Monday, May 31, 2010

The Worst Possible Way to Settle an Argument

"War is cruelty. There's no use trying to reform it, the crueler it is the sooner it will be over."
~ William Tecumseh Sherman

When I was a child, Memorial Day was the day when Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, high school bands and uniformed, sash-wearing men lined up in the street outside my house. Eventually the bands began to play and the line, which seemed to contain more people than I'd ever seen together, paraded into town, down the main street and to Memorial Field, where speeches were made, music was played and tributes were paid. Whether stooped with age or not-yet-grown, everyone looked so proud. I wanted so much to be part of it, I joined the Brownie Scouts for a brief time. It was only later, during Vietnam, that I made the association with death.

"So long as there are men there will be wars."
~ Albert Einstein

Memorial Day (originally called Decoration Day) was created shortly after the end of the Civil War. Waterloo, New York, is considered the holiday's birthplace because it has come together as a community to decorate the graves of soldiers with flowers every year since 1866. Above, soldiers from New York State pose with their artillery. Below, Union soldiers prepare for the Battle of Cumberland.

Memorial Day was first observed in a more official way in 1868, when General John Logan issued an order that flowers should be placed on the graves of Union soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

The photo above shows Union soldiers wounded on the first day of battle at Fredericksburg. Below, the bodies of Confederate soldiers collected for burial after the battle of Spottsylvania.

“Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin they think of firelit homes, clean beds, and wives.”
~ Siegfried Sassoon 

Siegried Sassoon, the British poet, knew whereof he spoke. He served bravely in the trenches in World War I. He saw friends die, was wounded himself and refused to return to battle after his convalescence because, as he wrote to his commanding officer, "I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest." It has often been observed that politicians start wars and soldiers finish them; politicians also extend them.

Today's post is my puny tribute to all the brave soldiers, living and dead. As William Makepeace Thackeray wrote, “Bravery never goes out of fashion.”

  • The Civil War photos above, and many, many more, are part of the Library of Congress's online Civil War Archive. You can view the photos here
  • For wonderful photos of today's U.S. Military, go to this website and see what military members are posting on Flickr.
  • The wonderful photo of Arlington National Cemetery above was found on this Flickr photostream. I hope the gifted photographer, known only as Stuck in Customs, doesn't mind.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Look — up in the Sky!

"We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened."
~ Mark Twain

On Monday the website posted this photo of the Soul Nebula, a cluster of stars, dust and gases 6,500 light years from Earth in the constellation Cassiopeia. The photo was taken by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer telescope (known to its friends as WISE), which has been orbiting the earth surveying the sky for infrared phenomena since December 2009. If you think the Soul Nebula looks breathtaking here, click on this link for a closer view — prepare yourself for some true, jaw-dropping awe.

The Soul Nebula has a companion cluster; because astrophysicists are poetic punsters at heart, its name is the Heart Nebula. Here is a photo of the Heart and Soul Nebulae together.

Click here for the mind-boggling close-up.

But you don't have to travel light years for a dose of wonder from above; plenty is on display just above your neighborhood. For example, here in New York City, North America, Earth, we are just a few days away from the annual astro-architectural phenomenon known as "Manhattanhenge," when the sun sets in perfect alignment with the East-West streets of Manhattan. This year the event will take place on May 30–31 and July 11–12.

Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, director of the American Museum of Natural History's Hayden Planetarium, coined the name Manhattanhenge in 2002, but the spectacle has been an annual occurrence since Manhattan adopted its grid-based street plan in 1811. Click here to read Tyson's brief article about this year's event on the Hayden Planetarium website.

And please take 16 seconds to watch this video of Manhattanhenge in action. (If you receive Divinipotent Daily by e-mail, please click on this link or visit Divinipotent Daily online to see the video.)

"My companion and I were alone with the stars; the misty river of the Milky Way flowing across the sky, the patterns of the constellations standing out bright and clear, a blazing planet low on the horizon. It occurred to me that if this were a sight that could only be seen once in a century, this little headland would be thronged with spectators. But it can be seen many scores of nights in any year, and so the lights burned in the cottages and the inhabitants probably gave not a thought to the beauty overhead; and because they could see it almost any night, perhaps they never will."
~ Rachel Carson

Monday, May 24, 2010

Alcohol by Volume

"Alcohol is necessary for a man so that he can have a good opinion of himself, undisturbed by the facts."
~ Finley Peter Dunne

As anyone who knows me will assure you, I am a person who likes a glass of wine...or a gin and tonic...or a gin martini (extremely dry, extremely cold) at least as well as the next person. But I am not a fan of drunkenness and have seen far too many wonderful people brought down by alcohol.

Last October Malcolm Gladwell, the New Yorker writer and author of books including The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers, gave a talk on drinking problems at the annual New Yorker Festival. He had come across some research done by Yale and others several decades ago and found some surprises. The main one, as he noted in a February 15, 2010 New Yorker article, was this: "Drunkenness is not disinhibition. Drunkenness is myopia."

As he explained, "Alcohol makes the thing in the foreground even more salient and the thing in the background disappear. That's why drinking makes you think you are attractive when the world thinks otherwise: the alcohol removes the little constraining voice from the outside world that normally keeps our self-assessments in check."

During his talk, Gladwell described the role of social norms in controlling drunkenness. The model far too many young Americans follow — getting blotto and, not infrequently, getting into trouble — is not the only option. In other parts of the world, people drink without behaving like imbeciles.

I found myself thinking about that the other night as I walked up Third Avenue in Manhattan. It was a balmy Thursday evening, the kind that leads young women to slip into their slinkiest outfits and highest heels and head wherever the young men they fancy gather. On Third Avenue, that means bars with sidewalk seating. Two things stood out to me: (1) the ritualistic behavior of these mobs of nubile young people peacocking around in their finery; and (2) the deafening volume of their flirtations.

I have yet to step into a crowded tea house or coffee bar where anyone had to yell to be heard. What is it about alcohol that encourages shouting? Perhaps science or Malcolm Gladwell will answer this one day.

"Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic. The second is intimate. The third is routine. After that you take the girl's clothes off."
~ Raymond Chandler

Photo by liber, posted on Flickr Commons.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

In Blues

"Blues means what milk does to a baby. Blues is what the spirit is to the minister. We sing the blues because our hearts have been hurt, our souls have been disturbed."
~ Alberta Hunter

The original idea was to write a series of posts about colors, starting with the word "blue" because it has become a symbol of everything from pornography (blue movies) to police officers (men in blue). The wonderful online resource Wordnik lists dozens of words contributors associate with blue, from aqua to ultramarine.

But the more I thought about blue, the more I was drawn to the musical form known as the blues. Although I can find something to like in every musical genre, blues has been my favorite since the first moment I encountered it. And, thinking back, I realized that encounter happened when I was seven and first heard Peggy Lee sing "Blues in the Night" in Walt Disney's Lady and the Tramp.

(Note: My template is not in sync with the video aspect ratio, so just click on the song titles if you want to see videos full size.)

Not long after that, I first heard Billie Holiday's amazing voice coming through the radio singing "Am I Blue." Here's a video of her singing another classic, "Fine and Mellow" (mislabeled "Lady Sings the Blues" by the person who posted it.) Not even the ravages of her addiction, which are clearly visible here, can take away her vocal magic.

So, today, my subject is the blues in its many forms — from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago to New York City jazz, with a little country and folk music thrown in because those genres, too, sing about hurt hearts and disturbed souls. My selection is fairly arbitrary — left to my own devices, I'd include so much music that this post would consume more time than any of us probably have.

Nina Simone singing "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood"

From the tragic past of the Delta, Son House sings "Death Letter Blues"

Country singer Gillian Welch is haunting in her mournful "Orphan Girl" (unfortunately, someone has added some rather terrible graphics — feel free to ignore them)

The great Buddy Guy tells us about the "First Time I Met the Blues"

Joni Mitchell is on the run from the blues in "Hejira"

Etta James is so blue, she says "I'd Rather Go Blind"

But nobody plays the blues more transcendantly than Miles Davis. I'll end with "All Blues" from his classic album, Kind of Blue.

"Hearing the blues changed my life."
~ Van Morrison

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

More Evidence That Sisterhood Is Powerful?

"Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then."
~ Katharine Hepburn

In its April 2010 issue, Scientific American described a recent UCLA study about the ways men and women respond to stress. We've all heard a lot about the "fight or flight" stress response, but researcher and psychologist Mara Mather says that instinct doesn't apply so neatly to women. As Scientific American put it, "Men get antisocial under pressure, but women tend to react in the opposite way: they 'tend and befriend'."

In conducting the study, which you can read about here, researchers immersed people's hands in either icy or warm water — this apparently causes the stress hormone cortisol to spike. They then placed their male and female subjects in what I presume was an fMRI brain scanner and studied their reactions to photographs of faces. (Scientists have been able to study the part of the brain that responds to faces for a while now.)

The researchers found that men's empathetic response and interest in faces diminished under stress, indicating withdrawal. Meanwhile, when women's cortisol levels shot up, they worked hard to read facial expressions and empathize. And this, they say, is evidence of women's tendency to tend and friend.

What do you think: valuable insight or scientific over-reach?

"One good reason to only maintain a small circle of friends is that three out of four murders are committed by people who know the victim."
~ George Carlin

Friday, May 14, 2010

Instant Vacation

"A change is as good as a rest."

My mother believed in that proverb. She said it to me more than once, and I've found it to be true.

Lately I've realized that certain photographs have the power to deliver the sort of change that adds up to rest for me. Here's an example, a photo of Newburgh, New York in 1906.

Click on the photo to enlarge it or go here to see it larger. Look at the storefront full of bonnets that look like prize ribbons, the furniture and wicker pram in the shop next door, the patient horse pulling its wagon on a street scored with trolley tracks. Already, the first horseless carriages are there. Imagine living here. Wherever you look, there's more to see.

Feel rested?

Perhaps an other-worldly vacation is what you're seeking. If so, I recommend the website of Jonathan Harris, who has moved to Iceland and begun posting daily photos like this one. (Harris is a man of many talents; I've written about him before, here.) Add yourself to his e-mail list for a dose of daily amazement, a change and a rest.

Too much work, and no vacation,
Deserves at least a small libation.
So hail! my friends, and raise your glasses,
Work's the curse of the drinking classes!
~ Oscar Wilde

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Pill for Mothers and Others

"No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother."
~ Margaret Sanger

(Note: Today's post appeared in a slightly different form on the New York Women in Communications blog Aloud.)

Last Sunday was Mother’s Day and, with just a hint of irony, it was also the 50th anniversary of the birth control pill. Gail Collins wrote a wonderful, wry column about this strange simultaneity and the history of women’s efforts to take control over their reproductive lives in Saturday’s New York Times. Click here to read it.

Although I was only 12 when the pill hit town and knew very little about sex, even I realized something life-changing had happened. For married women, the pill brought the reality of family planning and all the benefits that come with it. For all women, it brought the freedom to enjoy sex without worrying about pregnancy. It was a big step toward a world where women were could decide their own destinies.

As this 1967 Time magazine cover suggests, the pill also hastened the rise of feminism in the late ’60s — and did so in at least one way nobody talks about. The pill ushered in the “Free Love” movement on college campuses; students rejected puritanical restrictions and promoted having as much sex as possible with as many partners as possible (remember, those were the days before herpes, AIDS and hepatitis C were on the radar). The catch: young women who enjoyed sex and/or had multiple partners were still called sluts, whores and “nymphos.”  (Which reminds me: when is the last time you heard anyone call a man “promiscuous”?)

It did not take long for women to figure out that while they were now in charge of their reproductive cycles, they were still regarded as lesser beings. And in my experience, nowhere was this more prevalent than in the anti-war movement. In campus political organizations, men rarely took women’s opinions seriously, expecting us to go make coffee and sandwiches while they talked business. It reminded me of the 1800s, when men would repair to the smoking salon after dinner for conversation, while women did the dishes and, one supposes, fanned themselves to ward off the vapors.

Is it just a coincidence that so many of the women who fought for the ERA and founded the feminist movement had previously organized and marched for civil rights and for ending the war in Vietnam? I don’t think so. 

"We want far better reasons for having children than not knowing how to prevent them." 
~ Dora Winifred Black Russell

Monday, May 10, 2010

What's in a Name?

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
~ John Quincy Adams

When a little cafĂ© opened around the corner a few months back, the cashiers began asking customers for their names. At first, when I was the only customer, I refused on principle — it’s not as if they were introducing themselves. But now that I’m one of a crowd waiting for take-out, I’ve decided to comply. I told them my name is Ella.

Why Ella? Because it brings to mind one of my unsung personal heroes, my Aunt Ella. So today I sing of Ella.

My mother taught me many invaluable lessons — to treat people with respect, to stay calm when others were not, to make people feel welcome and to understand that when people were unkind, it was their problem, not mine. Ella taught me something just as important: that once you truly set your mind to do a thing, nothing is impossible. This blurry photo shows Ella at the far left and my mother at the right. (I am the preteen child with the hideous green bow.)

Ella Conrad Van Aken, the youngest of three sisters, was born in 1884 in Kingston, New York, where Dutch settlers put down roots in 1651. When she was a toddler, her parents became managers of a hotel in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Those were the days when Asbury Park was a high-end resort, not the rundown seaside town Bruce Springsteen later sang about. The postcard shown here is not the hotel where Ella grew up — I don't think the Van Akens' property was anywhere near as grand — but it does offer a good sense of the era.

Ella was a tiny, bright, curious child who charmed the hotel guests so thoroughly, people would take her home to Philadelphia or Washington or Boston for visits. By the time she was ten she had seen, if not the world, at least major points of interest in the Northeastern U.S.

Five closely spaced recessions in the 1890s destroyed Asbury Park's resort hotel business. And so it was that in 1902, when few women had office jobs, teen-aged Ella worked as a bookkeeper at Scribner & Sons on Fifth Avenue. (This photo shows the Scribner’s storefront, a New York City landmark. The building is now occupied by Sephora, but the Scribner & Sons name remains on the facade.)

By 1910 Ella’s oldest sister, Jeanette, had “married an Englishman” and moved to London, and Ella and her middle sister, Bessie, lived in a rental apartment in Manhattan’s 12th  Ward — the area above 86th Street. It was near a 12th Ward subway stop that Ella first caught sight of my father’s handsome Uncle Jim — James McConville. Eventually, someone arranged an introduction. Soon they married and became two of the first tenants to move to the then brand-new community of Jackson Heights, Queens. (The photo below shows a street of those original Jackson Heights apartments today.)

By the time I got to know Ella in the 1950s, she was a widow and had recently learned to drive. She was also quite deaf and wore hearing aids that whistled. She still lived in Jackson Heights, but had moved to a smaller apartment than the one in which she and Jim had raised their son, James, Jr. Ella’s apartment was the first place where I ever saw a kitchenette; Ella’s was tucked behind a pair of louvered doors.

Ella used to look after my sisters and I when my parents were traveling. She taught me how to draw a cardigan sweater with tiny buttons down the front — an urgent fashion accessory for my paper dolls. Somehow, this opened my eyes to the world of three-dimensional objects; no more stick figures for me!

Ella was a lifelong rye drinker, a serious bridge player and a person with strong opinions about fashion. If you wore an outfit Ella didn’t like, she would say, “That doesn’t do anything for you.” She understood something most people have forgotten: Clothes are supposed to make you look good, not vice-versa.

Ella was in her early 70s when she first announced she was “ready to fold her arms” — by which she meant, die. She gave up her apartment, took her favorite furniture and mementos and moved to a sunny, private room in what was then called the Miriam Osborn Home for Indigent Protestant Gentlewomen.

The Osborn, an enormous Westchester mansion surrounded by landscaped gardens, shady trees and sweeping lawns, was founded by philanthropist Miriam Osborn in the 1890s as a place for impoverished older women to enjoy their final years. And while it has changed in recent years, in Ella's day, that's exactly what it was.

Ella immediately settled into the surprisingly competitive bridge scene. If she or any other resident wanted to go shopping, a limousine showed up. It was quite the life, and Ella enjoyed it so much that she lived and lived, despite her arm-folding protestations.

By the time she was in her mid-80s, Ella stopped telling people her age — she was afraid newcomers would think she was too old to play bridge. But when she reached her late 90s, aches and pains were troubling her and again she spoke about arm-folding. We made her promise to live to 100, so we could throw her a big party.

Ella finally folded those little arms of hers in February 1985 at age 100 and ¼, three months after her big birthday party. I still miss her and think of her all the time.

“Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened.”
~ Dr. Seuss

Friday, May 7, 2010

Writers and Poets Among Friends

“The union of the mathematician with the poet, fervor with measure, passion with correctness, this surely is the ideal.”
~ William James

Last night, in a room on the 10th floor of New York University's Kimmel Center, with the lights of the New York City skyline shining through the windows, the Academy of American Poets held a tribute to poet, editor, mentor and friend to writers Daniel Halpern.

Halpern is the founder and editor of Ecco Press, which publishes everyone from Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali to Joyce Carol Oates, Ian Frazier and Werner Herzog. He was also, with Paul Bowles, the co-founder of Antaeus, which many of the night's speakers called the best literary magazine ever (Antaeus published from 1970 to 1994).

Paying tribute were novelists Richard Ford and Joyce Carol Oates, chef-author-TV personality Anthony Bourdain and poets John Ashbery, Janie Fink, Jorie Graham, Robert Hass and Campbell McGrath. Each spoke about Halpern's influence, his friendship, his editorial genius and his insight as a teacher. And then they read his poetry.

There are no reality shows about serious poets and novelists, who normally do their work quietly. If we see them at all, it is as if through a telescope — as a brightness in the distance or, like the late David Foster Wallace, a comet streaking across the sky. This was different. Being in the audience last night felt like sitting by a warm fire, just listening, while a group of close friends shared stories.

Joyce Carol Oates revealed an impish, playful sense of humor that gave her waif-like appearance a Tim Burtonesque air. Richard Ford was insightful and hilarious, repeatedly tiptoeing up to the point of a roast and then backing away. Describing his decades-long friendship with Halpern, he said something extraordinary: that they never talked about cars they once owned or drank beer together or indulged in any other rituals of male bonding behavior, so all that was left was to be close friends.

Halpern stood up at the end to thank his friends and spoke briefly about his life among writers. It was obvious why so many are so fond of him. He's a man with an enormous zest for life. Who wouldn't want to be his friend?

A poem by Daniel Halpern...

Careless Perfection

According to Lin Yutang,
both Po Chuyi and Su Tungpo
"desperately admired" Tao Yuanming,

a poet of nature who wrote a single love poem,
a poem thought by Chinese dilettantes to be
the one "blemish in a white jade."

Can a poet be faulted for calling a woman
carelessly perfect in beauty?
He chose to long for her by envying

the candle that glowed upon her
beautiful face, the shadow
that followed in her every move.

Yet the nature poet Tao Yuanming, at home
with the sudden turning of seasons,
now feared the shadow in darkness,

a discarded fan that once stirred her hair,
feared the candle at dawn. At last believed
that for beauty he had lived in vain.

“The poet and the politician have this in common: their greatness depends on the courage with which they face the challenges of life.”
~ John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Monday, May 3, 2010

New York, New York: Life Goes On

“One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.”
~ Thomas Wolfe

Five years ago, when my demanding, time-and-energy-sapping job decided it no longer required me, I made a resolution: nothing would ever again stand between me and the art, theater, music, poetry and discussions that make this city the only place I have ever wanted to spend my life (even now, when I can't afford it).

Saturday, May 1st, was unseasonably hot and humid with a high in the upper 80s, but close to the river, a cool breeze made it glorious. I spent the day with an old friend visiting galleries near the Hudson in the West 20s, New York's Chelsea district.

We saw a roomful of cheerful, quirky paintings by Maira Kalman, including the one above, which introduced her meditation on the inauguration of Barack Obama.

We saw fragile and beautiful creations by Kiki Smith, who has found a way to create an emotional, moving story of woman’s life on glass panels. The photo of Ms. Smith above was not part of the exhibit, but the drawing on the table is the face of the woman etched in glass. Is it the artist? I think it is.

Our final stop was the FIT Museum, where 250 years of women’s fashion left us goggle-eyed.

“I moved to New York City for my health. I'm paranoid and it was the only place where my fears were justified.”

~ Anita Weiss

Saturday night, Twitter began buzzing about the evacuation of Times Square, a rumor quickly confirmed by the sight of cop cars and empty streets on the local webcam. Whispers about a car bomb began to circulate. By midnight or so, reporters were saying yes, an SUV had been rigged to explode.

As always when terrorism-related events transpire, I found myself reflecting on how inured we New Yorkers have become to danger since 9/11.  On Friday, for example, two former Brooklyn men were arrested on charges of meeting with Al Quaeda leaders in Yemen and acting as a sort of Geek Squad for them. On the street, people barely mentioned it.

Saturday morning, when I collected my friend at Grand Central Station, I passed two of the heavily armed, camouflage-clad soldiers who constantly stand guard there. Awareness of danger is always just below the surface here, but it rarely rises to the level of conscious thought. And so my focus was on how handsome one soldier was and how many girls must flirt with him every day. I imagined one or two would come this way just to see him.

Like most New Yorkers, I barely notice the concrete crash barriers that have popped up since 9/11 to protect banks, hotels and other terror targets. While I still stop and stare when a police emergency drill rockets by with its long convoy of cars and ambulances, I watch with fascination instead of fear.

Yesterday, Sunday, I went to see a new play, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, at the Public Theater. It is an anarchic, bawdy, hilarious, foul-mouthed look at this country's past and present. I was thrilled to be there. Every day in this city is a gift. Life goes on.

“New York has always been going to hell but somehow it never gets there.”

~ Robert Persig