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.

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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

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Perfect Summer Days

The sun is still low in the sky, so the lake sparkles. I’m hungry for breakfast, but I want to walk along the water for a while to study the shape of the hills on the far shore. A quarter mile on the promenade and I can’t keep myself away from the farmer’s market. It’s an garage, open from 7:00 am until 11:0o am. I tasted yesterday’s coffee cake and it was spectacular. This morning, I want to try a scone before they’re all gone. Local strawberries, too, because the season doesn’t last long enough. Walking back to the town square, I grab a Daily from the news hawker—he’s probably fourteen years old, wearing a flat eight-panel cap, canvas bag drooping from one shoulder, shouting something unintelligible as if he’s been at it for decades.

Like yesterday, today is going to be a busy day.

2014-07-03 17.01.42Yesterday afternoon was busy with reading on the Hotel Atheneum’s wraparound porch, studying the lake, selecting the perfect rocking chair, becoming distracted by what sounded like a full orchestra nearby. Wandering is what folks do on a summer’s day at Chautauqua, so I followed the music to the amphitheater where a rehearsal of Madame Butterfly kept me and perhaps two hundred other people busy for an hour. On Saturday night, the theater will be filled with nearly four thousand people, mostly residents who either spend their summers here, or, at least, several weeks each year. I was reluctant to linger: I wanted dinner before heading to the theater. Back at the Hotel Atheneum, I wanted to sit outdoors and watch the lake while eating my local trout, and that was best accomplished by taking a seat at a community table where the conversation was both lively and reminiscent of first days at college when everybody I met was a potential buddy.

Off to the theater. It’s a standalone building on what amounts to a square mile of campus, passing hundred-year old houses whose facades were painted with bright colors, almost always adorned with bright flowers, a celebration of Western New York’s relatively short—but absolutely fabulous—summer season. Crossing the town square, noting the location of the bookstore for later on, I made it to the theater with minutes to spare (nothing new about that, not for me, anyway). A few hundred seats in a purpose-built structure with exposed beams and seeming endless depth on the stage, the Bratton Theater is everything a summer theater ought to be. The play: A Raisin in the Sun, which I had just happened to watch as a movie in June. The stage setting was so striking, there was an article about its design in the next morning’s Daily. It’s the story of a low income family trying for the American dream, a story that seemed dreary in high school, but here, consistent with Chautauqua’s mighty arts tradition, the play was both compelling and provocative. And, as is so often the case in this tiny summer town by the lake, it was the subject of rocking chair conversation for the next few days.

My first full day began, once again, at the farmer’s market, then at a brief spiritual ceremony—every morning offers a choice of several (Zen Buddhist, Episcopalian, peace)—followed by “Morning Worship”—in essence a few announcements, a few hymns, and a crackling good sermon from The Reverend Raphael Warnock, a brilliant fellow who now fills the job that Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. once filled, in his official capacity, at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. He talked about Adam and Eve, and the existence of God. What began as a relatively calm and thoughtful lecture became a sharp, energetic jolt of intellectual and spiritual power—very much in the style of Chautauqua at its best.

The amphitheater, orchestra on stage, rehearsing. Note the houses nearby (left and right). The amphitheater is just another site in the Chautauqua neighborhood.

The amphitheater, orchestra on stage, rehearsing. Note the houses nearby (left and right). The amphitheater is just another site in the Chautauqua neighborhood.

There was no reason to leave the amphitheater because the 9:15 am session ended more than an hour later, and at 10:45AM, the morning lecture was set to begin. Curious title: “For Cod and Country.” It was about fish. Which fish to eat. Which fish we shouldn’t eat. To be honest, I confuse what I learned from this lecture, by National Geographic’s Barton Seaver, with the one I attended on the next day, by the University of Minnesota’s Jonathan Foley. That’s what the programmers intended. Both are part of a week-long lecture series on closely-related topics about feeding everyone on the planet. Several interesting points: there is a lot more food available on the planet than we choose to eat, but our decisions about what to eat and just how far we are willing to ship that food is more than a little crazy; we need to eat more mussels, clams, oysters, herring, anchovies and sardines, and less salmon, tuna, and swordfish, and now I think I understand the reasons why. Fortunately, many of the Chautauqua speakers—there seem to be about 200 per season—have written books about their life’s passions. A good reason to spend an hour browsing in Chautauqua’s bookstore, if you can find a moment to do so.

2014-07-04 10.04.10-1Me? I’m off to Sol Messinger’s “Yiddish Language Conversation” back up near the main road at the relatively new (few Chautauqua structures are new) Emerson Jewish Life Center, built in 2009. Sol is sitting at a conference table with four or five people, interviewing each of them, each of us, about our family history. He is speaking in Yiddish. I understand only a bissel—the tiniest portion—but just the act of listening is joyful. Here and there, one of the people at the table translates key ideas for me. The conversation drifts in and out of English. The people are not young. I wonder what will happen to Yiddish, but only for a moment. My head is filled with ideas, but the yellow broadsheet—the detailed schedule for this Chautauqua week, contains far too many things for me to do, so I keep moving, grab a quick quiche at the informal lunch place above the bookstore (not wonderful: Chautauqua’s food for short-term visitors is a weak link), and manage to get to Philosopher’s Hall in time to get a seat just on the perimeter. It has been raining, so some seats are wet. I sit on my Daily, my bun is a little wet for a while, but I quickly forget my personal issue when the speaker begins. He’s compelling—John Hope Bryant, advisor to U.S. presidents, another brilliant guy, this time focusing on financial literacy, improved credit scores, the end of payday loan stores, and a realignment of neighborhood banks to provide services for the lower-middle and lower-classes. There is tremendous power in his idea—and a strangeness that feels unique to Chautauqua. Bryant is a passionate Black entrepreneur, not so distant from the Reverend we heard this morning—but the vast majority of his audience are white, and no longer the successful businesspeople they may have been a decade or two ago. No matter: Bryant’s presentation is digging deep into their souls, and they will carry the word. He mesmerizes. They listen attentively. The reason to go to Chautauqua is to learn, to take notes, to remember what was said, to learn because learning is a productive activity that makes life worth living. That spirit runs deep in Chautauqua’s soul: it’s part of the complicated set of reasons why this Institution was founded in 1874. And it’s the reason I visited: to get a sense of how recreation, learning, culture, and time to sit on a rocking chair might, in their way, be a better way to spend a summer afternoon than reading blog posts on the internet.

2014-07-03 17.07.15No time to linger. A Chautauquan keeps busy, does not lollygag (except when the day is beautiful and there is a book to be read under a century-old tree while children are racing around on bicycles and otherwise living a perfect small town American life). That glimpse of what America might have been is just that—a glimpse—for there is music to be enjoyed in one of the old churches. An hour of art songs performed by students from Chautauqua’s music school on the north side of town (no time to visit, but I understand practice sessions and rehearsals are open, and a bit like Tanglewood). Then, at 5:00PM, I wander back to the hotel for a daily wine tasting. I was invited by my new friends at last night’s Community Table. Mostly, my contribution to the table of six chatty people was recommendations of novels by Reynolds Price because one of the women was interested. Then, we headed down to dinner in the hotel’s main dining room. Steak dinner. Fresh cut.

Finished up just in time for the concert. Big concert tonight: a July 3 pops concert. Big fun! The 80-piece orchestra decked out in Americana, red white and blue everywhere, and because I was a solo act this time around, I got to sit right in front. Guest conductor Stuart Chafetz was a marvel, a musician so completely enthralled by the music, so joyful, so in touch with the orchestra and the audience… The first half was the stuff you’d expect from an Independence Day Pops Concert—Sousa, a few movie themes, a Beatles medley (which felt remarkably modern here). Second half: a song-and-dance team, husband and wife, Beverly and Kirby Ward. Selections from the American Songbook (“Cheek to Cheek,” “Johnny One Note,” etc.) and MGM musicals. Kudos to Kirby for his step-perfect recreation of Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain dance routine, not easy to do without (a) water and (b) much space to dance.

And it’s late. The stars are out. The lake is dark and a nighttime promenade is the only possible way to end the day. And then, sleep.

2014-07-04 10.01.57Next morning, it’s up at 7:00 am for the Farmer’s Market, then a spiritual bit, then a visit to the Methodist House (many religions, many houses, used for residents and for small events) for a July 4 lecture about the specific wording of the Declaration of Independence. I intended to stay for just a few minutes, but stayed for an hour and learned a lot about what Thomas Jefferson wrote and what Richard Henry Lee wrote. Half of the people in the audience seemed to know the speaker as a friend. I suspect he was a long-time Chautauqua resident or visitor, and that revealed one more piece of this fascinating puzzle: the people who attend Chautauqua are not just visiting because the lake is pretty in July. They attend because the combination of leisure and learning, family and fellowship, curiosity and creativity is, for nine special weeks every summer, available here and almost nowhere else.

There is so much to learn, to be learned, about this way of thinking and experiencing the world. I wish there was more time. I wish it was nearby. I want to see the constitutional law professor Akhil Reed Amar on July 21, and the opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe, later that week, and the author E.L. Doctorow on August 7, and my list goes on. But in terms of both space and time, Chautauqua seems too far away—it clings to parts of the 19th century as it figures out what its 21st century life might be. I know one thing Chautauqua  ought to be: more accessible to me. I want to carry a part of it with me all summer long. I can’t help but wonder whether the magic of the internet might make that possible, someday.

Stuart Chafetz conducting the Chautauqua Orchestra.

Stuart Chafetz conducting the Chautauqua Orchestra.

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.

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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.
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