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.

Two Books About School

…but not books about reading, writing or arithmetic. Not exactly.

Both books tell surprising stories about creativity, and support the thesis that experiential learning can be far more powerful than anything that can be tested.

I really like the way elementary school John Hunter sets up his story, so I’ll recap it:

“Three children have made their way into the room, gazing silently at the Plexiglas structure that represents our planet. It’s an imposing, four-level affair—undersea, ground and sea, airspace, and outer space—covered with submarines and ships, soldiers and cities, tanks and oil wells, spy planes and satellites….There is a United Nations, a World Bank, two or three arms dealers, and a weather god or goddess, who controls the vagaries of tsunamis and hurricanes, determines the fate of the stock market, and tosses coins to determine the outcomes of battles and coups d’etat. The children are provided with national budgets, assets, stores of armaments, and portfolios outlining fifty global crises. Then they are given ten weeks to save the world.”

For a video overview, click on the picture:

World Peace Game

The game works because it is is difficult, requiring students to figure out the many things they need to know, but do not know. So they figure things out—a far better way to learn than memorization or textbooks. Hunter describes three types of thinking that improve by playing the game:

  • the development of knowledge based upon facts
  • the unexpected insights and creative solutions that result from trying and failing and trying again
  • the gradual accumulation of wisdom that comes from collaboration, cooperation, conflict, and observation

book-3d-340For thirty years, Hunter has been playing the game with his students, without much notice, mostly in Virginia and Maryland. Then came a documentary, then a TEDTalk, then, this book. He’s now quite well-known, but a cursory understanding is quite different from the deeper understanding that a few hours with a good book and a good author can provide. The book works best when he is the teacher, which, of course, means learning a great deal about himself. He tells one story of his desire to expand his own personal world view by traveling and studying eastern religions and philosophies in ancient monasteries. Feeling good about his worldliness, he (and his dreadlocks) attracted the attention of several Chinese school girls on long train ride. After trying out their English and asking questions about American life, they asked him several simple questions: “Sir, where do you belong? Who do you belong to? Who is your group?” This set off a series of questions in his own mind; he explains: “This struck me because I had been in so many different groups since I left my home community—so many spiritual and social groups—that I’d begun to feel that I had no particular allegiance anywhere, simple because I had come to have allegiance everywhere.” A short time later, woken from a  dream, he conceived of all of the mechanics of the Game in a single instant. “It came to be in a diagram, an interconnected matrix of countries aligned in opposition to one another on every possible level—vertically (undersea, ground and sea, etc.) and laterally—each country at odds with every other in every possible sphere: economic, military, social, ethnic. I would actually see the multifaceted crises floating there above my bed as I lay awake in the pre-dawn hours.”

Hunter teaches in Richmond, Virginia. Several hundred miles up the coast, just north of Philadelphia, Tracey Krause is continuing the work that her teacher, and then, her mentor, Lou Volpe began. They produce high school theater. At Harry S Truman High School, theater may be the most important thing they do. It’s the school whose test runs of Les Miserables and RENT were so good, the owners of those properties determined that these productions could, in fact, be produced in high school. In high school theater, that’s a pretty big deal. In the life of Truman, it’s a minor detail.

Drama HighWhen the author visits Lou Volpe in his home, the living room walls are covered, top to bottom, with theater posters. When he watches Volpe interact with students, the author comments, “over time, one of the things that I come to see is how deeply Volpe knows his students. How couldn’t he? They take chances on stage that reveal their inner selves. But it is also true that the very things they learn from being involved in theater—empathy, the ability to imagine lives other than their own, the actor’s gift for giving a character a backstory…allow them to know him.”

It all ties together. “The theater classes are the foundation of Truman Drama, an essential element in its success. Plays and musicals that Volpe puts into production are already familiar to his students because they have studied them in class….In Volpe’s classroom, thousands of books are piled into bookshelves and stacked so high that if you remove a volume, you have to be careful the whole tower of them does not come tumbling down. The books are a reflection of one man’s catholic tastes—works by Shakespeare and Sondheim; David Mamet and David Hare; Wendy Wasserstein, Beth Henley, Thornton Wilder, Yasmina Reza, Wallace Shawn, Horton Foote, Paul Rudnick, Athol Fugard and on and on and on. They are not for decoration; they are used. If a student is looking for a monologue to perform in a festival or for a scholarship audition, Volpe reaches into the pile, pulls out something from the stack, and says, ‘Look in here. You might find what you want.’”

From a terrific article in Broadway World, a look at Volpe’s production of Les Miserables. Producer Cameron Mackintosh attended the last performance, which proved that the show could be produced on a high school stage, and so, the producer made it available to high schools everywhere.

From a terrific article in Broadway World, a look at Volpe’s production of Les Miserables. Producer Cameron Mackintosh attended the last performance, which proved that the show could be produced on a high school stage, and so, the producer made it available to high schools everywhere.

Author Michael Sokolove was inspired to write Drama High, in part, because he attended Truman (then, Woodrow Wilson). He tells the story of Truman Drama, mostly, through individual students, their personal and academic lives, their hopes and dreams, and their lives as young performers. He also allows Mr. Volpe’s successor, Tracey Krause her time in the spotlight: “Her energy level is staggering.. She teaches all day, spends endless hours with the theater program, coaches her kids’ soccer teams (she used to coach the sport at Truman), runs half marathons, has an active dating life, makes frequent visits to the tanning salon, and finds time to jet off to Las Vegas for occasional weekends to visit her best friend.”

So what are we learning? Sure, there are lots of ways to do school, some more and some less traditional. This isn’t an English class essay, so I’ll steer clear of identifying common themes, but I’ll allow myself just one. The sense of community provided by a big game, and a theater program—a sense that some student enjoy because they’re good at sports and others enjoy because they’re just plain brilliant. Here are two stories about two teachers (three, including Ms. Krause) that open doors for every student willing to enter and engage.

Thanks, Harry

My old desk does an arabesque in the morning when I first arrive.

It’s a pleasure to see, it’s waiting there for me to keep my hopes alive.

Such a comfort to know it’s got no place to go,

It’s always there

It’s the one thing I’ve got, a huge success,

My good old desk.

My old desk never needs a rest

and I’ve never once heard it cry.

I’ve never seen it tease it’s always there to please me

From nine to five.

HarryThere was a wonderful innocence about Harry Nilsson in those days. Like Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks, he was a singer-songwriter with a great appreciation for the commonplace, a love of old (1920s-1940s) music, and an iconoclastic way of telling a story. The Beatles were crazy about him. I was, too, and among those of a certain age, he was the odd musical hero. He never grew old enough to call his fans by name—as he described the slow fade of a pop star. Instead, he flamed out, but, somehow, Nilsson is not included  in most “rock stars who died too young” compendia.

The place to start is not his best known hit, “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the Fred Neil song that he happened to record because he and his producer liked the tune (it became the opening theme for the film Midnight Cowboy, so it became famous). His novelty song “Coconut” was also a top ten hit, but it, too, was an aberration. “Without You” (you know: “I can’t live if living is without you…”) is better, but not on my list of his best work.

Where to start? Early, but not too early. Set your time machine to 1968, 1969 and 1970. Each year presented a very special album by an extraordinary performer, a storyteller with a wonderful sense of melody working, on two of these albums, in spectacular harmony with the ideal producer for these projects, Rick Jarrard.

I would start with the album called Harry because it contains so many of my favorite Nilsson songs—each one handsomely presented with an elaborate arrangement. “Nobody Cares About the Railroads Anymore” and “Morning Glory Story”—the latter is a dignified portrait of a homeless woman, a topic nobody sang or wrote about back in 1970—make sense on an album with similar stories by Bill Martin, “Fairfax Rag” and “Rainmaker” (you know the story; he tells it especially well). And, there’s a song by Randy Newman, then no better known than Nilsson himself: “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear.”

Nilsson’s voice and style was especially well-suited to Randy Newman’s music, and so, the 1970 album was devoted entirely to his work. This is a spectacular pop music milestone, story after story, sensitively and imaginatively told: short stories, really, told with the full power of music and nostalgia. Every song is special, and, in its way, timeless.

The prelude to all of this, an album called Aerial Ballet, is filled with top-notch pop songs that set Nilsson’s bubbly, sensitive, smart style. It’s the album with more familiar songs than the others: “Everybody’s Talkin’” and “One” (a top ten hit for Three Dog Night) among them. It’s great fun, but I like Harry and Nilsson Sings Newman so much that this album takes third position. (In the early 1970s, Nilsson reworked this and an earlier album, including new mixes and some new vocals, to create Aerial Pandemonium Ballet).

If you’re interested in going further, some would claim that Nilsson Schmilson, produced by Richard Perry, is his best. It’s certainly his most commercial, most mainstream (it was produced with that specific intention, and I think it suffers for its success). Better is his salute to the music of the 1940s (mostly) in what turned out to be a career-killer (with a stupid title): A Little Touch of Schmilson in the Night (the link leads to a BBC documentary about the making of the album). This is lovely work, better than most of what Rod Stewart and others have done with similar material, and it’s worth owning. At the time, it was considered wildly narcissistic, part of a larger pattern of disengagement with the realities of the music business, and, sadly, a harbinger of the musician’s disengagement with anything resembling a rational, healthy life.

Nilsson bookThe early days, and the dreadful slide into substance abuse, crappy behavior and, ultimately, death, is told with appropriate accuracy and sensitivity by biographer Alyn Shipton. The book is called Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter, and it’s difficult for fans of the early days to read and comprehend. Happily, the first half of the book explores the good times: the details of the relationships and creative decisions that led to the artist’s finest work, notes from the recording sessions, a rich history of the relationship between Nilsson and masterful arranger George Tipton, stories about so many songs that are so special to long-time Nilsson fans.

I suspect we all believed that Harry’s lyrics to Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song would come true, that each successive decade would find fewer and fewer of us grooving to Nilsson’s fine work and that, in time, the cult would become smaller and perhaps more intimate with a favorite musician from our youth or college days. It didn’t go down that way. Harry became a giant problem: tremendously talented, proven, light-hearted at his best, bad company at his worst. Later albums are, as a rule, dreadful, sarcastic, and lacking in the wonderful subtlety that made his work so very special.

If you feel the need to explore this work, and to try to make sense of the life that included the early albums and the likes of “you’re breakin’ my heart/you’re tearin’ it apart/so f— you” (which only began the nasty period), several options. One is to try to wrap your head around the awful Nilsson collaboration with John Lennon (who was also going through a bad period); it’s called Pussy Cats. Another is explore Knnillssonn with its strange (and sometimes lovely) production experimentation, and the return of the warmth that once characterized everything the man did. As Douglas Hofstadter might describe it, Harry was a strange loop.

Or, if you just want it all, there is a box set with just about all of his work. Click the link for a fascinating, detailed exploration of the whole 17-disc project.

Nilsson box

Old-School Selfies

DurerGosh, I am so tired of hearing the term “selfies.” It’s been named ‘word of the year’ for Oxford University’s Dictionary. You’d think they’d choose something more interesting.

Charley Parker put together a far better definition of the term, in pictures.

Three links, all worth a visit, as are so many of his posts on the altogether wonderful Lines & Colors blog: Selfies, More Selfies, and Selfies #3.

Among Charley’s selections, I think I like the self-portrait drawn by Albrecht Dürer best. Dürer was thirteen years old when he drew that picture. Think about that for a moment: he was thirteen in 1494, just two years after Columbus sailed the ocean blue. And now, we’re reposting the teenager’s drawing image on a website.

There are a lot of self-portraits on the three posts, but I think I like N.C. Wyeth’s portrait second-best. Pictured below, I think this particular image is one of N.C.’s  best.

As for iPhone selfies, no so much.

Last year’s OED word of the year was “omnishambles” – “a situation that has been comprehensibly mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunder and miscalculations.” As in so many situations that involve the word (you saw this coming a mile away): “selfies.”

Wyeth

In a Word, “Curious”

CuriousWhat’s the secret of life? Of course, the answer is in a book with a single word title, Curious? The back cover has nine words, 58 characters: “Embrace uncertainty. Attract love and abundance. Master your life.”

All of this makes me want to write an answer book called “Seriously?” but the author, a clinical psychologist and professor at George Mason University deserves more than the Twtr-obessed publisher allows. His name is Todd Kashdan, and although I suspect curiosity may not be, as the subtitle promises, a way to “Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life” (shouldn’t that “to” be “in” or “for”?), there’s too much good stuff in this book for me to pass it by.

Mostly, like every creative person, I’m curious about curiosity. I seem to have it in larger doses than most people, and I think I like that about myself. My friends tend to be curious, too, and they tend to value this in themselves. In fact, I enjoyed a long telephone conversation with a friend not six months ago on this very subject—he was analyzing generational differences in the workplace, and thought our generation pursued curiosity with greater energy than the current one.

Of course, Dr. Kashdan touches  school as curiosity-killer (“Do it now, ask questions later. Stay away from strangers. Avoid controversial topics and hot-button issues”), but I think he’s better when he’s positive, and consistent with the thinking of the positive psychology movement in academia, where he plays a part. When describing how and why “Curiosity is about recognizing and reaping the rewards of the uncertain, the unknown and the new…,” he explains that there is a “simple story line for how curiosity is the engine of growth.”

By being curious, we explore.

By exploring, we discover.

When this is satisfying, we are more likely to repeat it.

By repeating it, we develop competence and mastery.

By developing competence and mastery, our knowledge and skills grow.

As our knowledge and skills grow, we stretch who we are and what our life is about.

So “curiosity begets more curiosity.” Fair enough. But that’s just the starting place. When he offers curiosity as the opposite of certainty, and broadens the argument to society’s need for closure, specific answers, one way of looking at the world, his arguments become insights:

Curiosity creates possibilities; the need for certainty narrows them.

Curiosity creates energy; the need for certainty depletes.

Curiosity results in exploration; the need for certainty creates closure.

Curiosity creates movement; the need for certainty is about replaying events.

Curiosity creates relationships; the need for certainty creates defensiveness.

Creativity is about discovery; the need for certainty is about being right.

At first, I didn’t think much of this list, but the more I worked on a new project about knowledge and understanding, the more I realized the value of Dr. Kashdan’s insights.

Photo of the author, Todd Kashdan, by Adam Auel

It’s easy to see how this material can be brought into a wider domain: curiosity results in personal fulfillment, happiness, a healthy mental outlook, a purpose to life, and so on. He encourages openness in the style of so many self-help books, and here’s where my fascination begins to wane, mostly because I’ve read it all before: “When walking outside the house, I will gently guide my attention so I can be intrigued by every bodily movement and whatever sights, sounds and smells are within my range.” I don’t understand why anybody who is taking a walk would fill their ears with music, but that’s because I enjoy listening to the natural world. Does experience open my mind to every possibility? Not sure. I think I’m listening to birdsong, looking at autumn leaves and winter branches, and taking whiffs of honeysuckle when it’s in season. That’s enough for me.

If you find self-help books useful, you might add this one to your library. There are chapters about “The Rewards of Relationships” and “The Anxious Mind and the Curious Spirit,” and, almost inevitably, “Discovering Meaning and Purpose in Life.”

I think curiosity is powerful on its own terms: as an antidote to the routine, a door that opens to creative and divergent thought, as a pathway to learning lots of things. Secret of life? Maybe. I’ll leave that one up to you.

Letter to Simon Garfield (Publisher, please forward.)

Dear Simon;

I trust you will allow me the informality of beginning a letter with your given name, that you will forgive me for requesting a copy of your previous book (“On the Map”) and never managing to write a review. Perhaps in another time, I would have written this letter on paper with a proper pen instead of choosing the more convenient and altogether phony letter-as-blog-post convention in place of the real thing.

Mostly, I wanted to thank you for reminding me of the special quality of a handwritten letter written, and the even more special quality of a handwritten letter received. It’s been a while.

In your most recent book (“To the Letter”), you choose the historical approach. I loved the opening story about items related to classic magic and magicians, and your interest not in the old mechanical tricks, but in the letters that revealed personality and secrets instead. I’m glad you won what you wanted at the auction.

You and I are wired differently, and I suppose that’s the reason I enjoy reading what you write. Your love of ephemeral history makes me want to spend a lazy weekend afternoon wandering London’s small museums and listening to your stories about Virginia Woolf and Henry VIII, then spending another wandering around Massachusetts to dig deeper into the stories you’ve told about Emily Dickinson and Jack Kerouac and their letters. And if your time permitted, maybe we’d wander over to Sagamore Hill to tour Teddy Roosevelt’s house and explore his letters as well. If we could time travel—and certainly, you’ve come as close as any author—I think I’d choose to wait outside of Oscar Wilde’s apartment waiting for him to toss a letter down to the street so that as passer-by might toss it into a letter box.

I don’t suppose I would have written quite the same book you’ve written. Mine would probably be more personal, less historical, more social, less of a museum of stories about letters and letter-writers. And, as you mention early on, email has obliterated the art, form and function of writing letters, and there’s no point in fighting that losing battle.

Perhaps, a contrary view. Letters and emails are quite different from one another. The convenience, speed, distribution and brevity of emails provide powerful reasons why they’ve won out. Letters recall another time, and it’s worth a moment to consider their unique character.

For one thing, a well-written personal letter is, of course, written in one’s own hand. As children, we devoted hours to the now forgotten term, penmanship. Excellence in cursive writing was to be admired, shown to the class as exemplar of superior art, craft and communication. As a child, an exercise in good penmanship was a true workout: intolerant of error because ink offers no delete key, no cut or paste function. As an adult, good penmanship was, and maybe still is, a reflection of good breeding, and, perhaps, an elegance of thought.

Time was spent thinking before writing. A letter was something to be composed. Cheerful, direct, succinct, emotional, candid, personal—these were among the choices, the decisions to be made before placing pen to paper and carefully writing even a single word.

Long letters were neither unusual nor undesirable. Earlier this month, I found a box of old letters in my basement. The long ones were among the most precious, especially those written by loved ones long gone. Here was a piece of their lives, offered directly to me, written in their own hand, on paper they themselves touched, placing in an envelope, posted when they could find the time. In short, the correspondent made a special effort to communicate with me: mother to son, girlfriend to boyfriend, and sometimes, young sister to older brother. Some letters, still in their envelopes, included pictures, or, sometimes, original drawings, and maybe, some doodles in the borders. Most were written a long time ago, and forgotten in a old box in a musty basement, but they surface from time to time, and when they do, I’m happy. I wish I had more of them. Apparently, I wrote a fair number of letters during my days as a college student (bored in anonymous lecture halls, I wrote letters to friends in other schools, and had my fun with silly stories along the way), and later, mostly on Tuesdays when it was my turn to sit at the receptionist’s desk when she was at lunch (which explains why my Tuesday letters were, mostly, written on steno paper). During one summer, when long-distance telephone calls were too expensive to be either long or frequent, my friend Casey and I plotted out an extensive strategy by exchanging letters; he was 400 miles away, and there was no other way to communicate with one another.

Simon, I know that this personal ephemera is not likely to capture the attention of a large audience. I suppose that’s why I’m writing this in a letter, and why you chose not to write about this in a book that provides you and your publisher with funds from the marketplace.

Then again, I suspect this is precisely why you wrote “To the Letter”—to cause at least a few of us to consider, as you mention in your subtitle, “A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing.” And, once again, I offer a personal aside. I would have added a few words to your subtitle: “and Reading Those Letters” or some such.

The day is ending. We’ve just received a text message from friends who are ready for dinner. I’m campaigning for Peruvian food, but I suspect it will be Thai-Laotian again. If we corresponded regularly, I might clip a recipe to our next correspondence, and you might respond with a take out menu from your favorite Pakistani restaurant. I suspect we won’t. We don’t know one another, so we must maintain our internet anonymity. Besides, my email inbox contains several thousand unopened emails and yours probably contains thrice as many. But it has been fun to read what you’ve written, and to think about writing and reading letters during a cold afternoon. Perhaps, when the time is right, we will correspond, and if the time is ideal, we will do so on paper, pen in hand with the most colorful postage stamps we can find to amuse one another as we open our respective envelopes.

Warmly,

HB

P.S. Writing a letter, the inclusion of links felt disruptive, so I suggest lurkers  visit your website to learn more. That way, they can see both the UK and US book covers in nifty animation (I prefer the UK version, as I often do).

P.P.S. I shall not apologize for writing a letter that runs over a thousand words. (If this a blog post, that would be unacceptably long.)

The Miracles of Mary Whyte

If you can find the time, visit the Facebook page for the Hebron Saint Francis Senior Center located at 2915 Bohicket Road on John’s Island, a ways south of Charleston, SC. It’s an ordinary place, an old church in constant need of loving attention, graveyard over on one side, parking lot on the other. Was about twenty years ago when the watercolorist Mary Whyte wandered in, fresh from Ohio and Pennsylvania, not knowing a soul. Alfreda “recalled their first meeting…

The first time Miss Mary come to the center, we were there sewing and cooking, and in walk this white girl, kind of scraggly an’ all…. Here was this skinny, kind of pitiful white girl comin’ in, not known’ where she was goin’ or what she was looking for, and definitely in need of some love. So the first thing we do is give her a big plate of food. You know, to fatten her up a bit. God know, I’ve been trying to fatten her up for years, but it still not workin’….So I keep feedin’ her and loving’ her because it what she need. It what everybody need.”

Decades later, Mary writes, “This is my dear friend Alfreda in one of her spectacular hats.”

Alfreda Red Hat

Mary Whyte is one of the finest watercolor artists in the world. I’m especially attached to her because she wrote the first book I ever read on the subject, “Watercolors for the Serious Beginner,” and I remember thinking, “how is it possible for an artist, this artist, my first teacher, to coax that kind of humanity from this set of paints?” It seemed impossible. Nearly fifteen years after I read that book, I remain in awe of the technique, but I’m past that. I’m in awe of the dignity, the humanity, the life that Mary Whyte captures time and again.

Whyte’s move to the low country of South Carolina has been beautifully documented. Her early visits to the Hebron Center resulted in more inspiration than most artists experience in a lifetime. She shifted from landscapes and everything else to portraiture, and that made all the difference. Once again borrowing from the archive of her website, here’s one the many paintings of local children—many related in some way to the Hebron ladies—with one of the signature quilts that appear so often, and so lovingly, in Whyte’s work. This one is called “Persimmon” (the one with Alfreda in the hat is called “Red”).

Persimmon - web_08210212One more before I fill-in some more details and tell you about the book. Whyte: “This is Georgeanna, whom I have painted for twenty years and is now almost ninety years old. She lives only a couple of miles from my house. The setting for this painting is her kitchen, where we often spend time visiting.” Two items of note. One, her magnificent handling of steam. Second, the sense of person and place, the warmth, the sense that this woman is someone close to the artist.

sister_heywardArtists grow. I suppose that’s the message that comes across most clearly in a new, altogether wonderful book entitled “More Than a Likeness: The Enduring Art of Mary White.” The book is large format, large enough so that the images are full of life, but smaller than they appear in person (darn! I just did some web research and found out that the Butler Art Museum in Youngstown, Ohio just closed a Whyte exhibit—and I will be there next weekend). I really want to see her work full-sized and in their  glory: to see her work full-size [typically at least two feet on the smallest side] would be a thrill])

Anyway… as I said, artists grow, and it’s fascinating to watch Whyte evolve from her life around the Senior Center to a fuller sense of the Working South, the subject of a book that was featured on CBS Sunday Morning.

Want to see more? There’s a video for her book, Down Bohicket Road, too.

Over time, John’s Island has changed. Tourists become frequent visitors, buy vacation homes, and demand services. Farms become shopping centers. Teenagers, so innocent in her earlier work, deal with different kinds of issues. People get older, and live the way they live. To her great credit, Whyte doesn’t paint an idealized world. She paints what she sees, and tells the contemporary story. From that era, Absolution is one of the highlights. Whyte: “I am always interested in textures, so the idea of painting a model with long hair, a beard and tattoos appealed to me. “Absolution”, refers to our vulnerability as people, and to the seduction of drugs. The shaft of light represents God’s forgiveness, and is also orchestrated as a compositional device to lead the viewer’s eye up and through the painting.”

Absolution

Compare “Absolution” with “Persimmon”—same remarkable artist working in 2010 and, to my delight, 2012. Whyte sees the hard and the soft, and lovingly attends to each of them.
There is so much here to see. And, for me, at least, there is a strong emotional connection to this work. (I don’t feel that way very often, so I figure it’s worth a mention.)
At $75, “More Than a Likeness” is not an inexpensive holiday gift, but it is something special. And as for my missing out on the Butler exhibit, I’m already studying maps and thinking about a drive down to John’s Island to see what Mary Whyte sees, maybe allowing myself some time to draw, but mainly to visit Coleman Fine Art, owned by Whyte and her husband Smith Coleman (a distinguished fine craftsman known for his frames) over on 79 Church Street in Charleston, maybe hit the Blind Tiger, just a few blocks away, for some local crab with “Mitch’s Voodoo Dust” and a side of fried green tomatoes or fried okra, or both. Art, food, and exploring a place like John’s Island with my own eyes. Sounds like a really good long weekend road trip, come spring.

The Future is Ours to Lose

And in exchange for free internet searches, discounts on books and other merchandise, posting pictures of family and friends, and playing games, we’re giving it away. Giving away our means to earn a living. Giving away our privacy and most personal information. Giving away copyright protection, our health care data, our time. Making large companies and internet entrepreneurs wealthy. Waving goodbye to economic opportunities that could, in the mind of non-economist but future thinker Jaron Lanier in a creepily fascinating book called Who Owns the Future. From the book jacket, a clear explanation of a complicated book:

Lanier asserts that the rise of digital networks led our economy into recession and decimated the middle class…In this ambitious and deeply humane book, Lanier charts the path toward a new information economy that will stabilize the middle class and allow it to grow. It is time for ordinary people to be rewarded for what they do and share on the web.”

futureukuscomboCertainly, creative professionals have seen new opportunities, but many jobs have disappeared, crumbled, or become so easy for amateurs to do, there is little perceived need for professional work. Two examples: illustration and another is photography. What about people who drive for a living? Lanier: “A great portion of the global middle classes works behind a wheel. Many have entered middle-class life as a taxi driver or truck driver. It’s hard to imagine a world without commercial drivers. A traditional entry ramp into economic sustenance for fresh arrivals to big cities like New York would be gone. Wave after wave of middle class immigrants drove New York taxis. And I’m trying to imagine the meeting when someone tries to explain to the Teamsters that nothing like their services will ever be needed again.” You see this in the battles between the everyone-can-be-a-cabbie service Uber and the people who actually make their living by moving people.  Soon, cars will move without drivers. Lanier: “Both cabbies and truckers have managed to build up levees…they’ll be able to delay the change…there might be a compromise in which a Teamster or cabbie sits there passively, along for the ride, perhaps to man a failsafe button…the world of work behind the wheel will drain away in a generation.”

Lanier: “What about liberal arts professors at a state college. Some academic will hang on, but the prospects are grim if education is seduced by the Siren song… The future of “free” will beckon. Get educated for free now! But don’t plan on a job as an educator.”

Lanier’s Siren server combines a Siren’s song with a server that collects information, provides appealing benefits, and causes tremendous destruction as it is managed by a wealthy few. The Siren server is portrayed as a monster stomping the life out of everything in its path. Health care? Empathetic robots empowered by Big Blue’s encyclopedic database of knowledge, the processing speed of a digital chess champion, and unbelievably precise motor skills. The list goes on.

So what’s to be done? It’s tough for anyone to survive in the modern world with a “just say no to the Siren servers!” philosophy. So much relies upon credit cards, EZ-Pass, Android, and, yes, Netflix (now my most-used television “channel”). What’s more, there’s the “Pervasive Creepy Conundrums: online security, privacy, and identity.”

Lanier builds his case for divergence with a disheartening disclaimer: he cannot explain the idea simply. In fact, he can, and somehow, his editor did not delete most of chapters 16-20 because they take too long to set up a very good, very simple idea: two-way links. He appropriately credits an early home computing visionary, Ted Nelson, whose name may be familiar because he was the guy who originated HyperCard, which Ars Technica describes in a wonderful article entitled “25 years of HyperCard—the missing link to the Web.”

hypercard_tutorial_posterLet’s continue down that path: “The foundational idea of humanist computing is that provenance is valuable. Information is people in disguise, and people ought to be paid for value they contribute that can be sent or stored on a digital network.” I agree. For more about why and how I agree, see my recent articles about Google Books.

Simply: “If two-way linking had been in place, a homeowner would have known who had leveraged the mortgage, and a musician would have known who had copied his music.”

Lanier is right: That changes everything!

It’s a complicated fix, a change in the architecture of so many things digital, but it’s worth the shift. Here’s a straightforward example of why: “When you buy a physical book, you can resell it at will…” It is yours to own, sell, repurpose. “You can get the author to sign it, to make it more meaningful to you, and to increase its value.” With an eBook, you have only purchased “tenuous” rights within “someone else’s company store.” And so, “Your decision space is reduced.” It’s just not a fair deal. What’s more, this kind of thinking leads to the kinds of big company, big brother control that makes nobody comfortable (and few people wealth).

Lanier’s theory about “commercial symmetry” places everyone—companies and individuals, governments and other institutions—on a level playing field. Rules apply in both directions. People’s rights are not reduced. There is fair play. I am not required to subsidize ESPN on my cable bill; I don’t watch, and probably will never watch, most of the cable channels that I am required to fund each month. We’re trying to do something like this with health care—patient rights and all of that—but the health care system is not likely to share information about its economics. Students are graded by teachers, but (most of the time), teachers are not graded by students or (much of the time) by their employers or the larger body of taxpayers who fund their salaries, benefits and pensions.

Still, there is that looming question: is the value that we provide to, say, EZ-Pass or Netflix, transferable to real income for individuals who must earn a living. If Netflix discounted its services in exchange the data that we provide, would that result in more or less employment overall? Less, I suspect—but I’m operating within a present-day reality, and if we’ve learned anything from the future’s past, paradigm shifts change all of the rules.

Lanier probably doesn’t have the answers, but he writes in a way that makes you think, and he ignites meaningful conversations like this one. Smart guy, interesting book.

Lanier

Long Overdue

bobbywatson2colorBobby Watson is a musician’s musician, well-known in some circles, but not a famous jazz saxophone, at least not these days. Those who were paying attention in the mid-1980s, or who have done their research on the best jazz albums of that era, tend to love Appointment in Milano, and Year of the Rabbit; recorded and released nearly twenty years later, Horizon Reassembled is also terrific. Browse Watson’s All Music listing, and you’ll find a half-dozen superior albums by one of jazz’s best saxophone players. Watson’s Check Cashing Day surprised me by showing up in the mail last week. Made me happy. Made me think, too. You can listen to some samples here. Let me tell you more about it.

Recorded to remember Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech fifty years ago, Watson’s creative partner on this project is a fellow artist from Kansas City, Glenn North. He’s a spoken word performer, and poet who does his best to speak the truth (that second link provides a good example of his work—listen with your ears, and don’t worry about the so-so video quality). Mr. North is also the education manager at the Kansas City Jazz Museum, a kin with Watson who has doubled on the academic side for decades. North’s work is accessible with whiffs of hip-hop language and cadence, straight talk that carries the right messages:

Black is a flock of one hundred crows flying across the moon.

Black is hot water, cornbread and black-eyed peas served with a wooden spoon.

Black is the floor of the Atlantic Ocean covered with fifty million ancestral bones.

Black is the thundercloud over The Congo as the panther starts to moan.

Black is what was before before, when there was no time or space.

Black is the mistreated, the misunderstood, the magnificently beautiful race.

Black is a thousand midnights buried beneath the cypress swamp.

Black is four nappy-headed boys cruising in a beat-up Mitsubishi Galant.

Black is a thousand hornets ready to attack.

And even though Black ain’t went nowhere, tonight, Black is back.

Good poem, but so much better with the beautiful soundtrack provided by the sweet sound of Bobby Watson’s saxophone and the bowed bass so handsomely played by Curtis Lundy. This is what concept albums ought to be, maybe used to be, and I now understand that I miss them. Music with a purpose, a point of view, something to say, something well-said. Watson’s quartet provides some straight-ahead jazz tracks, perhaps the best of them is “A Blues of Hope,” but there are plenty more.

Check Cashing DayThe most ambitious track is Secrets of the Sun (Son) featuring wonderful vocal work by formidable performer, vocal arranger and composer Pamela Baskin-Watson (his wife), Glenn North’s spoken word at its confident best, and a splendid arrangement that allows the quartet to shine.

The more I listen, the more I appreciate what this ensemble has done. Sure, it’s a wonderful jazz album, but Watson does that just about every time. He’s a pro, he’s been doing this forever, and he’s gifted. But there’s a lot more heart and soul here, a coherent focus, a grown-up reflection on what has happened, and has not happened, and what has decidedly not happened, since Martin gave the speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. More from Glenn North, again presented with Watson’s spot-0n soundtrack.

I’m tired of welfare handouts and being played the fool.

I’m also tired of waiting for my forty acres and a mule.

Tired of being mis-educated in this country’s so-called schools.

Ain’t none of them teachers talking about my forty acres and a mule.

I bet you’d sing a different tune if it was me that owed something to you.

Save all the double-talk, and give me my forty acres and a mule.

You keep smiling in my face, but I know your heart is cruel.

Why else wouldn’t you give me my forty acres and a mule?

And why am I the one always getting arrested when you’re the one breaking all the rules?

You know my next question.

Where the hell is my forty acres and a mule?

I’ve been oppressed for over four hundred years, been the object of ridicule.

The least you could do is break me off my forty acres and a mule.

Compared to what you’ve done to me, what I’m requesting is miniscule.

You should be glad that what I’m asking for is forty acres and a mule.

The bill is up to four trillion dollars now and the man is way past due.

What do I have to do to get my forty acres and a mule?

The poet and spoken word artist Glenn North.

The poet and spoken word artist Glenn North.

After writing several articles about intellectual property and fairness, I hope this brief excursion into Glenn North’s poetry is okay with him (if it’s not, I hope he will contact me so I can remove it or otherwise change the presentation). I wanted you to get a sense of what this people have done, and because I think it matters, and because I think it ought to set the stage for more concept albums about important ideas, I provided more than I might otherwise have done.

Hey, this is good work, and it deserves recognition. If you’re trying to track down something interesting and different to buy for friends or family, this is a good choice to add to the list. Normally, I hate it when a website starts playing music when I arrive. In the case of www.bobbywatson.com, I had the opposite reaction. Turn it up and enjoy.

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