Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Happy Birthday to me . . .

Turning 43 today is not that momentous. As my grandfather observed whenever my mother or grandmother complained about birthdays, "It beats the alternative."

Lots of unanswered questions, of course. And I'm not entirely happy with where I am or what I've accomplished. Obviously fatherhood is a significant accomplishment and ongoing struggle. Some would argue that I should be satisfied with the progress thus far. But for me there's still a disconnect between youthful expectations/aspirations and the present reality.

The other day someone asked me a) What would be your dream job, and b) If you could be anywhere else right now, where would you be? My dream job alternates between being a full-time artist with a nice studio in a brownstone here in the city . . . or working as a travel writer. If I could be anywhere else, I'd either be hiking in the Yorkshire Dales or walking along the shore of Iona, a tiny island in the Scottish Hebrides that is home to a 6th century monastery, a few sheep, and even fewer people.

I know that sounds like an odd choice, given the typical response that includes "on a beach in (insert your favorite tropical location here)." But it really is a magical location, in the Celtic tradition considered one of the "thin places" (in Gaelic, CAOL ÁIT, pronounced "keel awtch"), a spot where this world and the realm of the spirit come close together. It's the burial site for numerous ancient Scottish kings (including Macbeth) and has some excellent examples of Celtic crosses.

It's also rather remote and not easy to reach. (First, travel to the northwest of Scotland, the town of Oban . . . catch a ferry at Oban to the Isle of Mull . . . then drive to the end of Mull on mostly gravel, single-lane roads . . . then take a passengers-only ferry over to Iona. If you're ever in Scotland, it's worth the effort!)

Now . . . should I get a tattoo of a Celtic cross for my birthday (to go on either just above my ankle or on my shoulder)? It would be my first tattoo. I already wear a Celtic knot earring.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Son #1

So with my impending birthday, I'll continue in the vein of showing off the progeny. This is Son #1, who will be 8 in the spring. He's the athlete, excelling at soccer and baseball, already throwing a ball at 40 mph. Since this photo was taken a couple of years ago he has lost the rest of that "baby fat" and now looks like a little gymnast. His upper body strength and muscle definition are amazing. I'm envious. LOL. He lives and breathes sports, and will watch baseball, football, basketball, whatever is on, whether pro or college. He also has an incredible memory for player names and faces. He's a redhead - closer to the strawberry blond or well-worn copper penny, depending on the light. He also has the fiery personality often associated with redheads. He's also demonstrating considerable facility for music, which is a relief, since my wife and I are both musicians.

I like this photo, and the pic of Son #2, posted earlier. The contrast between light and shadow really works, I think. Both were scanned from 120 prints, the originals taken on a vintage Czech-made TLR from the 1950s, hand-metered with a vintage Weston selenium meter. (Yes, I have a rather eccentric approach to photography. Most is done with vintage cameras and I guess reflects my background as a historian and archivist.

"Whistlin' Dixie" - Part 2: The "Romance" of the Old South

Perhaps more than any other period in American history - and fans of Westerns will argue with me - the "Old South" has been romanticized ad nauseum. From Gone With the Wind, North and South, and countless other TV and movie adaptations, to an ongoing hoop-skirted parade of Harlequin romances, the antebellum South and the Civil War (which provided a bloody, albeit equally romanticized, exclamation point to the period) have been given the saccharine-coated treatment for over one hundred years. Bankers and bricklayers spend their free weekends donning authentic Civil War-era uniforms and re-enact some of the conflict's bloodiest encounters. (Their wives and girlfriends - some enthusiastic, some dubious - cinch themselves into corsets and play the parts of wives, grieving widows, proud mothers, and camp followers!) Visit Charleston, South Carolina, Mobile, Alabama, or a host of other southern destinations possessing intact plantation edifices, and one finds an often garish display of "Old South" culture. How does one explain this phenomenon?

No doubt some of this can be explained in the ways we account for our nostalgia over the "roaring 20s" or the "fabulous 50s." We filter the unpleasant realities and regard these periods as "a golden age" or "simpler time." Yet examining the mythic character of the 1950s - with which we're all familiar thanks to Leave It to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, and Happy Days - Stephanie Coontz, in her landmark monograph, The Way We Never Were, notes that Leave It to Beaver was "not a documentary." We could say the same thing about Gone With the Wind.

Margaret Mitchell's novel describes a South enjoyed by only a small percentage of the total populace. Although happy, deferential stereotypes, her African-American characters hardly represent the estimated 4 million slaves living in the region in 1860. The bulk of the white population was desperately poor, engaging in subsistence farming. A miniscule middle class clustered in the region's widely scattered town and few cities. In short, the South was a pre-capitalist, agrarian society possessing scant manufacturing. Literacy levels were lower in the South, while infant mortality rates were higher than other regions of the country. (My mother's family owned slaves, farming the tobacco lands of south-central Virginia. They supported secession, fought in the war, while one served in the Confederate Congress. In the postwar period, they maintained control of the land and its labor force, using former slaves as sharecroppers.)

As for the war, greeted with all the emotional fervor one would expect from a society well-enamored of its established militia system, it quickly shed the romantic garb of the zouaves and the ridiculous names of local volunteer units (for example, the "Montgomery Fighting Yankee Killers"), and embodied all of the horror that one associates with warfare of the 19th century.

How do I feel about the romanticization of the "Old South?" I'm not entirely certain. To be sure, there's much of the "history" associated with this vision that's simply incorrect. Yet, every society engages in this kind of mythologizing or fictionalizing of its history. Just look at the way the English have treated the Middle Ages! In the end, a touch of the romantic in our interpretation of the "Old South" isn't necessarily a bad thing, as long as it's balanced with a knowledge of the reality.

Son #2

This is Son #2, who is now 6. He's the sensitive one, the artist, highly independent, and a vocal critic of the current administration in Washington. Upon seeing a replay of Bush's State of the Union Address on the morning news he asked, "Daddy, why is George Bush such a bad man?" How does one explain to a six-year old the dangerous results of combining ignorance with malevolence? And forget trying to explain how the Republican party has become America's equivalent to the 2oth century's fascists.
Turning 43 tomorrow, and although it's not milestone, I have a touch of melancholia today. Ruminating on some of the issues raised in my "Whistlin' Dixie" post and might add more to that later.

Monday, January 29, 2007

"Whistlin' Dixie" - Part One

Responding to my "Manifest Destiny" post, a blogger friend noted that she felt the same kind of fascination with the South. No doubt her motivation is a product of some of the same factors that have defined my own interest in the West. (For a long time I felt the same about parts of rural England and Scotland, particularly the Yorkshire Dales and the Hebridean islands. Having now visited both and tempered my romantic visions with the cold shower of reality, I'm still smitten. Both are among the rare destinations for which the reality matches the glossy postcard ideal.)

But the South . . . where to begin? First, realize that there are multiple "Souths" defined by different histories, cultural influences, foods, weather, geography, etc. Sociologist John Shelton Reed - whose books inspired the name of this blog - made a career at UNC trying to identify the variables that define the South. What he found was fascinating. Surveying older southerners, Reed discovered that scions of the South identified some pretty obvious elements when trying to define their region: the Civil War, the experience of slavery and the Civil Rights movement, weather and geography, religious fervor, conservatism, speech. Yet he received very different answers from younger southerners who had been born and raised in the post-segregation era. These respondents, when trying to define "southerness," often cited food, NASCAR, regional accents, "wrestling" (think WWF), bass fishing, and humor (think Jeff Foxworthy or Larry the Cable Guy). Hmmmm, that's something of a shift.

With most of these answers I'm not surprised. The failure to link the Civil War to the region's identity is a bit surprising, however, even when one factors in U.S. students' increasing ignorance about matters historical and geographical. Growing up in the 60s and 70s, the Civil War was still a much-discussed topic. I had grandparents who remembered not-so-distant grandparents reminiscing about the experience. My paternal grandmother would laugh when talking about how she and her siblings had played with a trunk full of "worthless" Confederate money. There were numerous photos of relatives who had survived that period and its trials. Moreover, growing up in Virginia I was literally surrounded by battlefields. Our family vacations nearly always included stops at the far-flung encampments of the Confederate and Union armies: Vicksburg, Shiloh, Chattanooga. As if Manassass, Fredericksburg, the Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Petersburg, Cold Harbor, and Appomattox - all in Virginia - weren't enough for my parents and grandparents. My maternal grandfather in particular loved steering his '63 Ford Galaxy 500 from monument to monument, redoubt to redoubt.

For college, I succumbed to the siren-song of history (and the plain, unvarnished stupidity of a typical 18-year old ) and attended the Virginia Military Institute (sometimes referred to as "the West Point of the South") where Stonewall Jackson (a professor at VMI) and Robert E. Lee (buried next door at Washington and Lee University) were still very vivid personalities. For a school so grounded in the traditions of the "Old South," I'm still amazed over the number of non-southerners who flocked to VMI.

(An aside about my parents . . . Ed and Corenne in no way romanticized the Civil
War, nor did they ever regard it as the "Lost Cause." There are plenty of people in the South who still feel that way; read Tony Horwitz's brilliant Confederates in the Attic. Civil War battlefields, however, just happened to be the most convenient stops for parents who enjoyed history in general. Living only 45 minutes from Williamsburg, Jamestowne and Yorktowne, our Sunday drives and school field trips also included a healthy dose of Colonial and Revolutionary history. If we were traveling in other parts of the U.S., we invariably stopped at historical markers, Native American reservations, and the sites of myriad "firsts" in American history. Perhaps this early exposure to things historical explains my decision to be a history major in college? Nah.)

But back to the theme of Southern identity and the Civil War . . . for an older generation of southerners there's that great passage from Faulkner which explains something of the mythic quality of the Civil War:
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

To be honest, I don't feel that way about the Civil War. Nevertheless, it's an integral element in defining the region. What other things "southern" do I think of when describing the region to northern friends? Here's a partial list, in no particular order, that represents just the tip of the iceberg.

1. Literature . . . There's definitely a genre of southern lit. with stellar examples: Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy. Those are just the most obvious examples. One could include countless other authors who use the region and its culture as a foundation for their stories.

2. Music . . . Where to begin? There's "southern rock," Dixieland, bluegrass, country, blues, gospel, Elvis (Are you a Presleyterian?), and often an amalgam of several of these genres to form new hybrids.

3. NASCAR . . . As much as I dislike this and miss the point of watching cars drive around a big oval, it is a southern staple that is becoming increasingly popular beyond the South.

4. Juke joints . . . You know those little rectangular concrete buildings that dot the southern landscape . . . with their Bud Lite neon and rows of pickups parked outside. They're the southern equivalent of the English pub. There's always a pool table, juke box, and a jar of pickled eggs on the bar. In some Deep South locations one can find juke joints that have windows on the side of the building from which African Americans, not welcome inside, can order food and beer. Often there's an adjacent picnic table.

5. Football . . . In some places it's the equivalent of a second religion. In Texas football is life.

6. Race . . . Even in the post-Civil Rights movement era race is still a potent issue. And one encounters the broad spectrum of race relations to its fullest in the South, from warm racial relations in communities once torn apart by the struggle over segregation . . . to communities in which racist rhetoric and Klan activity are either openly practiced or given a veneer of "respectability" under the banner of the local Republican party. Thankfully, words like "colored" - and worse - which I heard regularly as a child have largely disappeared from the southern lexicon.

7. Religion . . . From our seemingly ubiquitous TV preachers (Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Jim and Tammy Baaker, and Jimmy Swaggert), Billy Graham, the Southern Baptist Church, to numerous Pentecostal, Revivalist, Evangelical, Fundamentalist, New Life, Born-Again, Bible-Believing congregations, the South is a peculiarly religion-obsessed region. This subject deserves an entirely separate blog entry.

8. Food. Don't get me started. It goes on and on and on. And food usually goes hand-in-hand with religion. Think covered-dish suppers, wedding receptions, and post-funeral dinners. So it's no surprise that a recent National Geographic map showed the South with the highest numbers for heart disease in the U.S. The South also has the "fattest" counties in the country.

9. Speech . . . People from other parts of the U.S. love to make fun of southern accents. And there are so many variations. My own is very subtle, retaining a bit of the Tidewater drawl. When I first moved to east Tennessee in 1988 I was stunned by the accent. I could barely understand some of the residents. I'll never forget a waitress asking me and my family, "What'll you'uns have today?" There's the Georgia drawl, the distinctive New Orleans speech, that Texas drawl which is immediately recognizable, and countless local variations. Some sociologists will note that more distinctive examples of the southern patois are disappearing thanks to the influence of television and the influx of non-southern residents. If it means losing the term "you'uns" I'm all for it!

10. Conservatism . . . How to explain this one . . . it's a complex force, wrapped up in religion, history, provincialism, economic hardship, agrarianism. Addressing this force in southern society is like opening a Pandora's Box. Let's just say that the region's conservatism is one of the reasons I would find it hard to live again in the South. Spending 10 years in East Tennessee, I encountered a level of conservatism that very nearly resembled a celebration of ignorance, and in its ugliest moments seemed reminiscent of thinly disguised fascism.

To be continued . . .

Friday, January 26, 2007

Manifest Destiny

Since the first English settlers dropped anchor off of Jamestowne in 1607, "Americans" - and I use that terms in its loosest form - have looked westward for new opportunities on the "frontier." Colonial settlers looked to the Alleghenies and Shenandoah Valley as a new "West" to be explored and settled. By the time of Jefferson's presidency (1801-09), the "West" was the recently acquired Louisiana Purchase. And by the mid-19th century the United States was fully invested in realizing the concept of "Manifest Destiny" through which westward marching citizens believed that U.S. control of land all the way to the Pacific was God-ordained. (There was also a small, over-zealous group of expansionists - sometimes called the "Young America" movement - that believed we should take everything in North, Central, and South America.)

We've moved westward, often into frontier areas, lured by myriad variables: gold, silver, copper, free land under the Homestead Act, and more recently, the promise of work in factories spawned by World War II. Mormons found protection in the isolation of Deseret. Even as late as the last 50 years prior to the Great Depression, eastern and midwestern farmers saw promise in the last bits of unplowed prairie in the Texas Panhandle and "No-Man's-Land" of Oklahoma. John Steinbeck's Dust Bowl refugees looked to California as an agricultural promised land. Latter-day victims of gold fever ran away to Alaska and more recently flocked to that region for the promise of high wages during construction of the Alaska Pipeline. The West - or the frontier - has promised many things to many people.

(As an aside . . . many parts of the trans-Mississippi West are experiencing a significant depopulation, particularly the Plains states. Articles in the New York Times and National Geographic point out that some counties have populations lower than figures reported a century ago. In some cases, the population density in parts of Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas is low enough to fall under the old definition of "frontier." Parts of Alaska have higher population densities than much of Wyoming and Montana. Scores of towns sit isolated -bypassed by the interstates 50 years ago and bypassed by the digital age today - defined as communities only by the few remaining elderly residents. An equal number of communities already sit deserted, ghost towns without the romantic veneer of cowboys and saloons.

Although economic opportunity seems the constant in much of this attraction, the reasons people migrated are much more complex, varying according to individual circumstances. My own family, oddly enough, seems to have been largely immune to the pull of the West. My father's family has been rooted in Virginia since the 1630s, while my Mom's family has been planting tobacco in south-central Virginia since about 1700. Sure, there were the odd rogue characters in both families who fled the East for the promise of greener pastures or quick fortunes. But by and large the family has played it safe and held onto their little plots of exhausted soil, eschewing the speculative uncertainty of a westward migration. It's as if these people, having made the trans-Atlantic jump from England and France, exhausted their genetic stock of "let's take a chance on a new homeland."

For a long time I considered myself equally immune to the magnetic charm of the West. Why pull up roots when family was here, settled in an area in which they had a tangible history. Parents and grandparents could take me to see the homesteads and headstones of long-deceased generations. We had veterans of the Revolution. Officers and soldiers for the Confederacy. Even a member of the Confederate Congress. There were Methodist-Episcopal ministers, teachers, carpenters, watermen, tobacco farmers. There was always a palpable connection to the land.

Yet more recently I've started to hear the siren song of the West. However, it seems to be a slightly different tune, at least in the economic sense. As I mature as a painter and photographer, I look to that region, particularly New Mexico and Arizona, as a place to start over and realize my potential. (Already, I've been something of a family apostate, having moved north of the Mason-Dixon Line. To hear some relatives talk, one would think I had moved to Mars . . . or the outback. New York City seems that alien to them.) As I read this book about the Dust Bowl, I want to go see what attracted these farmers in the first place. I want to experience the West well beyond what one sees from I-40 and its rest areas.

During the era of the California Gold Rush and Oregon Trail, adventurers and settlers wrote of "seeing the elephant," a term borne of an age in which seeing an elephant as part of a traveling animal show or circus was indeed an exotic occurrence. (Some disappointed westward travelers returned, noting that they had "seen the elephant's trunk" or "seen the elephant's tail" and that view had proved sufficient.) Although I don't see it happening any time soon, I'm certainly ready to "see the elephant," even if it's just as a tourist and not as a permanent resident.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Jane Eyre and early Victorian England

Watched Masterpiece Theatre's production of Jane Eyre last night and it was magnificent . . . definitely worthy of the PBS costume drama tradition. Isn't it amazing that 160+ years later these novels - as well as those by late-Georgian/Regency era Jane Austen - continue to fascinate and garner the attention of film producers? Obviously they form the foundation for the English literary canon . . . altho' I suspect they're likely considered the bane of many high school or college lit students.

It's hard to explain, but this early Victorian period is particularly appealing to me. Sure, as a historian I studied the U.S. experience during this period ad nauseum. And even in an American context, this is an exciting era, punctuated by industrial revolution, intellectual ferment, political maturation, and a growing evangelical/reformist impulse. Yet there's something peculiarly attractive about the world as depicted in the Bronte works.

Although when she wrote Jane Eyre England was already well into its own Industrial Revolution, the world Charlotte Bronte portrays still seems pre-industrial and comfortably agrarian. Isambard Kingdom Brunel, railroads, workhouses, textile mills and the spoils of empire seem hazily distant. It's a literary world obviously borne of the Romantic impulse and relatively free of the appalling conditions detailed by Dickens just a few years later. And like Austen's characters, these are country people, inhabiting a society in which London is a distant, otherworldly place rarely, if ever, glimpsed.

Yes, I'm a fan of the Romantic writers! Yes, I'm ignoring the socio-economic inequities which defined English society during this period. Yes, I find novels of this ilk wonderfully escapist fare. (My wife jokes that one of the reasons I like this period and the projection of its manners and mores in novels is that women were obviously subordinated to the power - economic and political - of men. And absolutely . . . that's the reality of life in Victorian England. But I always remind her that when I read Bronte or Austen and their contemporaries, it's the strong women whom I adore. I'm always a sucker for Elizabeth Bennett, for example. And like Rochester, I would have been far more attracted to Jane than the shallow vessels who inhabit the world of his house party.) As a student of 19th century history I'm well aware of the brutal realities that defined life at every level of society. Even in the world of Bronte and Austen, death is a regular house guest. Sometimes, however, it's nice to step away from that reality and embrace the purely romantic, with all of the angst, family conflict, plot twists and histrionics these authors can throw at us. We can always come back to the Corn Laws, Great Reform Bill and Parliamentary shenanigans later.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Wishful thinking . . .

Still hoping for snow, but alas, it looks as if we'll just get rain and flurries with no accumulation tonight. Realize, I don't want a foot of snow and snarled traffic and - god forbid - cancelled school . . . but a good 6 inches can really make the city beautiful, particularly Central Park. Olmsted and Vaux certainly hit a homerun on that project. No doubt it's my favorite place in the city . . . certainly when there aren't many people in the Park, as on a snowy weekday morning when I took this photo a couple of years ago. The Park, the trees already muffling some of the city's noise, becomes eerily quiet on snowy days, the noise of the surrounding metropolis reduced to a hiss, a pleasant "white noise" inviting pauses on the Mall or looking across the Sheep Meadow. Bow Bridge becomes an image drawn from a fairy tale and the Boat Pond (the Conversatory Water, if you're looking at a map of Central Park) begs for visitors to clear the snow from a bench and sit.

Now, if I just had the snow and the friend with whom to sit, I'd be in a happy place indeed.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Is winter finally here?

Hailing from the South, I came to New York City expecting harsher winters than I had experienced growing up in coastal Virginia. Thus far I've been disappointed. We've had a little more snow than I had seen, but overall temperatures weren't really worse. Obviously the close proximity to water makes a difference; it certainly did for those of us living in the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area. The primary difference I've experienced here is that it gets cold earlier, and hangs on a little longer in March/April.

At this point, I'm wishing for a bit of snow . . . and we've usually had some by now! Alas, I'll post a photo I took a couple of years ago, and remember the beauty of Central Park in early morning snow, before the pedestrians and cleaning crews, and dogs have turned it into a mess.

The Weather Channel is predicting colder temperatures - finally - for New York City over the next couple of weeks! Perhaps it will snow.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Climate Change

Recently I added an editorial to an Op-Ed piece written by my friend Tom Glendening. You can find his original piece, written for "The Panelist" website, here. Tom's piece on climate change, its effects, and the possible solutions, was followed by two comments, one shouting an "Amen" from the choir, and the other declaring that climate change is a "hoax" cooked up by greedy scientists to secure funding. My response for "The Panelist" follows:

The first two comments offered here display the typically polarized debate over the severity - or existence - of climate change. Unfortunately, much of the debate in the last two decades - the period in which climate change alarms were first sounded and heard beyond the scientific community - has been shaped by a triumvirate of ignorance: a monolithic corporate system in which profits trump responsibility; conservative politicians who are little more than sharecroppers in the corporate fields; and evangelical Christians who alternate between preaching a "why bother" attitude with the imminence of the Second Coming, and emphasizing God's gift to mankind of "dominion" over the earth. What "fundamentalist" Christians often ignore in their interpretation of scripture is its emphasis on "stewardship" within that theme of "dominion." (As an aside, it's important to note that an increasingly vocal splinter group of conservative Christians has abandoned their bloc's anti-environmental stance and begun sounding the environmental trumpet - albeit to the tune of "stewardship of God's resources." If it brings them to the table, I'm not going to argue with their motivation.)

Since Plato's idea of philosopher-kings seems an unlikely course for our hedonistic, reality show society, we'll have to find an alternative to address the global issue of climate change and its impact, because it IS, ultimately, a global issue that requires global solutions. The United States acting alone will not solve the problem. Perhaps we can foster development of a more enlightened triumvirate that a) unites scientifically aware governments populated by politicians possessing an intact ethical DNA, b) a global corporate system that recognizes the deleterious effects unallayed climate change can have on the bottom line, and c) grassroots mobilization/education to create a groundswell of public opinion that will influence positively the first two elements in this list. (Realize that this goal will no doubt prove tantamount to dragging some of Plato's cavedwellers into the light. They will prefer the alternate reality of shadows cast on the wall. Let's just hope they, including Ben Hanley, notice when the cave becomes unbearably hot and unlivable.)

Upon reflection, the most important element in this group may be the shapers of public opinion. Because if there are enough Al Gores and Tom Glendenings (the author of the op-ed piece), public opinion - and consumer behavior - can tilt the monoliths of government and business into action.

A footnote: as a historian and artist, I tend to take the long view on most issues, realizing that if one looks closely enough, there are potent lessons to be learned from the collected data of our cultural histories. Take for example, the works of Pieter Brueghel the Elder, a 16h century Flemish painter. Many of his beautifully rendered images depict a northern Europe that is cold, snow-covered, and ice-bound. This was Brueghel's reality, not merely an artist's fantasy world. Average yearly temperatures during that period were only a few degrees cooler than today - causing scholars to refer to this period (varyingly estimated from 1550 to 1850) as Europe's "Little Ice Age." I won't go into the science that explains this period . . . nor will I address the manifold consequences vis-a-vis economics, health, politics, etc. Just understand that this period was caused by a seemingly miniscule shift in average yearly temperatures. The current threat - with effects potentially magnified by anthropogenic variables - appears much more dire . . . and will likely not inspire a latter-day Brueghel to leave behind paintings of bucolic community life or winter wonderlands.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Dust Bowl and the 1930s

I just started reading The Worst Hard Time, a National Book Award winner by Timothy Egan. It chronicles the Dust Bowl experience of the 1930s. For some reason that decade has really captured my attention of late. When one looks at this period in U.S. history, it's incredibly rich, whether one focuses on politics, sports, entertainment, economics, or art. It's as if the Great Depression represented this incredible petri dish in which our whole society was "cooked" as if in a giant lab experiment.
As an artist and photographer I'm primarily interested in the artistic responses of the period. Think of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans among the photographers . . . Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, Demuth, Scheeler, among the painters. And if one looks for a common denominator among these artists, and among some of the writers of the day - including Agee and Steinbeck - they often focused their work the so-called "Heartland," that region encompassing the Plains states. Why that region? Even today that area seems to garner considerable attention. In the last year, National Geographic did a feature article on the Plains states and the New York Times ran a series of articles on the depopulation of Plains states communities.

More on this subject - and the 1930s - on a later date.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Rainy Monday and Gorecki's Symphony #3

Today one feels the weight of New York City - the crushing weight of traffic, noise, filth, and people . . . so many people, huddled under their umbrellas, hidden behind their ipods and Posts, insulated - we think - from all of the shit that this city can put in your path. (No doubt for NY sports fans, it's an even more miserable day, the Jet and Giants having lost their playoff games yesterday.)

Today I wanted to stay in bed, which is a fairly typical sentiment for most Americans on Monday mornings. My problem is that I want to stay in bed every morning and make it last until early afternoon. But spouse and children rarely allow that to happen. Indeed, most mornings - weekend or weekday - we're awake by 7 a.m. ready - albeit often unwillingly - for school or soccer or basketball or whatever new activity awaits. (I don't know what I would do if one of my kids decided to be a top ice skater and had to make those 5 or 6 a.m. practices!)

Today is a day when the antidepressants don't seem to have much of an "anti" effect. Thankfully the office is quiet, nearly deserted, and I can plug the ipod into the speaker system and crank up Gorecki's Symphony #3 - the first movement - which is equally depressing and uplifting. It's one of my father's favorite pieces of music, altho' my Mom has declared it one of the most depressing pieces she has EVER heard. Yes, it can be dirge-like and each of the three movements is based on rather "downer" texts: a traditional Polish song about a grieving mother . . . one them I can't remember . . . and one drawn from a message scrawled by a prisoner being held by the Nazi SS during the 2nd World War. It's sometimes referred to as Gorecki's "War Symphony" and has been played at a number of Holocaust remembrance ceremonies. (The best known recording features Dawn Upshaw handling the solo vocals that punctuate each movement. However, there are a couple of other recordings that I prefer over Ms. Upshaw's interpretation.)

The bottom line: This is great music for a rainy Monday in New York City. To say it is "depressing" misses the incredible complexity of the work . . . but my mom, a very intelligent woman AND the queen of Harlequin Romances, rarely challenges herself when it comes to art.

As I think I've noted before in these posts - life demands a soundtrack - and Gorecki just happens to be today's score. With the return of sun and brisk temperatures tomorrow, the soundtrack could change to Gershwin . . . or My Chemical Romance . . . or the Arctic Monkeys. Who knows!

Thursday, January 4, 2007

NYC's Hypodermic Needle Monument

Manhattan's great phallus - or hypodermic needle, depending on one's perspective. Whatever your imagery, it's still impressive, particularly when one reflects on how quickly it was built, and when it was built - in the darkest, pre-New Deal days of the Great Depression. And in the post-9/11 world of New York City tourism, I think it has enjoyed a psychological resurgence in the minds of New Yorkers and visitors. It draws our attention - albeit momentarily - from the hole in the ground at the base of Manhattan. Granted, they're now constructing the "Freedom Tower" downtown and in just a few years it will rise to dominate the skyline. For those of you with younger kids always on the lookout for good picture books, take a look at the recent Sky Boys, about the construction of the Empire State Building. It has a nice story, introduces a bit of history, and is beautifully illustrated.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

And still I'm surprised!

Even after eight years in New York, I'm still surprised almost daily by the architectural diversity. One never knows what kind of embellishment you might encounter if you just look up a little. (Note to all those New Yorkers who stare at the pavement while walking: Look up! You're missing so much! And you can still avoid making eye contact with the hordes marching up and down the avenues.)

I found this little clock on Park Ave. in the low 30s. As it chimes the hours, the little troll/elf/?? groveling before the gnome raps his hammer on an anvil. Also, behind the troll/elf there's a shoe, out of which rises a lithe, sylph-like creature, who disappears when the chiming concludes. Just amazing.

Does anyone know this clock and have additional information? Was this building originally a site for making shoes? I know there was plenty of light industry in this part of Manhattan.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Eat Out Often

Living in New York City, one has seemingly limitless options for take out or dining out. The restaurants here literally cover the full spectrum of gastronomic possibilities, from diner fare to haute cuisine. As a parent with two little boys, however, options are limited. You don't waltz into Nobu with your 1st and 2nd grader and expect a warm reception and a prime table. Still, even when one factors in the "family-friendly" requirement, the choices are pretty amazing. My kids naturally prefer pizza, but they're more than happy to dine on Chinese, Thai, the food bar at Whole Foods (particularly the chicken caesar salad), and the occasional foray into sushi territory. To them, eating out is a common experience. If only I had enjoyed such choices as a kid growing up in Virginia in the 70s.

Eating out in the early 70s for my family was a rare treat, usually enjoyed only on Sundays after church or during vacations. Instead, we would eat at home, enjoying my mom's pot roast (seasoned with one packet of Lipton Onion Soup), fried chicken (skinless!), or [insert your favorite southern Sunday meal here]. If it could be breaded and cooked in the Mirro electric skillet - a wedding gift, circa 1961 - or dropped into the pressure cooker for "faster" cooking, my mom would try it. I stood for hours - at a respectable distance, lest schrapnel from an exploding Revere pressure cooker end my life - watching the pressure cooker steam away, the safety valve on top hissing and dancing, as a chicken, potatos and carrots heated. (On weeknights the fare was a bit simpler, primarily because my mom worked. Easy preparation was key. Today we have Rachael Ray; in 1973 we had Betty Crocker's Easy Meals and Spam Hawaiian Style - slices of spam grilled in the electric skillet, served with canned pineapple slices and cinnamon. Yum-O.)

Eating out, therefore, was an adventure. There was a McDonald's nearby, one of the old ones that had the twin golden arches impaling the building, left and right, in a statement of space age architectural hedonism. But my father refused to eat at McDonald's. To him it was too noisy and too greasy. It also violated his rule about tablecloths and restaurants. If a place didn't have tablecloths, we didn't go there. For several years our only other option was Shoney's Big Boy, which had tablecloths, and damn good iced tea, thus keeping my father happy.

I'll always remember the sign on the door - a little decal placed by the American Restaurant Association - proclaiming "Eat Out Often." To me, ever lamenting the infrequency of our dining excursions, this was a cautionary phrase. I thought, "Hey, Mom and Dad, we need to eat out more often; it's good for the economy." "Eating out helps defeat the Commies." "Eating out bolsters the capitalist state, keeps these people employed, and staves off the dictatorship of the proletariat." This was the retail equivalent of the Bible's shortest verse: "Jesus wept." "Eat Out Often." And there was the chubby Big Boy statue out front, sporting the trademark red and white checked overalls and lifting a hamburger over his head . . . a diner's "statue of liberty" proclaiming a mom's freedom from kitchen drudgery. (And hey Mom, it saves wear and tear on that KitchenAid dishwasher!) My dad could feed our family of four for about $5 and have us home - courtesy of the 1972 Ford Gran Torino station wagon - by 1:15 on a typical Sunday. Why, we'd just barely begin tucking into the roast or chicken had we skipped Shoney's.

By 1976 and the Bicentennial, however, the novelty of eating out had dimished a little with a proliferation of nearby dining choices, including a Pizza Hut, Burger King, another McDonald's, KFC (with the spinning bucket atop the sign), and Shakey's. Not that my father ever deigned to eat at any of these fine franchises . . . we were still dining at Shoney's.

Start Your Engines

Having procrastinated long enough I've finally taken the plunge and started a blog. We'll call it a New Year's Resolution fulfilled . . . although I don't believe in making resolutions, because few January 1st resolutions are still around a few months later. Thanks to Dooce and too many other bloggers to name, for unknowingly providing inspiration for this blog.

What do I hope to accomplish? First, I assume that maintaining this little forum will prove mildly therapeutic. Dealing with depression since childhood - and only in the last several years actually seeking treatment - I found that writing comments to favorite blogs proved helpful, even cathartic. Why not start my own blog and do this on a regular basis? It would be like going to my shrink . . . or engaging in group therapy . . . without spending $2 on a jostling subway ride up to 59th St., listening to that homeless guy sing "This Little Light of Mine" from car to car on the 1 Train, and watching the frazzled mom clip her nails across the aisle. (Weren't we all taught that you only clip your nails in the privacy of your own home - and preferably in the bathroom so they could be properly discarded - instead of having them collect on the train floor like a little pile of dried bones?) I don't expect a blog to constitute a substitute for regular doses of [insert your favorite antidepressant here], nor will it be a panacea for the other issues with which I deal. But it can't hurt.

I also want to use this as a forum for some of my photography and painting, both of which reflect my rather eccentric personality. A bit of back story: before moving to NYC and becoming a slave in the world of nonprofits, I lived in Tennessee and taught U.S. history to disinterested business majors at the state's flagship university/semi-professional football franchise. Although I'm no longer an academic historian, much of what I do is influenced by that initial vocation. Thus, my photography is usually realized on antique cameras - German, Czech, Russian, a few American - in black and white, and without intrusive flash. Occasionally, I'll worship at the altar of digital cameras, but only because developing costs are prohibitively expensive and my wife complains. My paintings - all watercolors - focus on life in NYC, historic architecture, and the details that most people miss when walking around the City. Although I look forward to readers viewing and commenting on my work, I assume that said exposure will not yield remuneration for my efforts. Art is a hobby for me - albeit a serious one - but I don't think I'll ever be good enough to have art pay the bills.

Finally, this blog will provide a forum for some of my musings on growing up southern in an era of significant change for the South. My earliest memories date from the late 60s, but most commentary will draw from my experiences in the 1970s and 80s. In addition, realize that my reminiscences and conclusions will have been drawn through the filter of a dozen years spent studying Southern history. Toss in a decidedly anti-suburban, anti-sprawl bias, the influence of having two little boys and a far too patient and forgiving wife at home, and a seasoned liberal perspective, and you'll be privy to my unvarnished, opinionated, sometimes mean-spirited, always anti-Republican rants.

And the blog's title? Obviously it's pulled from country music, and sounds better than another favorite, "I Bought the Boots that Just Walked Out on Me." But it's also the title of a great book by UNC sociologist John Shelton Reed, whose books on southern culture and its evolution are a delight to read.

So on with the show!