Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


By rights, Socrates should be the patron saint of teachers; however, he wasn't a Christian. So the Catholics are stuck with the insufferable Gregory the Great (he despised sex) and John Baptiste de la Salle, founder of the Christian Brothers schools where there was always a supply of sturdy new rulers in case one was unaccountably shattered.

When I first thought of entering the field, I called a former teacher of mine and asked him if it had been a fulfilling profession for him. "O my lord, yes," he said, "but the secret is to teach all the time." This was to be our last conversation, as he was very ill, and his words were a great, albeit daunting, gift. He meant that a teacher must never retreat from speaking the truth.

As classes resume for me tomorrow, I will try to bear in mind a corollary to his advice: students learn all the time. The problem is that in our stifling institutions, too often students learn lessons that are wrong. As we herd them into homeroom where nothing happens other than roll call, students learn that showing up is all the school wants or expects of them. As the fire alarms blast at various times every single day, and are summarily ignored, they learn not to heed warnings or to take precautions. And as young teachers are laid off due to budget cuts, students learn that an education is of little value in the workplace.

Socrates was martyred for corrupting the youth of Athens with his gadfly questioning. He taught all the time, turning his own execution into a teachable moment. He was a philosopher and teacher for the ages, and therefore despised by the institutions of his day.

Socrates: Fresco from ancient Ephesus

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Desert Winds

In the movie Lawrence of Arabia, the American reporter asks Lawrence why he loves the desert. "Because it is clean" he answers.

It is the wind that sweeps the desert clean. It trims deciduous leaves and fronds from the trees, shakes the dust off the rocks, and refuses to ever let the air grow stale.

Once the wind starts cycling, it blows all day and well into the night. It sounds like a base drum played with wire brushes. When it crescendos, the sky opens its throat and croons in an alto range: a chorus or an aria, but women's voices, no longer young.

For the traveler, the wind is a bullying antagonist. For those seeking calm, the wind is a torment. But for those who can find calm within, while the elements rage, the wind is like the music of Beethoven: both arousing and soothing with its passion.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Red, Yellow and
Black Streak” (1924)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Solace of Poetry

Someone let me down. The details aren't important and the damage won't be lasting. But during the period of reeling and reflecting, and thinking too late of what I wished I'd said to her, I thought of this poem by Emily Dickinson and it gave me comfort.

Poets give voice to anguish and injuries that can afflict us all. A poet can dignify our heartbreaks and restore our hopes. In the 1934 film "Twentieth Century" John Barrymore says to the weeping Carole Lombard: "The sorrows of life are the joys of art." I wish I knew which of the five writers on that film was responsible for that line because it is very wise.

Here is the Emily Dickinson poem I turned to this morning:

It dropped so low--in my Regard--
I heard it hit the Ground--
And go to pieces on the Stones
At bottom of my Mind--

Yet blamed the Fate that flung it--less
Than I denounced Myself,
For entertaining Plated Wares
Upon my Silver Shelf--

ca. 1863

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, 1670

In this Vermeer, a woman is intently writing while her servant apprehensively looks out the window, waiting to deliver her mistress' letter. There's a crumpled paper on the floor which people used to think was a discarded first draft until someone cleaned the canvas and found a dab of red next to it--sealing wax. (Click on the picture for a better look.) The letter angered her, but now she's collected herself and is penning her response. On the wall is a painting depicting Pharaoh's daughter, with her maidservants, finding Moses among the bulrushes. One of them, by tradition Moses' sister, stands behind the princess exactly as the servant stands behind the writer.

Symbolically, there are several possibilities. Perhaps a negotiant is testing the woman's mettle, which will prove regal. Perhaps the mistress is pregnant and her suitor has rejected her, but she's not about to cast the babe upon the waters. Perhaps it is the servant who is in distress and the woman has resolved to defend her. In any case, there's a pact between servant and mistress, and much is at stake.

For me, this painting is about the reach and strength of women. Of the many ladies Vermeer painted in domestic scenes, quite a few had pens in their hands. Writing is an expression of will, enabling women to spread their influence past the confines of their homes. I have no doubt that Vermeer wants us to heed what they have to say.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


No one born in Chicago ever thinks of him or herself as anything other than a Chicagoan. I've lived in Los Angeles for twenty years, but I'll never be a Los Angeleno. Never.

Chicago's pull, I suspect, is the simultaneity of its pigeon-gray grittiness and its sneak-attack grandeur. It didn't happen by accident. For one, the entire lakefront is public. The waves crash almost at the feet of the skyscrapers, except there are parks and beaches every foot of the way.

For another, the city has cherished architecture, preserving the old and inspiring the new. But most of all, Chicago seems to have learned balance from its extreme winters and summers: industry and art, commerce and culture, finance and sports.

California people think I'm joking when I say that I find Chicago's winters bracing. Chicago people know that I mean it.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Polls Apart

I've spent a little time reading Rush Limbaugh lately because I want to find out if conservatives have more to say these days than just "no". If they do, I haven't found it yet. Rush seems to concur with Bobby Jindal who, in his GOP response to Obama's address before Congress, famously advocated doing nothing about the present economic crisis. However, I did find an interesting aside in Limbaugh's scoffing at Obama's approval ratings when he cited a Pew Research poll: " There has never been more polarization in this country under a president than there is with Obama, including under Bush, according to Pew." So I went to the poll and it made strange reading indeed. Apparently 88% of Democrats and 27% of Republicans approve of Obama. Pew subtracted these numbers to conclude that there is a 61 point partisan gap in his ratings. The problem is that mathematically, adding and subtracting percentages makes very little sense. It's like saying 30% of my money plus 30% of Bill Gates' money equals 60% of our money…I wish! I'm sure that Rush and Pew would protest that this is just an indicator to make a very limited point. OK, but isn't that exactly the kind of "drive-by journalism" that Mr. Limbaugh claims to deplore?


Saturday, April 4, 2009

Spring's Awakening, ca. 1920's

Spring is for those who've earned it. We don't value it enough here in our desert clime. It's a reward for waiting out the snowstorms, short days, and frigid nights. It's nature's apology for raw winds and frozen toes. Artists sometimes go overboard with verdancy and blossoms; no need. To those who love spring, a bud or a single butterfly will do. That's why I chose this painting by Alexis Jean Fournier (American, 1865-1948). In this landscape the ground is still sodden, but you can unhunch your shoulders, walk without bracing against the wind, and take an extra moment along the way to assure yourself that the ravages of winter have done no lasting harm.