Behold the Bookstore

“The store was often empty for a couple of hours at a time, and then, when somebody did come in, it would be to ask about a book remembered from the Sunday-school library, or a grandmother’s bookcase, or left behind twenty years ago in a foreign hotel. The title was usually forgotten, but the person would tell me the story….Then, they would leave without a glance at the riches around them….A few people did explain in gratitude, said what a glorious addition to the town. They would browse for a half an hour, an hour, before spending seventy-five cents.”

The words were written by Alice Munro and published in a novella called The Albanian Virgin” by the New Yorker magazine in 1994. They came to mind because Penelope Fitzgerald’s brief 1978 novel about an unwanted bookshop, The Bookshop, was recently released in as a film starring Emily Mortimer (familiar to US audiences from her role in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom series).

Roaming around Manhattan yesterday, and wandering into a wonderful neighborhood shop called The Corner Bookstore on the Upper East Side. It was a pleasant place to spend an hour, and spend money on two books (one about architecture for me, one about birds as a gift). Perhaps pleasant is the wrong word. It was an irresistible place to spend an hour because the books were fetchingly arranged to capture my imagination.

The role of the contemporary bookstore isn’t very different from its role a century ago. It’s a fine place to explore ideas and stories, to examine the cover art and the typography, to physically handle the books and enjoy their new-ness. Certainly, Amazon has changed the plumbing, but the relationship between book and consumer, and book and reader, would be familiar to Dickens, or for that matter, Mao (who once was a bookseller).

I know that because of Jorge Carrión, who published a book last year called Bookshops: A Reader’s History, a product best enjoyed when and if purchased from a local bookseller. It’s fun to travel the world with Carrión, and to travel through history, too. There is no true beginning to the journey, but the author contemplates the importance of the great library at Alexandria as a kind of starting place for available collections of printed works. He’s unsure whether Librarie Kauffmann in Athens is still in business, but he tells the story anyway: it grew from a book stall selling second-hand goods, then became the center of thought, literacy and enlightenment for French speaking families, scholars, and intellectuals in Athens in the 20th century. He describes it as “one of those bookshops to get a stamp on your imaginary bookshop passport.”

William Thackery probably shopped at 1 Trinity Street in Cambridge, a site that has sold books for about 600 years, but necessarily to the public. In Krakow, there’s Matras, which used to be called Gebether and Wolf, and it dates back to the 1610, though not with an entirely continuous history. P&G Wells is probably the oldest bookstore in England–this Winchester shop can show you receipts dating back to 1729. Click on the picture to visit their modern website.

History is well-captured in this September 26, 1786 bit from Goethe, written in his journal published as Italian Journey:

“I had entered a bookshop which, in Italy, is a peculiar place. The books are all in stitched covers, and at any time of the day, you can find good company int he shop. Everyone who is in any way connected with literature–secular clergy, nobility, artists–drop in. You ask for a book, browse in it, or take part in a conversation as the occasional arises. There were about a half dozen people there when I entered, and when I asked for the work of Palladio, they all focused their attention on me. While the proprietor was looking for the book, they spoke highly of it and gave me all kinds of information about the original edition and the reprint. They were all acquainted with the work, and with the merits of the author.”

What fun–it’s easy to imagine finding myself in the very same situation.

There is now an assortment of books about bookstores on my home shelves. One illustrates favorite bookstore facades in pen-and-ink and watercolor. Another describes favorite booksellers with stories about the stores and the people who inhabit them. I haven’t started to list or photograph bookstores that happen along the way as I travel, but Aqua Alta in Venice would certainly deserve a mention because you can climb a pile of books for a look at the adjacent canal. Scrivener’s in Derbyshire is probably worth a trip to England just to browse a few tens of thousands of volumes, but that should probably be scheduled to coincide with a day or a week in Hay-en-Wye, in Wales, which is an entire town devoted to bookshops and things literary. It’s now one of several book towns around the world. And yes, there is a book about these book towns–I very nearly bought it yesterday at The Corner Bookstore–and for course it’s called Book Towns. Someday, because I am now reading far too many books and articles about books and the places where you can bu them–I will visit Argentina. That’s because Jorge Carrión, and others, have told me about a spectacular old movie theater that is now a bookstore called Ateneo. Between now and my visit, I will need to learn to read Spanish, but that won’t stop me from browsing.

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The Fun Begins in York

When times were rotten, New York City was nicknamed “Fun City”–a dark commentary on the nightmare of garbage strikes, teacher walkouts, and a financial meltdown. Even in its most hopeless years, New York’s challenges pale in comparison with York, a far smaller and far older place that provided Fun City with its formal name.

The fun begins in York about 10,000 years ago. The Romans showed up about 2,000 years ago–certainly by 71 AD–and you can walk the Roman wall that once guarded the city today. It’s a very pleasant walk on a summer’s day, complete with engaging city views, small cafes, and pretty places to take selfies (admittedly, only parts are original; some are newer, circa 1200 or so, and others, newer still circa 1800-1900). By 875 AD, York was a Viking stronghold–a very large cache of Viking goodies from as far off as Afghanistan can now be found in the British Museum, the result of a York excavation for a new shopping area. Here, we find the roots of York’s current name–the Vikings called their kingdom Jorvik, since corrupted to provide both York and New York their Danish-rooted names.

After the Vikings, York weathered a less distinguished period. One of the worst episodes: the burning of Jews supposedly under government protection in the 1100s–an old castle is still on the site. By 1300, York was both an important government and trading center for England, and remained so until the 1500s. You can walk the streets and see medieval buildings–not unlike walking the world of Harry Potter (celebrated by several souvenir shops).

All of this (except Potter, of course) took place well before anybody even considered the idea of New Amsterdam (founded 1625), or New York (renamed 1664). To celebrate the old days, I visited York with the sole expectation of attending a really excellent Early Music Festival, now held annually each July.

This year’s featured players included The Sixteen (arguably the finest early music vocal group in the world today), and the majestic Gallicantus (a vocal group) in concert with the Rose Consort of Viols (an instrumental group). The latter two performed in an old parish church called St Michael le Belfrey Church (circa 1525) with marvelous acoustics and an equally appealing visual character. The music of Gallicantus celebrated Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) and William Lawes (1602-1643), but I was most taken by a contemporary work in the old style by Judith Bingham (b. 1952) called “A Requiem for Mr. William Lawes.” Like so much early music (the term more or less refers to music preceding Bach, Vivaldi, etc.), this is vocal music that reaches directly into the soul, with astonishing countertenors (here David Allsopp and Mark Chambers) singing music that would later become the job of women. The sheer joy of listening to these wonderful musicians would have been sufficient, but the addition of a viol consort–not violins, not violas, as the musicians explained in a private interview, but viols that come up through a different strand of music history and were reproduced from paintings and other scant visual history).

Equally impressive: a Saturday afternoon concert called Revolting Women! featuring music composed by what was likely a small population of female composers from the era. The best was composed by a woman now recalled only by her pseudonym, Mrs Philharmonica, presumably from about 1715. Other names, bound to be unfamiliar, but worth researching, include Isabella Leonarda (1665-1729) and Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729). Their work was much enriched by the formidable professor, historian and superior violinist, Lucy Russell, whose name may be familiar from her work with the extraordinary Fitzwilliam String Quarter (which is known for more traditional classical repertoire).

Much as I adore good concerts in old churches, a warm summer day in York offers far too much fun to remain indoors for long. I was disappointed because my schedule would not allow me to attend Richard III at, of all things, a 1000-seat pop-up Shakespeare Rose Theater in the center of town (complete with a shopping and food arcade contemporary to the era). I also had limited time to fully explore Bloom!, a flower festival staged at what seemed to be a hundred places around town. Good used bookstores captured my attention, along with long walks along the river, and the inevitable Betty’s, a 1919 tea shop with wonderful food and spectacular pastries to enjoy along with fine tea service. (In fact, I escaped to nearby Harrogate, where I enjoyed both a lunch at Betty’s and also a walk around the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) Harlow Carr gardens, an easy local train ride from classic York train station). Given more time, I would have explored the interior of York Minster, a large and delightfully old cathedral as well–but the lines were long, the schedule a bit restrictive for my 48-hour visit. Including the nearby countryside (moors, Jane Austen, etc.), I would certainly allow at least 72 hours to explore the area, and you’d likely find plenty to do for even four or five days in the York and Yorkshire area (mostly easily reached by train, certainly easily reached by car or even day bus tours).

What have I missed? The quiet pub where the World Cup semi-final victory for England was celebrated in a most dignified manner. The streets outside where everyone’s cheeks (probably both kinds) were painted with tiny English soccer flags, where people sang, loudly with with tremendous dancing exuberance, about how the Cup was “coming home.” Nearly every pub in town was pounding with energy and music–including, inexplicably, “Take Me Home Country Roads” and other boisterous (?) John Denver tunes to which every Brit seemed to know every word; the medley ended with the British (?) classic, “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” All great fun!

Food: very nice classy seafood to be found in Loch Fyne, which is not far from the old church headquarters of National Centre for Early Music (where many concerts are staged throughout the year). Just outside the city walls and down a few blocks, I stayed at the Mount Royal, a good old-style British hotel, perhaps more like an expanded inn, with a very nice outdoor garden and very comfortable rooms with ample space to stretch out. Good respite, very accommodating staff, and lovely to be able to take breakfast (and other meals) outside at leisure before re-entering, well, what turned out to be fun city in the truest sense of the words.

Do take the time to visit York. It’s just a few hours from London. It’s an easy train ride from Manchester, Liverpool and other cities in England, all worth visiting. And the next time I manage a visit, I want to wander the countryside (note to self: allow lots more time to explore this part of the world because it is beautiful, richly historic, and crazy fun).

 

 

Painting Outdoors

Technically, the correct term is “en plein air,” which means, more or less, “in the open air” when translated into English from the original French. For the experienced artist, plein air painting means spending the day outside, regardless of the weather, bugs, access to bathrooms, lugging heavy or messy gear, trying to concentrate while passers-by stop to tell you all about how their great niece used to be able to draw but met this guy and things didn’t work out but she’s still a really good artist even though she doesn’t draw as often as she used to and then wonders whether the girl drew, painted, or did something else entirely.

I love to paint outdoors. In fact, I strongly prefer painting outside to painting indoors, even though my easel and other gear is heavy (I paint with pastels, which weigh a lot when you carry too many of them, as I do), but I’ve never been quite sure whether I’m doing things properly. I don’t want to bother other artists who are, clearly, more experienced and more talented than I will ever be. So I muddle along.

Fortunately, the former editor of Plein Air magazine, who was, for many years, the editor of American Artist magazine, has written a very helpful (and inspirational) book entitled The Art of Plein Air Painting: An Essential Guide to the Materials, Concepts and Techniques for Painting Outdoors. His name is M. Stephen Doherty, and he is doing a wonderful job as the print version of a trusted teacher.

Willingness to paint outdoors requires more than straightforward skills. It requires a real desire to be part of the place that you’re painting. It’s a mindset, an attitude, a combination of willingness to be flexible and a desire to capture the light and sensibility that you cannot quite find by referring to a photograph. That’s why the book begins not with a discussion of portable easels (that comes later), but with an insightful illustrated essay posing as Chapter 1: “Why Paint Outdoors?” He focuses on the mental game and also shows himself in the game, on the street, easel set up just beside a construction site so he can get just the right view, messy paint-covered sweatshirt and slight scowl and all. He ponders how much of the work needs to be done outdoors–if you finish up indoors, which is often tempting if the weather or other conditions aren’t ideal–does a plein air painting retain its plein air status if it’s only 20 or 30 percent painted outdoors? How about 70 or 80 percent? No matter. If you do any of the work outdoors, Doherty says it counts.

The book’s emphasis is on oil painting–and that makes sense because most people who paint outside tend to work in oils. But he does take the time to address the needs of those who work in watercolor (which is difficult inside and even more difficult in the field), pastels, acrylics, and so on.

As with most books of this sort, there are profiles of artists that the author admires, and lessons to be learned from each of them. There are also good large photographs of many types of plein air paintings, useful both for inspiration and also for studying technique. I like to see a good history chapter, too, in part because it’s fun to consider myself part of a longer tradition that once included John Constable, and Jean-Baptiste Corot, and best of all, painters who were part of the majestic Hudson River School.

There are bits about drawing outdoors–I wish there was a lot more of that. There is plenty of good guidance about choosing locations, finding the best spot, knowing your physical limits, simplifying what you see so you don’t get lost in details. I wish there was more about patience–after a few hours of painting outdoors, the fatigue is always a factor, and I never know quite when to give it up for the day.

Most of all, though, there are pictures. Lots of pictures that were painted outside. Remember: Doherty was a long-time editor of one of the world’s finest magazines about art. He knows how to choose images, and that’s probably the book’s greatest strength. It is a joy to meander through the pages, browse, stop for deeper study, then move on to well-written commentary about most topics that plein air artists rarely see in book form.

Nice job!

Joseph McGurl is one of many superb artists included in The Art of Plein Air Painting. Click on the image to see more of McGurl’s work.

 

 

Experimenting with a New Medium

We all find our comfort zones, but every once in a while, it’s fun to try something new. For me, something new is, in fact, something quite old: a formulation of colored pastels that includes oil. Remember “Cray-Pas” from elementary school art class? I’m playing with the grown-up version, originally designed by Henri Sennelier, in Paris, in response to his friend Pablo Picasso’s request for oil paint that could be applied in stick form.  Nearly seventy years later, Pastels à L’Huile, or Oil Pastels, continue to be a part of art supplier Sennelier’s product line. Since I enjoy working with pastels, I thought I’d try a boxed assortment of 24 oil pastels and consider the possibilities.

Unlike most media, oil pastels can be used to draw, paint or otherwise color on a remarkable range of surfaces including (but not limited to) paper, canvas, cardboard, wood, metal, plastic, or glass. And like watercolor pencils and watercolor sticks, oil pastels can provide the color in a mix with a solvent–essentially providing a very portable set of oil paints with minimalistic clean-up. They look, feel, and behave a bit like lipstick. Have a look at the video and you’ll see the possibilities.

The best way to get a sense of oil pastels is to buy a few a handful (visit Rochester Art Supply, or Dakota Pastels). For a basic introduction to the art and craft, I picked up a used copy of Oil Pastel for the Serious Beginner by John Elliot (I like other titles in this series, especially the ones about watercolor and pastels). You might also visit a few sites, like Eric Green’s Beginner’s Guide to Oil Pastels, or, even better, Explore Oil Pastels with Robert Sloan which is, easily, the best website about oil pastels in the world.

Sloan’s work with oil pastels is excellent. Below, two images from his website gallery, both already sold, but several equally handsome pieces are available.

Of course, there is nothing like getting your hands dirty. Sennelier’s set of 24 assorted oil pastels is just about right for the start–a spectrum mostly comprised of mid-tones, a bit lacking in lights and darks.

At the most basic level, you can use Sennelier oil pastels as you would crayons–an adult version of crayons, carefully isolating each stroke in the same way that some children keep their peas far away from anything else on the dinner plate. For graphic work, that’s a reasonable approach, but you lose out on some of the magical quality of oil pastels. These little guys (they really are fairly little) blend colors just beautifully–but you must use a very light touch to get the best possible effect. Once you start filling the surface’s texture with the pasty output, mixing and refinement becomes challenging.

I found a helpful way to practice, and refine my technique: I use “the wire side” (highly textured) of Canson’s reasonably inexpensive Mi-Teintes paper, and when I start filling  the small pores in the paper with pigment, I have pressed too hard.

Another helpful note: the stickiness requires a special kind of attention. When blending, the stick picks up the blending color, so it’s not unusual to see a yellow oil stick with a film of, say, bright red or green. With dry pastels, you can usually wipe this off easily. With oil pastels, you must be vigilant, always keeping a lint-free bit of cloth nearby so you can wipe stray colors off the sticks. At first, this is annoying, but I got used to it.

Each stick is supplied in a paper wrapper–very useful to keep your hands clean, because the sticks become sticky and softish. But they do break inside the wrappers, and there’s not much you can do about that (then again, you can buy a larger, thicker version of Sennelier Oil Pastels, which may be preferable for some artists).

On and off for a year, I’ve been playing with these oil pastels. At first, I found them to be exceedingly difficult to control, an emotional return to my childhood frustration with Cray-Pas–just too thick, too rich, too everything for my comfort zone. In time, I came to understand the value of a lighter touch. Now, I find myself happy and content, mostly sketching and blending colors, every-so-softly, finding that I can experiment with color mixes with an immediacy and vivacity that’s not readily available in other media. It’s just plain fun to sketch with oil pastels, and if drift into nonrepresentational mode, so much the better. It’s tough for me to get a clear representation of a real life object with these sticks, but that’s why I use other media. It’s tough for me to enjoy the gentle abstraction that I find easy with oil pastels when I try to do the same with other media.

I tried a blending stick–Sennelier Oil Pastel # 221–and at first, I disliked rubbing what seemed like a white wax candle on my work. Then, I tried again, several more times, and I began to appreciate the way the blending stick pushes the vivid colors together. I can do the same with my finger with dry pastels, but the effect is different here (and, besides, finger blending with oil pastels, at least with my fingers, makes an awful mess).

All of which makes me admire the sample work from Robert Sloan even more. I am not yet at a point where I can exert real control over the strokes–and when I see the precision that he achieved on his big cat drawing, I feel good because I know that it is possible for a human being to exert that kind of control on what are, so far, tools that I have not yet mastered.

That’s the fun, of course. If you already know how to do something, maybe there’s not much opportunity to learn. Right now, I am just a beginner, and I celebrate the frustration, the sheer joy in knowing that I can and will learn, and develop at least a modest form of mastery over what amounts to a sophisticated version of crayons (in the best professional sense of the term).

Samples of my work? Perhaps in a few years. For now, I’m happy as a beginning student in a new medium. No need to embarrass myself. I’m learning a lot, and I’m reporting my progress. And doing my best to spread the knowledge I’m gaining along the way.

Another thing I’ve learned about myself (though I suppose this is common to others, too): I am always drawn to collections of bright colors across the spectrum, but these sets are not always the best choice for learning about a new medium. Lights and darks make all the difference, so I will soon be enhancing my basic spectrum set. For those with a bit of money and a sense of adventure, two other sets are probably a better place to begin than the 24 Assorted selection–the wood box set of 50 “Original Picasso Colors” (on sale at Fine Art Store for $117), or, for $50-60 more, the set of 72 colors in a nice cardboard box (Fine Art Store: $173). Both include a useful mix of light, mid and dark tones–of course, the 72 set is preferable. Or, you can just buy a handful of whatever oil pastels you’d like–Sennelier products are widely distributed throughout the world. Just visit a good art supply store.

Sennelier is not the only company offering portable oil sticks–Holbein sells a very wide range of colors (224 to Sennelier’s 120), and Cretacolor sells a similar product under the name AquaStics, which are water soluble. Winsor & Newton sells much larger and thicker Oil Bars–with a different formulation that categorizes their product as more closely related to oil paints in solid form, less aligned with oil pastels (“Don’t mistake them for oil pastels, though – Oilbars are made to a special formulation of linseed or safflower oil and wax.”–from the company’s website). Sennelier also makes and sells oil sticks.

Reform School

The memory is hazy, but the term is familiar from childhood. Kids who behaved badly were threatened with reform school. I just read up on the term. Sure enough, it was a teacher’s idle threat—reform schools were popular beginning just before the Civil War, and mostly fell apart nearly a hundred years ago. Reform school was a place to send incorrigible boys while keeping them out a adult prisons, where they were abused, transformed into criminals, and often, both.

“Reform school” is one of the few English phrases that might be a tesseract—a multidimensional geometric shape (square is to cube as cube is to tesseract). When the word “reform” is used as a verb, not an adjective, it leads the way to the school reform.

We can flip that term on its head, too. Like reform school, public schooling is an ingenious idea born of a far away period when families were in need of literacy, and citified behavior. Learn to read, write, speak and behave properly, and, odds were, you would find worthwhile, long term employment and economic success.

Looking at the term today, school reform feels anachronistic. Henry Ford’s comment about faster horses comes to mind (“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”), even though he never said or wrote those words. We accept school as a permanent institution because we cannot imagine a better modern solution. What else would we do with 50-55 million kids every day? Our economic system is now based upon parents who, by and large, work every day to support increasingly expensive lives. So we think in terms of constantly improving, perhaps even reforming (that is, re-forming, or forming in a new way) our schools.

Perhaps the phrase, and the concept, or reformed schools are too limiting. Perhaps the generation of children and teenagers are as diverse in their interests as they are in their heritage. Perhaps their insistence upon trusting the video and social media on their cell phones is, in fact, a very powerful tool for customized learning.

Perhaps children and teenagers have already bypassed their concerned parents’ desire or need to reform school. Instead, many are already pursuing the divergent, often disruptive, path to learning on their own. Or, perhaps, reformation into classrooms with rows of permanent desks, all eyes on the teacher in the front of the room, really is the best way to train young minds.

Or should we be concerned, instead, with learning reform, or, more clearly, learning reorganized, recontextualized, re-formed, or just plain reformed? How might that look? Would we move from the well-intentioned IEP to a celebration of well-organized self-directed learning?

How does any of that marry the once all powerful needs of industry? Or is everything just moving too darned fast for those needs to matter in a world where digital changes everything much faster than contemporary educators can teach? Are students reforming the beliefs, knowledge and understanding in their minds with a reformulated version of a teacher? Perhaps the key is teacher reform?

Finally, there are the strange bedfellows, curiosity and education. The former is associated independent thinking—parents encourage children to “think for yourself.” The latter is concerned with consistent results for the good of society—teachers encourage children to “learn the curriculum” which allows limited opportunity and encouragement for individual thinking, self-expression, divergent paths, and imagination. We certainly need to regenerate the curiosity and creative thinking that becomes lost in so many students, so many children, as the education system helps them to mature. In short, we ought to re-form or reconstitute curiosity in every grade and in every way. So we might be attempting to reform curiosity, and maybe that’s wise because reforming education sounds like something that might be impossible to do because school boards, principals, teachers and other educators are not trained to think or behave as reformers in any sense of the term.

Reform school? Sure, but let’s not spend all of our intellectual capital on a movement that digital transformation will eradicate with or without our help. Reform learning? Sure, and if we don’t get to it soon, Google will take care of the problem for us, or a Facebook might. And, in any case, kids are already reforming learning, on a massive scale, without adult supervision. Reform the teachers? Their own political solidity may assure the demise of a once noble profession. Reform education? Read your Clayton Christensen—this is an industry ripe for a massive disruption because the incremental variety almost always leads to a forgotten enterprise. Re-form curiosity? You bet! Encourage students to pursue their own paths, albeit in an organized way! Sounds good. Also sounds like, well, like college on a very good day.

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Above, John Dewey, who was doing a lot of writing and thinking about these ideas long before I was born. He wasn’t the only one, of course, and there have been many since, but some of Dewey’s ideas continue to resonate. From PBS: “To Dewey, the central ethical imperative in education was democracy. Every school, as he wrote in The School and Society, must become “an embryonic community life, active with types of occupations that reflect the life of the larger society and permeated throughout with the spirit of art, history and science. When the school introduces and trains each child of society into membership within such a little community, saturating him with the spirit of service, and providing him with instruments of effective self-direction, we shall have the deepest and best guarantee of a larger society which is worthy, lovely and harmonious.”

The Sage and Family Man

The place was a mess. It had “fallen into ruin: windows were broken, the roof leaked, the terraces had rotted through, graffiti defaced the front of the house, souvenir hunters had chipped away at [the] burial shaft…bats and rats gamboled and searched for food in the empty dwelling.”

Good thing the owner already did. Seeing his house this way would have broken his heart.

After he finished with the Presidency, and politics, Thomas Jefferson finally completed Monticello, and did precisely what he had hoped to do before he got talked into running for president in the first place–he gave himself time to think, roam and inspect his farms, read the classics, write to friends, and, as a “hobby,” built what became the University of Virginia not far from Monticello. Like George Washington, Jefferson was constantly short on funds, the result of a slave-based farming economy that required far more personal attention than a public figure could provide, and some lousy luck.

From the University of Virginia collection

I just finished reading about 500 pages about the life of Thomas Jefferson, my third presidential biography (I hope to read at least one book about every president, which may not be so easy to do because there are gaps in the literature and gaps in my patience for some of the people who served in the office). I began with Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life (Chernow wrote the Hamilton biography that inspired the musical), and continued with David McCullough’s magnificent John Adams (the basis for the HBO series starring Paul Giamatti). There are lots of Jefferson biographies, including the classic six-book series, Jefferson in His Time by Dumas Malone, and Jon Meacham’s more recent The Art of Power. I chose the new Jefferson book by Rice University Professor John B. Boles because it seemed to be fair-handed, and because it seemed to balance personal and professional life without overdoing it on the brilliance of Jefferson’s accomplishments and authorship. I am not a presidential scholar, so it’s difficult for me to evaluate the quality of the work, or to compare it with other lifetime biographies, but Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty seemed to fit the bill.

Begin at the beginning. Based upon available accounts (Boles consistently prefers available accounts to his own intuition), Thomas’s father Peter was an intelligent, well-read, ambitious man who married well, bringing the Randolph family and the Jefferson clan together in one of Virginia’s great extended families. Peter died young, and left a considerable amount of prime Albemarle County land to the family. So begins the saga of Monticello.

When he was 26, Thomas became a college student, attending William and Mary College in Williamsburg and greatly benefiting from one particular professor, Dr. William Small, a Scotsman, who focused Jefferson’s keen intellect on rational thought. Jefferson wrote that Small had been “to me as a father,” and “to his enlightened & affectionate guidance of my studies…I am endebted for every thing.” Small introduced Jefferson to two friends: a law professor named George Wythe, and the royal governor Frances Fauquier. So began Jefferson’s introduction to public life and politics–in the very small capital city of the colony of Virginia, early in the 1760s.

Through a growing circle of political connections, Jefferson made his way through the courts and eventually into the legislature. Boles presents Jefferson’s professional and personal growth by presenting the young legislator’s growth in good alignment with the colonial struggles against an increasingly aggressive England. Even in his earliest work as an attorney, Jefferson’s principles were explicit: “Under the law of nature…all men are born free, every one comes into the world with a right to be his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it as his own will. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the author of his nature, because necessary for his own sustenance.” This was written in connection with an April 1770 case involving a complicated multi-generational question about miscegenation and slavery.

Like George Washington and other wealthy Virginians, Thomas Jefferson relied upon slaves to operate his plantations, operate small businesses, and maintain some degree of economic stability (not his strongest suit). Wisely, Boles does not allow the chronological storytelling to become bogged down in lengthy inquiries into Jefferson’s philosophies about slavery in general or his own slaves in particular. It’s well known that Jefferson has more than a personal stake: his decades-long relationship with Sally Hemmings–and the majority of slaves under Jefferson’s control were members of the large Hemmings family. That discussion is reserved for chapter 29, after Jefferson has reconciled differences and renewed friendship with John Adams, after Jefferson’s 90-plus year old body finally gave out. Boles allows Jefferson a fair amount of latitude here. Basically, the author presents Jefferson as man of his time, and at the time, his behavior was considered perfectly reasonable–despite the fact that Jefferson’s outlook on slavery in general was restrictive. In essence, Jefferson hoped that his decisions and his writings would begin a long movement in which slavery would be eliminated in due course, not as the result of any single action.

There is a great deal of story in these 500+ pages–life in Paris (which he adored), returning to the U.S. and reluctantly becoming the nation’s first Secretary of State, his complete and all-encompassing love for his daughter and so many family members (most of all, Jefferson was a family man), his philosophical differences and battles with John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, his love for and extreme distaste for politics, his raw ambition and relentless curiosity, his utter disappointment with Merriwether Lewis who utterly failed to document the science and much of the detail in his documentation of the famous expedition with William Clark, and his ability to manage an astonishing range of interests and activities that can be experienced, at least in a cursory way, by a largely rebuilt Monticello estate.

So it’s off to James Madison for me. I need to decide whether to pick things up with the Lynne Cheney biography, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered, or the Kevin R. C. Gutman biography, James Madison and the Making of America (which seems to be very focused on the U.S. Constitution, and less on the man’s whole life)This decision is made more complicated because of a weak link in the chain: of the two James Monroe biographies that might follow, neither is likely to suit my purpose. Suggestions are welcome.

 

Wicked Thoughts

“How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.”– Niels Bohr

“How is it that you are raising your children to be very loyal/attached to the family and very independent individuals simultaneously?” That’s a wicked problem. A paradox worthy of debate. I found it on a  enlightened website called Liberating Structures. Most wicked problems are not so easily contained. They’re sloppy, messy, extremely difficult to frame without all sorts of potential appendages and disruptions. There are likely to be a lot of stakeholders, and they are likely to perceive and deal with the problem with a wide variety of opinions and belief systems. As the problem is being analyzed, and perhaps mitigated on its way to a solution, the wicked problem changes–almost as if it has a life of its own. In other words, a wicked problem is not just a conundrum or a paradox, but a massively frustrating problem, often high on the list of nasties that keep us up all night.

A clear explanation of a wicked problem was nicely articulated in the Harvard Business Review, mostly as a framework for business strategy discussions about difficult problems that, IMHO, rarely rise to the level of a bona-fide wicked problem.

Image of Horst Rittel from Swedish Morphological Society, 2005

Melvin Webber, an urban planner, in a UC Berkeley portrait.

“Wickedness isn’t a degree of difficulty. Wicked issues are different because traditional processes can’t resolve them, according to Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, professors of design and urban planning at the University of California at Berkeley, who described them in a 1973 article in Policy Sciences magazine (part of it appears below). A wicked problem has innumerable causes, is tough to describe, and doesn’t have a right answer, as we will see in the next section. Environmental degradation, terrorism, and poverty—these are classic examples of wicked problems. They’re the opposite of hard but ordinary problems, which people can solve in a finite time period by applying standard techniques. Not only do conventional processes fail to tackle wicked problems, but they may exacerbate situations by generating undesirable consequences.”

Curious, I tried to learn more, and found this handy list, also part of the HBR article.

If I made a list of, say, my top three, four or five wicked problems, I wonder which problems I would choose. Here’s my very preliminary pass (sloppy questions, in part because I’m new at this.)

  • There are far more similarities among humans than there are differences. The problem is: we have always focused on the differences, resulting in slave trade, wide disparity of income and education, and all sorts of ethnic conflict. Is equality achievable on a massive scale? If so, how, and can it be sustained?
  • War and fighting are very harmful to individuals, families, cultures, property (and animals, BTW). And yet, partly as a subset of my first question, we persist in all sorts of dangerous conflict, and we perpetuate these behaviors, perhaps because we have no better way of dealing with our differences. Can we evolve past fighting, or does this way of thinking and behaving run deep in every human?
  • There are always people in need, people who are sick, poor, unfortunate in other ways. It’s clear that the only way these people will flourish is if others help them. On the one hand, we build massive medical structures people thrive. On the other, we deprive more than half of the people on earth of even the most fundamental resources to be healthy, not poor, and wise.
  • Most of us acknowledge that children are our future, and that each child’s future success relies upon his or her education. And yet, we refuse to provide an adequate learning environment for all but the most fortunate children. Can we massively change the way we think about the future of children? If we can, will we?

I am certain that these are interesting ideas for discussion, but I am uncertain whether I have conceived or written these questions in anything resembling proper wicked question form, if such a thing exists. Help?

Maybe I’ll find help here: a book with a very promising subtitle. It’s called Tackling Wicked Problems through Transdisciplinary Imagination (I love that final phrase–it moves the problem from the logical left brain to the more visionary right). Or, from the free PDF published by the Australian government as a public policy entry point. Fascinating. But I’m a novice. And I look forward to learning more.

 

Happy Jólabókaflód

I think I’ve got the accents about right, but there might be a cross on that final d. In any case, we’re talking about an Icelandic book flood that occurs this time of year. A friend reminded me with this graphic:

blogger-image-1814004541

There’s a sweet article about the tradition here, on Treehugger. I especially liked this quote: “The small Nordic island, with a population of only 329,000 people, is extraordinarily literary. They love to read and write. According to a BBC article, “The country has more writers, more books published and more books read, per head, than anywhere else in the world… One in 10 Icelanders will publish [a book].”

If you’d like to know more, visit this NPR story from 2012.

With so many stories on the internet, I’m surprised this one has so few articles from news sources. I suppose that’s a very good reason to go to Iceland this time of year. To read books with the wholehearted encouragement of a nation of readers.

 

Imagine the Possibilities, Again

Funny thing. I was searching for some good quotes about possibility and impossibility. I did a Google search. And I found my way back to my own blog. I forgot about this article, and I’m glad to repost it nearly three years after it first appeared. Well worth reading a second time. Especially as we begin a new year, perhaps one that’s beginning with some questions about our future.

I think I like 37 and 50 best, but there are a lot of wonderful ideas on this list.

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From the innovation consulting firm Idea Champions, Fifty Awesome Quotes on Possibility:

1. “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” – St. Francis of AssisiWoman reaching for star

2. “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” – Lewis Carroll

3. “The Wright brother flew right through the smoke screen of impossibility.” – Charles Kettering

4. “In order to attain the impossible, one must attempt the absurd.” – Miguel de Cervantes

5. “The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for the rest of your life. And the most important thing is, it must be something you cannot possibly do.” – Henry Moore

6. “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible!” – Walt Disney

7. “I am where I am because I believe in all possibilities.” – Whoopi Goldberg

8. “What is now proved, was once only imagined.” – William Blake

9. “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.” – Mark Twain

10. “The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible.” – Arthur C. Clarke

11. “Never tell a young person that anything cannot be done. God may have been waiting centuries for someone ignorant enough of the impossible to do that very thing.” – John Andrew Holmes

12. “God created a number of possibilities in case some of his prototypes failed. That is the meaning of evolution.” – Graham Greene

13. “Whether you believe you can or not, you’re right.” – Henry Ford

14. “Most people are not really free. They are confined by the niche in the world that they carve out for themselves. They limit themselves to fewer possibilities by the narrowness of their vision.” – V.S. Naipaul

15. “I don’t regret a single excess of my responsive youth. I only regret, in my chilled age, certain occasions and possibilities I didn’t embrace.” – Henry James

16. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki

17. “The future belongs to those who see possibilities before they become obvious.” – John Sculley

18. “One’s only rival is one’s own potentialities. One’s only failure is failing to live up to one’s own possibilities. In this sense, every man can be a king, and must therefore be treated like a king.” – Abraham Maslow

19. “The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react.” – George Bernard Shaw

20. “We all have possibilities we don’t know about. We can do things we don’t even dream we can do.” – Dale Carnegie

21. “An optimist expects his dreams to come true; a pessimist expects his nightmares to.” – Laurence J. Peter

22. “When nothing is sure, everything is possible.” – Margaret Drabble

23. “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” – Albert Einstein

24. “I am neither an optimist nor pessimist, but a possibilist.” – Max Lerner

25. “If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating, as possibility!” – Soren Kierkegaard

26. “All things are possible until they are proved impossible. Even the impossible may only be so, as of now.” – Pearl S. Buck

27. “Until you’re ready to look foolish, you’ll never have the possibility of being great.” – Cher

28. “This has always been a motto of mine: Attempt the impossible in order to improve your work.” – Bette Davis

29. “You and I are essentially infinite choice-makers. In every moment of our existence, we are in that field of all possibilities where we have access to an infinity of choices.” – Deepak Chopra

30. “Some people see things as they are and say ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were and say ‘Why not?'” – George Bernard Shaw

31. “The thing the sixties did was to show us the possibilities and the responsibility that we all had. It wasn’t the answer. It just gave us a glimpse of the possibility.” – John Lennon

32. “I love those who yearn for the impossible.” – Goethe

33. “Every man is an impossibility until he is born.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

34. “If you can’t, you must. If you must, you can.” – Tony Robbins

35. “A likely impossibility is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility.” – Aristotle

36. “If someone says can’t, that shows you what to do.” – John Cage

37. “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

38. “Apparently there is nothing that cannot happen today.” – Mark Twain

39. “Most of the things worth doing in the world had been declared impossible before they were done.” – Louis D. Brandeis

40. “The possible’s slow fuse is lit by the imagination.” – Emily Dickinson

41. “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” – Pablo Picasso

42. “If we all did the things we are capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves.” – Thomas Edison

43. “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” – Les Brown

44. If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” – Henry David Thoreau

45. “Everything you can imagine in real.” – Picasso

46. “Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.” – Martin Luther

47. “Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.” – James Dean

48. “I don’t dream at night, I dream all day. I dream for a living.”
– Steven Spielberg

49. “The shell must break before the bird can fly.” – Alfred Tennyson

50. “If not you, who? If not now, when?” – Rabbi Hillel

Something of a Retraction: Cleese letter to the U.S.

It doesn’t happen often enough, but this time, I went directly to the source. Or the person I thought was the source. Earlier this week, I actually spoke with John Cleese. He’s funny, smart and charming. And he told me that he thought the letter (below) was nicely written, and rather clever, but he did not write it. Nor did he write the other letter that’s making its way through the internet.

—–

Published on November 14, 2016

To the citizens of the United States of America, in light of your failure to elect a competent President of the USA and thus to govern yourselves, we hereby give notice of the revocation of your independence, effective today.

Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II resumes monarchical duties over all states, commonwealths and other territories. Except Utah, which she does not fancy.

Your new prime minister (The Right Honourable Theresa May, MP for the 97.8% of you who have, until now, been unaware there’s a world outside your borders) will appoint a minister for America. Congress and the Senate are disbanded. A questionnaire circulated next year will determine whether any of you noticed.

To aid your transition to a British Crown Dependency, the following rules are introduced with immediate effect:

1. Look up “revocation” in the Oxford English Dictionary. Check “aluminium” in the pronunciation guide. You will be amazed at just how wrongly you pronounce it. The letter ‘U’ will be reinstated in words such as ‘favour’ and ‘neighbour’. Likewise you will learn to spell ‘doughnut’ without skipping half the letters. Generally, you should raise your vocabulary to acceptable levels. Look up “vocabulary.” Using the same twenty seven words interspersed with filler noises such as “like” and “you know” is an unacceptable and inefficient form of communication. Look up “interspersed.” There will be no more ‘bleeps’ in the Jerry Springer show. If you’re not old enough to cope with bad language then you should not have chat shows.

2. There is no such thing as “US English.” We’ll let Microsoft know on your behalf. The Microsoft spell-checker will be adjusted to take account of the reinstated letter ‘u’.

3. You should learn to distinguish English and Australian accents. It really isn’t that hard. English accents are not limited to cockney, upper-class twit or Mancunian (Daphne in Frasier). Scottish dramas such as ‘Taggart’ will no longer be broadcast with subtitles.You must learn that there is no such place as Devonshire in England. The name of the county is “Devon.” If you persist in calling it Devonshire, all American States will become “shires” e.g. Texasshire Floridashire, Louisianashire.

4. You should relearn your original national anthem, “God Save The Queen”, but only after fully carrying out task 1.

5. You should stop playing American “football.” There’s only one kind of football. What you call American “football” is not a very good game. The 2.1% of you aware there is a world outside your borders may have noticed no one else plays “American” football. You should instead play proper football. Initially, it would be best if you played with the girls. Those of you brave enough will, in time, be allowed to play rugby (which is similar to American “football”, but does not involve stopping for a rest every two seconds or wearing full kevlar body armour like nancies) You should stop playing baseball. It’s not reasonable to host event called the ‘World Series’ for a game which is not played outside of America. Instead of baseball, you will be allowed to play a girls’ game called “rounders,” which is baseball without fancy team stripe, oversized gloves, collector cards or hotdogs.

6. You will no longer be allowed to own or carry guns, or anything more dangerous in public than a vegetable peeler. Because you are not sensible enough to handle potentially dangerous items, you need a permit to carry a vegetable peeler.

7. July 4th is no longer a public holiday. November 2nd will be a new national holiday. It will be called “Indecisive Day.”

8. All American cars are hereby banned. They are crap and it is for your own good. When we show you German cars, you will understand what we mean. All road intersections will be replaced with roundabouts, and you will start driving on the left. At the same time, you will go metric without the benefit of conversion tables. Roundabouts and metrication will help you understand the British sense of humour.

9. Learn to make real chips. Those things you call French fries are not real chips. Fries aren’t French, they’re Belgian though 97.8% of you (including the guy who discovered fries while in Europe) are not aware of a country called Belgium. Potato chips are properly called “crisps.” Real chips are thick cut and fried in animal fat. The traditional accompaniment to chips is beer which should be served warm and flat.

10. The cold tasteless stuff you call beer is actually lager. Only proper British Bitter will be referred to as “beer.” Substances once known as “American Beer” will henceforth be referred to as “Near-Frozen Gnat’s Urine,” except for the product of the American Budweiser company which will be called “Weak Near-Frozen Gnat’s Urine.” This will allow true Budweiser (as manufactured for the last 1000 years in Pilsen, Czech Republic) to be sold without risk of confusion.

11. The UK will harmonise petrol prices (or “Gasoline,” as you will be permitted to keep calling it) for those of the former USA, adopting UK petrol prices (roughly $6/US gallon, get used to it).

12. Learn to resolve personal issues without guns, lawyers or therapists. That you need many lawyers and therapists shows you’re not adult enough to be independent. If you’re not adult enough to sort things out without suing someone or speaking to a therapist, you’re not grown up enough to handle a gun.

13. Please tell us who killed JFK. It’s been driving us crazy.

14. Tax collectors from Her Majesty’s Government will be with you shortly to ensure the acquisition of all revenues due (backdated to 1776).

END

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