Saturday, June 30, 2012

Storytelling in the Age of Mechanical Social Networking

 Ways of Seeing

“Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak…. Soon after we can see, we are aware that we can also be seen. The eye of the other combines with our own eye to make it fully credible that we are part of the visible world.” 
—John Berger, Ways of Seeing, pp. 7, 9

“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.”

Ibid, p. 9

I finally located the, as they say, groundbreaking documentary, Ways of Seeing, which appeared on BBC TV in 1972, which will be the fixed point around which the old blog will turn today. Its writer and host, John Berger, took as his starting point an essay by Walter Benjamin, “A Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” (Some history on this author: As best as can be determined, Benjamin, a brilliant thinker and writer (his essays form a collection called Illuminations which isn't easy going but is really worth a try) and a German Jew, escaped into Fascist-controlled Spain in 1940 and, facing immediate deportation back to Germany, killed himself at the age of 48—the age I am now. (Berger produced his documentary when he was around that age, 46—I’ll come back to their ages in a bit.) I’m always so deeply impressed how in the midst of certain death at the hands of the most bigoted and ignorant among us, the great thinkers and artists go on thinking and creating up until the edge of doom.) Berger begins by asking: What is a museum-quality oil painting, for example, and what does it mean for us, in a time when you can now take a detail from it, print it up, and make it into a postcard?

[NOTE: Can you even begin to imagine, even fleetingly, such a documentary appearing on American television today? Maybe in 1972—because the ‘70s had masses of groundbreaking television—but today? And if that impossibility doesn’t have you reaching for a beer, I don’t know why you are reading my blog.]

When we see, we often turn what we see into a story. Storytelling is the art of showing humans to themselves. This is my own definition, formed while thinking about which of my friends are and are not storytellers. John Berger (pronounced with a soft “g” in the French way, in case you don’t want to sound ignorant when asking a librarian for his books), is a massively brilliant man, alive and creating even now at the age of 86. I first learned about him in my first class at Bread Loaf, “Narrative and Desire,” a study of desire of/by/for “Woman” in literature. This sounds deep, and it was, but all the guys who signed up for the course were there for the sexy. They admitted it on Day 1. The women were there for vindication. (Side Note: Sex sells, duh, but here’s a fun and, really, fucking ironic little tidbit in light of the given subject of Berger’s documentary: The second episode of the series, focusing on the female nude in oil painting and in advertising, has gotten over one million hits on YouTube, whereas the rest of the series has gotten only around 100K hits per episode. (For the students out there, take a thesis.) And you have to laugh because of the pointed critique Berger discusses, and can only hope the voyeurs looking for twat and titty learned a little somp’n somp’n about objectification of women while wanking off.)

Making art with an appropriately titled book in a self-posed and suggestive way, 
Miss O' photographed by George Lightcap 

For a lot of us who have very full daily lives, going to work and raising kids and doing laundry and trolling for that next party and the easiest lay, such a question as What is art? or What is a woman’s nude form in art? must seem pretty  indulgent. Even the word art has become old-fashioned, I guess. Is the idea of “art” over? Let’s breathe on that one, shall we?

Ways of Sneezing

At age 48, I am savoring the greatest, most satisfying sneezes of my life.

I am finding of late that this is an age when everything loosens: the skin around my bones pulls up and over and rather farther out than one would think skin should; my jaw at night has unclenched again, alive for drooling, rather than remaining closed for grinding; my lips part far too freely allowing for a way lot of talking; my fingers type my tales more recklessly and more quickly than ever goddamned before. I am concerned that I may have lost all restraint, and then I remember that this is what aging is for—the one clear payoff for having lived longer than 40 years.

That, and never having to have sex again. Not as long as I have those orgasmic sneezes!

I mentioned the ages of Berger and Benjamin back there (also the same age as Stephen Colbert is now), because I think the 40s must send its entrants hurling ourselves into the universe, toward immortality, or at least into the streets, with a degree of freedom we hadn’t imagined possible. Woody Allen made Annie Hall when he turned 40. While I personally haven’t accomplished anything on the scale of any of these guys, I also know that I no longer care. I just the fuck do it.

What we all do have in common is the media and the need to use it to further our own thinking, and to possibly affect the thinking of you, the reader/viewer/listener. Media should be—when it is at its best—the beginning of a conversation, even if it’s a dialogue only within each of us.  (Later I’ll be bringing in Albert Einstein, too, because by around age 45 he’d accomplished all of his major scientific work, and the last years of his life were devoted to humanitarian and political pursuits, including pacifism; as well as Sebastiao Salgado, who changed his profession from economist to social documentarian photographer when he was around 40. It occurs to me that all of the sexamples I am mentioning are men. That happens. Men have done an awful lot of things, and have long lived in societal structures that have allowed them to become famous for their accomplishments. What’re ya gonna do?)

Media is really about showing us ourselves—not only as we are, but, as Berger points out, as we dream of being, or as we imagine ourselves. Who are we now? The whole enterprise, in the end, is about storytelling—and the story isn’t always pretty or smart; many of my favorite storytellers are people who have transformed themselves over the years to become fearless chroniclers of ugly times. I discussed Salgado and Einstein, briefly, and, in addition, John Berger trained as a painter, became an art critic (and I would say philosopher) and novelist; and Stephen Colbert started out as an improv comic, went on to report on The Daily Show, and in his forties has become our pre-eminent political satirist and American societal critic. 

Then there’s Miss O’.



Art and Education in the Age of Mechanization and Technological Turd Bombing

What should a classroom be: A free exchange of original ideas, or a standardized curriculum with measurable, quantifiable outcomes? Can it be both?  That “we” get stuck in debates like this exposes our national fears and limited imaginations. Education and art, as you know, are a unity to me.

In one of the greatest poems of the 20th Century, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot, Eliot’s protagonist wonders much the same things about his own mid-life, I think. Here in an excerpt:

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
  So how should I presume?

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons: My senior English teacher Mr. Corbin used to ask his AP English students to examine Prufrock’s narrative in terms of their own lives: With what do you measure out your life? What do you fear? What do you think (if you think) people say about you behind your back?  Would a quiz question be more educational?

In the poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the speaker says that he measures out his life with
a.     tea cups
b.     butter pats
c.      coffee spoons
d.     toilet seats

What does anyone learn from such a question, or reveal when writing down the letter of the correct answer? And how should we presume?

The poem opens and offers an early reference to questions of meaning in life and in art:

LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question….
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

I think of the way the speaker of the poem goes through life: anesthetized, wandering, avoiding the big questions, aware of the ladies who quip about art. John Berger recognizes that for many of us, art hangs on the walls of museums, selected and judged as “the best,” so that we ourselves as viewers are denied the experience of saying, “I relate to that,” or “That is beautiful.” The pictures hang in an artificial place, and the context of the painter’s experience is lost to us, except for what a curator includes on a wall plaque. So should we care about the images we see?

I’ve written about photography before—what it can do, how it can make us present. Now I am thinking about how painting and photography tell us the story of ourselves.

Sebastiao Salgado: Humanist Photographer

In trolling for the Ways of Seeing episodes, I chanced upon a related video of Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado, of whom I’d never heard. And after watching his one hour talk at UCLA's Hammer Lecture, I was profoundly embarrassed that I didn’t know his work, and even more so when he revealed that his first book was not allowed to be published here for 15 years, because the Americans, he was told, could not handle the truth of his images.

Our own political discourse bears out the American publisher’s concerns: Witness the Facebook postings in the wake of the Supreme Court decision to uphold so-called Obamacare: RIP gravestones of our Constitution, wild screeds of how we are all going to prison, and the like, would seem to support this. And to hear Salgado speak of his art—the earth-bound tones of his voice, the positive vocal energy, the clarity of ideas, the lack of sentimentality and immense heart all at once, is to know how all of us should aspire to be. Go on Google Images and type in his name. Spend an hour. It’s work that goes unseen in this country, and my life has been less for it. His books are available on Amazon, but they are expensive. Still, I think I will have to send some money his artistic way.

A few notes I made: He encountered cultures that don’t know “no” when it comes to personal exploration, how you can’t tell a child or adult to “stop hitting my camera” for example. (Can you imagine such people in desks?) Later he shares how he and his wife are actively saving and restoring rainforests to Brazil—his love and hope are amazing to me—energy that says, “we must do it, we can do it,” and from an honest place, from one who has seen the world.  That 50 million trees cost 100 million dollars sounds like a lot until you hear the perspective: It’s the cost of two fighter planes. (War is so, so, so stupid. You can’t believe it’s still going on.)

Just the way Salgado was able to explain how the rainforest preserves the water table delighted me: He points to his shaved head: the way your hair takes three hours to dry naturally, and a shaved head that holds no water at all dries right away—trees are the key to our water supply.

And in all this talk of people in harmony with nature and his discoveries on Earth, he lets us know, too, how hard it is to do this work—arguing with airport security over rolls of film, for example, in the wake of 9/11.

To see his images, I found this blogspot, Witness This:

Here’s another, of coffee farms, on a site from the U.N.:

Image-ine a Story

My own job in text book publishing has taught me an astonishing amount about image and message—learning to edit text around an image; choosing photos that do what you need them to do, such as demonstrate a hard vocabulary word for an English Language Learner (ELL); format restrictions in the book design—horizontal v. vertical spaces (the slide show of the Hammer Lecture was limited this way, as Salgado discusses)—and all the permissions and the photo vendors and the budget, to name a few other issues. The way we have to fight to do our jobs—the restrictions, some real and others self-imposed (but all of which reflect "the market")—always bring me back to the classroom, how I wished it could be. I also think about how much we learn on the jobs we do. Yet isn’t it a shame we can’t focus on the joy of the work instead?

“I don’t work for one picture, I work for a story,” Salgado says of his photos. He sees himself as a storyteller. Just so, John Berger sees his art criticism (as much as his novels and drawings) as storytelling. Salgado is aware that “the memory side” of photography—images as part of our memory, our archives—is storytelling. The oil paintings Berger discusses are the same thing, all stories of us.

It is artists more than politicians who must hold the planet together—they use activism to protect, or to rebuild what we destroy. We are all artists in potential. What are you doing in your creative life? What is your story?

On a small and wonderful scale, the site Humans of New York brings the images of myriad city denizens to Facebook:
The photographer, Brandon Stanton, is wonderfully successful because he is open to seeing so many truths and realities—he understands that for an artist to get in, as Sebastiao Salgado has pointed out, you have to let people know you, and you must discover what is around you. That is a big advantage of photography, he says—to know and feel that we are not alone; we are an agrarian animal whether we live in the city or the country: I'm struck by the images this produces for me: the traffic cop as shepherd, for example, or the bottle and can collectors as blackberry pickers in sun-drenched, concrete fields.

To make these kinds of discoveries and put this sort of art out there requires a lot of legwork. Planning, packing, trekking, and finding toilets that work are all part of this endeavor. Storytelling ain’t for sissies. I think of all of the flying people have to do in the service of trying to help us learn to help ourselves—certainly the climate scientists and artists who are trying to save us from ourselves must be aware of the pungent irony that the process of travel (the fuels needed, the ways those fuels are extracted, for example) is part of how we are killing ourselves.

It Doesn’t Take an Einstein…or Does It?

I forced myself through a PBS Documentary (with the least energized narration I’ve ever heard) to learn a bit more about Einstein while viewing actual footage and hearing his actual voice. I also know that science and art are also a unity. Here are my notes: I learned that Einstein hated possessions, hated school, hated rules; his Theory of Relativity was intuitively arrived at and scientists spent 15 years proving it; Einstein called this “the detail work” (in 1919 during a solar eclipse his theory was proved—pretty cool); (and it occurred to me that we need both the free thinkers and the detail workers). Einstein became very political and pacifist; he realized that if only 2% of the population of each country refused to serve in the military, then there could be no more armies; he was terrified by the mass psychology of Fascism.  Einstein’s books were burned because he was “a Jew.” The terrifying footage shows Nazi soldiers slamming books into a fire, as if to burn books full of many kinds of truth would then eliminate those truths; I learned that German was always his language in any case. He was perplexed by celebrity. Charlie Chaplin invited Einstein to the Hollywood premiere of City Lights: When a crowd surrounded the limousine containing Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein, Einstein asked, “What does it mean?” and Chaplin replied, “Nothing.”  And there were perpetual arguments within the scientific community about Einstein’s propositions: Einstein would say, “God doesn’t play dice,” to which Niels Bohr would say, “How do you know what God is doing?”

Pacifists felt betrayed by Einstein’s militant pacifism—he realized, What’s the point of pacifism if all the peaceful die? He felt obligated to bring the end of war about—felt awful about nuclear weapons and how his theories were used. He said in a statement on war and its effects: “What need is there for responsibility? I believe that the horrifying deterioration in the ethical conduct of people today stems from the mechanization and dehumanization of our lives, a disastrous by-product of the development of the scientific and technical mentality. We are guilty. Man grows cold, faster than the planet it inhabits.”

Politics and Prose

This awareness of the mechanization and dehumanization of our lives is a theme in the works of artists and the politics of my friends. My friend Rina, about whom I have written before, has been studying the U. N. resolution known as R to P, or Responsibility to Protect, wherein nations go in to protect citizens in the throes of military assault by their own countries. Rina is trying to prove that it is the economic problems that are at the root of all revolutions. She is a Marxist, in that Marx's work informed her understanding of how the system of capitalism works (and Marx wrote about this early in the development of capitalism, making him not only a critic but a seer in many ways): Capitalism depends, at its worst, on mechanization and dehumanization. Anyone working in an office or a factory knows exactly what this means. (In fact, Berger allows the camera to linger over workers in a perfume bottling factory just to demonstrate this point, should you watch his documentary.)

Just like Rina, John Berger is a self-identified Marxist, and he discusses this in an interview last year. (How Berger keeps being relevant: For his 1967 nonfiction book, A Fortunate Man, he and a photographer, Jean Mohr, follow a doctor around for a year in rural England and view socialized medicine up close, questioning from the outset: Do any of these patients matter? Does this doctor? The book was life-changing for me on the issue of health care.) John Berger’s latest book was the subject of the interview:

Some notes on the interview: Artist, art critic, broadcaster: In Bento’s Sketchbook, Berger explores the philosopher Spinoza and the idea of dualism (invented by Descartes—the existent being material and spiritual; Berger says they are not separate but are a unity); Spinoza was a lens grinder, the stunning reality and symbolism of the microscopic and macroscopic being very much part of Spinoza’s life, the needing of lenses; he was excommunicated by the Jewish religion for all these heretical views of life as it is—what else is new?) Berger discusses the sketching he did for the book, and said something that utterly arrested me:  “Drawing is a constant correcting of errors, maybe a great deal of creation is actually that; there’s not really a point when you are suddenly aware that there is nothing more to correct, and if you were aware of that, it would probably be very bad.” The interviewer doesn’t pursue that last bit, which I would like to have heard more about—but Berger does go on to say that his book explores the actual world we live in today, which is both horrific and, in moments, incredibly beautiful.

I think the ideas of the Marxists are important to listen to right now, though I have no patience with anyone who self-identifies as Communist: Whereas reading Marx from an early age helped Berger “to understand history, and therefore to understand where we are in history, and therefore to understand what we have to envisage as a future, thinking about human dignity and justice,” he also later saw that regimes established under the auspices of Marx failed their people. One of the great reasons they failed, according to Vaclav Havel (my playwright friend Mary told me), was the Communist denial of the human need for beauty. One quote of Havel’s that I found was this, and it ties in with Berger the art critic: If we are to change our world view, images have to change. The artist now has a very important job to do. He's not a little peripheral figure entertaining rich people; he's really needed.

A Constant Correcting of Errors

I keep returning to Berger’s idea of life being, like drawing, a constant correcting of errors.

Ways of Seeing, the book version, ends, “To be continued by the reader…” for it is Berger’s belief that it is not up to a critic to tell you what to think. I gather that he believes that a good critic, like any good teacher, alerts you to possible ways of seeing. Wholly original thoughts do not occur in a vacuum. They are inspired, born out of encounters—with the natural world, with texts, with work, with art, or with other people, for example. Moments of elation take us over when a fresh insight overtakes us. The only way to really experience this kind of elation is to remain open. We also have to start looking at better pictures, demanding better images, better art. And, failing that, more and better wine goggles with which to see.

As if by magic, this was the poem in today’s “The Writer’s Almanac” on NPR:

The Poet Visits the Museum of Fine Arts

For a long time
     I was not even
        in this world, yet
           every summer

every rose
     opened in perfect sweetness
        and lived
           in gracious repose,

in its own exotic fragrance,
     in its huge willingness to give
        something, from its small self,
           to the entirety of the world.

I think of them, thousands upon thousands,
     in many lands,
        whenever summer came to them,

out of the patience of patience,
     to leaf and bud and look up
        into the blue sky
           or, with thanks,

into the rain
     that would feed
        their thirsty roots
           latched into the earth—

sandy or hard, Vermont or Arabia,
     what did it matter,
        the answer was simply to rise
           in joyfulness, all their days.

Have I found any better teaching?
     Not ever, not yet.
        Last week I saw my first Botticelli
           and almost fainted,

and if I could I would paint like that
     but am shelved somewhere below, with a few songs
        about roses: teachers, also, of the ways
           toward thanks, and praise.

"The Poet Visits the Museum of Fine Arts" by Mary Oliver, from Thirst. © Beacon Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. 

Make art with someone you love, nude, perhaps,
Miss O'

Monday, June 18, 2012

Flag Day: Long May She Wave

Before the Parade Passes By

Last Saturday morning my friend Rina (here from India via Vancouver, from three weeks ago through just now* [*post written over the course of two weeks -ed.], she was just collected by a car to go to Kennedy Airport) took off to far flung parts of Queens to see her auntie, and I had to get up to the post office to pick up a waiting package from my Vermont friend, Rebecca. Here’s what I wrote to her (slightly enhanced coverage): I headed up to the Sunnyside P.O. to pick up your VT package, wandering through the Flag Day Parade, all sorts of Sunnyside denizens waving little flags from their sidewalk posts, all these people with kids, women in shorts, or hijabs, or saris, or jeans and tee shirts, old and young; old guard Japanese men in uniform; local drum corps; kilted pipers; school children singing “It’s a small world…” (and bringing up the rear, waving aback of signage: wrinkled, white GOP men--all six)...and home again through more of same to open it.

So Sunday was Rina’s last day in New York, and after our usual long kitchen talk of the morning, she did laundry and I began notes for the blog. It occurred to me that someone needs to film Rina and me in conversation. We are fascinating. If I could record all that we say, I would.  I’ll try to grab onto certain themes, the main one being Nationalism: Really? In 2012? Still with the flags?

This is not a swipe at her country nor of the exciting diversity shown in the people who celebrate it: Miss O’ clearly loves her some diversity, because she chose to live in Sunnyside, Queens, where block for block, more languages are spoken than in any one place anywhere else in the world. On any given night getting off the train, I will not be able to identify (even ball park) three or four languages.

And I love the joy of costume, love saris and dhotis—such an elegant alternative to the ubiquitous American-export uniform of jeans and tee shirts. I think the hijab is nice, but I personally draw the “appreciation” line at burkas and the abaya/niqab combination (see all these and more by Googling “Islamic Boutique”)—those scarves that cover all but a woman's eyes. (The niqab is, frankly, creepy. And the one and only time I saw a burka in my neighborhood I more or less freaked out on the inside—mostly because I knew that if that woman didn’t wear it, someone might slit her throat and feel justified for an “honor” killing. This is not a prejudice based on stereotype—it’s based on real reportage.) (You know what else is creepy? Independent contractors who rent “Tickle Me Elmo” costumes and pose with tourists in Times Square. Who the hell is IN that suit?) (Miss O’ has chanced upon some of these costumed guys in their off moments, congregating and smoking—it’s surreal. Tough way to make a buck. And did I mention creepy? Because it’s creepy.)

My point is, I reflect on all this, all the time. And so does my friend Rina.

Rina and Lisa Talking

The idea began formulating as we watched the full version of the film The Fountainhead on YouTube, starring Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal, and Raymond Massey, the two of us stunned by the stilted, lousy dialogue and lack of emotional involvement we felt. When Rina asked me for the dozenth time, "Why did he do that?" or "What did Ayn Rand mean?" and I had to say, "I am watching the same movie you are," and Rina laughed and said, "Lisa, I expect you to know everything!": It occurred to me that instead of Dinner with Andre, the 2012 update some 30 years later should be My Tea with Rina. (If you have not seen that 1981 masterpiece My Dinner with Andre, starring Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, here is the link: (   It’s about artistic blocks and mid-life crisis, what it means to create in a world full of troubles and chaos, trying to live day to day while keeping a relationship together, all discussed over a sumptuous dinner in a NY restaurant, filmed by Louis Malle.) This Lisa/Rina movie would have to be filmed over many mornings; the first time Rina stayed with me it was for four or five months, and by the end of this time I felt I’d spent a semester in graduate school in International Relations (she was here on a Fulbright Fellowship working in this field). This past visit of three weeks was calmer, but the conversations of a morning (and evening) were as animated and unceasing as ever. After a week of quiet, I have tried to gather up a sampler. You, the reader, will just need to take each dialogue section and, you know, put it to the third or fourth power, and then multiply it by ten, to get the full effect.

[NOTE: You might see a contradiction here, if you are a follower of the ol’ blog, in that, being a Liberal and lover of language, I have described these opportunities as “heaven,” and they are. For two days at a time, maybe. Or longer, when I am not having to go to a job every day—my graduate summers at Bread Loaf were intense like this, too, but my only chore was laundry for six whole weeks—but in the day to day of intense living these kinds of talks can be a lot. Hence my idea to film them, mostly because Rina's life force is fucking amazing, and no amount of attention to my writing can render that musical voice.]

On Leaders: An Excerpt to Give You the Idea

Scene: Rina in pink nightgown, seated in oak chair by sideboard/kitchen table; Lisa in jammies seated in green wooden rocker by the kitchen door. One lamp on, on the table. A pot of tea. Coffee pot. Lisa has coffee in a mug, Rina tea in an English china teacup. The irony of using the colonial oppressor's cup is not lost on Rina, but china started in Asia, hence the name, and Rina, being from India, is Asian, and Columbus, in sailing and landing in America, thought he'd found India, so really in sitting here and sipping, it’s full circle, isn’t it?

RINA: Lisa, what do you think of Martin Luther King? [Note: Rina offers no preface for these kinds of questions.]

LISA: I think really highly of him. He sacrificed so much. Why?

RINA: What do you think of the criticism of him, for example, for his infidelities, or that he did not support other movements because they were more militant, did not march when others asked him? [Note: Rina really does talk like a research paper sounds, only with a deep and musical Indian accent, so it sounds enchanting, if in an accusatory way.]

LISA: (who is now at the stove to cook breakfast) See, that kind of stuff drives me up the wall. The man was married, had four children, a career as a minister, and he didn’t have to do ANYTHING. And yet he did. And he kept doing it, putting his life on the line every time. What goddamned more does everybody want from him? Why do we demand perfection from our leaders? Is assassination not enough? It is be-YOND.

[This is how it would go; you see that Rina would provide the deeply insightful questions and the class needed to counterbalance Lisa’s ranting and swearing.]

Subway to West Side Walk: In Brief

We began our last-say-in-New York journey heading to Central Park (Rina had not had a chance for this constitutional since her arrival) on the N Train, where the talk was of Rina’s Anglo-Indian school days, what it means to express one's loyalty.

We got to talking first about Flag Day—flag day traditions, nationalism, the meaning of that, is it old?; thence to the vitality provided by diversity; thence to the importance of religious freedom, if only someone didn't have to fucking convert a body all the time—again I brought up the idea of someone taping us talking—she mentioned meeting an author of a book, Adam’s Republic, whom she confronted: “'Why not Eve?' I asked him,” Rina said—and I remarked, “I mean, forget who's to blame, why is the tree there?"—and both of us perplexed about people who believe not in the metaphor of the Garden but in the story of the Fall as journalism, thereby missing the entire point of Genesis—and this somehow gets Rina into another conversation—schooldays at an Anglo-Indian school on Founder’s Day, how all the kids would be fainting in the heat after they sang “Happy Birthday” to the school founder, and then the anthem, and “all the while it's 35 degrees centigrade!”…the prefects catching the students as they fell over, taking them off the field, while the adults rested under the tent, blown on by fans, to listen to the president’s speech. The school anthem included the line: “We strive for serenity,” which Rina heard as “Sir Renity,” causing her to wonder, “Why are we striving for the colonial enslaver?” and so she’d refused to sing those particular words…for years… (I told her how a lot of kids in the U.S. hear that line in the Pledge of Allegiance, or Pledgeuvaleegince, as “…and to the Republic, for Richard stands, one nation, …”) And so the trek into the city passed, delightful despite the fact that Central Park was closed by the march of Puerto Rican Flags up Fifth Avenue. Another parade!

Off to the West Side (always a Plan B), to the American Museum of Natural History (or Mvsevm of Natvral History, if you’ve seen the engraved name on 79th St), where we wandered through dinosaurs and the Human Origin wing and the dioramas of taxidermy made majestic, talking on of the miracle of our being here at all.

From here we ambled to the Columbus Avenue Flea Market, then to Big Nick’s for Italian food (vegetarian), and finally to Lincoln Center so I could show Rina the glory that is the Henry Moore sculpture outside of Julliard. Here we found a craft fair in full force, and at first I was annoyed because tents surrounded my reclining bronze in the reflecting pool, but the art was pretty rockin'. We especially enjoyed these guys:

And the fountain in the front of the Metropolitan Opera House is the last stop on this tour…which fountain reminded Rina of the fountains in Las Vegas, and I told her, “They are designed by the same guy.” How do I know that? Where did I learn it? NPR? And I have to marvel: Isn’t it odd the stuff two people happen to know and care about and remark on, people who were raised and live worlds apart, and yet manage to intersect here in New York City, unable to stop talking, to stop sharing, to cease to live like mad?

The Fountain Heads. 

Wouldn’t someone like to see that movie? I know I would. 

Miss O' and Rina, a Selves Portrait on iPhone NYC

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Decoration in the Time of Catastrophe

 The Built Environment

A while back, Miss O's dear friends Q and X had a colleague to their home. Upon entering their living room—resplendent in (to name a few items off the top of my head) white Christmas lights strung around the ceiling and around a giant mirror; antique furniture, including a cable-spool coffee table ca. 1971; an organist’s bench serving as a TV stand; rocks, skulls, toys, framed photography, and a stuffed animal moose head, wall-mounted and wearing a leopard skin pillbox hat and matching scarf—the visitor remarked, “Wow, this looks like a dorm room.” Q could only say, “I never had art this nice in my dorm room.” The conversation moved to other things. When I visited, X asked me, after telling me the story, “What would make her say that?” And I looked around. Their home is beautiful. But it’s not from a catalogue.

My homes (all my life) and my friends’ homes often have a similar decorative trait: We have a lot of shit. Cool shit, original art shit, not expensive shit really, but a lot of it. We display it. We all do it in our own special ways, and quite beautifully, but our homes take on a “nesting” quality in the interweaving of eclectic and colorful shit. And everything—every single goddamned thing—has a story.

Bookshelf 1: Miss O's Personal Collection

Every object, I have found, involves a story, and the story does not begin, “We bought that at Crate and Barrel.” What I mean is, our style is not suburb-sanctioned, acceptably “adult,” or quiet. It’s loud. It’s personal. It demands an explanation. The shelves pictured above, for example, have been part of my life since 1998 or so, and are part of a bookcase built by Tom Seeley in Pennsylvania, and purchased at Brown’s Wood Stuff in Occoquan, VA. (When owner John Brown retired, he did not sell his business—he had too much integrity for that, I think. His name meant something. I had bought almost all my major furniture from him because of that, and he took that trust to heart.) The books pictured on these shelves (2 of 4) have nearly all been read, and I could tell you where I got each one, either as gift or purchase, and why. I could name for you each object, and tell you what it is or means. Okay, what the hell. (Top shelf: The mug is from George after our first summer at Bread Loaf—it was the coffee mug he’d used all that summer (inside the mug is a card that says, "Don't you hate pants?" and a plastic case for an asthma inhaler on which is written in Sharpie marker, "I need that to live"from students who share my love of The Simpsons); the Irish flag in it is from student John Kelly; Mrs. Krebapple was a birthday present from one of my classes; “I’m for Nixon” ca. 1968 was pinned to my returned windbreaker, “borrowed” from my chum Rick in high school, ca. 1982 (he’d lost the Quebec pin that had been on it, a pin I’d bought on a French class trip to that magical city, my first time out of the country), which he gave back to me after school one day while they were all working on the newspaper, by pulling the snaps violently and revealing himself to be in fact shirtless—boys; the “no W” button was a gift from George to commemorate the 2004 “When will we learn?” election; Bart Simpson was a party favor from teaching colleague Rhonda, 1994, my 30th birthday; the teapot frame was a Christmas gift from friend Patty, and the picture in it is of me in a nightgown standing by the open johnny house at JC’s cabin; the small green glass brooch (laying on its side) is an English antique, a Christmas gift from friends Tom and Ron; the picture frame is from a shop called Nepa Bhon on Macdougal Street—they are going of business I learned yesterday! No!—and the card inside is from friends Hugh and Bud, with an addition of a collage (Christmas pose with my brothers Pat, Jeff, and Mike taken by our mom on Father’s Day 2010, to be a gag gift for Mike’s friend AJ); the small box in front of it is carved from camel bone, bought for me in the Middle East by my friend Anna, who is pictured in the small circular silver frame (a gift from Patty), which I took at Texas Falls in Vermont in 1994.)

What I’m saying is, nothing on the shelf is decorative for its own sake; the placement of the objects is as my fancy dictates, but I know what each one means. (I’ll spare you the chronicle of the shelf below that.) Wherever I look, in fact, I see the history of my life:

Shelves 2, with Walls: Miss O's Personal Collection

I’ll try to be quick, L to R: Oscar Wilde biography poster from my mom’s bookstore, Crown Books in Woodbridge, VA, ca. 1989, framed by my friend Patty in Appomattox; Dave Marsh cabinet from E.E. Smith in Fredericksburg, purchased (impulsively) on an outing with late friend Terri, which we somehow managed to get into the back of her BMW (one of my favorite memories of being with her); on top of this: lamp from a thrift store in Andover, NJ (an outing with friend Jean)(No! wait—that lamp is downstairs; this lamp was a purge from my friend Mark on one of the many occasions I have helped him clean his house out), decorated with all my “single” earrings from lost pairs over the years; photo of George and Jeannie in frame from Nepa Bhon; hurricane lamp with purple candle, Christmas present from JC ca. 1995, rests on a dresser scarf tatted by my great-grandmother ca. 1900; small heart box of papier maché (in front of the photo) is from friend Betsy to commemorate our Bread Loaf graduation in 1994. Well, this isn’t quick at all. Suffice to say the sewing box on the floor is from my brothers (as well as Pat’s first fiancé—that’s a story), the bookcase a construction of wooden crates I bought in Blacksburg—that hardware store on Main Street across from Radford Bros.—ca. 1986, topped with shelving board I bought at J.E. Sears in Appomattox (D grade lumber, which I’d learned to ask for as a result of being a theater major!); on wall, the copper frames (I painted them myself) encase photos by my friend Ted Petrochko from his “Rust” series; and all that other stuff has loads of stories, too, involving peacocks, river rocks, and Dedalus books in Charlottesville, but really, you get the goddamned idea.

Dorm Room or Grown Home?

I think that woman’s comment way the hell back there came from this: We kind of stop being “creative” after age 21. Some people atrophy there: I’ve known plenty of people who decorated with thumbtacked posters, beer can pyramids, fluorescent lights, castoff couches, and butt-filled ashtrays well into their deaths. Others grew “tasteful” without seeming to feel that they were “allowed” to express who they are in their décor. Unless maybe they were expressing who they are (tasteful and bland), and that thought makes me sad, but who the hell am I?

What I mean is, I suspect a lot of people think they are supposed to stop having fun with their built environments after they graduate from college, or around that age. I remember the year I gave up putting posters up with thumbtacks: It was the year my friend Patty opened her frame shop, and I was teaching and could afford to have several meaningful items custom-framed. It was thrilling, like a real graduation into adulthood, and this shift inspired me to shape a whole built world. The next stage was framing, or otherwise displaying, not just prints and snapshots, but original art made by my friends or artists I’d met. That felt seriously cool. 

I changed my built environment in several specific ways with each move, adding layers if you will. This required conscious effort on my part, and it hurt. In my first dorm room at Virginia Tech, for example, I was a slob. In my defense, I often took 19 credit hours, always worked in the scene shop or costume shop and on the running crews of shows, and just didn’t have time to, you know, make the bed or wash my clothes, which I left conveniently piled on my side of the room as a reminder to wash them. My poor roommate, Deb, was a neat freak (whose side of the room boasted of a life-size cardboard Pink Panther, green plants, and neatness), but I liked to think I was getting more out of college than she was. Feeling superior helped assuage my guilt.

When I moved into my first apartment, I vowed to keep my mess confined to my bedroom. Not that I had a choice: My roommate, Ice Queen, a fellow theater major who acted, on occasion, was apparently looking for her MRS. degree, and wanted to practice housekeeping: the furniture (most of it hers) was her grandmother’s; her silverware set was a complete service for 12; her dishes, too, were a service for 12; and no breadcrumb on the counter went unnoticed or unremarked upon:

ICE Q: Lisa?
LISA: Yeah? [shouted amid noises of trying to finish a paper in time to get to the theater]
ICE Q:  You forgot to wipe the counter.
LISA: Oh! Sorry! Just a minute….
ICE Q: And are you going to wash your cup before you leave?
LISA: Yeah…
ICE Q: And your butter knife?
LISA: [mumbled from room] Fuck you, I’ll butter your ASS...
ICE Q: Did you say something? [beat] Are you going to wash these?

In my next place of residence (which I shared with 5 people), I kept fairly tidy, but I was so overextended I hadn't bothered to decorate, and we had a washer and dryer in-house; my new bad habit was that I had a hard time waking up, and I had discovered the “Snooze” button on my clock radio, which was a massive annoyance to Cynthia, who shared the basement with me. I don’t know what would have happened if I’d been drinking then. I passed out from SOBRIETY.

So in my last college apartment, I usually got up when the alarm went off (a new decision), but I reverted to slob again, because I lived, mercifully, with total slobs who were dedicated to LEARNING THINGS and having INTERESTING EXPERIENCES while in college, agreeing that CLEANING was not one of those interesting learning things.

Environmental Issues

In each subsequent place I lived, I consciously added a layer of adulthood: Place 1) I kept all “public” rooms tidy; Place 2) I kept the bathroom clean and kept up with my laundry; Place 3) I made my bed every morning; Place 4 (this one) I wash my dishes every morning before work and (mostly) every night before I go to bed. I have arrived. All except the "desk," a giant wood table that never manages to be pile-free for more than one day of each month. C'est le guerre!

Decorating came late to me, though even as a child I had a flair, because I was too busy and too broke to give a fuck. It was the inspiration from those first framed pieces that did it: I actually chose the fabric for my loveseat based on the burnt gold stripes that wove through it, because they matched the color of the frame of the picture I wanted to hang above it.

I'm rambling. See, this blog is actually about global warming. It’s about politics and wars and natural disasters and how we deal with them, how we take responsibility for them. You’d think that by 2012, we humans would have added layers of adulthood to the way we inhabit our built and natural environments, but I feel as if we keep devolving. And writing about decorating helped me understand my own thinking.

As further evidence of our devolution, I offer this clip, which I stumbled upon, of comedian Woody Allen hosting, apparently, his very own show, on which he had as a guest the ultimate conservative, William F. Buckley, Jr. (the difference in their names tells you a lot, Allen Konigsberg having changed his, WFB, Jr. milking his heritage for all it's worth). The two men could not disagree more on politics, but when answering polite audience questions on the subject, I was struck by their fearlessness and civility, their amazing wit and a willingness to allow discomfort to sit there for a moment (but not linger, nor fall into whining or yelling), after a particularly sturdy retort. Watch Woody Allen and William F. Buckley, Jr., from 1967:

Reframing the Arguments: Semantics and You, Voting

How do we talk to each other? It's telling. Just as former roommates shaming me into being neat and clean (while I was under yards of stress trying to be all the student I could be) caused me to be rebellious and swear a lot, it occurs to me that scientists warning people about dangers to the environment does the same thing to humans under stress. What my roommates needed me to understand is that it wasn’t about making the space “pretty” or even about keeping them happy: It was about inviting ROACHES and creating BAD SMELLS. That I could have understood.

Reframing the argument, we should look at global warming this way: The environment will be FINE. Earth will keep spinning. It’s humans who will die. People who keep screaming to protect the environment, I realized, (talking to visiting Indian friend Rina about something else entirely) have to scream about the destruction of HUMAN LIFE—for example, the increase in cancer alone should awaken people (the U.S. has among the highest rates of cancer in the world, ranked 7th:
; according to WHO, cancer incidents could rise as much as 75% by 2030:,0,4763342.story

This is prediction, of course; global warming is prediction, too: and all those predictions are coming true at far faster rates than originally predicted: disappearances of ice shelves predicted for 50 years from now have already happened, and CO2 is rising far faster, too:

All this catastrophe is the result of what WE do to our own environment—not “the environment” in the abstract, but OUR ENVIRONMENT. The HUMAN world.


Now let’s talk about Kristen Stewart’s breasts. Yummy, suckable titty. Seems she wore something see-through...where is that story? OH! And here’s another coming future bestseller! I can’t get enough of disgraced politician John Edwards!!!!!

I cracked up the other day (choked on my own vomit, more like) on the subway, reading the headline that the New York Post took the time to put on its cover, about irrelevant former presidential candidate John Edwards, lambasting him for being awful, whereas they’ve given Dick Cheney, George Bush, and other actual criminal officeholders and torturers a journalistic pass, but hey, that’s me.

Where does this kind of righteous anger come from, so often so misdirected and unceasing in its "beside-the-point"ness? By way of another example, I took a former student and her fiancé to dinner around Christmas of 2008, and as she was in the healthcare profession, I suggested, by way of making conversation, that newly-elected Barack Obama seemed to want to increase people’s access to affordable healthcare, and her eyes flashed and she looked to the side and began growling; her silent husband-to-be placed a hand on her shoulder to comfort her. The level of their rage was astonishing. I so badly wanted to say, “You are not allowed to be that angry. You really, really aren’t. He has not even been inaugurated, has not implemented one policy, whereas our sitting president failed to prevent a terrorist attack, did not call for an immediate investigation of the attack, got our nation into one unjustified war and put off the important one (in Afghanistan), and promoted policies that caused our banks to fail. I am allowed to be angry; YOU are not.” But instead I picked up the check.

What we need to be talking about here is proportion and reality: Humans are destroying their own life on Earth, whether from environmental shit or wars or hate crimes. Make it personal: Suppose someone dumped a truckload of rusted car parts onto your lawn. Sprayed gallons of horse piss onto your roof. Beat the living shit out of your kid because he seems gay or unique. It's like that. All over the world, through bad decisions and venal prejudices, we are destroying our own quality of life. Suppose your lights and AC and heat would never, ever work again. Suppose your kid couldn’t go to school without having his life in the balance. Every day. Could happen. I always ask the doubters, being the Liberal that I am: WHY DOES IT HAVE TO HAPPEN TO YOU, PERSONALLY, BEFORE YOU GIVE A FUCK?

And yet, in the midst of all this deep stuff, I continue to decorate. What is it about decorating? I have been obsessed with the making and remaking of my built environment ever since I was a kid. My friend Rina loves my home, and is happy to comment on it. I find this amazing considering her history. Rina is the daughter of Pakistani refugees, Hindus who had to get to India after the partition (Punjab is like Berlin), and had to leave literally everything behindescape was over and across rooftops! Talking of the Pakistani partition—Muslims vs. Hindus, running away to safety, being a refugee—we went on to the subject of how and why we humans perpetuate hatred. It can’t just be about hoarding resources, getting more stuff. We have so much in common: I mean, materialistic people are in every culture and of every faith. We all like to decorate our homes, we like nice clothes, we like delicious food, we love our families, and we all agree being sick sucks. Why are we STILL fighting reality in the year 2012, on the brink of human destruction brought on by self-inflicted climate shifts?

And here’s another question: What is the difference between love of ornament (decorating) and materialism? I do think there is a difference, like the difference between being a foodie and gluttony. I find that the people I like best decorate (granted with a lot of stuff) according to story: They have a love of the old, the new—supporting artisans—reclaiming and reusing and recycling—as needed to tell the stories of their lives in the built living space. Just so, my foodie friends eat based on a desire for a great food experience, not to “fill up.”

Decorating expresses. It's not just about piling stuff up: It's seeing beauty and wanting to have it near us. Here’s a marvelous example of the wonderful ways to live a life while recycling, reusing, and staying creative in a densely packed world of material stuff: Luna Parc, in Sussex County, NJ:

George Lightcap, Jean LeBlanc, Miss O’, Ashley “Black, No Sugar” Intveld, and Keith Loria at Luna Parc, 2011. 
All art and house and life by Ricky Boscarino

The next open house is June 22 to 24, no admission fee, and it will change your life. And it's FUN.

Redecorating Our Minds

So I’ve been thinking we need to focus not on “environmental issues” but rather “human life”—the disappearance of that—that that is what we need to rename this movement: The Human Life As We Know It Will Be the Fuck GONE Movement. I think this is connected to decorating: We shouldn’t just buy shit, but rather we should imagine who we are when we own it. How does stuff define us? How do we shape our built and natural worlds? I think this is a spiritual question.

I’d like to close with this speech by religious writer and accidental television celebrity (and ex-nun) Karen Armstrong, who explains that only by working together and sharing our stories can anything even approaching progress happen. It’s about moving beyond mere “tolerance” and into real “appreciation.” If my roommates had ever asked me why I was a slob, I could have told them. All they wanted was the place the way they wanted it. They had to put up with me, and I needed to make adjustments, but really it could have been a lot more fun, is what I’m saying. If the visitor to the home of Q and X had wondered rather than judged, she might have gotten some interesting stories rather than a cold silence. Life doesn’t have to be a choice between junkyard or Pottery Barn only, is what I’m saying. Let’s talk about living. And joyfully.

Karen Armstrong: Tolerance vs. Appreciation:

And here’s another, longer show, should you care to watch:

So that’s where my sodden brain has taken me this sunny Sunday in June. I’d love to hear from you. What has your sodden self been thinking about? And how are your rooms looking?

Love and loads of decorative kisses,
Miss O’