Category Archives: Art & Culture

Rats! Not Exactly on the Bucket List

Although India ought to be on the list of world cultures that one visits in a lifetime of travel, it is probably not for all travelers. Well, let me modify that with a caveat. If one includes the category of luxury travel where one essentially floats through an environment in an air-conditioned, antiseptic bubble with your personal Jeeves at the beck and call… if that is your cup of Darjeeling them yes, Incredible India may be for you, too.

One of the Must-Do’s not on my India Bucket List, however, was the Karni Mata Temple in Deshnoke, Rajasthan. It draws Indian pilgrims from far and wide with a smattering of tourists thrown in (I saw one, presumably non-Indian, European while I visited.) But there are about 25,000 kabbas resident here (give or take; I saw a dead one on my exploration.)

A Wikipedia entry, taken from the Lonely Planet travel guide, explains the place best:

“Legend has it that Laxman, Karni Mata’s stepson (or the son of one of her storytellers), drowned in a pond… while he was attempting to drink from it. Karni Mata implored Yama, the god of death, to revive him. First refusing, Yama eventually relented, permitting Laxman and all of Karni Mata’s male children to be reincarnated as rats.”

Yes, you read that correctly; a kabba is a rat. Specifically, it is a member of the species Rattus rattus, the lovable black rat, every child’s idea of the perfect pet and not to be confused with its more malleable cousin, Rattus norvegicus, the brown, better known as the Norway, or Sewer, rat. Everyone on the planet knows this latter beastie because it is the staple of research laboratories, pet stores and is, alas, the most successful and common mammal on the planet – with the notable exception of humans. Only Antarctica has been spared (for now).

Rats Feeding on Milk & Water - Karni Mata Temple
Rats Feeding on Milk & Water – Karni Mata Temple, Rajasthan, India

While I was looking up at the acre of wire mesh that covers the mostly open-air compound and thinking of Yersinia pestis, the bubonic plague, a kabba, scurrying to a destination unknown to me, ran over my right foot. This is considered especially lucky, bestowing only good things upon one so blessed. To my credit I did not scream.

I think the overhead wire mesh is to keep out the large numbers of Columbidae livia, rock doves, whose planetary feral populations have exploded. (I will go out on a limb right now and hazard that they are number three on the list of earth’s most cosmopolitan mammals.) You and I, and everyone else we know, simply call this bird a pigeon. It is a certainty that these rats-on-wings would dive in and settle down to eat the ample food stores spread around for the kabbas, for India, as elsewhere, is profoundly inundated with pigeons. The wire screen roof also keeps out India’s many birds of prey. It would be bad form to let any of the temple’s 25,000 holy inhabitants end up as meals-that-squeals.

Naturally, there is a distinct odor to the complex, one that might charitably be called barnyardy. I suppose it is a combination of the mammal residents, the food spread around by visitors and the excrement left after the food is eaten. As if to get even for their exclusion, there is also an unfair amount of pigeon poop because the wire screening cannot, of course, keep it from dropping in to pay its respects to the unfairly favored King Rat.

As with all India’s sacred spaces, shoes are verboten! 99% of pilgrims leave theirs helter-skelter in the street-cum-public-square in front of the temple, tho there is an official concession for footwear storage just a few meters beyond. The attendants looked lonely so I used it. (No, that’s a lie: they were not lonely; so many people had looked Keenly at my sandals I was worried about some less-than-honest pilgrim waddling off in them so checked my sandals properly.) The shoe storage sits at one end of the row of kitschy concessions lining two sides of the square. All sell sweets, snacks and every tacky knick-knack known to rat-dom (don’t groan, I could have written ‘ratty’ instead of ‘tacky’.) The atmosphere would not be out of place as the Midway of a 1960s circus with touts trying to snare passers-by one and all. I, in thoughtful foresight, wore a pair of those little hospital socks with grippy pads on the soles as an ensemble with my sandals. Lord (Krishna) knows if I would have had the fortitude to cross the street and enter the temple with feet unclad by sox once I checked my Keens into official care.

On a highbrow note, there is excellent architecture to indulge in and a set of solid silver doors, even if the bulk of the temple is painted Pepto-Bismol pink. My one complaint is that the large marble lions outside really ought to have been over-sized King Rats. Attendees may cast this as a matter of little consequence; the lions are rarely visible because of the hordes of Indians who lounge over them executing self-portraits. The European visitor and myself were the only ones I saw actually taking pictures of the temple; everyone else simply used the temple and its parts as their selfie back-drop, as is the case at every other site in India. At least Karni Mata is on flat, solid ground. The railings at the battlements of forts and palaces have oftentimes been installed after someone forgets they are hundreds of meters in the air and leans back for a better facial photo extension. I am not making this up.

For you early birds Karna Mata opens at 4:00 am. It is dark then so for the squeamish maybe that would be the best time to go. As there is so much food about, and rats are easily distracted, there is ample tucker for one and all, including you, dear visitor. It is said that eating food nibbled on by the rats is a high honor. If you will, please let me know how that works out. Also let me know if you see one of the rare white rats. You guessed it: that is also an auspicious honor. In this particular quest I failed. I thought to dash out and cross the square to find a flute (probably available as one is always shown with Krishna in a playing posture) and I’m sure a pied suit could have been procured, as well. Then I came to my senses and ended this line of reverie. Who wants to end up as a fatality statistic after luring all the rats out of Karni Mata just to sight a white one?

Some of you reading this may take my tone amiss, as a bit of unenlightened, agnostic snark. Please do not interpret my remarks this way: for those who travel, if you do not go to India you will have missed a precious and wonderful chapter of the human novel!

Well, that about sums up this installment except to write that while there are many monkey temples in India, Karna Mata is unique, as far as I know. And I am satisfied to report: Been there! Done that!

 

A Sonnet

(with apologies to Miss Freeman, my 8th grade English teacher, from whom I learned the proper setup of an octave and a sestet for the Petrarchan, Spenserian and Shakespearean sonnet forms. First know the artistic rules and then feel free to break them.)

Welcome to Mother India
Wellspring of Religions galore
You’ve probably Tech-Talked to us
Way down in Bangalore

East meets West – We’ve all the Best
Paintings with Class; our Jewelry – a Blast
Music and Dance; Textiles that Prance
Stone sculptures of Schist; Ah… feelings of bliss.

But, as in any form of living thing, mi’ lad
Good lives not unalloyed with the bad.
Meditate on this,
Hurriedly or at Ease:

Enter India if you Please
At some small personal Risk.

R.I.P. Richard “Dick” Claxton Gregory

Richard “Dick” Claxton Gregory
(12 October 1932, St. Louis, Missouri – 19 August 2017, Washington, D.C.)

Dick Gregory Lecturing at Wright State University, April 1973
Photo: Wilbur Norman

Dick Gregory, U.S. Army veteran, urbane comedian-turned-social activist and writer, actor, businessman and provocateur par excellence, died yesterday at the age of 84. I first met him in April 1973 when he spoke at Wright State University. I would then run into him at various events around the East Coast. I think the last time I saw him must have been in 1987 when he was arrested protesting apartheid in front of the South African Embassy in Washington, DC.

He could keep up a biting and satirical running commentary better than anyone I have ever met, no doubt from practice as a stand-up comedian in his early career. That career was given a big boost by his appearance on The Jack Paar Tonight Show in 1961.

After turning down invitations to perform on the show he was called by Paar to find out why. (Billy Eckstine had told Gregory no black performer was ever asked to sit on the couch after their act.) Gregory told Paar that the reason he was not willing to perform on The Tonight Show was “because a Negro has never been able to finish the act and walk to the couch.” The show’s producers changed this policy, making Gregory the first African American to take the couch and talk with Paar after a stage appearance!

A Lie of the Mind – ‘Trauma, Mystery, Grief’. Samuel Shepard Rogers III

Although I certainly cannot say I knew him, I ran into Sam Shepard (5 November 1943 – 27 July 2017) more frequently than almost any other famous person I have ever ‘known’. And, some of those times I would only realize it was him after he had moved on.

On a blustery early evening in March or April about eight years ago, I was leaving the Asian Tribal Art Show on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street in NYC, head down to counter the cold, when he breezed by me in a stride as brisk as the wind, cowboy hat pulled low over his forehead and the collar of his shearling coat cinched up high; I only realized it was him after he had passed by. But where I saw him most often was in Santa Fe at the great bookstore Op Cit. He was an avid reader (or an avid book buyer) and he would bend his tall frame over, pick up a paperback and check it out much like any lover of the printed word.

And word lover he was in both consumption and production: 55 plays, 50 films, a dozen plus TV roles and at least 7 books that were not plays. Among his additional talents were banjo picker, song writer, Obie Award collector (I believe he holds the record at 10 wins) and voice actor for the audio book of Spaulding Gray’s last monologue. He avidly avoided aviation travel but was sometimes guilty of driving under the influence.

Mr. Shepard turned the final page last Thursday from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, popularly called Lou Gehrig’s disease in the U.S. and motor neurone disease (MND) in Britain.

He and his writing will be much missed.

_____
“Sam always wrote from that place — a zone of trauma, mystery and grief. Whether the play was more mainstream or experimental in its conception, he took the big risk every time.” – playwright Christopher Shinn, The NY Times, July 31, 2017.

何藩 / Fan Ho – R.I.P.

Photographer-Filmmaker Fan Ho / 何藩
(8 October 1937, Shanghai – 19 June 2016, San Jose, CA)

fan-ho-as-evening-hurries-by

As Evening Hurries By. One of the photographer’s own favorites.

Somehow I missed the notice that one of my handful of favorite photographers, Fan Ho, passed to that darkroom in the sky in June of this year at the age of 78. (Many biographies list his birth as 1931.)

In the 1950s and the 1960s, Fan Ho stalked the streets, alleys, tenements, waterways and markets of Hong Kong with his Rollei Twin Lens Reflex, possessed of a deft compositional sense and a patient* eye for light and shadow. In so doing he inadvertently documented a city that would morph into the great metropolis it is today. His poignant, compassionate and artful portfolio from this time relates a humanist sentiment highlighted by a geometric touch salted with intriguing chiaroscuro. He was able, equally, to portray Hong Kong as a hive of activity or as a nearly deserted monument to the individual.

It is unfortunate today that many young photographers are not familiar with his work. For those who are, one of the facts they know is that the Photographic Society of America consistently listed Ho as one of the world’s top ten photographers every year from 1958 to 1965. He was the recipient of some 300 photography awards over a long career and also directed 27 films (also acting in a few!) His diversity sprung, no doubt, from his feeling that, “I hate to repeat myself.”

What is probably less known is that Fan Ho had a self-deprecating and very refined sense of humour; his wit was infectious and ever-present.

Fan Ho was about the last of a generation of image-makers who made photography the modern expression we see today.

He will be missed.

fan-ho-approaching-shadow-1954

* Approaching Shadow (1954). For many years I marveled at this photograph and thought of it as one of the small number of decisive moment masterpieces. Now that I know more about it I still find it entirely captivating as, apparently, did the buyer at Bonhams (Hong Kong) in 2015 who purchased it for HK$375,000 (US$48,000), a Fan Ho record. In fact, Ho used his niece for the model against the wall and a draughtsman’s triangle in the darkroom to create that dramatic edge of shadow! To me the artist’s darkroom manipulation makes this image no less great.

Still the Greatest! RIP Mohammed Ali (1942-2016)

“It was his beauty that beat me.” – George Foreman

In a world where many noted personalities are famous simply for being… well… famous, Mohammed Ali was a giant, a man who not only had a skill and performed colossal feats with that skill (40 Sports Illustrated covers as of next week attest to this) but who stood for something, as well. Ali became a symbol of hope and aspiration for anyone trying to make something of a life begun in humble or deprived origins, for those forced by circumstance into a life of servitude and despair. How appropriate that he was recognized by both the United Nations and Amnesty International as a world ambassador for peace and justice.

I met Mohahammed Ali once. I had, of course, seen him many times on television, flashing that infectious smile and spouting his sing-song braggadocio. What do you say to the man who was once the world’s highest paid athlete and most recognized face and name on earth (as an American, everywhere I went in Africa in the late 1970s people who could not speak much English would raise their arms and shout “Mohammed Ali!”)? I managed to mumble something about it being a supreme pleasure to finally meet “The Greatest”.

What I was not prepared for was his handshake. Ali took both my hands in his and I still remember, and often mention, that my hands (I’m 6 foot, 1 inch tall) were engulfed in what seemed to me to be two catcher’s mitts enclosing my hand. I immediately thought of what it would be like to be hit by such huge fists and said so. He laughed and slowly threw one of his famous mock punches.*

“If you are still the same person at 50 as you were at 20 then you have wasted 30 years of your life.” – Mohammed Ali

When you are “The Greatest”, so you shall ever remain.

* In Philadelphia I belonged to the same club as Joe Frazier and his hands were similarly sized. Plus, Frazier was not that tall but his shoulders extended far beyond my own when we would stand face to face. He was built like a moving , giant cinder block.

Montaigne’s Tower

It is a nation, would I answer Plato, that hath no kinde of traffike, no knowledge of Letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate… no use of service, of riches or of povertie… no apparell but naturall… no use of wine, corne, or mettle. The very words that import lying, falshood, treason, dissimulations, covetousnes, envie, detraction, and pardon, were never heard of amongst them. How dissonant would hee finde his imaginarie common-wealth from this perfection?
– Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (28 February 1533 – 13 September 1592) Of the Caniballes, translated by John Florio, 1603.

 

The original Château de Montaigne is no longer in existence – except for the Tower where Michel Eyquem had his library and study. It was on this day in 1571, in this “citadel” looking out upon the vineyards, that he began his nearly decade-long self-imposed refuge of reading, thinking and writing. During the next nine years he wrote the first two of his books of essais, a form he did not invent, per se, but for which he is justly famous, developing and refining the personal, discursive eloquence and rich flexibility we associate with the essay form.

His mother’s family were conversos, Spanish Jews converted to Catholicism. Pierre, his father, possessed definite ideas about his son’s education, and had a family fortune inherited from trade in wine and salted fish, to carry it out. Michel was given to peasants to rear for the first three years of his life, so as to know the life of the commoner, and then tutored and addressed only in Latin to learn what would become his first language in both speaking and writing.

Although Montaigne wrote that he preferred conversation to any other form of communication*, it is difficult to imagine, outside pre-literary cultures, a single individual’s ability to pass onto future generations, orally, the insights to be gained by sustained reading of his work; conversation, outside the therapist’s couch, seems to me to have its limits with regard to the revelation of our deepest selves.

It is odd, I think, that, throughout much of history, his essays have been thought of as works of literature rather than works of philosophy. “He moved from a conception of philosophy conceived of as theoretical science, to a philosophy conceived of as the practice of free judgment,” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2009) using the device of solid and numerous references to past thinkers to illuminate the study of his own existence. And all, initially, to exorcise the demon of melancholy to which he became subject at the beginning of those ten years of study looking out over the vineyards.

There is a school of thought that Shakespeare read Montaigne in John Florio’s 1603 translation and used portions of it for his own plays. Here, a selection from The Tempest, Act II, Scene 1, correlating with the quote at the head of the page:

Gonzalo: I’ the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none…
No use of metal, corn, or wine…
… treason, felony, …
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind,…all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.…
….
I would with such perfection govern, sir,
To excel the golden age.

 

* Montaigne’s belief is in direct opposition to his later countryman, Marcel Proust’s idea that, “The artist who gives up an hour of work for an hour of conversation with a friend knows that he is sacrificing a reality for… a superficial digression which gives us nothing worth acquiring. We may talk for a lifetime without doing more than indefinitely repeat the vacuity of a minute.” (A. De Botton, How Proust Can Change Your Life, 1997, pages 118-119.)

 

Listen to the Oldest (Discovered) Song in the World: A Sumerian Hymn Written 3,400 Years Ago

FROM: the web site Open Culture

World's Oldest (Discovered) Song: A 3400 Year Old Sumerian Hymn
World’s Oldest (Discovered) Song: A 3400 Year Old Sumerian Hymn

In the early 1950s, archaeologists unearthed several clay tablets from the 14th century B.C.E.. Found, WFMU tells us, “in the ancient Syrian city of Ugarit,” these tablets “contained cuneiform signs in the hurrian language,” which turned out to be the oldest known piece of music ever discovered, a 3,400 year-old cult hymn. Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, professor of Assyriology at the University of California, produced the interpretation above in 1972. (She describes how she arrived at the musical notation—in some technical detail—in this interview.) Since her initial publications in the 1960s on the ancient Sumerian tablets and the musical theory found within, other scholars of the ancient world have published their own versions.

The piece, writes Richard Fink in a 1988 Archeologia Musicalis article, confirms a theory that “the 7-note diatonic scale as well as harmony existed 3,400 years ago.” This, Fink tells us, “flies in the face of most musicologist’s views that ancient harmony was virtually non-existent (or even impossible) and the scale only about as old as the Ancient Greeks.” Kilmer’s colleague Richard Crocker claims that the discovery “revolutionized the whole concept of the origin of western music.” So, academic debates aside, what does the oldest song in the world sound like? Listen to a midi version below and hear it for yourself. Doubtless, the midi keyboard was not the Sumerians instrument of choice, but it suffices to give us a sense of this strange composition, though the rhythm of the piece is only a guess.

hear the song

 

For Him The Bell Tolls

Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing which may be purchased.
– Ernest Miller Hemingway (21 July 1899 – 2 July 1961), Death In The Afternoon, 1932.

Ernest Hemingway is one of those writers we associate with machismo, cocktails and rum. But he liked a good bottle of wine as well as any wine fan and wrote of it eloquently.

“In Europe we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also a great giver of happiness and well being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary.” – A Moveable Feast, 1964

I like that. It speaks to the fundamental nature of wine and its place alongside any, or every, meal. It is not for nothing that those who consume a glass or two each day live longer than the non-drinker. Of course, quality of life is also important, for living long is no boon if one is not healthy enough to enjoy a life extended. In The Sun Also Rises, published during U.S. Prohibition, Hemingway included wine (along with a variety of other alcohols) almost as if it were a character:

“I drank a bottle of wine for company. It was Chateau Margaux. It was pleasant to be drinking slowly and to be tasting the wine and to be drinking alone. A bottle of wine was good company.”
The Sun Also Rises, 1926.

“This wine is too good for toast-drinking, my dear. You don’t want to mix emotions up with a wine like that. You lose the taste.” – Count Mippipopolous in The Sun Also Rises.

In a scene where the protagonist, Jake Barnes, and his buddy, Bill Gorton, are fishing the Irati River in the Pyrenees (an area locals call Auniak which, I believe, means ‘barrier’) they cool their wine by putting it in the water. I tried this once by jamming my bottle amid ‘stable’ flotsam by the bank and falling asleep for an hour at my campsite. In my homage I lost a 1978 Bordeaux for not tethering the bottle at the neck with a knot.

The conventional wisdom surrounding Hemingway’s self-inflicted death is that it sprang from a major crisis, an inability to write a tribute to President Kennedy just after the 1961 inauguration. He had returned to Idaho from electroconvulsive therapy at the Mayo Clinic and found that the treatment pretty much wiped his memory. Now, medicine has found and implicated a new culprit, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), such as we are seeing in retired pro-footballers where an accumulation of tau protein associated with dementia and degeneration of brain tissue has led, it is alleged, to numerous self-inflicted deaths.

It appears that Hemingway’s self-inflicted death may have been assisted, or even put in motion, by the many concussions he sustained over the years: mortar fire (Italy, 1918); skylight accident (Paris, 1928); auto accident with John Dos Passos (Billings, Montana, 1930); auto accident (London, 1944); thrown from motorcycle while evading Nazis (Normandy, 1944); auto crash (Cuba, 1945); slipping on the deck of his boat, Pilar, (Cuba, 1950); Cessna plane crash (Uganda, 1954, minimal injuries); head-butt to break escape window in the crash of a de Haviland Rapide – the rescue plane sent for him after the Cessna crash! (Uganda, 1954); auto crash (1958) and assorted other physical knocks. Then there was, of course, the major league drinking he courted much of his life.

As if the above litany were not enough we now know he also had, as probably did his father, the blood disorder hemochromatosis, an inability to metabolize iron leading to physical and mental deterioration. This genetic fact might account for three (perhaps four) of his five siblings committing suicide as well as the self-inflicted death of his grandaughter Margaux. He once told Ava Gardner that he spent “a hell of a lot of time killing animals and fish so I won’t kill myself” (Hotchner, 1966.)

Wine was a part of Hemingway’s life to the very end: the day before he shot himself he went on a picnic lunch where he enjoyed wine and, in the evening, even went out to dinner with his wife Mary.

I, like most I believe, prefer to remember him in the early dawn, sitting down to write, freshly sharpened pencils lined up, changing the face of American literature.

“In wine most people at the start prefer sweet vintages, Sauternes, Graves, Barsac, and sparkling wines, such as not too dry champagne and sparkling Burgundy because of their picturesque quality while later they would trade all these for a light but full and fine example of the Grand crus of Medoc though it may be in a plain bottle without label, dust, or cobwebs, with nothing picturesque, but only its honesty and delicacy and the light body of it on your tongue, cool in your mouth and warm when you have drunk it.” – Death In The Afternoon, 1932.

Mockingbird Finally Sings in Zeros & Ones (Digitally)

Today is the 88th birthday of Harper Lee, the author of the July 1960  novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

To coincide with her birthday her publisher, HarperCollins, announced  six hours ago that she has finally agreed to let the book be published as an e-Book, thereby knocking down another in the dwindling list of classics that have been withheld from digital distribution.

“I’m still old-fashioned. I love dusty old books and libraries,” said Lee  in a statement released by HarperCollins (whose still sell a million copies of the book each year!) “I am amazed and humbled that Mockingbird has survived this long. This is Mockingbird for a new generation.”

It is to be noted that this leaves the seminal novel of another reclusive author still out in the digital cold: J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In the Rye.

Scout and Atticus enter the realm of the digital on July 8.

 

27 April 2014: World Pinhole Photography Day

“Mauerblicke looking West” - image made with pinhole camera through a hole in the Berlin Wall, Germany
“Mauerblicke looking West” – image made with pinhole camera through a hole in the Berlin Wall, Germany

Sunday, April 27 is World Pinhole Photography Day. And, here in northern New Mexico, we are fortunate to have the world’s largest collection of pinhole photography and its associated paraphernalia.

In honor of the annual event the New Mexico History Museum is hosting Poetics of Light, an exhibition of the collection’s images from pinhole enthusiasts around the world.  Poetics of Light will open on the celebratory Day itself and run for about eleven months. (http://www.nmhistorymuseum.org/pinhole/)

The collection of 6000 photographs, 200 cameras and 200 books is the result of the generosity of Eric Renner and Nancy Spencer, Co-Directors of Pinhole Resource.  Both artists’ pinhole and zone plate photographs can be viewed on their sites at:

http://nancyspencerphoto.com/home.html
http://ericrennerphoto.com/home.html

There are many web sites providing directions for making your own pinhole camera.  Or, you can buy a camera for as little as $10 or as much as several hundred.  Check out both directions and ready-mades on the internet.

Herewith, a couple of samples (courtesy of the New Mexico History Museum) to whet your appetite for pinhole photography – and remember to get out there and create your own images this Sunday!

 

Starfish in Tidal Pool
Starfish in Tidal Pool

econtent.unm.edu

 

Storage Yore

Vivian Maier self-portrait, 1955 (Catalog VM1955W03420-05-MC)

Vivian Maier self-portrait, 1955 (Catalog VM1955W03420-05-MC)

Often, when we read ‘hyperbole’ about a person, place or thing, we turn to it only to find that the hype is just that: hype. There are those few times, however, when all the fuss turns out to be revelatory and transformational. Such is the case with the 2007 discovery, in a storage contents sale, of the photography of American-born Vivian Maier (February 1, 1926 – April 21, 2009).

Discovery is not too strong a word as her work was unknown to even the families for whom she worked as a nanny.  She never displayed, much less exhibited, the “collection of 100,000 to 150,000 negatives, more than 3,000 prints, hundreds of rolls of film, home movies, audio tape interviews…” that have come to light. (See http://www.vivianmaier.com and the 2013 film, Finding Vivian Maier.) The bulk of the photos seem to be riveting street images and they are hard to  pass by. Viewing them is a lot like eating ice cream: a spoonful makes you crave more… lots more.

According to the children she cared for she  carried her camera wherever she went. This is easy to believe from the many great images of the world around her. (She must have been very good at what we now label “multi-tasking”; watching the children in her care and snapping fleeting moments is quite a skill.) Fortunately for the world of art we are seeing her work at last. Its clarity, honesty and personal vision has caught the imagination of those in a position to let the rest of us see more. In the few short years since the discovery of her black & white negatives there have been numerous exhibitions at galleries and museums around the world.

Vivian Maier’s hidden obsession with making pictures ought not be confused with that of the normal hobbyist. She was exacting in her idea of what her finished products should look like, much as any artist. She would often send her negatives out to a developer, even though she had set up a dark room in her bathroom, and would ask for an image to be reprinted if it did not meet the critical demands of her eye.  Also, as the photos below make clear, she, like the best street shooters, traveled to neighborhoods many Americans of the 1950s and 1960s would never have visited except during their sit-down breakfast or dinner with the daily paper.

Maxwell Street, Chicago 1962 (Catalog VM1962W01099-06-MC)
Maxwell Street, Chicago 1962 (Catalog VM1962W01099-06-MC)

An undated photo (Catalog VM19XXW00573-08-MC)

An undated photo (Catalog VM19XXW00573-08-MC)

But, she clearly planned her exposure possibilities, too. The web site has a couple of her ‘sidewalk’ photos of celebrities: Kirk Douglas at the premiere of the movie Spartacus, Chicago, 13 October 1960 (Catalog VM1960W02526-07-MC), Frank Sinatra, Emmet Kelly, etc.

Born in New York, Maier was raised in France before returning to the United States (and then going back to France and, finally, returning to the U.S. in 1949 to live for the rest of her life.) Altho she is described as super secretive and closeted, she managed to take many vacations around the world. There are stirring images from India, Egypt, France, Yemen, Thailand and other locations. The photo below, from Saigon, is somewhat uncharacteristic in that her subject is smiling.

Saigon 1959 (Catalog VM1959W02685-12-MC)
Saigon 1959 (Catalog VM1959W02685-12-MC)

Let’s all shout out a grand Thank You to John Maloof in Chicago for buying that $380 carton of negatives in 2007 — and then spending about $70,000 to track down and buy cartons from others who had purchased her work at that original sale!

R.I.P. Peter Matthiessen

The First Issue of The Paris Review, Spring 1953.

The first issue of the Paris Review, Spring 1953, published a couple months after I was born.

The only writer to win the U.S. National Book Award in the fiction AND nonfiction categories, Peter Matthiessen, has died of leukemia at his home on Long Island.

Among the acts in his storied life was co-founding the Paris Review, a literary magazine that, along with tons of publishing firsts has maintained a series of interviews “Writers at Work,” which Joe David Bellamy, in his book, Literary Luxuries has called, “one of the single most persistent acts of cultural conservation in the history of the world.”

Peter Matthiessen was, in many ways, the most normal of ‘famous’ men. As I write this I can look at two full shelves of books authored by Mr. Matthiessen, many of them signed when I met him for the first time at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences in 1983. When one of my colleagues, who did not bring his books along, asked if he might send them to Long Island to be signed, Matthiessen said “sure” and wrote out his home address on a slip of paper. After the books were sent and signed they were mailed back to Philadelphia. Accompanying them was a note saying the wife was a bit unhappy that their home address had been given out to a stranger and could that original “slip of paper please be torn up and thrown away?” How many famous names can you think of who would kindly write out their home address for you? (The handwritten piece of paper was duly tossed but, today, would be a nice memento stapled to that returned note!)

Peter Matthiessen was, also, the most observant, clear-sighted and questioning of men; traits enhanced, no doubt, by his Zen practice. He always thought of himself as a fiction writer first and foremost, continually grappling with many of the central concerns of our existence. Additionally, he brought this focus to his great non-fiction, the works  I treasure most.  He seemed to think of these books, however, as his trade-craft, workman-like, earth-bound output with fiction being his artisanal craft on a higher plane that might, in fact, break free of the plain and soar.

And, now, today, he has joined that body of marvelous work.

R.I.P. Peter Mathiessen (22 May 1927 – 5 April 2014).

R.I.P. Simon Hoggart

We  lost one of the planets most entertaining writers yesterday. Simon Hoggart (26 May 1946 − 5 January 2014), Parliamentary sketch writer for The Guardian Newspaper and wine columnist for The Spectator. He might well have become a tennis star but for serious injuries that led him to consider journalism. Tennis’ loss was the written word’s gain (and broadcasting’s, on both sides of the Pond, as well.) Always writing, he published about twenty books, the last two after being diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in 2010.
Hoggart’s insights and witticisms are legion. Herewith, a few:

Watching John Major run the country is like watching Edward Scissorhands make balloon animals.

I’m just back from a week in France. Naturally I took a case of non-French wine over on the ferry so as to have something decent to drink. The French are terrifically complacent about their wine, believing that the worst they produce is better than the best from anywhere else. They are wrong, and there are few sights more depressing than the parade of tired, ill-kept, dreary bottles on the shelves of French supermarkets. The humblest British high street off- licence has wines from a dozen countries, and frequently twice that; in France it is hard to find wine from outside the region, never mind abroad. It may cost i1 or so per bottle less, but that is no compensation for Chablis like acidulated chalk dust, or clarets which have finesse and backbone but no discernible taste. I know many older drinkers like only French wines, but this is force of habit; just as men over 50 tend to prefer stockings to tights, it’s a matter of how you started. — 19 April 1996, Diary.

I loved his testimony (before Parliament’s Public Administration Select Committee) in 2009 about the bleaching effects of politicians’ jargon when they seek to white-wash political acts. He began the hearings by re-stating one of Churchill’s war-time phrases as if it were re-written by a modern government wonk, turning “We will fight on the beaches” into “an ongoing programme of hostile engagement in littoral sectors.”

Gotta love it! He and his writing will be much missed.

Simon Hoggart  photograph courtesy © BBC 

This Year’s Holiday Card

This is the image for our 2013 Holiday Card. The text reads:

Darn!  Where’s that fat guy in the funny red suit when you need to make a getaway?

I think he’s behind us…    What’s that over there?    UH-oh, I did something in my pants….    God, I never get in the pictures…..
Yeh, if I squint I can see it too.  I’m going back – why did I agree to carry this baby?  I know he’s coming & I’m glad I brought my brother!
Man, you guys are crazy – what a waste of time.   I’m hiding my face in case they catch us.

Writers Lifeguard

Pay the Writer!
 

I was reading Querencia, Steve Bodio’s Blog (altho he also published a great book by that name, too), and found a video entry with a Harlan Ellison (justified) rant about paying the writer for his or her work. The original diatribe comes from the documentary about Ellison, Dreams with Sharp Teeth. I followed the link on Bodio’s page to a blog titled Writers Lifeguard. A reader wrote to the blog asking about the origin of the site’s name. The response, below, struck a chord as I hail from an Appalachian mining region; 80% of the land in my home county is owned by coal interests.

Jules Older, the blogger for Writers Lifeguard says its name is a tribute to his favorite union-organizing song,

Miner’s Lifeguard

Miner’s life is like a sailor’s.
‘Board a ship to cross the waves.
Ev’ry day his life’s in danger,
Still he ventures being brave.
Watch the rocks, they’re falling daily.
Careless miners always fail.
Keep your hand upon the dollar
And your eye upon the scale.

CHORUS:
Union miners stand together,
Heed no operator’s tale,
Keep your hand upon the dollar,
And your eye upon the scale.

You’ve been docked and docked, my boys,
You’ve been loading two to one;
What have you to show for working
Since this mining has begun?
Overalls and cans for rockers,
In your shanties, sleep on rails.
Keep your hand upon the dollar
And your eye upon the scale.

CHORUS

In conclusion, bear in memory,
Keep the password in your mind:
God provides for every nation
When in union they combine.
Stand like men and linked together,
Victory for you’ll prevail,
Keep your hand upon the dollar
And your eye upon the scale.

“Blessed are the pacemakers”

RIP: Seamus Heaney
(13 April 1939 − 30 August 2013)

Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, born Castledàwson, County Londonderry, was that rare writer, even rarer poet, who produced work with political content that was actually readable. It lacked the shrill, pedantic, humorless tone that so often gives such work a justifiably bad name. He was, simply, gifted in a way that made the reader nod in agreement when running across a marvelous passage that evoked truth in graceful, pleasingly patterned, numinous language (his later work) or wrested great emotion in lines of earth and torment (his earlier.) And, he had a well-developed sense of humour. A few years ago he received a pacemaker for his ailing heart. He loved saying, “blessed are the pacemakers,” and you might have had to think for a second trying to figure out whether that Irish voice had said pace or peace.

“Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August… the barley grew up out of our grave.”
— “Requiem for the Croppies”, 1966, on the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. Printed in Door into The Dark, 1969.

 

“Be advised my passport’s green.
No glass of ours was ever raised
to toast the Queen.”
Untitled, written in 1982 as an objection to being included in an anthology of British poetry.

 

From The Frontier Of Writing

The tightness and the nilness round
that space 
when the car stops in the road, the troops inspect
its make and number and, as one bends his face

towards your window, you catch sight of more
on a hill beyond, eyeing with intent
down cradled guns that hold you under cover

and everything is pure interrogation
until a rifle motions and you move
with guarded unconcerned acceleration—

a little emptier, a little spent
as always by that quiver in the self,
subjugated, yes, and obedient.

So you drive on to the frontier of writing
where it happens again. The guns on tripods;
the sergeant with his on-off mike repeating

data about you, waiting for the squawk
of clearance; the marksman training down
out of the sun upon you like a hawk.

And suddenly you’re through, arraigned yet freed,
as if you’d passed from behind a waterfall
on the black current of a tarmac road

past armor-plated vehicles, out between
the posted soldiers flowing and receding
like tree shadows into the polished windscreen.

Goethe: It Depends On the Vintage

Wine rejoices the heart of man and joy is the mother of all virtues.

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
(28 August 1749 – 22 March 1832)

 

On a clear and beautiful day in late December 1999, wandering around the town of Malcésine on the north-east shore of Lago di Garda (Lake Garda, Italy) we happened to see a bronze plaque on a building and, as I always do, walked closer to investigate. It was one of those “a famous person slept here” signs. In this case it was for Goethe and I was delighted because the stop became a featured episode in his escape-from-official duties-journey that had been spawned by a period of mental turmoil.

Here J.W.Goethe made a drawing of the castle in Sept. 1786

Here J.W.Goethe made a drawing of the castle in Sept. 1786

Goethe’s visit to the city on September 13, 1786 was unplanned. Intending to travel by oared boat from the north end of the lake, at Torbole, to the south near Sirmione and thence to Italy’s archaeological wonders, he encountered a storm with contrary winds. Lacking sufficient manpower, the boat pulled into port at the city of Malcésine to wait it out. Always a man of industry, Goethe assembled his drawing instruments at a quiet spot on Via Castello to sketch Scaliger Castle. The plaque above commemorates the location.

Finding a man with a German accent engaged in detailed drawing of the fortress, local citizens thought he might be an Austrian spy and reported his sketching activity to authorities. Goethe recounts the story in Italian Journey, his book published many years (1816-1817) after the incident:

This evening I could have already been in Verona, but here nearby there was this majestic wonder of nature, this delightful picture called Lake of Garda, and I did not want to miss it. I was profusely rewarded for having taken the longer way.

Rowing was impossible against the strong wind, so we were forced to land at Malcesine. This is the first Venetian village on the eastern shore of the lake Garda… I want to take full advantage of this stop, especially to draw the castle beside the lake, which is a good subject…I made a sketch today when I passed in front of it.— September 12th, 1786, Malcesine, Italy.

Next day: As usual, I spent some time at the old castle which is open to all because it lacks windows and doors and has no custodian or guards. In the castle courtyard I sat in front of the tower built upon a rock. I found a cozy place to draw, sitting near a closed door three or four steps above the ground…

Goethe was brought before the local magistrate based on the suspicion he was an Austrian spy. He was saved from imprisonment, or worse, by a man familiar with Frankfurt, Goethe’s hometown. The man testified that Goethe was, indeed, German and and not Austrian. (The Habsburgs ruled much of northern Italy and there were always tensions with the independent bordering states such as Venice that controlled eastern shore areas of the lake.)

Scaliger Castle has a small museum about Lago di Garda, Goethe and Monte Baldo, the peak that towers over the town. The museum has a room dedicated to Goethe and his visit with copies of the sketches that caused all the trouble. Goethe said that it was in Malcésine that he began to write Iphigenia.

The internet has many instances of a story about Goethe that I have been unable to ferret out in an original source. All the instances of the story must have been originally copied from one source as they all read alike, word for word:

Goethe, a famous German poet, once was asked, which three things he would take to an island. He stated: Poetry, a beautiful woman and enough bottles of the world’s finest wines to survive this dry period! Then he was asked what he would leave back first, if it was allowed to take only two things to the island. And he briefly replied: The poetry! Slightly surprised, the man asked the next question: And Sir, what would you leave back if only one was allowed? And Goethe thought for a couple of minutes and answered: It depends on the vintage!

As a side note about the area, three kilometers south of the town is the village of Cassone, home to the Aril River, the world’s shortest at 175 meters long!

Ein echter deutscher Mann mag keinen Franzen leiden,
Doch ihre Weine trinkt er gern.

A true German can’t stand the French,
Yet gladly he drinks their wines.

— Goethe, “Auerbach’s Cellar”, Faust, Part 1 (1808)

The Bankrupt Vaults of Justice

“Insufficient Funds” still the by-words

The 50th anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech has arrived (and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation) and commentators are tripping over themselves lauding the accomplishments springing from the speech, confusing ‘black faces in high places’ with economic progress of the poorest elements of society.

Conflating improvements in segregation/integration with progress in class mobility is not a mistake Rev. Dr. King would have made and neither should we.

This speech, incidentally, is consistently rated by scholars of American history as the country’s most significant 20th century political speech. Once he got talking King deviated from the original prepared speech. Many of his most eloquent passages were extemporaneous injections from prior speeches as comparison of the filmed speech to his original, printed version reveals. This is especially true toward what was supposed to be the end of the speech when the singer Mahalia Jackson blurted out, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.” After a few sentences and Mahalia’s repeated exhortation King moved his prepared lines aside. His training as a black minister came to the fore and the rest, as they say, is history. But, as all history, it is one where black and white Americans see and hear different ideas in the same narrative with identical words.

FBI assistant director William Sullivan, after the speech, noted “We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.”

I rode my motorcycle from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. to the 25th anniversary celebrations of the March. En route I joined a column of black bikers without knowing who they were, it was just company and a cushion of motor safety on the massively trafficked interstate. When we neared New York Avenue the column got off and, as I was going to the anniversary event, so did I. We all filed into the Mall area and parked. My companions were a biker club from Staten Island, NY. The president had been to the original March in 1963 and was returning with his club members for the 25th.  Very nice.