Thursday, March 29, 2007

"A twitch upon the thread . . ."

"I caught him [the thief] with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”

In the middle of a recent enebriated evening with friends, I was asked to name my favorite book. Obviously that’s a tough question. Does that mean fiction? Nonfiction? Genres within each of those categories? (And no, that doesn't include Cosmo or People, for those of you who were wondering if that sort of thing counts.) Having spent over a decade in academe I could think of many scholarly works - a majority being from the history shelf - that made an impression: Gilje, Road to Mobocracy; Johnson, A Shopkeeper’s Millennium; Lockridge, A New England Town; Wood, Creation of the American Republic; and Brinkley, Voices of Protest. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. "No, no, no," my friends protested, reminding me of my geeky professor's profile. They wanted to know which novel ranked first among my favorites.

Although I’m partial to the whole Austen/Bronte cycle, thoroughly enjoy most of Dickens, and certainly worship at the altar of great 20th century American fiction - including Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Updike, and Cheever - I didn’t hesitate to chime in with an unexpected answer, knowing it would spark debate: Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

The vast majority of Waugh's novels - for example, A Handful of Dust, Decline and Fall, or Vile Bodies - represent the best of pre-World War II English satire. Waugh lampooned the aristocracy mercilessly and left to English literature a collection of first-rate comic novels. (Several have been adapted by Hollywood.) Yet it is Brideshead Revisited for which Waugh is best known. Its popularity in this country can be traced directly to the beautifully made TV adaptation aired on PBS stations in 1982. (Only 18 at the time, I spent 11 weeks glued to the TV at the expense of homework, family and friends.) How could this be my favorite novel?

On the surface it possesses some of Waugh's "tried and true" satiric characters. (The gay, lisping Anthony Blanche comes to mind.) There's the upper-crust - albeit Catholic - English family and a vast country estate and ancient home, echoing the great English literary tradition of rooting a story in a stately manor house. Toss in some moments of university debauchery at Oxford, the atmosphere of 1920s society, and one has a fun read if you're a fan of the Masterpiece Theatre genre. Visually, it made for a stunning television production, considered one of the best novel adaptations ever. (The role also propelled Jeremy Irons' career to the next level.) And no doubt at 18 I approached it on those terms, because at that point I had already developed a rapt anglophilia. Nevertheless, as I've grown older and re-experienced the book - which is by no means long compared to Waugh's English literary antecedents - I've taken more and more from it each time.

Brideshead Revisited is ultimately about the grace of god and the ways in which each of its characters acts within the framework of Catholic faith and grace. It is certainly a Catholic novel and reflects Waugh's own conversion to hyper-orthodoxy in middle age. Waugh examines each of the main characters, including the protagonist, Charles Ryder, in terms of his or her relationship to god. And, symbolizing the Church is the estate and house - Brideshead. There's the overly devout mother, Lady Marchmain who's faith carries her to her deathbed through repeated trials and disappointments. Her estranged husband, Lord Marchmain has rejected his wife and the Church and has fled to far off Venice. Cordelia, the youngest daughter of the family, possesses the faith of a child and devotes her life to service, even if she does fail to become a nun. Sebastian, the younger son, drinks his way out of Oxford and descends into a world of alcholism and dissipation in northern Africa. Julia, the older daughter, rejects convention, marries badly, and engages in an adulterous affair. And Charles Ryder, essentially a thinly disguised Waugh, regards matters of faith with unvarnished skepticism as he moves in and out of the circles frequented by the Marchmain family.

If Waugh had simply left the story at that point - and plenty of novels do just that - this would be an entirely one-dimensional work, a comedy of manners and morals and nothing more. Nevertheless, he takes that "twitch upon the thread" theme, borrowed from one of G. K. Chesterton's "Father Brown" novels, and very carefully draws the main characters back to Brideshead and thus back to the grace of god. Lord Marchmain, nearing the end of his life, returns home and, making the sign of the cross during last rites, acknowledges the faith he so soundly rejected for decades. Witnessing this, Julia recognizes the sin of her adultery and accepts god's grace, devoting herself to service thereafter.

But for Charles,the agnostic, redemption takes a bit longer. The novel begins and ends at 1944, with the bulk of the story having been a flashback to the 20s and early 30s. An older Charles Ryder has returned to the Brideshead estate as an army officer, with the estate now used as a temporary billet for soldiers. With a bit of reflection on all that he's experienced - love, loss, divorce, approaching middle age, and the stress of wartime - Charles Ryder, sitting in the estate's chapel, finally acknowledges and accepts the grace of god. Indeed, Ryder, almost certainly echoing Waugh's own sentiments, recognizes an even deeper, more ancient connection to the first communities of believers.

Now this is a rather crudely constructed precis of the novel. Scores of scholarly articles have dissected every page of Waugh's masterpiece. Of course I highly recommend it . . . and hope my clumsy description doesn't deter some of you from picking it up. Or watch the PBS adaptation! It is strictly faithful to the book, leaving little out (hence the 12 or 13 hour running time).

(To one friend's charge that my reading is far too serious, I'll counter with Bill Bryson, whose volumes cover one shelf in my home. His books are immensely funny, not at all serious, and regularly climb the ranks of the bestseller lists. His most recent The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, offers a fantastically funny memoir of a 1950s childhood in DesMoines, Iowa. Who says I don't know how to have fun!?)

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A Tease of Spring

It's in the 70s here today . . . a tease a later spring in New York City. The first shoots of crocus and daffodil are up and a few early tulips are sending their first bits of green up to check out the weather. Still, this is a dicey time for weather. Barely over a week ago we had ice and snow. It may be 70+ today, but next week it could be freezing again. March and April are just so unpredictible in the City. So we dress warmly in the morning, and by afternoon we're shedding layers and heading for home with coats draped over arms. At this point I'm longing for the chance to slip into some madras or seersucker shorts, my Keen sandals, and an ancient white oxford - washed to a buttery softness - sleeves rolled a few times.

Now, if we could just get some leaves on the trees for a little shade, and we'll be set. I'm particularly interested in seeing how Madison Square Park looks in full bloom, since it isn't far from my office. For now, however, the trees are barren, so I still have the unobstructed views of the New York Life building, the Flatiron across the park, and several other insurance behemoths. The New York Life building, with its gold-topped cupola is, of course, a Manhattan landmark, and I've included a little painting of it here.

The painting is just a quick study of some of the detail around the windows on the lower levels. Its west-facing marble is a great canvas in the late-afternoon sun (just as I discovered with the Flatiron building) and a great study in contrasts between sun and shadow. I look forward to seeing these architectural gems framed by the mature trees of Madison Square Park.

Monday, March 26, 2007

More "Toy" Digital Camera Photos

Here are a couple more "toy" digital camera photos. Look at that distortion and flare! The photo of the apartment building in particular is quite pretty. No, it's not an image worthy of a coffee table book, but there's something in the image that makes me look again. Perhaps it's the color contrast between sky and building. These were taken in the West Village a few months ago and I just got around to pulling them from a zip disk and dropping them in my photo archive.

Friday, March 23, 2007

America's Fascists

For several years I've referred to the Republican party as America's answer to 1930s fascism. One can see the genesis of this shift as far back as the Reagan administration when the "religious right" and "moral majority" allied themselves more closely with the party and successfully co-opted parts of the Republican agenda. The "Reagan Revolution," in fact, signalled the death of an older, more obviously patrician Republican party and underscored the changing currents of partisan politics in this country. Sure, the party maintained its close ties to the American corporate monolith. Yet the Republicans now sported a fresh coat of mean-spiritedness and moral self-righteousness that fed on the prejudices of its most ignorant grassroots supporters.

Now we have an administration that cloaks itself in the mantle of moral rectitude and hyper-patriotism. And, using those issues to justify its actions, the Bush administration has unsettled the historic balance between the co-equal branches of government and thoroughly abused executive authority as defined in the constitution.

Thanks to Cheney and Rove, this administration has thrown up a curtain of secrecy that rivals anything the Soviets could produce in the 60s and 70s. Moreover, their usurpation of some the most basic, Constitutionally-protected rights of citizens is criminal. Add the purging of our judicial system, the torture of prisoners, and spying on ordinary citizens - practices justified under the guise of "national security" or the "war on terror" - and one can detect the first stirrings of a nascent fascist state. Although I realize Congress doesn't have the moral wherewhital to pursue this course, Bush and Cheney should be impeached, convicted, and removed from office. They should be held accountable for the wasted lives of our American military personnel and sent to jail for their lies.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

"Hi, welcome to Wal-Mart . . ."

"Eighty percent of everything ever built in America has been built in the last 50 years, and most of it is depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy and spiritually degrading: the jive-plastic commuter tract home wastelands, the Potemkin village shopping plazas with their vast parking lagoons, the Lego-block hotel complexes, the 'gourmet mansardic' junk-food joints, the Orwellian office 'parks' featuring buildings sheathed in the same reflective glass as the sunglasses worn by chain-gang guards, the particle-board garden apartments rising up in every meadow and cornfield, the freeway loops around every big and little city with their clusters of discount merchandise marts, the whole destructive, wasteful, toxic, agoraphobia-inducing spectacle that politicians proudly call 'growth.' "

For me, James Howard Kunstler's description of sprawl in the groundbreaking Geography of Nowhere, resonates as a Genesis-like "In the beginning . . ." in the canon of "New Urbanism" scholarship. Sure, there are volumes of scholarly tomes that address the effects of sprawl and its satellite issues. Kunstler, however, makes the issue accessible, in a journalistic idiom that the average reader understands.

I bring this up because I'm actually quite torn, in an ethical sense, over the propriety of shopping at Wal-Mart. Living in New York City, I don't have regular access to a Wal-Mart; instead, I shop at it's upscale cousin, Target. Still, whenever I visit family in the Connecticut or Virginia suburbs, I'm pulled by the siren song of low prices, wide aisles, and friendly geriatric "greeters" to beach my car on the shore of a Wal-Mart "parking lagoon" and enjoy the bounty of a network of Asian factories. Indeed, having a family with small children, one finds it difficult to say no to this corporate juggernaut.

Given the declining buying power of middle class Americans, it's easy to understand the allure of Wal-Mart, Sam's Club and similar retail outlets. Just read Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickle and Dimed or Bait and Switch to understand the plight of the nation's "working poor." For a growing underclass of Americans priced out of the market for decent housing and health insurance, Wal-Marts represent a critical element in a consumer puzzle that is missing several pieces. Living in East Tennessee for ten years I saw first-hand how important Wal-Mart could be to an economically marginal segment of the populace. Still, I'm worried that the intrinsic cost of Wal-Mart and other "big box" retailers - from the standpoint of both macro-economic issues and the average consumer - will be too high.

Obviously the typical consumer is going to ask how shopping at Wal-Mart could be a bad thing. Yet as several documentaries reveal, welcoming Wal-Mart into a community is a two-edged sword. (See, for example, the excellent PBS documentary, STORE WARS: WHEN WAL-MART COMES TO TOWN, which examines the impact of "big-box" stores on small town America.) Beneath the attractive veneer of low prices lurks a host of problems that Wal-Mart and its peer institutions would prefer we ignore. As one of the largest employers in the U.S., Wal-Mart has compiled a horrendous record in hiring practices, fair wages and the availability of health insurance, and labor organization. And because of its size and economic clout, Wal-Mart, in sync with the fast food industry, maintains a heavy hand on wage levels, spending millions each year lobbying Washington against increasing the minimum wage.

In addition, the arrival of Wal-Mart in small to medium-sized communities nearly always hastens the decline and eventual death of downtown commercial zones. Pro-Wal-Mart activists insist that bringing a store to their community will boost tax revenues. But in many municipalities, the property tax breaks offered to entice Wal-Mart frequently offset the sales tax revenues for some time thereafter. And, communities usually end up spending enormous sums to upgrade their transportation and utility infrastructures to accommodate the increased traffic these retailers generate. One can even look at the bigger picture - sprawl and its impact - and argue that Wal-Mart, as a natural byproduct of our autocentric culture, contributes to the expanding environmental disaster wrought by fossil fuel dependence. This doesn't even take into account the ways in which large-scale retailers contribute to the paving of millions of acres of farmland and wetlands each year. Extrapolate from there to the use of cheap labor in Asian factories using largely coal-fed electric power, and one quickly encounters the true size and cost of the Wal-Mart behemoth.

When I start to weigh these factors, I feel less inclined to steer my car onto that newly-constructed service road and shop at the Wal-Mart/Sam's Club "supercenter." As a resident of Wal-Mart-free New York City, I'm more accustomed to shopping in my neighborhood stores and developing that personal rapport with shopkeepers that seems reminiscent of the old small town retail experience. Expanding on his anti-sprawl argument in an Atlantic Monthly article, Kunstler adds: "Americans sense that something is wrong with the places where we live and work and go about our daily business. We drive up and down the gruesome, tragic, suburban boulevards of commerce, and we're overwhelmed at the fantastic, awesome, stupefying ugliness of everything in sight."

Yet it's more complex than economics and aesthetics; "it goes to the heart of our notions of citizenship, of community, [and] of public morality." Cut the heart from our communities and we are reduced to insular groups of suburb dwellers converging on malls as a substitute for public space. (This issue is too large to address here. A number of scholars, however, have analyzed the ways in which the destruction of the concept of "downtown" has changed the definition of "public space" and the ways in which we define community.) What we're ending up with is a homogenized America, in which community distinctiveness is erased. Driving the American landscape a few years from now, one may not be able to tell the difference between driving in New Jersey and driving in Iowa or Georgia or California. Perhaps it's just me, but I find that a sad development.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Found Photos

As a historian I naturally love photographs. And, as the cliche suggests, a picture can be "worth a thousand words." I remember visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year for a show of early French photographs, most of which had been taken between 1845 and 1855, the first decade for this revolutionary medium. And after recovering from the sense of awe precipitated by a realization that these photos showed people who lived 160 years ago, I was struck by how much each photo revealed when viewed as a distinct historical document . . . as if each photo was a handwritten letter, official document, or diary, which are usually the historian's primary source materials.

I mention all this because I recently revisited a website which I've followed for several years but haven't perused in some time. This site, "Look at Me: A Collection of Found Photos," includes over 600 images of ordinary people in snapshots from the early 20th century to about the 1970s. Most have no dates or additional information; a few possess scribbled notes that give some clue to their origin. Still, analyzing the mode of dress and the surroundings, one can often make a reasonable guess. From a structural standpoint they vary little from the everyday photos we take today: They show people at Christmas, on vacation, celebrating weddings or graduations, posing in front of new cars and new homes, and even mourning at funerals. Throw some present-day clothes on these people, and they could pass for inhabitants of 2007.

Yet the thing that makes me pause every time I visit "Look at Me" is that these are photos which were either lost, thrown away, or simply abandoned. In my antique shop and flea market days - before I had children - I would often see lots of photos for sale, lying about in boxes or languishing in albums. Inevitably I wonder, what happened to these people? How did their once treasured photos end up in a garbage bin or junk shop? Looking at the pre-1939 and pre-1914 photos of European origin, I always wonder how they fared in the approaching World Wars. Take, for example, this German family. Did this father survive the trenches of the Somme? Did the little girl live to see the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s and the destruction of Germany by 1945? Was there no family member left to claim these? Because we can never know the answers, I always approach these images with a touch of sadness.

From a technical standpoint, many of these photos are remarkably crisp, if not artfully posed. (Since when did our vacation snaps demonstrate attention to composition and depth of field?) If you're a fan of old cameras you'll recognize the footprints of old 6x9 and 6x6 formats, 127 and 626 film, and the creamy glossiness of slow 25 and 50 ASA films fed through Brownie cameras. In fact, many are probably contact prints from the negatives. There's the occasional early Kodak color print, the colors now fading, and the early Polaroids. A few, however, are quite charming, revealing an innocence we often wish to reacquire, the way we long to revisit - albeit briefly - moments of our own childhood experiences. I look at the images from the 1960s and 1970s and think, my, how long ago that seems. But they are the images of my childhood, the photos of Christmas 1968 with me at my grandparents' house sporting new cowboy boots, a holster and cap pistol, pulling a red wagon. Will my family's photos eventually make it to a flea market?

One thing I find troubling in all this . . . Here we have this great record, thanks to film. Where will we be 100 years from now, with most photos having been taken digitally? Sure, we save our favorites and print them, because people still enjoy having that tangible record to hold, pass around at family gatherings, and stuff into albums. But I'm afraid the digital photo will do to photgraphs what email has done to the handwritten letter. The film camera will become an anachronism, like the fountain pen and blotter.

Friday, March 16, 2007

"The World of Tomorrow"

If you haven't figured it out yet, I love the flotsam and jetsam of pre-1960 pop culture, particularly when it comes to the 1930s and 1940s. And although I'm more an aficionado of old British sportscars (think MG, Triumph, Austin-Healey), I do have a thing for American-made cars of the 30s and 40s. (This painting I just finished is based on an image I made at a car show that featured classic Fords, Hudsons, Packards and their contemporaries. As usual, it's a 9x12" image, in watercolor. The chrome hubcap was a challenge, but after recent efforts reproducing salt shakers for my Ralph Goings series, this wasn't too bad.) Wouldn't it have been fun to drive the new Pennsylvania Turnpike - considered an engineering marvel for its time - in a huge 1939 Ford?

Historians are often asked by their students the following question: If you could travel back in time to one event or period, what would it be? And my answer always surprised them . . . until I explained myself. I'd return to the 1939/40 New York World's Fair. (When I was a history professor, one of my sub-specialties was post-World War II America, and more specifically, the development of the auto-centric, suburban, consumption-crazed society with which we're still burdened.)

If one looks at the history of "world's fairs" and "expositions" in the U.S. one finds a very colorful story. And while we didn't have a monopoly on this kind of celebration - the English and French had a well-established tradition of holding "international expositions," the London Crystal Palace Exposition of 1851 being the best example - Americans clearly enjoyed the "exposition" medium. Beginning in 1876 with our Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the U.S. hosted a series of "world's fairs" that included the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the Pan-American Exposition of 1901 in Buffalo, the 1903/04 St. Louis World's Fair, the 1907 Jamestowne Exposition in Virginia, a Chicago World's Fair in 1933/34 and the New York World's Fair of 1939/40. Although each fair was significant in the context of its era, the 1939 New York World's Fair stands out for several reasons.

Obviously the timing of this fair is critical to its legacy. It came at the end of a decade punctuated by the Great Depression and represented a last gasp of international cooperation on the eve of the Second World War. In fact, before the Fair closed in late 1940, the war had started, and Poland and France had fallen to Nazi Germany. Yet it's the theme of the Fair - "the World of Tomorrow" - which separates it from its predecessors. Our previous exposition efforts had usually represented commemmorations of significant historic events: the national centennial, settlers landing at Jamestowne in 1607, the Lewis and Clark expedition (1904, St. Louis), or Columbus "discovering" the New World (Chicago, 1893). And while we used these venues to show off some of our technological and engineering achievements, a majority of the exhibits were about entertaining the masses with low-brow amusements and colorful historical re-enactments.

Sure, the 1939 Fair had its share of amusements, particularly in its 1940 season. Yet the optimistic Fair organizers earnestly sought to make this occasion different. Fair visitors paid their admission and were rewarded with a display of the newest innovations corporate America had to offer: electric appliances, plastics, robots, cutting-edge farm equipment, and television. And although a majority of the people attending couldn't yet afford the new consumer items on display, the Fair primed a pump of demand which would be turned on with a vengeance after World War II.

In addtion, the New York World's Fair represented a harbinger of the "American Dream" and suburban ideal which would transform the American landscape post-1945. Indeed, the most popular exhibit was the General Motors "Futurama" in which visitors saw a model of what America would possibly look like in 1960 . . . if General Motors - and the infamous Robert Moses, one of the Fair's key proponents - had their way. The "Futurama" predicted a world in which people lived in bucolic suburbs and drove their cars on superhighways to offices in nearby cities. No doubt this was a powerful vision to apartment-living urban dwellers who had little chance to buy their own homes.

Each visitor to the "Futurama" received a button that said, "I Have Seen the Future." And they had! The America they saw in model form became the America of the postwar world, realized first in the mass-produced homes of Levittown on Long Island, and copied repeatedly across the nation. The residents of these new suburbs, enjoying a level of prosperity not seen since the 1920s, filled those homes with the consumer goods - including televisions - so prominently displayed at the 1939 Fair.

That being said, one can approach the fair from other angles as well. From a design standpoint it represented the height of Art Deco style in America, particularly as illustrated by the Fair's symbols, the Trylon and Perisphere. The New York World's Fair also influenced the vision of Walt Disney, who would use some of the lessons learned in 1939 in the construction of Disneyland in the 1950s. Interest in the Fair has only grown, particularly among collectors of memorabilia. Among my various collections of antiques and "junk" the largest group likely comes from the Fair, including a mountain of souvenirs, plates, and books. I even have a couple of those "I Have Seen the Future" pins. Realizing I can't time travel back to 1939, I collect these items to experience some of the magic of the event. It's not a substitute for a good H.G. Wells-like adventure, but it will have to do for now.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

"Here is the church, here is the steeple . . ."

" . . . open the doors, and there are the people." If you grew up in a family that attended church, you probably recall this little rhyme which was always accompanied by one's hands forming a church and steeple. Some of my earliest memories are of attending church with my family and that experience - good and bad - obviously constitutes an important part of my complex spiritual DNA. And, if one were to try and scribble a grocery list of my beliefs, the resulting enumeration would look as if I had gone to the "Piggly Wiggly" store and browsed the aisles for the most eclectic selection possible: plenty of carbs, a psalm or two, a pinch of agnosticism, sugary snacks, a healthy dose of seafood (because, hey, weren't a bunch of Jesus' disciples fishermen?) and hot dogs, which are ultimately all about faith. So at 43, racing for the checkout lines - and I certainly do not have twelve items or less - I'm starting to wonder what's this all going to cost and did I forget something in Aisle Three? (If you read my "Lenten non-discipline" post, you're probably now wondering if I was serious about that whole "non-discipline" thing. This isn't a "discipline"; it's just a bit of self-examination prompted by my reading.)

Living in New York City one encounters a seemingly limitless wealth of religious traditions. I've encountered atheists, Buddhists, Buddhist Christians, Quakers, Unitarians, Unitarians who believe in the Resurrection, fundamentalist Baptists, liberal Baptists, lukewarm Methodists, evangelical Episcopalians, mink-adorned Episcopalians, Hassidic Jews, Orthodox Jews, non-practicing Jews, Muslims, and a diversity of Catholics that hobbles one's understanding of the Catholic Church. And this is, by any means of measurement, not a complete list. Although I knew the City was a heterogeneous place vis-a-vis religion, I still found it altogether unsettling at first. There were so many choices! Where does a southerner in New York City start when "religious diversity" has always meant Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, as well as a few Episcopalians and Lutherans, living together in one's community under a cease fire reminiscent of the 1914 "Christmas Truce" of World War I. They're willing to leave their trenches long enough to sing a verse of Silent Night, but thereafter the sniping continues. As for Catholics and Jews in the South . . . in many towns and cities they represent the religious margins.

So, where does this leave me, possessing a higgledy-piggledy spiritual DNA, a double helix of agnosticism, Southern Baptist childhood, Episcopal adulthood, casual flirtations with Buddhism and Quakerism, as well as a fascination with some of the more ascetic and insular religious sects, including the Hassidim and the Amish? (Although the Shakers have much to admire, their separation of men and women, as well as prohibitions against marriage and sex, represent deal breakers.) Complicating the matter, I also represent that segment of the liberal populace that thinks "fundamentalist Christians," particularly those who identify with the Republican party and have tried to manipulate its agenda through groups like the Christian Coalition, are America's answer to 1930s fascism. These people - and not Islamic-based terrorist cells - are the most dangerous group in this country . . . but nothing new, given our nation's long history of breeding religious extremists. (Read Bruce Bawer's Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity for an excellent examination of this topic.)

I'm beginning to reach the conclusion - long in the works - that we're all chasing after the same God. Christians don't have a monopoly on "the truth" and are rather arrogant to think it. Indeed, Jesus and the Buddha have more in common than most Christians realize. (No doubt many of my deceased antecedents, particularly the Methodist-Episcopal ministers and Baptist Sunday School teachers, are now rolling in their graves.) Unfortunately, however, many Christians in the U.S., including members of my own family, maintain that myopic view of their faith, in which a thoroughly Anglo-Saxon, almost hippie-like Jesus, presides over the faithful.

An old friend refers to this mass produced, suspiciously feminine image as the "benign Jesus." She even collects "benign Jesus" ephemera, including postcards, clocks, and calendars. Of course, the most famous example comes from Warner Sallman, whose painting, "The Head of Jesus" (1941), has arguably become the most widely circulated image of Christ, having been reproduced an estimated 500 million times. In the largely Protestant South, this image showed up on everything but grocery bags. Every "fellowship hall" from Charleston to Biloxi possessed at least one framed copy, while churches and funeral homes always included Sallman's painting on hand-held fans in the years B.A.C. (before air conditioning). I'm also quite certain that my paternal grandmother's living room included at least one Sallman rendering of Jesus (and the man produced many, in addition to the "Head of Jesus," including the image at the top of this post).

Where do I stand in this religious fray, having rejected the path trod by my Baptist and Methodist forbears? Hmmmm, it's still a work in progress, like some of my paintings. Although occasionally involved in a neighborhood Lutheran congregation, I'm still intrigued by Buddhism and the Quakers. Perhaps it's a product of their common emphasis on simplicity and a belief that one needs to pare away the extraneous material elements in one's life. I recently saw something of this in a Henri Nouwen book on the current relevance of early Christian ascetics, although it's a practice that enjoys only a limited following in this age of "mega-churches," which seem little more than Wal-Marts for the religious bargain hunter. For now, I'll continue to read and assimilate these new ideas, questioning my Buddhist friends and perhaps even attending a Quaker meeting. And although I want my children to reap the potential benefits of an upbringing that includes religion, I don't want them to face the "you must go to church each week" mentality that punctuated my childhood. If they become atheists, I'll be disappointed. However, if they eventually decide to become Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, or something altogether different, so be it. At least they will have made a conscious choice to recognize that voice of God which doubtless stirred our earliest human ancestors.

Monday, March 12, 2007

"Toy" Camera Addendum

Here are two more taken with the craptacular Vivitar. They're actually better than I expected. I think shooting in bright light must heighten the distortion and flare characteristic of such awful lenses.

"Toy" Cameras

To camera enthusiasts there's a subgroup that enjoys a considerable following on the web: so-called "toy" or "junk" cameras. These are usually poorly made, mass produced cameras, sometimes intended for children, but typically either sold to unsuspecting consumers lured by pretty plastic or given away as cheap carnival prizes. The most obvious example of this group is the "Diana" and its numerous manifestations. Some enthusiasts will also toss in the Holga as a signature model. (For a more thorough and humorous discussion of these cameras and their artistic utility, check out or Regardless of origin, most can be classified according to several common variables, including, but not limited to: crappy (usually plastic) optics, light leaks, lens flare, and cheap price (usually less than $20). And while most people have no use for these cameras - particularly as the tide of digital photography advances - there is a devoted following that sees the toy camera as a tool for artistic expression. As notes: "Toy camera photographers are rebels who want to prove that you can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear."

Sure, I love a beautifully rendered photograph that's a product of a keen eye and excellent glass. Perusing a compendium of Edward Steichen photos the other night (I've posted one of his classic Flatiron Building shots.) I marveled at the velvety texture of his black and white images. And I'd love to drop several thousand dollars on a new Leica. But there's also considerable beauty in the fuzzy image rendered by a Holga. Toss in some lens flare and contracted depth of field, and your photo could resemble the efforts of the earliest photography pioneers - without the caustic chemicals and protracted exposure times. Daguerre and Fox Talbot would laud your efforts.

Until now, the "toy" camera genre has focused on film-based images. Yet it should come as no surprise that the same mindset which inspired film-based "toy" cameras has brought us "toy" digital cameras. Go to any Wal-Mart or "dollar store" and you'll see them: cheap digital cameras, some with recognizable names like Vivitar, promising fantastic results and a whopping 1 to 2 megapixels . . . joined to the same craptacular optics that anchor the original "toy" camera group. Snap away! Drop the images onto your hard drive, crop your image into a square format, and voila! . . . an image to make a Holga enthusiast proud.

Well, obviously this is leading to something . . . I finally broke down and used a "toy" digital camera that we had lying about at home . . . a tiny Vivitar that takes beautifully hazy images complete with flare. Sadly, there are no light leaks since it's digital. The two images I've posted here represent the best of about a dozen. While snapping these I was also trying out some b&w film in a 1950s Argus C3 "Brick" - one of the ubiquitous cameras of that period, more recently featured in a Harry Potter film in which a C3 is used by a reporter for the school paper. (No doubt Argus enthusiasts, legion in the eccentric world of cheap camera collecting, uttered gasps of rhapsodic recognition at a moment in the film which must have puzzled their fellow moviegoers.) When I have those photos developed, I'll post a couple of the better ones for comparison. These were taken at a playground in the West Village which abuts a large warehouse-like building on Horatio Street. The trees form line at the back of the playground and without their leaves sit starkly against the large expanse of concrete and brick. I'll be curious to see how this looks when the trees leaf out in April. Hmmmm, perhaps some color "toy" camera photos? I'm actually happy with these images, like the contrast and the trees' shadows on the wall. (And as always, one can click on each image for a larger version . . . if one feels compelled to enlarge the imperfections and blur.

Who knows, I may actually have to go out and get that Holga after all. I shoot a lots of 120 film on vintage cameras with good optics, so it would be fun to see first hand how that medium format translates. Again, check out the links I provided; they're informative and entertaining, particularly the Junk Store camera page.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Silent Cal

Having recently made reservations at Killington for our family's annual Columbus Day weekend trip to Vermont, I have to note that this is one of the high points of each autumn. Indeed, it's probably my favorite family activity . . . and we've been doing it for about 7 or 8 years now. We leave after school on Friday and return late on Monday, so we have a decent amount of time to drive around and see the fall foliage. Nevertheless, about the only bow we make to the typical tourist ritual is a quick trip to the Vermont Country Store in Weldon. Otherwise, we spend our time looking for off-the-beaten-path hamlets, local diners, and Vermont's unpaved roads (which are better than some states' paved roads).

When first making this trip we stumbled upon the Calvin Coolidge historic site in Plymouth Notch. It has a little museum, the General Store (pictured at right in a badly executed tourism photo) run by his family (in which he took the presidential oath of office from his father following the sudden death of Warren G. Harding), some farm buildings, a church, a small cheese manufactory, and beautiful grounds with lots of grass and apple trees. We never spend more than an hour or two on the grounds and my boys love running about in the crisp, early October air after spending considerable time in a cramped car with Mom and Dad saying, "Oh, isn't this quaint," and "Check out the bright oranges and reds on that mountain" for the umpteenth time.

Now I'm not specifically a fan of Coolidge, whose devotion to small government and a laissez-faire economy doesn't really mesh with my own socialist outlook. To a certain extent, one could say he represented a throw-back to the presidents of the Gilded Age. Still, I can excuse Coolidge's affiliation with the Republican party because he was one of the most honest presidents in our history - at a time when public confidence in the office of the chief executive had been shaken by the scandel-ridden administration of Harding. The current Bush could learn something from studying Coolidge's behavior. But enough of the presidential history lesson . . .

Calvin Coolidge had a reputation for circumspection. In fact, as a man of few words he earned the nickname "Silent Cal." Visiting Plymouth Notch, one can understand readily the cause for Coolidge's silence. Every year I'm struck anew by the sheer beauty and silence of the place. Tucked into Vermont's mountains, Plymouth Notch oozes quietude the way New York City literally bleeds noise. (Mind you, I actually like the background noise of the City: it's akin to the white noise hiss of a fan or the man-made equivalent of a radio astronomer's background noise, which is said to be the leftover energy from the Big Bang.) How could Calvin Coolidge not have become a quiet person? The silence probably seeped into his skin, osmosis-like, from an early age. And obviously the oeuvre of the place stuck with him in later life, long after he had left Vermont to become involved in Massachusetts politics (which included a stint as governor). In fact, he used the family home in Plymouth Notch - and a large room above the general store for an office - as a summer retreat during his presidency.

Well, it's no surprise that Plymouth Notch, having made such an impression, should become a subject for my paintings and photographs. The "Gulf" gas pump sits in front of the general store. I've painted it several times from different angles and this is the most recent example . . . at 11x14 a little larger than my usual 9x12's. (In the photograph of the store above, one can just make at the pump to the left of the steps.) The weathered barn is near the store. (This proved to be a very difficult painting; trying to capture the look of aging wood is not easy, I discovered.)

So, my reservations are booked . . . Calvin Coolidge, here we come again.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

"A horse is a horse, of course, of course . . ."

Greenwich Village is filled with historic homes and buildings. The fact that some of the streets still have their cobblestones is icing on the cake. And if you spend much time walking in the Village, you'll notice residential, commercial, and mixed-use buildings that clearly weren't constructed with their present occupants in mind. There are a couple of old police precinct buildings, some breweries, fire stations, and, in the case of this post, stables. Indeed, within just a few blocks of my home, there are several buildings reminding one that Manhattan was once dominated by horses and carriages, rather than the now ubiquitous bright yellow-orange cabs. And although you might immediately conclude that a horse's head protruding from a building represents a unique architectural embellishment for an urban stable, this building is only one of several that I've noticed with prominent equine heads. So enjoy a bit of old New York City.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Homage to Ralph Goings: Part 3

This is the third and final painting in the series, an homage to photo-realist Ralph Goings. Of the three, this one proved most difficult because of the complicated lighting and the refraction of light and color through the glass shakers. I'm not happy with the scan; it's too bright in some areas, particularly in the dark background and ketchup bottle. Still, I'm pleased with the set . . . but ready to put the shakers and ketchup bottles away and return to architectural themes for a bit. Any thoughts of which is the best of the three?

Monday, March 5, 2007

C.S. Lewis and my Lenten "non-discipline"

When it comes to the Lenten season, I'm usually not one to embark on suddenly strict regimens in which I deny myself alcohol, sex, or fattening desserts. Nor will I likely assume the mantle of prayerful penitent, spending that period between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday in daily meditation, soliciting God for the forgiveness of my sins. Nevertheless, I often try to turn my reading to matters spiritual during this period. I take Lent as a break from my normal reading routine, which is usually punctuated by tomes of history, sociology, and even the sciences. Last year, for example, I took Lent to march through a book recommended by a friend. The Buddha in Your Mirror represented a stark - and welcome - departure from the usual Christianity-focused efforts. But for several years - excluding the last - I've turned to C.S. Lewis, the great 20th century champion for an intellectually-based Christianity, and I enjoyed thoroughly God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics and Surprised by Joy: The Shape of my Early Life.

So this year it's a biography of Lewis by a professor from Wheaton College, the repository for Lewis's papers. The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis promises to be a dense but enjoyable read. Indeed, within the first few pages I was struck by a passage which resonates so thoroughly with the core of who I am, I have to share it.

"My happiest hours are spent with three or four old friends
in old clothes tramping together and putting up in small
pubs - or else sitting up till the small hours in someone's
college rooms talking nonsense, poetry, theology,
metaphysics over beer, tea, and pipes."

Having spent many hours in one of Lewis's favorite Oxford pubs - a darkly ancient, ghost-inhabited pub likewise frequented by Lewis's friend Tolkein - I understand his sentiments. And having experienced that academic or intellectual camaraderie during my years as a historian, I agree passionately with his observation. Those indeed are some of "my happiest hours" and I wish they weren't quite so rare.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Elementary School

I visit my sons’ elementary school quite often . . . for drop-off and pick-up, afterschool activities, fundraising events, etc. And although it’s a New York City public school, it has the feel of a private school, which is doubtless a product of its location in the heart of Greenwich Village. (Unfortunately, some of the snobbery associated with the private school milieu has seeped into the environment, particularly in the context of the “clubbish” PTA leadership. But I’m not here to write about “the ladies who lunch.”) Wandering the bright halls of the school, marveling at the myriad displays of art and kindergarten scholarship, I’m often drawn back to my own elementary experience, which is far, far removed from the Greenwich Village School.

Although I started 1st Grade in 1970, the Virginia county in which I resided was only then at the genesis of its desegregation efforts. To make matters worse, the county, one of the state’s oldest, was land rich but revenue poor and would soon merge with one of the cities that forms the Tidewater or Hampton Roads area of southeastern Virginia.

When I visit my parents – who have lived in the same house since two weeks before my birth in 1964 – I still often drive by my elementary school and reflect on the impact of that experience. I can even remember the names of my teachers – Ms. Coiner, Mrs. Keeling, and Mrs. Scott – which doubtless illuminates something of the effect of that three-year ordeal. I remember Ms. Coiner because she recognized my reading ability and allowed me to roam beyond the confines of the 1st grade curriculum. Mrs. Keeling was significant because she took my parents aside and urged them to send me to a private school. And Mrs. Scott stands out for her patent inability to maintain control of the classroom. (Even now my mother comments on Mrs. Scott’s failures.)

And my memories of Florence Bowser Elementary School? Distilled through 37 years my initial recollections tend to be negative, unfortunately. I say “unfortunately” because shouldn’t one have fond memories of first grade? I remember that the halls were dark and narrow, a perception doubtless shaped by the unique vision of a seven-year old boy. The classrooms at the start of each year in early September were stifling, even with the windows open. The rare breezes which swept across the adjacent soybean and peanut fields would set the heavy paper roller blinds flapping – each blind anchored by a wood rod at the bottom that rapped on the steel window frames. In winter the temperature was maintained at a sauna-like level, inducing sleep in a majority of students and staff. I have visions of the boiler room – always staffed, it appeared, by grandfatherly African-American men – with a thermostat that must have included settings that ranged from “Nursing Home Hot” to “Pottery Kiln.” It’s a wonder any work was accomplished from November until March.

Yet the cafeteria perhaps registers most vividly now, and for several reasons. First, the food – all freshly prepared in giant pots filled from industrial-sized cans – was far removed from what might be deemed “acceptable” to the elementary school palette. I can still remember the enormous piles of collard greens, kale, spinach, creamed onions, and creamed corn that would be ladled onto our hard plastic, compartmentalized lunch trays. I also remember drinking lots of milk, a nickel for each half pint, and eating lots of cornbread. Once a month, the menu sent home to parents would include an ambiguous entry, “Managers Choice,” which I think gave the kitchen manager license to take leftovers, partially opened drums of stewed tomatoes, and pork knuckles, and transform them into a gruel-like stew that would have left Dickens aghast. (Faced with this menu, my sons would no doubt starve.)

The cafeteria also left me with one of my earliest encounters with poverty. Indeed, I can still clearly recall an assembly of the whole school. At the adjacent table, a little African-American girl rested on her knees and leaned across the table to chat with friends. A fellow student noticed that beneath her dirty short skirt, her white panties were riddled with holes. I recall asking my parents – clandestine liberals surrounded by pro-segregation neighbors, co-workers and church members – why this girl would have come to school in soiled, ragged underwear. And my father proceeded to explain in simple terms the stark reality of race and poverty which surrounded us. (At the time there were still areas of the county in which impoverished African-Americans huddled together in the remnants of old sharecropper cabins. They nearly always clustered around a little store – equally ramshackle – and a clapboard church, painted white and immaculately maintained. I think it’s pretty obvious where their priorities lay. Today, only a mile from my parents’ home, the cabins are gone, but the church remains.)

After three years my parents announced that I would attend a private school about 30 minutes from our home. It had a diverse student body, provided a nurturing environment and was my school home until I graduated high school. The person I am at 43 owes a lot to that experience. But upon reflection, I have no doubt that those three years at Florence Bowser also constitute a bit of the psychological luggage one carries through life. And I have to temper those initially negative recollections with recognition of the historical context of the experience. At least from the viewpoint of an elementary school student, Florence Bowser was not a hotbed of racial hatred. Moreover, as far as I’m aware, there were no riots or threats of violence. And aside from being labeled a “white soda cracker” by an angry Gail Miller in the 3rd grade, I never witnessed the overt racial hostility that punctuated school life in not-too-distant Prince Edward County and other parts of the South. In the end, I like to think that the lessons learned at Florence Bowser Elementary, reinforced at home by decidedly color-blind parents, provided a positive foundation on which to develop a healthy attitude about race. And more recently, I’ve enjoyed pointing out the school to my boys, who marvel that “Daddy” could have been in the 1st grade.