Is there anything as boring as recounting what you did on the Fourth? Two days later? No. So never mind.

Except that we began at the park, as usual – a neighborhood gala with hot dogs and a band. The mayor took the stage and said some mayoral words; Gnat swam in the pool, had her hair painted in patriotic hues. I ran into a Bleat reader and had a merry chat. Home to clean the backyard. The usual suspects came over for meatapalooza – the Giant Swedes, The Crazy Ukes, Wesley the Director, and some friends not yet cursed with a nick. The kids ran around with sparklers, I lit off many fountains and small explosives. (Nothing major, which is good, since I had forgotten that one of the guests was a member of the law enforcement community.) One of the neighbors was also experimenting with an elastic device that launched water balloons into low-earth orbit, and one of them crossed the street into our backyard, nearly striking one of the little kids. The Crazy Uke hollered oaths and remonstrations across the fence, and that was the end of that.

Until today, when the neighbor called to apologize. He’s a good egg. When I saw the name on caller ID I knew what was up, but I answered with that neutral hey-there voice you use when you pretend you don’t have caller ID. He introduced himself, and was about to say something when I cut him off.

You bastard, I said, as coldly as I could. You careless bastard.

Maybe had him going for a second, but he knows me. They’re lighting off more works right now, on the night of the Fifth, which always strikes me as wrong. It’s a dimunition of the Fourth’s special character; it’s like filling a stocking on the mantle on the night of December 25th.

The only disappointment of the evening was a brick of gunpowder that looked big enough to blow a safe-door off its hinges. (The peace officer had left.) I conferred with the Giant Swede, and we agreed that the kids should stand at the other end of the lot, the brick should be placed in the grass so it didn’t blow off shards of the ceremonial Fireworks Stone I bring out for these displays. I lit, I ran, and I expected the sort of BOOM I’d heard in Fargo – gut-pounding thuds that rolled for blocks.

It was just 25 firecrackers lashed together. Meh. Show’s over.

Except that it wasn’t. I’d saved some fountains, and after the guest and gone and night had come, Gnat and I went out and had our own show. Much to Jasper’s distress, of course. The Fourth is the worst day of his life; he hates fireworks, and follows us around all day whining and whimpering. He’s just miserable. He goes into rooms and knocks stuff over trying to bury himself in the corner. For a dog, fireworks make no sense; they constitute the very definition of a strange incorporeal threat, and they react like medieval villagers who suddenly see real horned devils walking down the street vomiting flaming gas balls. (Modern villagers, such as New Yorkers, would presume them to be advertising a new Off-Broadway show.) He calmed down, everyone went to bed, and I sat down to write two columns. It was still Monday, after all.

Got to bed before three. Got up around nine. Grim exhaustion all day, which is why there’s nothing in the Screedblog despite all the lovely fodder. Tomorrow, I hope. After I got the merchandise out the door I went with wife & mother-in-law to the Museum of Russian Art, a new addition to our neighborhood. <vadervoice> Impressive. </vadervoice> I wanted more Socialist Realism, since I’m fascinated by that style. (It’s comment enough on Marxism that the proprietors of the site seem to be presenting this stuff as if it’s, you know, cool. But it’s creepy as hell, especially the works that concern Unca Joe.) If the collection is as deep as I suspect, we’ll see more in the years to come. What they have on display is astonishing – I’m joining tomorrow, out of civic duty & joy. It’s quite extraordinary to have something like this down the street, knowing I can go again and again and study these remarkable works that ended, however improbably, in a vacated church off the freeway.

This page has one of my favorites; it’s at the bottom. “On the Way.” On the whole, the collection feels saturated in beauty, tragedy and regret; they’re almost like ancient pieces from a culture that collapsed before our eyes, a strange parallel civilization. The most prominent work is a young man astride a red horse – painted before the Revolution, it’s unnervingly prescient. The man’s expression is blank and devoid of compassion, filled with terrible distant certainties that judge you from the distance of a century. The big red horse rode them off the ledge, of course. It hangs at the end of the building where the altar once stood, hanging in a void. You are compelled to look up in a worshipful posture but there is nothing to worship – just man and an ideal expressed with animal vigor. I don’t know if they intended to put the apotheosis of secular idealism in a place once reserved for its opposite, but the effect is unnerving and powerful, like an Ives piece that puts two melodies in competition.

“Where did the church go?” Gnat asked.

“Across the street. That’s where you had school once. Remember?”

“Oh yeah. Was this were people got married?”


“Right here?” She hunched up her shoulders.

“Right there.”

She moved away. “Maybe I shouldn’t stand where people got married.”

“I’m sure they’d be happy to know that you did.”

Some will note that it’s oh-so-typical that a decommissioned church was turned into an art gallery, since art fills the void for some that the church once occupied. Perhaps. Better than a nightclub. And better than the building’s previous occupation: funeral home. It’s still that, in a way, carefully embalming the remains of Russian culture – but at least the deceased seem to come to life again. One of Gnat’s favorites was a painting of an old august art critic, V. V. Stasov – bald head, pink head, white beard, expertly rendered, his expression serene in its confident judgment.

Is that a painting or a picture?

I knew what she meant. “It’s a painting.”

“Wow. That’s a really good painting.”

That’s life; that’s what they say. You’re riding high in June, when you’re alive and casting judgments right and left on the cultural scene, immortalized by the best portraitist in Moscow, concluding each session with a shot or six of vodka before you bundle up and head down the stairs to your waiting carriage, which struggles through the drifts to your home. You should work on that piece on that new painter with the dangerous ideas, but ah, tomorrow.

You have no idea that your world will collapse, and that the one that takes its place will collapse as well, and in the end you will be nothing more than a face on the wall in the land of Indians. They won’t know who you are, what you are looking at or thinking about, or who painted you.

And you’re one of the fortunate.

Some shots from the Highway Ten trip, including Fargo signage of a highly cool nature, can be found here.


(Perm link here.)

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