’s a lot here to unpack, without even getting to the movements and gestures in the video, the unusual placement of objects in the interior shots, the woman in the video, the location of the house, or the intent in splicing the video into the middle of an old trailer.  I certainly can’t get to all of it tonight.

I have to say… watching the video makes me feel uneasy.  As though I’m anxious that I’ll see something that I don’t want to see.  I’m not sure what that thing would be, or what makes me feel like that’s a possibility.

What does it all mean?

Of course, if you’ve watched the video, you’ll already know that all was, in fact, not revealed.  Nothing was revealed, other than the suggestion that he will continue to hang tortillas.

Am I disappointed?  Not even a little.



The Gift.

I was handed a gift yesterday.

It’s a sheet of heavy paper like the kind you would find used as packing inside a produce box.  It was folded in sixths, and it has writing scrawled all over it.


A coworker found it inside the mailbox at work, crammed in next to the bundle of newspapers.

“I thought you’d be interested,” he said.

“Why would you think I’d be interested?”  I was wide-eyed, turning the heavy paper over in my hands.

“Because it’s bizarre,” he replied.

I kept it.  Folded in its original sixths, it fits in my shoulder bag.  The writing on it is frantic, and difficult to read in places.  What is legible are the writings of a crazy person.  These artifacts aren’t always easy to find, and they certainly aren’t commonly handed to one in ones place of work.  In tone, the writings remind me of the writings a roommate once left behind in my trashed apartment after threatening to kill me and forcing me to spend a week sleeping on my brother’s couch.  His opus was scrawled on the walls of the unit and on the acrylic cutting boards in my kitchen in ballpoint pen… one of the cutting boards just had “PTSD” written all across it.  The content of this is different, and separated from me by the gulf of unfamiliarity.  I intend to work on transcribing these individual paragraphs scattered across the paper over the next few days.

Now you might ask, and understandably so, why such a thing might be considered a gift.

The work of the writer, and the artist, is based in truth.  We take what we know, and we strip away from it the identifying factors, and turn our story into mankind’s story.  This removal of identity is key, because it depersonalizes the information and makes it both safer for us to share, and more digestible and useful for the audience.  The poet depersonalizes his truth similarly, but using a different strategy… he relies on the lyrical structure to turn it into a kind of incantation.

And nobody tells the truth as they see it more boldly than a crazy person.

Sanity versus madness is not  a binary condition; no creature with our level of emotional engagement and self awareness can be cognizant of its own death and be called truly sane.  We are ranged along a spectrum from the mildly neurotic to the completely insane.  Sanity is the measurement of one’s rationality, of one’s awareness of and attachment to the outside world.  A person may take the same pieces and put them together in a different way, or one might be using different pieces entirely from those that the rest of the world uses.  Either way, this constitutes a breakdown in the ability to draw correct conclusions from stimuli.

When people write like this, they are so overwhelmed by these thoughts that they seek to control them by putting them to paper… the thought is that if they can arrange them in some way, categorize them, group them, that one might slow their repetitive litany.  The thoughts themselves are perceived as the danger, rather than a symptom.  And in committing them to paper, the person in question is writing down what is most important to them at that moment in time.

In this sense, the writer is laying down truth of a purity that the rest of us have a difficult time mustering… because we fear the truth.

I think we all fear the truth on some level… we lie to ourselves, we maintain fantasies about ourselves, our lives, and our futures.  We sometimes live in fear of being found out, of being exposed.  The honesty with which one must write exposes one… it creates an emotional intimacy, which is also a vulnerability.  And so, we write in code; poetry, novels, and short fiction.  Or we transmute the truth into a visual form that can move the viewer’s heart; it can expose them to the truth without putting them in danger.

This is one of the great paradoxes of the artist… that we must strive for truth and at the same time carefully avoid it.

This is not a bad thing, really… we obviously cannot be vulnerable to everyone who reads our work.  I don’t know that there’s any way for one to live as a social mammal with that high level of personal investment and emotional risk.

But the insane recognize different dangers.  The pressure of racing thoughts and compulsions poses a greater existential threat than the risk of emotional injury from the outside world, a world that already largely rejects them.  And so, they are able to commit their thoughts to writing with a much higher degree of honesty.  Some of what they will write will make a kind of sense; some will not.  But there’s a jagged purity to it all that we can learn from.

In addition, these voices normally disappear… they are thrown away and rendered illegible rather quickly by the process of decay, never to be reproduced by the writer who in all likelihood already exists in a state of marginalization.  Was it an accident that this paper ended up in the mailbox at my work?  Probably… who knows?  But once I have these words transcribed, they will be one more little voice, however deranged, that has a slightly longer life than it would’ve otherwise.  Maybe it’s silly of me, but I think that’s actually kind of important.

These words are a verbal representation of someone’s mind, someone’s soul… no matter how broken.  And that gives them weight.

I’ll post what I can after I’m done writing it all down.  Probably next week sometime.


The Secret Lives of Tortillas, Part 4.

This is an update regarding the Bellingham Mystery Tortilla Appreciation Society and the tortillas that they appreciate.  If you want to read the rest of the story, check out Part 1,  Part 2, and Part 3.

I woke up this morning, and was still lying in bed, warm and relaxed and still waking up, when I saw that new tortillas had come in.

Not one or two tortillas.  Several tortillas.

This was a cause for some excitement, because as of our one year anniversary last month, we had one hundred and eighty two tortillas.  This meant that a substantial drop could put us over two hundred.

Why is two hundred an important number?  Well, you may remember this from our first tortilla get-together:

Some Will Be Revealed at 200 Tortillas Found

It was a wet day today, and a cold day, and I tried to avoid the places that I knew had already been scoured by members of the Bellingham Mystery Tortilla Appreciation Society on my way downtown.  There had been six or more found at that time, so my hopes weren’t high for finding new ones, but I wasn’t a mile away from my apartment when I found this:

Smell if you dare!

Now it’s worth mentioning that recent tortilla drops haven’t been huge.  We’d find one or five or ten.  But by the time I had gotten to the coffee shop, I’d found six; by the time I got to work, I’d found nine.  And this wasn’t including the ones that had been spotted earlier in the day. By around noon, the tally came in.  We had collectively found twenty additional tortillas.

This put us just over two hundred.

We didn’t have to wait long for “some” to be revealed.

Around a half hour later, a link to this was found on Reddit.  It was posted by someone using the username “mistertortilla.”

This was our revelation.  I thought that I expected something different.  Maybe an answer to who, or maybe to why.  But what we found was so wonderful, and so amazing, that I couldn’t be disappointed.  It was a photographic record of a hundred and fifty-six of the tortillas that were hung from February 2013 through June 2013.  Laid out, side by side, on tables and counter tops, prior to them having been released into the world.

I should note that this doesn’t appear to be a complete record of all of the tortillas hung within those four months.  There are chunks missing that appear in our database and seem to be genuine.  Out of the tortillas pictured in the album, we had only found fifty-two.  One third of the tortillas.

I think back on the times that I was wandering through rainy streets looking for the tortillas, knowing that they were being thrown away, and that we would never get to see them, or save photos of them for the rest of the downtown Bellingham community.  I was distraught at some points, knowing that these little gems would go in the garbage without being appreciated.  But this, over a hundred tortillas that we had missed but that had not been lost forever…

It was so much fun to read those missed tortillas, finally, and to see that some of the ones that we had heard rumors about had really existed.  When I first looked at it, it was overwhelming… I felt maybe a little light-headed even.  After it started to sink in, I felt that small, warm, gladness like a child in bed on christmas eve, unable to sleep, but lying in bed, smiling, with the blankets pulled up around her chin, just imagining.

It’s strange to think that I’ve been the person in charge of this ragtag group, that just started with myself and a few friends and now has over five hundred and fifty members.  It’s strange to think that I’ve kept at this for over a year.  It’s doubly strange to think that the Tortilla Bomber had maintained an interest in it for that long, and the “Some Is Revealed” album shows just how much of it he’d been doing.  The scale of the thing is a little startling.  If this sample is representative of the project as a whole, that means that our two hundred tortillas could represent a total of six hundred tortillas hung… maybe more.

I don’t know what the next reveal will be.  It might be a more complete documentation of the rest of the tortillas.  I don’t know.  After this, I’m not sure that I care to speculate.  We’re almost there.  And then we’ll have finished the game.  It’s a little sad to think about that, but I’d rather the thing come to a proper end rather than just have it fizzle out.  All things end.  It’s the quality of the ending that matters.

The Working Artist.

I was listening to a podcast by one of my favorite comedians in which he said that as a young man, one of his greatest fears was ending up in an office, and that it represented a kind of little death for the creative person.  The idea was that, for the creative person, there was no worse fate than that of mundane work. I’ve heard this idea repeated over and over again in different iterations from people in all kinds of creative fields, and in communities both near and far.

I cannot say how strongly I disagree with this idea.  I feel that anyone who can move directly into their career of choice can consider themselves very lucky in some ways, since these opportunities aren’t available to most, but I believe that in most cases their creative work will suffer.

I’m hard-pressed to think of any facet of our existence more universal, more essentially human, than work.  Maybe not work in the forms that we now see in the Western world, but work nonetheless.  We have worked for a large portion of our days since the beginning of when we could reasonably be called human… walking, hunting, gathering foods, and processing those foods, building shelter and producing clothing and containers, rearing children, etc.  Work was essential to our survival.  Later, after the invention of agriculture, we worked on community or family farms, and later we performed industrial work.  While our work in the modern day is less directly attached to our means of survival, it is no less a vital part of our existence.  If there’s one thing that I have learned from my extended time of unemployment and underemployment, it’s that not having useful work to set one’s hand to even has psychological and emotional effects on people.

People without work become less productive in their personal lives as well.  Unemployment and underemployment has been shown to correlate with increases in depression and anxiety.  I’m certain that some of this has to do with the inevitable financial hardships that come with a lack of work, but I also think that the living person wants purpose.  Needs purpose.  People want to be a part of a community, and wants to function in a useful way within that community.  These useful roles may vary from person to person, and from culture to culture, but they are no less necessary to the emotional well-being of the individual.  Without practical purpose, the sense of self-worth withers, and one’s place within one’s specific community begins to feel uncertain.  This uncertainty of place is painful to the social mammal; it embodies a very basic fear that, being of no use to the larger group, we may be excluded from that group, and there is a very small and primal part of our brain that views this as a death sentence.  In this sense, in the sense that work is essential for emotional well-being and for the human experience, work is a kind of a sacred thing.

Artists are no different.  For those who are able to make a living from their art, there is still work.  One must handle their books, their taxes; one must market their work, book shows, network with other artists, with venues, with gallery owners, and with the public.  There are a dozen mundane tasks to each one exhibitionist act that, when you work for yourself, you must perform, or manage, or arrange to be done.

The only way to escape so-called mundane work is to become wealthy enough to never have to work again.

I don’t believe that even this is a healthy goal for the artist.  To be human is to work, and to not have work is to, in some sense, lose touch with humanity.  If one believes (and I do) that the work of the artist is to touch the essence of humanity and then to translate it into an audio or visual or verbal form that can communicate that humanity sufficiently well to touch the soul of another person, then to lose touch with humanity in any way is to drift further and further from that goal.

Think of the human experience as a reservoir.  There is a certain amount of stuff stored in there, and when one creates their work, it uses up some of that stuff.  You can refill your reservoir by engaging in human activities, by having human experiences, and by engaging with other humans.  Then you have more raw materials, more stories to tell, more concepts to explore.  But if you never refill that reservoir, the creative wellspring will trickle to a stop, and your work will become self-referential.  You will do again and again the things that you’ve already done in the past, or even do things that you’ve seen other artists do.  You will become inwardly focused, and rather than reaching for humanity itself, you will only reach deeper into yourself, producing work with such strictly personal implications that nobody else will be able to derive value from it.  At that point, you are no longer serving your community or even the ideas of truth and beauty, but only your own ego.

And this is at best masturbation, and at worst, outright fraud.  It is also, I believe, the reason why creative work suffers when an excess of success is achieved.  Once you can insulate yourself from all suffering and once you can afford to delegate all menial aspects of your work, what remains of the person that you once were?

Make.Shift’s Folly.

So a local art gallery named Make.Shift has caused a bit of a dust-up.

The source of the controversy is some art that they’re exhibiting for the month of February, called “White Trash Girls From the Small Town in the Middle of my Mind.”  The description is as follows, pulled directly from the associated Facebook event:

“Artist: Chris Henry (from Portland, OR)
Description: Once, I was working at a pizza restaurant, and taking an order over the phone. When I asked the customer’s name, she told me “Crystal”. As I hung up the phone, and scribbled the name on the order, I turned to the guy on the ovens and said, “Man, Crystal is such a white trash name”. “I know!” Oven-guy said, “I totally grew up with somebody named Crystal, in Tennessee!” From there, he and I started throwing out names of women we’d known in the small towns …we grew up in, and soon everyone joined in. “Sheila!” “Tonya!” “Misty!” and on and on. As I gleefully scribbled all the names down, Oven-guy said, “You should draw what all these girls look like, dude.” It sounded like a laugh, so I bought a pack of index cards, and a cheap pen, and for the next few weeks went through the list of names, and drew the first thing that came to mind. Some of the girls are based on people I went to school with in Mckinleyville, CA (“Where horses have the right of way!), and some just appeared in my head when I uttered the name, “Margie”, and put pen to paper. I ended up feeling oddly close to them, and they all started telling me little stories about themselves, and where they fit into the small town in the middle of my mind. And here they are, for you. Maybe you’ll recognize someone. Cheers.”


So, the showing is evidently a series of caricatures of poor white women that the artist made up based entirely on their names.  The image used for the Facebook event page and for the posters used to advertise the exhibition is… shall we say, unflattering to the subject.  The community is up in arms because the show, based on the description, is dehumanizing to the poor, and specifically to poor women.

Now before I go on, I want to say very clearly that I have not seen this show.  I also don’t particularly intend to.  I would also like to very clearly say that I already have a poor opinion of Make.Shift due to a fire code problem that they failed to address until the city forced them to, and that the resolution to this problem put a minimum of two local business in danger, AND that when they raised funds to address the issue, I don’t believe that they were particularly honest with their supporters.

I’m the last person to say that art should be rejected because people might be offended by it.  I think art should make people uncomfortable, should be thought-provoking and evocative.  I think art should challenge our existing thoughts, feelings, and perceptions about any given subject.  In fact, one of my favorite things to do when I had some pieces hung in a local coffee shop was to sit and listen to people say things about the art on the walls, and every time someone said it made them feel uncomfortable or that they thought it was strange, I wanted to pat myself on the back.  So my objection to the show is not that the material that it contains might be offensive.

However, based on the fact that I feel that art should challenge our existing view of the world and make us think, do we really need more dehuminization of the poor and of women?  I mean, that’s been the status quo for thousands of years already, so what exactly is this challenging?  What is there here that is interesting, or thought-provoking, other than the outrage and discussion that it has sparked in the community?  As you can read on Make.Shift’s website (in the About portion), they claim that this is a space for “alternative” artists and musicians:

“Make.Shift Art Space is a DIY art and music venue dedicated to innovative, alternative and unusual art and music. The 8,000-square-foot space includes an art gallery, live all-ages music venue and 18 individual art and music studios. Here we provide a home for painters, printmakers, photographers, sculptors, musicians, and whoever else needs an affordable place to make a mess and show it off.”

So what is this an alternative to, when it seems to play in to the dominant cultural narrative that turns poor people, specifically poor, unempowered women, into an object of fun?  And this is not a piercing gaze into the lives of those stricken with poverty in America, as far as I can tell from the art on the marketing pieces and from the description; this is not a thoughtful indictment of our country’s inability to even acknowledge that the working poor exist.  It’s funny drawings of “poor white trash” women, based solely on what the artist thinks of their names.

So my primary objection to this exhibition is that it’s boring.  It’s not saying anything that hasn’t already been said to poor people and specifically to poor women for generations on generations, whether we choose to acknowledge that cultural message or not.  It’s bland, counter-revolutionary, and honestly I don’t even think it’s funny.  I’m okay with offensive humor; I certainly think it has its place, and this is a matter of comedic theory, which I’m sure I will talk about more at some point in the future.  But for offensive humor to work, it has to accomplish more good than it does bad; it has to be funny enough to justify it’s horribleness.  I don’t find this funny, not because it makes me angry, but simply because I am at an age where making fun of the way people look just doesn’t do it for me anymore.  Call me jaded.

My secondary objection is more practical and less theoretical.  Make.Shift operates as a non-profit.  It depends on the community for its money, and as such it is obligated to provide some good to the community that supports it.  As a community space, I question Make.Shift’s wisdom in hosting an exhibition that may alienate a large number of their supporters; artists on the whole, with a small number of exceptions, are not fantastically wealthy people, and I don’t know whether women are under- or over-represented in the artistic community, but I think its safe to say that they make up at least a portion of artists, and I know of women who have supported Make.Shift, either through donation or through renting studio space from the gallery itself.

Moreover, since non-profit status confers some benefits from the community at large, Make.Shift is not just beholden to its donors, but to the community in general.  Especially as an all-ages music and art venue (a fact also plucked from their website) one would think that they have some kind of obligation to be a space that is accessible and safe to all, including the poor and the female… if for no other reason than to benefit the minds of the young people who may visit.

A private gallery doesn’t suffer from these obligations, and sinks or swims based on how customers and artists perceive it.  One of the downsides of depending on money from the community, whether directly or indirectly, is that you are obligated to the community, and accountable to that community for your conduct.  There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

When Make.Shift received feedback from the community on the show via their Facebook page, the response was to state that they’re willing to discuss the issue at a meeting in their office:

“I’d be happy to talk to you about the choice to run this show.  Facebook isn’t the most productive place to do that, but I’m in the office on Tuesdays from noon-2:30 p.m. if you’d like to talk, or we can set up a meeting time elsewhere.”

-Make.Shift Director, as excerpted from a Facebook comment.

Needless to say, a community discussion about the social impact of this exhibition cannot be had at the Make.Shift office; and perhaps they have good reasons for taking the conversation behind closed doors.  I don’t know, I can’t think of any, and to me, Facebook seems like a great place for the gallery to respond to its entire community regarding the choice to exhibit this particular show.  To not issue an actual response to the many people who are commenting on this issue seems foolish.  If the gallery would address the concerns that the community has regarding the potentially elitist and misogynist content of their February show, that would at least seem like an act of good faith.

So, to sum up: I would love to be able to get behind an art exhibition that causes an uproar.  Unfortunately, this is not that exhibition; we as a culture spend enough time telling the poor that they’re trashy and worthless, and telling women that their primary value is derived from their looks.  This is no different, and as a result is utterly uninteresting.  Make.Shift has an obligation to the community that supports it that they do not appear to be meeting, and are unwilling to discuss this in a public way.

I’m not the final arbiter of what is and is not acceptable, and nor would I want to be.  I don’t want this artist to be silenced or stifled, but I don’t see the intellectual, social, or even comedic value here.  I question Make.Shift’s choice to run a show that could actually be seen as harmful to their community, and all that means is that I’m certainly never donating to them, and I would caution anyone who has thought of doing so to consider what benefit this organization brings to our community.

Start a Riot.

So, I’ve been delving into a lot more classical music lately.  I was raised on classical music, but apart from some Tchaikovsky and Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (The Four Seasons is a sort of musical comfort food to me, I remember listening to it in the car as a little girl, from the back seat, and I would gaze out the window and tone out all of the conversation in the car and pretend that I was somewhere else), I haven’t felt a lot of interest in it, maybe because a lot of it is so overused in soundtracks and car commercials that it starts to sound like some kind of horrible background music for commerce.

But since discovering some new information about Beethoven’s racial heritage, and since discovering that his music, as played in the modern day, was probably not presented in the way that the composer intended it to be played (Beethoven’s originally noted time signatures were so absurdly fast and so difficult to play that modern conductors assume that his metronome was broken; the music sounds quite differently played according to the original notations; if you can find some, you should check it out), I’ve developed a new interest in classical music.  Beethoven can’t be the only remarkable thing that was whitewashed and tamed.

Today I came across a piece that was neither hidden nor lost; that is indeed among classical music’s most recorded, but which bears mentioning regardless… Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

If you haven’t heard it, I suggest you listen to at least some of it.

The Rite of Spring was an orchestral piece with a dance performance that was premiered in 1913.  It was written by a young and still relatively unknown Igor Stravinsky, was the score for the last of three ballets.  It, and the ballet performance that it accompanied, were created to capture the spirit of celebrations of spring in (at that point long gone) pagan Russia.  Stravinsky attempted to capture the primitive feeling and the impression of untrained voices by using dissonance, atonalities, and bitonalities.  In some cases, he stretched certain instruments to the very ends of their range, rendering them unrecognizable even to the ears of professionals.  The work is structured in a way that, along with the dissonance and odd tones, keeps the listener off-balance; it’s shattered into musical fragments, each of which repeats and can be related to multiple other pieces.  The tempo changes frequently and without warning, and the driving repetitiveness of it is something that may have been at home in a prehistoric vernal ritual, but undoubtedly sounded strange to those at the time.

It’s impossible for me to listen to this with anything other than a modern ear, which is a shame.  The Rite is regarded as one of the most influential pieces of music in the modern day, and it’s easy to see why.  A lot of what you hear going on is reminiscent of modern day dramatic or cinematic instrumental music.  In fact, the Rite has been said to be the earliest rock and roll… I personally find this to be a bit classist and anglocentric as it disregards the essential role of Western European folk music traditions and the not inconsiderable influence of African and African American musical traditions on modern rock music, but I can see how the comparison could be made.  I will say that in many places in the piece, it still sounds eerie and disconcerting, and it must have sounded deranged to the average ballet-goer of the early nineteen hundreds.

But let’s not forget the ballet portion.  The music was accompanied by dancers, of course, and this also was odd for the time.  Rather than revealing and form-fitting outfits as were common in ballet at the time (and still are; they highlight the inherent grace of the human form, which is the main purpose of ballet), these dancers wore long tunics and padded, laced leggings.  In fact, the dancers’ forms were obscured more or less from head to toe, regardless of gender.  The dancers’ hair, instead of being neatly pinned and tucked, was worn in long, heavy braids.

The choreography, by Vasilav Nijinsky, was equally puzzling to audiences at the time.  Many portions of the ballet involved the dancers using awkward, jerking motions and heavy leaps that shook the floors.  Nijinsky required that his dancers dance toe-in, making the movements even more awkward by nature.  You can see the ballet here with what are purported to be Nijinsky’s original choreography, though evidently the dance itself was lost over the years and just recently reconstructed from the performers accounts and from documentation of the performance, so who knows… but it’s probably pretty darn close.  You can see how the movements would be thought to evoke the feeling of prehistory, of an unsophisticated people leaping around a bonfire.  In fact, it seems very close to a lot of modern dance of the current day.  Another aspect that, while it may not seem as strange to modern eyes, likely looked bizarre to the point of incompetence to ballet-goers of the time.

The Rite only ran for six performances in its original run.  It’s premiere was so scandalous, that it almost resulted in a riot.  Evidently the derisive laughter began during the introduction, and grew to a clamor shortly after.  The audience shouted and hissed, and threw objects at the orchestra as they performed.  It’s said that the crowd was so loud that it became impossible to hear the music.  The orchestra played on; they had been ordered to keep playing, no matter what happened… they had been ordered to by the ballet master Sergei Diaghilev, which indicates that he had anticipated such a reaction.  Audience member Thomas Kelly was quoted as having said, regarding the premier, “the pagans onstage made pagans of the audience.”

Those last two items bear consideration.  One, the ballet master anticipated a reaction so intensely negative that in order to calm the audience, the police had to be called and the house lights brought up.  And two, what better response could one receive to a piece intended to evoke prehistoric pagan ritual, than to see the audience reduced themselves to barbarity? (A note on the use of the word “pagan” as a pejorative; in this piece of writing it is used thus due to the fact that pagans were viewed at the time with disdain as uneducated barbarians, and this use does not necessarily reflect the feeling or intent of the writer.)

My point in writing this is that the Rite of Spring nearly caused a riot, but was also one of the most influential pieces of music in the modern day.  This indicates that the music and the dancing were both so far ahead of their time that even the rather avant-garde audience in attendance reacted with outrage.  Diaghilev had the courage to ensure that the performance continued, regardless of this reaction… which history indicates he anticipated.  The lesson here is, for those who pursue the creative arts, that we must not shrink from the possibility of strong critical reaction; in fact, to be truly great, we should court it.

Art is an evolving narrative.  If it weren’t, we’d only need a handful of pieces of art to rely upon.  We must always strive to add new ideas and new voices to that conversation.  That the reaction may be one of fear or of anger should spur us onward, because cultural changes are often greeted with these feelings.  Rather than this being a sign that we have failed, it is a sign that we are continuing to succeed.

In short, my friends, never be afraid that you might start a riot.

That, after all, is why we’re here.

As you read any of this, it’s vital to keep in mind that I, the humble writer, know very little about music and next to nothing about classical music, so you know.  Most of this is probably bullshit.

The Secret Lives of Tortillas, Part 3

This is an update regarding the Bellingham Mystery Tortilla Appreciation Society and the tortillas that they appreciate.  If you want to read the rest of the story, check out Part 1 and Part 2.

Okay, I’ll admit that I was starting to lose my faith.  I had thought perhaps the Tortilla Bomber had gotten bored, or that he had imposed some kind of arbitrary time frame that we had failed to meet.  Either way, I was resigned to the fact that the game had been ended before we’d reached the end, and that we would languish without any closure.  I mean, it had been the longest time that we’d been without tortillas since this whole thing started.  I think our last substantial find was in October.  What were we supposed to think?

But then, this morning, as Bellingham woke up and blinked her eyes in the unusual glare of sunlight, I fired up my laptop and saw this on the tortilla grouptortilla169

It was on the window of a local business called the Leaf and Ladle… they have been tortilla bombed several times before.  But could you imagine my excitement?  It wasn’t over; we hadn’t failed.  I was thrilled… I wanted to find the Tortilla Bomber that moment and hug him.  I walked to work with a spring in my step and a watchful eye.  I didn’t really expect there to be other tortillas once I had seen the photo of this one… I had thought that it was just a sign that things would be getting back to normal.  Well, as normal as things get with tortillas, I suppose.  But it wasn’t long into my workday before I received a message from one of my operatives, and the message included this:

We've got to go back
We’ve got to go back

My informant had snapped this picture the night before, but claims that he was “too drunk” to want to post it… a state of drunkenness that I don’t believe that I have ever reached.  I was surprised to see it; and pleased.  The Bellingham Mystery Tortilla Appreciation Society’s anniversary is coming up next month, and I had worried that it would seem more like a funeral than anything celebratory.  These new tortillas would inject a new vitality to our pursuit.

And then, just earlier this evening, this appeared:

Hospital food is horrible.
Hospital food is horrible.

Was it a clue as to the recent whereabouts of the Tortilla Bomber?  The Society hasn’t reached any conclusions yet.  Our bomber is a wily one, and has proven himself to have a brilliant sense of humor.

In all seriousness, today’s tortillas injected a little absurd joy into a life that, while I don’t want to say that it’s been bad because that wouldn’t be accurate, has certainly had some challenges of late.  It gives me something to direct a little of my energy at that isn’t a constant source of stress to me, and it provides a small reminder of why I love this town, as I was even today, in the wake of some really unreasonable shitty behavior toward a local business, questioning why I had put so much effort into staying here.  And this is it… the sheen of weirdness, of absurdity.  People doing things without consensus or without a grant, or without it being an assignment for a college course.  Despite things being shitty sometimes, and people acting like giant entitled turds, as long as that sheen is there, as long as that independence and fierceness persists, I’ll keep finding reasons to hang my hat in Bellingham.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly a year since all of this started, back in February of 2013.  The first tortillas, the beginning of the Society… it’s hard to believe how far the Society has come in such a short time.  From the original two members, it has grown to almost five hundred.  We made stickers, business cards, even buttons, often donated by members and distributed for as close to free as we could.  We’ve gotten together and had drinks, and we’ve even had the occasion to find tortillas together.  Has it gotten us anywhere productive?  Probably not.  But why does everything have to be productive?  Why can’t things in the modern day just be joyful?  Why do we chastise ourselves for sloth when we want to play a video game or read or watch a few hours of television?  Why can’t things, like the tortillas, just be?  These things I know about my involvement; I’ve had a lot of fun, and made some new friends, and experienced some wonder, in that childlike way that we all seem to forget once we’re adults.  What else can you ask for from a tortilla?