Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

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.