Friday, January 30, 2009

Gabrielle Who?

The last time I was in Germany, Emily took me to the Lembachhaus, a museum which grew from a private residence in Munich. A prominent feature of this museum is the work of the Blue Rider group. I had never heard of the Blue Rider, although among its members were Franz Marc and Vasily Kandinsky. They were similar to the French impressionists of the late 19th century in that their work had been scorned by the art establishment, which resulted in their banding together in 1910 to promote their "new" art. They started a journal, or almanac, called "The Blue Rider" to express their ideas about art.

Since my education in art took place during and immediately after WWII, I knew nothing of this group, other than those names mentioned above. (Germany and its culture was pretty much country non grata at that time.) What I saw at the Lembachhaus introduced me to some work which I immediately fell in love with, especially the work of Gabrielle Munter. She had met Kandinsky in Munich in 1902 as a student in an art school he had founded, and ended up as his mistress. (He was married, but, hey, we're talking about artists here.) They traveled together on painting trips with other like-minded painters.

In 1909, Munter bought a house in Murnau, which became a kind of headquarters for the Blue Rider Group. Kandinsky spent the summers there and he and Munter did decorative painting on the furniture and the woodwork which is still there to see. Murnau is a beautiful town near the Bavarian Alps. The house sits on a rise from which you can see the Schlossmuseum on another rise across town. The museum features her work, as well as that of other members of the group. She did many paintings from her windows and when you tour the house, you can see what she saw and the paintings she made. Her paintings look simple but are not. She uses color wonderfully. I guess her work would be considered expressionist landscapes, similar to the American Marsden Hartley who was her contemporary. Kandinsky went on to abstract expressionism, but she continued her own style.

She and Kandinsky were together until 1914, when WWI broke out and he had to return to Russia. They corresponded for years, but she only saw him once again the next year. However, she had kept safe in the house in Murnau his paintings, as well as that of other Blue Rider members, through both wars, and donated them to the city of Munich on her 80th birthday.

It's wonderful to discover someone you never knew about when you are a geezer. I have decided to try to do some work in her style. One is the view out my kitchen window. The other is of a strange building in Freising, a cathedral town north of Erding. It's part of the cathedral complex on a dome-like hill overlooking the town. I think it's a barn or a stable that may have been there before the cathedral was bult.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Thoughts About a Historical Day

Like millions of others around the world, I spent Tuesday, Jan. 20, glued to the TV. I think the last inauguration I watched was Jimmy Carter's back in 1977. (He's still one of my favorite presidents, one who has contributed a lot to the world and humanity.) It was a grand day for people all over the world, who watched along with us here.Perhaps they think better now of our country, which has suffered from the hubris and arrogance of the most incompetent administration in history. The healing has started.

But yesterday was an amazing milestone for this country, something to be proud about and something my late husband John would have celebrated more than most, perhaps. He was a sociologist whose field was race and racism. He worked early on for equal opportunity and inclusion for all Americans. He didn't live to see the Freedom Riders in the South, Martin Luther King's sacrifices, and the Voting Rights Act at the time when the civil rights fight began to boil. When he was teaching at Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio, some black students came to him about being denied access to the local skating rink, which claimed that it was for members only. He led a group of black and white students to the rink and when he and the white students were admitted without being "members" and the black students weren't, he confronted the owner and demanded an explanation. It made the front page of the local paper and infuriated the president of the college (who was a not so closet racist). When my husband was up for tenure, it was denied, based solely on this incident, since he had been named one of the best professors by the students. When an offer came from Kent State, we left BW with no regrets. Interestingly, tenure was granted retroactively after a faculty battle. It made no sense, but everyone felt that John had been vindicated.

At Kent State, he and some other young professors discovered that the university had approved off-campus housing where black students were turned away. They wrote a letter to the campus newspaper, which infuriated the president, who actually had a sterling record when it came to equal opportunity, having hired the first black professor at a state university, and had encouraged numerous instructors and grad assistants of color. There was one of those academic furors and finally the housing situation was cleared up - no open housing, no approval from the university. The bigger battles were to come, but sadly John was not around to fight them, and now we have an African American president who offers hope to all of us.

As I watched this massive crowd of happy people, I hoped that my daughter Emily was somewhere in there, and in spite of the impossibility of actually seeing her, I kept looking when there were close-ups. As of today, I haven't heard whether she and her friend Kick were lucky enough to get into the city or onto the Mall. She had said that just being in this country would be a good thing.

Some general impressions: Aside from an amazing hat, Aretha seemed to have gotten out of her natural vocal range, which spoiled her rendition of "America." Maybe nobody cared, but it was disappointing. I mean, she is the Queen after all. The minister who gave the benediction was wonderful, and I'm sorry I can't remember his name. I only know that, with MLK, he co-founded SNCC who were the very brave heroes of the civil rights movement in the 60s. His warmth radiated right through my TV. President Obama's (what a cool thing to write) speech was not particularly memorable, but it was the right kind of speech to make at the time, reality based: Enough with the swooning and hero worship; we have a hard job ahead of us, all of us.

Well, it was day to remember and treasure and like the rest of the world, I wish him well.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

It's January, Dammit

Even though this is the coldest January we've had in about 25 years or so, it is not unusual for us in Northern Ohio to suffer the stings and bone marrow chilling effects of this frigid weather. The press doesn't help much, drilling it into our heads that the wind chill factor is even worse than the thermometer reading. They stand grimly in front of their fake weather maps and sweep their hands across the ice-blue front moving right toward the viewers. This is now, and tomorrow is going to be EVEN WORSE!! And it usually is.

What I really don't like about this weather is not just that it's cold. After all, I am fortunate: I have a warm house, and a car that works and I don't have to go out if I don't want to. I must say, though, that when I turn the thermostat down to 50 before I go to bed, and I still hear the furnace roaring to life throughout the night, the vision of dollar signs going up the chimney is not too comforting. But I am lucky. I can pay for it without having to go hungry, so I can't complain really.

What does bother me, and it is so petty I am almost ashamed to write about it, is the bundling up that must be done: the gloves, the scarves, the thermal undershirt, the zipped up jacket, the boots. (I refuse to wear a hat unless I have to walk some distance through a parking lot. My hair becomes electrified in the dry cold and a hat only makes it worse, downright shocking.) I feel like Ralphie's brother Randy in "A Christmas Story." If I put my keys in my pocket it takes forever to fish them out, unless I take my gloves off and stuff them into my mouth, which is the only accessible orifice available. I use a cane when the ground is slippery to avoid skidding onto my face, and then when I have to carry a bag of groceries, try to get my keys out, balance the goddam cane, my purse and the grocery bag, I end up shedding possessions like a molting turkey. I feel like a molting turkey.

I see students tripping merrily along in sneakers and little bitty jackets and envy their hardiness and their parents' health insurance. I couldn't do that even when I was in school. I have been cold since the winter of 1940, when my parents uprooted me from the warmth of Atlanta, Georgia. and thrust me into Ohio in January, right into the snow which had always looked so good in picture books, but wasn't , not really. I did forgive them before they shuffled off their mortal coils. But this winter, I must say there's a tad of bitterness.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Beyond Belief, Beyond Decency

Reading Dick Polman's column from the Philadelphia Inquirer in today's Beacon Journal, I became enraged by the penultimate paragraph of his essay. He writes that during an interview on ABC News, when the interviewer stated that Saddam Hussein "had not conspired with al-Qaida and that al-Qaida had not been a presence in Iraq until we invaded it, Bush fired back:'So what?'"

So what?!!!

Thousands of young men and women in the service of their country dead, thousands more maimed physically and mentally and their Commander-in-chief says "So what?" How can this man face the parents, spouses, children, brothers, sisters and friends of these young people he so carelessly sacrificed and say to them "So what?"

Tens of thousands of Iraqis dead and permanently injured and a country destroyed and the American instigator of this war says "So what?"

Billions of dollars that could have gone for public good spent on destruction and the leader of the free world says, "So what?"

How can we let this man walk away from the wreckage he has caused this country and the world with no accountability? Why are not more people outraged at both his actions and this demonstration of contempt for the people of this country? And yet, there are probably still people who, looking at his record and the damage he has wrought, will no doubt say themselves, "So what?"

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Hands of Phillip Seymour Hoffman

About a year ago here I made a comment about the personal hygiene of Hoffman in the movie
"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." He had black fingernails, disgusting looking things.

Yesterday I went to see "Doubt", in which he stars as a priest, with Meryl Streep. There is a scene, which doesn't really advance the story, in which he is teaching a gym class in a Catholic elementary school. During this class he stresses to the boys the importance of keeping one's fingernails clean. He slowly walks around the class showing his clean nails to the boys. The camera zooms in on his hands. They are pristine. His nails are immaculate. He mentions that he likes to keep them long, but clean.

Now one never knows where one's blogs end up, who out there is actually reading them. I wouldn't have been surprised at all if Hoffman had looked into the camera and said, "And for that old nit-picking lady in Ohio, nyah, nyah, nyah!"
Phil, buddy, you have redeemed yourself. Thanks for taking care of that.

Meryl Streep plays an archetypal nun of the old school, the kind who would swoop down the aisle at the children's Mass, beads clicking, thump a distracted child on the head. A woman sitting in front of me actually flinched when she did this in the movie.

"Doubt" is a very fine movie, pervaded by doubt.The story takes place in 1964, before the priest scandals became public. She suspects Hoffman's priest of improper contact with one of the male students. She has no evidence. She is cold and distant with both students and colleagues. He is warm and friendly, and has taken an interest in a boy who has been brutalized by his father. Everything is ambiguous and the audience is left in a state of - doubt.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

It's Three Freaking A.M.

Perhaps because of the medicine I am taking for this bronchitis stuff, I have been waking every morning at three and cannot get back to sleep. I try that deep breathing to relax, but of course, that makes me cough. I try progressive muscle relaxation,where you start with your toes, then your toe nails, your arch, your instep and on up your body, even the naughty bits, until you reach your scalp at which point you are supposed to be completely relaxed. If you get mixed up you are in a Sisyphus situation and have to start all over again and when you are awake at that ungodly hour, of course you get distracted and then ticked off and are not relaxed.

WKSU, our local NPR station has a syndicated music program on all night and it tends to play unusual music, not the sort of thing they play during the day where you can whistle the violin and flute parts, but things you've never heard before. One night last week I turned it on in the middle of this infuriating endless thing which made me shout, "Pick a goddam theme, will ya, and quit wandering all over the place!" Then I had to stay awake until I could find out who had perpetrated the thing. I was guessing Shostakovitch, Prokofiev - some goddam Russian, I thought. It turned out to be Stravinsky, so I was in the right country. It was called "The Card Game" and if you ever hear that title announced ahead of time, switch to a late night talk show. I try reading, but I can't keep the book from slipping off the covers and I can't concentrate anyway because I am so annoyed at being awake. I think about the beautiful walks in the British Lake District and try to imagine myself there, but it's too sad because I'm not.There's a neighbor's house behind me in which the lights are always on, no matter what time it is. It belongs to one of my German professors and if it weren't so goddam cold I'd go bang on his window and ask him about the "der" words one more time. There's a soporific for ya.

So instead I start to think about things, like what are the odds of a meteor descending at that moment right toward my house? How long is it going to take me to catch up on those goddam New Yorkers piled up by my chair. I'm up to October, and they keep coming. What shall I fix for dinner tonight? Is my starving artist daughter keeping herself fed this winter? Should I go have a piece of the delicious apple pie John baked last night? Just how much money has my IRA lost so far and how much more will I lose? Should I buy a new car at my age, especially when my car runs fine? Do I need new tires? What kind of damage to my body are these pills doing, anyway? Because all us asthmatics and our aerosol inhalers have contributed to global warming they have switched us to some kind environmentally safe propellant which is burning the hell out of my throat, isn't it, even though I rarely have to use it unless I have what I have now. Will Sally get to work okay in this foul weather and are the steps to her apartment ice-free so she won't fall and break something? And, of course, there's all that stuff I wrote about and what shall I do about the house when I croak? What time is it now?

I have made 5 a.m. the arbitrary hour by which it is okay to get up, get the paper, make my coffee and be officially UP, even though I have been awake for two hours already. I can only assume that this is a temporary situation and no doubt drug induced insomnia, but I do not like it, not one bit. I know I am not alone in this. You'd think any sane person would have had insomnia during the entire Bush regime and now that the sumbitch is going away, we should be able to sleep better. When I get the drugs out of my system - and they have made the germs go away - I will be back to my usual sleep patterns: Seinfeld, then sleep. All night.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Everybody Does It

I had intended to do a blog on the habit that I find common to most people I know: the reading of obituaries. I had not meant for it to be an introduction to the year 2009, but it has fallen out that way. I have not had a happy new year. I spent that day itself in the emergency room for the second time that week. It started with a cold, and since I was all involved in celebrating Chris mas with a caroling party and a trip to the Boar's Head Feast in Cleveland, instead of hunkering down with chicken soup, garlic and herbal tea, it soon evolved into pleurisy and bronchitis, both of which are not good when one has asthmatic lungs anyway.

My doctor always takes the holidays off, so the ER is the only recourse. They are very kind and very thorough, which is why it usually takes hours before you can get out of there. I told them I had pleurisy, having had it a few times. But no, we must check the kidneys because they are in the same general area, and we must check the heart because, well, it's in your chest and all. I have pleurisy, I insisted. Yes, yes, but for a woman of your age - !!WHAT??!! - we can't be too careful. (I have a tendency to be in denial about the fact that 81 means I am a really old person.) So there were Xrays, cat scans, heart monitors, a urinalysis?!!! and thumping about the ribs, I was coughing like a bastard, which hurt like a bastard, causing me to take the Name of the Lord in vain and all.

John had snagged an old People magazine for me, which diverted me until I realized that I had no idea who any of those people were, except of course, Angelina and Brad (you can't get away from them) so I soon got bored with that. It was interesting to listen to the people in the next treatment rooms. The first time I was there, the patient was a very old (probably 75 or so) man who seemed to be on his way out. His family members and the staff were so kind, talking gently to him, even though he couldn't respond. There was something very sweet about it. I heard that he was going to a hospice when he left. Sad, but good to know that he had a loving family with him.

The next time, there was a baby who had apparently almost severed a finger in a door. He was very sad and his mother sang to him in such a sweet voice. He would coo and then cry, and then laugh a little as she played pat-a-cake with him; since he had an injured hand I wasn't sure how that went, but everyone who worked with him seemed to be enchanted with him. I wish I could have seen him.

The final patient next door, after the baby left, was a woman who appeared to have something wrong with her nose. It was not too clear, but she kept whingeing non-specifically about her nose, until the man with her exclaimed loudly and irritably,""It's probably just a bunch of SNOT!!" Well, this put me in mind of that wonderful line in "A Great Day for Bananafish", or one of Salinger's Glass family stories, where Seymour hears a woman say, as he gets off an elevator "....and to think they took a pint of pus out of that beautiful young body." Polly was always dropping "pint of pus" lines with friends as they walked past strangers, hoping to leave them puzzled and intrigued. Well, that "bunch of SNOT" line in the ER did have me interested but I left before I could take a peek at the snot victim.

They finally told me I have pleurisy and sent me home with all sorts of drugs and I still feel crappy, but I think I am getting better. I just want to breathe without thinking about it. At least I felt well enough today to wash my hair and put clean sheets on my bed of pain - which is gone, the pain. Been reading about Machiavelli. He wasn't such a bad dude, after all.

The picture above is based on one of my favorite parts of "Huckleberry Finn" where Huck is staying in this house and observes these mourning pictures done in black crayon by a 15 year old girl who had died. They had titles like "To Think I Shall See Thee No More Alas." One involves a dead bird, feet in the air: "I Shall Never Hear Thy Sweet Chirrup More Alas." Whether they expressed these sentiments or not, mourning pictures were common among those families which had a talented and morbid artist handy in the Victorian times. Some of the grimmer ones were made of the decease's hair.

In the old scrapbooks I am scanning for the Historical Society, the obituaries (and some books are filled with nothing but) have certain customs: the young women were always pure and noble and loved by the entire community; the town leaders were generous, kind to the help, and made the community what it is today. They were blunt about the causes of death - cancer of the liver, apoplexy, mangled by train or auto accident, suicide. They are written in a very flowery manner, however, with personal testimonials from family and friends. Suffering is noted and sympathized with.

Obits today, in our area, almost always start by telling us that so and so has gone to meet Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, or has gone home to be with the Lord. No one just dies, except for a person I only knew slightly: Her Name. She died. That was it; a list of survivors and a private burial. There was no one I could ask. Her daughter, who had been a friend many years ago had also died and I didn't know anyone else in the family. It's one way to get yourself remembered though. She died.

There seems to be a trend in obituaries these days to tell the stories of the deceased, some columns long. Many of the ones for young people are very short, and I wonder what their story is. Too sad to think about. Most are cut and dried: , family, education, work, community service. Hobbies are noted. If they were WWII vets there are tales of brave deeds. If they are women over 70, their expertise with pies and lasagna, sewing and church work are noted. Grandchildren and their names for the deceased (Nana, Poppa, Yaya) are lovingly listed. Pets are frequently listed, at least I think survivors with names like Pipi, Fluff, and Sport are pets of some sort.

This past year, the family of an Akron woman I would like to have known wrote one of the best obituaries ever. Cause of death was listed as complications from raising a family. She claimed to have worked undercover for the CIA. She loved traveling especially to Greenwich, Connecticut, where she enjoyed stalking Peter Jennings and Jack Black. In her retirement years she liked spending time with children, yelling at them from her back porch to get out of her yard, and throwing rocks at them. It seems that she and her sons had decided to celebrate her life and memory with humor and wit and an amazing number of people read and appreciated what they wrote. Way better than She died.

I guess obituary reading is something many of us do, young and old. How many who died this time were my age? I don't know why we do this, except for the occasional interesting story perhaps. Was it Mark Twain or Groucho Marx who said he read them to see if he was among them?