Thursday, January 31, 2008
And I guess the natural thing to do on one's birthday - especially after 30 or 40, depending on one's thoughts about age and self-imposed milestones - is to grouse about "getting older" and "time passing so quickly," etc. I know my mother, who recently turned 73, and my grandmother, who celebrated her 94th, were lamenting the passage of time and its seemingly accelerating pace. But as my grandfather often said, "It beats the alternative."
There's a great photo in our family archives from this day in 1964 (and I'm sorry that I don't have a scanned copy of it to post). My mother is standing in a near furniture-less den, moments before going to the hospital to give birth. She has this slightly worried look on her face, and I'm sure she's thinking, "Take the damn picture, Ed." (To this day my father takes photos at a glacial pace, even with the various automatic settings on digital cameras. Having spent most of his life taking pictures with film cameras, he naturally wants to make sure that everything is going to work correctly, even if the work is largely done for him by the microchip that drives the camera.) In the 1960s husbands generally didn't accompany their wives into the delivery room as I did, sporting a surgical gown, rubber gloves, and scissors to cut the umbilical cords of my two sons. Like an old sitcom dad, my father sat in the waiting room. According to my mother, however, he didn't pace the floor or fidget or page through magazines in a nervous state. When the hospital staff came to deliver the good news, he was asleep. Too funny. I realize now, in the telling of this story, that this is just another example of my father remaining cool under pressure. (Perhaps a bit too cool under these circumstances. I could not have slept during the delivery of my kids.)
The great thing about the setting of the photograph is that my parents still live in that house, 44 years later. It gives one a solid sense of place and family within the context of a life that is beset by constant change. (My grandmother has lived in the same house since 1951, just minutes from my parents. The close proximity of my grandparents certainly made my childhood more fun.)
Reading an article in The Wilson Quarterly last week, I learned that this kind of rootedness is atypical of American society in the 20th century, particularly since 1946. Europe, not having experienced the housing boom witnessed by the U.S. after World War II, is still a society in which people tend to stay put, maintaining connections to extended family and community on a more frequent basis. Conversely, according to the article the average American moves approximately 11 times during one's adult life. It seems we're driven - literally, given our obsession with cars - to move to bigger and better homes, thinking that fulfillment of the American dream is always just one house away. (This near universal belief that all are somehow entitled to own a McMansion fueled the recent housing boom and the underlying sub-prime mortgage crisis. That crisis may yet signal the death knell of the American dream for many citizens.)
Ok, so this doesn't really have anything to do with my birthday. But it gives you an idea of how my brain is always running down these side streets to check out something new or different. And I guess that habit does say something about where I am at 44: still curious, ready to learn new things, analyze the world around me, and offer my two cents, whether it's wanted or not.
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
These shots, colorful little abstracts of some of the tile work at 23rd Street on the 1 line, are the result of my experiments with the macro feature on the new camera. (I think the focus on #2 is a little off.)
Monday, January 28, 2008
Beginning in the early 1960s the Becher's carried their large format view camera around Europe and the United States to capture images of water towers (see the first image below), cooling towers, grain elevators, blast furnaces, and more. Publishing numerous books and winning myriad awards, they showed that even industrial subjects - like these water towers - can be beautiful as architectural monuments. They also chronicled an age in which industrial design actually reflected a measure of aesthetic concern for an object's placement in the environment. Realize too that the Becher's were also conscious of the impermanence of that landscape. In the post-industrial world of Europe and the U.S. over the last 30 years, many of their subjects were razed in the name of progress and beautification.
Now I don't make any claims to possess the vision of Bernd and Hilla Becher. (Although I certainly would jump at the chance to experiment with a large format camera!) Still, I do enjoy that kind of documentary effort, capturing bits of the New York City landscape that seem threatened by either "renewal" or neglect. Indeed, the area along the Hudson River from about 18th Street down to Houston includes many older buildings - some historic - that face demolition in the wake of new condo and co-op construction. Unfortunately, most of that new development is in the form architectural nightmares of glass and metal. I will not be taking picture of those. (Obviously the last three images are mine.)
Note: While at the MOMA I learned that Bernd Becher died in 2007 at the age of 75. One wonders if his wife will continue to take pictures.
Friday, January 25, 2008
Thursday, January 24, 2008
What always amazes us is how serious the worst of the contestants can be. They often truly believe they possess some rare talent that will be obvious to the judges if they're just given a chance to sing! How did they get this far in life believing they could become professional singers or the next music sensation? Several forces could be at work here. Some of those auditioning have likely never received truthful, constructive criticism of their singing talents - or lack thereof. They've been reassured - falsely - by parents and teachers and friends that their singing is "lovely" or "beautiful" in an effort to avoid hurt feelings and bruised egos.
The more likely cause of such unrealistic aspirations, however, is the cult of celebrity that has mushroomed into a global phenomenon. Thanks to reality television, YouTube, MySpace, and similar media outlets, anyone can put himself or herself out there and, with odds equivalent to the chance of being struck by lightening, become a star and thus enjoy the trappings of life as a celebrity. Indeed, there are just enough examples of success (Lily Allen, for example) to fuel the dreams of a herd of celebrity wannabes who would trade their mortal souls to grace the cover of People or the scores of celeb-obsessed magazines that now crowd grocery store shelves. But in a society in which no-talent "celebutantes" like Paris Hilton can be famous for no logical reason, it's easy to see how ordinary people might want to escape their seemingly mundane lives. There are even those who would trade places with the trainwreck lives of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan just for the chance to be famous. It really is a sad commentary on the direction our society has taken in the last 20 years.
As we move into the third month of a writers strike in Hollywood, "reality" programming, already epidemic on many networks, only strengthens its presence. Sadly, however, there's very little that's "real" in these shows. Indeed, at best they offer only a parody of reality, whether one is watching The Bachelor or American Idol. At times like this, one is reminded of Newton Minow, chair of the FCC during the Kennedy administration, whom I've mentioned before on this blog. In a famous 1961 address, Mr. Minow observed:
"When television is good, nothing -- not the theater, not the magazines orTo our discredit as a society, those words ring true nearly half a century later. Of course, the average person cares nothing about such arguments. And I'm happy to admit that I tend to be a cultural elitist, if not an outright snob. So bring on the off-key singers and celebrity wannabes. If we're lucky, a few gold nuggets will emerge from the dross; the rest will retire to their mundane lives and join the ranks of consumers, rather than the consumed.
newspapers -- nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I
invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on
the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit and loss
sheet or rating book to distract you -- and keep your eyes glued to that set
until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
What can we expect for 2009 and beyond? Regardless of the new president's party affiliation, we should demand an end to this illegal war and expect a strenuous effort to restore the nation's reputation within the worldwide community. Americans should also expect the next president to uphold the oath of office, unlike President Bush, who regularly trampled on the system of "checks and balances" established by the Constitution.
Among the current Republican candidates, several are particularly troubling. Huckabee should have been disqualified after the first debate for declaring that he did not believe in evolution, preferring the Genesis creation mythology as the source for his belief. He also too closely reflects the dangerous vision of the Republican party's religious fascists who labor constantly to bring down the constitutional wall that separates church and state. (The "Religious Right's" misreading of our early history and the Constitution is one of the gravest threats to this nation.) Giuliani too closely resembles Bush in temperament. (Thankfully, Rudy's numbers are declining in the polls.) McCain has a record of occasional moderation, but one wonders if he'll compromise his often maverick stance on critical issues just to secure votes. Romney, his controversial Mormonism aside, just seems so lacking in charisma and intellectual "oomph." He's fast becoming the John Kerry of the 2008 campaign.
Unfortunately, even the current Democratic front-runners haven't attracted my support at this point. Although I like Hillary Clinton (and still like Bill), I don't think she's electable in a national contest. Fudge-brained conservatives in the South and Midwest will do everything in their power to combat her candidacy and bring out the Republican minions to vote. I like Obama's optimism and think he represents a welcome challenge to the status quo, but believe he would make a more viable candidate in 2012. I just don't think he has sufficient experience in government yet to navigate the murky political waters of Washington.
From the beginning, I had hoped Al Gore would run. He's clearly the most qualified to do the job, and he possesses a gravitas and intellectual curiosity that smug George Bush doesn't carry even on his best days. (And as I've said before, we'll all be better off when Bush sits isolated and out of touch on his Texas ranch, condemned to obscurity, the harsh judgment of scholars, and the dustbin of American history. One hopes that in the future he'll come to recognize the tragedy of his two terms in office. One suspects, however, that he doesn't possess the requisite humility, since he's been trumpeting his own infallibility since taking office.) Alas, Gore will not run, and I will have a hard time making up my mind in November. (Of course, I will NOT be voting Republican in November and could not, with a clear conscience, cast a vote for any Republican candidate.) Nevertheless, I'm sustained by the thought that in 363 days, Bush will no longer be President of the United States.
Upon comparison, we quickly learned that both of us had experienced some pretty standard types, dreams that affect most people: dreams about falling or being chased, for example. During times of stress I also have dreams in which I'm back at the Virginia Military Institute, getting ready for a parade or inspection. Invariably, I'm running late and can't find all of the pieces of my uniform. So I'm running about looking for shoes, or belts, or pieces of brass, in a panic that I won't make the upcoming formation. Over the years I've talked to a number of VMI graduates, including alumni from the 50s and 60s, and we all have the same kind of dreams under stress. Whether we graduated five years ago or 40 years ago, we all find ourselves back at the Institute in the same situations. Funny how the experience affected us - down to our subconscious selves - in such a similar fashion. (Oddly, I don't recall having had nightmares in which I've revisited the traumatic experiences of that first year, a subject which would seem fair game for a subconscious reaction to fear and stress.)
Several months ago in this blog I talked about the recurring dream that I've had intermittently - and unpredictably - over at least two decades, in which I'm stuck in a multi-story house. These houses - smaller and simpler in the early years, and incredibly large and complex in the last decade - always have a dark, locked upper level, in which there's something menacing and malevolent. I never actually make it onto this level, but sometimes approach the door, with the feeling of malevolence growing as I get closer. I've been told that the house represents me and my life, which like the dream-house, has grown and become more complex over the years. The dark attic represents the darker aspects of my personality - anger, for example - which I don't want to let out into the open. A friend well versed in Jungian dream analysis almost salivated over this scenario because it so closely reflected the Jungian interest in the "shadow" aspects of our subconscious selves.
More recently, my dreams have returned to the house imagery, but without the darker aspects of my old nightmare. For example, in one recent dream I was trying to go on vacation with my family but we couldn't find all of the things we needed to leave. Much of the dream was spent searching through my "house" - a fantasy residence with a rabbit warren of rooms and no relation to my current housing situation.
Two weeks ago I dreamed that I had found a house for sale on Virginia's Eastern Shore - a ramshackle, white clapboard Victorian home - that was being offered for the unbelievably cheap price of $22,000. The exterior and interior of the house needed considerable work, and I recall the elderly woman who owned the place showed me through rooms that were stuffed full of curio cabinets containing "depression glass" and countless examples of cheap pottery and ceramic items. Ironically, many of the items tucked away in the curio cabinets were pieces that I've collected over the years, but are now in storage! (I'm still not sure what to make of this one!)
Finally, over the weekend I dreamed that while visiting family I attended some amorphously-defined fair or fundraiser and won a contest in which the prize was a house. I can still remember from the dream how my name was announced loudly on a speaker system . . . with my wife and I running to see what we had won. Weird . . . but interesting how houses have become a dominant symbol in many of my recent dreams. I'm not sure what the underlying meaning is in all this, but I welcome any thoughts, whether Freudian, Jungian, or your own personal take. I'd also love to hear about any recurring dreams you've experienced.
Friday, January 18, 2008
So this week that enthusiasm was reawakened by the news that NASA's "Messenger" spacecraft had flown by Mercury on Monday, the first of several fly-bys before it slows down and settles into orbit around the planet in 2011. Launched in 2004, its camera and instruments doubtless surpass those of Mariner 10, which photographed Mercury in 1974/75, and was the last NASA craft to reach the planet.
The first photos, which started showing up on the internet in the last two days, are amazing in their clarity, and illustrate what NASA can accomplish given competent leadership and adequate funding. Unfortunately, popular interest in space exploration has waned considerably over the last 30 years. Moreover, Washington's lack of commitment to visionary programs, measured in their failure to fund properly the development of new technologies, has limited NASA's effectiveness and left us with an outdated launch vehicle that, from the standpoint of budgets and bureaucracies, flies along as if negotiating an asteroid field. China is on the verge of significant breakthroughs in its efforts to develop a viable space program and has set long-term goals that, if realized, promise to overshadow the United States' role as a leader in space science.
For now, enjoy this latest good news from NASA, and check out the official "Messenger" website!
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
How little Christmas spirit must one have to trash the tree on December 26th? My wife has observed that perhaps these are people who will be traveling for the remainder of the holiday period. But I think there are just too many on the curbs to give that hypothesis credibility. We didn't get our tree down until last week, several days after Epiphany, signaling the end of the Christmas season (if one follows liturgical calendars). As a child, I remember our family tree always came down on January 1st or 2nd, but no later. When my brother and I visited my grandmother in the hospital on her 94th birthday, December 31st, she asked us to remind my mother to drop by the house and remove all Christmas decorations, including the wreath on the front door, by the end of New Year's Day. She was lying in the Intensive Care Unit, attached to IVs and oxygen, but she was still worried that her decorations might be up past January 1st, thus inviting bad luck for the coming year. (By the way, she's out of the hospital and improving. And my mother took down my grandmother's decorations on January 1st. Why tempt the gods who control luck?)
On the opposite side of the spectrum from those Scrooges who can't wait to reclaim the space taken up by the Christmas tree are those who can't bring themselves to haul out the boxes and repack the decorations for another year. I still see plenty of apartments and businesses sporting the mantle of holiday cheer, with lights and wreaths and miniature snowy villages on display well into January. One can't blame them, given the pall of melancholy that so often shrouds the weeks of January and February. A part of me wants to keep the tree up longer because it reminds me of the fun of Christmas day and the memories of Christmases now hidden away in photo albums and reels of Super-8 movies.
Nevertheless, I know it has to go - in our case, taken apart and folded into a box, bound for storage until next December. By Epiphany, we're no longer turning on the lights or adjusting the angel on top. Ornaments have dropped to the tree skirt below and no one has bothered to replace them on the tree. The skirt itself has become a wrinkled mess, where just a couple of weeks before, we were vigilant in keeping it neatly arranged beneath the tree. Although it's the season of Epiphany, which lasts until Shrove Tuesday on February 5th, one might observe that we're already looking ahead - albeit symbolically - to the season of Lent. Indeed, it's no accident that some of the symbols we associate with Christmas actually presage the events commemorated in Lent, Holy Week, and Easter.
Even without the religious iconography manifest in the Christmas tree and its decorations, the act of throwing out the tree (or packing it away, for those of us with artificial trees) can also symbolize a discarding of the previous year. While we're cleaning up and reclaiming that space in our living rooms and dens, we're facing a new year and, we hope, starting with a clean slate for the next twelve months. (Yet I can't help wondering - still - about the motivation behind throwing out the tree only a day after Christmas. I guess the practice is so antithetical to my own notions about Christmas, that I can't grasp the rationale behind it. In the end, I can only guess that it's the act of a melancholy heart.)
Monday, January 14, 2008
Here's that piece from the "Atonement" soundtrack, "Elegy for Dunkirk." There are several versions of the hymn on YouTube, including a lovely clip from Westminster Abbey that provides the subtitled lyrics. A very typical Anglican hymn - and among my favorites.
Atonement immediately reminded me of the works of E. M. Forster (long a favorite of mine, both novels and films), particularly in its depiction of class tensions and life on an English country estate. Indeed, the cinematography of this film reminded me of the lush Merchant\Ivory productions of several Forster novels (including Howard's End, Maurice, and A Room with a View). Keira Knightley and James McAvoy turned in wonderful performances, enhanced by an obvious chemistry between them. I was also mesmerized by the score and have already downloaded two selections from iTunes (the main theme, "Atonement"; and "Elegy for Dunkirk," which is built around a stirring Anglican hymn, "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind").
Most movies I see are fun for a couple of hours but are forgotten pretty quickly thereafter, filed away for future reference in games of Trivial Pursuit. But Atonement is one of those films that I'll remember - and doubtless purchase when it reaches DVD. The ending was a shock - but I shan't give it away with spoilers. Just go see it. (And since writing this, I've learned that the film won a Golden Globe yesterday for Best Drama.)
Friday, January 11, 2008
The best poetry - whether formulaic sonnets, sing-songy couplets, or the unstructured musings of more modern authors - ultimately reveals something about universal truths and one's own sense of self. (At least that's my rather uninformed opinion.) So I think now, in my 40s, having encountered - and endured - some life-changing events in the last decade, I'm better equipped to appreciate some of those stanzas that once grabbed my attention, their intonation and meter sounding a bit different filtered through 20 years of experience.
So one of my resolutions for 2008 is to read more poetry. And if I'm lucky, perhaps the muse will speak to me again, as in this haiku that I plucked from the ether today:
Stumble-down verse songs
Asleep in winter-dark dens
Await the new grass
Thursday, January 10, 2008
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
Monday, January 7, 2008
Sunday, January 6, 2008
In the second year of "My Tears Spoiled My Aim" I hope to continue with the same volume of entries, while increasing the proportion devoted to painting and photography. And as my younger son becomes more engaged in his drawing and painting, I may take the route of the typical proud parent and post some of his art on this virtual refrigerator.
Again, thanks for your input and encouragement, particularly in terms of my painting. 2007 constituted a turning point in this hobby, and I hope 2008 will afford opportunities to make it a more serious avocation.
Friday, January 4, 2008
Whether or not one believes in the idea of spiritual baptism in the Christian sense - a practice with roots in pre-Christian, pagan ritual - there's something to be said for the power of that cleansing water. Years ago, when I still wrote poetry, I would have poems pop into my head, nearly fully formed, without that arduous period of gestation and self-editing that could define some moments of literary creation. Under those circumstances, I'd dash from the shower and grab paper and pen to record the words before other thoughts crowded out this latest revelation. Even now I find that my mind clears in the shower and the synapses seem to fire a bit more smoothly.
For the liturgically minded, this is the season of epiphanies, by the way. And this Sunday, churches around the world will celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, ostensibly the symbolic moment of Christ's divinity being revealed to Gentiles, represented by the Magi. Parishes will parade likenesses of the Magi, "Three Kings" or "Wise Men" through their sanctuaries or the streets of small towns, or children will dress up in beards and plastic crowns to process into their church bearing their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But like so many of these "feasts" in the liturgical calendar, its 4th century origins are convoluted and represent one of those focal points of disagreement between churches in the east and west. For example, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, January 6th marks the day of Christ's baptism in the river Jordan. And at one time, even Christ's birth was celebrated on this day as well, before December 25th and the feast of Christmas became a separate celebration.
Growing up in a Southern Baptist church I never heard of Epiphany - or Advent and Lent, for that matter. It was as disconnected from liturgy and western christian ritual as one could possibly be. Anything remotely liturgical or ritualistic was deemed "Catholic" in nature and thus suspect. I believe some of that has changed now, however, with more Baptist churches embracing the concepts of Lent and Advent as means of organizing and structuring the worship and educational experiences. It also allows these churches to employ the familiar idiom of Catholicism and its adjuncts as a way to appeal to potential converts with experience in those liturgically oriented traditions. As an Episcopalian - and occasional congregant in a Lutheran parish - I always found these moments in the liturgical calendar a way to connect with Christian traditions that, in some cases, stretch back over the millenia. They also remind one of the fluid nature of Christian belief over the centuries - a quicksand-like reality to be avoided by the more dogmatic denominations that prefer ignorance over an informed faith.
I tend to avoid making New Year's resolutions, realizing that they'll most likely be cast aside in a short time. (Authoring this blog was actually borne of a resolution last January, and is thus one of the few New Year's promises I've ever kept.) Yet instead of dwelling on promises and resolutions - or things "done and left undone" in the language of the prayer book, here's hoping that 2008 is a year of epiphanies, whether divined in the shower, while walking down the street, or engaged in prayer.
Thursday, January 3, 2008
Until now, the crisis has affected only the financial institutions which had engaged in predatory loan practices to entice home buyers. But now, as the market for new homes has dwindled, builders - as well as the subcontractors and suppliers who support them - are facing the trickle-down effects of the crisis. One suspects that Levitt & Sons will not be the last major builder to close its doors.
Of course, the real victims in all of this are those buyers who didn't understand fully the intricacies of what they were signing when they joyfully accepted the loan terms. And by many accounts, the loan companies didn't want buyers to understand the dangers of adjustable mortgages and dramatically rising payments. Representing the 21st century equivalents of 1950s and 60s suburbanites who escaped cities and apartment living, these new homeowners - many of them immigrants and minorities - thought they had achieved the "American Dream." Now they face foreclosure and, potentially, homelessness. Why haven't we heard any of the presidential candidates, Republican or Democrat, addressing this issue with more than tacit acknowledgement that there's a problem?
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
But apparently this flurry of activity during winter's coldest months is a modern development. I was recently reading a new historical geography of France - The Discovery of France - and learned that in the coldest areas of western Europe many communities essentially hibernated until the spring thaw. There would be little or no commercial activity, no travel, and only meager time spent outside. Families would huddle together with their animals - including sheep, cows, goats, etc. - and spend much of their time sleeping. While this might seem surprising, realize that winters were generally colder and of longer duration until the early 20th century. (Chalk that difference up to the climate change wrought by global warming.) Also understand that for many Europeans, fuel supplies were quite limited and expensive when available. But enough science and history.
When I was a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in the early 80s, we called this time between the Christmas holiday and Spring break the "Dark Ages." Tucked under red comforters in our folding beds, we'd awake each morning to the clang of the warming steam radiators and a lone bugler blowing reveille in the darkened barracks. We would line up outside barracks in our company formations and march off to breakfast in the dark. And, after a day of classes we'd change into our grey wool blouses and march off to supper - again, in the dark.
For Rats (VMI's term for freshmen) this was a time of fear and depression. Having enjoyed the liberation of home and family for the holidays, we would spend the ensuing winter months praying for the arrival of Spring and the end of the period of torture and humiliation known as the "Ratline." Laboring under a heavy course load, we struggled through months of physical and emotional torment. When friends ask what it was like, I compare it to the first half of the movie Full Metal Jacket - plus 18 credit hours. (This was the period during which so many Rats reached the breaking point and quit, abandoning VMI for the relative ease of regular college life.)
On a warm spring day, with flags fluttering and the parade ground covered by cadets on parade, VMI could seem a magical place . . . proud parents taking pictures of their sons (and now daughters) arrayed in coatees and shakos, with freshly polished brass and steel sabers glinting in the mountain sunlight. Under those conditions, with the statues of Stonewall Jackson and George C. Marshall surveying the field of neat formations, it was easy to get caught up in the romance and history of a place like VMI, the "West Point of the South," as it is nicknamed. But in cold January and February, under grey clouds that matched our grey uniforms, the place seemed a prison. (Indeed, while visiting VMI as a senior in high school, my father remarked during a tour of the campus, surrounded by other parents and prospective cadets, "It reminds me of Alcatraz.")
By the winter of my senior year, the romance of VMI had faded, the naivete of an 18-year-old freshman having been replaced by the realization that the quaint 19th century uniforms and flashing sabers were just window dressing to cover up the harsh reality of military life. Rather than marvel at the history and pageantry, I was more apt to contemplate the final line of Wilfred Owens' great poem from the trenches of the First World War: "Dulce et decorum est/ pro patria mori."
Like VMI, New York City can exhibit that polar contrast between its mythic, beautiful face and the grey reality of urban squalor. And today that reality seems just a bit harsher as used Christmas trees are tossed to the curb throughout the City and the Christmas decorations come down, only to be replaced by the garish displays of Valentine's Day wares. Here's hoping the "Dark Ages" are mercifully short and Spring arrives a little early this year.