Thursday, February 27, 2014

East Side, West Side

When I came into my dimmed kitchen in the late afternoon, I noticed that the apples were lit up, sitting in a pool of light that limited itself to just a slice of the cabinet top and wall. The light seemed almost iridescent and strange, because it wasn't coming from the sun directly--my kitchen faces east-- but from sun rays reflected on the westward-facing window of my backyard neighbor's and bouncing into this corner of my kitchen.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Remarkable Character of George Washington

George Washington with the Marquis de Lafayette (center) and Lt. Col. Tench Tilghman, Washington's aide-de-camp, at Yorktown, by Charles Willson Peale, 1784. Washington looked upon Lafayette as a son, and the French republican was instrumental in convincing Washington that slavery was an injustice that was inimical to the principles of the new American republic.  

For about four months in 2013, I read books about George Washington and also biographies of Martha Washington. Most notable was Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. Based on the release of thousands of papers of Washington's, Chernow's book is a realistic and detailed portrait of the Commander of the Continental Army that led a rag-tag army to victory in the War of Independence and became our first President.

In his 2006 book Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, historian Gordon S. Wood devotes an early chapter to Washington, titled "The Greatness of George Washington." Wood's assessment  is grounded on Washington's decision to resign from his army command at the end of the war--an action whose humility shocked the world. He also cites how Washington became increasingly repulsed by slavery and freed those slaves he owned upon his death, and praises Washington's ability to act as the first President with a vision of what he must bequeath to a future America, beyond the political demands of the moment.

Underlying the actions and vision, however, is a monumental strength of character that explains how he became the natural choice of his contemporaries to lead the Continental Army and to become the new republic's first President. As presented in the books that I read, Washington's character had these traits:

1. Extreme courage under fire. In battle he always acted without regard for his own personal safety.

2.  Extreme devotion to duty. In the course of the Revolutionary War, Washington wrote 140,000 letters and documents. Spending hour upon hour at his desk each day, he sent communications to Congress begging for supplies, wrote orders to his men and exhortations to his army, and maintained a vast correspondence with the leading supporters of the American fight for independence. His desk was the central command post for the war.

3. Consistent compassion in victory to those defeated.

4.  Discernment of the correct military strategy and adherence to the strategy against all odds. Washington led the Americans to victory against the world's most powerful military power with barely an army--a band of ill-clad, ill-fed men that was always in flux and leaving for lack of pay. His greatness and the greatness that he inspired in his generals is measured by their achievement with such meagerness of resources.

5. Willingness to change his ideas in light of new evidence. Although Washington was determined to retake New York City, when the opportunity to defeat the British in Yorktown, Virginia, emerged instead, he seized it with alacrity and redeployed his forces to seize the opening.

6. Ability and willingness to suffer personal hardship--a trait that rallied his men time and time again to stay in the army despite hardship and to wage hard-fought battles.

7. Extreme courtesy and respect toward all, but strength to exact punishment on deviants in the army that jeopardized discipline and army unity.

8. Devotion to family and love of his wife.

9.  Belief in a vision of America stretching across the continent. His dedication to this vision of America's future--the British had prohibited further western development--was the foundation of determination to win the war.

10.  Extreme determination, that brought out the same in his generals, most of whom had never had military training and acquired their military expertise by reading history and military manuals.

11. Consistent charity to the poor, indigent, and orphans. No one who came to Mount Vernon needing food or sustenance was ever turned away. Washington also took in, supported, and paid for the education of orphans in his and Martha Washington's extended family. He considered his stepchildren as his own. After he was President, anyone who showed up at the door of Mount Vernon--and everyone who was traveling in the vicinity did show up--received hospitality. The Washingtons entertained a total roster of 2,000 guests at their home, in their 13 years of married life before he became the Commander of the Continental Army.

12. Extreme sense of responsibility by which he always gave credit to others for victories and successful actions while taking responsibility himself for defeats and errors. The buck stopped with him.

13. Faith in God, a belief in Providence into whose hands he had trusted his life; this faith was the source of his courage.

14. His wariness of power, an ever-present fear that he might appear to desire power, combined with a deep humility and recognition of his own deficits.

Washington said that all he was came from his mother, a woman whom his boyhood friends said terrified them (she was tall and forbidding), even though "she was very kind."

This is not to say that George Washington did not have faults--he relied on his wife, his family, and those he trusted such as General Henry Knox, General Nathanael Greene, and his adjutant Alexander Hamilton, and within his trusted circle, he could be angry and impatient and take their devotion for granted. Although he lacked the eloquence of Jefferson, the lightning intelligence of Alexander Hamilton, the erudition and thoughtfulness of John Adams, the creativity and knowledge of Benjamin Franklin, and the rousing rhetoric of Thomas Paine, he stood physically and spiritually heads and shoulders above his countrymen. He engendered trust, he held that trust, he acted to live up to that trust at all times. He never let anyone down. For these reasons he was--as his eulogist Lightfoot Harry Lee, father of General Robert E. Lee, said--"first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countryman."

All Americans, especially the young, need to acquaint themselves with this man and learn from him.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Poetic Image

Rooftops by Charles Newman, 2010

(Click on the painting to see it in a large size.)

I saw this painting this past weekend at an exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) Museum in Philadelphia. The show presented paintings by three PAFA alumni who are also contributors to the city's famed Mural Arts Program.

This painting is one of four by Charles Newman that to me captured the city that I have known and loved since my childhood. Philadelphia was a rust belt city long before the decline of the auto industry. Newman's works examine this sad and challenging underbelly of the city--without falling prey to maudlin anger. "I try to find the beauty in the decay," the artist wrote in a short explanation of his works for the exhibition.

In Rooftops, we get an intimate glimpse of a tightly compacted corner formed by the tops of three rowhouses of the kind that is ubiquitous in Philadelphia. The artist paints en plein air from the roof of one house, as the vision repeats itself in row upon row to the horizon, we know.

In the foreground, the windows beckon us to think about the people living inside. Are they awake, making coffee, getting ready to go to work? What do they do? How do they feel about where they live and what they do? Do they see a way forward? Or do they feel hemmed in, crushed? We sense or imagine their frustration. We don't see them, but we know they are there, they are part of the image.

We look beyond to the tree--leafless, its branches reaching above the brick rows. We see the gray sky, tinged with pink. Signs of hope. Do the people have hope? Is there hope? We hope so.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

A House That Means Home

Portsmouth Street by Childe Hassam, 1917
It turns out that Americans who can afford them are getting tired of McMansions--the extra large houses with ultra-high ceilings that deliver 10,000 square feet to keep clean. One of the reasons that the large Victorian home went out of style in the 1910s and the 1920s was because the labor force for domestic labor had dried up. When offered other opportunities--even factory labor--many women will prefer a job that does involve caring for a far wealthier woman's home. A McMansion clearly cries out for domestic help, and as I drive by them, I often wonder to myself, "Who's clean all those bathrooms?"

However, now, according to the Wall Street Journal January 24, people are now seeking homes that look a lot more traditional, offer slimmer space, but have modern amenities such as open floor layouts, more bathrooms, family rooms, and so forth. To me the most startling aspect of the story was this:
One thing that draws his clients to the more rigorous authenticity of a New Old House, said Mr. Versaci, [an architect of modern "old" homes]  is a search for what he called the "psychic comforts of yesterday," a concept of the past that's happier and less disposable than life in 2014. "People have visceral memories of their grandmother's house," he said, "the slamming of the door, sitting on the porch watching cars drive by, sitting down to Sunday dinner when Sunday dinner was a big deal."
In contrast to the home of their grandparents, the McMansion seems sterile and when I peruse them in the Wall Street Journal's House of the Day slideshows, I always feel that such a home would be fine as a hotel, but I could never feel at home in one of them. The architecture seems more appropriate for an institution, not someone's private and personal space in which we live and to which we are privileged to be invited as guests. The McMansion is devoid of charm.

I think the desire for a house that reminds one of eating Sunday dinners with the extended family is a good trend, and perhaps the first sign--along with the increasing popularity of aprons--that perhaps we are turning the corner on the trend toward modern, edgy, single, and institutionalized life, and that the longing for family, for private space that has private meaning and links us to those beloved of the past, is beginning to stir itself again in our American hearts, which have been so bent against domesticity by Betty Friedan and her followers.