Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Into Arizona Culture

Editors note: This was deleted from my archives last year because it was attracting spam. Let's try again.

Hello Reader,
Got culture? 

There’s only one reason Europeans travel so far to the micro state of Monaco. No, not for the culture: for the casino! Recently I flew hundreds of miles, past three states, due south to Arizona for the “casino thing.” From Sky Harbor I went by road to the Arizona Casino. The road infrastructure alone was a sight worth telling of; I also looked at colors. These are the three things to tell you about my trip: colors, road and casino. 
And then I’ll try to grasp the “cultural context” of it all.

Arizona is sunny like Italy, with the same quaint red tiled roofs everywhere, but often duller, even grey. In “the grand canyon state” shoveled dirt is brown not prairie black. Pottery is red. Homes and structures are of dull earthy colors: grey-white (never a Greek bright white) ochre, rust, brown, or grey. A couple times I saw red buildings, but always in a dull in hue, never bright like a barn. Nothing colored like a lime fruit, be it a green one or a yellow one. And no blue; never a bright blue. The city of Phoenix, of course, is not surrounded by sparkling emerald ocean and brilliant jungle, but by dusty desert. Very sunny, yes, but without intense tropical colors. No bright parrots. All the birds of the desert have dull feathers. 

Do you like public art? In Calgary, the city has mandated that that all city infrastructure projects allot a tiny percentage of the budget towards public art, to be built very close by. Hence the giant hula hoop as you approach YYC. And hence the crude sketching in the concrete under the overpasses: For me, the only memorable road art in Calgary is the realistic fish glimpsed along the Glenmore Trail walls as you are rushing by.

Around Phoenix, the broad highways are amazing. All the overpasses and road walls are a brownish red. No doubt the cement powder is mixed with red dye. The art changes every mile. For the road walls above the highway embankment, I invite you to imagine in the concrete an endless variety of “crafty” decorations, such as cross hatching, swirls and vertical lines. Changing every mile. Now imagine embankments, below the walls, with zigzags of ribbons of little rocks, separating ground of different textures. Amazing embankments! All sorts of simple brick lines, as well as carefully landscaped repetitions of shrubs, then cacti, then bushes. All on reddish ground. No grass. Ever changing. 

Each red overpass, facing oncoming traffic, (unlike Calgary) has a different artistic picture on it—often a modern-art type animal, never mere realism. How affluent it all seems. You would think Arizona must be erupting in gold, or gushing in oil—more oil Alberta ever sees.

If you watch too much TV, you may be expecting elegant ladies in pearls and men in tuxedos.  Nope: Forget James Bond. Although back in the 1950’s we dressed up for special things like air travel and going to the cinema, no one does so now. The slogan near the casino door, under multi-media screens, goes something like “the local folks casino.” And yes, the folks are all people you would see in everyday Arizona life, maybe not quite “the people seen at Walmart,” but truly like folks at the local mall. 

No windows in the dimness. A constant sound, allegedly musical, tries to keep you excited: How silly, but at least there’s not the blinging bells of an old video arcade. The sit-down slot machines have the same flashing vibrant colors of a pinball machine, while new digital technology allows lots of flowing pictures. For example, The Walking Dead slot machine had chained zombies moving through a forest, and sometimes a close up of a zombie approaching. My own slot machine had dancing hot peppers. Wearing sombreros. No action at the gambling tables—the poor tables seemed lonely.

Again, as with the roads, there’s Arizona culture: lots of indigenous art was inset behind glass along the walls near the casino restaurants. I saw a dress, with beads, of Navaho turquoise, that was off the shoulder. In other words, the aboriginal artists felt safe doing things a little modern, even as they surely felt pressured to be authentically traditional. Same with the bracelets, being inscribed traditionally, yet still a wee bit modern and free. 

Tourism broadens my mind… 
As for art and culture, I am still accustomed, as are others, to my favorite decade whence I was born: the 1950’s. I wonder: Is it a betrayal of our ’50’s space-time, a time of uptight conformist culture, for us to build Arizona’s 21st century “artsy fartsy” highways? Similarly, are artists with aboriginal names, while making modern art, betraying aboriginals of earlier time-space locations? If so, then do we call those artists “they” or “us?” 

I wonder, because recently some people would make “culture” into a sacred cow. They refer not to different “countries” but to different “cultures,” —that being their synonym for country. Call me middle aged, but I grimace. 

Or laugh. I figure those young folks don’t realize their current fetish for rigidly separate, straining-to-be-unique “cultures” is not “a new improved idea.” Nor is it a final plateau that civilization has been building to all these years. Naw, it’s merely part of a swirling river, or a pendulum, as new ideas, just like new styles of “off the shoulder” clothing, will have their day in the sun. Like in the casino, like the off the shoulder sweatshirts seen around town after Flashdance. But some folks seem unaware of flowing temporary time, treating their concept of “culture” as if it were their permanent golden calf.

I like how my clothes closet figuratively has a Nehru Indian shirt next to British sailor bellbottoms, next to a Yankee preppie vest that looks like some old sort of life preserver. I know, right? How many cultures can one closet appropriate? And hey, don’t say I’m hoarding: Those styles might come back again… 

Meanwhile I amuse myself by extending the consequences of people’s fetish idea of “cultural appropriation” idea, imagining “these American states” as each having it’s own prim and proper culture, where people who would cross state lines must figuratively go through watertight doors like on a submarine, where roads “are supposed to,” at the Arizona state line, instantly turn dull and boring.

Tres Amusante. That’s all I can say as regards the cultural context of what I saw in Arizona.

… I would recommend you go to Arizona even if you don’t gamble. Why? Easy: When I left there today it was a dry 32 degrees; (90 Fahrenheit) when I touched down in Calgary the tarmac was sopping black and there were snow flurries blowing across the plane windows. A whole planeload of strong hardy Canadians all groaned.

Sean Crawford,
South East Calgary
Trying to warm up

Footnote: I tackled “cultural appropriation” in an essay archived May of 2017

Footnote on road speed
So there I was, driving a rental van in the dark, along a winding well-traveled rural desert road, with only one narrow lane each way, only a dotted line to keep us from oncoming traffic. I told my passengers, “The speed limit is 65 miles per hour, but I’m only going 60. It’s dark.” 

Have you ever driven the arrow straight Queen Elizabeth II highway up to Edmonton? It has two lanes going north, with a hundred yards of grass separating you from oncoming lanes, along flat prairie. The Canadian engineers put the speed limit at 110 kilometres per hour. This snaky desert road was nearly that fast! And it was faster than the majestic Stony Trail highway of 100 kph!

As we music fans sped along the fantasy desert we had no time to contemplate the pompetis of love or smell the warm callitas.

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