Saturday, November 15, 2014

Helping people in need

I want to start with a very moving poem that I first heard at a reading by Allen Ginsberg around 20 years ago. He chanted the poem while playing the tune "Amazing Grace" on his hand-organ. The poem is from the Poetry Foundation website.

New Stanzas for Amazing Grace
By Allen Ginsberg

I dreamed I dwelled in a homeless place
Where I was lost alone
Folk looked right through me into space
And passed with eyes of stone

O homeless hand on many a street
Accept this change from me
A friendly smile or word is sweet
As fearless charity

Woe workingman who hears the cry
And cannot spare a dime
Nor look into a homeless eye
Afraid to give the time

So rich or poor no gold to talk
A smile on your face
The homeless ones where you may walk
Receive amazing grace

I dreamed I dwelled in a homeless place
Where I was lost alone
Folk looked right through me into space
And passed with eyes of stone

April 2, 1994

As this poem so clearly expresses, it's almost impossible to imagine oneself into the position of a homeless person, it's so painful. It's much harder than imagining the experiences of families who experience hunger, as I wrote in today's food blog post:

In this food blog post I briefly described how two social service organizations help needy people in our town, Ann Arbor, in Washtenaw County, Michigan. Many homeless people beg on the streets here as described in the poem, and despite Ginsberg's opinion, and compassion, I feel that the way to help them is through organizations that try to address all of their problems, not by giving them spare change.

In our town, SOS Community Services (that I discussed in the food blog post) and the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County both have important programs to help homeless people find both temporary and permanent housing. If you live here, I hope you will donate to these organizations, and if you live elsewhere, I hope you will find your local helping organizations and donate to them.

Shelter Association
SOS Community Services

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Book Discussion Questions: Miss Peregrine

My book club is meeting later this week to discuss Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. Most of the questions available on the web were intended for the young adult audience that's central to this book. So I made up some questions for us: middle aged and older adults!


  1. Riggs offers several parallels between the "Peculiars" in his story and the Jews during the Holocaust (see note below). He specifically says that Jacob Portman's grandfather was doubly affected because the Nazis were trying to exterminate the Jews while the Hollowghasts were trying to destroy the Peculiars. How does this comparison work out in the experiences of Jacob Portman? 
  2. Discuss Jacob's experience discovering identities: his own, that of his grandfather, that of all the monsters who had been in his life, that of the Peculiars, etc?
  3. Did you find the descriptions of "monsters" horrifying – especially because only Jacob can see them? How did they work into the theme of betrayal – Dr.Golan is a monster, the school-bus driver is a monster, etc. Parents, aunts, uncles, age-peers are all unsympathetic or hostile. Only the grandfather, the least-plausible adult, turns out to have been trustworthy. That is, until the Peculiars appear.
  4. Was the use of old photos effective? Do you think Riggs' choices were good? Did he combine his love of old photos into a seamless plot?
  5. How does the author use the three extremely different settings -- modern Florida, modern Cairnholm, (the fictitious island off Wales with a spooky ruined house and a time-travel “loop” entry under an ancient grave), and the same island during World War II?
  6. Do you know kids who have read it? What was their reaction? 
A little background about the title. “Peculiar people” has for a long time been a term used by various authors for the Jews. A few examples:

  • Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651: "But supposing that these of mine are not such principles of reason; yet I am sure they are principles from authority of Scripture, as I shall make it appear when I shall come to speak of the kingdom of God, administered by Moses, over the Jews, His peculiar people by covenant."
  • Israel Zangwill's 1892 novel is titled Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People.
  • Isaiah Berlin, The Power of Ideas (mid 20th century) "An American wit once declared the Jews were a peculiar people because they were just like everyone else, only more so." 
  • Eric Hoffer, 1968: "The Jews are a peculiar people: things permitted to other nations are forbidden to the Jews." 
I reviewed both published volumes of the Miss Peregrine series in this blog post.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


This weekend we did some very nice birdwatching. We were successful in photographing several new birds, including snow buntings and snow geese. We also know of several other "snowy" birds, that we have in our photo collection. Among North American snowbirds, we are missing the Himalayan Snowcock, which is native to Pakistan and India, but has been introduced into the Ruby Mountains of Nevada. Below are our photos of the other North American snowbirds.

Snowy Plover, Coal Oil Point Reserve, Santa Barbara
Snowy Egret,  Chincoteague Island
Snow Bunting, Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, Saginaw, MI.;
Snow Geese, Watkins Lake, Jackson County, MI 
Snowy Owl, Washtenaw County, MI
Dark-Eyed Junco, informally called the snowbird
We are just starting to see juncos this week, as they arrive at our bird feeder. "Juncos are the 'snowbirds' of the middle latitudes. Over most of the eastern United States, they appear as winter sets in and then retreat northward each spring." (Cornell Ornithology Lab)

Of course the term snowbird means something else too
(source: Gabe Clogston)

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge

At Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge near Saginaw yesterday we enjoyed driving around the loop designed for vistas over the marshlands and flooded woods that welcome many birds. We both took quite a few photos.

Flying sandhill cranes -- Len's photo.
A swan, canada geese, coots, and ducks swimming in one of the ponds, illustrating the incredible abundance of birds.
In the middle distance are two groups of sandhill cranes.

Two little snow buntings were hopping around on the road in front of us for a while.
Much of the loop, a one-lane, one-way semi-paved road, is built on a kind of dike above the surface of the ponds, marshy areas, and ditches that run through the refuge. The Saginaw River is on one side, and you can see the pumping equipment that controls the flow of water through the area. Everyone was driving very slowly, stopping whenever they wanted, even when there were no turnouts, because there's no reason to be there if you aren't a birdwatcher -- or, at other times, a hunter.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Smokers in Art

Sapeck (Eugène Bataille):
Mona Lisa with a Pipe, 1883
I hate smoking. But I'm quite fascinated by smokers as they appear in artworks. A few days ago, I did a post on smokers in art for my food blog -- since some people have viewed smoking as a kind of consumption, analog to eating. I'm aware of a lot more smokers in art than I included there, though, so I'm expanding the post to include more pictures along with those in my earlier post.

Of course the first artwork I want to add is one of the numerous parodies of Mona Lisa smoking (though recently, she seems to have given up tobacco for other substances).

I chose the very early Mona Lisa parody at left. It was made before the theft in 1911 inspired a rage of interpretations, and long before Marcel Duchamp's famous "L.H.O.O.Q." Its creator was "proto-performance artist Sapeck (Eugène Bataille), who was known to travel the streets with his head painted blue." Evidently there were surrealist types in Paris well before the Dada movement! (source)

But to return to the topic of smoking in more serious art: during the Dutch Golden Age many painters of homey scenes included smokers. Around 150 years after America -- source of tobacco -- began supplying novel products for the European market, smoking seems to have been very well-established:

Adriaen Brouwer: The Smoker, 1630-1638
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Adriaen Brouwer: Smokers, ca. 1636
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Gerrit Dou: Self-Portrait, c. 1640.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam 
Gerrit Dou: Man Smoking a Pipe, c. 1650.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Adriaen Van Ostade: from Travelers at Rest
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Adriaen Van Ostade: The Smoker, c. 1647.
Adriaen Van Ostade: Smoker at a Window,
c. 1667. Detroit Institute of Arts
Dirck Hals: Gentlemen Smoking and Playing Backgammon, c. 1687
Vincent van Gogh painted several smokers:

An early Picasso in the Barnes collection surprised me with the cigarette in her hand:

Picasso: Woman with Cigarette, 1903
Throughout his career, Picasso continued to include smokers in a large number of his works. Many photos of Picasso show him with a cigarette. Here's one from over 60 years later:

Picasso: The Smoker, 1964

Cezanne painted a few smokers as well. Two pipe smokers are included in his famous card players, and his 1897 portrait of Henry Gasquet includes a cigarette:

Finally, also at the Barnes, this wonderful picture -- I believe the man in the lower left is smoking as he waits for his child to finish his music lesson. I couldn't stop looking at this painting.

Henri Matisse: The Music Lesson

Lucien Freud: Boy Smoking, 1950-51
Tate Gallery, London
As I said on my food blog -- I dislike the smell, the activity, and the risks involved with smoking. I'm very happy that it's no longer allowed in most public interior spaces, and it's becoming less and less common in outdoor public spaces. It's been years since anyone even gave a single thought to smoking inside my house, or inside most homes. That said, smoking was once a common activity, shared and enjoyed by a large part of the population (though some paid dearly for having done so). And it's thus well-represented in art.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Barnes Foundation Gift Shop

We loved the art collection at the Barnes Foundation today, but Mona Lisa always deserves a special shout-out! Here are the gift shop items I noticed:

Monday, October 06, 2014

Beautiful Fall Day

Arnold Road just into Jackson County is the location of Watkins Lake
(confusingly sometimes called Thorn Lake)
We spent the morning there yesterday in beautiful fall weather.

We were there looking for a Cackling Goose, which might just be the one on the left in this photo. Recently, ornithologists did DNA tests on the smallest Canada Geese. These geese have a somewhat smaller beak (compared to their heads, so it seems to be kind of stubby). DNA revealed that they are actually a separate species that hang out with the big guys. So we wanted to see it. Problem is, Canada Geese vary a lot in size. 

Thursday, October 02, 2014

A Comic Horror Suspense Social-Critique?

How many genres can you fit into just one book? Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix manages to include three or four of them -- seamlessly. The cover signals you that this book is about a store similar to Ikea. Look a little more closely, though, at the artfully framed (but inexpensive) artwork on the wall of the beautifully furnished room in the fake catalog:

When you start reading, you will quickly discover that the setting for Horrorstör is an Ikea knockoff called Orsk.  Employees at Orsk feel imprisoned in the maze-like display showrooms. Corporate "ethics" rule their behavior and fill them with dread of losing their jobs. There's other dread, too. Sometimes they go through doors that don't lead where they should. Morning crew members often find unexpected vandalism and messes. Basil, the store manager, wants to find out what's going on -- so he demands that two employees, Amy and Ruth Anne, stay with him overnight to watch for intruders.

Of course the intruders come in not through the doors (those have been blocked by real people who later join in the night of surprises) but by spooky evil-smelling ghosts rising from below the store. Orsk just happened to be built on the ruins of a horrible 19th century prison called the "Panopticon." Long ago, it stood on the same swampy lot where Orsk now beckons to drivers on the freeway to stop and buy cheap household goods and umlaut-heavily-named furnishings. The head of the prison had theories about tormenting or outright torturing his prisoners to make them repent. He was just as well-meaning as the ambitious Basil, who meant well but terrorized poor Amy, who only wanted to have a better life than her past in the trailer park where her mother and step-father lived. Social critique! Horror! Suspense! Humor! All in one tightly-wound tale.

Each chapter heading has an extract from the Orsk catalog. At first these are normal parodies of the Ikea catalog -- not a particularly hard thing to satirize. But they slowly morph into something else, as the story becomes more and more petrifying, with poor Amy tied into a torture chair (sort of like a desk chair) and the other characters suffering in various ways at the hands of the ghosts.

The suspense is well-managed, as the night goes on and on, with almost-successful escapes, nightmare-like changes in the already scary floorplan (who hasn't been disoriented in Ikea?) and all sorts of other horror events. Cell phones continue to work, and the 9-1-1 dispatcher tries to help, but somehow on this night, the police can't find the location or see the store from the freeway. By the end, as illustrated on the back cover -- the store is trashed. The characters end up.... well, no spoilers.

I laughed. I had nightmares. So did a lot of amazon customers, it seems. A good time was had by all.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Summer of 1927

Bill Bryson's recent book One Summer: America, 1927, is a very enjoyable treatment of what it must have been like to live through the excitement of Lindbergh's flight in May, the thrill of watching Babe Ruth make his record number of home runs throughout the baseball season, and the pain of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, which took place on August 15 of that year.

Other events of the summer occasionally distracted the newspapers from their nearly incessant coverage of Lindbergh and his triumph and his trip through the US, which Bryson returns to throughout the narrative. I admired his broader treatment of aviation before and after Lindbergh, and the way that Lindbergh's flight inspired the rise of the American flying industry. Bryson also explains the continued development of the automobile, especially mentioning Henry and Edsel Ford, the end of the Model T, and the upcoming Model A.

Bryson presents the political scene as it developed that summer. President Calvin Coolidge announced while enjoying his summer vacation that he did not choose to run for a second term. Of great importance was the pervasive negative effect of prohibition. Also interesting: the rise of both J.Edgar Hoover and Herbert Hoover.

One Summer: America 1927 is a fascinating book, and I found it much more fascinating because my parents often remembered certain events that Bryson detailed.

My mother graduated from Soldan High School in St.Louis in June 1927. She often spoke of Lindbergh and how his great success dominated the last weeks of her high school experience. Lindbergh's flight had a variety of St.Louis connections. Her class motto was "Ad Astra" -- to the stars -- and her classmates' vision was of going to the stars in a plane like "The Spirit of St. Louis."

Less often, my father spoke of how devastated he felt when he heard of the death of Sacco and Vanzetti, whom he believed were innocent. My parents rarely mentioned the politicians of that era, and I seriously doubt that they ever mentioned or thought about baseball in that age -- though Bryson several times mentions the St.Louis Browns ball team in his descriptions of Babe Ruth and his team's success.

Here are some pages from my mother's scrap book and graduation memories that illustrate her experience of the year that Bryson wrote about. (I've used them in earlier blog posts a few years ago.)

Little souvenir plane on a place card from an
event celebrating my mother's graduating class.
Family photos from that time.
Class photo. My mother's photo (which also appears on the place card) is in row 5, column 5.
Somewhere on this photo is the most famous member of Soldan's 1927 graduating class. Her name at the time was Kitty Fink. Soon after graduation -- under the name Kay Thompson -- Kitty Fink became a Broadway and Hollywood character and author of the children's book series about little Eloise who lives at the Plaza in New York. My mother didn't really remember her, because at the time, Jewish students (like my mother) didn't mix with Christian students (like Kitty Fink). When my mother attended her 25th class reunion, Kay Thompson didn't show up. She was far too famous, and I think by that time her age had diminished too much to allow her to admit what year she had graduated.

I don't believe that my mother ever knew that Kitty Fink's paternal ancestors were Jewish but abandoned the religion. "Unfortunately, anti-Semitism existed on both sides of the Atlantic and so, like many others, the Finks submerged their Jewish heritage in order to assimilate into mainstream society," writes Kay Thompson's biographer.

Bryson deals with antisemitism in his discussion of Henry Ford and his trial that summer (where he officially rescinded his virulent attacks on Jews) and on the later support for Nazism of Charles Lindbergh. He mentions the fact that both of these paragons accepted and never repudiated medals from Hitler. I appreciated Bryson's treatment of this issue in the midst of all the excitement of the era.