Monday, January 25, 2010

Humility by art

Well, of course that title could indicate one of two directions – “humility” as defined by me (Art) or humility through art, which is the subject here. I’m not sure someone short of Mother Teresa could, with ego, apply lack of vanity and self-importance.

I am retired, but once upon a time the workplace requirement for humility, often desirable in keeping a low-enough profile to be left alone and really do the job, was also a necessity when the raises were handed out by the pooh-bahs, the grand one or the lessers. That situation required a bit of bowed head, some minor groveling and the comment “Gee, thanks, boss. I’ll do even better for the company now.” Even if you were muttering under your breath and then threw a fit in your assigned cubicle, humble you were for the long minute.

Humility is also practiced in marriage, especially if  peace be kept and if longevity is the goal. And there is always the nagging feeling  (not the spouse nagging you) that she’s right. You can’t say that readily, of course, so a humble walk-through saves the day.

I’m not retired from marriage, so though the workplace no longer requires the drill, I am cognizant of what’s what in marriage, at least most of the time.

The humility venue of which I write today is somewhere else, in a new world for me, the art universe actually. I have known preteniousness there over the decades, taking photographs for the newspaper I long toiled for. But those were in-and out assignments, and I did not linger, nor did I take time to see beyond, to what is humility among artists. Now, I am occasionally hanging on the wall at a show or gallery – a photograph or two or a “painting” – and I am humbled.

In retirement, we don’t have to prove as much anymore – for the company’s well-being and growth, for self-satisfaction, for the raise, for promotions. Post-work focuses on keeping to good health in self and family -- physically, mentally, financially. And hopefully on giving more in volunteering ways than the working days allowed.

But, art, a world I have been gifted to enter, even though it’s much like being a freshman, is extra fun, and I hope that makes me humble. In art, there is so much of life and death and hope and despair and the future and the unexplained  that its expression can never be limited, for to do so would be to forever reinterpret what was, what is and also to limit growth.

In artistic expression, you see the gifts of the individual in comparison to your own. That is naturally humbling. But also  hopeful since in the journey called art, you don’t remain in one spot. The life there evolves.

I know egoism as well as great, great doubt are the twin maladies of art, but they are also the creators. I would add humility to the palette, its own color.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The old post office

In a very simple time when things were still complicated for grown-ups, of course, country children of the 1940s and ’50s found diversion in rustling through the woods, playing hide and seek with other kids and going on small errands with dad or mom.

Absent the video games, cell phones, Twitter, Facebook, HDTV, ballet school, karate lessons and all the other appointments now penciled in the datebook of a youngster, if you were staring at the wall as a 7-year-old, and dad was warming up the 1949 Studebaker Commander (once red, then repainted green), he might beckon you to hop in and travel a few miles to the Spring Valley (New York) Post Office so he could retrieve mail from Box 74.

You weren’t tall enough to see in the small box, set in a long row of decorative brass containers with combination locks. In a year or too, you could actually open the box yourself, anticipating mail as you walked home from school.

But for now, dad went to get what was there, and you would hang around the Art Deco lobby, standing on a grand marble floor and looking up at a Social Realism mural, courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt and Postmaster Jim Farley Post Office rebuilding projects of the Great Depression.

The Spring Valley branch on Madison Avenue was and is a most solid structure, meant to convey the ability of a nation to rebuild itself and to endure. And the inside was deliberately set as a small palace, with wonderful hissing steam heat that warmed you on the coldest of February days. The government could help take care of you, you see, and the mural of laborers, farmers and industrial smokestacks billowing the white smoke of progress underscored this “we can do it” recovery.

A socialism-tainted view, though it was lost on the 7-year-old in 1949. He was there, escaping boredom with his dad, and he liked getting his fingers warm at the radiator. He also wanted his own mail, so the routine was to head over to the huge wire basket where people threw junk mail that arrived even in those days, and without messing about too much, take out a sealed letter and hold it, then open it, a grown-up thing to do.

The trip home was usually uneventful. Dad might stop for a loaf of Sunshine bread at Roth’s store, the motor and heater left running as he ran in and out. Soon you would be back in the quiet of the house, no TV to watch, and you might seek imagination in adjacent woods, within earshot of mom calling you home for supper at about 5:15.

Like I said, a simple time.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Win Perry’s tutelage

     Upper Nyack, N.Y. – It seems that at age 67, you can still learn new tricks, lots of them. About windows, for example. Old windows.
     Since last summer, I have been privileged to be part of a volunteer crew restoring 1800s windows at the Old Stone Church in this village north of New York City. The 1813 former Methodist Episcopal church, now community property rescued to save and showcase history, naturally requires maintenance and restoration, given its age. Right now, the crew, including Win Perry, Joe Diamond and Vince Morgan, are focusing on double-hung window sash almost untouched in more than a century.
     Win, the Upper Nyack historian, first ordered old-style replacement storm windows, which were carefully fitted, primed and painted and then set in the six downstairs and two upstairs primed and painted frames. Then we took out the sash that were in place when Win’s long-ago relatives passed by on horseback and when so many great-great-great-grandparents stared through the wavy glass panels while attending church.
     Next, we set up a ladder on sawhorses and began the laborious task of removing old paint with caustic chemical stripper, a very messy process. I have done some of this in my time, but never the way Win masters it, with great attention to detail – making sure not to scar the old, old wood, delicately scraping off the layers of paint, some applied 120 or so years ago. Paint removal alone took several weeks to accomplish.
     Then there was priming with spar varnish to enable new putty to stick, replacing broken sash (and reusing parts of the old for smaller panes), puttying, oil priming, and now in January 2010, almost six months after we began, applying two coats of finish paint and then a varnish stain to the inside part of the sash.
     In a month or so, we should begin to reinstall the double-hung windows. In all, the restoration will be the first such major effort on the sash, one that may never be duplicated, or if so, not for 80-100 years or so.
     There is great satisfaction in all this since, as someone interested in history, I am part of it, and because the Old Stone Church is in my son’s village. His son Sam could some day, as an old fellow, walk past the very windows his ancient grandfather helped refurbish. Perhaps he will be part of the 2100 crew.
     Though none of the skills involved are new to me, the methods of doing so under Win Perry’s exact direction are. I have learned to be more particular, to have patience, and, most of all, to take exceptional pride in the outcome. So, an old dog learning new tricks.


Sunday, January 3, 2010

The letter was lost

SPRING VALLEY, N.Y. – In my father’s time, during a depression, this then semi-rural community northwest of New York City one day found a ray of hope in the opening of a brand-new post office on Madison Avenue.
Its construction arranged through the political pull of Jim Farley, a Rockland County son who helped win Franklin D. Roosevelt his first term and who in turn became the postmaster general, the new edifice was so solidly built of brick and granite, its lobby of durable marble, its teller cage of shiny brass, that it seemed to my father, then a teen, that if the nation could bring something like this to a relative backwater, it could rise all the way out of the worst economic calamity the modern world had ever seen.

Dad’s optimism proved correct though a world war ended the Great Depression and a devastated Europe gave America a leg up on world manufacturing. Still, the can-do, let’s-build-it-solid motto of the American industrial empire, its work guaranteed and its profits assured by many, many hardworking people, really did the trick – for the war effort and for peacetime.

But then came growing competition – from Japan, then other parts of Asia and re-emerging Europe, Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and bigger and bigger China. Instead of meeting that competition and sharing the world market through innovation, cost-cutting reduced staff, closed factories and outsourced manufacturing. Bill, the gray-haired 60-year-old, in the factory since age 20, was out. So was  Ken, 40, whom Bill taught. Their expertise and the proper line of succession were deemed not necessary.

A computer could design the product, say a mailbox, and the company could find cheap labor to build it, in a country where factory emissions were not regulated.

The Postal Service, once the Post Office, which inherited a wonderful part-steel/part-cast iron mailbox that stood outside the almost indestructible Depression building on Madison Avenue in little Spring Valley, could now replace that box with a new one, built overseas perhaps, but even if constructed in the good, old USA, put together on the cheap.

Competition, you know. Profits, you know.

Well, that double-sized stamped sheet steel mailbox that now sits on the sidewalk off Madison doesn’t look right. Doesn’t look like a mailbox ought to. Doesn’t work right, either, its bin door not properly cantilevered so as to flip back without citizen assistance.

Old Bill and Joe could have told the manufacturer that before the replacement mailbox left the factory. Only they had already left.

Not sure why the mailbox needed to be replaced anyway. The first one saw service through a Depression, World War II, Korea, peacetime, Vietnam, Watergate, the coming and going of the Ford Pinto, 2001, iffy presidencies and the stimulus. Guess I’d write a letter to ask, but don’t know to which lobbyist, and I’m not certain that I’d get it into the new mailbox.


     Once, so very long ago on the time clock of the young, “tweet” was the language of the bird Tweety,  the cute Warner Brothers Looney Tunes character. Now “tweet” is shorthand posting on “Twitter,” a social networking and micro-blogging site. Tweety Bird caught our attention with high-pitched sound, and modern tweets are supposed to grab you in their abbreviated look, much like the reduced wording of an ancient telegram.
There should be no problem with that since any way of communicating, especially one as popular as tweeting, is democratizing for humanity and should be encouraged. Spreading information, though it often may be loaded with gossip, rumor, falsehood and prejudice, is still enlightening. And it can be self-correcting, as one tweet leads to another, including setting the record if not straight, then straighter.

My only  reservation is that any language shorthand also forces the brain to think that way, too, so while focus on any particular subject may be intense, the attention span is not, and it’s on to the next thought all too quickly. Any thought not fully developed with deep rooting will wither as a plant without sustenance. Result: We may all find ourselves in a twitter for lack of complete tweeting.

Or, just as disappointing, more words and phrases will be lost to what was once well-developed languages. Just look at the advertisements in the 1930s’ U.S. magazines. The copy often carried 100-200 words plus the images. Now, it’s a few grab-your-attention phrases for people on the run. The English language, as must be happening as well to other tongues across the globe, is being truncated. And with that comes  loss of universal expression and communication.

An example: I was in a supermarket early one recent morning and went to the bakery section to get a donut, maybe a pastry, etc., from the self-serve racks. The baker was late, and so the day’s fresh goodies were not yet placed. I stood about until a young woman asked me what I wanted. “When will the baked goods come out?” I asked. She went silent for about five long seconds and then answered quizzically, “You mean the donuts?” I said, “Yeah, the donuts, the pastries, the crumb buns, the flavored croissants, the Danish, all the baked goods.” She retorted, “What kinda donuts you want? I’ll get them from the back.” Three minutes later, I had a powdered jelly and a crumb bun in hand. One of the two was a donut. I did not tell her which.

I hope I did not put the poor thing in a twitter.  Her experience with an old guy probably pushed  her to post a few tweets.

If twittering with tweets is to continue, as it will, if we are to follow the dictionary definition of twittering, which is “to tremble with nervous agitation or excitement,” in this age of shorthand, pulsating language, I hope we at least find abbreviations for descriptive phrasing, such as baked goods.

Otherwise, as with a fine painting where the viewer fails to see the subtlety of color or when a reader of fiction does not hear the author’s unique, layered voice, we will end up living in a world of skimming.

And you know skimming barely scratches the surface. It’s no way to live life.