I don’t know. I mean, village festivals used to be all about serious superstition: connecting with the earth in order to beg its gods not to destroy us with fire, flood or famine. So when a bunch of us hipsters with our aging-hippie parents gather at midsummer(ish) to make paper lanterns and parade around the island and watch a shadow-puppet show and listen to the drumming and gather round the biggest beach bonfire I’ve ever seen IRL…well, aren’t we just playing at paganism? Isn’t it sort of fraudulent and voyeuristic and nostalgic?
These were my thoughts…until I became swept up in the sheer audacity and fun that is the Shadowland Theatre Company‘s annual Fire Parade on Ward’s Island, Toronto. The babble of the crowd drowned out by the roar of the flames. The ring hastily widening as the air heats and the sparks shower down. And then the collective “Ahh,” as the flames died back just enough to expose the metal cormorant rising, phoenix-like, from the bonfire (cormorants are invasive to Canada and are rapidly defoliating the Outer Harbour).
Justin Timberlake is my boyfriend. Let me be clear: I’m not talking here about some childhood crush. Back in the NSYNC era I wouldn’t have recognized his name, and I had no idea Justin was ever a Mouseketeer. Nor did I care enough about Britney Spears to notice the gentleman on her arm, when they were a thing.
No, I only recently started dating Justin. I first noticed him in The Social Network: his sexy, spoiled-brat Napster maverick completely stole the movie for me. Wait, I thought, isn’t that guy a pop singer? Then came Friends with Benefits. Oh, man, who is this man who looks so comfy in his own skin onscreen? Who does this little song-and-dance imitation of Kriss Kross in a 5-second, comic scene and floors us with his talent?
Justin, I love your pedigree, now that I’ve been googling you. You were raised in front of cameras and you’re utterly at home there. Last night I stayed up late watching this making-of FWB video, and your costars say they’re deeply intimidated by your natural acting ability. Your director says it’s like working with Fred Astaire: you can do anything he asks, effortlessly. But it’s not just your talent I love; it’s the fact that you’re so clearly in it for the joy. The whole time, through all the bloopers and gag-reel material, you’re either laughing your head off or struggling to keep a straight face.
I love your attitude to music. Your songs are so silly! Gossamer-light lyrics and fluting, easy harmonies that offer perfect soundtracks to the Fred Astaire-esque mini-movies that are your music videos. You entertain, Justin, full stop.
What more could a girl possibly want in a boyfriend?
Tiny blossoms. They’re right there in my front yard, but I keep walking past, fast. And blossoms are short-lived! Time to slow down–just a couple of extra minutes before hopping on my bike–take a good look, put my nose to the scent, gauge how the light hits. Say hi to the neighbor lady (always sweeping!) and let her talk to me from the sidewalk while I snap some pictures.
That’s my lilac in the center. Daphne, bottom left (Hello, sweet lady! I thought you’d died an icy death, but here you are!). Periwinkle, geranium, lily-of-the-valley.
Horace Walpole, man. Now there was a gent who knew how to have fun. In 1746 he moved to the village of Twickenham, bought a villa called Strawberry Hill and decided to turn it into a Gothic castle-slash-themepark. Using drawings of medieval cathedrals as his guide, he knocked together turrets and gargoyles out of plaster and papier mache. He filled the mansion with his vast collection of historical curios (including Henry VIII’s jeweled dagger and an Elizabethan necromancy mirror made of black obsidian) and threw open its doors to daytrippers from London.
Then he wrote a little novel called The Castle of Otranto, claiming to have translated it from a crusades-era Italian text. When it sold well and he finally fessed up to the authorship, he told a friend that the story had come to him in a dream.
“I am writing; I am building. . .My buildings are paper, like my writings,” Walpole said in 1761, “and both will be blown away in ten years after I am dead. If they had not the substantial use of amusing me while I live, they would be worth little indeed.”
I love the fact that Walpole’s prediction was 240 years off. The Strawberry Hill Trust has just finished restoring his house, and his book reappears yearly on Gothic course syllabi worldwide.
There’s a lesson here for us dabblers and dilettantes, hoarders and hobbyists. Even if you make stuff purely to amuse yourself, even if your stuff is insubstantial or fake, even if your stuff doesn’t make you rich and famous–your stuff still counts.
Two and a half centuries from now, it might even be revered.
At the Dirt Exhibit in London I got to see John Snow’s “ghost map” graphing cholera cases during the 1854 outbreak:
This map helped prove that cholera spread not through “miasma” in the air but tainted water (the deaths marked on the map cluster around the Broad Street pump). It’s commonly credited with contributing to the birth of epidemiology.
Here’s another map, this time pertaining not to disease but to literature:
This version was drawn by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer via Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
The hero’s journey (Campbell calls it the “monomyth”) may not have saved as many lives as Snow’s map. But it arguably led to the birth of literary criticism.
“Nature, as we know her, is no saint. The lights of the church, the ascetics, Gentoos and corn-eaters, she does not distinguish by any favor. She comes eating and drinking and sinning. Her darlings, the great, the strong, the beautiful, are not children of our law; do not come out of the Sunday School, nor weight their food, nor punctually keep the commandments. If we will be strong with her strength we must not harbor such disconsolate consciences, borrowed too from the consciences of other nations. We must set up the strong present tense against all the rumors of wrath, past or to come.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson