Thursday, September 27, 2007

More photos from Central Park

I was going through some photos this morning and ran across these two from about 4 years ago. I remember they were among my favorites back then, and was curious about whether they could be held up to the scrutiny of time and changing perspectives. Obviously the photo of an archway and steps in sunlight and shadow is a little more abstract than most of my photographic work, which tends to be more narrative. It was taken near Bethesda Fountain.

The second photo, with the park bench stretching away from the viewer from an out-of-focus foreground to focused background is almost abstract in its composition, but for the presence of a couple sitting on the end of the bench. I remember being curious about their presence on a cold winter's day, the only people perched on this long stretch of empty bench. I remember suspecting at the time that this couple likely spent a lot of time in Central Park, huddled on benches to escape the stifling confines of a small apartment or nearby home for the elderly. Who knows. I think if I could take this photo over again I'd try a broader depth of field to bring the foreground portion of the bench into focus just to see how that image might contrast with the one I snapped.

"Sweet Land"

Last night I watched one of those quiet, indie films that obviously didn't have a big budget or flashy publicity run-up, but nevertheless can leave an indelible impression on those lucky enough to see it. No doubt this film made the rounds of the "artsy" and "indie" theaters around the country and I'm sure it played one of the City's numerous smaller theaters that eschew the glitz of blockbuster offerings. "Sweet Land" tells the story of a bachelor Norwegian farmer living in Minnesota shortly after World War I. (Fans of Garrison Keillor will recognize the "bachelor Norwegian farmer" character from stories about Lake Wobegon. This story, however, is not about humor or stereotypes.) In "Sweet Land" a mail order bride arrives to marry a Norwegian farmer. However, the fact that this bride is of German descent nor has valid immigration papers makes marriage an impossibility, particularly given the wave of anti-German sentiment that swept across the country during this period.

Based on the short story, "A Tombstone Made of Wheat," this film is at once a love story between the farmer and his bride and a look into the prejudices and limitations of ordinary people. At the same time, "Sweet Land" examines the connection to place - and the land itself - for this couple and their descendants. In an age in which family farms are disappearing at a rapid pace in favor of large-scale agri-businesses, this look into the hard and lonely lives of individual farmers on the prairie offers a stark reminder of that way of life. It even addresses - albeit obliquely - the theme of farmers vs. bankers in a sub-plot more recognizable in a story drawn from the Great Depression. And if one listens closely there are even the whispers of the old-fashioned populism that had galvanized American farmers in the last quarter of the 19th century. Add the stark beauty of Minnesota and an excellent cast that includes Alan Cumming, Alex Kingston, and Ned Beatty, as well as Tim Guinee and Elizabeth Reaser in the lead roles, and one has a great little film that doesn't have much in the way of special effects, but shines in terms of pure storytelling and lovely cinematography. It really is one of the most poignant films I've seen in a long time, and likely bears another viewing just so one can absorb the more subtle details of the spartan dialogue.

Given Blockbuster's habit of marketing the more mind-numbing fare offered by Hollywood, I was surprised to find this tucked onto shelves dominated by ad nauseum copies of the latest action films. I guess its presence was management's nod to NYU's neighborhood presence and the possibility that denizens of the East Village might just wander in. If you're a fan of quiet films in which telling the story takes precedence over blowing up cars or saving the world from aliens, I heartily recommend "Sweet Land."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Conservatory Garden, Central Park

Here's my latest work, just finished yesterday. It's from the Conservatory Garden, Central Park's only formal garden. Although I'm a frequent visitor to the Park - and knew that the Conservatory Garden was among its most beautiful spots - this was the first time I had wandered up into that northeastern corner. I was not disappointed. Even at this point in the season, on the cusp of autumn, I was amazed at the number of flowers still blooming, particularly the butterfly bushes, which were attracting both butterflies and hummingbirds. Indeed, when I first walked into one of the paths full of blooming flowers, a pair of hummingbirds buzzed by and around me, chasing each other. This image was part of a bronze statue/fountain that attracted many birds - as well as other photographers and artists. I think the Conservatory Garden is going to be one of my new favorite places in Central Park, and I look forward to observing its metamorphosis through the changing seasons. There are several other fountains as well as a beautiful iron gate - usually called the "Vanderbilt Gate," because it had once graced the entrance to one of the city's Vanderbilt mansions. Fountain, Conservatory Garden. Watercolor, pen and ink, on Fabriano paper, 9" x 12".

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Family Reunion Cancelled

Back in April I wrote about my mother's family and its tradition - stretching back to the 1920s - of having a reunion each year in south-central Virginia. I just learned this past weekend that for only the third time since the 20s they will not have a reunion. Illness has prompted the main organizer to bow out and it's too late for someone else to step up and organize the event. My grandmother, at 93, is understandably disappointed because it represents a lost opportunity to see people she may not see again. My mother, likewise saddened by the cancellation, has offered to step up next year and organize the thing if the same situation presents itself. With that reunion and what it has meant to my family fresh in my mind, I'm reposting the entry from April. Enjoy!

For southerners, a large-scale family reunion is an event - the Jerry Springer Show and Jeff Foxworthy's redneck family jokes notwithstanding - that can rival a county fair for groaning tables of food and animal exhibits. And whether "Baptist dry" or punctuated by worries over alcohol poisoning, these affairs, particularly when measured out over decades, take on an organic life that echoes the births, deaths, and divorces of the actual participants.

That's certainly true of my mother's family, which has held a yearly late-summer/early fall reunion since the 1920s. (My mother hasn't missed one since 1941.) Started by my great-grandparents' generation but nurtured carefully by my grandparents and a gaggle of nearly two dozen siblings, these day-long spectacles draw family members from the isolated corners of Virginia to Halifax County, an area south of Lynchburg in the heart of one of the oldest tobacco producing regions in the country. (The maternal side of my family has been farming the land there since the 1730s.) We would converge on a local community center or, most often, on the spacious grounds of the home of the lone, openly gay member of the family. His hospitality knew no bounds, nor did his sense of humor, although I think he began to worry some of the family when, in his dotage, he began to take great pleasure in announcing loudly that he wasn't sporting underwear.

I remember all of this because naturally I was dragged to the reunion each year from birth until I left home for college . . . and for most of my childhood the event was a very ritualized affair, as if my grandfather had drafted a liturgy, interspersed with hymns of "when will we get there" and "I need to go to the bathroom." For example, each year he and my grandmother would arrive at our home on the appointed Sunday at 5:00 a.m. sharp, his Ford Galaxy 500 packed like one of those brain-teaser puzzles with coolers and tupperware and plates and everything but the kitchen sink. My parents would pack their car quickly while my brother and I would fight over the best spot to sleep in the Gran Torino station wagon. And off we'd go, a few car lengths apart, in a family caravan of four hours, driving across Route 58 through little towns like Disputanta and Appomattox.

Although far from summer and those cicada Sunday afternoons, I'm reminded of these reunions and their characters because the ancient wife of a long-deceased great-uncle passed away recently, leaving this world in the child-like stupor of Alzheimer's. Aunt IdaMae was famous in family circles for her biscuits and the perpetual uncleanliness of her home. We loved the biscuits but preferred not to contemplate their provenance. IdaMae was also what the elderly ladies of the clan called "pixillated," a term which refers to someone who is overly eccentric or whimsical . . . "inhabited by pixies."

IdaMae's passing reminded me of the more colorful characters who would show up each August to eat and reminisce. No doubt every family has its personalities: the law of averages dictates that all families need to have at least one convicted felon, one "drunk," one "dirty old man," one prankster, one religious zealot, and one suspiciously effeminate uncle. My family, to the great delight of those of us who take note of such things, has managed to cover all of these bases, including the convicted felon, who now arrives in a BMW roadster.

There was Uncle Clyde, for example, who was in charge of lemonade each year. He would arrive with two massive 10-gallon stoneware crocks - one for super sweet and one for pucker-inducing sour - and set about making batch after batch for those who eschewed iced tea for a mason jar full of icy lemonade. He was also renowned for policing the lemonade against dirty hands trying to reach over the lip of the crock to steal ice or lemons. As if swatting insects with a flyswatter, he'd smack the fingers of transgressors with the long aluminum ladles used to fill the glasses. (His son, Clyde, Jr., would delight the boys by removing his glass eye, the product of a July 4th fireworks accident in the 1940s.)

Aunt Nancy, a member of the Pentecostal Holiness Church was the permanent bearer of responsibility to "say grace" and bless the food at the start of each reunion. Nancy would announce her presence with shouts of "Amen!" and "Who loves the Lord?!" Her blessing, offered over tables of rapidly cooling food, took on the character of sermons and one always wondered if she would spice it up with some "speaking in tongues," which happened on quite a few occasions. (One of the more irreverent and colorful cousins would invariably add after Nancy's loudly prayerful disquisition on the resurrection and "saving grace of god": "Good bread, good meat, good god, let's eat." I always chuckled and was always smacked for it. My father, never a keen participant or observer of the more "charismatic" displays of religious fervor, would predictably remember at the start of Nancy's exhortations some item "forgotten in the car."

Finally, we also enjoyed seeing the jovial Uncle Edgar and Aunt Edna, because they always arrived with their little chihuahua "Ladybug" who delighted the children with tricks. Edna always seemed painfully thin and frail, a condition likely exacerbated by the parade of Benson & Hedges cigarettes that passed her lips nonstop from the instant she stepped from her Buick to the late afternoon moment when, rising from her folding chair, she theatrically announced "I'm goin' to the potty one more time before we leave!" Her husband, Edgar, perpetually carried around an erection the way some 8-year olds carry No. 2 pencils, tucked neatly into his pants but clearly visible. We would try in vain not to stare but usually excused ourselves quickly to join other cousins in a game of softball or a clandestine climb through one of the tobacco curing barns on the edge of the estate. Still, despite his evident priapism, Edgar could be counted on for funny anecdotes and mildly dirty jokes acceptable to a largely Baptist crowd.

(As an aside, I remember once visiting their home in South Boston, Virginia. Unlike IdaMae's home, Edna's was spotless. But every piece of furniture in the house, all of it vintage 1950s, was covered in those clear vinyl slipcovers. Edgar and Edna died, childless, about 15 years ago within just a few months of each other, which was probably a blessing given their devotion to each other. As Aunt Nancy liked to say about deceased family members, "They've gone on to glory!" My mother and grandmother were among the family members invited to pick over the remains of Edna's estate before everything was sold in a public auction on the front lawn. I was given a gleaming chrome 50s-style Sunbeam toaster, which I used for years thereafter, invoking the memory of Edgar and Edna on each occasion.)

The family gathered again last September, my 93-year old grandmother the last of the generation that had built up the reunion during the lean years of the 1930s and 40s when the ethos of "close-knit family" actually meant something. Their numbers no longer legion, around 30 people gathered at a cousin's home for another day of eating and storytelling. Mind you, the family is no less numerous than it was 50 or 75 years ago. But the connection to "place" and "history" isn't as strong, nor is the generations-old bond to the land. The family has dispersed, leaving the red clay soil of the Virginia Piedmont for more prosperous climes. Only a few cousins, in fact, still grow tobacco, holding on to some closely-measured Jeffersonian agrarian ideal in a threatened market they no longer understand.

My grandfather, eldest of 10 and tired of being "land rich and cash poor," departed in 1941. I still remember vividly the stark contrast between his prosperity and the privations of his siblings who remained in Halifax County. I've not returned in about 20 years, but plan a visit this July when visiting my parents in Virginia. I won't get to experience the reunion itself, but it will be reunion enough.

Update: I did travel to Virginia in July but was unable to make it back to the area from which my mother migrated.

All-Time Greatest Sports Movies

At soccer yesterday, several dads were standing around comparing notes on what we considered "the greatest sports movies of all time." This exercise had been sparked by the fact that one dad in our group simply hadn't seen what most of us considered the "canon" of sports-related movies. Indeed, his exposure to this genre had primarily been dictated by his young sons, who favored baseball movies targeted at kids: Sandlot, Sandlot 2, Sandlot 3, Rookie of the Year, Angels in the Outfield (the Disney-fied version), and the basketball-themed Like Mike. These candy-coated choices are all fun movies for the under 12 set - and count as favorites for my sons - but as classic sports movies they just don't make the cut.

So we started naming off favorites, compiling a list of must-sees for our clueless friend. From that conversation I started thinking about which films would make up my own list of "greatest sports movies." Here goes my dozen, in no particular order after 1 and 2:

1. The Natural

2. Hoosiers

3. Miracle

4. Field of Dreams

5. Breaking Away

6. Chariots of Fire

7. Bend It Like Beckham

8. Slap Shot

9. The Rookie

10. Bad News Bears

11. Bull Durham

12. Requiem for a Heavyweight

If you're a fan of sports movies I've no doubt left out some of your favorites. First, these are all movies I've seen. It wouldn't be fair to judge films I hadn't viewed. Although one might be tempted to drop in the first installment in the Rocky series, I so dislike Sylvester Stallone as an actor, I've never been able to watch more than about five minutes of any of his films. Go ahead and say it: "My loss." You'll notice that five of the twelve are about baseball. This is no surprise, given my love for the game. Also, realize that more movies have been made about baseball than other sport. The only close contender is boxing, about which there are numerous films. (Having been forced to take boxing class as a freshmen in college - a military school requirement - I've come to loathe the sport . . . although I'm willing to acknowledge the brilliance of Rod Serling's Requiem for a Heavyweight.)

Something should be said about my picks for the top two slots. The Natural and Hoosiers are routinely considered among the top sports movies of all time, and in the 20+ years since they were released they've held up well. Hoosiers has even made it to the Library of Congress's list of culturally significiant films worthy of preservation. (They're still among my personal favorites of ANY genre.) Both, I think, have broad appeal because they portray the mythic qualities of their respective sports. The Natural is set in the 1920s or 30s, often considered a "golden age" for baseball - the era of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and their larger-than-life contemporaries. The film also tells a classic underdog story, with hero Roy Hobbs battling the forces of age and corruption to triumph in the end with a game-winning homerun. Toss in a nice little love story with Glenn Close, some intrigue with Barbara Hershey, an Oscar-nominated Randy Newman score, and one has the makings of a great film. On a deeper level, The Natural also touches on that significant inter-generational aspect of the sport, through which the skills of baseball and a passion for the game are passed from father to son in a process repeated over successive generations. It's a process with which I immediately identify, because my boys and I play and watch baseball constantly.

Although focusing on basketball, Hoosiers mines some of the same psychological ground to achieve its greatness. There's the obvious element of the underdog, embodied in the Hickory High School team itself, Gene Hackman's character as the embattled head coach, and Dennis Hopper's basketball-obsessed alcoholic father. (And hey, there's another Barbara Hershey siting as well! Hmmmm, could she be the glue that holds these films together?) Like The Natural, Hoosiers is set in a romanticized landscape - small-town Indiana of the 1950s. But here, unlike the solitary heroics of Roy Hobbs in The Natural, the hero is "teamwork" and the ability of five players to work together with their coach to overcome adversity and the pressure of "the big game." I still think that scene in the Bradley University gym when Gene Hackman pulls out the tape measure to reassure a team suddenly overwhelmed by a giant arena is brilliant. The movie also benefits from a fantastic Jerry Goldsmith score that propels the action to the final shot at the buzzer. If you love basketball in its purest form, without the glitz of slam dunks and egos on display, Hoosiers is a winner.

Finally, I have to give special mention to the more recent Kurt Russell vehicle, Miracle, which chronicles the 1980 U.S. men's hockey team and its "miracle" victory over the Soviets at Lake Placid. Having watched that game as an excited sixteen year old, I think the movie does a nice job of capturing the moment. Moreover, Russell delivers a great performance as head coach Herb Brooks, eclipsing some of the more notable roles in his long career, including his turn in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, a Disney classic from 1969.

Thankfully, all three of these films have become favorites of my boys, which suits me just fine after watching Air Bud for the fiftieth time. Each one says a lot about patience as a player and the value of good sportsmanship, lessons they need to learn in an age punctuated by bad behavior among so many professional athletes on and off the playing field. These films also say a lot about the theme of redemption. The lead characters in each movie carry some personal tragedy or mistake for which they're trying to redeem themselves. Their success in this endeavor is indeed a valuable lesson. My kids may not understand that aspect of these stories right now. But eventually they'll get it after they've suffered their own setbacks in life. Then these films will take on an even deeper poignancy.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The "Decisive Moment"

Before I became serious about painting, I spent a lot of time toting around cameras - heavy, all-metal, vintage cameras with lots of glass and few, if any, of the modern conveniences of digital or even late-model film cameras. Indeed, most of my vintage cameras don't even have light meters, so I always carried a 1950s-model Weston Master III or IV to hand meter everything. When I initially took up photography with vintage equipment as a serious hobby, the process of metering, selecting aperture and speed, focusing, and composition could be quite time consuming. Getting my children to sit still at such a young age was a challenge. More spontaneous photography was just out of the question. Yet with experience came speed.

What I was ultimately trying to achieve was an ability to capture what Henri Cartier-Bresson called "the decisive moment." "Photography is not like painting," Cartier-Bresson told the Washington Post in 1957. "There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative," he said. "Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever."

For me, if operation of the camera - whether a Leica III or a Soviet version of the remarkable Contax II - became intuitive, requiring little thought about the mechanical, then one could devote more attention to realizing the artistic potential of the medium.

Occasionally I felt as if I achieved some success. For example, I was able to capture my kids in some images that are spontaneous and say so much about their personalities. Walking around the city, camera in hand, realizing that kind of spontaneity proved a bit more elusive. But sifting through some of my prints recently, I came across one image that really illustrated that equation of luck, good light, and appropriate subjects that equals an interesting photograph.

I had been walking through Central Park, down the Mall, with the Bethesda Fountain as my destination. Stopping at the parapet which overlooks the fountain, I looked down and saw a bride in white, walking from one of the frequent photo shoots at the fountain, moving from bright sunlight, into the dark shadows cast by the parapet. I grabbed the camera, made an educated guess at the aperture and exposure time based on the conditions, focused, and snapped the picture. I had time for only one shot: a second later the bride had disappeared into the arched recesses under the parapet. When I had the photograph developed, I was pleasantly surprised by the results. So, what story line, if any, can one infer from this photograph? I was especially pleased with the level of contrast between the bright sunlit areas and the shadows. Also, the resolution on her dress is a testimony to the quality of the German lens, given that I was probably 50 to 60 feet away, using a standard 50 mm lens. I can tell you one thing: None of my digital cameras would have yielded this image.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Vermont Farm, Part 2

Here's the second in what will likely be a series of several paintings of scenes from the Scott Farm in Vermont. Not as detailed as the first painting, this is more a study of the different roof lines and my usual look at the contrast between light and shadow. Watercolor and pencil on Fabriano paper, 9" x 12".

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Phone Booth

I hadn't really given this painting much thought in the year since I executed it. I liked it, but hadn't included it among my favorites. Looking at it more recently, I realized that my biggest complaint was the same issue I've raised with some of my older works: Technically it just doesn't equal the images I'm producing now.

Yesterday, however, a friend was going through some of my images, a product of my invitation to have a fresh perspective peruse my catalog in preparation for the November show. This new observer stopped at the Phone Booth image and decided it was a favorite among the myriad subjects I've portrayed. Why, I wondered. Because it's "enigmatic," he noted. It invites question and speculation. Honestly, I hadn't considered these adjectives, but was thrilled that one of my paintings could prompt this kind of rumination. And I realized, in the end, isn't this what art is supposed to do - elicit thought and contemplation?

I spent some time on Google - and even Flickr - and discovered that phone booths, especially old phone booths, are a popular subject for artists and photographers. There's an obvious nostalgia attached to the phone both in this age when nearly everyone has a phone in their pocket. Indeed, phone booths of any variety, whether vintage or modern, are rapidly facing a dinosaur-like extinction that will consign them to a technological dustbin shared with rotary phones, 8-track players, and turntables. (In England, the demise of traditional red phone booths, seen as iconic national symbols, has generated widespread outrage over the last decade.)

The subject of this painting is part of a line of about six vintage phone booths at Manhattan's Pier 40 complex. I hadn't seen this many phone booths together since my undergraduate years. But sitting in one recently, I realized that there's something to be said for the simple pleasure of walking in, closing the door, and having the light flicker on as the ventilation fan begins its faint humming. Removed from the comfortable climes of one's home phone, chatting in the fluorescent glow of a vintage phone booth, semi-isolated from the outside hustle, isn't a half-bad substitute for lounging with one's phone on the couch. As a slave to nostalgia, I couldn't help but smile and ring up my wife on her cell phone just to relive the experience of my youth.

"Phone Booth" (2006). Watercolor, pen and ink, on 9"x12" paper.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Unfortunate Celebrity Sighting

So here I go, mentioning a celebrity sighting in my neighborhood, just minutes after finishing a post on the idiocy of celebrity worship. Celebrity sightings are nothing new in the West Village. It seems that half of Hollywood has decided to move to the neighborhood. Why? Probably because they realize that they're less likely to be bothered by photographers and star-struck tourists in the maze-like streets of townhouses. Matthew Broderick or Julianne Moore, frequent visitors to the playground, can enjoy themselves with minimal interference. Tying this to my previous post . . . shouldn't they be able to enjoy some family time at the park without celebrity-crazed people invading their privacy? Thankfully, those who frequent the playground are gracious enough to preserve that privacy and treat them like ordinary people - which they are.

But I digress . . . This morning, while walking the kids to school, we encountered Billy Joel walking his fat little pug on Perry Street (where he and his much younger wife have redone a nice townhouse). I titled this "unfortunate celebrity sighting" because Billy just didn't look good. Sure, how many of us look great at 7:45 a.m. while taking the dog out for his morning pee? Nevertheless, I've always been a fan of Billy Joel, so it was a little sad to see him looking hung over and paunchy. Actually, he and his pug were vividly embodying that joke about how people and their pets start looking like each other after a few years together. (The same thing is said about spouses, I believe.) So Billy, next time you're walking in the 'hood, at least put on some sunglasses so we don't have to see your swollen, bloodshot eyes.

Full Circle in the Slavish Worship of Celebrity

So here we are, 12 years after the "trial of the century" - an event scarcely worthy of the title, given more significant plaintiffs like Sacco and Vanzetti or Julius and Ethel Rosenburg - and O.J. Simpson is back in the news, with video cameras and "reporters" glued to his every move. Why this fascination with a has-been athlete and so-called celebrity being led away in handcuffs? He's no more worthy of our attention today than he was in 1994-95.

Unfortunately, however, coverage of O.J. a dozen years ago represented a paradigm shift in the way our media outlets covered "news." And while more thoughtful Americans realize that we shouldn't pay attention to the likes of O.J., Paris, Lindsey, Britney, and a host of other non-newsworthy characters, the reality is that we do pay attention, and for advertisers in both broadcast and print tabloids, that's where the money is.

So why has our news coverage - and the subjects deemed important - changed so significantly since the mid-90s? First I think it points to an advancing shallowness among average Americans. They don't want to be burdened with daily reality, particularly when it applies to more traditional newsworthy subjects. Americans just don't care about GNP, Somalia, the Sudan, the current credit crisis, or the mounting death toll in Iraq. (If they are finally paying attention to the disaster in Iraq, it's because they're finally witnessing the ripple effect of having the nation at war for so long. With the problem only exacerbated by the awful reality of 9/11, Americans simply don't want to be challenged, preferring instead the "tastes great, less filling" pulp of celebrity and celebrity-wannabe stories.

This crisis of vacuity in American popular culture is nothing new, mind you. Since the birth of the Republic, American culture has invited the disdain of those entities deemed "highbrow" or "intellectual" . . . and, in fact, there is a potent strain of anti-intellectualism in our cultural DNA that persists. Of course, by preaching against the limitations of current popular culture, especially the slavish devotion to the cult of celebrity, I am branded as "elitist" and "effete," charges which I accept with honor. If we wonder why our society has "lost its way" - a criticism levelled by some social critics in the idiotic twilight of the Bush "moment" - perhaps we need look no farther than our role models. If a majority of our populace idolizes wealth, celebrity, excess, and inappropriate behavior, what does that say about the country as a whole? In that context, Bush really is the "people's president" because he reflects accurately their intellectual limitations and ideological narrow-mindedness. In the cult of celebrity, mediocrity can be celebrated - and even elevated to the presidency.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

October Nostalgia

There's a very slight chill in the air this morning, a front having passed through yesterday and dragged that September heat and humidity out to sea. There's a hint of autumn in the air, and I'm excited - almost giddy - because autumn is my favorite season, particularly October and November before the cold of winter creeps in. Part of October's appeal is simply a matter of temperature. I'm a hot-natured person who doesn't do well with humidity or temperatures above 75 degrees. So the cooler, dryer days of the fall are welcome relief after the late summer humidity that drives New Yorkers mad.

Mind you, there's more to it than just favorable forecasts from the Weather Channel's hotties. (There's nothing hotter than a female weather-geek.) Autumn also prompts so many good memories for me: field days and harvest festivals, football games and drunken tailgate parties, hiking and camping in the mountains around Lexington, Virginia, family reunions, and family trips to Vermont.

In just three weeks our family will drive to Vermont for our annual four-day trek through back roads and small towns. Although we stay in the area around the Killington resorts, we tend to eschew the usual tourist paths, especially the crowded shopping centers and outlet malls that have taken over Manchester. Instead, we look for unpaved roads, easy hiking trails, and for meals, diners. (Brattleboro has a great diner, the "Chelsea Royal," that has been in business since 1939. Bellows Falls has the "Miss Bellows Falls" diner which is now designated as a landmark. I really should do a whole entry on diners, since they're one of my passions.) About the only bow we make to the tourist trade is a trip to the Vermont Country Store in Weston. Sure, it's overrun with tourists thanks to the buses that disgorge their armies of pensioners. But the boys love the experience and my wife and always end up buying winter socks, candy, and other stuff we probably don't need.

This year we're adding a trip to the Scott Farm near Putney. (See my post from Friday, September 7, "Vermont Farm") The farm is known for its heirloom apples and an orchardist will be guiding us through some tastings on October 6th. The boys will get a chance to hang out with the sheep, a llama, and some herding dogs for the day. We're also spending that first night near the farm at a quaint "mom-and-pop" motel at which my wife has stayed during knitting/spinning retreats.

I can't express how much I look forward to this trip each year. It really is one of the high points for me, and I always feel recharged after visiting Vermont. My wife and I always pick up those free real estate catalogs and look longingly at the homes for sale, particularly those that advertise a barn and some acreage - perfect for raising a few sheep? We laugh that we'd move to Vermont if we could find gainful employment. Even my sons have said, "Let's move to Vermont." It's a nice idea, but I think we'd miss New York City too much. (The painting is a quick 5x7" sketch that I did in situ during our October 2005 visit. It's from the beautiful public library in Woodstock, a town most worthy of painting.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

More from the Archives: Monochrome Studies

As I sift through my paintings in preparation for the November group show in which I'm participating, I've been reassessing some of my earlier work. Indeed, I've found that while some images will never see the light of day again, quite a few have held up under the scrutiny of added experience. This is a set of three monochrome studies that I did nearly two years ago. On several occasions I've experimented with monochrome images, alternating between washes of Payne's Gray (used here) and Sepia. The Payne's Gray is nice because of the blue tint and I use it much more frequently in my works than the flatter, duller color of Davy's Gray. The Payne's, for example, works nicely when I'm mixing colors for shadows.

These gargoyles are located on 110th Street near Cathedral Parkway on Manhattan's Upper West Side. After digging a bit, all I could find on the building is that it was constructed in the 1890s. With its proximity to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, I wonder if the artist who did these was employed at the Cathedral as well. The gargoyles, which are placed in duplicated sets on either side of the main entrance, are only about 10 feet up, so easily accessible for photography and painting. I wish I knew the artist's point in depicting these images of apparent greed and gluttony. Each character is clearly savoring and protecting his meal. Enjoy!

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9/11: Six Years Later

Six years ago right now, I was sitting in my uptown office here in New York City when a colleague announced that a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Center towers. Like everyone else I was shocked and saddened as the tragedy unfolded before us on the TV screen. Here we were, uptown, just a couple of miles away, unable to do anything about what was happening and wondering how we - as a religious institution - would be affected. Naturally we threw open the doors and had people available for prayer and consolation. We became an island of peace in a sea of panic. Then, by afternoon, we began the process of finding our way home, which for me meant walking back downtown to my home, which isn't too far removed from the bottom of Manhattan.

Not actually knowing anyone who was killed in the attacks, the events of 9/11 were more surreal than overtly painful. We naturally grieved for the families who lost husbands, wives, sons, and daughters. But for us, the daily reality was the smoke that drifted up from the smoldering pile of rubble. And there was that naked spot in the skyline that to this day offers a bleak reminder of the tragedy. We had a great view of the Towers from our roof garden and I would always glance downtown as I crossed 7th Avenue each day. Noting the degree to which clouds enshrouded the Towers, one could often gauge the day's weather. I still look downtown and remember.

Now, six years later, I'm not sure how I feel about the event itself. Although the American people rallied together in those first months after September 2001, as a historian I was immediately worried about the potentially negative consequences of the event, given the ideological profile of our president and the prevailing conservatism of so many people. In the end, 9/11 gave the Bush administration - and a Congress dominated by conservatives - license to abandon moderation, invade Afghanistan and, eventually, Iraq. It also produced a culture of hyper-patriotism in which opposition to Bush administration policies was perceived as disloyalty. At the same time, culturally ignorant Americans lumped all of Islam together in a wave of embarrassing anti-Muslim feeling that was no less racist and unwarranted as the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II. Rather than being guided by the "better angels" of our nature, this country revealed its ugly underbelly in a time of crisis.

Now, six years later, we're still paying a dear price for 9/11. Except now, the U.S. is no less guilty than the terrorists who piloted the planes into the towers. Thanks to President Bush and those who supported his actions, this country has joined the ranks of the fanatics. And although religion isn't explicitly cited as a force guiding White House policies in the Middle East, it is implicitly there, a hyper-Christianity guiding Bush's actions in a way that reminds one of the medieval Crusades that tried to drive Muslims out of Jerusalem.

If there is another tragedy like that visited upon us on 9/11 - and I believe there will be one - we as a nation can place the blame on the Bush administration, whether it happens this year, next year, or 10 years from now. And the heartbroken families of that future tragedy should lay the bodybags of their bloodied loved ones at Bush's doorstep. Rather than learning from history's valuable lessons under these circumstances, Bush and his cronies have ignored history, and indeed reality, in their post-9/11 conduct. As a result, many thousands of people have needlessly died . . . and the blood is on Bush's hands.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Chinatown with the Kids

Last weekend, while my wife was still in the hospital, I took the kids down to Chinatown in lower Manhattan, just a few subway stops from our home. Chinatown is hardly a new or exotic experience for us, since we go down every three or four months to visit our favorite restaurants and markets to pick up favorite food items, including some wickedly good steamed pork buns from a hole-in-the wall place off Canal St. This time, however, we were trying to complete my third grade son's summer break assignment on China and the manifestations of Chinese culture in New York City. So obviously a trip to Chinatown was in order. This time, however, we went with a camera and a different perspective. It was fun, and we noticed things we hadn't seen before, like the herbalist selling traditional remedies and potions and the shops selling red lanterns and other symbols of good luck. As always, the seafood stalls were enticing, while the dragon fruit, pictured below, were quite pretty (although I'm not sure how one eats them).
Of course there were the usual stalls along Canal St. that sold the knock-off watches and Gucci handbags. Although the city has tried to crack down on the sale of counterfeit merchandise - and there's noticeably less, particularly in handbags and luggage - one can still find plenty of fakes for sale. And the tourists still come to buy this stuff, despite admonitions from the city to eschew patronizing the sellers of fake goods.
Normally we'll eat at a fun restaurant that has good dim sum. Joe's Shanghai and New York Noodletown are favorites, particularly the soup dumplings at Joe's. But this time the boys were clamoring for McDonald's and I was too tired to put up a fight or remind them of what I had read and seen in Fast Food Nation and Supersize Me. So I caved in and we joined the tourists who favor the predictability of the Golden Arches over the potentially confusing - albeit delicious - multi-page menu at the Golden Unicorn.

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So I get to work this morning, get into the office, sit down and start the routine of checking emails, assessing the tasks for the day . . . and I start to notice a few things awry . . . cabinets ajar, drawers open. Then I see the steel cabinet that holds financial records is open. That's definitely not right. So, upon further investigation I realize that between yesterday afternoon (when the last authorized people would have been in this office) and this morning, someone has broken into the office - without completely destroying the lock - and they've pried open the steel cabinet and stolen about $400 in cash. They even took a bottle of wine from my fridge! Bastards! All that commentary about feeling violated after a robbery? It's true. I felt violated. And angry! Sure, convenience stores and other businesses are robbed in New York City with great frequency. But to come into a religious non-profit, an organization that gives a lot back to the community, and steal their money? That speaks of a desperation and amorality that surpasses run-of-the-mill thefts. This is a person with no conscience. I know, I know. I'm being naively idealistic to think that the "religious" label might make us less susceptible - if not immune - to criminal mischief. But I'm not quite that idealistic. I do understand that thieves don't necessarily follow the same moral compass as the rest of us. Oh well. Time to start investigating alarm systems and security cameras. Ugh.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Vermont Farm

Here's the latest, just completed this past weekend after a couple of weeks drawing and painting. The image is taken from a farm near Putney, Vermont, famous for its orchards. It's also hosted a number of knitting and spinning retreats which my wife has attended. Although not visible here, parts of the farm were used in the film version of John Irving's "Ciderhouse Rules." (Yes, I realize that much of the novel and movie were supposed to have been in Maine. However, most of it was filmed around Putney and Bellows Falls, Vermont.) As always in my paintings, the people are reduced to ambigously defined, shadowy shapes in the background. All in all I was pleased with the final product, particularly the windows along the side of the building. I was trying to define the sense of light and reflection without getting into the "specifics" of what might be reflected. And, as in most of my works, there's the contrast between bright sun and shade. I'd be interesting in hereing how people look at this picture. To what are one's eyes first drawn and where do you go after that? I'm actually a little happier with this scan than some of the others. It's still a little darker than the original, but I was trying not to wash out the sunny areas. Any thoughts? (9"x12", watercolor, pen and ink, on Fabriano 300 lb. paper)

Thursday, September 6, 2007

James Kennedy, American fascist

From the New York Times:

"The Rev. D. James Kennedy, a Christian broadcaster and the pastor of a Florida
megachurch who played a critical role in the rise of conservative Christianity,
died yesterday at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He was 76. From the founding
of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale 48 years ago, Mr. Kennedy
became an indefatigable and persuasive voice urging Christians to take on a
broader culture that, in his view, had begun to decay. He argued that the
decline was due to society’s increasing secularization and hostility to
Christianity, said Frank Wright, a friend and the chief executive of the
National Religious Broadcasters Association. Mr. Kennedy stayed largely in the
background as men like Mr. Falwell, Mr. Robertson and James C. Dobson of Focus
on the Family spoke to Americans about the need to curtail abortion rights, gay
rights and the teaching of evolution. But over the last decade, he, too, grew
more openly active, creating the Center for Reclaiming America for Christ, which
held conferences that taught people to how to get involved in the political
process. The center closed in April. Mr. Kennedy opened the Center for Christian
Statesmanship in Washington to equip evangelicals on Capitol Hill to be more
effective in government. He was also instrumental in establishing the Alliance
Defense Fund, an increasingly active Christian counterweight to secular civil
liberties groups. In 1967, he started an “evangelism clinic” called Evangelism
Explosion, which taught Christians how to spread the Gospel. He opened a radio
station in 1974 to expand his preaching. Mr. Kennedy spoke sharply against gay
rights and abortion rights. But he thought the greatest threat to society was
the fact that public education had left prayer out of the classroom and
continued to teach evolution."

Another leader of America's growing fascist movement has died, silencing one of the most narrow-minded, anti-intellectual, racist, and homophobic voices in the country. Kennedy was particularly dangerous because of his efforts to spread his brand of right wing hate-mongering through the "Evangelism Explosion" programs - clinics no less threatening than the terrorist camps run by Islamic extremists. One might hope that Kennedy's organization would die with him, a common fate for organizations based on the charismatic spirit of a single character. Still, no doubt the way has been prepared for a successor to continue the life of Kennedy's Coral Ridge empire. It will be interesting to see how that institution evolves in the absence of its founder.

Equally troubling for me, as a former teacher, was Kennedy's rejection of evolution. Indeed, his efforts to replace the teaching of evolution in schools with the humbuggery of "creation science" and "intelligent design" made him as much an anti-modernist and anti-intellectual as his conservative Islamic counterparts in the Taliban or the present government of Iran. Moreover, given his efforts to shape political affairs by directly influencing members of Congress, he had joined Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as a leader in the development of a distinctively American version of fascism, a version carrying a cross and wrapped in the flag, but no less dangerous than the totalitarian state imposed on Germany by the Nazis.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

First Day of School!

Ah, the first day of school in New York City, when one million kids return to classrooms in the largest school system in the U.S. For me, it's always a bittersweet occasion. Sure I'm sorry the summer is ending and we won't have the freedom to jump spontaneously in the car or hop on the subway and go somewhere fun like a ballgame or trip outside the City. But I really do welcome the return of the school routine and the reconnection with friends who have been away most of the summer. Perhaps it's some part of my military school experience that welcomes the predictability of the days and weeks of the school year. (If only this could be one of those public schools that has adopted uniforms, then we wouldn't have to hear the chorus of "I don't want to wear that" each morning.)

For the most part, the boys haven't been upset about the return to school. My older son likes to talk a good game when it comes to registering displeasure over going back to classes, and even this morning he did some posturing and complaining as we walked the several minutes from home to school. (These photos, for example, capture him at the moment of arrival, as he made a half-hearted gesture of defiant resistance to the reimposition of routine.) But I'm pretty sure he's also happy about the return - and has nearly said as much on several occasions.

As the sports junky and hyper-competitive schoolyard athlete, he knows today represents a return to the playing fields, both at school and on weekends. Granted, these are hardly the greenswards of a mythic Eton or Harrow, preparing an entitled elite for society's leadership, but they offer the same baptismal rite in the doctrines of fair play and sportsmanship, albeit under more democratic circumstances. Hardly Tom Brown's School Days, but important life lessons indeed! I only wish the competitive spirit manifest on the soccer pitch or baseball diamond could be carried into the classroom as well. They're to young, however, to really appreciate the competitiveness engendered by time in the classroom.

My younger son, more eager to acknowledge the pleasures of school's academic challenges, marched confidently in and was reading a book before I had left the room. One suspects that he's inherited my geeky "school is cool" demeanor. And no doubt at some point in his life, he'll be teased mercilessly for his more studious manner.

Equally interesting this morning were the ritually averred "Hellos," awkward hugs, and "air kisses" attendant with the first day of school. It was all so smoothly done - and the lines delivered with such ease - that one might swear the whole thing had been choreographed. "Oh, the kids grew so much!" "You look lovely!" "Did you lose weight over the summer?" "How were the Bahamas?" My favorites were the "perma-tan" moms who looked only slightly darker than they had in January or February. They reminded me of the brown, leathery visages of mummified humans recently found in a European peat bog. No less humorous were the Wall Street dads, not having changed one iota, who looked as if they've been in storage or on "Pause" since school ended in June. This morning their wives pushed "Play" and they rejoined the regimen of drop-offs, pick-ups, and playdates.

In the end, I excused myself through the crowd, rather than engage in the parental post mortem conducted on the sidewalk after all the kids have been locked away, once again temporary wards in the City's care. Today I just couldn't face the chit-chat. Nor could I endure the solicitous grilling about my wife's condition. (She's much improved, by the way, and will be home from the hospital tomorrow.) It will be easier this afternoon at dismissal, I've reassured myself. And easier tomorrow and the day thereafter.