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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Your Chance to Make History

Here’s a plan: With the polls showing that Hillary is going to win hands down, and with both the House and Senate in play, why not go all the way and wage a campaign for an all-woman team at the top? Elizabeth Warren can preside over the Senate, while Nancy Pelosi returns as speaker of the House. Why not? There’s no reason to not give women a total shot at what men have been doing for so long.

Bernie supporters: Please stop whining, get to work during these last few days, and elect a Democratic majority in the Senate so that Senator Warren, a relative newcomer, can lead that stodgy old chamber. In the House, where two-year terms often mean too many clueless freshmen, we need the experienced Representative Pelosi. And don’t say she’s too old. Our local re-election of 86-year-old Pat Frank shows that the ageism card isn’t a trump anymore. Let’s go for it! Make 2016 a year like none other!

New Recognition of an Old Art Form

I was surprised but happy to see the Nobel Prize committee add Bob Dylan to its list of greats. This is the first time that a songwriter has won the Nobel Prize for Literature since that prize began in 1901, and I’m delighted by this recognition of the power of words set to music. Novels are important and poetry possibly even more important, but welding words to sounds may be the highest art of all. This concept of “literature” is a broadening and expansion that’s long overdue, and Dylan is a good first choice. During his half-century of songwriting, he has helped to create profound change in ending war and prejudices throughout the world, using language that is insightful, witty, and unforgettably moving.

I’ve never met him, but have felt a certain kinship because we both were kids in Minnesota at about the same time. He was Bob Zimmerman then, and a woman named Ellen Zimmerman ran the old-fashioned word processing machine at the weekly newspaper down the street from our house. I worked there on publishing days for a dime -- or at least they tolerated my childish presence every Thursday. Ellen’s machine was a big as a room, and I was fascinated by it. Dave set Ellen’s typing with hot lead and then carried big metal sheets down to the basement, where the room-sized press whorled out the newspapers. Another machine folded them and added addresses, and my job was to help bundle the papers into mailbags.

But I’ve never inquired about whether or not Ellen and Bob were related. By the time that Bob Dylan became famous, my family had moved to Arkansas – and it was a while before the young star revealed that Zimmerman was his birth name. “Zimmer,” you know, is the German word for “room,” so Zimmerman would be a man who rents rooms, or an innkeeper. (Yes, in German and other languages such usages always were male, even when a woman actually did the job.) Anyway, I suppose that having a surname that denoted a property owner didn’t fit with the songwriter’s rebellious image in the 1960s, and he legally changed it to honor Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. “Hayfields high as the house” -- that’s one of my favorite lines from Dylan Thomas, but we won’t go into that.

So now it seems that the Nobel awarders are angry with Bob Dylan because he isn’t being effusive about their recognition. When I mentioned this to Hubby, his response was: “What the hell did they expect?” Dylan made his reputation with protest songs (my favorite is “Oxford Town,” about racial integration at the University of Mississippi, written when were in college on the other side of the Mississippi River). He always has been likely to spurn anything considered bourgeois, always has been more than a little self-righteous, and never has communicated much outside of the words in his brilliant songs. His sometime-lover Joan Baez probably said it best in the oblique reference she made to him in one of her songs, “A savior’s a nuisance to live with at home.”

So the Swedes, known for being taciturn themselves, should not have been surprised at his non-reaction. And they should be above whatever pettiness they may perceive in someone whose self-definition is “Forever Young.” It’s to be expected that he will be a perpetual teenager, with all of the faults and the gifts of youth. The important point is that the prize has expanded its imagination to another art form– and, I think, songwriting should become a prize itself.

The Pulitzer people have awarded a prize in music since 1943, but with the exception of posthumous recognition of Janis Joplin, it always has been classical music, sans words. And it is limited to Americans, which would have excluded the Beatles and other writers whose songs literally changed the world. There are the Grammies, of course, but they have nothing like the prestige and influence of the global Nobel awards. Tens of thousands talented people, from physicians to poets and more, have been motivated to do important work partly because of the hope of winning a Nobel.

Changing the world for the good was the intent of Alfred Nobel, a Swede who endowed the prizes with the fortune he made by inventing dynamite. He was uncomfortably conscious of the lethal uses that his work would have for warriors, and thus began the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Literature and three sciences (Chemistry, Physics, and Medicine) at the1901 beginning. Too often, however, the prize for peace has gone to men who negotiated peace only after inciting the violence, men such as Henry Kissinger and Mikhail Gorbachev. And if Dylan’s “Masters of War” isn’t running through your head right now, it should be.

It’s ironic, too, that we seldom think about the positive side of explosives -- but dynamite made it much easier to mine for underground minerals, thus lowering consumer costs, especially for coal. Indeed, Londoners were so happy to have affordable heat that they nearly killed themselves with poisonous smog. Many inventions – perhaps most – have both a positive and a negative side, depending on how we choose to use them. Alfred Nobel wanted us to ponder such questions.

And Still Another Art Form, From One of Our Own

I had the joy last week of listening to artist Janet Echelman while she showed slides of her astonishingly unique art. Her mother lives here, and Janet came to town for a fundraising dinner at the Dali Museum across the water in St. Pete – where there are enough affluent art appreciators that the expensive tickets sold out several weeks prior to the event. Thus I was thrilled to be invited to a $25 lunch here in Tampa, sponsored by the Interbay Rotary Club. She volunteered to do this low-cost event because she remains grateful for a scholarship that Rotary International – via its Interbay Club – provided for her to study abroad when she was young.

The very opposite of sullen Bob Dylan, Janet Echelman is a really nice person, kind and respectful and taking time with each of the friends and family who came, even though that kept a TV production crew waiting. And yes, I’m going to call her “Janet” instead of “Echelman” because that just feels right. I’m also going to say that it’s hard to talk about visual art without the visuals, so let me ask you to just google her name.

Lots of amazing pictures will turn up, showing the fantastic public art that she is creating all around the world. They really are fantastic, in the sense of fantasy. People respond to them by lying on the ground hundreds of feet below the airy, waving “sculptures,” fantasizing about the meaning of the constantly changing fibers and lights. From Phoenix to Boston and beyond, her art is transforming areas of cities that used to be verboten, especially at night. It is urban renewal in its truest sense, as people flock to formerly disused parks because of the innovative art.

It all happened by accident. Young Janet was trying to make it as a painter and was living in a remote part of India with an upcoming chance to exhibit – but her paints didn’t arrive. When a telegram came from the exhibition’s organizers, asking for photos of her paintings, she answered truthfully that she didn’t have any photos – but knew she had to create something quickly. Necessity is in fact the mother of invention, and inspired by the nets of local fishermen, she became a fabric artist on a scale never before envisioned.

From that 1997 experience in India, she has designed sky-high sculptures in places from Lithuania to Spain and Portugal to British Columbia – and a ground-based one in Philadelphia, which she thought more respectful to that city’s history. Her 2014 TED Talk, “Taking Imagination Seriously,” has been translated into more than thirty languages. All of this and more is proof that our hometown girl is changing the very definition of aesthetics with her imaginative combination of art and engineering. Safety is a real issue when you hang something in the sky, and understanding physics is essential to keeping the art in the air. The Boston one, she said, is built to withstand winds of 130 mph, something that was reassuring with the recent hurricane threat.

Not many artists think about such things. Nor can most work with the many constituent groups that her installations require, everything from affected businesses to public officials. Janet Echelman really is unique, and we Tampans can be very proud of her. One of the first questions after she finished her speech was “Why don’t we have one of your pieces here?” Former city council member Linda Saul-Sena replied before Janet could, shouting out, “Because we haven’t raised the money.” We could. We should. I’d love to see even a prototype of what she could dream up for us.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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