Thursday, December 27, 2007

"Leave the Driving to Us"

I was having dinner with a good friend the other night and we started talking about our shared interest in the idea of "the great American vacation." I've mentioned this vacation before on the blog . . . a trip that involves piling the family and possessions into the car for a weeks-long orgy of traveling the country's back roads in search of classic "Americana" and the best of roadside kitsch. Several friends and I have also discussed a mutated version of the trip in which it becomes a dads-only road trip of epic proportions, equal parts driving, sightseeing, and binging on beer and diner food. Our wives tend to cast a dubious eye on this endeavour, probably with some justification, because the trip would a) leave them with the kids, b) expose us to far more alcohol, trans-fats, and free time than our 40-something bodies can handle, and c) leave them with the kids! So the chances of this trip actually happening are pretty minimal. (However, we're definitely having a dads-only camping trip in Summer 2008.)

But back to the other night . . . Our talk turned to long-distance bus travel, which is something of a lame-duck form of transportation in this country. Prior to World War II, one could take a bus to just about every town in the United States. Between the larger bus lines, like Greyhound, regional, and local carriers, one could go nearly anywhere. But after World War II, with the development of the interstate highway system and the auto empowerment of a majority of Americans, bus travel declined at a steady rate, mirroring the decline in train travel. Still, my parents talk of taking long bus trips in the 1940s and 1950s, noting the ease of having someone else drive while enjoying the opportunity to "see" more of the country. By the 1980s, however, many bus companies had folded or were bought out by larger carriers. Today, there's Greyhound and a few regional lines, like Peter Pan buses in the northeast. Compared to that pre-war golden age of bus travel, comparatively few communities can boast intercity bus service now.

I started wondering: Who uses buses for long distance travel? A majority of Americans either drive or grab a seat on one of the low-fare airlines. Indeed, within current popular culture imagery, bus stations and bus trips are usually relegated to the seamier underbelly of travel, a mode of transportation left to ex-cons, the poor, and minorities. Is this demographic profile a reality, or just a product of pop culture stereotyping? (I remember from my years living in Tennessee that the Greyhound terminal in Knoxville appeared to confirm this depressing conclusion that bus travel had become the resource of the disadvantaged and marginalized.)

Having been to the famous Port Authority Bus Terminal in midtown Manhattan many times, I've witnessed the continued popularity of regional bus travel, with long lines waiting at gates for destinations throughout New England. One can still catch Greyhound buses for distant points across the nation. The people waiting for these buses always seem to represent a cross-section of the populace, with considerable ethnic and racial diversity defining the crowds. Why do they take the bus? Have they been priced out of the marketplace for air travel?

So here's my idea: a book on current bus travel in the U.S., with a working title like "Leave the Driving to Us: America By Bus in the 21st Century." It would look at bus travel in a historical and sociological context, but the heart of the book would be chapters based on taking several long-distance bus trips, including some cross country trips, like New York City to LA. The more esoteric information of the introductory chapter would be followed by chapters of anecdotal stuff and photographs. Is this a workable idea? Would anyone read it? At the urging of friends, I've been tossing around several book ideas in the last year, but hadn't settled on anything definitive. Given the recent popularity of books on rail excursions and highway travel on roads like Route 66 and the Lincoln Highway, one would think that a book on bus travel would prove equally interesting. Any feedback? I'd also love to hear about your bus travel experiences.

Merry Christmas

A belated "Merry Christmas" to everyone. After last Friday I was too caught up in Christmas preparations, last-minute shopping, and family activities to get near the blog or even check email. (And I have to admit there were moments when I experienced symptoms of blog withdrawal. Nearing the one year anniversary of this endeavour, I find this blog has become a hard habit to break . . . not that I'm trying to break it, mind you.)

In the end we managed to put the tree up by Saturday, have the kids decorate it, wrap the presents, attend a Christmas eve service on Monday, and settle into bed by 1:00 a.m. Christmas morning. As always my wife and I were doing the wrapping late on Christmas eve and, as part of our yearly routine, watched the televised services from St. Patrick's Cathedral and the Vatican. (Although neither of us is Catholic, we both have Episcopal backgrounds and recognize most of the Catholic liturgy. Oddly, we both concluded that the St. Patrick's and Vatican services seemed flat and joyless, lacking that Christmas spirit of celebration. Perhaps this was a product of the highly choreographed nature of these services, for they just seemed to be "going through the motions" or "phoning it in." Or perhaps the participating clergy were just exhausted, having reached the end of the Yuletide charisma for the next time they celebrate a Christmas mass.)

Thankfully, the kids slept in until 8:00 a.m. For those of you who don't think of that hour as "sleeping in," realize that my kids usually awaken around 6:30 or 7:00 and we were most grateful for the extra hour of sleep. We sifted through the gifts from "Mom and Dad" and "Santa" and while the boys were happy with the "loot" they had scored, we detected a sense of disappointment that they hadn't received every item enumerated on their Christmas lists. So, we had to explain that Santa never satisfied every wish, nor would he deliver items that might be deemed inappropriate. Grumbling quieted, the rest of the day was spent playing with the bounty of Santa's great generosity, while Mommy and Daddy lazed about for much of the afternoon. A merry Christmas was had by all.

On Friday we travel to Virginia to visit my family until New Year's day. With luck and some free moments, I'll have photos to post during the trip. (By the way, the image of Santa is an 1881 rendering by Thomas Nast for Harper's Weekly. It represents the genesis of the modern American interpretation of Santa Claus from which our present images were derived. I actually prefer this Santa over some of the more sterile characterizations presented in cartoons and the well-known "clay-mation" holiday shows. Over the centuries there have been countless versions of the "Father Christmas," "Kris Kringle," and "St. Nicholas" myths, but it's the American version - with its graphic roots in the Nast imagery - that has proved dominant since the end of World War II.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

It's a Wonderful Life

I had originally written a long post in response to a bit written by my friend over at "Open Doors." She raised an interesting point about the direction our society has taken in recent years, a seasonally appropriate theme since it involves Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Sure, jaded critics like to point out how corny Capra could be - hence the derisive term "Capra-corn" - but the director was a great storyteller. Moreover, his populist vision of America reflected a very important element in the national psyche during that period. But, alas, a computer malfunction caused me to lose two-thirds of what had become a rather curmudgeonly post on the effects of sprawl and how it is analogous to the depiction of George Bailey's alternate reality - Pottersville - in the movie. (If you've read this blog for very long, you know how I feel about sprawl!)

Last week I managed to watch bits and pieces of Capra's classic on NBC, making sure I saw that unforgettable ending. It's a Wonderful Life remains one of my favorite Christmas movies, along with Miracle on 34th Street (the original), A Christmas Story, The Bishop's Wife, and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (just kidding . . . maybe). And I still manage to shed tears at the end, when they're singing "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "Auld Lang Syne."

Why do I love this movie? First, I've always been a big Jimmy Stewart fan. That "aw shucks," "everyman" quality is perfect in this role. (One also has to admit that Donna Reed was hot as George Bailey's wife.) I also enjoy the contrasting visions of the town, between the quiet, friendly Bedford Falls, and the frenetic, noisy Pottersville. The ugly truth for most of us in America today is that we live in scattered equivalents of Pottersville. So it's nice to think there could be idyllic towns like Bedford Falls in which one has neighbors like George Bailey. Moreover, who wouldn't want to be hailed as the "richest man in town," not by virtue of our bank balance or political influence, but measured by the friends and family one can count on in good times or bad. And finally, one has to enjoy the idea of a "do over" or the opportunity to witness how the world would fare without one's presence, thanks to a visit from Clarence the angel.

Jimmy Stewart always said this was his favorite role in a lengthy film career. I think if one possesses a mere gram of Christmas spirit, it has to be a favorite for many people. With its talk of savings and loans, runs on the bank, and possible suicide, it may prove a little dark for my kids. But having experienced Dickens' Christmas Carol this year, they may soon be ready to discover the joys of Bedford Falls and the Bailey family.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Dickens Christmas

(Only a week until Christmas Eve. Alas, so much yet to do, just to realize what most of us consider the "basics" of the holiday: put up the tree, buy some more presents so Santa will visit the kids, make a gingerbread house with the boys, and perhaps walk around to check out some of the city's decorations.)

On Saturday night our family attended a Dickens-themed Christmas party, appropriate given our efforts to read through A Christmas Carol for the first time this year. (As I've already noted here, it's a bit of heavy lifting for the kids in terms of vocabulary, but I think their exposure to Dickens' narrative and richly portrayed characters will prove an invaluable experience. At least they will be able to say they've been exposed to Dickens!) The party featured authentic foods from Victorian England, with parallel passages from Dickens' novels accompanying each item. Obviously the menu was heavy on little meat pies and pastries, shortbreads and ham. But the hit of the night was the flaming Christmas pudding - ceremoniously paraded into the room as everyone sang "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."

The whole affair prompted me to reflect on the simplicity of the Christmas experience as described in Dickens. Sure, there was feasting and celebration, and even dancing in Mr. Fezziwig's warehouse. But it was still a decidedly simple occasion, in which familial ties and the bonds of friendship constituted the glue holding the celebrations together. And while there's an emphasis on the characters maintaining a "Christmas spirit" in their lives, Dickens' tale isn't overtly religious. Indeed, even the non-religious among us can buy into those Christmas ideas of "giving" and "fellowship" without troubling oneself over the more miraculous episodes associated with the occasion. Moreover, it's nice to know that early Christian leaders failed to eradicate entirely the more pagan, pre-Christian rituals now associated with the Christmas holiday. As in so many other areas, they realized that co-opting existing practices proved a more successful route to conversion than more heavy-handed tactics. Frankly, I think the pagan enhances the Christian, and both belief systems - at least in the context of Christmastide - enunciate some similar concepts. This is certainly clear for Dickens, in which a world incorporating the supernatural exists comfortably in an avowedly Christian society. One should realize, too, that by the middle of the 19th century, much of English society was only nominally Christian in belief and practice, despite the existing state-controlled church infrastructure. Enclosure, concomitant destruction of traditional village life, the Industrial Revolution, and construction of England's "dark, satanic mills" only hastened the decline of popular faith - ironic in a society that had once spent so much energy and spilled so much blood over matters of Christian dogma.

Standing there on Saturday night, listening to the traditional carols of the season, I realized that Christmas should instill in us a lightness of heart - in the way Ebenezer Scrooge's epiphany transformed his spirit. On the surface, it might seem an easy charge: Go forth and spread Christmas cheer throughout the whole year, not just in Advent or in the days immediately following December 25th. Nevertheless, we get bogged down in the extraneous details of the season. We lose sight of the simple joy in giving, because we're too often engaged in games of "oneupsmanship" in the gifting process. We become too concerned about the price tag or the tax write-off. And I have been guilty of these failings too many times to recall. This year, however, as I've struggled to find the spirit of Christmas within the barrage of commercials and appeals to buy, spend, and save, I think I've recognized more of that simplicity in the season, and thus haven't been driven to "shop 'til I drop." (For a guy who loves to shop - yes, something of a rarity - this can be a difficult urge to suppress.)

No doubt I'll join the family on Christmas Eve for a service at the little Lutheran church around the corner from our apartment. The church will be decorated beautifully, as always, and the familiar carols will remind me of Christmastides past. But will I be able to muster my usual Christmas spirit?

Friday, December 14, 2007

"Over the River and Through the Woods" - Christmas Travel

Of my childhood Christmas memories, some of my favorite recollections involve travel to see family. Every year on December 26th we'd pile into the car and drive the 100 miles to see my paternal grandparents on Virginia's "Eastern Shore." This was always an adventure - as was any winter trip to see them - because the bathroom in their house was unheated. (To this day I still don't understand why they didn't keep the door open so some of the heat from other parts of the house could warm the room up. I guess they were trying to keep the main rooms as warm as possible for a house that was underheated and had no insulation.) So any trip to the facilities involved putting on a coat. If you had to sit down, one's rear end was treated to a chilling awakening, perhaps similar to the icy grip of a hospital bedpan. Still, the Arctic bathroom experience couldn't diminish the occasion, an affair defined by a dinner that perennially included my grandmother's seafood recipes, supplemented by piles of buttery cornbread. (The giant pile of clam and oyster shells in the back yard was testimony to decades of delicious meals.) At the end of the day we'd load up the car and drive the two hours back home, with my brother and I usually falling asleep to the rhythmic thump of the car tires bouncing over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel's pavement sections.

Within a few days of that trip - at some point before New Year's Eve - we'd bet back in the car to visit my great-grandmother. This excursion, involving a three-and-a-half to four-hour drive, always began in the dark. My maternal grandfather, whose mother we were going to see, would arrive at the house around 5:00 a.m., his Ford Galaxy 500 loaded with food, gifts, and my complaining grandmother. We'd load our car and then start across Route 58, which runs along the southern border of Virginia.

We would drive west through little towns and burgs, finally stopping for breakfast around Emporia or South Hill, finding one of those "mom and pop" family restaurants that once flourished along America's byways before the fast food franchises wiped them from the map. Then off we'd go again, heading for South Boston and eventually Brookneal, in the heart of Virginia's tobacco-growing counties.

My great-grandmother's house in winter was, unfortunately, like my grandmother's house - a study in contrasts between icebox-like rooms into which no heat was allowed, and sweltering rooms that could have doubled for saunas once large pots of food started boiling on the kitchen stove. I remember dashing outside to cool down and breathe fresh air, playing on the giant millstone of pink granite that rested in the front yard, a great stone circle that I guess served as a lawn decoration near the front porch. I would also brave the cold bedrooms upstairs to peruse the nursing textbooks left behind by my great aunts, several of whom had served in the Second World War. For a nine-year old boy, these dusty volumes offered photos of every imaginable medical malady - from cancers to wounded soldiers missing various body parts. Oddly, I'll never forget the photos of goiter patients, something so rarely seen today thanks to our diets rich in iodized salt.

I remember one year we drove in the snow and got to the intersection for the country road down which my great-grandmother lived. At that point, the snow became too deep to drive, so my grandfather parked the car right there, grabbed some bags of gifts, and marched a mile to the house to see his mother. We waited - my grandmother and I in the Ford, and my parents and brother in the Dodge. An hour later, my grandfather returned, we all turned around, and drove home. (I don't know why we all didn't get out and walk. If this happened today, I wouldn't hesitate to bundle the kids up and have them march a mile in the snow, particularly if I had just driven three or four hours. As New York City kids they're accustomed to walking long distances in all kinds of weather. I guess my parents thought it would be too much for us.)

Sleepy, and fortified with another incredible holiday meal, we'd pack up the car in late afternoon and start on the long drive home. Passing back through those little Virginia towns, paralleling the old railroad line that once linked these communities. Seeing the little abandoned stations in these towns, I always wondered what it would have been like to take the train out to my great-grandmother's, an experience my mother has always mentioned with fond memories. (Years later I would discover the photography of O. Winston Link, who spent countless hours in the 40s and 50s photographing the last of the great steam trains in this very part of Virginia.)

Now most of my family in that area is gone, most dead, the rest having followed my grandfather's lead and abandoned the life of the tobacco farmer. Still, I have those magical Christmases when we almost literally went "over the river and through the woods" to visit grandparents.

"Many Are Called"

I was sitting on the subway this morning, riding uptown, and noticed my reflection in the opposite window - dark glasses, bow tie, rumpled blazer and overcoat, punctuated by an expressionless mouth. I was immediately reminded of that great Walker Evans book, Many Are Called, which was reissued a couple of years ago after years out of print. Between 1939 and 1941, Evans clandestinely photographed New York City subway riders, hiding a Contax camera under an overcoat with a shutter release fed to his hand via cable. Leafing through Evans' images one is struck by the diversity of riders for pre-war New York. Even then the subway could be a multi-cultural petri dish into which a higgledy-piggledy solution of riders was stirred. Yet one wonders how Evans would react to the heterogeneous mixture of people one encounters today.

I know people who refuse to ride the subway, preferring taxis (expensive) or buses. Arguing that it's dirty and dangerous, they're missing one of the best shows in the city, all for only a $2 admission charge. Besides, it's pretty safe and is no dirtier than any other place in New York City. Moreover, with the "Poetry in Motion" program and the subway art series, a ride on the train can be an educational experience - and I don't mean in a sociological sense.

One thing strikes me in a comparison of Evan's images and the scenes I witness each day: The expressions on riders' faces haven't really changed in 65 years, which I guess shouldn't be surprising. Sure, the ladies usually wore hats and gloves and the men sported fedoras or caps in their underground travels, but most simply sat expressionless, waiting for their stop, remaining largely anonymous in the herd of New Yorkers being shunted about. The visage staring back at me this morning could have been pulled from Evans' book with no incongruity.

It's funny how the subway can reduce us all to a humming hive of workers and drones. I'm also often reminded of scenes from Fritz Lang's monumental silent film epic, Metropolis. But if that's an apt analogy, I wonder if we're all that brainwashed and unhappy.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Planet Christmas

We're settling into orbit around "Planet Christmas," with its moon "New Year's" plainly in view and I can already tell this is going to be like one of those NASA missions in which one tries to fit as many experiments as possible into the shortest amount of time. We've already had parties, concerts and shopping, and the next three weeks promise more of the same. Mind you, I'm not complaining. In my family, I'm usually the one most imbued with that child-like sense of Christmas, an enthusiasm I always shared with my mother and maternal grandfather. My brother and father seemed only to tolerate the fuss, preferring to let others decorate the tree and wrap presents. But this year even my mother has complained that she's suffering from the holiday blahs, finding it difficult to muster the usual excitement that accompanies hanging ornaments and baking cookies. Indeed, she worries that she's becoming a "Scrooge" like my grandmother, who for years has perennially spent the Christmas seasons fussing about the mess and extra work. Even she, however, always managed to brighten on Christmas morning and rediscover some of that youthful lightness of heart, enjoying Santa's visit vicariously through grandchildren and then great-grandchildren.

On the homefront, I've started what I hope will be a new Christmas tradition for the kids: a reading of the original Dickens version of "A Christmas Carol." I hadn't read the book in many years, so it was a joy to encounter afresh Dickens' rich prose. I realize that my boys may not understand all of it - and there are moments when I change words to more readily understandable synonyms - but I think they'll understand the main idea of the story. At some point I'll probably add a film version of the story to give them some of the visual clues, and of course there's only one decent version to show - the 1951 English production starring Alastair Sim. (Considered the definitive interpretation of Scrooge's character, Sim's effort conveys more of that Dickensian spirit and gothic darkness than perhaps any other version. No doubt the black and white medium enhances the film. We'll try hard to avoid some of the more dreadful characterizations, including Kelsey Grammar's memorably horrific 2004 made-for-TV debacle. Whoever greenlighted that project must have been stoned.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Emily Dickinson

This quiet dust was gentlemen and ladies
And lads and girls; Was laughter
and ability and sighing,
And frocks and curls;

This passive place a
summer's nimble mansion,
Where bloom and bees
Fulfilled their oriental circuit,
Then ceased like these.

My friend over at Open Doors reminded me that Monday was the birthday of Emily Dickinson, who entered this world on December 10th, 1830. It's hard to express how I felt the first time I encountered Emily Dickinson, at around age 13. I recall that it was really the first poetry I could appreciate and understand, the first poetry that seemed resonant with my adolescent anxieties and longings. Miss Emily also proved an unknowing catalyst to my own angst-ridden poetry - unless that impulse was her sainted spirit nudging me from the eternity over which she so often puzzled.

As a depressed, death-obsessed teen it was easy to find the appeal in so many of her works. Even her correspondence underscored a curiosity with death and the hereafter. Given her ruminations on the subject, one wonders how she regarded her imminent mortality in 1886. That, of course, we can never know.

In my 20s I set her aside, favoring the edgier voices of Allen Ginsberg and his contemporaries. Just as they railed against the excesses and inequalities of post-war America, I found kindred voices in my own attempts to escape the homogeneity of suburbia and sprawl. More recently, however, I've begun reacquainting myself with the "Belle of Amherst," and I find that in my 40s I tend to approach her with a keener understanding of the emotions from which her verses sprang. Indeed, having spent most of my previous career as a historian immersed in 19th century American culture, I recognize now - which I didn't as a teen - that Dickinson was very much a product of her age, an era in which death punctuated one's years in the way birthdays, holidays, and the seasons demarcated one's passage from month to month. And, having focused a good deal of time on women's correspondence from this period, I realize now that Emily Dickinson's "voice" echoed the feminine experience of her time, with its obvious limitations and rigid expectations.

On the surface, it might seem odd that she lived what most of us would consider a reclusive life. (And one wonders how travel to more distant locales would have affected her poetic voice.) Yet it's obvious from her letters that her intellect and introspective character allowed her to exist in a world not defined by purely physical distance. A small part of me actually longs for that isolation - with the attendant opportunity to engage in the kind of thought and self-examination that doubtless served as a muse for Miss Emily. That realization reminds me that my happiest times as a scholar were spent surrounded by books, delving into a bit of research in the way the anchorite retreats to his cell, accompanied only by his thoughts, prayers, and religious texts. Being no St. Anthony, however, I doubt I'd survive for long as an academic ascetic, connected to the broader world in the way Emily Dickinson's spirit flourished through correspondence.

So happy birthday Emily. I hope your spirit found the answers it so earnestly sought.

Monday, December 10, 2007

More Craptacular Photos

Well, if I was having trouble generating any Christmas spirit last week, the weekend helped dispel a bit of the seasonal malaise. First, there was the annual Christmas party for the non-profit where I work . . . a decidedly family affair that included lots of food, kids running about, and even a visit from Santa. Then Santa and I greeted the homeless guests to our Friday/Saturday shelter . . . a fun experience, since many were surprised to see Santa at the door. (Many joked with Santa about being "good" or "bad" - the latter jokingly imploring Santa to forgive their transgressions over the past year.) All in all, it was a fun affair, made more enjoyable by the presence of good friends and a bit of wine to "lubricate" the conversation. On the walk home I snapped this photo of the Empire State Building, decked out in blue and white lights for the celebration of Hanukkah. (Not having my regular camera on hand, I snapped this with my cellphone - hence the poor quality.)

On Sunday we attended the annual "Holiday Brass" concert at Lincoln Center, featuring the Philharmonic's principal brass players plus the members of the Canadian Brass. It proved a fun concert, with a mix of holiday and classical favorites rendered in a lush brass fashion. I'm not always a fan of pure brass ensembles - they can be a bit strident - but these musicians are among the best in the world and played brilliantly. Their rendering of Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks" made the price of admission worth every penny. They concluded with an encore of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," one of my all-time favorites, particularly the versions recorded by Bing Crosby in the 1970s, and a recent interpretation by James Taylor. The kids managed to keep the squirming to a minimum, given the concert's two hour length (with a brief intermission). And even my older son engaged in a bit of "conducting."

We also got to see Lincoln Center's beautiful Christmas tree. (I know, I know, it constitutes the killing of another live tree, about which I've already expressed serious reservations. And I made note of my disappointment to my wife, who concurred. Why can't they use a large artificial tree? The fake ones have become so lifelike now. I just don't think anyone would complain too vociferously.)

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Christmas Spirit?

So here I am at age two, happy and carefree, posing in my little winter suit, doubtless anticipating - eagerly, despite the dubious look on my face - Santa's Christmas visit. (Yes, little boys were dressed up like this in 1966.) I remember being so excited about Christmas that falling asleep on Christmas eve always proved nearly impossible. By December 24th I had watched the litany of Christmas specials - from Charlie Brown to the Grinch - with rapt attention. Santa had been visited and my wishes revealed. All I had to do was wait - albeit impatiently - for the 25th.

Now my kids, at ages seven and eight, are at that stage of Christmas excitement. Every day they ask, "When's the tree going up?" and "When are we visiting Santa?" I enjoy their excitement and naturally see myself as a child mirrored in their behavior. But this year I'm having a hard time feeling that Christmas spirit. Mind you, I'm no Scrooge, awaiting the visit of Marley's ghost. But I'm likewise not "keeping Christmas" in my heart in the manner of Scrooge after the three hauntings. I simply haven't felt "Christmasy" yet, which is an odd feeling for someone who has always enjoyed thoroughly the trappings and rituals of the season. (I also enjoy the realization that many of our Christmas practices tap into that pre-Christian culture of Europe as a source of inspiration.)

Perhaps it's my frustration with the whole commercialization issue, which I've discussed here ad nauseum. There's also the religious hemming and hawing attendant with the season. And the painful fact of sensory overload, from overdone decorations to the never-ending loop of Christmas music blaring at my corner market, likely plays a role as well. The only bit of Advent or Christmas expression that has elicited the joy characteristic of the season has been a piece of music by Paul Manz: "E'en So Lord Jesus, Quickly Come," a modern piece that sounds ancient, like one of the lovely Medieval Christmas hymns many of us invariably sing at Christmas eve services. I know, I know. Isn't that an awfully religious work for someone whose doubts about the "miracles" of Christmas run quite deep?

For me, however, the tune means much more. Ten years ago I spent the week after Thanksgiving lying in a New York hospital, recovering from a bit of gastrointestinal trauma. That first Sunday after Thanksgiving happened to be the first Sunday of Advent. My wife - my fiancee at the time - sang in the choir of an Episcopal church and left my bedside for rehearsal and a church service. Knowing I loved this song, she used her cell phone to call my room during the service, at the moment the choir was singing the Manz piece. So I lay in my hospital bed and listened as she and the choir sang, the phone resting on the bench next to her. It was one of the most amazing things I've ever experienced. I lay there and sobbed through the whole piece. Now, ten years later, this song still grabs me, regardless of the season. More than anything else perhaps - Santas, trees, decorations, or TV specials - this song instills a meager measure of the Advent and Christmas spirit amidst my doubt and uncertainty.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Amo, Amas, Amat

A recent New York Times editorial, "A Vote for Latin," which discusses the value of studying Latin and laments declines in enrollment for the subject, reminded me of my own experience with the language and prompted some reflection on one of the more painful but rewarding episodes in my academic life. I studied Latin in the 8th and 9th grades, having a teacher, Mrs. Hall, who must have been 80 at the time. I even remember how we joked that she must have been alive at the time of the Punic Wars, a popular subject for translations. I also recall, painfully, how those first few months were such a struggle - learning a new vocabulary, cases, conjugation, gender. For an 8th grader it was all a bit overwhelming. And more than once the students in my class would recite that bit of damning doggerel: "Latin is a dead language, it came across the sea. It killed all the Romans, and now it's killing me." But once I had a sense of Latin's structure - and how it behaved - it became fun, like solving a puzzle. Accurately completing a translation was cause for celebration.

Of course, by the time I came along in the late 1970s, Latin was no longer one of those bedrock subjects that defined one's years in school. An education in the Classics, at least in this country, had become a rare thing indeed. Yet as the Times article points out, Latin scholarship proved valuable for several reasons. It taught one academic discipline, a necessity when trying to master any new language. It also exposed one to the history and culture of Rome, and thus offered the student a very different perspective on the world. Studying Latin also gave one a better understanding of our own language, since so many words in English have Latin roots. And finally, tackling Latin made it easier to pick up other languages later. (I remember finding German easy after having trudged through Latin textbooks.)

When I was an editor with the Papers of James K. Polk, I would regularly pick up letters to and from President Polk that were sprinkled with Latin phrases and allusions to classical texts. (Polk himself graduated from UNC with a degree in classics.) A quality often clear in these letters was the authors' broader understanding of history, particularly in the ways their own political experiences reflected the legacies of Athenian democracy and the later Roman Republic. Moreover, they seemed to possess a keener sense of the power of language. In this age before the "lowest common denominator" attitude of radio and television, the printed word could change the world. In our own national experience, for example, just look at the language - and impact - of Jefferson's "Declaration of Independence," the U.S. Constitution, or Thomas Paine's "Common Sense." These were "revolutionary" texts in the full sense of that word.

Recalling the bits and pieces of Latin vocabulary I can still remember, one word sticks out, a word I've remembered from 30 years ago: laudere, the infinitive for the verb "to praise." After reading the Times article, I have to look back and praise Mrs. Hall for having shared that knowledge and experience. And, honestly, I hope my kids have the opportunity to experience that painful epiphany of Latin's beauty.

Monday, December 3, 2007

It Snowed!

Ok, so it didn't snow three or four inches as I had hoped. And the rain washed it all away by this morning. Still, it snowed, perhaps a little more than an inch in the city. It was just enough to cover the sidewalks and the parks, while making the trees and fire escapes beautiful for a few hours. There was enough on the ground to have the kids run around the playground, throw a few snowballs, and slip and slide through a bit of tossing the football. Not bad for December 2nd.

If we don't have a white Christmas (always doubtful), it was at least nice to see the Christmas decorations on neighborhood businesses sporting a dusting of the white stuff. Unfortunately all I had was my phone and its craptacular little camera, so the photo quality here leaves much to be desired. You'll notice the tree holding on to much of its fall color - testimony to how warm our fall has been. Here we are in the first week of December and there are many trees in the City just now reaching a point they would usually hit in late October. Global warming anyone?

Friday, November 30, 2007

Let It Snow . . .

I know I'll regret these words come January and February, but I really wish it would snow several inches - not enough to snarl traffic, but just a few inches to cover the grime and give Manhattan that otherworldly, romantic look one usually associates with glossy postcards or Woody Allen's celluloid paean's to the City. Perhaps I'm also longing for that pall of silence a snowfall can bring - even to New York City - in an effort to recapture the stillness of Vermont last weekend.

I worked on the Upper East Side for several years, close to the 72nd Street entrance to Central Park, and thus a quick walk to the Park's Mall and the Sheep Meadow. I would drop my kids off at their preschool near Lincoln Center and walk east across the Park. On snowy mornings I would be among the earliest walkers, joined by a few eager cross country skiers and dog owners (who were out early every day, regardless of the weather). Walking through the snowy Park at that hour was always an amazing experience. One felt isolated from the City, and at the same time, more visibly aware of Olmsted's vision for Central Park. Given his genius, I have little doubt that Olmsted imagined what the Park would look like in snow. The Mall, in particular, becomes cathedral-like with the stark trees forming an architectural framework for the ceiling, the snow producing a church-like silence.

So yes, I'm longing for snow, even with the reality of the aftermath: coal-colored, foot-soaking slush at cross walks, salt-stained sidewalks, muddy paths in the Park, and grimy cabs piloted by drivers who have no idea how to drive in these conditions. Forecasters are calling for flurries over the weekend, but with no accumulation. I hope they're wrong by three or four inches.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Vermont Revisited, Part II

It's hard to explain the effect Vermont has on us when we visit. Just understand that we tend to slow down, quite a task for New Yorkers . . . indeed, we're becalmed by an environment that is so quiet, uncluttered, and unhurried compared to Manhattan. Oh sure, this is a gross generalization, because Vermont possesses no immunities against the myopia and waste of sprawl and suburbia, from the strip mall shopping centers and fast food franchises that represent the advancing homogeneity of life in America, to the outlet malls and "big box" retailers in the state's largest cities. Still, there seems to be so much less of it in Vermont than in other places I've visited. One can still shop in "mom and pop" stores and eat in family-run restaurants and diners. One can drive without the assault of billboards and mega-sized gas stations. And, as we observed during an unplanned detour on Sunday, one can step away from it all, literally, and live "off the grid," if that's one's goal.

We had finished lunch at our favorite diner and were about to turn back onto Route 9 when we encountered the kind of traffic jam - cars stopped, people milling about - that more often than not signals a nasty accident up ahead. Noting locals pulling off the road and heading onto back roads, I pulled out our detailed atlas of Vermont roads - showing everything from interstates down to seasonal dirt tracks that are impassable in winter - and plotted a route around the delay. We ended up spending about a half hour on unpaved roads, winding through the mountains of southern Vermont. It turned out to be a detour worth the effort. We drove through beautiful forests and saw homes tucked into the hillsides, most with large piles of wood stacked carefully and a curl of smoke rising from a chimney. We also saw homes that had no obvious electrical or phone lines. Were these people living "off the grid" in a pioneer fashion? I don't know if I could go quite that far with the isolation theme, but there were several times my wife and I spied a cozy log home and acknowledged feelings of envy for the solitude these people doubtless enjoy.

On Saturday night we enjoyed the hospitality of our friend Margaret - proud owner of Kip the border collie and shepherdess to the sheep of Scott Farm. (If you're a knitter, check out her beautiful, hand-dyed yarns at Mostly Merino.) At dinner Margaret noted that when people move to Vermont they have a hard time leaving. With each trip we're beginning to understand its pull. Some people make the same argument for living in Manhattan: once here, it is hard to leave. One grows accustomed to its pace, its opportunities, and its energy. And at this point I'm torn. I would miss New York City if we left and find it difficult to entertain the prospect. But I'm likewise sure that if we moved to Vermont - or just acquired a vacation retreat - I'd find it equally challenging to step away from that polar opposite environment.

After dinner on Saturday evening I went outside for a walk with Kip. It was supposed to be a full moon night, but clouds left the landscape darker than I'd experienced in a long time. What struck me - immediately - was the near silence. Tucked into the hills outside of Brattleboro, a few miles up a dirt road, I stood on a rock in the front yard and just listened. I could look to the valley below and see the tiny lights of cars navigating Route 5, but heard no sound. All I could hear was Kip exploring the brush beyond the yard and a breeze in the trees. No cars. No stereos. No rumble of subways. No white noise-like hum that I associate with the City at even its most hushed moments. It was a quietude I could grow to enjoy. And standing in the cold air, I even heard the faint voice of the poet that once resided in me in the years before that calcifying dread of middle age hushed the spirit.

The Bush Legacy

If you're interested in the Bush administration's current attempt to broker peace in the Middle East, check out Maureen Dowd's editorial in the New York Times. Clearly this latest endeavour is simply an effort by Bush and the sycophantic Condoleeza Rice to craft a presidential legacy in stark contrast to the one borne of seven years of bellicosity and ignorance on the state of affairs in that part of the world. As one Middle East analyst pointed out this week, even with all the smiles and shaking of hands on display at Annapolis, diplomats will still be trying to bring peace to the region whether one looks five, ten, or fifteen years into the future. This outlook isn't a product of partisan pessimism; it's the reasoned conclusion of dispassionate Middle East observers who recognize the tragedy of the Bush years. In the end, one suspects that history will remember Bush (and Rice) not for this week's convocation, but more for their inability to understand fully the consequences of their destructive actions.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Photo Guesstimation

Here are three photos from the October trip to Vermont's Scott Farm. They were taken with a vintage German-made Praktiflex camera and Zeiss Tessar lens. Unfortunately, I didn't have my light meter on hand, and since this is an all-mechanical camera with no light meter, I had to guess at the exposure based on the conditions. So these are the best of the bunch, and not too bad for a 60-year-old camera and a "guesstimation" on f-stop/shutter speed. (On our trip last weekend I returned with a couple of old cameras, but this time I had the exposure meter. I'm curious to compare the results.)

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Monday, November 26, 2007

Vermont Revisited, Part I

Here's Kip the border collie, one of the sweetest dogs I've ever had the pleasure to meet. For those who believe that there are former human spirits that are reincarnated into other animals, here's a perfect example. Kip just exudes a warmth and affection - along with the playful spirit of a child - that's infectious. And he loves to herd sheep. On Saturday he sat attentively, anxiously waiting for the command that would send him running circles around the sheep. He's easily a better listener than my kids . . . and friendlier than a majority of the people one meets. Truly a prince among canines.

Just a view of a pumpkin among the cider barrels on Scott Farm.

A view of rusty and weathered milk cans at Scott Farm. They proved quite stunning in the late afternoon light.

Detail from one of thee weathered doors at Scott Farm. See earlier posts in October for more photos of doors on the farm. And please note that these shots were taken with the still photo feature on my video camera and aren't of the same quality as other shots on this site. I was hauling around two other heavy vintage film cameras on this day and couldn't carry anything else. When the film is developed I'll scan the images and post the photos - all black and white, by the way.
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Thanksgiving Digested

Well, we made it back last night AND managed to avoid the traffic nightmare. Most people must have gone south for the holiday because we kept hearing reports of traffic snarls approaching the City from New Jersey. The traffic coming through Massachusetts and Connecticut, however, wasn't really any worse than we normally see. So I feel very lucky.

Thanksgiving day was actually nice, punctuated by our family's first trip to the Macy's parade. Thanks to friends, we were lucky enough to have grandstand tickets and thus watched the parade from the comfort of seats in front of Macy's. The only frustrating part of the experience was having the parade grind to a halt for commercial breaks every few minutes. Matt Lauer and Meredith Viera would take a break, while the featured Broadway acts - out of work because of the stagehands' strike - would take their positions for the next round of dancing and lip-synching. Reflecting on the experience, my younger son noted that the giant balloons were his favorite part of the parade. My older son, perhaps more musically inclined, preferred the marching bands . . . AND Ashley Tisdale from High School Musical. (Actually, I'm not surprised by his love for High School Musical, since his favorite movie for several years has been The Sound of Music.) After the parade we had tickets for the "after party" on the 13th floor of Macy's. They put out a complete Thanksgiving spread, including an open bar and a room full of desserts. Plus, the Santa from the parade came up to see the kids and take early Christmas requests.

Late in the afternoon we finally sat down to a typical Thanksgiving dinner with several friends from the neighborhood. Sure, the turkey and stuffing were yummy, and the cranberry sauce - my favorite Ocean Spray brand that slurps from the can retaining the can's shape - brought back fun memories of childhood Thanksgiving feasts. For me, however, the highlight of the meal was my wife's bacon-wrapped shrimp baked in a chili sauce (a recipe her mother always made for the occasion). For those of you who eschew bacon because of either its origins or its deleterious health effects, I offer you a virtual "humbug!" and proclaim that there are few foods on this earth that can't be made better with the addition of a little bacon.

Toss in some football, a Dallas Cowboys victory, and it was a good day. Sure, 2007 has brought its share of bad news and heartache. But there's also plenty for which our family can be thankful. And plenty for which I - individually - can be thankful: family, friends, a roof over my head, health insurance (something I didn't have last Thanksgiving), adequate food, time for leisure and the arts, and a fun job with a great boss.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thanksgiving Routines

Thanksgiving is a rather bittersweet holiday for me, mainly because I miss the routines and rituals of my childhood . . . that "melancholy nostalgia" I mentioned in an earlier post this week. Until I was in college, Thanksgiving was nearly always defined by dinner at my maternal grandparents' home, with my grandfather doing much of the cooking. I always thought it funny to find my him in an apron - this man who had driven ammunition trucks in World War II and worked as a sheet metal press operator until retirement, with mashed fingers and gnarled hands. Yet here was a man who could make the sweetest desserts in the kitchen and grow the most beautiful flowers in his garden. He possessed a truly renaissance personality, remarkable given his background and education. (I know, I've posted this photo before, but it's a favorite, showing me, my grandfather, mother, and great-grandmother in late 1964.)

After his death in 1988 the family moved on to other Thanksgiving routines, with larger groups of extended family, more noise, more jockeying for position at the tables, and generally more angst over the preparations for the holiday. At that point I stopped returning to Virginia and adopted a "no travel" rule for Thanksgiving.

In recent years, my wife and I have kept our little family close to the city, even avoiding the Macy's parade, preferring a quiet day capped off by dinner with my wife's mother. But as many of you already know, this Thanksgiving we're dealing with her sudden death of just five months ago. Slowly we're finding our way to new holiday routines, deciding, for example, to gather with friends - "orphans of the storm" my wife calls them - who have decided to eschew travel for Thursday's festivities. We're also going to the Macy's parade for the first time, having scored tickets for grandstand seats. (If you're watching the parade on TV, who knows, you might see us sitting in the stands!) I can't imagine jostling for position on the sidewalks with the hordes of people who will swarm into the city on Thursday morning, so I'm hoping that the bleachers will prove a little more civilized.

And, as I've mentioned before, we leave early Friday morning for Vermont. I'm trying to keep those terrifying thoughts of the Sunday drive back into the city out of my head, and realize I need to learn to let go and just accept the traffic and the hassle. Does anyone know if there's a patron saint of traffic jams? If I put a springy statue of "St. Fordatus" or "St. Chevrolatus" on my dash, will we avoid gridlock? Will "Our Lady of the HOV Lane" intercede on our behalf and grant us peace and clear highways? If only it could be that simple. Wish us luck.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Another Meme

Here's another meme, thanks to "An Apple Not Far from the Tree." Hmmmm, Platoon? That's a surprise.

Requisite Photo of the Cat

I look at a lot of blogs each day and I've noticed that there are innumerable photos of cats. For some reason "cat people" feel compelled to add their kitty friends to their blogs. Fine. I love cats (and dogs) and have had cats around since childhood. So, responding to the queries of friends, here is Jill, my ten-year old cat, whom I've had since birth. She's a total sweetheart (a slut, according to my wife, and she means that in positive sense) and has always been very patient with the kids, even when they were younger and tended to pull her ears and pet just a little too vigorously. She'd just sit there and tolderate the rough treatment until she'd had enough, and then walk away quietly, never hissing or swatting (when a good smack with a paw might have been a good thing to teach little boys a valuable lesson). Each day when I get home she hops in my lap when I sit down, and if I lie down, that's an invitation to sprawl across my chest. Here she is at night, resting in my closet, hiding behind some blazers.

St. James Cemetery

A couple of my blogging friends having posted on their love of cemeteries in the last couple of days, I'm going to jump on the bandwagon and share one of my favorites. These photos are from St. James Episcopal Church in Arlington, Vermont. The shorter stones, featuring carvings of angels, date from the 1790s, while the taller stones, capped by pyramids, date from the 1850s. Isn't it amazing what just a half century can do in terms of style? With the 18th century stones one expects a restraint and simplicity that possibly reflected the reserved demeanor of those laid to rest in this small New England community. It's amazing that these older stones have survived intact, since they seem fragile and are no more than 3" thick.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Autumn Wanderings

I was over at Ornamental's site writing a comment, admiring her good fortune to live in the mountains and have nature and solitude at her doorstep, when I recalled for the first time in ages the forest walks I would take as a kid.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a little neighborhood in southeastern Virginia that was surrounded by ample woodlands, water, and fields. Within minutes we could be running through rows of corn and soybeans, picking our way through thick woods, or stepping onto the muddy shores of a sizable river. When not playing sandlot sports, we were stealing wood from home construction sites to build our treehouses in the woods, which in summer were particularly inviting because they provided some shady relief from the Tidewater heat and humidity. Come winter, however, nearly all of my friends stayed out of the woods, returning only in the spring to observe and repair the weathered remains of their treehouse handiwork.

For me, however, this was the season to wander more deeply into the woods, without the hum of mosquitoes and thickets of poison ivy and oak. Summer was fun, mind you, but by November and December, the woods possessed an eerie hush that at least for me proved inviting and comforting. I remember in particular the sound of my feet crunching over the mattress of freshly fallen leaves and the noisy calls of crows that usually patrolled the adjacent fields of brittle corn stalks. If I went far enough I could explore the derelict remains of an old sharecropper cottage whose walls were plastered in old newspapers and scavenged sheets of linoleum. (I remember at the time puzzling about the people who might have lived there. The only clues I had were a few crumbling photos left behind, an African American family gathered for some unknown special occasion, arrayed in what looked like their Sunday best. A funeral? A wedding? Birthday?) I also wondered about the nearby abandoned pickup truck riddled by shotgun blasts, now locked into the woods by the jail-like bars of young trees.

On the rare occasions that we were blessed with snow, I usually tried to make it into the woods while the flakes continued to fall, just to take in that snowy silence that one can even now experience here in New York City. Central Park isn't exactly a fair substitute for the forests of my childhood, but on a snowy morning, it seems hundreds of miles from the traffic and noise of Manhattan, silenced for a few hours by a little winter magic.

Unfortunately much of that childhood setting has been erased for the sake of "progress." Most of the fields are now subdivisions with overpriced cookie-cutter houses sprouting on treeless lawns. The sharecropper cottage is long gone, and much of the surrounding forest has been stripped away to accommodate streets with names that only echo their presence: Sycamore Lane, Beech Circle, Balsam Way. How sad it is that the kids growing up in these homes will rarely see those sycamore or beech trees. I realize one shouldn't wallow in melancholy nostalgia, especially when the memories are indeed happy ones. But for me, tis the season of nostalgia, for the ghosts of Thanksgiving and Christmas past.

Friday, November 16, 2007

This is the last time . . .

. . . I toot my own horn about selling a painting. I realize this isn't that big a deal for artists and artisans who have been out there selling their stuff for a while. I also realize that I'm not going to make a living as a painter . . . so I won't be quitting my day job! Still, it is exciting to have a buyer connect with one's art enough to want to pay for it and take it home. This time it was the painting of an old fire escape on Perry Street in the West Village, which I had posted here several months ago. This painting probably prompted the most comments during the show, with one observer noted that he could "feel" the sunlight filtered through the iron web of the fire escape.

The buyer, noting that it reminded her of her family's fire escape in their Harlem apartment during World War II, reminisced about growing victory gardens and playing out on the fire escape. This has remained one of my favorite paintings in the year since I completed it, and a part of me was sad to see it go. Nevertheless, it has gone to a good home with someone who appreciates it. And in the end, I guess the image accomplished one of the primary goals of art: it evoked a response and emotions that were figuratively greater than the tangible sum of paint on paper. I've reposted the image below. Again, pardon my enthusiasm; this is all such a new experience.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Tis the Season

My friend over at "A Room of One's Own" recently included some lines from Emily Dickinson, whose letters were often as lyrical as her poems.

"To live and die, and mount again in triumphant body, and next time, try the upper air-is no schoolboy’s theme! It is a jolly thought to think that we can be Eternal-when air and earth are full of lives that are gone-and done-and a conceited thing, this promised Resurrection! Congratulate me –John-Lad-and 'here’s a health to you'- that we have each a pair of lives, and need not chary be, of the one 'that now is'-"
Letter to John Graves, late April 1856, Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters
Long a fan of Emily Dickinson, I was really captivated by these lines. Obviously she was a person of faith, indeed, the child-like faith characteristic of an era when acceptance of grace and belief in the promise of resurrection seemed an easier path to take. Sure, Emily lived at a time when science - including Darwinian discourses on evolution - was perceived as an increasingly dangerous threat to Christian canon. But I'm guessing that tucked away in her Amherst home, somewhat isolated from the intellectual tumult of the academy, she found it easier to hold that vision of the "Eternal" close to her heart, unsullied by the assault of reason.

I had noted in posts from several months ago that the last few years have been a period of spiritual crisis for me, punctuated by severe questioning of my Christian heritage, and a curiosity with both Buddhism and Quakerism. I had experienced this drift to agnosticism during my 20s, an age when many people start to question the tenets - religious or otherwise - that have formed one's understanding since childhood. For years, and even more so of late, my family, all pretty regular churchgoers, have regarded me with the same suspicion early Christian bishops likely accorded the Albigensians or Arians, among numerous groups declared heretical. (Some of this suspicion about the nature of my belief is perhaps justified given my occasionally explicit non-trinitarian sympathies.)

A few months ago our local PBS station aired a three-part documentary, presented by English polymath Jonathan Miller, on the concept of "disbelief." (I discussed Miller's series in greater detail in my July 30th post.) Miller's "History of Disbelief" - he eschewed the term "atheism" - examined the philosophical underpinnings of disbelief in god(s) from the ancient world to the present. To a curmudgeonly skeptic like me, the content proved compelling and doubtless prompted me to revisit some of the issues first raised in my youth.

So now we approach the holidays and, beginning on Sunday, December 2nd, enter the Advent season, for those of you who follow liturgical calendars. And with Advent and Christmas one has to face again the theological questions of the immaculate conception, the virgin birth, the star, and the magi. Santa and the commercial blitz aside, isn't this what we're supposed to be celebrating on December 25th? I guess for those with "the faith of a child" it's easy to take that step of acceptance and just believe in these miracles. For me, tis the season of doubt. I want to believe without question. Yet that uncertainty is like that cough that won't go away, the wound that never heals.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Art Show

I've mentioned several times over the last couple of months that I was going to be one among 12 artists in a group show - my first. The show is this week and last night was opening night. The turnout was quite good - perhaps more than some of us had expected - and . . . (sound the trumpets) . . . I sold a piece! My first real sale! And, as I had hoped, it was the painting of the homeless man, which I had posted here several weeks ago (and I'll repost again, below).

I have to admit that initially, when I first saw my paintings hanging on the walls, there was a strange disconnect, as if I hadn't been the one who had painted them. But there they were, framed and matted (which by itself gave me an odd feeling), and available for comment by passers by. Thankfully, the crowd was very complimentary and, surveying the works of the other artists, I felt like I belonged in the show, certainly from the standpoint of technique and composition. So thus far the experience has been a real morale boost, and perhaps has acted as a spur to drive me to the next level - getting a little gallery to take some of my works.

Although last night likely offered the best chance of selling pieces, perhaps I'll sell something else over the next few evenings. I'll keep my fingers - or brushes - crossed.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

On November 28th crowds will gather to witness the 75th annual lighting of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. This year's tree is a 60-year old Norway Spruce, found in Shelton, Connecticut. In the last week local news outlets have waxed poetic about this year's selection, treating us to video of the tree being wrapped for transport - and cut down.

Am I the only one who thinks it's criminal to cut down a mature tree for the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree each year? Sure, the trees are recycled, with the mulch going to the Boy Scouts and much of the trunk going to the U.S. Equestrian Center in New Jersey. But I still have a problem with the idea of cutting down a living thing just to make Rockefeller Center look pretty for the holidays. And what about the environmental benefits of these large trees? Why can't they use an artificial tree? Plenty of other cities in the U.S. put up 80+ ft. Christmas trees, and they're artificial.

Mind you, I love Christmas and decorating Christmas trees. Decorating the tree is one of my favorite holiday activities. When I lived in Tennessee, I often had two trees, a traditional tree (artificial) in the living room with the usual ornaments, and one of those kitsch aluminum trees in the dining room with vintage ornaments - including bubble lights - from the 40s and 50s. And I'll never forget the first Christmas tree we put up for the boys, decorated on Christmas eve after they had gone to sleep. The look on their faces on Christmas morning was priceless.

But back to my beef with Rockefeller Center's tree. New York City - and Mayor Bloomberg - like to make a lot of noise about how "green" our city has become. And it's true: compared to other large U.S. cities, New York does an admirable job with recycling and other manifestations of "green" public policy. So why not advocate the use of an artificial tree at Rockefeller Center and set an example for other communities on the issue of stewardship of our forest resources. No doubt many will think I'm wrong-headed about this. Indeed, one could certainly make a case against artificial trees because of the resources used to produce them. Just call me a "tree hugger." It simply comes down to the flawed idea of killing a beautiful, mature tree for Christmas. And I'd guess that most of the viewers who watch the lighting of the tree on NBC each year - or brave the horrific crowds on the plaza - wouldn't notice if the Rockefeller Center tree was real or artificial. Nor do I think they'd care.

Thursday, November 8, 2007


I've been reading a new book, Graham Robb's The Discovery of France, which was recently reviewed in the New York Times. It's a historical geography with the conclusion that the idea of a relatively homogeneous, largely French-speaking France is an altogether recent invention. Indeed, the France we see today, both in physical/geographical and linguistic terms, is really a product of change wrought since the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The conclusion that surprised me the most was the degree to which the French language was spoken by so few people. Hence the concept of the regional patois. Among the dozens and dozens of local languages there was Alsatian, Burgundian, Savoyard, Breton, languages indigenous to Brittany, the Pyrenees, the Alpine districts, Normandy, Lorraine, and the Mediterranean coast. Robb notes that in some regions it was possible for a person to travel just a few miles and find oneself completely incomprehensible to the locals. So what's my point?

I started thinking about the different languages and dialects that one hears in New York City on a daily basis. Obviously the linguistic permutations aren't as extreme as those chronicled by Robb. One can travel between Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx and make oneself understood . . . although it's not always an easy process, particularly in some of the more ethnically homogeneous enclaves. Walking around the neighborhood of my midtown office I regularly hear Spanish, Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, French, Arabic, Italian, Polish, Mandarin and Czech. And I'm sure I've left some out that I just can't identify. I even heard a group of teens carrying on a lengthy conversation in pig Latin.

The variations in English are astounding, from the Caribbean-inflected varieties (some of which I have a hard time understanding) to the conversations that blend English with words from the languages listed above. Naturally one also hears the many U.S. regional accents, from transplanted southerners and midwesterners to Bostonians and twangy Texans. I'm also regularly surprised - and often amused - at some of the regional slang that has survived the trip to New York City. The most obvious regionalism - worthy of an articles in the Times at some point in the last couple of years - is the term one uses to order a soft drink: soda, pop, soda pop, and Coke (which is used by some Americans to refer generically to any carbonated beverage, not just the cola variety).

Still there are some funny surprises. Just yesterday, for example, I heard a 40-something guy in an expensive suit, looking every bit the Wall Street-type, carrying on a cellphone conversation in which he referred to the merchandise at some store as "bitchin." "Wow, they had some bitchin stuff in there," he noted, "some way cool hi-def TVs." He sounded as if he had just stepped out of a 1980s teen movie . . . like "Valley Girl," one of Nicholas Cage's early efforts. When was the last time you heard something called "bitchin"?? I'm still laughing over that one. And hey, I've just gone from the historical geography of France to 80s-era American slang. Bartender, I'd like a gin and tonic with a Strattera on the side, please. Perhaps then I'll prove more able to organize my thoughts!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Older Works: Yarn Shop Cafe Still Life

Going back through older paintings again I found this still life from early 2006. I think this was one of my early attempts to render clear glass and reflective metal . . . which I tackled several times earlier this year with my homage to Ralph Goings condiments. I had done an earlier watercolor sketch of this scene employing the same size paper and narrow cropping that I used on the recent image of a Lambretta scooter. Several months later I returned to this subject with my usual larger format, 9" x 12". It's from a cafe in the West Village that specializes in yarns and knitting supplies . . . one of my wife's numerous outlets for her knitting hobby. I should have included knitting needles and a skein of yarn on the table. Hmmm, maybe I'll come back to this theme and do just that. The main difference I see between this and more recent works is that my painting now seems more confident and the color blending is more carefully controlled. I also think that my initial pencil sketches are more assured now than they were back then . . . and they're less noticeable now. Still, I'm pleased with the selzer bottle and sugar shaker. (Pencil, watercolor, Fabriano paper, 9" x 12")

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Bush: Post-Presidency

Thanks to Shimmy's blog (see my favorites in the sidebar) for pointing out this editorial on how Bush should spend his time after leaving the White House. Here's an excerpt:

In a recent column, Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times speculated on President Bush's post-White House plans. What should he do with himself?

Alice Collins of Oak Lawn has an idea.
"Three hundred and sixty-five days a
year, in the wind and snow of winter and the heat and humidity of summer, let
him tend to the graves of the almost 4,000 men and women who have given their
lives in the debacle of Iraq. They honored their oaths, obeyed their
commander-in-chief and sacrificed their lives of promise to a lying,
unprincipled warmonger. "He can begin at the grave of my grandson, Lcpl Jonathan
W. Collins, killed in action on 8/8/2004."


Marine Lance
Cpl. Jonathan Collins of Crystal Lake was killed by enemy fire in the Al Anbar
province of Iraq in the summer of 2004. He was 19.
For the full text of Roeper's column, go here.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Brooklyn Bridge

Long before I moved to New York City, I think I had made up my mind that my favorite landmark in this city was the Brooklyn Bridge. Sure, there were plenty of other logical choices that might seem more obvious, particularly for a non-resident: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the World Trade Center towers pre-9/11, Ellis Island, Times Square, and even Macy's (yes, if one is a shopaholic). But there was just something about the Brooklyn Bridge that set it apart, an intangible quality that I guess encompassed its strength, beauty, and the engineering innovation that went into its construction.

Reading David McCullough's wonderful history of its design and construction, The Great Bridge, one realizes that this iconic structure is a modern marvel and triumph of late 19th century engineering, without succumbing to the sterility that often characterizes "modern." And this doesn't even begin to address the demographic and socio-cultural changes wrought by the bridge, most pointedly for the future history of Brooklyn, which had cultivated a very separate identity from Manhattan. Obviously the Brooklyn Bridge plays a special role in defining the character of New York. It appears regularly in popular culture, referenced in songs, stories and film. I love, for example, Frank Sinatra's version of the 1940s Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne song:

"Like the folks you meet on
Like to plant my feet on the Brooklyn Bridge
What a lovely view from
Heaven looks at you from the Brooklyn Bridge

I love to listen to the wind through her strings
The song that she sings for the town
I love to look up at the clouds in her hair
She's learned to wear like a crown

If you've been a rover
Journey's end lies over the Brooklyn Bridge
Don't let no one tell you
I've been tryin' to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge

All the folks in Manhattan are sad
'cause they look at her and wish they had
[ Lyrics provided by ]
The good old Brooklyn Bridge

If you've been a rover
Journey's end lies over the Brooklyn Bridge
Don't let no one tell you
I've been tryin' to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge

You'll miss her most when you roam
`cause you'll think of her and think of home
The good old Brooklyn Bridge"

Naturally I had to paint it at some point . . . So about two years ago I took my younger son for a walk across the bridge. I was amazed at the amount of foot and bike traffic, and not just from the army of tourists admiring the bridge (and there were plenty of them). We snapped a boatload of photos, enjoyed watching the people, and marveled at the stone and steel up close. I was most surprised by the color variation in the stone used for those incredible Gothic arches. From a distance, the bridge looks pretty uniform in color, reflecting the gray of the water on a sunny day, and taking on a rusty hue at sunset. I'm also partial to the bridge lit up at night because on our first date, my wife and I were at the South Street Seaport, overlooking the bridge from the balconies that face the river. So even after all these years I get a little thrill when seeing the Brooklyn Bridge.

This painting was done nearly two years ago . . . so when I'm a rich and famous artist (ha!) critics can categorize this in my "early period." (Actually, the fact that I'm willing to let this earlier piece see the light of day reflects my continued satisfaction with the final product.) My aim here was to capture the bridge in a way that didn't appear cliched or typical, which would be so easy to do given the number of photographs and paintings depicting the Brooklyn Bridge. I also wanted to show something of the color and textural variation that defined these iconic arches. And finally, I wanted to convey the sense of being there, staring upward, admiring the handiwork of Roebling and his workers. (Watercolor on Fabriano paper, 9" x 12")

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Friday, November 2, 2007


Here's my latest, a quick watercolor sketch of a vintage, Italian-made Lambretta scooter, finished last weekend. I know, I know . . . This seems an odd subject to paint after my exercises in architecture and the more recent portrait of a sleeping homeless man. I guess I did this just to take a break from my usual subjects, and also to experiment with a different size (4" x 9") and perspective, with the odd cropping of the image and sense of narrowness enhanced by the pen and ink border. (I was also between ideas for larger works, but wanted to keep painting. In case you're wondering why I would chose this odd subject . . . I like old Italian scooters, particularly the iconic Lambrettas and Vespas which one sees fairly often on Manhattan streets. I'd love to have one . . . although I think if purchasing a scooter to drive around town, I'd invest in one of the sharp new Vespas just for the sake of safety and reliability. (Watercolor, pen and ink, Fabriano paper, 4" x 9")

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Faulkner, Bush, and the Romance of War

I was writing a comment on a friend's blog, responding to a quotation from William Faulkner, and I started to think about my own favorite Faulkner passage. I had included it on this site back in January, during the first weeks of the blog. In that context, I was addressing the continued Southern fascination with the Civil War and the ways in which that conflict played such a central role in the formation of the region's identity. Here it is again:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.
William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust

I should explain that I don't like this passage in the sense that it romanticizes or condones the Southern cause in the Civil War. No, I like it because it explains so much vis-a-vis the South's tragically flawed vision of history and its destiny. Moreover, I'm attracted to this bit of Faulkner because if one knows what happens next - that pivotal event of the war, Pickett's charge - and understands the consequences, one can see this as an exercise by the author in sweeping away romantic notions of war, no less moving than Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" or Wilfred Owens' "Dulce Et Decorum Est" from World War I. Faulkner understood the pathos of the moment and the tragedy of the history that followed.

But I have to wonder, reflecting on these words, do President Bush and his minions understand the lessons of war, or is it still early in the day of July 3rd, 1863, for them? Tragically, I think not. Addressing the Bush administration's sense of divinely guided mission for the U.S., I believe the White House has adopted the same kind of flawed vision for this country and is now leading us up our own Cemetery Ridge. At Gettysburg, Lee was neither ideologue nor apostle for the Confederacy. His primary allegiance was to Virginia, his home state. Bush, unfortunately, is both ideologue and apostle, ready to proselytize around the world with the idea that the U.S. enjoys some divinely sanctioned status as a bearer of democratic ideals. It embodies a chauvinism no less bankrupt than European colonialism in the 19th century.

Now I'm hardly an isolationist. Indeed, I believe the United States has a responsibility to play a prominent role around the world, particularly in the context of the United Nations and its peace-keeping efforts. And naturally we're going to play a global role in terms of commerce. But exporting democracy shouldn't necessarily be on our national "to do" list. And as history has demonstrated time and time again, the imposition of "democracy" in a top down fashion rarely proves successful.

Sadly, Bush and his disciples are soon going to find themselves, figuratively, at the top of Cemetery Ridge, conveyed to the slaughter and this utter waste of human lives by a myopic vision far more tragic than that embodied in Robert E. Lee. Like the 14-year old boys of Faulkner's passage, Bush would rather think about the fantasy rather than the reality of the charge. Having stood for hours at attention in the 19th century-style uniforms of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), I can understand how easy it is to get swept up in romantic visions of war, with shined shoes, glinting brass and steel, and regimental banners billowing in the breeze of an idyllic parade ground atmosphere. I was that idealistic and naive at 18. Most of us grow up and recognize the inherent flaws in that vision. Perhaps if Bush and Cheney had some personal experience with the horror of warfare, they would proved less reluctant to follow the bugler's call into battle.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks"

Few of you probably notice when I change the "What I'm Listening To" or "What I'm Reading" items in the sidebar of this blog. Today I changed the music selection to Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks, a familiar work for lovers of Baroque music - and long a personal favorite for me. Parts of it, particularly the opening overture, are often played on classical music radio stations and, having been used in commercials, it's recognizable even by people who don't listen to classical music. With the Water Music, it's among the most familiar works by Handel (pictured at left). The piece was composed by Handel under contract to England's King George II for the fireworks in London's Green Park on 27 April 1749. It was to celebrate the end of the War of the Austrian Succession and the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle.

Like so many works from the Baroque period, it's been re-scored for different instrumental combinations, with orchestrations for groups from massive orchestras down to smaller ensembles like The Canadian Brass. Also, too many conductors over the years have had the tendency to slow the piece down to an almost ponderous pace. (The same thing has been done, for example to Handel's Messiah, most notably by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which is notorious for rendering the Messiah nearly lifeless with an interpretation that can only be described as "glacial" in its pacing. About 15 years ago I discovered a recording of Messiah that was based on the original score and Handel's personal notes about early performances. With a smaller orchestra more closely matching the instrumentation of Handel's era, as well as a smaller choir, the result was a piece that was so much lighter and "cleaner" than the more typical overweight productions. I was lucky enough to hear this version performed in Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre - a hall in which Handel himself had performed - with Trevor Pinnock leading the English Concert and the Choir of King's College, Cambridge. The experience was like being transported back 250 years.)

Thankfully that effort to interpret Baroque music with period instruments and access to original scores has continued in recent years. So I come back to Music for the Royal Fireworks. I just found a recording by Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert that was based on Handel's original 1749 version. The contrast to other recordings I've heard is remarkable. First, the drums seems so much clearer, and more varied than the ubiquitous tympani employed by other orchestras. Also, reflecting Handel's original instrumentation, the whole piece has a much more "reedy" feel, with oboes and bassoons featured prominently alongside the obvious brass. As an old woodwind player it was nice to hear the winds singing out with the trumpets and horns, particularly as they did their runs in the final measures of the overture. The recording, which I downloaded from iTunes, was so clear that I could hear the clicking of the woodwinds' keys. Some people might find this distracting - like hearing Glenn Gould's humming in recordings of Bach's preludes and fugues - but as a musician I think it adds to the charm of the interpretation.