Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Real Thing

For 33 years, Haddon Sundblom painted advertisements for Coca -Cola that featured Santa Claus. If he didn't create the image of the red-suited, white-bearded, rotund Santa, he certainly fixed it forever in our imaginations.

Sundblom was a highly successful commercial artist and art teacher. In addition to Coke, he drew for Aunt Jemima, Quaker Oats, Cashmere Bouquet, and Playboy, to name a few. He was said to go on two day benders every time he completed a painting, and he was also said to complete them quickly.

Advertising art tends to fade with the snows of yesteryear. But now and then, an image endures, just as certain slogans enter the language and stay. Someone else will have to distinguish fine artists from commercial artists; I can't. Norman Rockwell and N. C. Wyeth were called illustrators in their day, with some condescension. I think we see them as more than that today.

I like Sundblom's Santas, and they're certainly expertly done. So let's add a dram of rum to our Cokes and lift a Christmas bowl to him and to his very fine art.

Coca-Cola Christmas ad from 1951 by Haddon Sundblom (1899-1976). Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


No doubt a watershed moment has been lost. The tax cuts and unemployment benefits compromise, struck by the President with Senate Republican leader McConnell, is at best a long odds gamble, and at worst a capitulation to plutocracy. Even with the nation's attention turned to the need for deficit reduction, Democrats found their voices simply weren't loud enough to denounce Republican advocacy of exceptionalism for the rich.

While the story is far from over, I already feel we're left in a state of equivocalness. True, the trickle down justification for the compromise is nonsense, but also true is the alacrity with which liberals will put the poor in jeopardy. Obama, a man who began his career as a grass roots organizer, is closer to the horrors of deprivation than are most of his critics, and he correctly saw that Republicans were willing to cut off benefits for people who would never vote for them anyway.

True, the President has failed to articulate his core beliefs and demonstrate willingness to fight for them, but also true is the fact that vulnerable Democrats pressed Congressional leadership to postpone voting on the Bush tax cuts until after the election because the polls told them it would hurt their chances of winning. Their timidity and procrastination put time on the side of the GOP.

Let's take a breath. Let's think about going for a stroll along a river where small sailboats glide over the rippled water. Let's not notice the absence of trees or lush greenery on our bank as we gaze at the heavy new iron bridge, built to replace the venerable old one that was destroyed in the Franco-Prussian War. Let's admire its strength: it can support two locomotives crossing on it while they billow soot and steam into the cloudscape. Let's try not to judge this confluence of industry and recreation, of sunlight and smog, of fecundity and barrenness. Let's just look, impress it on our memories, and then pass on.

Claude Monet: Le pont de chemin der fer à Argenteuil, 1873. The painting sold for $41,480,000 in 2008. Do you find it beautiful? Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, December 4, 2010


To some, Hanukkah feels inauthentic, even meretricious. It's a lesser, non-Biblical holiday, that Jews largely ignored for many years. American Jewry, however, has embraced it with such enthusiasm, that it is now the most public of all Jewish observances in the United States.

Why? Certainly, its synchronicity with Christmas.

In Christian-majority America, Jewish children, like myself, used to be obliged to participate in Christmas caroling, tree trimming, and card making, along with yuletide pageants, concerts, and Christmas plays that were rehearsed in class and performed on the school stage. Teachers meant no offense; they simply didn't want the tiny minority of Jews--just three of us in my school--to feel excluded.

Hanukkah may have saved American Judaism. It gave Jewish children a festival for which parties, pastries, holiday lights, and gift giving were appropriate. Jews could partake of the holiday spirit without having to convert.

By tradition, the lights of Hanukkah are not to be put to any useful purpose, hence it is appropriate to place the menorah in the window, and maybe even string some blue holiday lights outside, as well.

Anything wrong with this? Not at all, unless one considers Hanukkah's origin as a courageous rebellion against Hellenization brutally imposed by Antiochus, king of the Syrian-Greeks. In ancient times, obliterating languages, religions, and cultures at the point of the sword was common.

So the holiday that marked Jews' defiance of forced assimilation is now the most visible evidence of their desire to be included in the American zeitgeist.

The Revolt of Mattathias by Gustave Dore (1832-1883). Mattathias, a Jewish priest, refused to perform a sacrifice to the Greek gods in Solomon's temple. When an apostate Jew complied with the Seleucid general who had compelled this act of Hellenization, Mattathias killed them both and overturned the idolatrous sculpture. With his son, Judah Maccabee, he thereby started the revolt that culminated in retaking the temple and rededicating it to the worship of the God of Israel. Hanukkah means rededication.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010

A friend wrote the other day that he is filled with gratitude, and I wrote back that I am, too. But so many people I know are facing the exigencies of unemployment, lack of health insurance, and diminished prospects for personal fulfillment.

A headline today says that labor unions are increasingly accepting two tiered systems of compensation. Reading the article, we quickly learn that it is actually a three tiered system: older workers paid at their present rates but with no prospect of ever getting a raise; younger workers paid five to fifteen dollars less per hour and with reduced benefits; and temporary workers paid very low wages with no benefits at all. As time goes on, the first group will phase out, and if things don’t pick up, perhaps the middle group will vanish, as well.

My most unsettling thoughts are of the widening gulf between rich and poor. Conservatives have long and justifiably protested that government should not undertake to redistribute income; but neither should it stack the deck against the poor or in favor of the rich. The name for such tyranny is plutocracy, and I fear its malignant effects on union, justice, tranquility, the general welfare, and liberty.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I feel very grateful to be living peacefully on this lovely mountain. However, the holiday reminds me that gratitude without humility and charity is no better than gloating.

Pilgrim's Grace by Henry Mosler (1841-1920). Note that the food is either covered or off the table, suggesting that the intensity of their prayer is for more than just sustenance. I know little about the artist other than he was a European Jew who emigrated to Cincinnati, and his granddaughter, Audrey Skirball-Kenis, founded the Skirball Center in Los Angeles. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Weighed and Found Wanting

The Deficit Commission report, we are told, is DOA. Opponents of one point will combine with opponents of other points to bury it. We hear conservatives dogmatically denounce changes in the tax code, even while liberals object that those changes would be a net gain for the wealthy. And as for liberals, proposed cuts in Social Security and Medicare are, as usual, non-starters.

This week we saw our leaders again refuse to confront the looming storm. It's been reported that the President is offering the Republicans a deal to extend the Bush tax cuts for all levels of income for another two years. In other words, he is reaching across the aisle in a bargain to do nothing.

Bowles/Simpson is, in its present form, a fifty page Power-Point presentation. It takes only a few minutes to read if you skip the charts. Some of the provisions are obscure, like ending Federal subsidies to states and tribes for abandoned mines. Some are breathtaking, like ending earmarks completely and implementing a biennial budget process. I'm not nearly qualified to evaluate all its provisions or even to accurately position it in the liberal-conservative continuum, but I am glad it's on the table, and hope that our politicians will see that their mission is greater than just fighting to take it off.

Woman Holding a Balance, Johannes Vermeer; 1664. Note that she is pregnant, that there is a painting of the Last Judgment behind her, and that while there are pearls and gold coins spread about, the balance is as yet empty. The present moment is connected to the future and filled with potential, if we evaluate it wisely. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, November 6, 2010


Autumn is in full vigor here in the San Bernardino Mountains. It is my favorite season, partly because its apex is the briefest. The leaves outside my window present a rich palette, but the rain predicted for later today and tomorrow may knock them all to the ground, leaving us to contemplate the coming of winter.

Perhaps that contemplation is the meaning of autumn: a time to draw inward and come to terms with inevitabilities. Mary Cassatt painted her beloved sister Lydia, whose health was failing. Lydia's cloak and bonnet bear the colors of the changing leaves and identify her with autumn. Her face, however, is clear, pale, delicate, beautiful, and deep in thought, thereby internalizing the true spirit of the season.

Autumn, by Mary Cassatt; 1880. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Morbid Fascination

At this time of year, we blow the dust off memento mori, rewatch gruesome horror movies, and encourage children to disguise themselves as creatures of the dark. Halloween and El Dia de los Muertos make light of death, the former with candy to avert diabolical mischief, the latter with picnics and piňatas amid gravestones.

Are we fortifying ourselves against fear, or simply whistling past the graveyard? Have we liberated our imaginations, or merely suppressed our darkest dreams with foolery?

William Blake engraved his elaborate and haunting visions which later inspired surrealist artists and mystical poets as well as psychologists, like Freud and Jung, when they probed the unconscious and mapped the symbols of dreams. His works were fervid, but today they remind us of nothing so much as the lurid art of graphic novels and tattoo parlors.

Pestilence:Death of the Firstborn, 1805. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Lifting the Fog

The widely anticipated retaking of Congress by Republicans has given me hope that finally there will be some clarity on the American political landscape. Divisions among Democrats and Republicans, and among Republicans and Republicans, have left us all in a fog.

We have seen President Obama's popularity diminish precipitously, but there's no consensus as to why. He's roundly criticized by voices from both left and right.

Conservatives call for repeal of his two signal accomplishments, Health Care and Financial Reform, before most Americans have comprehended their provisions or felt their effects.

Liberals feel betrayed by his not ending the wars or unemployment, by his inaction on such issues as immigration reform and gay rights, and now by his Attorney General's stated opposition to California's marijuana initiative.

Come January, there may be upwards of a hundred freshmen representatives, passionately committed to shrinking government expenditures and eliminating the deficit without raising anybody's taxes. A teachable moment awaits us all when they finally have to pass a budget.

In 1994, the Republicans took control of both the House and the Senate thereby ceding the middle ground to President Bill Clinton. His administration, and the American economy, thrived, while the GOP redefined itself for the next fourteen years by its social agenda rather than by its governing principles.

It's my hope that President Obama will similarly seize the middle, standing up against far right excesses while holding the far left at bay. Perhaps then we'll see a grudging truce in our pitched battle of partisans, and the fog will lift.

The Boston Tea Party, a hand-colored lithograph from the shop of Currier and Ives, 1847(?) This depiction is inaccurate as the raid happened in the evening. The Mohawk disguises were probably less elaborate and only worn by a few. The popular understandings of why the Tea Party occurred, Sam Adams' exact role in leading it, and the way it was received by incipient revolutionary leaders, are all subjects of historical revisionism. We also don't know who drew this picture, but click on it for a closer look.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Mystery and Passion

So much about romance is paradoxical. We probe the mystery of the other, and yet we want that other, along with parts of ourselves, to remain mysterious. It's as if knowing imperils passion.

Consider this poem and this painting together: do they agree, do they contradict, or do they do both?

Womanisers by John Press (1920-2007)

Adulterers and customers of whores

And cunning takers of virginities

Caper from bed to bed, but not because

The flesh is pricked to infidielities.

The body is content with homely fare;

It is the avid, curious mind that craves

New pungent sauce and strips the larder bare,

The palate and not hunger that enslaves.

Don Juan never was a sensualist:

Scheming fresh triumphs, artful, wary, tense,

He took no pleaure in the breasts he kissed

But gorged his ravenous mind and starved each sense.

An itching, tainted intellectual pride

Goads the salt lecher till he has to know

Whether all women's eyes grow bright and wide,

All wives and whores and virgins shudder so.

Hunters of women burn to show their skill,

Yet when the panting quarry has been caught

Mere force of habit drives them to the kill:

The soft flesh is less savoury than their sport.

The Lovers by Rene Magritte, 1928. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Three Bathtubs

The story goes that Cecil B. DeMille and W.C. Fields were neighbors. DeMille lived at the summit of DeMille Drive in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles. Fields' home was just below, connected by a path that was seldom used since they hated each other.

During World War II, DeMille was a Volunteer Air Raid Warden. He had an official white helmet, flashlight, and first aid kit, and he'd scurry about his mansion turning off lights and draping windows during blackout drills. Please recall that Angelenos lived in fear of a Pearl Harbor type attack in those days.

One night, his home all secure, he looked down the hill to see Fields' house lit up like a Chinese lantern. Furiously he stomped down the path and rapped on the door with his nightstick. Fields, who lived alone, came to the door.

"I'm Cecil DeMille and this is a blackout!"

"A what?"

"A blackout. Turn off all your lights, close your windows, and fill your tub with emergency water."

"DeMille, can't we have a blackout without one of your bathtub scenes?"

I thought of this story first when I tried out my Jacuzzi tub, and again when I came across this painting by Albert Stevens. He was a remarkable artist who painted elegant, bored Parisian women. Many find a social criticism in his art of a male dominated society that relegated such ladies to trivial, unchallenging lives. Perhaps, but I can't muster much sympathy for a class that has too little to do. Rather, I see in their faces deep mystery and sexual longing, that beckons me to join them in their woolgathering.
Le Bain, Albert Stevens, 1892. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Sunrise, Sunset

My new home in the mountains has an eastern view, and because I am a morning person, I've lately been musing about sunrises. I wondered why they seem to happen more quickly than sunsets. This led me to collect and to form some thoughts about sunrises and sunsets.

• Look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east:
Night's candles are burnt out, and the jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops. (Romeo and Juliet, III:v)

• At sunrise or sunset, sunlight takes a much longer path through the atmosphere than during the middle part of the day. Because an increased amount of violet and blue light is scattered out of the beam along the way, the light which reaches an observer early or late in the day is reddened. Thus, it could be said that sunsets are red because the daytime sky is blue.
(Stephen F.Corfidi, NOAA/NWS Storm Prediction Center)

• "...before the sun rises, the night sky above us is cold, since the sun hasn't heated it yet, whereas at the end of the day, the atmosphere has been heated by the sun. A hot atmosphere will cause the sun's rays to bend further, and thus we can still see the sun long after it has actually passed below the horizon. When the sun is rising, we don't see it until it actually rises above the eastern horizon." (anonymous web posting)

• Perhaps sunsets last longer because the dust in the atmosphere, which refracts the light, is being pulled after us into the night side of the planet. (TallTchr)

• Filmmakers call the hour before the sun starts to set "magic hour". The light has a warm, golden hue with no glare at all, and shadows are at their longest, giving the landscape a soft, dappled texture. This time is much prized for filming romantic scenes whose languor is in contrast to the off screen frenzy to wrap the scene before the window closes. (ibid)

J.M.W. Turner: Sunrise With Sea Monsters, 1845 (unfinished). Gertrude Stein, no fan of nature, once wrote that she'd rather look at a painting of a sunset by Turner than at an actual sunset. Possibly she meant that the artist can include the play of his imaginings, as he appears to be doing here. But I don't agree with Stein, and I'm not sure Turner would have, either, for I have imaginings, too, when I look at the sky and the sea, and I'd never want to be cut off from their source. By the way, Turner's last words were: "The sun is God."

Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


Back in the sixties, a piece of business jargon became current and made its way into respected dictionaries: incentivize. We encounter this odious word nowadays in two national discussions: ( 1) whether cutting taxes will motivate employers to hire, and (2) whether offering bonuses to teachers will raise students' test scores. The first is one of many issues upon which economists will forever divide. The second is an argument that I hope will soon be put to bed .

A major study was released last week by Vanderbilt University and the Rand Corporation that concluded teacher bonuses don't raise children's test scores. The study was conducted in Nashville over a three year period, using randomization and control groups, and offering bonuses of up to 37.5% of salary to math teachers in grades five through eight. The only measurable improvement was among fifth graders, but it disappeared by the sixth grade.

The Washington Post observed: " The study suggests that teachers already were working so hard that the lure of extra money failed to induce them to intensify their effort or change methods of instruction."


The Obama administration has quadrupled funds available for "incentivizing" teachers in its Race to the Top program. Education Department officials often talk about changing the "culture of teaching," but never about the "culture of students."

Incentives work, provided they're directed at the variable that needs to be motivated.

Augustinian Nun by Piero della Francesca, 15th Century. I remember liking this artist when I first encountered his work in college because I saw, or projected, a deadpan humor in his portraiture. This painting is a good example. I bet it gives every former parochial school student a case of the willies. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Yom Kippur

The Day of Atonement
A poem without a stopping point by this blogger.

Is it the day that atones,
Or those who observe it?

The day.

Is fasting a penance,
(just two lousy meals; might be good for you),
Or a reminder of how easy we have it?

How easy.

Should we feel guilty when it's over,
Or absolved?


Do we need to spend this day in a stale synagogue,
Droning prayers.
Or can we atone by ourselves?

Good question.

Can we honor God
and deal treacherously with our fellow man and woman?

Answers itself.

In most religions, God rewards an ethical life with redemption. In Judaism the reward for a good deed, a mitzvah, is the mitzvah itself. It sort of works. I still k'vell (feel good) about every decent thing I've ever done, just as I suffer for all my bullshit.

Can God sit it out while I strive with my conscience?

He usually does.

White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall, 1938. He painted this in France, Vichy to be exact, before he knew the danger he was in from the Nazis. By surrounding a crucified Jesus, clad in a prayer shawl loin cloth, with images of Jewish persecution, his intention seems to have been to find the universality of hope and redemption that arises from suffering.

Do such sentiments inspire you, or make you feel very old?

Click on the picture for a closer look.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Then and Now

A steady voice in support of fiscal stimuli has been Nobel laureate Paul Krugman. He recently compared our present stalled recovery with that of 1938, when President Roosevelt heeded those calling for a balanced budget, in an election year that boded ill for the Democrats, and cut the legs out from under his program. Krugman wrote: "I had hoped that we would do better this time. But it turns out that politicians and economists alike have spent decades unlearning the lessons of the 1930s, and are determined to repeat all the old mistakes."

As everyone should know, the Great Depression was ended by World War II. America not only swung to full employment, but added massive numbers of new jobs that were filled by women and by immigrants, while millions of young men swelled the ranks of the military. Our factories worked at full capacity to produce the armaments, uniforms, vehicles, equipment and supplies needed for war. With auto plants suddenly converted to the making of jeeps and tanks, passenger cars were unavailable--not that it mattered since gasoline was rationed, along with food and fabric for clothing. People couldn't even find a pack of cigarettes in those days. The result was that workers were piling up dollars that they couldn't spend. So when the boys came home, their pockets stuffed with cash and the GI Bill available for college, while Europe's factories lay in ruins, America enjoyed a post war boom the likes of which the world may never see again.

I'm woefully unqualified to debate Mr. Krugman, but I can point out two disparities between then and now: we have largely abandoned manufacturing and we don't save a dime. As much as I want the Obama administration to prevail, I can't see how stimulating consumption of goods that are made abroad can possibly restore our domestic economy to health.

Rosie the Riveter by Norman Rockwell, 1943; (above). I love the contrast between the exalted symbolism of the backdrop and the homely details of this strapping but ordinary young woman with her ham sandwich. Her pose was borrowed from Michelangelo's Isaiah in the Sistine Chapel; (right). Click on the picture for a closer look, and see what is beneath her feet.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


TallTchr is traveling this week and moving shortly thereafter. With everything in boxes, and DSL connection precipitately terminated, it seems best to take a brief vacation from blogging. So the plan right now is to make no new postings until the Saturday after Labor Day: 9/11.

Photo from The Seattle Times.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Ways and Means

My Virgil in plumbing the Inferno of Chicago politics was the columnist Mike Royko. He better than anyone understood the Chicago machine's intricate trade-offs between efficacy and corruption in "the city that works".

I thought of Royko this week with the passing of another Chicagoan, Dan Rostenkowski. Royko didn't like him, even though they hailed from the same neighborhood and ethnicity. But when Rostenkowski went to prison for abuses of his Congressional expense accounts, Royko came to his defense.

Writing in 1996, Royko said that Rostenkowski's sin was in not recognizing that times had changed. Acts that were once considered shameful were now performed in public, while misdeeds that were once deemed petty now made headlines. Ambitious prosecutors and rival representatives were eager to fell the mighty. Rostenkowski was taken down with the help of the waxing Newt Gingrich after revelations that his office had redeemed Congressionally supplied postage stamps for cash.

In a last line that echoes Jesus' defense of the woman taken in adultery, Royko prayed that, for the man who would condemn Rostenkowski without reading the evidence, "Lord, please let a hard-nosed cop grab that mope the next time he runs a red."

Some may feel the same about the tireless Charles Rangel, who has resigned his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee under a cloud of tax fraud. Come to think of it, Rostenkowski's predecessor once removed, Wilbur Mills, fell from grace when his mistress, an Argentine stripper, jumped from his car into the Washington Tidal Basin.

Something about that gavel leads those who wield it into the abyss.

Homer, Virgil, and Dante; detail from a Vatican fresco by Raphael. Interesting that Homer is the most compelling figure, while Virgil appears dour, and Dante, callow. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

No posting this week.

Please come back next week.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Sands of Time

Paintings of the beach get no respect. After all, many are just two negative spaces joined by a line of foam. Some have bathers and strollers in them, but the summer sun precludes any close examination of faces. Besides, how much profundity can we expect in scenes of recreation during felicitous weather?

At this time of year, when I was a boy, I spent all my afternoons at the beach in Holland, Michigan. During any of those seasons I'm sure I logged more hours on the sand and in the water than in all my summers since college put together. What stops me from going to the beach? Fear of skin cancer? Modesty vis a vis attire? Time constraints?

No, it's lack of imagination. As a boy, I saw infinite possibilities for traversing the expanse of pale gold into the expanse of blue and then back again. Now I can only think of the diversion I may get from what I can comfortably carry: a book, a towel, a frisbee, lotion, and something to drink. Not even watching water nymphs can occupy me from lunch to supper the way bodysurfing, racing, breathholding contests, water judo, splash fights, and marking the shifting sandbars did when I was a kid.

I thought about all this while looking at Mary Cassatt's 1884 Children on the Beach. The little girl's patient industry for the task of filling up her pail reminds me that exploration and imagination are my favorite states of mind. I had them at the beach when I was a boy; I don't anymore.

Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

From Whence We Came

This week, the President signed into law a major financial markets reform bill and an extension of unemployment benefits. The news, however, was all about Shirley Sherrod, a woman whose reputation was attacked by a provocateur named Andrew Breitbart.

The story might never have broken in an earlier age, before the rumor mill was digitalized and newspapers still checked their facts. It also might not have happened when civility abode in Washington and partisan bounty hunters weren't desperate for peccadillos.

Overlooked in the dustup was the theme of Sherrod's speech, which was to encourage young black people to return to careers in agriculture. Racial attitudes can not only inhibit compassion but opportunity as well.

The crossfire isn't over. Some of Breitbart's allies claim that it is she who owes him an apology. It's all very sad, but perhaps we can gain some perspective from former poet laureate Billy Collins:

While Eating a Pear

After we have finished here,
the world will continue its quiet turning,
and the years will still transpire,
but now without their numbers,
and the days and months will pass
without the names of Norse and Roman gods.

Time will go by the way it did
before history, pure and unnoticed,
a mystery that arose between the sun and moon
before there was a word
for dawn or noon or midnight,

before there were names for the earth's
uncountable things,
when fruit hung anonymously
from scattered groves of trees,
light on one smooth green side,
shadow on the other.

Sugar Bowl Pears and Tablecloth, 1893-1894, by Paul Cezanne. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


In Russia this week, a fourteen month trial ended with the conviction of the curators of the "Forbidden Art" exhibit at the Andrei Sakahrov Museum. The charge against them, for which they were fined but not imprisoned, was "inciting religious hatred." In 2007, Yuri Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeyev gathered some twenty iconoclastic works that had been banned from other exhibitions over the previous year. The show was cleverly conceived, with a curtain hiding the works from viewers save for strategically placed peepholes.

The trial was chaotic, with demonstrations and counter-demonstrations. Admitted as evidence was an account of a woman's suicide, allegedly brought on by the distress she felt after seeing sacred images profaned. Various human rights organizations monitored the proceedings, and there were many worried blogs and editorials lamenting the new era of state censorship brought on since 1998, when former Soviet intelligence officers took control of the government.

More cynical commentators have observed that the works themselves are no more than a rehash of the Pop Art era, notable only for their notoriety. "Avant garde art needs the oxygen of scandal.” The religious right reliably, and unwittingly, played its part.

Two thoughts come to mind. First is the famous Nazi exhibit of "Degenerate Art" which was intended to ridicule the works of abstract and Jewish artists, but in fact augmented their fame.

The second is the curious criminal charge: "inciting religious hatred." Perhaps a translator could clarify for us whether this means hatred of, or hatred by, religious insitutions. Considering America's own experience with the vitriol of the over-faithful, and their dim view of freedom, I suspect it is the latter.

Jesus images by Alexander Kosolapov. These were actually part of a 2005 exhibit by the same curators. Orthodox goons, who invaded the gallery and defaced the paintings, were acquitted. Click on the pictures for a closer look.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

It Is For Us the Living...

The Three Soldiers statue was in the news this week. Its patina, which had turned bluish-green after years of weather and handling by visitors, has been restored. There are people who love this statue, but I am not one of them.

The Wall is the most visited memorial in Washington, DC., and perhaps the most revered. Its power lies in its understatement. I'm sure I don't have to describe it for you, but I can relate the experience of visiting.

I walked very slowly past its black marble face, discomfited by the sight of myself on the surface of the stone that bears the names of the fallen. I welcomed that discomfort. I wanted to be humbled for standing there, on a crisp Autumn day, while these fifty thousands could not. Presently, I began also to look at the reflections of the other visitors, not as a voyeur, but as a man joined to them by history, by pain, by love, and by that moment.

The Three Soldiers, as I recall, was sculpted at the behest of Ross Perot, some older Congressmen, and the notorious Secretary of the Interior, James Watt. These men could not conceive of a memorial that didn't make a positive statement about what had been America's most castigated war. They never imagined that a work of pure mourning, without the taint of politics, would have greater power to heal than a disingenuous depiction of valor and egalitarianism.

The Three Soldiers by Frederick Hart. The photo shows its position relative to The Wall. I recall its location as a kind of staging area for visitors before they lowered their voices and joined in the procession.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Beget a Temperance that may Give it Smoothness

Since retiring last spring, I've spent part of my unaccustomed leisure renting films. A few have been especially moving. They've probably never played in any American multiplexes, or been promoted in the papers, so I thought I'd share their titles and why I liked them.

Paris 36 (Belgium, 2008). Backstage fables are a staple--the show must go on!--and they still work. 36 refers to the year 1936; fascism is a a part of the landscape. The film is blessed with the very French sounding music of Reinhardt Wagner (What's in a name?), and with its leading lady, Nora Arnezeder, still a teenager and making her acting debut. We'll be seeing more of her, I'm sure.

Winter Solstice (US, 2004). An elegiac family and love story with Anthony LaPaglia and Allison Janey. He’s a widower with two boys, a landscape contractor, and she’s an out-of-work paralegal house-sitting down the street. I loved it and them.

The Italian (Russia, 2005). The title takes some explaining: a six year old orphan is due to be sent to adoptive parents in Italy. Such children have been a lucrative export for the Russian Republic. Instead he runs away to search for his birth mother. We know where the film is going, but how we get there is better than a surprise, it’s a life affirming parable.

Departures (Japan, 2008). Academy Award winner for foreign films last year. This movie is truly revelatory. Within a tale of a personal journey, it reorients our thoughts about death, and shows us how civility and compassion abide within Japanese rituals. If you see it, (and you must), let me know what you think.

Volver (Spain, 2006). To conclude on a high note, Penelope Cruz in a Pedro Almodovar film. Relating the plot would be misleading, for it is good natured and light hearted throughout, despite the gruesome events upon which the story is built. The word irresistible comes to mind, which happens to be exactly the same in English and in Spanish.

Looking back on this list, I find that all of these films deal gently with their characters, treat both their joys and their sorrows with dignity, and leave us with hope.

Production still of Masahiro Motoki from Departures,directed by Yojiro Takita, written by Kundo Koyama, based on the novel Coffinman by Shinmon Aoki.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


When General Stanley McChrystal was relieved of his command this week, many of us thought of Douglas MacArthur. The distinction was immediately drawn that, whereas MacArthur was dismissed for differing with President Truman about the limits of his Korean War mission, there were no such policy differences between McChrystal and President Obama.

While both generals could be crusty and blunt with their superiors in private, McChrystal's very public indecorousness is in contrast to MacArthur's careful cultivation of his image, with his battered campaign hat and oversized corncob pipe.

Whereas McChrystal is a workaholic who lives on just one meal and four hours of sleep and runs seven miles a day, MacArthur went to war in comfort, bringing along his family and little dog, and dining in style. There was a good deal of the ham in MacArthur, and his sententious farewell address to Congress ("old soldiers never die, they just fade away...Goodbye") is a bit embarrassing by today's standards. McChrystal is a much more prosaic speaker.

MacArthur was lionized by the right when he retired, but he linked himself to Robert Taft who lost the GOP presidential nomination to Eisenhower. McChrystal will probably be similarly feted by critics of Obama today. However, MacArthur was over seventy when he retired; McChrystal is not yet fifty five. I hope he does not try to settle any political scores, but remains in uniform. I don't think he's in danger of fading away.

Chinese Communist propaganda poster from 1950 of MacArthur murdering Korean women and children while American bombers destroy factories. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


It is unseemly to rejoice in the misfortune of others, especially those who have done us no personal harm. Unseemly, but human nevertheless.

Such was my mirth in reading this week that "Painter of Light" Thomas Kinkade had filed for bankruptcy on June 2 and been arrested for drunk driving nine days later.

I have no cause to bear him ill other than his two egregious offences against my sensibilities. First, he exploited his very public Christian faith not just in his art, but to dupe and bully his commercial associates. Second, his paintings are godawful.

What makes an artwork, otherwise technically competent, dreadful? There are many answers and their elucidation is best reserved for late nights with alcohol. But Kinkade's is an obvious case: his art is exactly why the word kitsch was coined. He makes a frontal assault on our senses much the way that movie music of the fifties, played on a hundred violins, dictated to us precisely which emotions we were supposed to feel. No wonder Czech writer Milan Kundera identified kitsch with totalitarianism where "all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions".

CGI parody of a Kinkade painting, from somethingawful.com. Perhaps this was inspired by Joan Didion's critique in which she wrote: "A Kinkade painting was typically rendered in slightly surreal pastels. It typically featured a cottage or a house of such insistent coziness as to seem actually sinister, suggestive of a trap designed to attract Hansel and Gretel. Every window was lit, to lurid effect, as if the interior of the structure might be on fire." Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Troubled Metaphor

Pliny the Elder (23-79 C.E.) was the first to record the practice, which he learned from Roman sailors.

Saint Bede the Venerable, around the year 731, may have been the first to set down the phrase: "Pour oil on troubled water." Bede related the story of Saint Aidan (d. 651), giving a cruse of oil to a young seafaring priest to calm the waves if they got rough.

It actually works. Here is a link to a video in which you can watch a rippled puddle turn glassy smooth. It's also been observed during ocean storms. Commodore Wilkes of the United States Navy saw it happen off the Cape of Good Hope when oil leaked from a whaling ship.

Who first used the phrase as a metaphor? Was it founding father Benjamin Rush? "His presence and advice, like oil upon troubled waters, have composed the contending waves of faction."

Or was it the better known Benjamin, Ambassador Franklin, who both ran experiments on the phenomenon and referred to the effect in letters about matters of state?

It's a nice metaphor, but hopelessly obsolete given the present environmental catastrophe. Oil on the Gulf waters has composed exactly nobody, and to use the phrase now will ever be an invitation to being misunderstood.

The Venerable Bede, woodcut from the Nuremburg Chronicle, 1493--one of the earliest printed books. The artist was either Michael Wohlgemut (1434-1519) or his stepson Wilhelm Pleydenwurff (c. 1450-1494). Possibly Wohlgemut's young apprentice lent a hand: Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Click on the picture for a closer look.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

No posting this week.

Please come back next weekend.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Hatchling Season

While driving a busy thoroughfare last week, I saw an oncoming delivery truck straddle both lanes and stop, purposely blocking all traffic behind it. The driver jumped out and herded a mother mallard, with her half dozen or so ducklings, across the street to safety. Horns beeped in tribute to the deliveryman's husbandry.

This is the hatchling season. We are reminded of that by pictures of threatened rookeries on gulf islands. Brown Pelicans are Louisiana's state birds. DDT almost made them extinct, but they have recovered and were taken off the endangered species list just last November. Now they are imperiled again as oil mires their plumage and washes onto their eggs.

Each hatchling is fed about 150 pounds of fish, shellfish, and amphibians, before it can fend for itself. When birds dive, their eyes are protected only by a nictiating membrane so that they may see their prey. Many have gone blind after diving into polluted or infected waters.

Pelicans can live in the wild up to 30 years. Whether their environment has been ruined, and whether that ruin is permanent, might remain an open question for decades.

Brown Pelican, watercolor by John James Audubon. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Advice From Sundry Sources

Abraham Maslow, the man who codified our hierarchy of needs, is credited with an important witticism: "If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail." It is a good answer to idealogues such as the new Republican candidate for senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul.

Dr. Paul has been bloodied in interviews, following his victory last Tuesday, for his libertarian views of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and of minimum wage, and for his denunciation of the Obama administration for criticizing BP during the environmental crisis in the Gulf of Mexico. It seems that for Libertarians, as for the Antinominians of old, belief in the right dogmas relieves us of duty to our fellow man and to the earth we share.

Perhaps Rand fortifies himself with Ralph Waldo Emerson's observations that "Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist," and "To be great is to be misunderstood." However, Emerson also wrote: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."

This morning, Rand did the unthinkable: he backed out of an appearance on Meet the Press, potentially a major forum from which to expound his creed. I hope it was the advice of Dirty Harry that finally penetrated: "A man ought to know his limitations."

Photo of Emerson with his grandson, Ralph Emerson Forbes. Photos of historic figures usually make them seem more contemporaneous, but this one, with a boy wearing a ruffled dress, makes me think otherwise. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Mountain Mornings

My third day in the San Bernadino mountains and I'm getting wise to the pattern. The skies have clouded up in the afternoons, permitting sunlight on one grove but not on its neighbor. Momentarily, rain falls--hardly enough to spot my car. But again today the dawn is clear, and the morning sky, crystalline and blue. The water's surface faithfully reflects the trees; the lake is still asleep. And the air...well it is what I came here for.

I thought of William Carlos Williams' gorgeous poem: Dawn.

ECSTATIC bird songs pound
the hollow vastness of the sky
with metallic clinkings--
beating color up into it
at a far edge,--beating it, beating it
with rising, triumphant ardor,--
stirring it into warmth,
quickening in it a spreading change,--
bursting wildly against it as
dividing the horizon, a heavy sun
lifts himself--is lifted--
bit by bit above the edge
of things,--runs free at last
out into the open--!lumbering
glorified in full release upward--
songs cease.

Changing Colors, gouache by Shirley Cleary. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Present Eye Praises the Present Object

Shakespeare cast his bitterest comedy with Greeks and Trojans. Troilus and Cressida travesties Homer and takes down all conventional notions of what Poe would later call "the glory that was Greece." The play anticipates the Theatre of the Absurd by over three centuries, and the financial crisis facing Greece, by four.

The Greek government, having winked at wealthy tax cheats and lied to its Euro-zone partners, now must impose austerity upon those whose lives are already austere. "Debt restructuring" looms.

Bankruptcy was once a renunciation of oneself, one's past, one's hopes, and one's good name. Today it has lost its disgrace; people do it all the time and even solvent banks and corporations walk away from mortgages and contracts. Credits and debits, after a few years, are indistinguishable.

Breaking with the past is the theme of Troilus and Cressida's best passage, spoken by a Machiavellian Ulysses to a vain and cowardly Achilles who asks why his past deeds are forgotten:

Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
Wherein he puts alms for Oblivion,
A great-siz’d monster of ingratitudes.
Those scraps are good deeds past, which are devour’d
As fast as they are made, forgot as soon
As done...

Then what they do in present,
Though less than yours in past, must o’ertop yours;
For Time is like a fashionable host
That slightly shakes his parting guest by th’ hand,
And with his arms outstretch’d as he would fly
Grasps in the comer. Welcome ever smiles,
And farewell goes out sighing...

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,
That all, with one consent, praise new-born gauds,
Though they are made and molded of things past,
And give to dust that is a little gilt
More laud than gilt o’erdusted.
The present eye praises the present object.

Al Hirschfeld's drawing of Sir Tyrone Guthrie's production of Troilus and Cressida. Click on the picture for a look at the caption. Also, see if you can find where the artist hid the name of his daughter, Nina.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Weighing Calves

It is the method of this blog to be brief and to pair thoughts with images. I have seldom been able to write about what I know best, public education, under these self imposed strictures. But I can not ignore what is happening in my former school district, Los Angeles Unified, where thousands of teachers have been laid off and the school year has been shortened.

I retired seven weeks ago, in part, to open a slot for a younger teacher. In my role as a mentor, I saw many of my charges continue to teach conscientiously while awaiting pink slips. But my frustration over their plight is exceeded by the abysmal stewardship of officials and administrators.

For my tenth grade classes, six of my last eight weeks at Huntington Park High School were consumed by preparation and administration of three sets of standardized exams. When students return to school in May, they will have two more batteries of exams with three fewer school days in which to complete them. (It is a multi-track school with an arcane schedule). Reading long-form fiction, or working on thematic units, is no longer possible.

Most standardized tests are expensive because they are printed and graded by publishers. Furthermore, most exams have no educational value because students do not get to see which questions they missed. Finally, the data generated is unreliable as many students burn out in the testing hall and stop making an effort. The responses on bubble sheets often display happy faces or graffiti tags.

I suggest that money for standardized exams would be better spent to retain young teachers, and the time wasted on taking them could instead help mitigate the damage from forced furlough days.

In brief, as teachers often say, weighing the calves doesn't make them any fatter.

Golden Calf, by Damien Hirst, the world's richest artist. The sculpture is the carcass of a calf, festooned with gold, and preserved in formaldehyde. The artist auctioned off this symbol of our contemporary worship of lucre for over twelve million dollars. He bypasses galleries in order to cut out the middleman. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

No posting this week.

Please come back next week.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Sequim, Washington

An existential question: what would you do? A flock of bald headed eagles--a flock, mind you--appears before your eyes. Four perch on ghostly wooden pilings, the ruins of a washed away pier on Puget Sound. A fifth circles above, joyriding on the April breeze during a sun shower. At hand are a pair of binoculars and a small camera. Which do you choose? The binoculars, to peer into the eyes of the eagles? Or the camera, to record forever this lucky sighting, all five of them, albeit at a distance?
There's a third choice, of course: grab nothing. Watch them while you breathe in the air, feel the sunlit raindrops on your face, and listen to the eagles' scolding cries above the sound of the surf.

I won't say what I did, but I didn't take this picture.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Historical Sense

About the same time that Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia was apologizing for neglecting to mention slavery in his Confederate History Month proclamation, the Virgina Museum of Fine Arts announced a new acquisition: Street Corner by Phillip Evergood. The painting is evidence that not everyone in Virginia is an atavist.

The way cultures remember their history stamps their character. The war still festers in the souls of those southerners who truculently fly the Stars and Bars. Urban Yankees, however, pay relatively little attention to the Civil War. Indeed, many are descended from immigrants who arrived some fifty years afterwards. Even African Americans find more to relish in the Civil Rights Movement than in the war against slavery. If there is a watershed moment for northerners, it may well be the Depression of the 1930's, when America discovered it could not survive as a great nation without a social conscience.

But back to the painting. Clearly it is from the Depression. It startles us with its raucous jumble of city dwellers. There is energy here, but not momentum. The people move in various directions, while a black man stands still, his back to all. Newspapers are strewn about, one with "War" in its headline. Two workers occupy the center space; their size and strength is assuring. A baby takes in the assembly with delight. We are on the cusp. Events are about to unfold that will galvanize this group. Evergood, who came from a well-to-do family, sensed the latent energy of the nation's streets. His painting demonstrates the era's yearning for a more perfect Union.

Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Through a Glass, Darkly

Has Holy Week ever seen such a holy mess? When we hear the word "revelation" we no longer think of The Apocolypse in the Bible, but of fresh allegations against Church hierarchy. Their judgment was further called into question when a senior Vatican priest, at Good Friday mass, drew a very poor analogy between criticism of Church leaders and anti-Semitism. As if priests who abuse children, and those who cover up for them, are somehow victims, and accusers of corrupt clergymen are oppressors.

It is human nature to want things the way we remember them even when our memories are flawed. The simpler times we long for are a proxy for the simpler selves that we once were. Suffering and perfidy happened sub rosa, and now that they are known, some wish to see through a glass, darkly, once more. But they can't. The Church that Pope Benedict XVI is trying to protect never existed and never will.

I have no say in this. My holiday this week is Passover, not Easter. I can only hope that the church will revisit its options: ordain women, permit priests to marry, lift its ban on homosexuality, submit to civil authorities, and most of all, rededicate itself to serve humanity rather than itself.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Another Start

Before the Beatles, I had the typical American notion that the British were hidebound traditionalists. Sir Alfred James Munnings (1878-1959) might well have been a case in point. As president of the Royal Academy of Art, he famously, and perhaps drunkenly, took to the airwaves to denounce Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso for corrupting art. He went on to claim this expurgated exchange with Sir Winston Churchill: "Alfred, if you met Picasso coming down the street would you join with me in kicking his... something something?" to which Munnings said he replied "Yes Sir, I would".

Munnings painted horses, dogs and Gypsies, and his works bring serious money at auctions. Some of his scenes border on kitsch: Mare and Foal in a Field of Buttercups. But others remind us that no subject, however many times it's been painted, can't be seen anew.

This painting depicts the start of a race on turf at Newmarket. As someone newly retired, I am drawn to it because of the hazy, empty space that awaits the horses and riders. The future is neither foreboding nor especially promising, but it is inviting. And the grace with which the horses and riders prepare themselves is inspiring.

The Start, Newmarket. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


The cartoon cel shown here is of Mammy Two Shoes, a recurring character from the Tom and Jerry series. Her appearances have been mostly edited out of current versions, replaced by a skinny white maid. She was based on Academy Award winning actress Hattie McDaniel who played Mammy in Gone With the Wind (1939). At the time of her Oscar, the NAACP was critical of Hattie, saying she perpetuated the stereotype of the happy black menial. Some even called her a "handkerchief head". However, when Mo'Nique won her Oscar last week, she paid tribute to Hattie McDaniel, the first black actress ever to attend the Oscars, much less win one. Mo'Nique has a film in development of McDaniel's life.

Another story in the news last week was renewed criticism of the Charlie Chan movies occasioned by the reissue of a forty two year old documentary on this controversy. Asian groups have rightly objected to the fact that the detective was always played by white actors. Less persuasively, they have denounced Charlie as a racial stereotype: "an inscrutable Oriental." I think he is a richer character than that, holding his own among Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, or Columbo.

Instances of historic racial insensitivity are often easier to condemn than to understand. For example, The Jazz Singer (1927) has an odious minstrel sequence with Jolson in blackface. However, we should also note that Jolson's father, Cantor Rabinowitz, was played by Swedish actor Warner Oland.

There are two racial issues here. First is discrimination in hiring or crediting of minority talent. Second is the image of minorities as depicted in films of their day. Ironically, Hollywood was often guilty of lauding a given group while denying members of that group a chance to work. Oland went on to play Charlie Chan (1931-1937). Did the producers count themselves liberal by casting a Swede as both a pious Jew and a brilliant Chinese? Or did it never cross their minds? As for Hattie McDaniel, when film work stopped coming her way, she took over the radio role of "Beulah" from a white man and memorably said, "I'd rather play a maid than be one."

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Jihad Jane

A sad little woman from Pennsylvania, who plucked out her eyebrows and penciled in new ones, took a trip to Holland that changed her life. She met a Muslim gentleman who offered her unaccustomed respect. She converted to Islam.
After all her disappointments and bereavements, her failed suicide attempt, and the burden of caring for her elderly mother, she found meaning for her life in violent jihad.
Often the internet frightens me. It reveals too many secrets and fantasies. I'd prefer not to know how much hatred resides in the hearts of strangers. Jihad Jane, aka Fatima LaRose, existed on the web, but Colleen R. LaRose went to Europe to commit murder.
As a teenager, Colleen had been briefly married to an older man. When asked what he remembered about her, he replied: "Nothing. There wasn't nothing to remember."
Picasso's Seated Bather. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Taming the Serpent

This portrait of Elizabeth I by an unknown artist has changed over time. Deterioration of the strange looking bouquet in her hand has revealed that the portraitist originally intended that she be seen holding a snake. The symbolism of such a curious prop has been lost to us. Some think the snake was an emblem of wisdom and judgment. Others remind us that in Christian tradition the serpent is associated with Satan, which may have been sufficiently alarming to Her Majesty that she, or one of her minions, commanded that it be painted over.

It's a mystery. What did the artist intend, and why was his vision countermanded?

I suggest a Freudian interpretation. The snake may have been intended as a phallic symbol, and her holding it proved that she was not lacking in the potency we generally ascribe to men. It was like the way ancient Egyptian queens were depicted with beards. Of course, one Egyptian queen died while holding a snake. Furthermore, to those with debased minds, Bess fondling such an exotic pet might be construed as an improper interest in things masculine. And so a retreat was made to something more feminine: a bouquet of ugly flowers.

Here's a contemporary artist's rendering of what the orginal detail might have looked like.

I'm still working on the significance of the queen's five o'clock shadow.

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I; 1580-1590's. Click on the pictures for closer looks.

Friday, February 26, 2010

A New Van Gogh

Thirty five years ago, a collector named Dirk Hannema found and purchased this painting because he was "absolutely certain" it was a Van Gogh. However, Hannema had been famously duped by a fake Vermeer, so nobody was going to take his word for it. This week, Le Blute-Fin Mill has finally been added to the canon of nearly nine hundred works of the world's most admired painter.

We all like to second guess the experts. If this is a Van Gogh, it certainly is an unusual one. When I first saw it--in reproduction, mind you; I haven't been to Amsterdam this week--I wasn't sure I liked it. It reminded me of the souvenir art that was commonly painted and peddled near Europe's landmarks.

But then I looked at the people. There's the stout woman in the foreground, painted with the same grays as the mill. There's the man in black descending the steps, possibly a veteran, with downcast gaze and clenched fist. There's the gaily clad woman next to him with a large hat, her dress unseasonably blue, white and green. There are the three figures in scarlet that form an equilateral triangle. I count eighteen people in all, each making a distinct impression upon me.

Next I noticed the spray of yellow foliage on the left, and the graceful branches reaching upwards: still leafed in the middle, but bare on the right. And there are the blades of the windmill, stark against the ivory sky. Somehow all this tells me that the visitors to this architectural attraction on this bleak autumn day are not young.

Van Gogh or no, I like this painting very much.

Le Blute-Fin Mill; 1886. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


I scratch my head at the number of vampire stories that appear each year. What else is there to be said about Dracula and his descendents? And yet this chiaroscuro by Edvard Munch catches my eye.
How many dreams are forgotten by morning? How many more are gone by the afternoon? But some dread images hang on for a lifetime.
Artists have long kept track of their nightmares, recording them on paper or canvas. Their gruesome narratives are reenacted while we look on, just as helpless to intervene as we are in our own sleep when unquiet thoughts appall us. Munch grew up haunted by his father's morbid Nordic religiosity. I suspect such piety has been the source of many awakenings in the dark.
Vampyr II by Edvard Munch. The oil painting Munch did of the same subject sold for thirty eight million dollars, but I prefer this print. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

No post this week

Talltchr is on the road and won't be able to blog this week. Come back next Saturday.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


Ninety nine years ago today, two boys were born a few miles apart in Illinois. One grew up to be an actor, a governor, and the 40th President of the United States. The other, my father, worked for the Roosevelt administration during the depression and World War II and then became a retailer in Chicago.

I am not a believer in Astrology, and I don't know whether either man fits the profile of an Aquarian. However, I have long been struck by the many personal similarities between them.

Both were handsome, athletic, and tall: six feet one, a great height for their day. Both were good story tellers with gentle, resonant voices that drew in audiences, only rarely resorting to bombast. While neither was a great reader, both trafficked in ideas.

They were humble men, never accused of arrogance. They maintained civil tongues and did not use epithets. They took no delight in deriding their adversaries.

Both were faithful husbands, albeit Reagan was once divorced. Both inspired intense friendship and loyalty among their assoicates. And yet, they were distant and ultimately unknowable. Both were islands.

My father did not live to witness the Reagan presidency. Although he became more conservative in his later years, I doubt that he would have approved. And certainly he would have questioned Reagan's qualifications. He maintained a lifelong interest in public affairs and an admiration for thoughtful, well informed, and diligent leaders. In this regard, Ronald Reagan and Alexander Lavin were not alike: my father's standards were higher.

Ganymede by Bertel Thorvaldsen; marble, 1817. Aquarius, an air sign, is represented by this mythological libation bearer. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, January 30, 2010


On the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Catcher in the Rye, columnist George F. Will wrote a denunciation of the book for teaching a generation to whine and pout. He railed further against Leonard Bernstein for investing his gangsters, in West Side Story, with Holden Caulfield like disaffection. Will also took a swipe at those critics who like the book for confusing self-absorption with sensitivity. Of course Will is a conservative columnist, not a literary critic, and his ire was probably fueled by his disdain for liberal baby boomers who came of age while embracing J.D. Salinger.

I'll admit, the first time I read the book, I missed how much pain Holden was in. I was beguiled by his talk of "phoniness" into thinking the novel was a social critique of jaded mid-twentieth century America. I didn't catch such paradoxes as Holden's professed dislike of Hollywood even though he is an avid moviegoer. I didn't notice that for all the epithets with which he peppers his narrative, he never uses sexual or scatalogical obscenities, and is appalled by the graffiti "fuck you" that he finds at his old grammar school . I didn't connect his deep mourning for his little brother Allie with his desire to protect all whom he perceives as innocent. In short, I was too much a part of the sixties zeitgeist to read apolitically.

I hope I don't have that problem any more. I fear that George Will still does.

Rye by Alexey Kondratyevich Savrasov; 1881. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Good Sleeping Weather

This week the skies were generous over drought stricken Southern California. Some of my neighbors complained, saying rain makes them blue, but I opened the windows so I could listen to it fall. The fire in my fireplace occasionally crackled and hissed when drops made their way down the chimney. However, the thunder frightened my dog enough that she battered her way out of the yard while I was at work. When I came home, she was bruised and soaked to the skin. The sodden slope of the hill next to my house became a concern through the night of steady downpour, and the flooded viaducts, I reasoned, would hinder my commute. So Thursday I indulged in a day off to watch over home, hillside, hearth and pet, and to take a long morning nap while I was at it.

Roy Lichtenstein's patinated bronze Sleeping Muse is from 1983, well after his comic book days. Its perfect balance imparts a sense of restfulness to the viewer, exactly as it should, and exactly as I felt beneath my duvet. I find similar poise in these lines by Denise Levertov:

An absolute
Trees stand
up to their knees in
fog. The fog
slowly flows
cobwebs, the grass
leaning where deer
have looked for apples.
The woods
from brook to where
the top of the hill looks
over the fog, send up
not one bird.
So absolute, it is
no other than
happiness itself, a breathing
too quiet to hear.
- Denise Levertov, The Breathing

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haitian Artists

Vassar College has a Haiti Project by which the students purchase paintings directly from Haitian artists, sell them in the U.S., and then return the proceeds to Haiti to support a mountain village called Chemaitre. In the wake of the present emergency, the Project has announced it will donate to earthquake relief more generally. Many of its affiliated artists, galleries, and artisans live in Port-au-Prince. They will no doubt need assistance in rebuilding their lives.

The art sales are usually conducted locally with a show coming up January 31st in Poughkeepsie, New York, but online sales are also available. Write them at haitiproject@vassar.edu or call (845)797-2123.

Meanwhile, exploring their website is a delight with hundreds of paintings posted for sale. http://projects.vassar.edu/haiti/art/

Fruits of the Sea by Wilner Cherizol. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Sentry

Three airplane stories: the failed Nigerian suicide bomber whose flight, thank heaven, made it to Detroit; the Chinese doctoral student who evacuated Newark's airport when he breached security to give his girlfriend an extra kiss; and the fifty six year old Gilligan's Island fan whose adolescent humor resulted in his Hawaii flight turning back to Portland.

We are so easily distracted, so in want of stimulation, so repelled by repetition. Passengers and transportation personnel suffer alike. Who would want to watch an x-ray monitor for hours and hours, days on end, to see what's stashed in passengers' carry-ons? Who wouldn't want to stretch his legs after being posted at an exit with nothing to do but watch for people walking in the wrong direction?

We haven't yet learned why the Nigerian terrorist was not intercepted, but I suspect that part of the reason was boredom. The sleepy bureaucrat first entrusted with this intelligence probably looked around for someone else to pass it off to. Perhaps the file sat in a second bureaucrat's inbox while he fumed about having too much work. Maybe he left it on the desk of a third, as a surprise, for when she came back from Starbucks. Thirty five days passed, but Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was able to board his flight unhindered.

The enemy of vigilance is tedium. While on one hour of guard duty in the jungle of Viet Nam, on an especially dark and quiet night, I let two hours slip by. Was I asleep? I will never know.

The Sentry by Carel Fabritius, a pupil of Rembrandt, 1654. The artist was killed in "The Delft Thunderclap" when kegs of gunpowder stored nearby suddenly exploded. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Crack the Whip

Can we support public education with more than just tax dollars? PTA's and other parent groups help. So do civic minded corporations that sponsor school activities. But are there structural supports we can give to education?

For example, how about requiring grade eligibility for a young person to drive? Students whose grades slip would have their permits suspended for at least a semester. Drop outs must wait until they're seventeen or even eighteen before they can get a license. The measure is hardly unfair if it removes some of the most irresponsible and accident prone drivers from the road.

What about employers proudly favoring high school graduates in hiring and promotion? Furthermore, what if they rewarded employees who complete additional course work? This is commonly done with white collar workers, but why not blue collar as well? Don't state and federal governments have an interest in promoting a well educated workforce in this time of increased international competition? Couldn't incentives be built into their tax codes?

Why do we resist the idea of high stakes testing? Students take one standardized exam after another, but few, if any, count for grades or graduation. Rather, we aggregate the results and use them to evaluate schools and school districts, but not the students. Some other time I'll expand on the unreliability of low stakes testing, but for now let me ask what a high school diploma can possibly mean if students are not individually accountable for what they have learned?

The dilemma our schools face can not be remedied by targeting teacher unions or innovating new curricula; neither can we test our way out of it. The dilemma is a cultural one: our society lacks consensus on what education means and what a diploma is for. We say we want our kids to learn, but we settle for adolescent daycare, trusting that if kids can just reach their twenties without a pregnancy or a prison sentence, they'll find their way.

With unemployment topping ten per cent, while engineering jobs go begging, we can not afford to be so blasé. We must make public what a public education means.

Crack the Whip by Winslow Homer. Once these kids left their one room school house, they were eligible for free land under the Homestead Act. Click on the picture for a closer look.