Thursday, February 28, 2008

At the Botanical Garden

Lenny took the photos above with his relatively new SLR digital camera and his brand-new lens. Meanwhile, I took the following photos with my compact digital camera. You may have trouble recognizing one image because it was taken by holding my camera up to a kaleidoscope displayed with a large bowl of impatiens.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Myrtle on Department Stores

Myrtle adds the following to my post on department stores:
Our family has been connected with department stores. Grandpa Binder worked for Klines Department Store, and when he died, Uncle Ben and Uncle Jack both worked for Klines. I don't know if you remember Klines had an Easter window every year. One year, Uncle Jack brought home some of the baby chickens. We were living on Leland at the time. We kept them in a large cardboard box in the kitchen for the first few days. Then, they got bigger, and started jumping out of the box. I came home from school one day, and they were gone. I don't know what Grandma did with them, but imagine she killed them as they were pooping all over the kitchen.

My Mom would drag me downtown on the bus shopping. I hated going shopping, and to this day, I only like to go long enough to buy what I started out shopping for. I hate spending much time at the mall. As a child, I liked the Sears Roebuck catalogue. They had wonderful things in them that I could imagine having. Howard liked the catalogue, as they kept one in the out house, and in cold weather rolled up a few pages of it, lit it, and defrosted the seat before you sat on it.

When we were in Oklahoma City, I was on the board of the YWCA. They told with pride how the wealthy department store owner's wives integrated the city. Their husband's stores would not allow Negroes to sit at their lunch counters. The wives had a fund raiser for the YWCA with a concert, and allowed the Negroes to attend for the first time. The YWCA was one of the first organizations to integrate fully.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Department Stores

The painting “New York Department Store,” by Max Weber, painted 1915 -- which I saw (and photographed) yesterday at The Detroit Institute of Arts -- envisions a particular side of American life in its time. A similar vision appears in paintings of industrial scenes, railroads, bridges, and workers by painters such as Charles Demuth, Edward Hopper, Man Ray, Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, Joseph Stella, and Georgia O’Keeffe.

I was especially interested in this painting because I’ve been thinking and reading a bit about department stores and their importance in society. Department stores already had a firm place in urban life of the early 20th century – many had been in existence for over half a century by then, both in the US and abroad. In 1881, Emile Zola presented the department store as “an emblem of modernity and optimism,” in his novel Au Bonheur Des Dames -- The Ladies' Paradise.

At the time, the architecture of department stores was an urban fantasy. The Marshall Fields building on North State Street in Chicago (interior shown in the third photo) was built between 1893 and1915; it still stands in downtown Chicago today -- though now named Macy’s. From the New York Times: “The giant cast bronze clocks jutting from the store’s two western corners remain, as does the glass ceiling designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany… . Even the elevator button for the seventh floor, home to the famed Walnut Room and its chicken pot pie, is still green.”

In every generation and in every culture I’ve ever read about, shopping in some form is an important economic and leisure activity. Exactly how department stores (both in Zola’s Paris and in the US) formed the way people shopped is a fascinating subject. Usually only the women’s role as shoppers attracts the attention of writers, but in fact, men are shoppers too, and at some times, they must have shopped in department stores. After all, at some of the peak times, department stores were the major sellers of men’s clothing, books, appliances, and even tools -- counting Sears as a department store.

During their long founding years, department stores were relatively local -- Sears at that time was mainly mail order. The founders of these stores often played a role in the civic, social, cultural, and political life of their towns and cities. Marshall Field, founder of the Chicago store, was also a major benefactor of the Field Museum, named for him in 1905. Goldwater’s department store in Arizona produced 1964 Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. And so forth.

I think one of the biggest changes in the department store institution with the consolidation of everything into Macy’s (and maybe a couple of others, even including WalMart) is that these local wealthy people no longer exist to contribute to the life of their towns and cities. Although they may have at times used their wealth to dictate inappropriately, their contribution to local culture was probably on the whole positive, and the loss is probably on the whole negative.

In one sense, department stores have undergone 60 years of decline since they predominated American downtowns and urban shopping. However, they keep reinventing themselves. Shopping is still, if anything, the major out-of-home leisure pastime of Americans today – I suspect, I don’t actually have any statistics. A great deal of that time is spent in shopping malls, which usually have a descendant of one of the great old department stores.

My mother’s friend Annabelle M., in the 1950s and 1960s, used to spend every Thursday shopping in the big department stores in downtown St.Louis: Famous-Barr (a May Company store), Stix-Baer-and-Fuller, and Vandervoort’s. Each one had a huge building with vast numbers of floors dedicated to specialized merchandise. Mrs. M. did not drive a car, so she rode the bus or streetcar from her suburban home. In the evening, her husband met her for dinner and maybe more shopping – stores back then were only open one evening per week. They often (or perhaps always) ate at Miss Hullings’ cafeteria, another downtown institution. It seems to me that this set of habits only differs in a few details from the way modern families use shopping as recreation.

The J.L.Hudson corporation is memorialized as a named donor on the walls of the Detroit Art Institute, I noticed yesterday. Its downtown flagship store didn’t survive, as Detroit isn’t as lucky as Chicago and New York in still having any recognizable commercial life in its old downtown area (unless you count gambling). Its suburban mall stores first became Marshall Fields, and then Macy’s. But here in Ann Arbor, we can still shop in the old Hudson’s store -- now Macy's -- in our big mall, Briarwood. It gave up selling furniture and some other commodities long ago, but we can still buy perfume, cosmetics, linens, clothing for men, women, and children, and housewares of all sorts. I think it even still has a lunch place, though nothing like the old department store lunch places.

I’ve been reading a blog about the recent history of department stores. It has covered certain parts of the history, especially recent history. It concentrates on just how the stores moved around and changed. I hope the author will talk more about the various social details about the store owners and the shoppers. See this blog: That's the Press, Baby: The future of newspapers, copy editing, and how it all relates, like everything else, to department stores.

“Emile Zola, Au Bonheur Des Dames (The Ladies' Paradise)” by Elaine Showalter, from Penguin Classics.
“Loss of a Beloved Department Store Breeds a New Kind of Superfan,” New York Times, January 17, 2007
“Marshall Field and Company”-- web essay
“Views of the City: 1910s - 1940s” notes from the Georgia O’Keeffe museum, exhibit held 2001

Saturday, February 23, 2008

African Art in Detroit

The new presentation of the spectacular collection of African art at the Detroit Institute of Arts is highly enjoyable. I especially liked the collection of masks. The beauty, grace, and simplicity of the artworks is overpowering.

Detroit Institute of Arts

Burned out buildings, derelict properties, sad-looking people. All around the Detroit Institute of Arts is a city that long ago lost its luster. Inside, a completely different atmosphere.

After years of rebuilding, reorganizing, relabeling, the collections are spectacular. Today we concentrated on African arts, the Dutch Golden Age, and the era of the Impressionists and slightly afterwards. We admired some of the greatest masterpieces of the collection: the Diego Rivera murals, the Judith of Artemesia Gentilesche, the Wedding Dance by Brueghel, and several overpowering works by Rembrandt and his followers/studio.

Last week at the National Gallery in Washington, I also spent quite a bit of time on Rembrandt and his school, as well as Vermeer and other Dutch masters, so I have them very much in mind.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

About that Carbon Issue

I have worried about many unanswered questions on the concept of a "carbon footprint." Today's New Yorker offers a great deal of enlightenment -- it's long but really worth reading: Big Foot: In measuring carbon emissions, it’s easy to confuse morality and science, by Michael Specter February 25, 2008.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes:
"We all consume electricity generated by burning fossil fuels; most people rely on petroleum for transportation and heat. Emissions from those activities are not hard to quantify. Watching a plasma television for three hours every day contributes two hundred and fifty kilograms of carbon to the atmosphere each year; an LCD television is responsible for less than half that number. Yet the calculations required to assess the full environmental impact of how we live can be dazzlingly complex."

"Sea-freight emissions are less than a sixtieth of those associated with airplanes, and you don’t have to build highways to berth a ship. Last year, a study of the carbon cost of the global wine trade found that it is actually more 'green' for New Yorkers to drink wine from Bordeaux, which is shipped by sea, than wine from California, sent by truck. That is largely because shipping wine is mostly shipping glass."

"The environmental burden imposed by importing apples from New Zealand to Northern Europe or New York can be lower than if the apples were raised fifty miles away. ... the yield of New Zealand apples far exceeds the yield of those grown in northern climates, so the energy required for farmers to grow the crop is correspondingly lower. It also helps that the electricity in New Zealand is mostly generated by renewable sources, none of which emit large amounts of CO2."

"According to the latest figures, deforestation pushes nearly six billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. That amounts to thirty million acres—an area half the size of the United Kingdom—chopped down each year. Put another way, according to one recent calculation, during the next twenty-four hours the effect of losing forests in Brazil and Indonesia will be the same as if eight million people boarded airplanes at Heathrow Airport and flew en masse to New York."

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Eclipse on right now

"The Age of Shiva" by Manil Suri

I stayed up until midnight to finish The Age of Shiva by Manil Suri. This distinguishes me from the reviewer in the Washington Post who said he had trouble keeping at it, when he read the book. I found both the book and its narrator compelling.

Meera, the narrator and very central character of the book, addresses her interior monologue to her son, Ashvin. The first words of the book describe to him how she felt as a nursing mother. At the end of the book, her son has escaped her by going to high school in a far-away location. She receives a letter saying that he wouldn't be coming home for a holiday: her concluding words are imagining his hike in the hills and symbolically, his entire future without her. The unusual narrative technique was sometimes a little mannered, but all in all, I was impressed.

Indian history from Independence until about 1980 is a central feature of the book, though its impact on Meera is entirely personal. Among the members of her family and her husband's family are adherents of virtually every political side in the political struggles of the nation. They also represent a variety of Hindu religious piety and practice, which provide an interesting insight into both ritual and ways that people can hope that religion can bring desired results.

Both families had been refugees from the Pakistan side of the partition. Meera's father subsequently managed to found a successful printing business, thus providing generously for his daughters. He had been friendly with Muslims in his early life, and did not turn on them. He was anti-religious, and particularly hated customs that subordinated women, such as the requirement that women show their inferiority by touching the feet of their fathers and husbands. Her mother, in contrast, was illiterate and -- in her husband's view -- narrow and stupid.

Meera's father-in-law was unlucky: he never regained the status he had had before, though he eked out a living. Her sister-in-law, unluckiest of all, belonged to a family that had to walk the long distance, live in a refugee camp, and eventually, all die of the experience. Meera's husband and his family became pious Hindus and very anti-Muslim in a variety of ways. Every individual's politics felt to them like a response to what they had suffered. Each war and election affected these relatives, though Meera seemed to have no passion about the events, only to feel the consequences from the family members' actions.

In many ways, Meera seems able only to react, never to control what happens to her. Her attempted rebellions are often self-destructive, beginning with her marriage to Dev, a handsome and winning singer who was originally her sister's boyfriend. When her sister chooses marriage to a much richer and socially higher man, she goes after Dev. Her reward is to live with his large extended family in a cramped apartment, where two brothers and their wives share the single bedroom. Repeatedly, she asks her father for financial help, and then rebels against him as he tries to force her to exert herself and become a more liberated woman. Eventually her father buys them an independent apartment far from home, offering her a new life -- the subject of the book.

Finally, after around a decade of marriage, Meera gives birth to Ashvin, and begins her main experience in life: obsessive adoration and love of the boy. As she describes her growing emotional dependence on him, she shows herself to be a complex character. She tries for self-awareness, but doesn't seem to possess much.

This is the most amazing feature of the book: a narrator who knows her weaknesses but really can't grasp what to do or get the big picture at all. Eventually even Meera's mother makes a more effective move towards self-actualization, as does a neighbor woman in a brief sub-plot about Muslim marriage and divorce. The contradictions in Meera's life seem illuminated by her narrative without her actually grasping exactly what they were, and this makes the book quite fascinating.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Hong Kong: Stanley Market, 2000

Mona Lisa: you never know when she'll turn up!

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Heron Island, Australia

What is climate change doing to these birds? They were stressed at the time of our trip, 1998.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Climate Change

Having enjoyed the book The Future Eaters, I decided to read another by Tim Flannery: The Weather Makers. It's a terrifying read about how much damage earth has already suffered from global climate change due to human energy use. It's an object lesson in the type of collapse that Jared Diamond wrote about in Collapse -- but it's the whole world.

Flannery's native Australia (about which he said such interesting things in The Future Eaters) is on the front lines. The Great Barrier Reef was just beginning to suffer from coral bleaching when I was there in the 1990s. Birds on Heron Island were having trouble finding food when they went out to sea, and therefore having trouble feeding their young. I had no idea how much worse it had become, nor how fast the damage was accelerating.

The Weather Makers' publication date was just a couple of years ago. The author provides many specific pieces of evidence of changes, many irreversible. The fog on a mountain top somewhere in the South Pacific lifts slightly, leaving the area too dry; forest fires then wipe out the forest. Frog species are disappearing. Eskimo hunters see drowned polar bears. Some events point more definitively to climate change than others, but the story adds up inexorably. Flannery also documents how special interests and their government supporters commission studies to contradict scientific findings that might jeopardize profits. About all of this, he is very convincing.

Every day I seem to learn new clues about creeping changes in the global environment beyond what was in the book. My tree service told me that my area of Michigan was being re-zoned: that is, different plants would be classified as comfortable here. Birch trees, which once grew happily here, are now endangered by pests that couldn't survive the slightly colder winters of the past. In southern Italy, we read last summer, a new disease from Africa has emerged.

Specific facts, one by one, are always challenged: maybe there's another explanation, not climate change. An article this week in Slate Magazine summarized:
While they readily accept the associations between climate and infectious agents, scientists balk at stating exactly what a change in climate might cause. This reluctance lies both in the complexity of disease and in the nature of science, in the need to build a case incrementally, fact by fact. Asking a scientist to predict the spread of disease is like asking him or her, while standing in the midst of a tornado, to predict how the landscape will change by measuring the direction and amount of debris flying by.
However, the article continues:
What is the alternative to endless discussion? Recent editorials in the New England Journal of Medicine and the Lancet call for accepting, even without 100 percent certainty, the accumulating body of evidence that climate change will affect infectious diseases. ... We may not know precisely what causes what. But we don't have to sit back and wait to see what the weather will do.
Now I know much more than I bargained for, and feel much more helpless than I did before. Any attempt to envision the future in, say, a hundred years presents me with a terrible distopia. Well, maybe only genre writers of sci-fi or fantasy try to envision the future that far out anyway. I can't do it.

Saturday, February 02, 2008


Jocondologie is the study or collection of objects concerning the Mona Lisa -- in French, she's called "La Joconde" -- meaning the smiling one. The very first Jocondologist was Jean Margat, who wrote a long treatise on the subject. He also coined the word "Jocondologie."

I have practiced Jocondologie for a long time. Here are a few photos from my Jocondological room:

My newest item: a pop-up book called Where are you, Mona:

La Joconde on the stairway:
For more on my collections see: In the pantry, Mona Lisa is really Mrs. Gioconda, and What did Mona Lisa Eat?

Friday, February 01, 2008

New TV, No New Content

Yes, it's a car ad:

We are working out the details of how to hook up everything -- by evening we will watch a Netflick.