Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Young Jew as Christ

Or, Christ as a young Jew, if you prefer. Rembrandt lived in the Jodenbreestraat, a part of Amsterdam where Jews were settling. He befriended his neighbors and, despite the Jewish injunction against the making of graven images, he got them to sit for him. Perhaps he thought the Jews were physionomically closer than the Dutch to the people of the Bible.

For example, his rendering of Jacob on his death bed looks much like an elderly Chasid we might see walking to shul in the Fairfax neighborhood of Los Angeles: long beard, aquiline nose, papery skin, tired eyes.

Did the young Jew who sat for this portrait know that he was modeling for Christ? I have no idea. But I think it's fair to say that this Jesus is less ethereal and more incisive than most that we see hanging in churches--a teller of parables and a turner-over-of-money-changers'-tables. But who was this man really? A laborer with a young wife? An apprentice diamond cutter? A student who tutored rich men's children to make ends meet? A poet? We'll never know him for himself, but he brings to the role of Jesus a vibrancy, even an athleticism, that we seldom see in religious art. Rembrandt, the lover-of-women and spender-of-money, is telling us that if God did become flesh, he must have been a most engaging man.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Madonna of the Chair

When I was in Florence, touring the Palazzo Pitti, this painting stopped me in my tracks. The composition is utterly perfect and yet relaxed and natural. The colors and textures of the fabrics feel durable and comforting. The upright post of the chair, perhaps a symbol of the cross and perhaps not, tells me this is a domestic setting, maybe even a kitchen. I want a chair like that. Raphael painted these three figures--Mary, Jesus, and John the Baptist--many times over, but never with such understated elegance.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Foreclosed and Forgotten

My lovely neighbors have gone; I don't know where. They came from the Czech Republic, made good, bought the century old mansion next door, and lived there happily until the economy, and their various business interests, turned sour. They tried to sell and get out from under their million dollar mortgage, but there were no buyers. Finally, they left, abandoning their equity, personal possessions, and equipment they used to produce their private label clothing line. A few days later, a huge dumpster was delivered onto the wraparound driveway. Two men labored for three days, filling it twice with clothing racks, file cabinets, dishes and cups, andirons, throw rugs, a dresser, lamps, chairs, several generations of children's bicycles, and much more. The house that once sold for 1.2 million can now be had for $499,000.

In the photo, a member of a movie crew can be seen wheeling a light. The house has appeared in numerous films. Last summer a youthful crew was there all night, filming and then babysitting their equipment until morning. Although I couldn't make out the words, the music of their banter rising on the breeze to my window, while I read through the night, was delicious…a vocal pastiche of profound dialogue, artistic collaboration, lavish sarcasm, girlish rising inflections, gay nasality, and an occasional lick of song. They were enjoying the house, furnishing it with the conviviality it was built for. But now it stands empty.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Attract and Retain

Which is more byzantine: the underlying value of a derivative or the compensation agreement for those who trade in them? It appears there's nothing to prevent paying bonuses to the executives who nearly destroyed AIG because the recipients all have contracts. AIG has assured us that bonuses for employees in other sectors of the company have been cut or eliminated. If I understand this right, that means people in the company's profitable sectors are getting punished while those in the financial products unit that lost untold billions are being rewarded...with taxpayer dollars.

The explanation we hear from all bonus paying companies is the same: they must pay them in order to attract and retain talent. Without bonuses, their key employees might jump ship. My question is: jump where? This is a recession, remember? Banks and financial firms are going belly up right and left. Who's there to hire them, much less pay them in the manner to which they are accustomed?

Meanwhile, there's new talk of merit pay for teachers. The idea is the same: to attract and retain talent. The problem is, that at the very time when this is being discussed in Washington, thousands of teachers are being sent pink slips in almost every state. Morale among the new teachers that I mentor took a body blow this week when they all received notices. The bonuses paid to teachers are paltry compared to those paid on Wall Street (I know because I get one), but they're worthless if the nation is not committed to keeping its schools fully staffed.


Sunday, March 15, 2009


A new 14 year study tells us that catechins, flavonols, and flavones may help curb belly bulge by improving the body's metabolic profile. Fine, terrific, except where do we find these magic elixirs? Wait for it...chocolate. Oh sure, you can get them from apples, pears, tea, and leeks but why would you? Now we can eat fudge and reduce our belly fat all at the same time. That is, if you believe that the science of nutrition, which so often seems to be planning meals for a different species, and has a way of telling us that just about everything is toxic, makes sense.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Where's George?

Past presidents tend to lie low for a while after leaving the White House, so I don’t attach any special significance to the dearth of news about George W. Bush. But I’m guessing that we won’t hear from him for quite some time, and when we do, he won’t be taking questions.

His legacy seems worse every day. The Wall Street Journal reports that in the last year of his presidency, the wealth of every American family was reduced by an average of 18%, a figure that, if anything, seems low. Think of it. It’s as though, after all those years of his striving to reduce our taxes, nearly one fifth of every household’s total assets, not just its current income, was confiscated.

The Iraq War has been called by its critics the greatest foreign policy blunder in American history. It’s worse than Viet Nam because we actually have some vital interests at stake in the Middle East. Bush thumped his chest about the success of the surge, but I’m not convinced. I was a soldier in Viet Nam in the lull following the 1968 Tet offensive. Lots of people back then were saying the war had been won, given the low level of enemy activity. But we enlisted men, along with every Lambo driver, hootch mamasan, and Saigon Tea girl, knew that the NVA was merely lying low, since it was clear that the American will to fight was broken and we were just looking for a propitious moment to leave. They were right; we lost. So it may be in Iraq, where the enemy is in it for the long term while we just want to get the hell out.

We’ve heard that Bush thinks history will vindicate him. He may be right, if anyone is left to write it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Vatican Vigil

Two stories about the Vatican have made the news this week, and it's only Wednesday. The first was the excommunication of a nine year old girl, pregnant with twins, who was given an abortion to save her life after being raped by her step-father. Her mother and her doctors were also excommunicated. The second story is a mea culpa by Pope Benedict XVI for the way he handled the reinstatment of four heretic bishops, including Bishop Richard Williamson, a holocaust denier excommunicated by Pope John Paul II. As you may recall, at the time this story first broke, the Pope pled ignorance. This time he helpfully explains that the bishops' ordinations had been "valid but illicit"--a phrase that should have its own shelf in the archives of theological legerdemain.

Perhaps it's unseemly for me to criticize the Pope, since I am not a Catholic, but I'll do it anyway. Of the two stories, the first is the more infuriating because it shows that the Catholic hierarchy doesn't seem to grasp what is unique about their own religion: its capacity for forgiveness and redemption. However, the second story is the more alarming because it indicates that the Pope has no ear for nuance and, unlike his predecessor, will be unable to make a contribution to humanity's quest for freedom and concord. The Pope is headed for Israel in May; will anything come of it?

Before closing, I want to tell you about a book by my late teacher, the great novelist Stanley Elkin. It was called "The Living End" and it was a satire on religion. In it, Heaven is depicted as a theme park in need of a coat of paint, and God as a "strict constructionist" too lacking in imagination or initiative to grasp the quality of mercy. I wish Stanley were still with us; he'd have enjoyed "valid but illicit."



Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Cobbe Portrait

A painting has come to light that may well be the only portrait of Shakespeare painted in his lifetime...that is, if it is indeed Shakespeare. I'm inclined to believe that it is. I'll go further: the painting reinforces my belief that the works we ascribe to Shakespeare were written by Will himself and not by some anonymous wizard behind the arras. After all, the painting is beautiful. Mind you, I haven't seen it "in person" but it looks first rate to me. Depth, sensitivity, workmanship, everything.

Now why does the quality of the painting make me think that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare? It's because I think the artist, as yet unnamed, respected his subject and sought to depict his intelligence. It's because Shakespeare chose well in selecting whom to sit for. It's because geniuses tend to seek each other out.

The arguments against Shakespeare's authorship all seem to leave out that he was an exceptional man, completely capable, despite his middle class upbringing, of nobly educating himself and imagining his way into the souls of kings. The arguments also leave out that this man was no doubt revered by his contemporaries, whether commoners or gentry. An artist given the chance to paint his portrait would do his best to rise to the occasion, and this one most certainly did.

Now, why didn't he sign it?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Santelli Rant


I'm late to this--the above video had been viewed 892,745 times on YouTube before I saw it, and some 9,983 comments were appended to it. There's also a story that Mr. Santelli backed out of a Daily Show appearance. But I feel compelled to respond, since I know his sentiments resonate with a lot of us.

Mr. Santelli asks how many people want to pay their neighbor's mortgage. Of course, no one wants to do that...but wait a moment. Think what happens to a nice neighborhood when suddenly, and I do mean suddenly, thirty to fifty per cent of the homes go on the market. The answer is simple--market values plunge. So if the overextended neighbor "with an extra bathroom" doesn't get help, the stable residents still take a hit no matter what. Now think what happens to a neighborhood when all those unsaleable homes remain vacant. In a short period of time it becomes obvious that no one lives in them anymore since the lawns die, papers and circulars accumulate on the doorsteps, windblown trash doesn't get picked up. Soon, kids start throwing rocks at the windows and graffiti appears on garage doors. In some cases, vagrants and drug dealers break in through the back and squat for a time. Pimps and streetwalkers soon follow. With so many vacancies, the balance shifts from owners to renters. Perhaps it becomes unsafe for children to play outside in this formerly "nice neighborhood" and so the parks are abandoned to the gangbangers.

At this point, the stable residents face a painful choice: should they stick it out, paying their mortgages even though they may now owe more than their homes are worth, or should they walk away, thereby compounding the neighborhood's blight? For some, the choice will be dictated by fears for their safety, perhaps irrational but certainly understandable considering the rapid deterioration they have witnessed.

And so, Mr. Santelli, I guess my answer to you, reluctantly, is: "Yes, I'll lend my neighbor a hand, not out of charity, but because it is in my own self-interest."