PAT CONROY AND MY LITTLE FAMILY

You have heard that he has died.  He had been, in the last years, doing so well fighting his personal devils.  He had lost weight, stopped drinking I think, toned up.  They were blindsided by this cancer as everyone who experiences it is, and poof.  The truest lover and best promoter of our eccentric little state is no more.

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I always say this. South Carolina is so small that you can know everyone you need to. We have all had experiences with Pat Conroy.  Many people I know went to school with him at the Citadel.  His descriptions of Columbia in the sixties were my people’s lives.  My ex-husband knew that tiger in the cage on Gervais Street and fed him chicken bones.

Glenn and I last saw him when he was awarded a life achievement award at our annual O’Neil Verner Award ceremony several years ago.  He was looking frail indeed.  This may have been just before his late resurgence to a kind of health.  His wife, Cassandra King, was very protective over him  (I heard her once on a local NPR show.  Herself a writer of southern stories, she spoke at book shops and libraries.  She said that one woman in attendance heard that she was married to a writer and commented to her that she loved her husband’s stories of contemporary horror and fantasy!).

When my kids were young, there was always a tug of war over what they wanted to do and what it might be good if they DID do.  I was always alone on my side.  But Pat Conroy was on my side, twice, and I think now my family might admit that my ideas were worth doing.  Not sure about that however.

We were meeting my mother and stepfather in DC for a long weekend.  We drove.  It was the early nineties, so the kids were about 10 and 8.  I got the hairbrained idea that we would listen to one of Pat Conroy’s books on our nine hour drive because it involved places that the kids knew, Bob knew, and had compelling family stories (to say the least).  I presented the idea.  Everyone was aghast.  Below, we enter DC in our Ford Aerostar.

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But we listened to the book, and it became a part of family lore.  The best book Braxton had ever read (the only book Braxton had ever read and he listened to it)!  It is difficult to remember details now, but it seems it was a good experience.

I got more demanding.  The University of South Carolina used to  have a fine book festival every spring for a week.  Now it is only a shadow of its former self.  One year, Kurt Vonnegut was to be the keynote speaker.  It was the year his home in Manhattan burned down, he was indisposed, Pat Conroy stepped in.  I wanted the four of us to go for my birthday.  A LECTURE, WHAT?  But it was my birthday.  They wanted to refuse, but did not, so we went.

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Always wanting to teach the kids that the world is indeed small and you can see things and know people by simply participating in it, I wanted them to have read a book and then hear the author talk about it.  It demystifies books. And writers. Makes them more real. This parallel is especially poignant with Pat Conroy.  He was a totally honest speaker about his life in these books.

And really not a very good one.  His spoken sentences were kind of like dry bullets.  Maybe he was an average speaker, dunno.  But compared to the lyrical love story to South Carolina that blazes from every page of his books,  his speech simply could not compare to his calculated art.  But I remember this also as being a positive experience for the family, perhaps there was an admission that participating in this kind of thing was not as bad as they had imagined.

Pat Conroy looked at the eccentricities and strangeness of our state, which abound (Strom Thurmond had a black child?), and smooths its landscape with a kind of understanding love.  Knowing what we know about his life, his writing was an attempt to save his.  And it was a generous everlasting gift to the rest of us.

 

 

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A PERFECT READ

Were you ever so involved in a couple of books to the point that your own reality seemed dull and uninspiring? That you could not wait to lay back into those pages whenever you had the chance? In a place like that now, I must recommend my current obsession.
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Worried about climate change and the fact that most are not paying any attention to it, I was alerted to a great book by an NPR interview with Jerad Diamond, a professor of geography. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his book “Guns. Germs, and Steel”, but I’m reading now his work “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”. He tackles and explains huge climate and societal problems in common language. His title says it all. Societies may be new to an area via colonization, and the imported old ways do not work in the new lands. Religions may make a solution impossible for a certain society. Skills in dealing with the land and climate may not be known by colonizing peoples. Probably the most dramatic example in his book is the old society on the Easter Islands, and their sculptural solution to a problem that needed addressing in a way other than making art. But could they choose another path with the techniques and knowledge they had?

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Diamond even looks at our American Montana and problems with water there. It makes one wonder why on earth folks wanted an area without much rainfall to be farms. But it happened, and we (they) have to deal with it. By far my favorite discussion in the book is about Medieval Greenland and the Norse. They lived as colonists for some 450 years, and then were gone. The experiment was unsuccessful. What interests me is what the people thought when realizing that their grandfathers had horses they could feed, that there was plenty of meat for the winter, and vast numbers of seals in the fiords.

Thought of a book, half-read, by Jane Smiley, dated 1988. Read part of it last summer and something from Diamond’s narrative made me get that book out again. She has a huge interest in the Middle Ages and the Norse, and this monumental and difficult book was years in the writing.

the greenlanders

Illustrations (photos) from the Diamond book picture the farms on which the drama occurs in the Smiley book. Going back between the two, the stories are confirmed. They represent two ways to tell the same story: the reporter’s way and the dramatist’s way.

Of course Smiley’s way is the more difficult. The following review attends that issue far better than I am able.

http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/04/05/specials/smiley-greenlanders.html

Know this sounds strange, but I could not find a date of publication on my paperback copy of Diamond’s book. And in reading “The Greenlanders”, I was sure that Smiley’s hat would be tipped to Diamond for his research. But “Collapse” was written in 2005! Amazing interface.

MAKING CONNECTIONS

Slightly sad when the power was finally connected, the emotion was surprising.  From Tuesday to Saturday my mind and experience was in the space connecting a book (two books really) and an ice storm.

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Knowledge is finding unknown connections between things, said the first female president of the University of Chicago, Hannah Gray, many of my lives ago.  Only now do I realize (plus the fact that the statement was remembered)  how pivotal these connective spaces are to me.  Could have had another life following that path.

I had been waiting for February 11 for a long time.  My current obsession is with hiking the Appalachian Trail including losing myself and testing myself.   The zen of activity.  Turns out 2/11 was a very busy day.  Finished hanging an exhibition looking skyward at ice, and attended the evening event for which I had been waiting.

Odyssa was coming to Orangeburg.  The big turnout was a tribute to her as we all prepared for the upcoming storm.

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Jennifer Pharr Davis spoke about so much more than exploring the trail.  She talked about achievement, oneness, surprising your limits, regulating yourself, looking in, looking out.  Making art does this to your mind.  I want to use my body for this too.

This young woman has found her perfect creative place, and cast a career around it.  She was inspiring, and we all went out into the first ice that evening blasting through our boundaries.

But she had led me further.  Deep into another book  “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson, a person my age, another perspective was given.  There is of course, not only one way to do things.  Each person’s way is perfect for them.

a walk in the woods

Bryson, and I was reading this book during the quarantine of the ice storm, speaks a lot about the life of the mind and soul on the trail, the strangeness of civilization when embraced for a break from the trail, and trying to keep a foot (so to speak) in both places.  He struggles.

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At the point of the fourth day without power and phone during the ice storm, I am no longer trying to switch on lights.  Enjoying the heating of water and cooking of food on a camp stove, a pattern of activity is emerging.  Hot water on my face is a delight.  Hauling fallen trees has replaced my running.  I am thinking about that trail doing all this work.

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I cooked two pounds of bacon yesterday morning, because it had to be, and after the meal clean up (a seriously late breakfast of bacon cheeseburgers), we were going to boil three chickens in a huge pot made for dipping turkeys in grease (hate the idea, love the pot).

Our friend drove up, the son of a neighbor, and said we would have power in 15 minutes.  We were just lighting the burner for the chicken.  We looked at each other.  We didn’t have to do it.  I felt a loss.

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Jennifer Davis described last Tuesday night the instant  she knew she had to hike the trail for an overall record (not just a women’s record).  She had hiked, sixteen hours a day the 2100 some miles, faster than any woman.  She touched that metal plate on the mountain in Georgia and she still had energy and strength in her body at that moment.  She had not been tested enough, and that was the germ of the new idea.

Yesterday, I felt the same way.

MY INSPIRATION

No Cooper River Bridge Run for me this year.  Something different is pulling.  Now training for it,  just after my daily run, I am also cleaning up the roads around here.  Never do only one thing at a time.  This also helps my blood pressure and bone mass.  What’s not to love?

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A friend gave me a book about hiking the Appalachian Trail.  Wish I’d read something like it forty years ago.

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Jennifer Pharr Davis has written a simple story of finding self,  uniting with the natural world, and therefore overcoming self.  Man, the self requires hard work!  Inspired.

Weaving through my art education is pattern.  Pattern or repetition of an action or a shape allows one to focus on that thing, and not on “self”.   Pattern is predictable, repetitive, understandable.  You are in it, like a monkey swinging from tree to tree.  Ask a weaver about the power of the beater bar.  Like a heartbeat, it is.  Running is this way for me.  Repeat the steps, lose yourself, gain enlightenment.

So it seems to me that hiking would be like running, but instead of eliminating the self, the self is trying to merge with all the variety of nature encountered.  To be part of something bigger, where self holds only a little status.

Living in the South, I can stumble over to the AT fairly quickly and hike for a couple of days.  Too old to think about the entire 2180 miles, two days with a nice hotel in between sounds good to me.

So I am running my four miles, and then walking/hiking down in the ditches on either side of the nearby two-lane.  Hoping that this will strengthen other muscles in my legs and back.  Below is today’s bounty of trash!

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A LOOK AT RETIREMENT

Do you remember the old PBS series “A Year in Provence“?  Lush and beautiful, bursting with eccentric French characters, and featuring a never-ending search for truffles, it was a guide to living life. To renovate an ancient farmhouse and gardens, eat simple food and wine, a couple left their high stress jobs in London and took a year off in Provence.  One review says that it examines “life lived by seasons, not by days”.

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That last statement suits me perfectly.  And did in the late eighties when we were watching the series.  Easy to do, I thought, if one was independently wealthy.  How could you pursue all this elegant living and creating without money?  The series on PBS was based on Peter’s Mayle’s experience,  an erstwhile advertising executive of London who took a year “off”.  Something else nagged at me.  How would they ever go back to London?

From another review:

If Mayle had had his way, the description of A Year in Provence as fiction would have been spot on. “When we first moved to France [in 1987] I had the intention of writing a novel and had shared this great ambition with my agent, Abner Stein,” says Mayle. “But there was a problem: I found myself completely distracted – much more taken up with the curiosities of life in Provence than with getting down to work on the novel. The daily dose of education I was receiving at the hands of the plumber, the farmer next door, the mushroom hunter and the lady with the frustrated donkey was infinitely more fascinating than anything I could invent.”  And so a travel book was born.

It makes me wonder if we (the educated, the observers, the type A personalities) have it at all correct.  Mayle’s book challenges us.

Strangely, minus the exotic location, we are pursuing the same goals (except for the cooking food part) to create, be outdoors, love the simple, enjoy the work.  And, as always, get stuff for free or little money to achieve our goals.  And as Peter Mayle enjoyed his neighbors and substituted simple goals for the more abstract, so have we.

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Yesterday was cinder block day.  We took what we needed from a friend whose job it is to tear down buildings.  The cinder blocks would cost him money to place in the dump.  We needed a floor for our silo, which is ready to be moved to house our pool pump.  Done and done.

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A huge tree had to be removed to facilitate this move for the silo.  Glenn and I took care of most of it, and then a pro, who we have been trading firewood for labor for years, came in to finish the job.  He asked for 75.00 and settled for nothing.  He wanted the fresh oak wood.  Win/win.

Last week it was bricks.  Broken bricks are free, whole bricks at a very good price.

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These bricks we will add to those in front of the barn.  Starting today.

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The longer that we live inside our monthly earnings, the more we have to use for travel.  Like to Provence.

OH MAN, CARAVAGGIO IS TOTALLY THE GUY

But I have just finished a book on Caravaggio, one of many many that have been published about this very eccentric individual, and so much good stuff was missing.  One might argue that Jonathan Harr‘s book, “The Lost Painting” is about the search for a painting rather than the painting itself.  Or the artist.

And it had two endings.  Like “Lincoln”.  Less would be more.

Heard about this book in a feature on NPR, while laying tile on my pool deck.  Changed up for a minute, walked into the office and ordered it for 75 cents on Ebay.  Feeling oh so twenty first century, I went back to my work.  Then realized that if I had a Kindle, I would be reading now.  But not for 75 cents.  Modern as I can afford to be, this is fine.

Even an educated person with the least acquaintance with understanding art would know of Ervin Panofsky.  To someone who was interested in Northern Renaissance art, he was royalty.  His most famous article put forth his ideas on the iconography of “The Arnolfini Double Portrait“, a work of art that every student has confronted.

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This work by Van Eyck is more known than any by Caravaggio, because it is the go-to example when teaching about “iconography” in a basic art history class.  It is just so perfect for the concept.

Panofsky’s work is huge.  In the book, “The Lost Painting”, the title a perfect description of the content of the book, his second wife, Gerda Panofsky-Soergel is mentioned many times, referred to as the “German woman” who was allowed to visit an archive, but never connected with this icon of art history.

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The painting above, “The Taking of Christ” was the goal of Gerda’s research and why she was looking in the archive, but she never landed the home run.  She was just a player in the search.  In the book, she was allowed in the private archive, probably because of her name, where others had continually been denied.  Down the line in the search, our art historian heroine, Francesca,  was also allowed into the archive because she found a personal connection with the family.   Same with Gerda.  She was REALLY connected.  She had the famous name, but this was never mentioned.

Within the narrative of the very interesting search for a lost painting by Caravaggio, a brief history of the life of the man is sketched out.  He was wild, in favor and out of favor with art lovers because of his compositional tactics.  Really a street brawler, he used his friends as models, and they were street people themselves.  More than once a painting of his was rejected by those who commissioned it because the model for the Madonna was a famous prostitute.  Would mean nothing to us now, but to the contemporary Catholic church, it was a very bad idea.

He painted like a miracle, his work purchased by those at the highest levels, but he needed protection by them because of his personality.  His face was mutilated once, and he was forced to leave Rome, where any citizen would be allowed to perform the service to the city of killing him.  His life was just so schizo.

Something that Caravaggio did that students always like is that he included self-portraits in many of his works.

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Above is a self portrait of Caravaggio as Goliath’s head (only).

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And a younger Caravaggio as Bacchus, the god of wine.

But what I love about Caravaggio is his predisposition for unusual compositions.  He kind of hides his wackiness in full view if one chooses to see it.  He makes jokes and uses humanity to populate sacred compositions.

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This Roman soldier has such a great ass, eh?  One can hardly get beyond it!  Why is it bathed in light as are Christ’s hands, or Judas kissing Christ’s face, or St. John’s anguish?  Or the Caravaggio self-portrait in the upper right?

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But this example has to be the best in category.  In a “Conversion of St. Paul“, in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo (1601), the bee-hind of a horse is a major player in the composition.  Who else would do this but Caravaggio?

We had just seen this painting before Glenn took a major sky dive over the handlebars of a Segway out in the piazza.  Was kind of a Caravaggio moment in itself!

AN ARGUMENT FOR BOOKS?

Reading a new book by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Elizabeth Strout,  I am appalled at its published condition.  This selection was made by my book group, so it was purchased on-line, not from the flea market from which most of my books come.

First, the dust jacket of “The Burgess Boys” had to go.

the burgess boys

Along with the dust jacket not fitting the book well, look at the above design decision.  The vertical black and white area to the left of this front jacket is not just the spine design, it migrates to the front plane of the book.  It kind of denies the three dimensional object that the book is.  Very unsettling to this visual artist.  Had to throw the jacket away to begin the book.

But the wonkiness and unworkability of the book are due to its unbelievable binding.  If I open the book and let gravity do its work on the pages, my cat, Mouse, could jump through the hole made between the spine and the pages.

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The above Mouse hole did not always look like this.  There was a little white something in there, and I pulled it out.  It was not attached within the hole in any way.

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Remember the brown paper towels you used in elementary school?  A bit of one of those is what we have here, with less than a square inch of some form of woven textile at each end.  I pulled it right out!

Who is the publisher, you say?  Random House!  What is going on here?  Not in the business, not a librarian, not really living in this century, living mostly by intuition, I had no idea that we were so far down the e-book road.  This book does not look or feel or act like it was created by some entity that loves books, that is for sure.

Elizabeth must be embarrassed.