24 September 2006

We're one, but we're not the same

Confessions. Pleas for understanding. People desperate to share what they truly are and truly feel, but afraid of scorn, of judgement, of ridicule, of persecution. And so these confessions largely remain hidden.

The other day,
in my old copy of The Book of Lists, I read something kind of interesting concerning a particular song by U2 which made me think about some of the really great confessionals that form part of my music collection. Among these are some familiar radio favourites, open secrets like the catchy single Take Your Mama by Scissor Sisters (found on Scissor Sisters, their 2004 debut album). This song takes the listener along on the camp-as-can-be glam disco journey as a young man and his friends show his mother a gay old time on the club scene. Other songs are hidden gems, like the electro-blues of Hideaway, from Erasure's 1987 album The Circus. This features the harrowing chorus:
Oh my father
Why don't you talk to me now?
Oh my mother
Do you still cry yourself to sleep?
Are you still proud of your little boy?

More questions than answers. In 1996, Pet Shop Boys released Bilingual, where the track Metamorphosis presents us with the oh-so-witty line 'What I wanted was to be a family man, but nature had some alternative plans'. The subject is treated with humour and melancholy in equal measure, you see. Everyone knows what George Michael implies when he says that he'd 'service the community' on Outside, released in 1998 on his Best Of collection, Ladies and Gentlemen. And it's obvious that most of these songs have been created by artists who are icons in the gay community. But what I'm getting at is that some songs are less obvious in exploring this theme, both in lyrical content and in who is behind the microphone.

Every straight man's favourite fag, Freddy Mercury, was possessed by the act of perfecting the multi-layered masterpiece
Bohemian Rhapsody for Queen's remarkable 1975 album A Night at the Opera. The band had to keep overdubbing the operatic vocals until you could see right through the deteriorating master tape. Brian May once remarked that this ethereal piece of work seemed to literally disappear as they were making it. Opinions differ, of course, but in Bohemain Rhapsody Mercury comes to terms with his own homosexuality. It was during this time that Mercury gave up the straight and narrow for what his gay friends called 'the real life'. For 'Mama, just killed a man', read 'Mary, my old self is dead'. There is no more powerful account of a person's struggle with their own demons. In the end, there truly is 'no escape from reality', unless you are resigned that 'nothing really matters' to you anymore.

The most common interpretation of the lyrical content of One, taken from the 1991 U2 album Achtung Baby, is that it's about lovers who need to end a destructive relationship. According to The Book Of Lists, Bono Hewson 'discovered' that the song was actually about a boy with AIDS addressing his father. Anton Corbijn directed the video for the song, in which Bono is singing to his own father while wearing a black gown. Apparently, the sight of Bono singing in drag upset some management types, who were concerned that the video might imply that only gay people get AIDS. In fact, two other completely different videos were duly created, and these lend themselves more to the many other interpretations of the song. In true U2 style, some of the proceeds from the sale of the One single went to AIDS charities. The Book of Lists calls this song an astonishingly potent cry against a fear so powerful it could sever a father from his ailing son.
Did I disappoint you?
Or leave a bad taste in your mouth?
You act like you never had love
And you want me to go without

More questions again. Confessors waiting for a response. This time, will it be judgement or compassion?

18 September 2006

Once Upon a Time

Arcadia is my list muse. The first sentence is what inspires you to read the rest of the book, isn't it? I have therefore prepared a list of some of my favourite opening lines from books. I've permitted myself more than a single sentence in instances where I think the essence of the opening passage is not captured merely before the first period. You'll notice that I adore books that start off with high tension. There is tension regarding a character's identity, their past, their future or their motivation. Tension is created by change, the sense that everything's going to be irrevocably different from now onwards. Vonnegut's characters who have to want something on every page. Enjoy.

1. The Bridge of San Luis Rey - Thornton Wilder [1927]
"On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below."

2. Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons [1932]
"The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occured in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living."

3. The Outsider - Albert Camus [1942]
"Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know."

4. The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov [1967]
"At the hour of the hot spring sunset two citizens appeared at the Patriach's Ponds."

5. One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel García Márquez [1967]
"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."

6. Tales of the City - Armistead Maupin [1980]
"Mary Ann Singleton was twenty-five years old when she saw San Francisco for the first time."

7. Less Than Zero - Bret Easton Ellis [1985]
"People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles."

8. The Object of My Affection - Stephen McCauley [1987]
"Nina and I had been living together in Brooklyn for over a year when she came home one afternoon, announced she was pregnant, tossed her briefcase to the floor and flopped down on the green vinyl sofa."

9. A Home at the End of the World - Michael Cunningham [1990]
"Once our father bought a convertible. Don't ask me. I was five."

10. The Secret History - Donna Tartt [1992]
"The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation."

11. A Map of the World - Jane Hamilton [1994]
"I used to think if you fell from grace it was more likely than not the result of one stupendous error, or else an unfortunate accident. I hadn't learned that it can happen so gradually you don't lose your stomach or hurt yourself in the landing."

12. The Dead Heart - Douglas Kennedy [1994]
"I had never seen so many tattoos."

13. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil - John Berendt [1994]
"He was tall, about fifty, with darkly handsome, almost sinister features: a neatly trimmed mustache, hair turning silver at the temples, an eyes so black they were like the tinted windows of a sleek limousine - he could see out, but you couldn't see in."

14. Fight Club - Chuck Palahniuk [1996]
"Tyler gets me a jo as a waiter,after that Tyler's pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die."

15. The House of Sleep - Jonathan Coe [1997]
"It was their final quarrel, that much was clear."

16. Devil's Valley - André P. Brink [1998]
"'I been sitting here, waiting for you,' said the old man, not bothering to look at me."

17. Coast - Matthew Branton [2000]
"It started the day the Indian boys fell out of the sky."

18. Emotionally Weird - Kate Atkinson [2000]
"My mother is a virgin. (Trust me.)"

19. Orchid Fever - Eric Hansen [2000]
"There is something distinctive about the sight and sound of a human body falling from the rain forest canopy."

20. Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides [2002]
"I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974."

11 September 2006

Generally Redundant Examination

So on Wednesday I woke up at 05:00 so that I may beat the traffic to Johannesburg. I left the house at roughly 05:45 and headed out to the highway in the dark. There was already traffic on the highway. Lots of it. I shall never understand how people can live in one city and then work in another. People driving in to Johannesburg from Pretoria. People driving in to Durban from Pietermaritzburg. People everywhere in their cars. But not driving, really. Because it's more like waiting. I arrived in Parktown at 07:15. That's an average speed of 40 kph. So much for all the signs prohibitng speeds in excess of 100 kph - there's just not enough room on the N1 to attain it. I listened to Zero 7's In The Waiting Line whilst stuck somewhere in Midrand. How appropriate. I cannot imagine doing this every day. I wouldn't do it and I respect all of you who daily commute between home and work. The lab is about 15 kilometres from my home, and travelling that distance every morning frustrates me to no end.

Empire Road is the home of the Thomson Prometric office, where I had to take a GRE test. The GRE test being one of the requirements of the Fulbright Commission, even though I have a BSc(Hons) degree in the field of molecular biology and will hopefully have an MSc degree soon, too. Luckily the Fulbright people at the US Embassy gave me a voucher, so I got to take the test for free. This test measures your language and basic mathematical skills. In the end I felt like I had driven 120 kilometres and spent a whole day proving something that I felt could be ascertained by reviewing my tertiary education history. What a waste. We are all slaves to bureaucracy and there's nothing we can do about it. Or is there?

1 September 2006

In The Greenhouse (09/06)

Welcome to orchid season. All of the precious sleeping beauties that have lain dormant all those winter months are finally awake and putting on a splendid display. With this, my largest orchid post ever, I would like to show you the symptoms of my spring fever. A word of warning, though: it is highly contagious...

Dendrobium nobile 'Joyful Heart'. I purchased this Himalayan plant for R50,00 from MC Orchids several years ago. Then, it was a cute little ikebana of a plant, with a couple of spindly canes with velvety pink flowers on them. Since then, it has grown into a splendid specimen plant, a monster that entirely covers the large coconut-fibre basket it grows in. I completely stop watering it by the end of May, when its resting period commences. All the leaves from the previous season's growth drop off, leaving the canes completely bare. By the end of July, tiny buds start to form at the nodes of the bare canes. These develop into gorgeous trusses of flowers like the one you see here. My favourite is the inviting, dark velvety centre and the dangerously spicy scent. Furry.

Laeliocattleya Trick or Treat. How delicious is this? Bright vermillion, starry flowers are completely irresistable and there are many similar Laeliocattleyas to choose from. Lc. Trick or Treat is one of the best and most famous of these miniature jewels and was hybridised in the 1970's by the experts at Stewart Orchids. Zesty.

Oncidium hybrid. Karen Little gave this plant to me for my birthday about two years ago. The tag listed it as Oncidium flexuosum, which it definitely is not. The size and shape of the pseudobulbs is completely different, not to mention the patterning on the flowers. It's very possible that Onc. flexuosum features somewhere in this plant's parentage, but without a proper tag, it is impossible to be certain. Whatever the exact genetic make up, this is a superior plant with a large (almost 1m tall!) and branching inflorescence carrying hundreds of perfectly formed yellow flowers with red and brown markings. It grows outside in bright but filtered sunlight, receiving lots of water and fresh air. I love it. Bright.

Cymbidium hybrid. This is an orphan I inherited from my aunt when she moved to George. It had a name tag nestled in the potting mix, but it was too eroded to be read. I repotted the plant immediately, dividing it and placing my divisions in terracotta pots filled with large chunks of composted pine bark. This year, the divisions each made two spikes of graceful jade blooms with intricately patterned lips. Graceful.

Masdevallia Copper Angel 'Highlands'. Masdevallias are rude and obscene harlots. They appeal to the senses with their perfect symmetry and curiously glowing colours, luring you into the very centre of the flower where the reproductive parts are hiding, like a dirty secret. They are impossible to photograph accurately. This one is a primary cross between Masd. triangularis and Masd. veitchiana. It is a deep orange colour, with dark burgundy hairs all over this orange base, giving the impression of a luminescent sheen that moves over the surface as it bobs in the breeze. Fluorescent.

Rhyncholaelia glauca. Yummy. This is sometimes known as Brassavola glauca, but is actually quite different from individuals in that genus. This species is found in open hot forests in Central America. It is glaucous, the leaves having a waxy blue appearance. Single 12cm flowers are produced from the newest pseudobulbs. Drying out between waterings is imperative for this species and as you can see, mine is quite happy growing on a log mount. I like the tiny red detail right in the centre of the lip that draws the pollinating insect right into the middle. Would this plant compete for pollinator attention with cactus flowers of similar appearance? Both are white and emit a strong perfume at night and would therefore be visited by moths. I haven't read anything to that effect, but it seems very likely. Pristine.

Dendrobium kingianum. Possibly the easiest of all orchids to grow. It has a profusion of shapely dusky pink flowers in spring. It is a coastal lithophyte from eastern Australia. There are thousands of named varieties, some with speckles or stripes, some which are pure white and some the colour of a good red wine. Keep it in dappled light, provide an open potting mix and water it once a week. I fertilize mine when I remember (which is seldom) and it seems to do just fine. Really difficult to kill, perhaps a little tricky to grow really well. Use your intuition and your Den. kingianum will reward you. Accommodating.

Pleurothallis truncata. What a lovely and curious group of orchids the Pleurothallids are. I've read accounts of explorers who entered the deepest parts of Andean cloud forests to find that the dominant vegetation is Pleurothallids, simply covering every dripping surface. There are over 1000 species in the genus Pleurothallis, and many in related genera like Restrepia and Dracula. I purchased this one from Afri-Orchids this year and am quite pleased with it. It is a cool growing native of Ecuador and thrives at high altitudes, where temperatures are constant and rain abundant. Each flower is about a third of a centimetre in diameter. Curious.

Oncidium Gower Ramsey. This is supposed to be one of the best Oncidium crosses ever made. It pales in comparison to Karen's lovely no name brand cross above, though. It's pretty standard as modern hybrid Oncidiums go, being nice and compact with a good flower count and lasting power. I've glued some cuttings from it onto a Cordyline in the garden and they seem to handle Highveld epiphytic life very well indeed. The common name for Oncidium is 'Dancing Doll' or 'Dancing Lady' from the way the lip resembles a flamenco dancer's skirt. The scientific name Oncidium, however, refers to the cancer-like growths at the base of the lip (from Greek = onkos, a tumour). Not what you expected, right? Sweet.

Masdevallia Heathii. An intoxicating flame, this is a cross between Masd. ignea and Masd. veitchiana made, not surprisingly, by Heath at the end of the 19th century. The flowers are large for the size of the dimunitive plant and seem to glow from within. They are carried singly on very long, thin inflorescences and seem disembodied, like will o' the wisps leading you to your demise in the dark places of the old forest. Incendiary.

Cymbidium Ivy Fung 'Red Radiance'. This is a very beautiful compact Cymbidium with sex dream dark flowers. It is such a strong grower and flowers very reliably. It will often produce two inflorescences per pseudobulb. My only complaint is that these are really difficult to stake upright, being very rigid. So I just let it run riot, unstaked, with the inflorescences protruding at awkward angles from the base of the pot. Upright inflorescences are a human aesthetic convention at any rate, and not necessarily the natural thing for a specific orchid to produce. Stubborn.

Dendrobium lindleyi. The undeniable star of the season. It is historically known as Den. aggregatum but is now named after the English botanist Lindley. This species hails from the hot jungles of Vietnam and other South East Asian countries. After a dry winter rest, pendulous inflorescences arise from the nodes of the pseudobulbs, quickly producing sulphur yellow flowers with gigantic crystalline lips. A true spring spectacle. Imagine the effort the plant has to go through to produce such exquisite blooms in such profusion. Even a small plant such as mine managed to make four inflorescences. Imagine what a giant specimen in the wild must look like. Now if only it wasn't for all that pesky napalm and Agent Orange stuff... Precious.

Dendrobium Brengle. A 21st century cross between Den. Glamour and Den. King-Wong. It pretty much resembles Den. x delicatum, which is a natural hybrid between Den. kingianum and Den. speciosum. It packs a lot of Ausie punch into a small package. Similar in gestalt to Den. kingianum, but with shaplier pseudobulbs and bigger flowers, it emits a barely perceptible musky honeyed scent during the early evening. Adjective-hungry.

Cymbidium hybrid. Another lovely heirloom. It makes very long inflorescences for a Cymbidium, with the large copper flowers spaced far apart on the descending part of it. It makes a good garden plant, so long as you give it bright light for a large part of the day, and excellent air circulation around the root system. Droopy.

Phalaenopsis Ho's Amaglad. A wonderful cold-tolerant Phalaenopsis. This is the only plant of its kind in my collection not to have lost any leaves during the winter months. It looks like a simple variety of Phal. aphrodite, but actually contains a complex mix of genes from Phal. amabilis, Phal, equestris and Phal. stuartiana. It produces a branching inflorescence with long-lasting, pure white blooms. The yellow detail on the intricate lip is especially striking. Phalaenopsis seem almost tired and overused, like the flavour-of-last-month pot plants of decor and lifestyle magazines. But let me ask you this: how can one ever tire of true beauty? It is timeless. Classic.