Monday, May 30, 2011

Book Review: The Greater Journey: The New York Times

I have not read this book but I am sure it will be full of revelations.  And we must realize how much we as a country were shaped by the ideas of McCullough's Paris.   I love the last sentence of this article though, because what I have learned is how American-ness is so engrained in our psyches... no matter how long we have been coming here and no matter how much we love of French culture. 

How Paris Created America
Published: May 27, 2011
The New York Times          

David McCullough has stressed France’s pre-eminent role in American history for years. We would not, he has argued, have a country without the French, who have permanently and profoundly shaped us. If anyone could get away with suggesting that room be made on Mount Rushmore for Astérix it is McCullough. He seems to have had something else in mind, however. With “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,” he explores the intellectual legacy that France settled on its 19th-century visitors. The result is an epic of ideas, as well as an exhilarating book of spells.

Americans in Paris
By David McCullough
Illustrated. 558 pp. Simon & Schuster. $37.50

The tradition began very much as a case of “Lafayette, nous voici.” The first pilgrims were nearly all single, wealthy men in their 20s, serious of purpose and ambitious by nature. A number of them had played a role in the French general’s triumphant return to America. They were provincial and inexperienced. They had never before sailed. They knew little French literature. They did not yet suspect that one could be seduced by breakfast. Following a tradition established years earlier by John Adams, they came to Paris to do their homework. Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Sumner and Samuel F. B. Morse looked to the city as library and laboratory rather than as liberation. The idea was to settle in Paris to “study hard,” a concept that would put most junior-year-abroad programs out of business.
In two panoramic chapters, McCullough introduces us to the travelers as they prepare for their adventure. “Emotions ran high on the eve of departure,” he writes. “Melancholy and second thoughts interspersed with intense excitement were the common thing.” The trip was arduous, the French drizzle constant, and bureaucracy evidently dates to Vercingetorix. But it was a fine time to make the game-­changing discovery that the Old World really was old. There were probably fewer than a thousand Americans in the city through the 1830s. All were struck by the civility of their hosts. Wine was cheaper than milk. Though the Louvre opened to the public only on Sundays, foreigners could visit throughout the week.
One American who could reliably be found there was Samuel Morse. At his side for several hours each day was his dear friend James Fenimore Cooper, whose “Last of the Mohicans” graced every Parisian bookstore window. (As Cooper noted, the French understood that novel to be the only book published in America since the time of Ben Franklin.) McCullough devotes a chapter to Morse and Cooper — the two had met at the White House in the course of Lafayette’s visit — who attest to the transformative, transfiguring power of Paris. Morse arrived as a painter and left as an inventor. He took home with him in 1832 the germ of what would become the telegraph. With a second visit, he imported Daguerre’s ideas on photography.
For most of McCullough’s travelers, Paris represented a great awakening — the blood-tingling beauty of it all! — but also an education, an invitation to see the world anew. Any doctor worth his salt hoped to study there. Charles Sumner was struck by the science but also by the black medical students. He would go on to crusade for abolition. America’s first female physician, Elizabeth Blackwell, returned to New York to found a hospital run entirely by women. (In the plus ça change department, teeth were already an American specialty. The foremost Parisian dentist in the 19th century was a Philadelphian.)
By definition McCullough’s grand tour is impressionistic and discursive, proceeding by way of crossed paths and capsule biographies. This is history to be savored rather than sprinted through, like a Parisian meal. It amounts to a meaty collection of short stories, expertly and flavorfully assembled, free of gristly theory. McCullough has his favorites, and displays a marked preference for the visual artists. Generally he describes Paris with a painter’s eye: “It was not just that they had never known a city of such size or variety, or with so much history, but they had never known one where the look and mood could be so strikingly different in different light.” Only an ingrate would question his casting decisions. As he points out, often the minor characters tell a story best. Mark Twain would not be pleased.
Occasionally McCullough pauses to pit one national treasure against another. So Harriet Beecher Stowe spends a spellbound hour before “The Raft of the Medusa”: “She was sure,” he writes, “no more powerful piece had ever been painted. It was as though this one picture had been worth the whole trip to France.” The New York sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens plays a leading role in “The Greater Journey.” He began as a cameo-cutter, an apprenticeship to which McCullough devotes several pages. And like every dual national, his narrative maintains a foot in two places. McCullough’s is as much the splendid story of a nation growing up as it is that of a city coming into its own. In the course of these pages, Paris acquires bateaux-mouches , the grands magasins , the Folies Bergère and Haussman’s avenues.
The two histories combine most powerfully in his account of the Franco-Prussian War and Elihu Washburne, America’s minister to France between 1869 and 1877. A reliable topic of conversation in Paris, food was the principal one during the German siege, when cat meat revealed itself be a delicacy and Paris solved its rat problem. By the time German troops marched down the Champs-Élysées, on March 1, l871, more than 65,000 Parisians had died. The only prominent diplomat to do so, Washburne valiantly refused to budge even through the months of the Commune, one of the bloodiest chapters in French history. His was no paradisiacal Paris; as the atrocities mounted, the distraught Washburne noted that the city was “a hell upon this earth.” At one point the Seine ran red with blood. A team of 60,000 masons would be required to put Paris back together again. On Mary Cassatt’s arrival shortly afterward, the Hôtel de Ville looked like a Roman ruin.

The making of art is inherently less dramatic than the making of history, and the Paris Commune exerts a power that John Singer Sergeant’s painting of Madame Gautreau or Saint-Gaudens’s casting of Admiral Farragut may not. Saint-Gaudens brilliantly proves McCullough’s point, however; here was American history literally forged in France. The colossal bronze statue of the Civil War hero was shipped back to New York, all 900 pounds of him, to be unveiled in May 1881. During a later Parisian stay, Saint-Gaudens cast the Sherman on horseback that stands today on the edge of Central Park. Among the reasons to visit Paris, Saint-Gaudens’s son recognized one that would migrate with the times: Only in France could an artist “measure himself with his contemporaries, place his work before the world’s most critical audience, and learn, once for all, wherein it was good and wherein bad.”

McCullough takes us from Oliver Wendell Holmes to Isadora Duncan, which is to say that “The Greater Journey” ends before Theodore Dreiser spilled the beans. Its history and art were all very well and good, but Paris was about something else altogether. That something else was sex. No one in “The Greater Journey” seems to have noticed Twain’s “delightfully immoral” working girls. Instead, John Singer Sargent’s father waxed on about probity and the domestic virtues of Parisian life. Saint-Gaudens would draw a blank when asked later to recall any “amorous adventure” abroad, although, as is clear from these pages, the sculptor had a selective memory. Very possibly much of what happened in 19th-century Paris stayed in Paris.
What McCullough’s Americans took home with them were less sentimental educations than artistic and intellectual ones; the finishing school and the movable feast came later. These years were about shaping art and principles, tasks with which France assisted by dispatching the Statue of Liberty and Tocqueville in the opposite direction. It bestowed a greater gift as well. “Coming here has been a wonderful experience, surprising in many respects, one of them being to find how much of an American I am,” Saint-Gaudens wrote. Pining for all that had once seemed unremarkable, he returned home “a burning hot-headed patriot.” That lesson too endures. Paris is the city to which good Americans go to learn that they really do love peanut butter.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Green thing ( my version)

Back in those days

In the line at the store, the cashier told the older woman that plastic bags weren’t good for the environment. The woman apologized to her and explained, “We didn’t have the green thing back in my day.”

That’s right, they didn’t have the green thing in her day. Back then,
they returned their milk bottles,  Coke bottles and beer bottles to
the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and
refilled, using the same bottles over and over. So they really were

But they didn’t have the green thing back in her day.

In her day, they walked up stairs, because they didn’t have an
escalator in every store and office building. They walked to the
grocery store and didn’t climb into a 300-horsepower machine every
time they had to go two blocks.

But she’s right. They didn’t have the green thing in my day either.

Back then, we washed my little brother's ( not pictured) baby’s diapers because they didn’t have the throw-away kind. We dried the clothes on a line, not in an energy
gobbling machine burning up 220 volts – Wind and solar power really
did dry the clothes. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters or neighbors, not always brand-new clothing.

But that lady is right, they didn’t have the
green thing back in my day.

Back then, we had one TV, or radio, in the house – not a TV in
every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a bread box,
not a screen the size of the state of Montana.  In fact I never had a tv until I was an adult and then only to watch at night when there was no possibility of doing more creative things.

 In the kitchen, we blended and stirred by hand because we didn’t have electric
machines to do everything for you.   We baked our own bread by hand from local ingredients not with a kneading machine or food brought from far away by trucks and planes.  

When we packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, we used wadded up newspaper to cushion it, not styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap.

Back then, my father would never fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to
cut the lawn or take the car for one errand. In fact if we mowed, we pushed a mower that ran on human power. We exercised by working so there was no need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity.  Children really ran and played hard.  We did yoga on the floor as a family, no fancy equipment required.

But she’s right, they didn’t
have the green thing back then.

We all drank from a fountain when we were thirsty, instead of using a
cup or a plastic bottle every time for a drink of water. We drank tea from a reusable mug not a styrofoam cup.

 My parents refilled pens with ink, instead of buying a new pen, and 
replaced the razor blades in a razor instead of throwing away the
whole razor just because the blade got dull.  My father fixed things that were broken like irons, or toasters , vacuum cleaners or cars instead of getting a new one.

But we didn’t have the green thing back then.

Back then, people took the bus and kids rode their bikes or the school bus, or walked ,like I did, four miles or so to school, instead of turning moms into a 24-hour taxi services.   In fact we had one car and my father was the only driver.

There were one or two  electrical outlets in a room, not
an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And we
didn’t need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from
satellites 2,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest
pizza joint.  

But we didn't have the green thing back then!

   This is reposted from the internet,  ( I can't find the author) but I have changed  the wording to personalize it.   It just struck a chord with me.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Cherry and Almond Blossoms

Almond Blossom by Vincent van Gogh
Almond Blossom, by Vincent van Gogh, was painted in 1890 in honor of a special event in the artist's life. 
 On January 31, Vincent's brother Theo and his wife Johanna had a son, and they named him Vincent Willem. Vincent painted this branch of blossoming almond in celebration of the birth.

 The twisty gray-green branches and the frothy, white flowers contrast against the bright turquoise sky, revealing Vincent van Gogh's enthusiasm for the Japanese aesthetic. 

And the picture recalls Vincent's own hopefulness when he first arrived in Arles hoping to find a European counterpart to Japan.

Here is a "snap" of one of our cherry trees against a "ciel bleu" a month or so ago.  Too bad I no longer have Photoshop so I could craftily edit as Vincent did with his splendid painting.  No doubt he had no power lines to deal with.

  And now for us the weeks with the white confetti littering the walkways has passed and new thrills are being revealed.

  Here is the second of our two cherry trees in fruit.  The blackbirds ate every last one of the offerings from the first tree that was ripe weeks ago(, early for us in Nice).  But as Monsieur says," let the Merles have them.  They have no pockets in which to carry a wallet to buy."   I am not so generous.  I will be harvesting most of these in a few days.

  The fruit and new tender leaves everywhere seem to signify renewed energies .  I could really use some of that....  so lets' hear it for Vincent's hopefulness.   Huzzah.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

On Overactive minds and minor miracles...

This Week.

What was weird:

My next door neighbor and I both decided to buy an electronic device online and so for the first time  in many years since living here, two days later , we saw the UPS truck come up the narrow dead- end street with two identical packages.  I signed for them, brought hers over to her and we opened them up, only to find that hers was addressed to my holiday client in the studio at the same address!! 

How could this be?  

 Even if UPS uses google maps, how did they know my tenant was there temporarily unless she had ordered the same device at the same moment?   What are the odds of three people ordering the same device on the same day from the same company to be shipped to the same address?  And what are the odds of someone on holiday ordering an electronic device and then not telling the landlady to expect a package?  ( If I hadn't been there she has no key to the mailbox!)

We asked my holiday tenant and she had INDEED ordered the same device at the exact time that we had.  She like me, had contemplated the purchase for several years and finally decided to buy it.  My friend  had ordered hers a few hours later for her own reasons, but still on the same day.  Hers was to come later.

THe second weird thing is that I saw a UPS truck go up the street for the second day in a row, after never having seen one on our street in many, many years. OF COURSE, I thought it was the third package but NO, the driver said, it was for another neighbor!

  IN fact, the third package arrived on the third day.

 Now some of you see these kinds of co-incidences every day and think nothing about it.  I am the person who contemplates all of this at length. 

 Have you heard  the urban legend of the hundredth monkey or the idea of the tipping point?  JUST AS I was beginning to contemplate all this , a program was aired on New Dimensions radio with Rupert Sheldrake who puts forth a very convincing argument for morphic fields of knowledge.    I just happened to be listening to it.

Ok , ok so no one thought it was weird and I got over it.  The next day, I wrote in my blog about the Coal Tit tapping on the nesting box like a wood-pecker, right?   I definitely had that thought as I was writing the post.

  THe DAY AFTER THAT POST, I heard a weird noise in the garden and guess who I found drilling away on the "deadish"plum tree? Yes, A WOODPECKER, like the fellow above, called a European Green woodpecker.

 I had NEVER seen one before in my garden or for that matter anywhere!   He is a beauty and he has pecked some very impressive holes in our tree now. 

 BUT.... Why did he come the day after I thought about a woodpecker?  Why have I never seen him before or any evidence of him in the garden? 

And I haven't thought about a woodpecker for years...not for years!  

Why ? Why?  

Maybe, I have an over-active mind or maybe there is something weird going on.  

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Bird Story #2: Coal tits ( Beep-oo)

Lots of stuff going on in the garden now.  We have 2 baby blackbirds that are being carefully shepherded as last year the Magpies killed both nests of Merles that were near us in the hedges.  The parents were desperately swooping and chattering frantically but it was too late.  We buried the mangled bodies that had been dropped by the Magpies in the street. 

  That's when I bought my slingshot.   Magpies are at the BOTTOM of my list of creatures.  I know , they are just doing their thing,  but I can't STAND them,  and will do my part in eliminating them if I can.  Urrrrgh.   (Maybe I should sign up for the magazine I found on Amazon the other day called by the  paradoxical name: Garden and Gun!)


 This little guy is the coal tit.  I found this photo on Wikipedia as well.  They are a bird not found in North America but there are a raft of them across the Mediterranean and Europe. The coal tit has some pretty understandable language .  We know their warning and mating calls now which can be amazingly loud for such a small beastie boy. My husband calls all of them Beep-oo as that sounds like their call which is repeated over and over when spring starts.  I love their flitting bodies so full of bird-like exuberance.

A month or so ago while I was in the lower forty ( ha, we have a small plot ) I heard what I thought was a woodpecker in the bay tree ("Sauce Laurier" in French from whence bay leaves come for cooking).

I looked up only to find, not a woodpecker, but a coal tit pecking away near the door to a nesting box that I had put up 4 or 5 years ago, alas to no takers.

 Perhaps there was a family raised in it the first year but nothing after that.  I cleaned out the old nest hoping that was the reason I had no tenants, but no.

  Suddenly I got it!  The hole was too small for this guy and he was doing his best to widen it or tell me about it.

I ran in the house and tapped in on mighty Google: " nesting box, coal tit, size of hole"  and "et voila: 2.5 cm".  I measured ours and it was too small!

 OUt came the wood rasp and I grated away on that box, hanging off a ladder with my arm wobbling around over my head like a run-away hose pipe.  A week later we had a male and a female coal tit coming and going from the box.  And for about 3 weeks now they have been doing the feedings non-stop.

 This week we got up too late to see the youngsters launch themselves onto nearby branches and fly off with the exhausted parents.

 I did see a whole row, maybe seven or more, tiny birds flitting merrily above us on the high railing and I like to think that  that was our lot...successfully fledged and living to tell the tale.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Chipping Away: Metaphor for life?

 As a census enumerator in the 1981 Census we received in my area this response to Q12 – Occupation:
  The reply was, “I am a sculptor of stone lions.” To the next question:  Please describe the nature of the work done, the responder wrote:

   “I chip away all the bits of stone that are not lion.”


Thursday, May 5, 2011

JUST a Thursday

I am streaming Astral Radio: lots of bird calls and water sounds.  I'm  drinking a huge glass of good dry white wine and eating vinegar flavored potato chips with baby carrots for dinner.  I am cutting my new BKRives paper to use for engraving with a whiz- bang- sharp- ass knife but don't worry I am very careful.

 They say as you get older you should change your routine.  (I think they mean for example, brush your teeth with your left hand.) Well  ok, so this is not my routine on a Thursday night.  But I am alone for the weekend and it feels poetic and deliberate and fine.

 The only thing that is really not so routine are the potato chips which is not my food choice.  In fact I don't really consider them a food, just a taste explosion.   I buy them surreptitiously maybe every six months or so like grabbing a cigarette when you hate smoking.

  But hey,  they are really making my mouth pucker and that's new, totally new.  Vinegar!

 I wanted to crochet all the branches of my cherry tree with my friend Svea,  crochet master extraordinaire,  for my new thing.... but I guess you have to start small.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Horoscope for May

The Energies of May
With Mercury in a challenging retrograde all month April was not easy. We may have had some powerful lessons in releasing things which did not serve us, seeing others as they are and accepting others' in their own energy and light, all of which take us back to ourselves and what we want in our lives. Our path is individual and while we may have others walking beside us, we have to learn to put ourselves first. This may have been pointed out to you more than once in April and it will set the foundation for what happens in May. And since Mercury is in its shadow until May 11, you may have a few more opportunities to do that.

This month will be about putting plans in motion, setting aside any need to do for others, to be in their lives as a light or supportive presence in ways that do not take energy from our purpose. As we move farther into this year we will need all of our energy to support our life vision and fulfill our intention to have the joy, love and abundance that we want. What we have discovered so far this year is that giving our energy to others takes away from our purpose. Whatever we try to be for them takes away from our ability to be present in our own life.

The events of the year so far may have confused us even more about our life goals and what we really want. The thought of taking action may be too much to consider since while we may be ready for that, we have no idea of which direction to take. Taking action is a process that begins with being, not doing. Doing is the result, we have to 'be' by setting the intention and establishing the energy for the direction that can take. So use this month to get used to your freedom, find your power, establish your boundaries and set the foundation for what you want to do.

As we begin the month on an energized note, the momentum is there for us to use. First we must get used to being in our own energy, free of distractions and energy drains. If we are not powering others' dreams we will have the time and energy we need to fulfill our own. How can we be powerful in our own lives? What do our dreams look like? What is the first step, the second, and so on? If it is too overwhelming to try to see the big picture, what are the smaller steps that we can take each day to stay connected to our vision for our life, to fulfill our purpose and be present in our energy, every moment of every day. As I said in the 2011 predictions, June to August are powerful times and May is the time for preparation as April's endings paved the way for new beginnings. So prepare, get focused, be at peace, dream big and have a wonderful month.

I don't as a rule check out horoscopes. I cherry pick, actually, but I liked this from Jennifer Hoffman.  It sounds selfish, but as they say on the airplane:  Put your own oxygen mask on first before you put the one on your child ( read: dependents).  Yes, have a lusty month of May and note to self: Don't take your own "story" too seriously.