So I have this ukulele.

Recently, I came into possession of a ukulele. If you know me well, you’re probably blinking your eyes to see if you read that right. You did. I have a ukulele. I’ll explain, but first, for those of you who aren’t aware, here’s the backstory:

The ukulele has always been my favorite object of playful ridicule, which I’m slightly ashamed to admit since my family is from Hawaii. It’s not that I hate the ukulele, mind you. It’s not, like, how I’m an Arizonan who hates the Kokopelli with a mad, burning passion. (True story. I cannot stand the sight of the Kokopelli.) I just find the ukulele to be hilarious. It cracks me up, and it always has. I don’t know. I can’t explain myself.

Some sample ukulele jokes:

Q: What’s the difference between a ukulele and a trampoline?

A: People take off their shoes to jump up and down on a trampoline.

 

Q: What is “perfect pitch”?

A: When you throw the ukulele into the garbage can without hitting the rim.

 

Q: What do you call a beautiful woman on a ukulele player’s arm?

A: A tattoo.

 

And my personal favorite:

A ukulele player suddenly realizes he left his vintage ukulele out in his car overnight. He rushes outside and his heart drops when he sees that his car window is broken. Fearing the worst, he peeks through the window and finds that there are now five ukuleles in his car.

 

I used to enjoy telling my family ukulele jokes like these, until I realized one day that no one was laughing at them but me. In fact, they weren’t amused, at all. They’re from Hawaii, and they take their ukes seriously.

Then, at some point in the last 15 years, I think, the ukulele suddenly got a foothold in the Indie crowd. Inexplicably, the uke love pulses on in popular culture today. The ukulele managed to assert itself in random places, from the Arrested Development theme music of the 2000’s to the Bob’s Burgers theme music of present day. I hear it all the time on YouTube. (Garfunkel & Oates, anyone?) It’s like the ukulele spawned and sent its babies from the islands to branch out like a chain of sandwich restaurants across the U.S., and now it’s the quirky and hip answer to the jazz club xylophone of the 1930’s and all the cool kids love it. It’s become a part of our cultural acoustic landscape.

Okay, whatever. I didn’t begrudge anyone their love of the ukulele when this, um, evolution took place. I still enjoyed ukulele jokes.

BUT THEN. One day, Mom told me she was doing some research so she could make an educated choice. She was excitedly preparing to undertake a new hobby. She was going to honor the roots of her Hawaiian upbringing. She was going to buy…. Yep. A ukulele.

I didn’t laugh when she told me this, because first and foremost, I thought it was awesome that Mom was planning to learn an instrument. Also, her choice of instrument made perfect sense. She was reclaiming her cultural roots in the islands, and I was happy for her. I cheered as she selected and bought her ukulele and found herself an instructor. She got her instrument and her instructor and lessons and everything all in Hawaii (my parents live there half the year).

Fast forward two years. Mom had set the ukulele down after several months of lessons, because life happened. Life picked her up and carried her down a stream to a place that did not include playing the ukulele. The ukulele was collecting dust.

When we were up there in the Yay Area (NorCal) this last Thanksgiving, she said to me, “Kris, do you want my ukulele? You’re the musical one in the family, and I don’t want to just give it to anyone!” I understood. The ukulele held great sentimental value for her, and it had been expensive… and, well, what could I do? I had never been interested in learning the ukulele, but this was a no-brainer! I couldn’t reject it, this ukulele that had meant something to Mom, and that she was now offering to me. It held sentimental value. It was special. And besides, it was lonely. I couldn’t very well leave behind an abandoned ukulele, now, could I?

Such as it was that I, a lifelong believer that the ukulele and the xylophone are tied at first-place for Most Hilarious Instrument, wound up driving from San Jose to Phoenix with a ukulele in the back seat of the car. I’m now in possession of a ukulele. It’s sitting right here next to my desk, snug in its case, along with the book of lesson sheets Mom also gave me. Furthermore, I’ve resolved to learn it, because why should the poor ukulele go from collecting dust in California to collecting dust in (way dustier) Arizona?

Looking at the instrument, I have to admit that it’s a beautiful specimen of ukulele. Mom really did her research!

 

The ukulele that came home with us.

The ukulele that came home with us.

 

It says something on the end: NALO. Is that its name? Or is it the brand? I don’t even know. I don’t know anything about ukuleles, except for bad jokes.

Explaining Hipsters (“working title” intended!)

I can’t believe it’s already Thursday and almost the weekend. It feels like last weekend ended yesterday!

Of all the things that happened last weekend, trying to explain something that’s just beyond me was one of the most entertaining. It went like this:

It’s Saturday night, and Callaghan’s out of town. My friend Tara and I walk into a bar. (Yeah, two chicks walk into a bar. No, this is not a joke.)

It’s a fun, cozy little dive bar, one of those that’s been there forever, and it is, shall we say – to borrow a term from popular culture – The Bar That Must Not Be Named. (Also, to maintain the anonymity of the strangers inside said anonymous bar, I later asked Callaghan to place a respectful black mask over everyone’s eyes in the pictures I took, as you will see.)

Tara and I went out representing varying degrees of sub-rock dwelling over the last few years. Her background: during the 90’s, she clocked in most of her days and nights working in bars, then gradually spent less and less time in them as her life shifted and she changed careers.

On my part, I’d been away from The Valley (Phoenix Metro Area) for over three years.

We start out at Club Red to catch some local metal bands; The Bar That Must Not Be Named is our second stop. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been there, and Tara had never been there at all. We get our drinks, meander into the live music side of the establishment and find a place to sit in the back, near the back door. The bar is doing a lively business typical of a Saturday night, and we want to be as far away from the band as possible, so we can talk. We spend a few minutes taking in the scenery.

“Is that… wow, I’ve never seen so many lottery tickets being sold at a bar,” Tara says, gesturing at the bulky multi-ticket lottery ticket dispenser thing behind the bar. It looks like a slot machine. I check it out with equal curiosity, but something in her voice makes me look at her. I see confusion clouding over her face.

Switching mental gears, I study the room from end to end, observing the environment through her eyes – the eyes of someone who hadn’t been out in years. Lots of flannel. Lots of carefree facial hair. An inordinate number of eyeglasses that resemble BCGs… and many, many cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR). I, myself, am surprised. When did this place become a hipster watering hole?

The cans are literally everywhere you look. Our eyes simultaneously land on the one sitting right next to us…

 

No point in trying to protect its privacy, but we thought it would be fun to try.

No point in trying to protect its privacy, but we thought it would be fun to try.

 

…and Tara blurts out, “What’s with all the crappy cheap-ass beer everyone’s drinking out the can?”

Suddenly, it hits me. She has no idea about hipsters. She has emerged, and now, it’s on me to try to explain it.

“It’s the hipsters,” I say tentatively. “That’s their drink of choice. PBR, out of the can.” So they can be identified as hipsters by other hipsters, I mentally add in my head.

“NO! Ugh. Seriously?” Tara is perplexed. “But… why?”

“I’m not sure,” I answer honestly. I’m kind of at a loss. We’d just spent almost two hours at a local metal band fest at the first club, then driving around in her Corvette blasting Korn’s cover of Cameo’s “Word Up.” We’re on the same wavelength… a wavelength that captures a wide range of interests and tastes, but not the ironic frequencies of hipsterdom. (Though, ironically, I’m a poet and a writer and a person who’s been issued real BCGs, and I’ve been mistaken for a hipster without the dubious advantage of a can of PBR in my hand.)

Now we’ve unwittingly landed on Planet Hipster, and I have to draw on my rudimentary understanding of its denizens to make sense of them to someone who had no understanding of them at all.

 

Tara and me at Club Red, first stop of the night.

Tara and me at Club Red, first stop of the night.

 

I fill her in to the best of my ability, striving to be as impartial as possible. I have nothing against hipsters. She should take the info I give her and form her own opinions.

“THE ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT?” She practically has to shout to be heard over the live music. “That’s so weak, like, while you’re on your iPhone in your flannels from Abercrombie that cost like… oh, the IRONY!”

“Yes! You got it! It’s all about irony.”

But my Hipster 101 crash course has left her even more bewildered.

“People are actually drinking out of cans in a bar!”

“Yes. They’re drinking out of cans in a bar.”

 

PBR - Cans in a Bar

PBR – Cans in a Bar

 

I’m dying. We’re both dying. We turn our backs to the room and put our heads together so we can laugh without looking like we’re laughing at anyone. I can’t help myself, though, and I take a few pictures, exercising as much discretion as possible. Tara’s still going on in disbelief.

“I couldn’t figure out what it was, at first… I thought it was just the lottery tickets… but then I saw it, people drinking out of cans, and I knew something was weird.”

“It’s true… PBR is everywhere you look!”

“People weren’t drinking out of cans the last time I was in a bar! WTF and it’s this cheap-ass beer that I was pretty sure died in 1985. I mean, who ARE these people drinking these crappy 16-oz beers?”

I’m wiping tears from the corners of my eyes when she leans in and says, “Hey, I wonder if that guy is going to order one! I bet he will.”

I glance at the bearded gentleman sitting alone at the end of the bar. Sure enough, the bartender sets a PBR in front of him.

 

thatasianlookingchick.com-PBR

 

“I remember when a can used to mean that they brought it in themselves!” Tara laughs, referring back to her bar-working days.

Some jostling starts up behind me as someone’s clumsily coming in through the back door. I turn around and start to wonder if we’ve accidentally crashed a Saturday Night Live skit about hipsters, because right on cue, enter an employee (stage left!) hauling in three more cases of PBR. He hefts them up to the bar for the bartender to manage, right in front of us.

 

thatasianlookingchick.com-PBR

 

thatasianlookingchick.com-PBR

 

“They actually can’t keep enough of it behind the bar!” Tara says. “They’re bringing it in from outside.”

Later, on the phone, she remarks, “I’m sorry I didn’t order one and ask them for a glass to pour it in.”

—–

Thanks to Tara for contributing to this post!

Objets d’Art and the Value of Memories

Prior to Friday night, I’d considered myself to be an art afficionado in a broad sense of the term. I’ve always loved art museums and galleries, and I go through periods of making visual art of various sorts. At one time, interior design school attracted me. At another point, I thought about art school for painting. I decided on a BA in English and ultimately earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, focus on poetry, but I enjoyed art history as elective study. I deeply admire artists of various genres – visual artists of all persuasions, dancers, musicians, actors, film-makers, poets and writers. Over the years, I’ve supported my talented artist friends by purchasing their work, attending their events and making personal donations from time to time. And, of course, I happen to be married to a professional visual artist.

So it was an odd sensation when, at a gallery opening on Friday night, I found myself questioning my perception of myself as a “true” art lover. It happened when my eyes fell upon a porcelain dinner plate. It was white or cream-colored with a pale bluish-green design around the border, if I’m remembering correctly. It was cracked, and the artist had affixed to it a few strands of human hair. It wasn’t the piece itself that really caught my eye, though. It was the price sticker next to it, which read $4,000.00. I looked twice to verify the number of zeros.

Obviously, I’m missing something here, I thought to myself in disbelief. For the first time in my life, I’d encountered a piece of art that whizzed so high over my head that I could barely recognize it. I know… art is subjective. I know. But I was mystified by the idea that there were people who could make sense of the $4,000.00 price tag. What are they seeing that I’m not? It was a peculiar take on the feeling of being left out of a joke. I was more perplexed than anything. Do you have to be a special kind of visionary or hold a certain minimum IQ to recognize an aesthetic appeal worth $4,000.00 in such an object?

Believe me, I tried. I closed my eyes and tried to envision where in my house I would want to put a cracked plate with a few strands of hair on it.  I couldn’t.

Probably the person who buys the plate will set it inside a cabinet with glass doors, where it will sit under display lighting in the company of other unusual objets d’art. It’s a “conversation piece,” they’ll say. Okay… I get that. I get the coolness factor of having a conversation piece. But who has $4,000.00 lying around to spend for the purpose of starting conversations? The hipsters who comprised 90% of the opening’s attendance? (Well, maybe the answer is in the question.)

Callaghan, my professional visual artist husband, wasn’t grasping it, either. Neither was the friend who accompanied us, himself an art-loving designer. And we weren’t the only ones… we overheard others musing about the prices out loud to each other. One thing is for sure – the plate does function well as a conversation piece! It provoked discussion as the three of us tried to fathom how the artist could justify charging $4,000.00 for it, as it provoked this post that I’m writing.

That I wasn’t alone in my confusion reassured me, but I still felt somewhat dismayed when we left the gallery. Art that makes me feel like an idiot! That must mean it’s really good art, and I’m not cool enough, worldly enough, educated enough or perceptive enough to “get” it.

The next day, I went online to investigate. According to the gallery’s website, the current exhibit showcases “complex sculptural work that uses hair and hair products as their medium” by three artists. I went on to read the artists’ statements about their exhibit pieces. While this helped me to understand and appreciate the intent of the plate artist (who is neither local nor an established artist), I still couldn’t reconcile the piece with the monetary value attached to it. The plate piece is described by the gallery as a “memory assemblage,” meaning, it’s exactly what it appears to be: strands of hair affixed to a broken plate (not sculpted by the artist) to create the “complex sculptural work.”

Apparently, what we’re talking about here is putting a price on memories. The work is deeply personal to the artist – the plate is a “family heirloom,” and the hairs on it are from her own head – so understandably, the artist sees beauty in it. But how can she expect strangers to connect to those personal memories of hers to the tune of $4,000.00? If the justification is that the dinner plate is a family heirloom, what does that mean… that the name of the family in question is “Kennedy” and the artist procured it from the White House?  Or that the porcelain plate is an ancient Chinese hand-painted piece from the Ming Dynasty? Is the plate gilt in 14K gold, or otherwise valuable in some material way?

Along with the price, its designation as a “complex sculptural work” confounds me.

I can think of another example of real hair being used in art: horsehair pottery. Native American artists overlay pieces such as vases with horse hair during the firing process. The works are often then hand-etched and decorated with materials such as turquoise nuggets, leather and feathers to exquisite effect. The making of these pieces involves extensive talent, skill, intuitive craftsmanship, precise training, precious materials and hours of work. Since they are handmade every step of the way, the pieces are unique – no two are alike. I bought one for Callaghan when we were dating. Lovely and vibrant with the tradition of its cultural heritage, the item cost less than $50.00. Granted, I found it at an outdoor arts fair when I lived in Arizona; shopping in my own backyard maybe made it easier to get it for a good price, but you can go online and find similar pieces for comparable prices.

 

Handmade horsehair pot by Navajo artist Geraldine Vail, available for purchase for $69.00 on aztradingpost.com

Handmade horsehair pot by Navajo artist Geraldine Vail, available for purchase for $69.00 on aztradingpost.com

 

I’m cognizant of the distinction between art created for the masses as a trade versus art made for a gallery exhibit with a specific intellectual psychological/philosophical theme as its impetus. My point is that creating a piece such as the horsehair vase involves much more of a “complex” creative process than sticking some hair to a pre-existing plate.

Let’s be clear: I am not questioning whether the plate we saw in this gallery qualifies as art. That old debate is not what this is about. Glue your own hair to Grandma’s plate and call it art all day long (but please don’t go so far as to call the “memory assemblage” a “complex sculptural work,” because it is not. As Callaghan pointed out, to call it that is an insult to artists who actually do create complex sculptural works. I personally can’t imagine gluing my hair to a plate and telling a Navajo artist that it’s a “complex sculptural work” worth thousands of dollars). I’m not going to argue the matter, regardless of my opinion.

What I can’t comprehend is the price. I understand that the piece carries great sentimental value for the artist, but why would anyone want to pay $4,000.00 for someone else’s memories?