The Warmth of Isabel Wilkerson

cover_bookBeginning around 1915, six million people left their native land hoping for a better life. Nearly all of them were Americans, but they were poor, without prospects. For the next half century, they left the South, many for northern cities where they knew a relative or felt they could find work, some for the west, where they hoped Jim Crow would not be a factor in their lives. They left in faith, and without much information. Three of them were fortunate because their stories were told, in considerable detail, by a compassionate, literate, well-informed journalist named Isabel Wilkerson. Her work, which she completed in 2010, involved thirteen years of her life and over a thousand interviews. the book is a solid ten-hour read (it’s over 500 pages), and you won’t want to miss a single story about her chosen few, the Americans whose stories she tells so well. They are: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster and George Swanson Starling. Ida Mae starts out in Van Vleet, Mississippi in 1928, and survives the completion of the book. Leaving Monroe, Louisiana far behind, Robert survives a punishing trip to the California of his dreams, and becomes a wealthy doctor in Los Angeles with a soft spot for people in need. George is a bit of troublemaker in his native Florida, and ends up working on a New York-Florida train while living a new life in Harlem. (I use their first names because of the kinship that the author kindled in me; I feel as though I knew them from the neighborhood.)

Ida Mae, with flowers in her hair, sharecroppers’ daughter, living in Chicago in the 1930s

Ida Mae, with flowers in her hair, sharecroppers’ daughter, living in Chicago in the 1930s

Wilkerson takes care to paint a full picture of these people, their lives back down South, their struggles in making the decision to leave, the tough times they endured during their period of relocation, family and friends who weave in and out of their lives. The sense of never quite being at home is a constant companion; so is the the sense that they don’t completely belong where they ended up. They resolve these conflicts in their own minds, sometimes rationalizing, sometimes considering just how fortunate their lives became, sometimes trying to untangle the equally tangled thoughts and behaviors of others.

Young Doctor Robert Foster in the years before he made enough money to do anything he pleased.

Young Doctor Robert Foster in the years before he made enough money to do anything he pleased.

George was known as “schoolboy” because he was among the few citrus workers in his area who had attended any college at all. His father talked him out of the idea, and George spent the rest of his life wondering what might have been.

George was known as “schoolboy” because he was among the few citrus workers in his area who had attended any college at all. His father talked him out of the idea, and George spent the rest of his life wondering what might have been.

Wilkerson also scores scholarly points by resolving not to accept common knowledge. Her responsibility to Ida Mae, Robert and George is powerful, and she insists on providing commentary and context to keep the reader on track and clear about what actually happened, and why it matters.

Intrigued? Watch an excellent hour-plus interview with Ms. Wilkerson on the award-winning public affairs series that survived the old New Jersey Network and now resides at Rutgers University. Find it here.

Studying Funny

There is a dead frog with its guts all over the place. More about this unfunny amphibian later.

HumorCode52GfQLFor now, the challenge is to figure out what’s funny, why it’s funny, how funny is constructed, what happens inside our brains when funny is happening, how funny works in different countries and why funny often misfires. Although I want to believe that this is a fascinating intellectual and scholarly pursuit, the whole idea of studying funny seems, to me, to be an odd pursuit that’s not likely to yield meaningful results. And yet, there are these two books, each with an embarrassingly unfunny cover, that have been staring at me all summer long. One puts Groucho glasses on a globe and calls itself The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny and the other has a big goofy grin with the word “Ha!” writ large with “The Science of When We Laugh and Why” down below. The former was written by a University of Colorado professor named Peter McGraw; he runs the Humor Research Lab (or, “HuRL”) and promises to be “a leading expert in the interdisciplinary fields of emotion and behavioral economics.” His co-author us a free-lance writer named Joel Warner. HA! was written by Scott Weems, whose Ph.D. is in cognitive neuroscience.

Weems taught me that it’s possible to make a rat laugh. How? Tickling works pretty well—scratch its belly and a rat will emit a high pitched screech at around 50kHz (which other rats can hear, but humans cannot). If you stroke a rat, it doesn’t laugh. Young rats are more likely to laugh, and laugh bigger, and more often, than older rats. Apparently, humans are the same way. If you leave a rat alone for an extended period, then tickle him, the rat is more likely to laugh a lot.

And then, things get weird. A rat scientist named Burgdorf (I’m sure there’s a better title) inserted electrodes into each rat’s dopamine-producing center and “achieved the same result.” Then, Burgdorf taught his rats to tap a metal bar to administer the dopamine provocation on their own. Similar result. All of which leads Weems to this conclusion, “Apparently, rats aren’t so different from humans, which suggests that laughter might have been around for a very long time.”

Yeah, you’re seeing the same problem I am. It’s cool that we can make rats emit a sound by tickling them, but there’s a pretty large gap between explaining that screech—which may or may not be laughter—and, say, what Richard Pryor or Robin Williams could do on their least productive days. Or why, when I’m bored, I will try (and often succeed) in making others laugh and lose focus (I’ve been doing this since fourth grade). Or why elephant jokes are still funny.

Q: Why did the Elephant stand on the marshmallow? 
A: So she wouldn’t fall in the hot chocolate.

Men and women seem to laugh at different things, at different times, in different ways. We don’t yet understand how computers might make us laugh. Research related to laughter, short-term health and longevity is inconclusive (but it couldn’t hurt). Ethic humor remains popular (throughout the world), but the 21st century’s political correctness limits its use in polite company. We’re still okay making fun of animals, and even in our enlightened world, nothing succeeds like a good poop joke:

never-think-outside-the-box1

 

All in all, I didn’t learn much, but I did find out that scientists are taking an interest. That’s nice, but frankly, I’d rather watch a funny movie.

The comedy team of McGraw and Warner trekked a lot further (“two guys…19 experiments…five continents… 91,000 miles…”) but didn’t manage to cover any more ground. Studying humor is exceedingly difficult, probably because we’re not smart enough to understand what’s happening, which is why scientists come up with theory and do their thing, but the process is not much fun to watch. McGraw’s intrepid performance at a comedy club—these guys really are trying—is a flop. Their Venn diagrams are promising (one circle: “vomit in church” and the other “causing mass vomit in church” with the intersection marked, simply, “funny”). Both books tell the story of the girls in Tanzania who couldn’t stop laughing and comedian Gilbert Gottfried’s “too soon?” excuse to roll into the Aristocrats schtick shortly after NYC’s towers came down; and, sure enough, on page 81, the authors are talking about tickling rate here, too.

Their world tour is interesting, mostly for people who don’t usually follow the comedy business. This book attempts to be a global comedy road trip, and it’s interesting to visit Yoshimoto Kogyo in Japan: a comedy school that also manages 800 Japanese comedians (not sure why, but the image of 800 Japanese comedians makes me laugh). The company owns many of Japan’s comedy clubs and used to own a comedy theme park, too. There are Yoshimoto Kogyo golf balls, and instant ramen meals, too. The authors make good use of their travel budget, visiting Scandinavia where their obsession with the Danish cartoons that rattled Islam sensibility tends to overshadow the warmth and classy outrage that has been part of Danish humor since the days of Victor Borge (don’t miss this!). Humor on the Gaza Strip (conflict and humor are often linked), and in a chapter about the Amazon (where the inevitable Norman Cousins story about laughter as medicine is told, along with some notes on Patch Adams).

In the Montreal chapter—which is about the world’s largest comedy festival, the authors summarize what seems to be a list of items that didn’t require a full volume:

- Make fun of yourself before others get the chance to do so.

- Laughter is disarming. Make light of the stuff everyone’s worried about and you’ll negate its power.

- Create a safe, playful space where folks are free to laugh.

And so on.

I read these two books because I was hoping that the state of the science had greatly advanced (two books from two major publishers in the same year), but I was mostly wrong. We don’t know much more than we did before. And after thinking about that on a rainy weekend afternoon, I came to the conclusion that there is no problem in not understanding comedy. Maybe there is a point in studying it—or, at least, continuing to study laughter—but in some ways, I hope we never figure it out. I don’t think I want a science of humor. And I certainly don’t want a funny robot to be programmed into my brain to provoke dopamine provocation. Really, I’m good not knowing, I’m great knowing that Robin Williams and Victor Borge were funny, and not knowing or caring how or why that happened or how to replicate his magic.

So what about the frog? For that answer, everyone seems to refer to what E.B. White wrote in 1941:

“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but

the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging

to any but the our scientific mind.”

Frog

 

 

 

 

The Art of a Fine Magazine

The Art of Waterolour Magazine: The Art Magazine for Watercolourists, Issue 15 is now available. Race to your Barnes & Noble bookstore to have a look; copies are always in limited supply.

The Art of Waterolour Magazine: The Art Magazine for Watercolourists, Issue 15 is now available. Race to your Barnes & Noble bookstore to have a look; copies are always in limited supply.

Note the “u” in “watercolour” — this is an article about an extraordinary magazine published in Europe. If I happen to show up at a well-stocked Barnes & Noble store in the U.S., I might catch the 15th issue, but so far, my success rate has been inconsistent. Yes, $15 is a lot to pay for a magazine, and no, this magazine is not printed on special paper or especially thick (about 100 pages per issue). It’s just, well, a very good magazine about a subject that interests me. It was interesting to write that sentence because I am interested in lots of different things, but this is among the few magazines (in the world, I guess) that would win that kind of recognition. (I enjoy Pastel Journal, for example, but I would rate it only “good” in comparison with The Art of Watercolour’s “very good.” As a rule, The New Yorker is very good, but most weekly issues would probably score a “good-plus” if there was such a rating.

So what makes a magazine “very” good? Of course, it’s helpful to offer an abundance of good stories and wonderful illustrations that are specifically intended to delight a very distinct target audience, in this case, the thousands of artists who call themselves “watercolourists.” The magazine assumes a relatively high level of familiarity with the medium, the artists with a national reputation, and a high level of interest in the work of many different types of watercolour artists throughout the world.

Take, for example, the recent issue #14. It begins with a report on the very first World Watercolour Competition which drew nearly 2,000 participants and 82 nationalities. Turn the page and there’s a spread about the Narbonne 2014 Watercolour Biennial (the magazine’s home base is France, so that country gets more attention that others, which makes me feel very international when I have the magazine in my hands). I love finding out about U.S. watercolor events in a French magazine—a blurb about the IWS competition coming up in May (now past), for example. Letters that matter—questions about the leading watercolour paint brand (Winsor & Newton) and whether it has changed its formulation; how to sign a painting; the Munsell color system. Serious discussion, nicely presented, far more up market and smarter than the discussions in, for example, Watercolor Artist in the U.S.

Here’s the cover of Issue 14 with a good painting by Stephen Scott Young on the cover.

Here’s the cover of Issue 14 with a good painting by Stephen Scott Young on the cover.

And then, there are feature stories about artists. The warm-up is called Revelations, and several artists are featured, each with his or her own page. Turn the next page and there’s a fabulous spread, a watercolour of an old New York City apartment building complete with fireplaces and elaborate window wells, a six-page spread including an artist’s career timeline, lots of juicy images, and a demonstration, by American-born Sandra Walker. Next is a four-page spread celebrating Australian painter Ron Muller’s atmospheric landscapes, followed by the Japanese artist working en plein air in Venice. And then, the extraordinary portrait work of Stephen Scott Young, Hawaiian-born, with an extraordinarily eye and a sensitive, realistic way of painting the lives of dark-skinned people living in the Bahamas and Florida. The next profile—the profiles are worth the price of each issue—is a feature about an abstract artist named Mark Mehaffey, which includes some very useful guidance about the composition and building of a nontraditional painting. I have a friend who paints cityscapes and especially enjoys the challenge of reflections and store windows—and in this issue, there’s a feature about David Stickel, whose opening pages attest to his abilities with his nearly realistic image of the clear box Apple store on Fifth Avenue near Central Park.

I’m still going—and this is a typical issue. There’s an instructional piece by American art teacher about color harmonies, followed by another long instructional piece about getting colors right (not easy because some colors are native and some are affected by light and nearby objects, and by the way the eye perceives contrast). And then, another meaty instructional feature, again dealing with a fairly sophisticated topic in an elevated way: it’s all about shadows, light and reflection. The consideration of these tricky issues as a single idea makes the article work, but it goes further, allowing for a sidebar about color temperature and the nuances of semi-transparent surfaces. Finally, there’s yet another instructional piece on the very difficult challenges associated with all prima watercolour portraiture (that is, capturing the human face—here, a young child) created by dabbing color onto wet paper which is notoriously impossible to control without extreme practice and polished technique.

So there! I just wrote hundreds of words about a magazine. I don’t think I’ve done that before. In fact, I’m so taken with what I’ve been browsing for the past hour, I’m going to order some back issues, direct from Europe.

To close, something more from Stephen Scott Young, from his website.

6K8C4875

From Abe to Apple

Here’s an interesting new tool from the R&D labs at The New York Times. It’s a chronological graphing tool that maps search terms against dates from 1860 until the present day.

So: Abraham Lincoln—he appeared in 1 or 2 percent of all NY Times articles during his presidency (and in its aftermath), and long-term, he’s been a fair stable presence.

Abraham-Lincoln

George Washington preceded The New York Times, but the newspaper has been more interesting in George than in Abe about a century and a half. Lots of interest in the 1930s (I wonder why), but a good solid plater through the second half of the 20th century. Tall man, long shadow.
George-vs-Abe

According to The New York Times, Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick didn’t produce much long-term interesting, so I tried FDR instead. I suspect there’s something wrong somewhere—FDR should have been represented with much more coverage in the 1930s and 1940s than the graph allows. I guess that’s why this is still an R&D effort—George should not outpace FDR during the Great Depression and the Second World War.

Lincoln-Washington-FDR

Apple Computer made a splash in the 1980s, and seems to have peaked in the early 1990s, with the combination of iPhone and iPad causing a second peak just a few years ago.

Apple-Computer

How does Apple compare with Microsoft? Not even close—Microsoft’s coverage was much, much greater. If the graphs are correct—which, again, I question because Apple has been so prominent in the past two or three years, especially when measured against the snooze of Microsoft news.

Microsoft

Add Google to the mix (green line) to the mies, and things look about right. The orange line is IBM, which was, somehow, interesting around 1865 or so, more interesting than any time in the 20th century.IBM

These are percentages—the more articles the Times published, the less value for each individual article. So what about the raw numbers? Just for fun, I added Teddy and also John F. Kennedy. There isn’t a huge difference between the percentages and the raw numbers, not for this set of searches, but it’s worth flipping the $ / # switch for every graph to see anything there is to see.

So: next time there’s a rainy afternoon and you don’t feel like doing anything useful (or you’re deep in analysis of historical trends), The New York Times Chronicle is a tool worthy of your time and attention. And, by the way, if you click on any point on any graph, the Times provides a list of relevant articles that you can read online. For even the most casual researcher, this is a terrific tool, one that would be SO MUCH BETTER if every newspaper followed the lead of the NYT, and then shared their databases for combined graphing! But this is a wonderful first step.

High-Flying Book Report

Alaska_Airlines_Boeing_737Three across, seats A, B, and C in a exit row. All three of us reading a book. The ten year old girl who happened to sit in the window seat: a fat novel by Rick Riordan. My wife: The One Hundred Mile Walk, now being released as a Helen Mirren motion picture. Me, a terrific long novel by New York City newspaper legend Pete Hamill, who writes about his city with street smarts and an appealing sense of mysticism.

I never sit through an entire transcontinental flight. I always stretch, and always take a good slow walk. I like to see what other people are doing to occupy their minds during a flight that lasts a few hours or more. I didn’t write down the precise numbers, but here’s a reasonably reliable survey based upon a hearty attempt at serious snooping:

There were about 200 passengers on the plane (3o rows, 6 per row, plus some additional people in first class behind the curtain). About 50 people were fast asleep, many for the entire flight (I’m always impressed by people who can sleep more than two or three hours on a plane). About 25 were playing video games on their phones (as screens become larger, this becomes easier to do, and more fun, too). About 50 were watching movies, maybe half on tablets and the other half on portable computers (I would have expected a higher percentage of tablets). Maybe 25 were awake with blank stares. Add another 25 who were doing some work on their computers (few on tablets), and another ten eating while I was walking the aisles.

Here and there, somebody was reading a magazine (I think I remember two people reading the airline magazines—I wonder how much long they’ll exist.) How many were reading books? I counted the three of us. All in the same row. Maybe I missed another two or three book readers, but there weren’t ten on board. I suspect I selected an odd flight, but I also detect a what may be a trend. Digital devices offer more options—they play music, display the text of a book, show movies, enable videogame play, and help to get work done. Books are just books. For the price of an inexpensive tablet—say, $199—you could buy twenty good used books, but it still wouldn’t be able to play music, show movies, or help you get work done.

Still, books are lightweight and relatively inexpensive (and you can share them with friends, something you can’t [yet] do with music or an e-book). Books are wonderful traveling companions–they tell a good story and they communicate only when you’re interested). I cannot imagine traveling without at least one book in my carry-on bag. When we take forever to lift off or maneuver to the gate, I keep reading. When the flight crew requires all digital devices to be shut down, I just keep reading.

I guess I’m surprised that so few people (or, perhaps, simply fewer and fewer people) do the same.

On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Dog

2B or not 2BOn Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Bob Mankoff rejects most everything he sees. He works as the cartoon editor at the New Yorker, a magazine whose sense of cartoon humor is famous, but extraordinarily difficult to define. This is not a new problem. In fact, the New Yorker has always suffered from a rough case of not being able to explain itself (the problem goes back to the 1920s when Writer’s Digest asked the New Yorker’s editors to advise writers interested in the magazine; in essence, the New Yorker editors could not).

“Well, we needed the rain.”“How About Never – Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons” is a kind of small-scale coffee table biography, half text and half cartoons. As with the New Yorker magazine, it’s difficult not to be attracted to the cartoons, but I was good: I read the whole book including all of Mankoff’s confessional text and all of his chosen cartoons. What surprised me: only a few of the cartoons made me smile or laugh. And that got me to thinking about how difficult it must be, to select from the stack of 500 cartoons from regular contributors and an equal number from wannabes. Mankoff writes, “eventually, I cull the pile down to fifty or so, which I’ll take to the Wednesday afternoon cartoon meeting…” where the stack will be winnowed down to just seventeen, maybe eighteen cartoons that will be published in the magazine. (There are, and have always been, so many rejects, Mankoff started a new venture called Cartoon Bank to give exposure to the rejects—and earn some money for himself [before he joined the magazine as cartoon editor] and for other working cartoonists.

modern_medicine
So what’s funny? Or, perhaps more to the point, what does the New Yorker believe to be funny?

I just read a book about that topic and I still don’t know the answer. But I know a good New Yorker cartoon when I see one.

There are good ones on page 148.

The first shows a pair of snails with large spiral shells on their backs. They are staring at a plastic Scotch tape dispenser which resembles them. The caption: “I don’t care if she is a tape dispenser. I love her.” Very spare, right to the point, softly funny.

The second shows a man about to lose his head to a guillotine. The executioner offers a choice of two baskets to catch the head. The caption reads, “paper or plastic?”

On page 156, a cat is being instructed about litter box use by his owner: “Never, ever think outside the box.”

On page 251, under the sign, “Horse Play,” a horse is up on his hind legs shouting to a horse in the barn loft, “Stella!!”

On page (I lost count and they’re not all numbered), a croissant and tea on one side of the breakfast table and a whole lot of bacon, pancakes, sausage, eggs, juice, coffee, and the caption, “Welcome to America, bitch.”

On 284, a man has been murdered, and he is lying face down as two detectives look on. The room’s walls and floors resemble a crossword puzzle. One detective says to the other, “any clues?”

 

Internet_dog

So what have we learned? It’s no easier to write a book about cartoons than it is to select cartoons for the magazine. What’s funny is just funny—once again, there is no science to any of it. Which leads back to Mankoff on page 4, where he writes, “I’ve ignored E.B. White’s famous admonition, ‘analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

BTW: The statement about the dog that titles this article

140325-katltoon-editorial

 

 

 

Free Love and Independent Thinking

‘tain’t often that artist Marcel DuChamp, Woody Guthrie, Henry Miller, R. Crumb and Walt Whitman show up in the same book, but as I write those names on a list, the linkages are clear. They’re all artists for whom self-expression has been a defining characteristic, frustrated by lack of acceptance,  iconoclastic in ways only a mother could love.

So here’s Walt Whitman. He dropped out of school at age 11, apprenticed for a printer, got lucky because his employer subscribed to a circulating library (they were unusual at the time). He read, and read, and read some more. He wandered, too, up and down Broadway, “losing himself in the great tides of humanity…”And then, he decided to write about what he saw, in terms that captured the way he perceived the world.

And you that shall cross

from shore to shore

years hence, are more to me,

and more in my meditations,

than you might suppose.

bohemians-a-graphic-history-verso-books

In a book with so many styles of storytelling and visual presentation, one story I especially enjoyed was entitled (of course) The Frowning Prophet and the Smiling Revolutionary: Modern Art Arrives in New York. The tale begins just as the Victorian Era is ending. Photographer Alfred Stieglitz is beginning to demonstrate the value of a new visual art form, teams with with Edward Steichen, and together, they create a magazine called Camera Work. Their sensibility was shared by two painters from the emerging Ashcan School, which painter Robert Henri describes:

“We want our paint to be as real as mud, as the closes of horse shit and snow that froze on Broadway in winter.”

After opening a gallery to display new visual ideas, Stieglitz staged a huge exhibit to showcase modern art, which he described as follows:

“This exhibit is a battle cry for freedom without any soft pedal on it.”

For most Americans, the exhibit, at the New York Armory in 1913, was their first exposure to Monet’s Waterlilies, Gauguin’s island paintings, Edward Hopper, Renoir, Picasso, much more.

Of course, this was radical. And it reeks of authenticity (in a good way). Is this truly independent media?

How does this tie into Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s circle or friends, or Josephine Baker’s time in Paris, or Charley Parker’s insurmountable talent and incorrigible bad habits? Is drugs and poor financial management, or abject (but artistic) poverty the key to honest art? There are so many stories that feel similar in tone, most often because people did precisely what they believed they ought to do, regardless of what others may have thought at the time. For example, consider the excellent story of Abel Meeropol, who wrote Billie Holiday’s radical song, “Strange Fruit” and then raised the children of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg after they were convicted of treason and executed. Is this related to the sexual freedom (and other strange stuff) that made the Harlem Renaissance fascinating (today and to the white visitors in the 1920s)? Maybe part of being a bohemian is positioning yourself outside the mainstream, hoping that someday, you might be discovered on your own terms, or, in other cases, not caring a whit about being discovered at all.

The free love story seems to begin before the U.S. Civil War as “The Free Love League. It “met in Taylor Saloon and Hotel, an elegant downtown venue often used for socialist and spiritualist meetings…” The outspoken were women who made their own choices about their own bodies, who they loved, how they loved, and how they dealt with a society bound by rigid, critical rules and expectations. Others hung-on, maybe because they were societal misfits, maybe because they were true believers, maybe because the whole idea was fresh and invigorating.

VERSO_978-1-781682616_BOHEMIANS_large_CMYKMuch as the 1960s was associated with independent thinking—and free love, for they often come together—so, too, were the 1920s. Before that, in the 1910s, Greenwich Village began to take shape as a neighborhood Bohemia. Today’s hipsters seem to be a pale counterpart, in part because they have money in one pocket and the internet in the other. A century ago, “Bohemians” (a bundle of misnomers generally not associated with the Czech region) “flocked to avant-garde exhibitions and modern dance performances, and bought paintings, lithographs, and photographs, helping the real bohemians pay the rent and get public attention…”

Co-editor Paul Buhle, graduate of Brown University, drawn with the kind of expressiveness than graphic novels have brought into the mainstream.

Co-editor Paul Buhle, graduate of Brown University, drawn with the kind of expressiveness than graphic novels have brought into the mainstream.

So goes the story told in a wonderful collection of graphic (comic-style) stories about a few dozen people who help to define the impossible-to-define term, “bohemian” in a book entitled “Bohemians: A Graphic History Edited by Paul Buhle and David Berger.” It may or may not be our place to challenge who is and is not included in the book, or what the precise definition of the term might be. Instead, I think it’s cool to just observe, to consider the ideas, keep what you like, discard the rest, and think about it on another day.

Stories are related, but just as the writing and graphic styles vary, so, too, do the ways the stories relate to one another. I read the book on a Saturday, and spent much of Sunday thinking about what I read, referring back to gain a more complete understanding. And then, much in the way that bohemians would have hoped, the next few days were filled with my recollections, and my suggestion that friends read the book, or, at least, explore these lesser-told-tales. It is a book that comes together quite wonderfully, but not while the book is in your hands. That comes later. After you’ve had a bit of time to think about it.

Maybe that’s a defining characteristic of independent media, too. It takes some time before the ideas form a meaningful whole. With some parts that never quite come into focus. And others with edges so sharp, they cut like a knife.

strange fruit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Second Visit to John’s Island, and Bohicket Road

In December, I wrote an article about a book about a watercolor painter named Mary Whyte. Along the way, I found out about an early book which is, in its way, even better than the first one. Here’s the link to the first article. Here’s what I think you ought to know about the earlier title, “Down Bohicket Road.” But first, here’s the cover:

Down Bohicket Road

It’s a lovely picture, posed, a local woman who became a friend after Phiadelphian watercolorist Mary Whyte moved south to, of all places, tiny John’s Island in South Carolina. It may have been the best decision the artist ever made, for there, she encountered a community whose stories needed to be told, and, apparently, she was the one chosen to do just that.

I want to show you every watercolor in the book, and I do recommend that you get a copy of the book so that you may experience them first hand, but here’s a start on the journey. The book begins with a 2011 picture—this all happened very recently—of a neglected church, old Hebron Church, located on a 12-mile stretch called Bohicket Road. There, she was, more or less, adopted by a group of local women who used the church as a community center. One, pictured ironing with a kerchief and a mighty head of steam, is Georgeanna. How Whyte manages to depict the energy and gaseous nothingness of steam in a watercolor is, for me, something of a miracle. When she painted Mariah, years earlier, in 1992, the picture called Queen depicts a woman deep in a quilting activity, fine fingers on the cloth which becomes a soft dream as the viewer approaches. Tesha is the woman on the cover, appearing in several striking setups, including one called September that shows her gathering sunflowers nearly as tall as she is. In the cover image, the horse’s name is Rosie, “a docile old mare that had been fused to teach dozens of children of all levels to ride.” The painting is called Summer Solstice because it was made on the longest day of the year.

There’s a tender picture of Georgeanna, at ninety years old, wearing one of her favorite hats, and another called Angel in which a young teenaged model stands, spreads a quilt like angel wings, closes her eyes, and dreams.

Not on the website, but as good a digital presentation as I was able to find:

Blue Bird

Friends have asked why I am so taken with Mary Whyte’s work. I can answer simply: she transports me to a different world. It’s rich with special people, a place that she has chosen to depict in ways that artists sometimes do: breathing a special kind of life into otherwise ordinary subjects.

Take a minute, watch the video, and then visit her online gallery. It’s worth the trip.

My Favorite Rectangles

imagesThe old ratio was 3 by 4: a reliable compression of reality, the extra window in every household that looked out at the world. It offered a limited view, controlled by powerful producers and directors, versatile performers, intense journalists who learned the trade by explaining why and how the Germans were bombing the guts out of London during World War II. Very few people were allowed to put anything into that window: NBC, CBS, ABC and a few local television companies controlled every minute of the broadcast day. It was radio with pictures, a new medium that learned its way through visual storytelling when the only colors were shades of grey.

The new ratio is 16:9, and it seems to accommodate just about anything anybody wants to place in that frame. And the frame travels with us everywhere: on phones, tablets, on Times Square, on airliners and in half the rooms of our homes. In offices, too. There is little cultivation or careful decision making. If you want to make a video, you point your phone at anything you please, press record, and then, fill the frame with stuff that moves and makes noise.

The more video that YouTube releases—that would be 100 new hours of material every minute of our modern lives—the less I pay attention. I am overwhelmed. I cannot keep up with the two dozen new websites or apps or YouTube videos that friends and colleagues supply with the very best of attentions. I am fascinated by the range of material, frustrated because the lack of a professional gatekeeper means I must be my own programmer, and I just don’t have the time or interest in doing that every day. I want curation. I want the 21st century equivalent of a television channel, just for me. I don’t want to watch pre-roll commercials, and I don’t want to “skip this ad in 5 seconds.”

As curmudgeonly as this may feel, I think I’m happier reading a book. In fact, as media abundance increases, I find myself withdrawing into a very different series of rectangles—ones that don’t include advertising, don’t include pictures, don’t move or make noise. I’m now buying books by the half dozen—about as many as I can carry out of the increasingly familiar gigantic book sales that offer perfectly good volumes for one or dollars a piece.

I like the idea that the person who wrote the book is either an expert in his or her field—otherwise, the publisher never would have agreed to the scheme—or a superior storyteller—one that the editors, and the publisher, deemed worthy. I love the idea that the author writes the book and then hands it off to a professional editor, one with literary taste and an eye for clear, precise phrasing, and that the book then goes through yet another reading by a copy editor who makes sure the words and sentences are provided in something resembling proper English usage, and that, after the book is typeset, another editorial staff member proofreads the whole book and causes any number of errors to be corrected. When the book reaches my hands, I am confident that the work is, at least, well-manufactured.

Might it be any good? At a dollar or two, I’m not sure I care, but I do choose my books, and my authors, with care. Somehow, I feel that my side of the contract is to spend a bit of time selecting, just as I do before I decide that I should devote two hours of my life watching a motion picture.

When I find a wonderful film—not always easy, but always worth the effort—and it fills a 60-inch Samsung plasma screen with magic—I am thrilled. Most often, those wonderful films are made by people in other countries, or by smaller companies in the USA, or by animators. Just as it’s unusual for me to stumble into something wonderful in the land of books that is newly released, the films I watch are usually a few years old. Not really old, though those are fun, too, but old enough that I can get a sense of whether they had any staying power beyond the echo of their opening weekend. I was happily surprised by the depth of the storytelling when I watched Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks pretend they were P.L. Travers and Walt Disney during “Saving Mr. Banks,” for example. Do I care that a film was an Academy Award contender this year? Not really, but when I see the words Pulitzer Prize or Man Booker Prize on a rectangular book cover, I always give it a second look. There is a qualitative difference, I suppose, even if it exists only in my own prejudiced, confused, 20th/21th century mind.

What about flimsier rectangles? Magazines remain interesting, and it’s difficult for me to get on a train without finding something I want to read at the newsstand before boarding. Whether it’s The Atlantic, The Economist, The New Yorker, Harper’s, MIT Technology Review, or a dozen others, I sense that I am reading the work of a well-organized editorial culture, and that is presented in a form that suggests substance. When I read an article on a screen, the medium itself feels temporary, and rarely impresses me with the gravitas, or the well-honed humor, that these magazines (okay, some of these magazines) routinely provide.

The other flimsy rectangle—very, very flimsy in its form, in fact—is the newspaper. Sadly, few local newspapers possess the resources or clarity of focus that they did decades ago. Their industry has been devastated by technology and wickedly poor leadership decisions. Then again, there is still nothing better than reading The Sunday New York Times for half of the weekend, often with enough left over for Monday, or maybe, Tuesday morning, too. Except, perhaps, a good fresh New York bagel beside the paper. In a pinch, I can find similar joy in the morning with the Boston Globe, The Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, or whatever quality paper is nearby when I’m away from home. The Wall Street Journal’s weekend edition is every bit as good; after I finish today’s Times, I will work my way through the remaining sections of my new Sunday habit.

Interactive rectangles are something else again. Tablets, and smart phones, are wonderful, and I use them every day, but mostly for media creation (I write this blog, etc.) than for reading (eBooks, HuffPost, etc.). If I want to read, to seriously read, I guess I’ve learned to prefer it in print. And if I want to watch a movie, or a TV show, unless I’m on a train or plane, I would just as soon watch it in a comfortable chair with a nice large screen to fill part of a family room wall, and not listen to it through dinky speakers or a less-than-comfy headset or earplugs.

Who cares? Not sure, but I thought I’d put some ideas on a digital screen that I, for one, would prefer to read in another medium. Since that other medium has gatekeepers, and because few print publishers would allow me to zig from media theory to watercolors to interest gadgets to public poverty policy, then zag to book reviews or notes about recent jazz CDs that I think you should buy, I’m happy writing into a glass box, and I hope that doesn’t cause you too much inconvenience or discomfort.

Sorry to go so long this time. Without an editor, or an editorial hole to fill (love that term), I just wrote until I felt I had made said my piece.

Done.

The News About The News

the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Germany license. Attribution: Kai Mörk

News coverage of a press conference, not a TV camera in sight. But most people still get their news from their TV sets. Attribution: Kai Mörk. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Germany license.

During the past twenty years, each of the network’s evening newscasts have lost half of their viewers. These days, about 18 million Americans—that’s 18 million out of 240 million American adults—watch the nightly network news on ABC, CBS or NBC, with another 1 million watching PBS NewsHour. Still, most Americans still get their news by watching local and network television—that number hovers around 60 percent. If online is the second most popular source, it won’t be second for long, and it may have overtaken television in many peoples’ lives. Despite its convenience, radio is on a steadily decline; since 1991, it has lost about half of its role as a news provider. Its decline roughly matches the decline of newspapers, down.

For the most part, we pay for our news by watching and reading advertisements, and clicking on some, too. Advertising accounts for more than 2/3 of financial support for news. The second largest segment? Direct payments from the audience in the form of subscriptions, roughly 1/4 of the pie—the portion of your cable bill that pays for CNN, your subscription to a newspaper, your contribution to NPR or one of its member stations.

In the U.S., the news business is a very substantial: about $64 billion per year. That’s about 1/10 more than Google, which is, of course, just one company. Starbucks is about 1/4 of the size of the U.S. news business, but the global video game industry is about twice the size, so maybe Americans (alone) spend as much money on videogames as they do on news.

About 1/3 of all Americans now watch news video online, and that fraction increases to 1/2 for those in the 18-49 age group, but this is still a very small part of the whole news business—less than 10 percent of revenues, in fact.

Newspapers are changing—essentially eliminating their printing presses, trucks, ink and other 19th century concepts in favor of digital distribution. Among all newspapers, 1/4 to 1/3 of readers are using a digital device regularly, and among the 15 largest newspapers, nearly 1/2 of readers are enjoying their daily or weekly editions on screens, not on paper.

In just six years, Time Magazine and The Economist have lost about half of its newsstand sales—once a common model, picking up the magazine at the newsstand, now seems hopelessly old-fashioned. The New Yorker and The Atlantic have lost only about 1/4 of their newsstand sales. The decline is steady, and probably inevitable, but it’s difficult to explain why certain magazines have lost so much more than others. During the same period, revenues for Fox News Channel have doubled (but both CNN and MSNBC have shown only modest gains). In case you’re curious, it costs about $800 million a year to run Fox News, and about the same amount to run CNN (MSNBC costs less than $300 million.)

Five or six years ago, many journalists panicked because their industry seemed to be disintegrating. Some decided to take action. Since 2008, more than 100 digital nonprofit news outlets have popped up all over the country (in just about every state except Utah, the Dakotas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Utah. The San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York City and Boston have been especially well-served. Some are sponsored by universities or nonprofits, some are independent, some are foundation funded. It’s certain a significant trend, albeit a new and fragile ecosystem. Many began with the financial assistance of a startup grant, typically under $100,000, that renewed only some of the time for a second go-round. Still, foundation funding is the principal source of funds for many of these fledgling operations. They deserve our support—especially during the critical early years. Happily, most surveyed felt that they would succeed in the long run through a combination of advertising, sponsorships, live events, individual subscriptions, and other forms of economic support. This an interesting phenomenon, and you can read more about it here.

The biggest change? Digital news sites are now strong enough to hire top journalists from newspapers, and entrepreneurs (Jeff Bezos, Pierre Omidyar) are investing in the future of news gathering and distribution. The good news: this once-doomed industry is again showing signs of life, imagination and energy. As you time permits, I encourage you to fully explore the SPECTACULAR collection of reports that comprise the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project’s State of the News Media 2014 report. It’s all online. Or, download Overview PDF here.

 

 

 

 

 

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