Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sketching in Public

Illustration from today's "Ethicist" column in the New York Times.

The ethical question: is it ok for someone to sketch strangers while riding the subway? Long story short: Chuck the Ethicist says it's ok. See: "Sketched Out on the Subway"

The other question: what does Mona Lisa have to do with this? The usual answer: nothing at all, she just makes a nice image when your illustrator lacks imagination.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Paris Burning

Riots in Sarcelles, a suburb of Paris, July 20, 2014. Photo from Haaretz.
Paris "inside the walls" is a peaceful and beautiful place, full of incredible historic buildings, restaurants of notable quality, museums and churches, boutiques and open-air markets, and picturesque street scenes. Central Paris is home to around 2 million people. The other 9 million or so Parisians live outside this magnificent and museum-like marvel. The Paris suburbs include many beautiful, tree-lined neighborhoods and delightful parks such as the Bois de Boulogne. But there's another part of Paris that no tourist need ever experience: the impoverished suburbs where immigrant communities live in a different world.

Many of the immigrants are Muslims, who are alienated from  the French mainstream. They suffer from high unemployment and predictable social problems. For the last two weekends, these Muslims and others have demonstrated against Israel -- and against all Jews -- engaging in antisemitic violence of a type that's all too recognizable. Demonstrators have attacked a synagogue while chanting "Jews to the ovens," looted Jewish-owned shops, and beaten individuals who were walking on the streets.

After violence the previous weekend, demonstrations were prohibited for July 20, but took place anyway. An editorial in the New York Times writes of the demonstrations: "While many protesters stayed home, some defied the ban to assert what they said was their right to demonstrate peacefully. Others came bent on violence, including some spewing virulent anti-Semitic views. In the largely immigrant neighborhood of Barbès on Saturday and on Sunday in the northern suburb of Sarcelles, demonstrations degenerated into street battles between protesters hurling stones and police firing tear gas. In Barbès, an Israeli flag was burned. In Sarcelles, a kosher market was looted, cars set on fire, shop windows smashed, a funeral home attacked."

From Haaretz:
"It is unacceptable to target synagogues or shops simply because they are managed by Jews," Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told reporters during a visit to Sarcelles, which is also home to large non-Jewish immigrant populations. 
"Nothing can justify anti-Semitism, noting can justify that kind of violence. This will be fought and sanctioned," he said. 
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Manuel Valls has denounced a "new form of anti-Semitism" on the Internet that he said was spreading among youth in working-class neighborhoods. Speaking as France honored some 13,000 Jews rounded up 72 years ago, most kept in a cycling stadium before being sent to Auschwitz, Valls said, "France will not allow provocations to feed ... conflicts between communities."
I've been participating in the blog event "Paris in July." It's nostalgic, artistic, literary, and beautiful -- all about Paris inside the walls, where all is peaceful. A paradise on earth. I'm posting this as a kind of balancing view of the not-so-paradisical Paris.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Paris in my Mind's Eye

When I think of Paris, vignettes from the past, from novels, and from films fill my mind's eye -- along with the standard images of boulevards, monuments, and metro rides. I think of the Musee Carnavalet, full of Paris history -- and recall one particular exhibit, the actual furnishings and noise-deadening wall-coverings of Proust's actual bedroom where he wrote. The museum has a long page devoted to this room. I'm thinking of it partly because Proust was a contemporary of Edouard de Pomiane, the cookbook author who is the subject of my current research project.

Musee Carnavalet: Proust's Bedroom
At the moment, I'm reading Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette a biography by Judith Thurman. Colette lived in Paris and was a nearly exact contemporary of my subject, Pomiane. They may have lived in the same city, but in two totally different worlds! The cover of her book, published 1920:
Another view of Paris: I recall scenes from Godard's film "Breathless," especially the scenes where Jean Seberg was selling the Herald-Tribune on the street. When I saw the film recently, it took me back to my first visit to Paris, a few years after the film was made.
From the New York Times: a scene from Breathless
And the film Pépé le Moko (1937) has memories of Paris, the title character's home, though the action takes place in Algiers. A certain style of film noir from the thirties was characteristic of the way Parisian film makers worked.

Last year, I had just come back from Paris before the blog event "Paris in July." It's been a year since the trip, but my mental images have not faded. Back then, I listed a number of films that featured Paris. They were: "Charade," "Hugo," Disney's "Hunchback of Notre Dame,""Last Tango in Paris," "Midnight in Paris," "Night on Earth," "Ratattouille," "Sous les toits de Paris" and "Zazie in the Metro."  Now I've thought of these two -- I suspect there are many more.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

My Art Fair, Ann Arbor, 2014

Ibrahim's Booth
Last week was the Ann Arbor Art Fair, a madhouse of art and commercial selling of all sorts of merchandise, snacks, bottled water, tee-shirts, and more that extends throughout the downtown area and on campus. I spent a few hours walking around there by myself on Wednesday when it opened, and more on Thursday evening with friends. The "original" fair, which began 52 years ago, was formerly at the south side of campus. It's now on the campus near the Carl Milles fountain and the Michigan League. And it's always my favorite. This year I saw many appealing booths there, belonging to artists in glass, ceramics, clothing, photography, painting, hand-woven straw hats, jewelry, and more.

My only purchase was from Ibrahim, a dealer in african masks, who rents some space from the owner of a shop just outside the fair. He has no official designation, he just drives in and sets up where  he has a space. I have purchased masks from  him in previous years, and I admire his selection of high-quality wood carvings from many African tribes. I believe that he travels to Africa to obtain his wares.

Masks on my living room wall. The two small ones are this year's purchase.
Our new masks come from the same area as the existing mask above them. Ibrahim says they are "passport masks," that is, carried as identification of the person's membership in a particular tribe or group. Many tribes create small masks for various personal use. They can be amulets to protect hunters, they might be kept secret in one's home, or might be worn on one's arm to show affiliations.

All three masks have a central bird figure above the face. In the new mask to the right, the bird leans over, and its beak also forms the nose of the mask. This identifies them as coming from Ivory Coast, from the Guro division of the Senufo people. We suspect that our masks were used in a village because their interiors smell strongly but pleasantly of wood smoke, as if they have been near a campfire, but neither the interiors nor the beautifully finished exteriors show any signs of burning. Of course this is only a guess.

For more information on the mask we've owned for a while, see this blog post that I did when we bought that mask.

All Sold Out!

Gallup Park Birds

A few days ago, we rented a canoe and paddled around the pond at Gallup Park looking for birds. Len has already posted them on Flickr, but I wanted to have them here as well:

A young green heron. Its parents were nearby. All were surprisingly unafraid of the canoe.

A sandpiper walking on the lily pads

A baby cliff swallow waiting for its parents to bring food --
we watched the adults go in and out of the nests.

Many swallow nests are just underneath the bike path on the
road bridge over the water.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Agave in Bloom, Matthei Botanical Gardens

This agave plant at the Botanical Gardens showed signs of its one and only
blooming cycle a few months ago. It has now grown through the roof (the
management opened up a roof panel) and is in bloom. After it blooms, it dies --
but leaves clones called pups as its survivors.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Jane Franklin

A Review of our Next Book Club Selection
Jill Lepore: Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

Missed opportunities. Missing opportunities. Impoverishment of environment and spirit as a woman wastes her potential and suffers from deprivation that she might have overcome if only she were not a woman. This is a story that's become old. But in this book it's new again because it's a particular woman's story that illustrates the now-almost-boring complaints. In Book of Ages, Jill Lepore makes us see this story in the life of Jane Franklin Mecom, younger sister of Benjamin Franklin.

Lepore begins by warning us of how little information about her subject survives -- and indeed, how little there was in the first place. Many of Jane's letters were lost or destroyed in the years after her death, but the few that are cited aren't very detailed about the types of things that inform most biographers. Her main source is a little "Book of Ages" that Jane kept with the dates of births and deaths in her family -- a poignant little reminder of mortality in her era.

Many types of other sources fill out the slim pickings Lepore found in actual primary data. As it happens, I have read:

  • Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson 
  • The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin 
  • A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
  • A number of 18th century novels, and biographies, histories, and historical novels about the era, including Pamela by Samuel Richardson 
  • The novels of Jane Austen 
  • Various works by feminists documenting the lack of historical material about the lives of women in general or of specific women in early times. 

In a sense, these are all important sources to read before reading Book of Ages. One especially: Lepore summarizes the point made by Virginia Woolf when she invented a sister for Shakespeare. With the same gifts and talents, a woman before the 19th century had virtually no chance to develop into a writer or a successful person. Woolf's imaginary Judith Shakespeare died at age 15 -- having tried to be independent, she instead became pregnant and thus a suicide.

Benjamin Franklin's sister was a real person of course, not the least made up. She too seems to have become pregnant at 15, but her respectability was saved by marriage. She gave birth to 12 children, raised those who didn't die in infancy, and then raised several orphaned grandchildren and, in what was then considered extreme old age (that is, around as old as I am now which doesn't seem extreme to me!), cared for two great-grandchildren. She's much like that imaginary sister Woolf invented, but a survivor.

A pressing theme about the life of a woman -- even a life without much of what we think of as biographic detail -- was the incredible death rate among people 250 years ago. Children, Lepore says, learned to foresee their own deaths by experiencing the deaths of their brothers and sisters... this happened often to Jane's children and grandchildren. Disease, accidents -- it was a terrible time, the past!

A lot of the book is about Benjamin Franklin -- many of his letters to Jane survived, and his actions and accomplishments are extremely well-known. Thus, through much of the book, his sister seems to be a reflexion of him. His success at improving his wealth and social position contrasts to her poverty and immobility. For example, when it came to religious ideas, Jane was much more of a believer than Franklin, and her ideas are given in the context of his ideas. Like most of the Founding Fathers, Franklin was completely skeptical and even at times derisive about religion. I loved Lepore's method of dealing with one piece of missing information: there's no record of the text of a funeral sermon for one of Jane's many relatives. So Lepore reproduced Franklin's satire of such a sermon, where he did a send-up the hypocrisy of such sermons and much about his contempt of preaching.

A few places where Jane's life was independent from Franklin are very interesting. During the Revolutionary War she had to leave her house in Boston along with the majority of the population, and she became a refugee, going to live with various relatives in other cities. [I couldn't help comparing this part of her story to recent newspaper accounts of the refugees from a revolutionary war today in Syria. History repeats itself in terrible ways.] Jane's opinions of the struggle against the British don't only reflect those of her brother -- Lepore shows how she did have her own opinions.

At times the lack of detail about Jane's life becomes maddening to the author, who communicates this frustration to the reader. Most infuriating -- the disappearance of many of the letters she wrote to her famous brother, which would surely tell us much of great interest. But Lepore never loses sight of the central point: the details that we would find meaningful were of no interest whatsoever to the contemporaries of the two Franklin siblings. Benjamin was an extraordinarily accomplished writer, scientist, philosopher, diplomat and more -- so his life was worth remembering. While he left Boston and found his fortune, his sister stayed there all her life. She was a poor housewife with a bad businessman for a husband and children who became mad, died, or became dependent on her. Jane coped in many ways, taking in borders, trying to have a shop, and more.

Why bother to write her biography at all? That's the most infuriating thing: we really want to know about her. Lepore makes us want to know. A long time ago, the motive for knowing about women like Jane was driven by feminism but now, I think, we just wish we could have that picture of what Lepore calls "how the other half lives" which is a quotation from Poor Richard/Benjamin Franklin.

To quote the conclusion of the New York Times reviewer of this book:
... in the end, the message of the book is: Lepore shows how the lives of the siblings were irrevocably shaped by gender. The brother, a man able to rise from poverty and to become a successful politician, is universally acknowledged to have been a genius. Was his sister one too? We cannot know, because her life was as much determined by her gender identity as was his: a woman who married young and badly, she spent most of her life mired in poverty, until — having buried her husband and raised children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren — she was able in her old age to live sparely but comfortably in a brick house in Boston’s North End, to read books her brother supplied and to write him letters. But, Lepore tellingly observes, if she read his memoirs, published before she died in 1794, “she would have discovered: he never mentioned her.”

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Yesterday's activity was a bird watching tour with Hawaii Forest and Trail: a highly-recommended operation that lived up to its reputation. We were very lucky to have a beautiful sunny day with views of distant mountains.
We started along the old saddle road where Hawaiian owls often
sit on the fence posts.
We had almost given up when this Pueo -- the native owl -- flew past us and landed near the fence, just as we had hoped.
Next stop: the Pu'u La'u trail at a wildlife and game refuge
where rare Hawaiian birds live. Vests are just in case a hunter was around.
We saw this normally elusive bird, the Palila, once nearly extinct,
as well as several others.
Next stop: the Upper Waiakea Forest Reserve, happily above the
mosquito line which is good for both birds and people.
We walked there for several hours on lava trails through woods and
open land, each location with a different feel and appearance.
In an open area we watched two I'os -- native hawks --
screaming as they hunted.
Lunchtime in a little forest spot with mossy tree trunks.
We were delighted with the variety and beauty of birds and landscape, and impressed by the various abilities and helpful attitude of our guide, Mark. All the bird photos are Len's; the others are mine. And tonight we have plans to fly home on the red-eye.