New York, New York

car-interior.jpgAllium and I returned from (nearly) a week in New York City this afternoon, relieved to have seen the last of 2007. The ride home, on Amtrak, was everything air travel should be, but will never be again: a civilized waiting area, helpful stewards, wide and comfortable seats, spacious lavatories and surfaces that were clean, clean, clean. We were delivered practically to our door; we were almost sorry when the trip was over.

We celebrated holidays first at home, then holidays in the city, trekking with Allium’s parents. His mother lives in an orderly world, and was surprised that begging was illegal on the subway (“but they do it anyway?” she asked).

traffic.jpgYesterday morning she could have watched, in the space of scarcely five minutes, the following: a blue Toyota, driven backwards down nearly the entire length of the street; two of NYPD’s finest exiting McDonald’s after a 15 minute break and climbing into a squad car they’d left parked in the middle of a cross street; a man urinating into a wall, discreetly; and I, illegally tossing household trash (for the second time that morning) into a can clearly marked ‘no household refuse-litter only’. The evening before, she had missed the young man sitting on our landing who leapt up as we approached our apartment door and apologized politely for the smell – ganja, we presumed.

The amazing thing about New York City is that it works so well. No one seems to have much respect for the kind of order well-known (and dear) to Allium’s mother, yet the world goes on, and, by and large, people are surprisingly kind to each other, and remarkably helpful on a one-to-one basis. A guy who looks as if he might as well stick a shiv in you as say good morning will gladly help a tired mom haul a stroller up the subway steps, and just about anyone will offer directional assistance if asked.

rap.jpgEven I am affected by all this mellow in the midst of the mad rushing that is integral to existence in the city. For example, I am not overly enamored of intra-car subway entertainment. Being subject to a serenade by a relentless accordionist whilst trapped with hundreds of fellow citizens underground is not my idea of a good time. Nor did I enjoy my involuntary subjugation to the break-dancing exhibition that shook and rolled our cylindrical encasement yesterday; it was a relief when one of the actors crashed unintentionally into a pole, prematurely ending the show and effecting a removal to another vehicle.

Though irritated, I am not seriously bothered by this perpetual insistence on making cramped travel noisier and more inconvenient than necessary. It’s New York; this kind of thing is tolerated, like the beggars, who, though apparently despised by most, are also, for the most part, civilly ignored rather than tormented or persecuted. I’m cool, too. Maybe it’s the residual ganja.

img_1888.JPGIt was a lovely week, full of new discoveries and the pleasures of being with family we enjoy. We walked like mad all over, looking for used book stores and tiny, well-recommended restaurants. Everywhere we went, it seemed, the targets of our quests were gone, boarded up, burned out, or moved, underscoring the organic nature of the city. It hardly mattered to us; there was always something interesting to discover and something good to eat.

We are home now, and glad to be here, delighting in the recollections of the week. Our feet propped up, we are plotting our return. In the meantime, we’ll revel in space all our own, and the kind of serenity that 638 people per square mile can buy. It’s ours, it’s fine, but, baby, there’s just no life at all outside our walls. Tomorrow we’ll sleep in, missing the clamor of early morning deliveries and the sound of hundreds of people beginning their day and reminding us that it’s time for us, too, to be up and away.

Traffic from Flickr

Train car interior from Flickr


Diwali and the Nature of Miracles

lak-doll.jpgDiwali is a five day festival occurring during the Hindu month of Kartik, which generally corresponds to the western months of October or November. Diyas, or oil-filled clay lamps, are lit to chase away the darkness of the darkest night of the moon cycle, simultaneously celebrating the coronation of Lord Rama and his return to rule Ayodhya after 14 years of exile.

The third day of Diwala belongs to the four-armed goddess Lakshmi who is invoked by the clamor and chanting of humans and descends to earth on this day. According to this Diwali website,

[A] sublime light of knowledge dawns upon humanity and this self enlightenment is expressed through the twinkling lamps that illuminate the palaces of the wealthy as well as the lowly abodes of the poor. It is believed that on this day Lakshmi walks through the green fields and loiters through the bye-lanes and showers her blessings on man for plenty and prosperity.

laks.jpgTwo years ago, in Arhariya, in the northern Indian state of Bihar, a baby was born during the festival of Diwali who appeared to be an incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi. The daughter of Poonam Tatma and her husband Shambhu appeared to have four extra limbs; unsurprisingly her parents named her Lakshmi.

“First when we saw her we were really scared. She was born during Diwali so everyone in the village said our child was Goddess Lakshmi incarnate because she had eight limbs. Everyone started worshipping her. We also worshipped her,” says Lakshmi’s father, Shambhu. (IBNLive)

fam-before.jpgScience has a straightforward explanation for little Lakshmi’s physical state. She is one of a set of conjoined twins; her sister twin failed to develop, and her body fused with Lakshmi’s in utero. Lakshmi was born with the partial twin attached to her body at the pelvis and lower abdomen.

Her parents said they had been offered money to sell her. “We took her to a hospital in Delhi but circus owners heard about her, wanted to turn her into a freak show and offered us money,” her father told an Indian newspaper. (UK Independent)

Instead, Lakshmi’s parents, poor laborers who reportedly earn approximately $1.00 (USD) per day, persisted in their search to find doctors who would treat their vibrant little daughter. Reports vary, but at least one hospital refused treatment based on its projected cost; several doctors are said to have turned the family away because they felt the surgery was too risky. But a little more than a week ago, at Sparsh Hospital, on the outskirts of Bangalore, Lakshmi’s extraneous limbs were removed in an operation that took more than 24 hours.

pre-xr.jpgFor a month surgeons evaluated Lakshmi’s situation to determine, among other things, which legs would be saved. Of four kidneys, one had to be repositioned into Lakshmi’s body; the spine of Lakshmi’s conjoined twin had to be separated from Lakshmi’s own without causing damage; pelvic reconstruction was an issue. The puzzle’s schemata is clear, even to untrained eyes, in this x-ray.

Surgeons began operating on November 6, 2007; a week later, Lakshmi is out of intensive care; she’s eating solid foods; her digestive tract is working as it should; she is interacting with her family appropriately. Still, she’s not out of the woods yet. There are still concerns about wound healing and infections, and she will, at a minimum, require surgery on her feet, which are clubbed, in order to walk.

lak-post.jpgThat’s her post-operative x-ray at the right; Lakshmi is wearing a cast over her lower body, with supports along her legs. The cast is partially to restrict Lakshmi’s movements so that her wounds can mend properly, but also to position her legs and hips as they heal.

The technology of saving Lakshmi seems wondrous enough on its own, but what strikes me most about this particular story is the idea that this child was born to these particular parents — parents of theoretically limited means who gave wings to their dream for their daughter.

post-fam2.jpgThese are parents — impoverished and living without electricity in a remote village of fewer than 200 people — who proved unstoppable until they had found the help their child needed to have a chance to live as full a life as possible. Science is mere technology; that kind of love is a miracle. Goddess or not, this child was born blessed.

The picture (above, left) of Lakshmi and her family was taken post-surgery. Lakshmi’s six-year-old brother Mithilesh is partly shown (yellow shirt); he appears in the pre-op family photo above. Poonam Tatma is six months pregnant; ultrasound has shown that the baby is healthy.

Shambhu, Lakshmi’s father, has said that ” [All] this expenditure has happened to make her normal.” (UK Independent), but the contrasts between Lakshmi’s extraordinary medical intervention and her rural origins will always be with her, one way or another. In her home village, CNN reports, “[M]any villagers . . . remained opposed to surgery and [are] planning to erect a temple to Lakshmi, whom they still revere as sacred”.

The glowing photo of Lakshmi (above right) was taken before her surgery.

Picture of Lakshmi figure from Flickr; interesting notes at this link as well


Pox Populi

pmap.jpgAllium and I made the pilgrimage to the new Perelman building at the Philadelphia Art Museum when it first opened. Meant as a research and teaching center, the expanded building also houses collections that the Philadelphia Museum of Art previously has not had room to display. Most of the new facility is open the public, including a library; some archives are open to scholars only.

We both were horrified by our initiation into the Perelman experience — and yes, I’m going to get the horror over fast by writing this post first — but delighted as we moved onto other galleries. The Perelman’s well worth a visit. But first, the chaff. Wheat comes later.

The first gallery Allium and I entered at the Perelman was light and beautiful, with sun streaming through glorious arched art deco windows onto a gleaming hardwood floor. It took a full thirty seconds for the contents of the room to register, and for the two of us to lock eyes in astonished dismay. Gallery: simple, sleek, gorgeous. Content: laughable. Take a little tour with us and see what you think.


What is art, anyway? Smack in the middle of the floor is this circle of stones. It’s from 1985; it’s called “Limestone”. The curator describes this work as “a ring, a universal form reminiscent of ancient ritual practice” . . . “[A]rranged directly on the floor with no clear boundaries”.

The only thing worse than the ‘art’ in this gallery was the curation. Personally, I prefer my curation to enlighten. Do I really have to be told that this thing is “a ring”? And what, exactly, is meant by claiming that it’s “a universal form reminiscent of ancient ritual practice”? Is that all a “ring” represents? (I think not!) Is this just a sloppy attempt by a curator to remind us that rings are symbolic and therefore expected to resonate within our little museum-going psyches?

Or could this possibly be an embarrassed curator’s attempt to get a quick and dirty description out of the way as fast as possible? Or is it evidence of the dispair of a museum employee expected to say something about nothing?

And what’s with the “arranged directly on the floor with no clear boundaries”? Doesn’t a circle describe a boundary? What does that say about your “ancient ritual practice”? Well, you’ll have to figure it out for yourself; the curation here is as lightweight as it gets — oh, wait a minute, just like the collection itself!

Imagine my shock, though, in discovering, 22 years too late, that my baby was an artistic genius! My own toddler made a circle ring identical to this one in the dirt of our northern farm land, all by herself. The very same year! Of course, there wasn’t any limestone handy — just plebeian rocks. Maybe that’s the difference . . .

knot.jpgBut let’s move on. We have here, on the left, a giant “Knot” from 1993, made of plaster, iron, and pigment. At least we get a little more information on this one — it’s a reference to a European folktale about a rat-king, and meant to evoke emeshed rat-tails. Let the curator speak: “Knot’s elegant form commands the space around it with uncanny authority, yet at the same time remains freighted with the eeriness of its origins.”

Oh? At the risk of playing the semanticist, “its origins” are plaster, iron and pigment. Perhaps the curator refers to the inspirational folktale? Even so, this hardly strikes me as eerie — it resembles, most of all, the button knots on Chinese garments — ‘elegant’, yes, symmetrical, ubiquitious, and ordinary. Or, in this case, gigantic and ordinary.

Personally, I admire anyone who wrestles with iron, but I can see this made up of the enticing fat black ducting tubes at Home Depot — maybe with a nice walnut base for home installation?

rainbow-spikes.jpgMoving on, we spy a forest of rainbow spikes. Charming, indeed, yet with a fine sinister quality, if you consider them installed in a playground where dozens of little children might impale themselves. “Splotch demonstrates a newfound exuberance of color and shape” says the curator. “Newfound exuberance”? Was it lost?

“[P]roduced with the aid of computer technology”, continues our guide. Have you longed to see the charts on your spreadsheet application in 3-D? This is your time; here is your place.

bulbs.jpgIn a corner, light bulbs in ceramic sockets. Lit. Whooee. They’re from 1992; “untitled (petit palais)” [sic]. Witty! It’s untitled and titled! (Or should I have said “brilliant”?) I have an artistically gifted brother-in-law (an adult, not a toddler); if I saw this in the corner of his loft, I’d be quite tickled. He’s a amusing lad; I expect this kind of thing of him.

clothes-chair.jpgHere’s “Clothesline Amerigo for my father”, from 1963. This one asks the question: Does a ludicrous title and supporting curation make it art? That’s a chair dangling from a rope on the right and a patchwork of wood, steel, and iron pieces variously standing and dangling all over the rest of it.

The curator claims that “the title conflates the experiences of the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci . . . with those of the artist’s own father”. Right. There’s a junk shop in our town that regularly produces sculptures like this; a number of citizens have been working for years to get the owner to clean up his front yard. Maybe that’s an homage to Vespucci, too. Did Vespucci have a junk collection? Use a clothesline? Dangle a chair?

That’s enough of this gallery. I saw the stuff, I photographed it, I wrote about it. I’ve now suffered quite enough for art.

Snarky, I know. But I felt dirty after spending time in this gallery. Even so, there’s a subversive part of me that is secretly thrilled that these ‘artists’ were paid for what look like fun DIY projects. But another part of me is sick that the museum wrote the checks.

Allium and I marched bravely on to modern design, and felt better for it.

Perelman photo from Flickr



Image of a Map of France with Avignon MarkedMany years ago, I lived in France for a short while. I went there, quite accidentally, during a very difficult period of my life. It was a time of enormous personal disenchantment and distress that seemed not merely unending, but perhaps simply the natural course of things — life as it really is. My European travels, and my life in France in particular, ended neither the disenchantment nor the distress, but changed my perspective in subtle and permanent ways.

Long afterward, it seemed to me that France, in particular, southeastern France, had beckoned to me as if offering a strong and heroic hand, uplifting me and setting me properly on my feet so that I could live again, the vicissitudes of life notwithstanding.

Image of the Palace of the Popes at Avignon with a Modern Banner Streaming Across the FrontThough I lived in Grenoble, and studied at the University, the totem I took from that period of my life was one I found at Avignon at the Palais du Papes, on a holiday trip. That’s the Palace of the Popes on the right, the facade hideously compromised (as it most certainly was not during my visit) by the sort of banner that is now mandatory for all historic and cultural attractions. (Else how would anyone know to visit? But I digress . . . )

The multiple popes of Avignon owed their existence (and their exile), unsurprisingly, to political disagreements, in this case one between Pope Boniface VIII and France’s King Philip IV. In 1305 Philip oversaw the election of a French Pope; Clement V was the first of seven popes who lived at Avignon in corruption and luxurious glory. A good run-down on the various French popes — and two antipopes — can be found on the Avignon Popes page from Provence & Beyond. Provence-Hideaway offers a quick gloss of the history of the Papal Territories, with commentary on the popes.

The Palace itself is a fortress, buttressed everywhere with the thick walls and all the amenities necessary to a city-castle fortification. It is as magnificent and overwhelming as any palace ought to be, and proof enough that if papacies fail the test of time, wanton expenditure and substantial architecture sometimes does not.

Image of a Large Bedroom in the Palace of Popes at AvignonThe tiled floors are beautiful, and it’s easy, now, to find pictures on the Internet of the lavish bedroom suites and Pope Clement VI’s magnificent study, with its life-like hunting frescoes. But this munificence is not what remains most strikingly in my memory.

Instead, what I remember most about Avignon is a small room, almost, in the scale of things at Avignon, an afterthought. I suspect that it must be only about ten feet by ten feet; if memory serves, there is a step with a small doorway for an entranceway. The room was empty when I was there, and few visitors chose to enter it; perhaps it felt uncomfortably intimate after the grand passageways and halls we’d already traversed.

But I was enchanted by the small scale and the intimacy which seemed so incongruous. The walls looked to me like Paradise; I know now that they were probably hunting scenes, and included bird cages, rendering the scene less than heavenly for the fauna involved, but in this dark, cool room a blue sky stretched expansively; branches and vines straggled across the stone walls bringing them to life like a welcoming, accessible forest.

Image of a Detail of a Pope’s Bedroom at AvignonI loved the idea of the pope of the moment retreating from his very public life, and even from the luxuries so coveted by each and their ilk, into this small, contemplative chamber, so much better suited to human economy than the impressive surrounding suites. The room may have been windowless, but it seemed to have no boundaries at all. As in Paradise, perhaps, one could imagine living here forever, never missing a more tangible, terrestrial world. It seemed to me that one pope, at least, must have found a measure of personal peace in this room.

I found in that small room a sustaining sense of the infinite, and an enduring, quite literal, illustration of the of the nature of human imagination. I was astonished that a pope’s private cell could seem a perfect refuge from an overwhelming world — but that, in a microcosm, was what France was like for me. That sense of refuge was due partly, of course, to the seductive nature of travel, when there is no everyday and the most ordinary aspects of life seem fresh and extraordinary.

Decades later, though, I still recall with amazement not only how completely my life in France shaped the person I would become, but also the sense of peace and joy evoked in me by the artistry of men 700 years dead yet living still.

Map of France from Just France

Photo of the Palais du Papes from Bonjour La France

Photo of bedroom suite from Virtual Tourist

Bird cages detail from the University of Utah’s art site


The Cerebral and The Mundane

New friends are moving. He is all cerebral; she is highly intelligent, but perhaps more grounded in worldly things. (Wouldn’t she have to be? At least, that is to say, one of them should be.) She is thinking about their new, unseen, flat in a city in which anyone would be thrilled to abide. She wants little in the way of furnishings, but dreams of a particular, classic couch. It gets mentioned several times. He cannot bear even thinking about it, but I’m interested in this problem.

We’re all on our way to a good museum. Allium — my own partner — is also cerebral. I, too, am of more than average intelligence, and I, like She, spend much of my time, of necessity, in the world of the mundane. Though not as intellectually nimble and focused — obsessed? — as our partners, we meet them, well enough, and as circumstances allow, on their mental playgrounds.

I dream of the sort of intellectualism these partners of ours possess, but I am earth-bound, of necessity, of habit. Someone must order day-to-day life, see that the accounts aren’t ignored, make sure that the lights stay on, or there could be no reading and no time for thought.

We who deal with the minutiae of everyday feel the tension between the cerebral and the mundane, but our more intellectual partners do not.

Her material desire, and his response, stirred a musty memory. As a young child, each museum I visited had a remembered, and generally cherished, character of its own. As a rule, I viewed exhibits uncritically, and very much within the framework of what I defined as the museum’s identity.

I saw my museum excursions almost mathematically: The context was History; within that framework there were sets (the museums themselves) and subsets (the various themes and branches) which depended and built upon one another. My interest was almost purely academic — cerebral, really, if that’s not too strong a word for childish observation.

Somewhere along the line — I suspect when I was a young adult — that changed, and the visual, sensory and visceral effects of museum-going became a much more personal thing. I began to consider artifacts in terms of my own taste and predilections, rather than as subsets of the buildings in which I walked.

It occurred to me, on this outing with He and She, that this shift represented the melding of the cerebral and the mundane at a time in my life when the details of becoming an adult first presented themselves. What kind of home shall I have? What are my own aesthetics? If I were to set the scenes of my life, what would they look like?

About this time, I fell in love with the artifacts of later Colonial America. Not that dreadful “Early American” stuff that pocked this country for decades, but the real thing. I began to see the human hands behind every hand-carved line, every perfectly inlaid decoration, every spoon worked in silver, behind every brush stroke.

I saw the history in each piece, the progression of ideas. But I also began to place myself in the rooms where these paintings hung, in company with these exquisite chairs, these textiles, these candelabra. I felt the lives that once moved, more privately, around these pieces. I saw how little the essentials of life have changed in the past few centuries: there is a chair to sit in, a table to eat upon, a drawer for storage.

For me, to a great extent, all artifacts recall the mundane now. I cannot see them only in the context of other cultural, historical or artistic influences. ‘Art’ has become personal: whose studio, whose hand, whose forge, whose wood shop. I cannot help but view ‘art’ in terms of the lives lived with and around each artifact; the cerebral and the mundane are inextricably intertwined now.

Today, though, I feel the poignancy of the longing She is expressing, which seems to me to imply something more than a mere desire for a specific type of furniture.

Her words recalled my old desires and the way imagining furnishings in my own life acknowledged and honored my human antecedents, but also the way in which imagined ownership was an attempt to establish my own place in the continuum of human lives.

She is new at this business: The flat will be furnished somehow — perhaps with this lovely piece or that. Or perhaps things will happen as they have for Allium and me; we gradually acquired domestic accouterments that are comfortable, unglamorous, and, with a few exceptions, uninteresting.

In the end my imagined furnishings didn’t matter; what I really want are the cerebral intangibles. At this later remove, I long to immerse myself in the content of our books, the discussions within and without the house, to have the leisure and freedom to burnish my cognitive state. The furnishings I long for now are ones inside my head.