Saturday, December 29, 2012

Photo of the Year

After the fire from Hurricane Sandy at Breezy Point, New York.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Mirror to Ourselves

The Penitent Magdalene (detail) by Georges de la Tour, 1638
Everyone, even those who have never been parents, has been shocked, upset, and concerned about the horrific murder of 20 young children and six adults at the Newtown Sandy Hook Elementary School. We have no real words; we try to say prayers that God will bring comfort to the families who have lost their sweet children in such a completely senseless orgy of blood.

But somehow I believe we all know or fear that this incident--so stark in its wanton taking of the most innocent of human life--is a mirror to ourselves. How have we acted, unknowingly or not, to contribute to this heinous act, from which any decent human being recoils in horror?

Those who demand quick fixes or one-on-one causality may lay the blame at the gun or at our lack of care for the mentally ill and agitate for legislative fixes to these problems. But these are unlikely to ameliorate the situtation, we secretly and mournfully think.

The problem lies deeper, we believe in our heart of hearts, in something wrong in all of us--in our sins, not only in the myriad of causes that led to the grave sinning of the deranged perpetrator. Has our society allowed or even encouraged the light of the good to sputter, to grow faint? Have we succumbed to darkness in our hearts, borne of selfish fixation on ourselves? Has our lack of fervor for goodness, truth, and light created a society that instead nourishes the darkness that hides in every man, waiting for but the opportunity, or despair, to spring?

These are the questions we ask ourselves. And so, I found the most powerful and poignant response to this tragedy to come from the father mourning for his dead and lovely six-year-old daughter who declared his compassion for the family of his child's murderer. "I cannot imagine what they are going through," he said.

We know, secretly in our heart of hearts, that evil flourishes in the vacuum left by our turning away from the commandments of love. Now is the time to look within and see how we have compromised with the darkness, slackened our vigilance, reacted with anger and hatred, rather than reaching out with love.

"It is Christmastime, and the problems of the world remain," as the priest said in a Christmas homily I heard two years ago. "Yes, the problems remain, but it is we who have changed because Christ is born and is in our hearts."

This Christmas more than ever.

"For the sake of His sorrowful passion, have mercy upon us."

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!

Corn, by Daniel Garber, 1937

Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Can Civic Duty Replace the Golden Rule?

The Golden Rule by Norman Rockwell

In today's Wall Street Journal today Laura Kreutzer, assistant managing editor of private equity in the newsletter group at Dow Jones, writes about how she has a hard time convincing her seven-year-old daughter to perform acts of civic-minded charity. When her Girl Scout troop was planning to help with a neighborhood cleanup, her daughter wanted nothing to do with it. "Although we have tried to raise Neva to be kind to others, I don't think we've done enough to instill a sense of commitment to the community around her. I don't necessarily need to raise the next Mother Teresa, but I also don't want to raise the next Gordon Gekko."

After discussing this conundrum with her husband and a friend, Ms. Kreutzer decides that "we are going to try to do a better job of getting the family active in community-service activities. For starters, we plan to contribute to local relief efforts for areas of the Northeast, including our own state, hardest hit by the recent hurricane. As the holidays approach, I'm also signing us up for a local charity drive that provides clothing and other items for people in need."

I applaud Ms. Kreutzer for trying to induce her child to be less selfish and for providing a role model for giving to the community, but I am deeply saddened by the paucity of intellectual and emotional equipment she has to do the job of inducing charity in her daughter. Ms. Kreutzer makes no reference to religion of any kind. Without access to the rich mine of religious thought that links individual acts of charity and goodness to the goodness of the universe as created by a loving Father, Ms. Kreutzer is left encouraging the abstraction of civic duty. To the question of Why, she has no real explanation and takes the option of offering carrots to reward charitable behavior.

But charity for the sake of a reward, at least in this world, is not the point of charity in the Judeo-Christian tradition, one of the bedrocks upon which our civilization was founded. In a Christian household, for example, at a very early age one learns the Golden Rule--do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Embedded in this rule is the assumption that each individual person is made in the living image of God. Love thy neighbor as thyself. We have the story of the Good Samaritan as an example of what being a good neighbor means and of who the neighbor is--the stranger lying on the side of the road. We have Christ saying to Peter, "If you love me, feed my sheep."  This Christian emphasis on charity was rooted in Judaism.

The Good Samaritan by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1644--the neighbor is the stranger lying on the side of the road.

For this reason, within Judeo-Christian culture, young children are taught that they must share their toys, that being "selfish" is not a good, and are brought into habits of charitable giving. This is not because our parents simply want us to be this way, but, we are taught, because this is the way in which we take our place as a contributing part of God's moral order of the universe. This is the way we participate in God's love, how we return His love. Love of God and of others is the force within us that compels charity.

There is nothing unscientific about this view. Charity, as Ms. Kreutzer recognizes, is necessary for the cohesion of society. A society which loses the concept of charity as a norm runs the grave risk of producing psychopaths and of human beings for whom "the other" as a concrete being like oneself, and not a utopian abstraction,  is a nonexistent. Charity is essential to nurturing the capacity for empathy, without which our society descends into increasingly harsh cruelty.

Ms. Kreutzer's article makes me fear that, without religion--now considered by so many as irrelevant, retrograde, and unscientific--our civilization is skating on very thin ice indeed.

Monday, October 29, 2012

There's Always a First Time

In parts of West Virginia and Maryland, the National Weather Service issued a rare blizzard warning. "I can't ever remember a hurricane causing a blizzard warning," said Joe Palko, a Pittsburgh-based hydrologist with the National Weather Service.

From the October 29, 2912, Wall Street Journal.

God bless and keep everyone in areas affected by this superstorm.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Fine Arts Friday: "Art Came Before Everything"

Handprints at the El Castillo cave in Spain, where paintings have been dated to as far back as 40,800 years ago. 

"It is clear that skill in art, beginning with body adornment, was a precondition of human progress, including the production of tools and the forming of successful societies. Art came before everything. It certainly came before writing--a comparatively recent development; all forms of writing originally evolved from pictograms. It almost certainly came before speech, at least forms of speech expressing notions which were at all complex. By learning to record visible objects, and express ideas, by engraving or painting on relatively flat, two-dimensional surfaces, humans produced visual aids to such speech noises as they were originally able to make; these aids in time were reflected in refinements in speech noises, expansion of vocabulary, and the evolution of syntax. The evolving genetic coding which made humans rationalize themselves into art was the same force which produced rational speech noises, so that the two processes were intimately connected from the start."
Paul Johnson, Art: A New History

Thinking about this startling passage, reminded me of this: Tai, the elephant featured in the Water for Elephants film, painting, as shown in the video (you have to go through it aways).

And it also makes me wonder if painting and playing with crayons on plain or colored paper (not coloring books) is important to a child's mental development and ability to express themselves in language, not just on the paper itself.

I remember when I had just turned four years old and put some spring green and black and white crayon marks on a piece of paper. I was extremely proud, because I felt the colors captured the image of cows in a field. My mother disagreed and said these markings did not look like cows, because they were not in the shape of cows. I was chagrined. I have no idea of the effect of this experience on my mental life, but its significance, at least, was such that I never forgot it. Perhaps it was the first time I felt that I had truly drawn more than a meaningless scribble. But the question still stands, do the endeavors to represent real objects in drawing help develop a child's thinking capacity and increase their abilities in language?

Friday, September 28, 2012

Fine Arts Friday: George Bellows: An Ashcan Classicist

The Cliff Dwellers, 1913

If you live in the vicinity of Washington, D.C., you have til October 8 to see the exhibition of paintings by American Ashcan artist, George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925) at the National Gallery of Art. It is well worth the visit. Although Bellows is best known for his paintings of boxers in action, I found the most arresting of his paintings to be three portraits of children. Early in his career Bellows was encouraged by his New York City teacher, Robert Henri, to paint ordinary people, including children. Henri himself traveled every year to Ireland, where he painted portraits of poor Irish children. None of Henri's Irish portraits that I have seen, however, measure up to Bellows' portrayals of three children in the National Gallery exhibition.

All three are formal portraits and appear to incorporate a study of portraits of princes and princesses by Velasquez, Goya, and Titian. All three, despite their lower-ranking subjects, are bigger than life size, giving the portraits a monumental quality.

Here is Frankie, the Organ Boy.

Frankie, the Organ Boy, 1907

Frankie appears to be a charming, fun-loving boy, who is thrilled to have his portrait painted. He makes his living on the streets and his body is posed in a way that looks like he is raring to go for any venture that might come his way. But he is framed in formality--dark suit, a tie, a somewhat formalized pose, sitting on a dark chair, with a dark background. The formality and his charming expression almost seem at odds, but the way that Bellows has situated Frankie also gives him dignity. The chair in particular reminded me of Edward Steichen's famous photograph of J.P. Morgan, taken in 1903, where the light shining on the chair arm makes it seem like the enraged Morgan has a knife in his hand. I wonder if Bellows knew this portrait and put Frankie in the same setting, to highlight the wide difference in function and in character between the two, or if his viewers at the time also related Frankie the Organ Boy to the Morgan portrait?

 J. P. Morgan, photograph by Edward Steichen

The poignancy of Frankie's cheerful face and what it reveals of his character also brought to mind  Titian's great portrait of the 11-year-old Ranuccio Farnese, part of the National Gallery's permanent collection. In Titian's great painting, also life size, the boy's tender face sharply contrasts with his heavy clothes, medals, and insignias, all signifying the necessity for him to enter into the future that his wealth and privilege dictate. Frankie, on the other hand, seems ready to go get his own future.

Ranuccio Farnese by Titian, 1542

Bellows' Paddy Flannigan captures the young boy tough, his psychological pain hidden behind a mask of belligerence that he flaunts, along with his bare chest and shoulders, for the viewer--that is, the painter. We expect that any minute now he will pick up a cigarette and start smoking to prove his loss of childhood. We see this type of boy in many of the crowd scenes that Bellows painted of New York--Beach at Coney Island (1908), Forty-Two Kids (1907), Kids (1906), The Cliff-Dwellers (see above), River Front No. 1 (1915). Here though the emphasis is on the character of the boy not the social environs that produced it.

Paddy Flannigan, 1908

The last portrait is of the laundry girl in Bellows' residence. Here is the stance of a princess--isolated, standing at three-quarter view, patiently waiting for the formal rendering of her being. It takes seeing this portrait close up, though, to see her extreme vulnerability, in her scrawny little neck, the shyness bordering on fright in her eyes, her sharp little chin, and her sideways glance at the painter. She seems already dubious of her future, which can only bring more hard physical labor.

Little Girl in White, also known as Queenie Burnett, 1907. This painting is quite large, covering nearly the wall in its height.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Pattern of Perfection by Nancy Hale

Nancy Hale
The Pattern of Perfection by Nancy Hale (1908-1988), a collection of thirteen short stories, definitely falls into that genre disdainfully labeled by some as domestic fiction. There's even a recipe tucked into the prose.

Domestic, but not sentimental. Mostly written in the 1950s, the stories hover on  love, marriage, divorce, children, grandchildren, changes in place, and the succession of the generations. Hale's language is brisk and almost airy. Reading them is like taking a walk on a breezy warm day in March. But movement is driven not by plot; a mother returns her child to boarding school, in "Slow Boat to China"; a grandmother in New England takes her grandson for a boat ride in "Flotsam"; a young widow takes her five-year-old son to the graduation at her late husband's college. On a Halloween evening in "The Haunting," a widowed grandmother watches her daughter, newly separated from her husband and now back home with her two children, go trick or treating. Contemplation, memory, self-revelation are the themes.

Some stories center on displaced northerners in the South, as Hale was herself, moving from New York to Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1936, where she lived for the rest of her life. In the story "A Pattern of Perfection," Hale touches on disparities between the northern and southern way of life and the longing for home. "A New Place" tells of the frustration and discoveries of a northern woman recently moved to Virginia  as she attempts to meet the doyen who lives next door.

I liked all these stories by Nancy Hale, whom I encountered thanks to Frisbee: A Book Journal. Hale was born in Boston and was the daughter of two painters, Philip L. Hale and Lilian Westcott Hale. Although her parents were artists, she grew up in the environment of proper Boston society and then shifted her venue to New York City in 1928, where she worked as an editorial assistant and part-time model for Vogue and then as a reporter and fiction writer.

The Crochet Lesson by Mary Cassatt, 1913. Hale wrote a biography of Mary Cassatt in 1975.
With her work at Vogue, Hale was conversant with the world of fashion, as she displays in her story "A Curious Lapse," in which a chic New York woman comes to Virginia to visit with her old friend and former employer. Just for fun, here is a snippet of the New Yorker's thoughts as she strolls through the little Virginia town:

"Then she passed on to Miss Holly's Dress Shop, next door. There were four dresses in the shop window. One was coin-dotted pink organdy; one striped blue-and-white chambray; the third navy linen. But it was the red print, with its little jacket displayed half off the shoulder, on which Vera's gaze seemed to focus with fatal intensity. The little dress--its price was on it, $16.95--stood out from its surroundings as if speaking to her.

"She knew exactly what should be done to it. First, of course, she would rip the white flower off the lapel of the jacket. Then the bits of machine smocking below the shoulder yoke, on the dress, would have to be ripped out and replaced with hand smocking; it would take the whole evening, but the effect gained, of excellence and quality, would be worth it. The belt of the dress would be improved by changing its buckle to a better one; she would be sure to find something on an old dress. On the lapel, in place of the flower, she would wear a good pin. The pearl circlet her mother had given her on her graduation from high school leaped to mind.

"And with the costume she would wear plain white kid pumps. There were some in Howard's, for $5.50. Plain white cotton gloves. Plain white envelope purse, like the one for $3.95 in Howard's. As for a hat--far smarter than any hat she could afford to buy would be a wreath of red and white flowers from Woolworth's, set straight on top of her head like a little crown, with a bit of red veil. The flowers would, of course, be shoddy stuff; the whole style of them would lie in their being fresh. After two or three wearings she would buy new ones.

"The whole would give a smart effect. Unusual. Clever. Striking to wear to a dessert bridge, or for an evening date at Lake Pearl.

"It was all such an art: keeping canvas shoes startlingly white by using a cake of Bon Ami; and wearing white ten-cent-store jewelry chosen for its plainness when everybody else was buying the fancy pieces; and making a hat out of a a black velvet clip and two real pink carnations; and ripping the machine tucks out of the bosom of a blouse to put them all back with a fine needle and one-fifty thread; and making pale blue batiste underclothes in the evening..."

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Zora Neale Hurston and Margaret Rawlings: A Florida Friendship

Zora Neale Hurston: a great lady.
Two Florida writers, bent on translating their Florida environs for the outside world--Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Rawlings--were friends, I was delighted to discover when I heard about the book Crossing the Creek: The Literary Friendship of Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings by Anna Lillios.  Hurston (1891-1960) grew up in Florida, while Rawlings (1896-1953) moved to Cross Creek, Florida, in 1928.

Cast out of her family home in her teens, Hurston was an African-American of fortitude who fought  hard to attain an education and became an artist of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. Rawlings was a white woman from Washington, D.C., who bought her Florida farm with inheritance money from her father. Despite the gaping differences in background, these two women were natural friends joined by their shared interests in writing and their love of Florida and their communities.

By the time these women met in 1940, both had already written their most famous works. Rawlings won the Pulitzer Prize for The Yearling in 1939, and Hurston had written Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937.

Rawlings was friends with writers such as Marcia Davenport (Valley of Decision), Ellen Glasgow (In This Our Life, Pulitzer Prize 1942), and Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind) and was associated with Thomas Wolfe (Look Homeward, Angel), Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings at her farm gate.
Hurston had forged friendships and collaborations with such Harlem literati as Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson (The Book of American Spirituals), and Wallace Thurman (The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life). She was also a lifelong friend of the writer Fanny Hurst (Imitation of Life). However, Hurston's achingly beautiful Their Eyes Were Watching God came under fire from such famous African-American writers as Richard Wright (Native Son), because it lacked the protest themes that Wright thought literature should carry for the fight for justice for African Americans.

At the point that Hurston and Rawlings met, Hurston was already being shoved out of the Harlem Renaissance milieu. Despite this political pressure, she stuck to her belief that African Americans had to maintain their independence and concentrate on their own education and work, an outlook that resonates the view of George Washington Carver, first president of Tuskegee University.

While it is unclear how or when the two Florida writers met, Idella Parker, author of the memoir Idella: Marjorie Rawlings' "Perfect Maid", gives an account of Hurston's first visit to Rawlings' farm. Parker writes that she was surprised to see that the expected visitor was black and "here was Mrs. Rawlings, inviting her in and sitting her down on the porch like she was the queen of England!" The two spent all afternoon together, drinking and talking, and it became clear that Ms. Hurston was in no shape to drive home. Rawlings then directed that Hurston stay with Parker in the servants' house, even though Rawlings had two empty bedrooms in the farmhouse.

Marjorie Rawlings' farmhouse in Cross Creek, Florida. She wrote at a desk on the screened porch.
In 1942, Rawlings invited Hurston to speak to her class at Florida Normal, and then to tea at her husband's segregated hotel in Saint Augustine. This caused Rawlings some internal consternation as she intimated to her friend, Edith Pope, she felt like a coward bringing Hurston into the hotel through the back stairs, since she considered Hurston "a most ingratiating personality, a brilliant mind, and [with a] fundamental wisdom that shames most whites."

Later that year Hurston wrote a letter to Rawlings in praise of Cross Creek: "You turned your inside light on their community life, and it broke like day..." and invited Rawlings to join her on her houseboat. Although encouraged by her editor Maxwell Perkins to do so, Rawlings declined, pleading involvement in a new book under difficult conditions, since Mrs. Parker had left her employ and her husband, Norman Baskins, was away at the war.

In response, Hurston wrote back that "I would be so glad to come and take everything off your hands until you are through with yours [book]. I know just what you need.... Really now, Miss Rawlings, if you find yourself losing your stride, let me help you out. I know so tragically what it means to be trying to concentrate and being nagged by the necessity of living."

Upon receipt of this letter, Marjorie Rawlings' views on race shifted dramatically. She wrote to her husband that the "Negro writer Zora Neale Hurston has done one of the most beautiful things I have ever known.... I shed tears over this woman's offer. She is an artist in her own right... She and Dr. Carver seem monumental to me. To transcend the humiliation of their position and being at the peak themselves, to have such graciousness.--Such bigness.... Her offer settles in my mind all doubts I have had about throwing myself into the fight for an honest chance for the Negro."

According to Lillios, "over the course of the decade, Rawlings would write and act in support of these rights."
Zora Neale Hurston's last home, in Fort Pierce, Florida.
When Hurston soon thereafter arrived at Rawlings' doorstep to help, they had a free-wheeling long discussion, which touched on racial issues, as reported in Rawlings' letters. This time Hurston slept in the farmhouse, "and I have never in my life been so glad that I was not a coward," Rawlings wrote her husband. "I had to hurdle an awfully wide ditch [Rawlings was involved in a local law suit at the time]. I was amazed to find that my own prejudices were so deep. It has always surprised me that my thinking is so Southern. But I felt that if I ever was to prove my humanitarian and moral beliefs, even it if it cost me the lawsuit, I must do it then."

From then on, Rawlings argued with friends and Florida public figures against racial segregation and in 1948 spoke at the African American Fisk University, staying with the university president. Over the next years, the friendship between these two women was suspended, as Hurston moved north again, and then renewed in the early 1950s, when Hurston was back in Florida. In 1952, Rawlings responded to a letter from Hurston:
Now you are at Belle Glade and I am at Cross Creek and we are both working like Lucifer trying to keep from getting kicked out of heaven, and I shall not be going South in the State, but if you happen to come prowling further North, do stop by at least for overnight or even longer. It might do us both good to compare notes from hell. I have so much to tell you. With love, Marjorie Rawlings
Zora Neale Hurston's hand-painted Christmas card to Rawlings and her husband in 1948.
But Hurston was unable to make the trip and was distraught when she learned that Rawlings had died suddenly on December 14, 1953. Writing to her friend Mary Holland, Hurston reported that she "was so depressed by the death of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings."

Lillios' account of the Hurston-Rawlings friendship is marred by superimposition of modern political correctness on both parties, although she gives Rawlings credit for changing her views and behavior toward African Americans. Rawlings was a product of her time, and we can be thankful that many people combined, via all kinds of pathways, to end segregation. But to me, Lillios' racial binoculars miss the point. Both Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Rawlings were women writers who had sought out community, loved their communities, and wrote about them in celebration. For both women, connection with and extension to others was paramount, the mother lode of human existence and therefore art. Their friendship was a natural, and we can be grateful that the pathways of these two Floridians crossed and that they drew sustenance from each other.

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Small Town as a Greek Chorus

New England Interior by Edmund Charles Tarbell, 1906. I wonder if the interior that is the actual subject of this painting is the private conversation these two women are having, which, one gets the feeling, is not meant to be overheard.

I enjoy novels that are situated in small towns, where the town itself becomes a kind of Greek chorus--a veritable player in the plot, through its commentary on the real or imagined behaviors and thoughts of the town's residents and the story's main characters. Sometimes, this Greek chorus steers the action to tragedy, as in William Maxwell's Time Will Darken It. To me, the presence of the small town enables us to see the characters in context--much like a photograph of a person surrounded by their particular milieu gives us unique clues about the subject.

In his 1947 short novel Always Young and Fair, Conrad Richter explains how the small town weaves a cloak of talk around its residents. The story concerns a beautiful and well-to-do young woman, Miss Lucy Markle, who refuses to marry but remains faithful to her fiance, Tom Grail, who had been killed in battle in the Philippines two years earlier. As Conrad explains the workings of the small town of Pine Mills, Pennsylvania:
So far as I know, very little of consequence was ever kept strictly secret in Pine Mills, not even in the brick confines of the big Markle House. Cousins, callers, and maids all dripped like leaky taps to the thirsty town. In those days Pine Mills followed its own dramas passionately, the actors appearing on the stage in person on its stage. Today we are addicted to the same stories as then, but we take them at second and third hand through the radio and moving picture, and the actors are seldom seen except in bloodless images, much less passed in flesh and blood and bade good morning to on the street.
Everyone in Pine Mills, I am sure, must have known Lucy Markle's story and followed it intensely as a serial. The reader did not have to wait a week or month to know the next installment. It was always imminent, might possibly come today, and meantime, additions, missing passages, and revealing phases were constantly being filled in by friends and passers-by. There was not one editor of commentator, but many. Most of the town, I think, approved and respected Lucy for her stand.... Death and dignity were taken rather seriously then, and a girl of character stood fast. Lucy was showing her Markle and Grandmother Mattson blood, they said. It would wear off in time, and meanwhile a year or two out of respect for Tom Grail would not hurt her. It was respect to Company G, to the town which was Company G, and to the U.S.A. After all, Tom Grail hadn't given just a year or two but the rest of his young and lighthearted life.
Such is the town commentary in the beginning of the novel. Although many stories have been written about people's strong drive to get out of the small town they found stifling precisely because of its Greek chorus effect, it may be difficult to escape the human need to be part of some kind of community through church and other institutions or band of mutual friends, all of which invites talk and commentary on the doings of each of its members.

"Society," for instance, plays the same role as the small town in Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence. In The Late George Appley by J.P. Marquand, Prodigal Women by Nancy Hale (1942), and Joy Street by Frances Parkinson Keyes, the word "Boston" conjures up not a place but the explicitly understood views and opinions emanating from Beacon Hill, which seems to serve as some kind of lighthouse shining its value-laden light on the behavior of all Bostonians.

In the 1970s American society sought to cast off fear of castigation for any type of behavior, but today both sides in the social issues debate have their puritanical and intolerant streaks that disparage the attitudes of others with a vituperation that would rival that of any small town biddy. Facebook, Twitter, and online commentary also seem to answer a need for immediate human connection--ironic in a world in which people fought to exchange small town prurience for the relative anonymity of the cities and the suburbs. And today, instead of nodding our heads about "Markle and Grandmother Mattson blood," we would note, significantly, Markle and Mattson genes.

Maybe you can take the human being out of the small town, but you can't take the small town out of the human being. We re-create it wherever we are.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Dhobi Ghat: Connection

The Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai, India.

See the picture there? That is the outdoor laundry in Mumbai, India, called Dhobi Ghat. The movie Dhobi Ghat (or Mumbai Diaries) tells a story of one of the dhobi (laundrymen) who work at the Dhobi Ghat and two of his clients: an artist and a young Indian woman, who is a financial consultant in New York City and on sabbatical in Mumbai, where her parents live, to explore how ordinary Indians make their living. This includes learning about the life of her dhobi (laundryman) who beats her clothes against the cement, hangs them to dry, and then irons them with a charcoal-heated iron.

India, 1988. When I visited friends in New Delhi, many of our clothes were handwashed in the home. Then we took them for ironing to the neighborhood ironing man (shown above), who ironed your clothes that day for 1 paise (penny) apiece. The iron was heated with charcoal. The actual dhobi came to the house once a week to collect sheets and other larger items. The Delhi dhobi beat these items against the rocks by the Yamuna River that runs through Delhi, returning them in a neat folded pile.

The dhobi is a young man, who came to Mumbai from the poverty-stricken northeastern state of Bihar to alleviate his hunger. He moonlights as a rat killer at night (beating rats to death with a stick) and resides in a box along the railroad tracks. He does exercises to build his physique and feed his dreams of being in the movies.

The dhobi serves the artist, a shy painter who finds in the clothes cabinet of his new apartment the video letters of the young wife who formerly lived there to her brother in the rural area from whence she came to live with her new husband. Her letters had apparently never been delivered. The artist becomes immersed in her video-letters and in her, and embarks on a new project to paint this lovely woman's portrait. With the artist, we are privileged to view Mumbai from the lens of this young woman's video camera.

But the painter and the New York financial consultant have also met at an opening of the painter's works at a Mumbai art gallery and spent a night together--with the painter backing off next morning and then wishing he had not been quite so dismissive of the experience.

The story of these four intertwined lives takes place against the backdrop of Mumbai, the fourth largest city in the world, one of the richest in Asia, with a metropolitan area population of 20.5 million people. The painter, played by Aamir Khan, declares at his opening that all of his works are an ode to Mumbai. Throughout the film we are treated to the noisy heartbeat of Mumbai's streets and get glimpses of the homes of its impoverished, middle class, and wealthy.

Mumbai's Marine Drive around the harbor--also known as the Queen's Necklace.

Dhobi Ghat called to mind the novel Howard's End by the British novelist E. M. Forster, who spent the early years of the 1920s in India as the private secretary to Tukoji Rao Holkar, Maharaja of Indore, an experience from which he wrote his famous Passage to India. But his Howard's End is the touching point for Dhobi Ghat, because the book is a paean to the effort of engagement with all, across societal stratifications and expectations. Dhobi Ghat, produced by Mr. Khan and written and directed by his wife, Kiran Rao, is an exploration of connection--connecting with "the other"--an experience that can only enrich, as we mere viewers like the artist are enriched by this lovely snapshot of life in India. Dhobi Ghat is available through Netflix.

Hanging out the clothes at the Dhobi Ghat.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Spiders on a Sunny Morning

I was just getting my tea in the early morning and looked out my kitchen window and what did I see...two spider webs side by side. They looked like two sunny DVDs suspended in the air. (The second is next to the lower right leaves of the bush.)

I had seen them a few days before trying to spin a web closer to the house, but I think it proved untenable. So they chose the more isolated quiet of the acuba nearby to make their home. Husband and wife? Brother and sister? I do not know. But I was glad that the backyard could give them a haven.


Friday, July 6, 2012

Even the Poor Squirrels Are Prostrate in the Heat

Hello, everyone, the exigencies of work have kept me away from Gables, and I hope I can begin to compensate, for the missing of it. Here this squirrel, who is no stranger, jumped on the fence and after looking about--at Cally, the rat terrier on the premises who is the sentinel of the backyard--felt safe enough to simply plotz, limb by limb and lastly his head. He's looking directly at me as I hold out my camera to take the photo without his becoming so frightened he flees. I suppose he has been running around all day in this 98-degree weather, with the humidity so high one can scarcely breathe. I left some water in a saucer for him on the fence, but he scampered away when I opened the door to put it there. I hope he comes back and can be refreshed a bit.  

All creatures great and small, the Lord God made us all.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

"When There Was Nothing to Preserve, She Began to Pickle"

Pioneer ladies before a sod house on the Great Plains.

In her O Pioneers! Willa Cather captured the efforts to create real homes of the women who with their husbands first came to the harsh landscape of the Great Plains. Cather describes the mother of her Norwegian heroine Alexandra Bergson like this:
John Bergson [Alexandra's father] had married beneath him, but he had married a good wife. Mrs. Bergson was a fair-skinned, corpulent woman, heavy and placid like her son, Oscar, but there was something comfortable about her; perhaps it was her own love of comfort. For eleven years she had worthily striven to maintain some semblance of household order amid conditions that made order very difficult. Habit was very strong with Bergson, and her unremitting efforts to repeat the routine of her old life among new surroundings had done a great deal to keep the family from disintegrating morally and getting careless in their ways. The Bergsons had a log house, for instance, only because Mrs. Bergson would not live in a sod house.

She missed the fish diet of her own country, and twice every summer she sent the boys to the river, twenty miles to the southward, to fish for channel cat. When the children were little she used to load them all into the wagon, the baby in its crib, and go fishing herself. Alexandra often said that if her mother were cast upon a desert island, she would thank God for her deliverance, make a garden, and find something to preserve.  
Preserving was almost a mania with Mrs. Bergson. Stout as she was, she roamed the scrubby banks of Norway Creek looking for fox grapes and goose plums, like a wild creature in search of prey. She made a yellow jam of the insipid ground-cherries that grew on the prairie, flavoring it with lemon peel; and she made a sticky dark conserve of garden tomatoes. She had experimented even with the rank buffalo-pea, and she could not see a fine bronze cluster of them without shaking her head and murmuring "What a pity!" When there was nothing to preserve, she began to pickle. The amount of sugar she used in these processes was sometimes a serious drain upon the family resources.

She was a good mother, but she was glad when her children were old enough not to be in her way in the kitchen. She had never quite forgiven John Bergson for bringing her to the end of the earth; but, now that she was there, she wanted to be left alone to reconstruct her old life in so far as that was possible. She could still take some comfort in the world if she had bacon in the cave, glass jars on the shelves, and sheets in the press. She disapproved of all her neighbors because of their slovenly housekeeping, and the women thought her very proud. Once when Mrs. Bergson, on her way to Norway Creek, stopped to see old Mrs. Lee, the old woman hid in the haymow "for fear Mis' Bergson would catch her barefoot."
O Pioneers! is wonderful in many ways. Willa Cather is an American treasure.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Hats Off to Miss Moss

Miss Moss is a genius in fashion mash-ups with food and with art. Have fun! I think she does.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant and Her Chickens

The farmyard by Beatrix Potter for The Tale of Mrs. Jemima Puddle-Duck

One last animal story from Mrs. Grant from the days when she was a "splendid farmer's wife."

"Ulys brought me all the new breeds of chickens: the Shanghais, the Brahmas, and the pretty little Bantams. The two little boys [the first two Grant children] and I used to greatly enjoy throwing handfuls of wheat and other grain to this beautiful feathery portion of our family. Of course, each of these distinguished foreigners had appropriate names: for instance, my large, beautiful silver-gray, with her proud, haughty step, I called 'Celeste' from the Celestial Empire, and her lord, 'The Great Mogul,' and I remember how a magnificent domestic cock with gorgeous plumage used to lord it over these clumsy foreigners, with only size to boast of. I noticed the same little tricks of gallantry in these foreign birds that could be noticed in ours. For instance, they would pretend to find some choice tidbit and would call loudly for the poor, innocent hens to come and share it, and every time these lords of the barnyards were fooling them and would quickly eat it up themselves.

"I must tell you of one instance which made me believe that chickens really understand the English language. Once after a heavy snowstorm, one of my women came in and asked if Jeff had not better put the chickens which were out in[to] the chickenhouse, 'as dem Chinese chickens did not know how to take care of themselves.' Very soon, I was informed that one of my pullets could not stand on her feet. I at once went out to the hennery to examine for myself. After giving the necessary directions for the poor thing's relief, I told Phyllis to bring out a bowl of cornmeal mixed with water. She had hardly started when the old cocks on the roosts aloft passed the word by a softly murmured cackle to their numerous families, and at once they all descended and surrounded me, looking wistfully and expectantly up at me. Of course, they were sent to bed well fed and were never again neglected in stormy weather."

P.S. Sadly, Beatrix Potter started publishing her stories in 1902, the year Mrs. Grant died. I think Mrs. Grant would have enjoyed them.

Mrs. Julia Dent Grant's Elephant Tales

For you, Gab.

In her memoirs Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant records two stories about elephants, and here they are.

The Tale of Mr. and Mrs. Elephant

Elephant by Rembrandt

"I remember once when walking with some friends in Paris we passed a cage which contained a pair of elephants which had just been fed. The male had already finished his portion and was looking sullenly at his mate, who quietly and generously gathered large bundles of hers and threw them to her lord without even turning her eyes in his direction. He quietly munched the largest part of Mrs. Elephant's dinner without once nodding his thanks, thus showing he was from the East."

How Very Smart Elephants Are

Elephant Head by Laura H

"I can only recall our visit to the woodyards of Moulmein [Burma] and the wonderful sagacity of the elephants, who were the chief workmen at these yards. These brutes seemed to have human intelligence. A great chain was fastened to one of their feet. They would walk past a great huge log of teakwoood, let the chain drag not quite past the log, then, with one tusk for a lever, hoist the log on the chain, fasten it securely, and walk off with their loads to the pile of logs. Taking one end, they would hoist it up and place it securely, then take the other end of the log and do likewise. They would then walk off and look to see if it were placed straight, turning their heads first to one side and then to the other, and if it were not in line they would (and did) walk up to the end of the pile and push the log they had carried further on and a trifle back. Their intelligence is wonderful!"

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Indomitable and Fun-Loving Julia Dent Grant

Monument to Mrs. Julia Dent Grant in Galena, Illinois.

This statue of Julia Dent Grant, I believe, shows the vitality of the beloved wife of President and General Ulysses S. Grant. Because she was afflicted with strabismus (lazy eye), she never permitted her picture to be taken head-on, but always turned her head to the side. The sharp features of her profile and the 19th-century propensity to put on a serious face for the photographer have combined to leave us no photograph that captures the spirit of Mrs. Grant, a woman who was known then and ever since as the necessary source of strength for the great military commander.

Some may think that a man who was prone to alcoholism, who left home for long periods of time for Army duty, who was practically incapable of earning a living when not on active military duty would not a good husband make. But Julia, according to her own telling in The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant and as confirmed by her children, never had any problem with or criticism of General Grant, and they led a full married life, raising four children, moving from home to home over the course of decades, and achieving what was by all accounts an enduring and affectionate relationship that was a joy to them both. Grant, says her children, was never happier than to be at home with his wife and their offspring. Mrs. Grant dictated these memoirs for her grandchildren, and it was only in 1975, 73 years after her death, that they were published.

Despite her dour photographic poses, her book shows Mrs. Grant was a very lively person, embracing both life and people. She, as her husband, loved company and the occasion of having company. But in contrast to Grant, who she said was generally a quiet man in social gatherings, she appears to have been quite a talker, and one gets the impression that during their world tour after Grant left the White House, she kept up a running narrative of their adventures as they were happening. She may have been a "plain Jane," as she says of herself, and quite small in stature, but her personality was ashimmer with warmth, vibrance, and enthusiasm.

The Dent plantation, White Haven, where Julia was born and spent many months when her husband was away.

Julia Dent was born in 1826, the fifth child of a slave-owning family in Missouri. According to her memoirs (and of course we may hesitate to believe everything she says), she never knew a harsh word from her parents, was indulged in terribly, and enjoyed a childhood of bliss that anyone would envy. She recalls playing with her sisters and children of slaves in the woods all day and encountering all kinds of wild and domesticated animals. Her descriptions of the antebellum life at the Dent home, White Haven, are so charming, that the antebellum sections of Gone with the Wind seem social realism in comparison. Everyone was happy in this household, including the slaves--although their prompt departure from the Dent plantation upon the Emancipation Proclamation puts this somewhat in doubt.

Julia met Ulysses Grant, a friend of her brother's, in 1844, and they swiftly became friends thanks to Grant's continual efforts to be by her side. They went for long walks and horseback rides together, as Grant opened up in the warmth of her sunny soul. When he proposed, she was startled, she says, because she had never thought of him in that way and declined. But when he went away after his proposal, she missed him, and upon his return they became engaged, marrying in August 1848, after Grant returned from the Mexican War.

Julia Dent had pluck. She recalls one childhood day when she and her little sister wanted to pick some wild clematis that grew in a meadow on the other side of a flooded creek. At the time, Mrs. Grant relates, she had echoing in her mind the words of her preacher: "If ye have faith even as a grain of mustard seed, ye may move mountains and walk on the waters."
I informed Nell of my determination to make the crossing on the deepest and smoothest place, reminding her of what the preacher said about faith. She was much alarmed and timidly asked, "What is faith, sister?" In great superiority, I replied: "Little goose, believe that you can and you can."... I stepped out on the water and plunged in up to my armpits. I was surprised and looked back at Nell with a frightened smile. I went on, however, to the other side and scrambled up the bank--crushed flowers, dead butterflies, and wet little girl.
Wet or not, Miss Dent's can-do spirit must have surely struck a chord in Ulysses S. Grant.

Hardscrabble, one of the many domiciles in which Mrs. Grant lived during the iterant years of her married life.

From the genteel life of White Haven, Mrs. Grant found herself living with her husband and young children in a log-and-mud soddered home, which Grant built in Missouri as a homestead. This house was "so crude and homely I did not like it at all, but I did not say so. I got out all my pretty covers, baskets, books, etc., and tried to make it look home-like and comfortable, but this was hard to do. The little house looked so unattractive that we facetiously decided to call it Hardscrabble.”

She showed the same domestic spirit when she arrived at the White House in March 1869:
"I found the White House in utter confusion. I felt greatly discouraged, but after a few weeks things began to assume an appearance of order, ... and by autumn the house was in beautiful condition. After much thought and fatigue, I at last had the furniture arranged in suites, so that each room would have its own set. I found it scattered widely in the upper chambers. Chairs and lounges were recovered; the hall carpets, which were much worn and so ugly, I could not bear to look at them, were replaced."
Under her direction, the White House not only became a domicile suitable for the President of the United States, but also the social center of Washington, as Julia hosted constant dinners and other events during her eight years there. She sobbed all afternon the day she and her husband left the White House--I think not only because she would miss her life there but because she had lived there the longest with Grant. She thought of it as her real home and opened it up for grand hospitality to all Americans, including, she was emphatic, to African Americans.

Ulysses S. Grant is one of the military leaders I admire the most. As I was reading about him recently and about the strength he took from his wife, I decided to find out what kind of person she was. Her memoirs give us a glimpse of Grant in home life and of her devotion to him. Mrs. Grant of course comes under attack from today's feminists because she made no attempt to break through the boundaries in which society and her marriage had placed her--although she was her husband's confidante and wanted to be informed. With her sharp nose for danger, she saved Grant's life when he was targeted as part of the assassination plot against Lincoln.

There is no doubt that Ulysses Grant thoroughly enjoyed her. Here she relates a story of the final leg of their trip round the world:
We had a delightful sail up the coast of Portland; that is, we had a pleasant party, but the sea was rather rough. I remember how the ship tossed and pitched. I said to the Captain: "I fear you have not placed your ballast as it ought to be. You should have it distributed more widely." The General [Grant] was surprised at this speech and said: "Really, Mrs. Grant, I was not aware that you know how to ballast a ship." "Nor do I," I replied, "but if you will remember, when we were coasting along the Spanish shore, the ship behaved exactly like this one. It careened over and returned with a thud. Well, I heard two Englishmen talking about it and they said the ballast was too much in the center of the ship and it was very dangerous." The Captain said: "There is a great deal in what you say, Madam, and as soon as we get into port I will see that all is made right."

Julia Dent Grant (fourth from left) and Ulysses S. Grant (fifth from left) after a descent into a mine in Virginia City, Nevada. "The General made a wager with Mr. Mackay that I would not venture down the shaft. I came out all equipped for a descent into its gloomy depths and was just about to reconsider when Mr. Mackay said to me in a low tone, 'Don't give up going. The General has bet money that you would back out.' I calmly stepped on the platform. The General looked surprised and said: 'We descend one thousand seven hundred feet. Are you going?' 'Yes,' I said, with a look of reproach and triumph. So the General lost his wager when he bet against me."

Monday, April 9, 2012

Conrad Richter's Early Americana

A wagon train wends its way west along the Santa Fe Trail.

In 1928 the American author Conrad Richter and his family pulled up stakes and moved from eastern Pennsylvania to New Mexico in the hopes of improving his wife's health. Transplanted to totally unfamiliar territory, he set about to unearth the stories of the families who had settled there, digested old diaries and letters, and gleaned all he could from the local library on the history of the region and how the lives of its settlers and their descendants had changed over time. The most famous result of this work is his Sea of Grass, published in 1937, which centers on the conflict between cattle ranchers and homesteaders and the characters of both. But his first output from his yarn gathering was his collection of nine short stories, Early Americana.

Many of these stories revolve around the coming together of a young man and woman in marriage carve their place in the vast prairies west of Saint Louis, but the romance is always understated, if made explicit at all. Lives travel tracks that bring them together and the rest is assumed--except that the land and the difficulties of settling it present nearly insurmountable obstacles that are unimaginable today but that come to life under Richter's pen: gunfights on a betrothal night, drought that kills the cattle herd a young man had built up so he could marry, Indian attacks that destroy a young man's family.

Cowboy in 1888. Mutual respect and partnership in hard work were the basis of a marriage, rather than romance.

So in "New Home" we wait with a young wife while her husband goes off to settle the ownership of the land and is gone far longer than either had anticipated. Her waiting is palpable, and we are in pain with our sympathy for her, hoping against hope that he returns. In "Frontier Woman," a Southern belle makes the arduous journey west after the Civil War to lead a new life, where her nearest neighbor will be 80 miles off, and contemplates her future:
Farther, much farther back, she felt the ravaged gardens of the South, the Confederate exodus through the piny woods, the vast watery fissure of the Mississippi, and the black trail across the illimitable prairie. And now in a kind of mirage she saw herself out on the desolate cap rock, birth to Craig Weatherill's children, herself their teacher in a rambling adobe ranch house, nursing them without hope of a doctor, keeping lonely vigils, helping in times of attack to load the guns for the men, trying to teach indifferent hands some of the declicate recipes of the South, inevitably homesick, never entirely forgiving the hard land of her husband--a frontier woman.
In one of the most dramatic stories, "Smoke on the Prairie," Richter explores both the upheaval that came with the railroad and its replacement of the long wagon trains that has first brought people from the east along the Santa Fe Trail.

As always, Richter shows his deep respect for women and their work. Women waiting for their husbands to return from a haul to the market or from a sojourn to find a lost cow kept themselves busy as a way of stopping up their floodtide of anxiety.
Her hands kept eternally busy. She washed and ironed, heating the heavy smoothing iron by setting it upright on the hearth before the coals. She sat daily over winter socks for Pleas and the baby, one foot moving the cradle as she knitted. Morning or afternoon she let the sheep from the high corral and followed on foot over the range, resting with her baby on the grass in cedar shade.

Pleas had set up a hopper for the oak ash. In the big copper kettle brought from Arkansas she boiled wood ashes. When the lye dissolved the end of a feather, she added accumulated greases and tallow and boiled a small batch of soap, cut the cooling mixture into yellow-gray bars and piled them on the mantel to dry. She soaked a flint-dry deerskin in strong suds of lye soap, water, and a spoonful of lard; scraped off the hair with an old corn knife; let it remain by the warm hearth all night; wrung, pulled, and stretched it next day until perfectly dry, when it becomes soft and pliable as cloth and waited only her shears and thread for gloves or clothes.
Richter never lets us forget for a second the land that his characters inhabit. We imbibe it through their eyes and his lyrical voice:
They rode slowly on, while the luminous purple began to appear like violet mist on the hills. It spread to the plains, bathing them in color. The home ranch in the wide mouth of Monica Canyon ahead became an island of buildings, corrals, and windmill swimming in a bright velvet sea. The color seemed to float in the air about them. They breathed it, road through it.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Holy Thursday

Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples by Rembrandt
So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.
John 13:12-17

Friday, March 30, 2012

Fine Arts Friday: Breakfast

The Breakfast Table by John Singer Sargent, 1883.

(As always, click on the paintings to get a better view.)

Not everyone's breakfast is as elegant as that shown in Sargent's painting of his sister Violet engrossed in a book at the breakfast table. Roses, good silver, cloth napkins in napkin rings, a silver coffee pot on a white tablecloth. Nevertheless, a leisurely breakfast in pleasant surroundings can be a real pleasure no matter what the fare.

The Gilchrist family breakfast is more typical of our image of the family breakfast: not in such elegant surroundings, with slightly grim parents, and children who are well behaved but subdued--the atmosphere is not carefree. The painter, the son of a famous Philadelphia conductor and composer, must have usually sat in the empty seat at the head of the table there.

The Gilchrist Family Breakfast by William Wallace Gilchrist, Jr., 1916

But often at breakfast, people are anxious to get on their way and are not attuned to those around them. The social image of breakfast begins to disintegrate, and breakfast begins to look and more like a dining bustop rather than the first gathering of the family.

The Breakfast by William MacGregor Paxton, 1911

At the Breakfast Table by Norman Rockwell, 1930

Of course, no self-respecting child or adolescent wants to hang around the breakfast table for long.

Cottage Interior by Berthe Morisot, 1886. That's her daughter Julie edging toward the garden.

Breakfast at Berneval by Pierre Auguste Renoir, 1898

To keep children engaged in breakfast, when time and weather permit, it is always fun to move the meal outdoors.

Breakfast on the Piazza by Edmund Tarbel, 1902

The Open Air Breakfast by William Merritt Chase, 1888

A leisurely and quiet breakfast in beautiful surroundings would seem to be a luxury in today's world, except for some on Sundays. I hazard a guess that in the long run it pays to make breakfast each day as lovely and inviting as possible, as this mother has done,

Illustration from Bright April by Marguerite di Angeli, 1946

or even if one is eating alone.

Breakfast in the Garden by Frederick Frieseke, 1911