Sunday, October 30, 2011

The prosody of gooseflesh

Today is the eve of All Hallow's Eve, and because it is a Sunday, it is the day of my neighborhood's annual Halloween parade for tots. Shepherded by their parents, dozens of tiny bumblebees, pumpkins, Thomas the Tank Engines, princesses, Jedi knights, Scooby-Dos and Madeleines will ramble down the street in a long, jaunty row, popping in and out of stores for treats.

But what is there for grown-ups who want a Halloween chill? I suggest this: William Butler Yeats himself reading The Lake Isle of Innisfree in a trembling, conjurer's voice.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree
by W. B. Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Ruminating about food and hunger

"There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread."
~ Mohandas Ghandi

Today is Blog Action Day, when bloggers around the world take on a single topic. Since this is also World Food Day, the topic for 2011 is food.

While there are many ways to think about food, the one that matters most to millions of people right now is the lack of it. As this UNICEF video shows, millions of people in Africa — including some 2 million children — are facing starvation as I write these words.

The video talks about the almost miraculous food paste Plumpy'nut, which can save the life of a starving child as effectively as the right antibiotic can cure a life-threatening infection. You can learn more about Plumpy'nut here.

If Africa seems remote from your concerns, then look no farther than your own country and community. The World Hunger Education Service has a wealth of global hunger statistics on its website.

"Food insecure" is the term the U.S. government uses to describe households where one or more members must reduce their food intake or disrupt their eating patterns because they cannot afford sufficient food. That description applied to 14.5 percent of U.S. households in 2010. You can learn more about it in the publication Household Food Security in the United States in 2010.

In my hometown, the New York City Coalition Against Hunger is "the voice for the more than 1,200 nonprofit soup kitchens and food pantries in New York City and the more than 1.4 million low-income New Yorkers who live in homes that can't afford enough food." Is it ironic that, in the same city where the people who destroyed the economy still get six-figure bonuses, so many people are hungry? Actually, I think it's criminal.

One final word about hunger: "The F Word: Famine Is the Real Obscentity."

"If you can't feed a hundred people, then just feed one."
~ Mother Teresa

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The eye of the beholder

"The position of the artist is humble. He is essentially a channel."
~ Piet Mondrian

A few weeks ago a shrine appeared on  in my neighborhood — one of those collections of toys, candles, photos and stuffed animals that spring up wherever someone has died suddenly or too young. 

The shrine sits on a corner outside a Filipino grocery store that's across the street from a busy Filipino church. On Sundays, while women, children and some of the men attend church services, five or ten older men normally gather by the grocery store to smoke and shoot the breeze. 

At first I didn't pay much attention to the shrine beyond wondering where the smoking men would stand on Sundays. Sidewalk tributes make me feel like a voyeur, a rubbernecker at a traffic accident, and this one was easy to avoid. But one day I passed within a few feet of it and realized this was not what it at first seemed: This is a shrine to the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian. 

"Broadway Boogie Woogie"
Piet Mondrian (1942-43)
Mondrian, a founder of the stripped down, anti-romantic De Stijl movement, is known for his grid-based paintings of perpendicular lines in primary colors. He moved to New York in 1940 and created his celebrated "Broadway Boogie Woogie" here in the two years before his death at age 72 in 1944. So there was a New York connection...but what was up with the shrine? 

The corner the shrine sits on is one block away from MoMA PS1, an exhibition space for "emerging artists"...the sort of artists who might decide to create a shrine to a long-dead artist that simultaneously violates everything the artist stood for and pays tribute to his enduring influence. I should also mention that  Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie Woogie" is part of MoMA's permanent collection — check out a MoMA curator's audio-visual discussion of it here.

I don't know who created this — as far as I can see, it's unsigned — but it was put together with lavish attention to very odd details. For example, this section of the shrine notes the influence of Mondrian on L'Oreal hair products. 

Here you can see that while the candles stick to Mondrian's primary colors, the stuffed animals...not so much. 

Ultimately, I don't know what the shrine's creator thinks of Mondrian. Is this a critique of the severe De Stijl style or is the real target the schmaltzy sentimentality of sad little stuffed animals and signs professing love? As always, it's in the eye of the beholder.