Finding the Art in Everything

30 March, 2008

Students and Teachers and Spring

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Philip Larkin (1922 - 1985 / England)

29 March, 2008

George Herbert

This week I have been startled by my own unadulterated delight.

It helps that my delight spends the weekends and evenings following me from room to room to room for no reason other than to be near me.

I grew up in a house full of dogs and kids, but I have only briefly ever owned a dog before George Herbert. (I had one in highschool who died 2 months after I got her). My whole life, the family dogs always chose other siblings for their owners. Somehow, no matter how much I am gone, no matter how messy I am, how sensative, awkward, or posessive I am, this critter still considers me his owner. I belong to him.

George does this thing where he flops his furry self at my feet and sleeps. If I stand up for even a moment--to move 12 feet from my sofa to pour the brewing coffee--he hoists his sleepy self up, plods after me, and harumphs onto the kitchen's tile floor. He stays as long as I pour the coffee, I go back to the couch and so does he, same hoisting and harumphing. For him, this has to be an excruciating 24 feet, but he does it because I do.

My dad got this picture while George was peeking to make sure I was still there. This is his response to the question, "Where's George?" He loves it when I "find him."

I can't believe I am the one who gets to be his favorite.

28 March, 2008


I had my last Youth in Government meeting last night with my officers. We selected a new group last night, but more than a step forward, these elections marked my first great loss of this graduating class. This is my first senior goodbye--and I am heartsick. I think maybe I am not supposed to be this bothered by their departure.

This sentiment probably betrays my age. This is my first set of seniors I have known all four years. I even had a few of them, in one form or another, since they were freshman. Furthermore, these four years have been the only four I have ever worked out of school--and ironically it has been in one. Sometimes I notice I have followed the same coming-of-age path in my teaching career--freshman, sophomore, junior, and with my move to MVA, sophomore again. I don't feel I'll reach senior anytime soon, because I will still be in school while they move on.

Last night was the first time I had to come to terms with the fact that these kids--who represent significant time and effort and love and dedication over the last few years--are leaving. I tried to console myself by thinking that my attachment, and therefore sense of loss, was a function of this post-university-in-high school-first-job-ever circumstance. Unfortunately, I don't think this is it.
Perhaps I am missing the protective detachment that comes with experience, but I doubt even that would overcome the affection I have for these students who are going to be great people.

Christina, my secretary-turned-vice-president, is one of the first students I ever had. I taught her first period her freshman year and kept track of her since. She is--truly--always up for anything, and those who follow her are sprinting to keep up. She has this insurmountable enthusiasm which blazes through the most boring tasks. Combined with her startling ferocity, her sense of humor makes participants out of the most unwilling. If anyone needs a cold glass of truth thrown in his face, it will likely come from her.

Casey, my chapter president, is an extraordinary young woman. She has this deep conviction to her principles and an unwavering moral compass. She speaks directly and truthfully (if not a little painfully sometimes) but her relationships are marked by a tender loyalty. I have met few people who understand as well how to be a true servant leader. She leads like Jesus did--really--where she makes friends and family out of her followers and makes serving them more important than any preservation of power. When I watch her work, I am so proud of her.

I am looking forward to training a new set of officers, because like Legos, the act of building something is more meaningful than the thing itself. But I can't picture what Youth in Government will be without these girls who have been my whole experience.

Likewise, what will I do when some of my most precious seniors graduate from MVA? Heavier than the weight of normal goodbyes is the loss of those people who have defined my whole experience here. My time has been short, sure, but it has been my whole time.

I keep thinking that this is only a microscopic version of what parents must feel, which gives me a great appreciation for those people who found themselves signed up for that.

22 March, 2008


My sister just got married a week ago, and she is three years younger than me and the third-oldest daughter. Neither my sister nor I, the two oldest siblings, attended, which has prompted a small set of annoying questions about why we weren't there and when we would be getting married.

Rarely do I spend a minute of my day concerned about this, but my demographics, unfortunately, keep it at the forefront of my consciousness. I have taken to
absurdly self-diagnosing my apparently unsuitable status, but it doesn't really fend off the question-posers.

Then I came across this response to The Question on
McSweeny's which I just find brilliant:

Imagine a large painted canvas. Two observers ask the artist questions:

OBSERVER NO. 1: I've never painted landscapes. Where exactly do you start with one?
OBSERVER NO. 2: Why'd you hang this on the wall? Was it too heavy for the refrigerator magnets?

The first is a question; the second is a judgment that rented interrogative punctuation. And that's what "How come you've never been married?" is. Don't forget that. Respectful grownups will not ask a blind person "Who stole your eyes?" and will not ask you why you're not married. I'm not suggesting that people who ask you that are on a mission to wound you (necessarily), but I do think they hope to elevate themselves at your expense. Maybe they just can't imagine someone approaching life milestones at a pace different from their own, or maybe eliciting bitterness from you restores, in their minds, a molecule of cachet to their own frail marriages—they want you to covet what they're stuck with. Whatever the case, it's a question more about them than about you. It's a question posed with zero empathy, so what else could it be?

OK, OK, but what about your response? Outright bitchiness might not be a good idea. It's a megadose of the negativity they want and, as a bonus, makes you seem like the aggressor. But if it's a casual acquaintance asking you the question, I say you're entitled to your own passive-aggressive retort, something like "Well, I hope to soon, but the worst thing to do would be to, you know, settle," or "All the best gambling addicts seem to be taken,"* depending on that person's particular circumstances. More congenially, "I just haven't found the right fella" might be enough to end the exchange quickly. But be warned that anyone impertinent enough to ask you why you've never been married will probably move swiftly to fix you up with a nephew with preternatural sweat issues.

Of course, no one frets more about matrimonial status than parents. They love you, but now their friends' children have babies and strangers at the mall have babies and chimpanzees on the Discovery Channel have babies, and your uterus needs to step up. Your singleness may also raise questions in your folks' minds about your upbringing. Did they set you up for spinsterhood? Should they have forced a Ken doll on you instead of giving in and getting you Barbie's Dream Cats? But you have the right to tell your parents that the question bothers you, that it actually makes you want to talk to them less. They can ask all they want, but they should know that you simply won't be around as often to hear it. It's their choice.
- - - -
* If you don't think that's passive-aggressive, you haven't heard my aggressive.

friend of mine hypothesized that McSweeny's might be reading people's brains and posting the contents--at least reading her brain (which is one we frequently share). This material of theirs serves as anything but evidence to the contrary.

17 March, 2008

The Parable of the Talents

14"Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. 15To one he gave five talents[a] of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. 17So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. 18But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.

19"After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.'

21"His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'

22"The man with the two talents also came. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.'

23"His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'

24"Then the man who had received the one talent came. 'Master,' he said, 'I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.'

26"His master replied, 'You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

28" 'Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. 29For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 30And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

Footnotes: Matthew 25:15 A talent was worth more than a thousand dollars.

I am FURIOUS about the reaction of the so-called "AP kids" today.

  • I am NOT furious because another adult squandered a class to which I could have felt entitled.
  • I am NOT furious that preparation for this class and these kids which won't be used strongly dominated a much-needed break
  • I am NOT furious that the administration did not feel the same compulsion I do to beat students into being better versions of themselves.

I am FURIOUS because of the squandered talent. Those kids were given five "talents."

  1. They are given a second chance to redeem wasted time.
  2. They are given nearly one-on-one tutoring by a dedicated, qualified person.
  3. They are given every curricular advantage--even with the wasted time, what they have already actually used is double the national average
  4. They are given detailed instructions with crystal clear expectations and an endpoint to the work in sight
  5. They have the privilege of an administration who cares first for their success and makes special arrangements (at great expense) on the students' behalf.

These children did not just bury talents to be handed back. They threw them in the lake. It was not an unjust master they feared, it was the inconvenience.

I don't think the master's reaction is unjustified--the only way to address this cancer of character is to "throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

If only I could recommend that instead of "Demerits" on some official form.

15 March, 2008

Old World Florida

Because of my sister's wedding, my spring break plans were in the air for a long time--which, as all procrastination does, resulted in me going nowhere.

This is particulary troubling because I get antsy from living in the wrong place. It is not that my apartment is wrong, or my state is wrong, it is that I am wholly convinced my continent is wrong. Those who know me well agree that I should have been born European.

And if I can't live in Europe, I need to at least be in a city that affords high culture and art. Through and through, I am a city girl--which is about the opposite from where I live and work.

For months I have been craving a city fix, so Spring break was crucial.

In spite of being grounded to Florida, and all of its theme-park superficiality, thanks to a good, gourmet friend, I have had quite the Old-World week, including yesterday.

  • On Monday we went to the Vatican exhibit and had authentic Spanish food.
  • Tuesday was a languid day including a Siesta.
  • Wednesday, we wandered around downtown Orlando (not much of a city to speak of, but still tall buildings) with a glamourous lunch and cocktail-dress shopping.
  • Thursday I met a friend for coffee and we sat outside Starbucks, cafe style, people watching and drinking coffee, enjoying the weather for hours. (If I was fixed enough on my friend and the poetry we were reading, I could maybe forget it was Hwy 50 behind me)

And Friday was my most European day--We spent the the whole day Gourmet shopping, then I cooked a fabulous Italian dinner. My purchases yesterday include:

--Crème fraîche
--Deep, Italian-Roast coffee
--Extra-Sharp, aged English cheddar cheese
--Greek chicken to cook for dinner
--Rome baking apples
--Fresh Romano cheese
--Mille Course-ground Dijon
--Basil plant
--a bottle of Carpineto Dogajolo
--a bottle of Tuscan Chianti that had a picture of Carvaggio's Bacchus.
--Banfi Rosa Regale

I had a great lunch, courtesy of Fresh Market, of a cranberry chutney, gouda, and turkey sandwhich, with Salt and Vinager crisps and Orangina!

For dinner I used my romano cheese to make a red-pepper sauce. (I sauteed the peppers in red wine with a few cloves of garlic then put it all in a blender with the cheese and screme fraiche) I put the sauce on the greek chicken and handmade QuattroFromaggio tortelli (courtesy of Fresh Market) and we have a feast!

For being stuck in Orlando, it sure was an Old World week.

11 March, 2008


Yesterday we took the girls, Punya and Amirah, over to St. Pete for a cultural day out. It was a little rushed, and the gallery for which we were aiming was closed, but we had a nice lunch at Columbia, and instead went to the Florida International Museum, known for its rotating exhibits.

The exhibit on display was called Vatican Splendors, and it was billed as "Michelangelo items and works by Bernini, Giotto, and others. Artwork dating back to the third century. From the venerated relics (bone fragments) of Saint Peter to items from the election of Pope Benedict XVI, this exhibit comprises one of the largest Vatican collections ever to tour North America. Many items have never before been on public view...", which sounded like a decent alternative to the closed Museum of Fine arts.

But that curation of the exhibit was not what we were expecting. As art and history scholars, we were surprised at how much of the exhibit concentrated on religious Catholicism and the authority of the pope. I got the impression we were supposed to revere the artifacts in the exhibit much more than we actually did. The commentary on the pieces left room for them to be imbued with their supernatural powers. Instead of the scholarship we were expecting, we encountered a strange, superstitious medievalism--and this was difficult to overcome. The exhibit was not meant for people who had not familiarity with Catholic ritual and dogma, and I think this caused us to lose the brown girls.

I found myself wishing it were more secularized so it could be universally accessible. Ironically, the meaning of the word "catholic" is universal, but it was precisely the "Catholicism" that made it less universal. And still, it is the Catholicism, as opposed to protestantism, that gave what would have been a fully religious exhibit its historic, artistic, geographic, and sociological significance. Only the Catholic church had the resources to offer these artifacts for public consumption.

Even for a non-religious person, there is no denying the significance of the Vatican. It has the greatest concentration of masterpieces in the world--an unsurpassed amount of beauty and history. The Vatican, as the world's smallest principality, has profoundly shaped the history of the world for 1000 years--arguably the greatest impact of any nation, individual, or religion in history. And this is just at an organizational level. It neglects the role of religion in general as one of the most powerful shaping forces in history (for better or worse). Furthermore, in modern times, the Pope is the leader of an estimated 1 billion people. No other individual exerts such influence. Regardless of religious overtones, any insight into this organization is a worthy exhibit context.

Beyond context, the exhibit displayed some really fun things. For art lovers, we saw a mosaic by Giotto, a Disney-fied recreation of the Sistine Chapel ceiling workshop, the compass Michaelangelo used for his frescoes, a clay study of Bernini's David, and documents signed by Bernini, Bramante, and Michaelangelo. For History's sake, the exhibit had Etruscan and Greek statues; a portrait of Nero; excavation demos, revealing preserved catacombs and tombs under the Vatican; and, more recently, the documents, sample ballots, and actual white-smoke cannister from the election of the current pope in 2005.

Most intresting to me, was the detailed history of the building and space of what is now St. Peter's Basilica. Constantine built the first basilica on the site of what was believed to be the tomb of St. Peter, an important Christian claim. The exhibit discussed the Vatican excavations in the 1950's and 1960's of the area beneath the modern St. Peter's. Archeology revealed remains in tombs in this area from exactly the time of St. Peter's purported crucifixion. While limits on science prevent the specific identity of the remains from being determinable, it still situates remains in the exact place claimed by Christian tradition. Most important, science and archeology, the two things most capable and most probable for disproving ancient Christian claims, are unable to do so. Herein lies the difference between this religion and superstition. Superstition is a set of rules and behaviors extrapolated from limited human experience that defies historical knowledge and scientific law. It also can never be validated by science, but it can easily be disproved.

Just like human experience, the limits on science and archeology prevent it from proving the veracity of the supernatural. Based solely on human observation, time limits their field of view. However, what is impossible in one age may be said to be impossible in all human ages. That the remains beneath the basilica are still possibly those of St. Peter leaves room for one day's improved science and archeology to verify the claims of the bible and the surrounding documents. Conversely, improved science and archeology may disprove it one day, but all reliance on future determination requires a degree of faith.

The location of St. Peter's basilica also points to another significant Constantinian tradition--the first Basilica was a product of his "miraculous conversion." We believe the motivation for the Basilica's construction due to an account by Eusebius, widely considered to be the best source history has on Constantine. Eusebius' account contains a detailed claims regarding the life and work of this 4th century ruler, which have been verified by archeology and other contemporary documentation. But it also contains unverifiable material explaining Constantine's sight of divine direction. This presents supernatural skeptics with a difficult dilemma: Do they accept the document as valid, despite its supernatural claims, or do they reject it and its historical usefulness based purely on their own bias against the supernatural? C.S. Lewis says no:
"We find that accounts of the supernatural meet us on every side. History is full of them--often in the same documents we accept wherever they do not report miracles... No doubt most stories of miracles are unreliable; but then, as anyone can see by reading the [news]papers, so are most stories of all events. Each story must be taken on its own merits: what one must not do is rule out the supernatural as the one impossible explanation."
For the brown girls, maybe the exhibit fell victim to unfamiliarity and the tension between history and the supernatural, or maybe it was teenage boredom combined with encountering hostile old people. But it's extraordinary that we had 17yr-olds who were willing to go at all, instead of doing what other girls their age do on Spring Break. No matter the retention, the exposure was still a good thing. If anything, I hope they get a chance to learn earlier than most that no matter how foreign or boring a thing may seem, one should take hold of it, because every chance to learn is an opportunity for a richer life experience, if not immediately then eventually.

06 March, 2008

Resolution Brings Closure but Not the Other Way Around

A couple of years ago, one of my closest friends from college and I awoke to find a line drawn in the sand and ourselves on opposite sides of it. We spent about 6 months staring at the line, and in long, fruitless conversations, tried to figure out how it got there. We stayed there, toe to toe, on the line, until a few months and a final visit before his wedding.

On his last visit, I noticed we weren’t toe-to-toe anymore, and I may have been the only one to see it at first. Pretty soon, the conversation changed from curiosity regarding the line’s origination to pointing out who stepped away first. Other people even weighed in on the situation, free to cross back and forth across the line that paralyzed us.

Then it got worse. Both convinced the other one had moved, we backed further away, until we were shouting to be heard—which made us back even further away, because, ironically, it felt like someone was talking too loudly too closely. And then I felt hoarse and stopped responding. And pretty soon I didn’t hear any more shouting from beyond the line. People even stopped carrying messages across it.

And the silence turned into something much bigger than a simple ceasefire. Because in a ceasefire, the opponents are still fixed on each other, facing one another with a kind of readiness. We had turned from the line to build our own civilization on our side. We didn’t feel the threat anymore—we just didn’t feel anything. Only one person still traveled back and forth, with the occasional update from the other side of the line.

But we had shared a lot and he still had a great deal of stuff on my side. He left some priceless 3am conversation. He left music: All Weather Human, U2, Jimmy Eat World, David Gray, and Brit rock in general. He left Guinness, Tennet’s bitter, Fuller’s London Pride, curry and cous cous. He left his guitar capo and sarcasm, along with French-pressed, French roast coffee. He left all the Wes Anderson and Guy Ritchie Films. He left a nickname, an art history book, Bruce Campbell, a half a dozen bottles of red wine, Caravaggio, and twenty days of European travel.. I kept using these things every day, never really boxing them up to give back.

“I couldn’t have given them back, anyway,” I told myself. “There were too many and we were always going to be on separate sides,” I assured. A few weeks ago, I realized how much of what he left I couldn’t live without. There was no denying where they came from or how many there were. So I sent him a message telling him I had them, and I’d always be grateful he left them, and that I wouldn’t forget where they came from.

I didn’t see, then, that the line had become a wall, or foresee my message would be scrambled and incoherent from the other side. The message brought us closer to the wall than we’d been to the line for years (could there a chance…?), but it was still higher than we could reach. Another round of messages prompted a second look at the wall and staring up, we could not longer see where it stopped. I offered to build a bridge of common interests over the wall, so we can find a way to share the things he left.

“No,” he says, “The wall is too high.” The only way to share is for you to squeeze through this hairline crack in the brickwork.”

“A person cannot fit through that crack; a spider could not even fit!” I argued. “If I can’t use the bridge, the stuff isn’t worth sharing.”

“The bridge is not tall enough,” he messaged back. “I am sorry we are stuck forever.”

And yesterday, on this, we finally found ourselves on the same side.

And it’s a horrible feeling.

04 March, 2008

Limerick Intervention

Instead of updating one's blog,
One decided to go for a jog.
Yet still the group'll wait,
Though making ransom notes til late,
And getting more response from the dog.

01 March, 2008

History in Art Nouveau

We just finished the Gilded Age in my AP class, my trip with students to the Morse Museum in Winter Park was particularly meaningful. In class, we talked about the American triumphalism as displayed at the Chicago World's Fair, and the museum has that Louis Comfort Tiffany chapel reconstructed from its first display there. Tiffany is such a great example for this period because, as one historian explains, he "combines decorative genius with scientific experimentation and commercial acumen."

Another reason I call attention to Tiffany is that I really enjoy the rare moments when America gets to participate in the grand tradition of Western art. Even rarer still are times when America's artistic contribution surpasses any European one. And thanks to Sargent, Whistler (my favorite) and Homer, we get that at the turn of the century.

I have been having a discussion regarding classroom content and patriotism with an erudite stranger. I had asked him whether patriotism and personal ideology had any place in the classroom. He replied that teaching patriotism was "better left to Joseph Goebbels and Hugo Chavez." Blind patriotism is no friend of truth and accuracy. But patriotism is only one kind of these ideas with the power to poison. Plenty of 19th century art was wrecked with an over paint of Victorian morality.

In reading about Tiffany, I came across a description of his contemporary, Homer, which really resonated with me. He "was not interested in painting morals, merely recording nature truthfully, though his viewpoint was always personal and could be tendentious." Homer himself said, "When I have selected a thing carefully, I painted it exactly as it appears.*" Here, Homer's naturalistic integrity speaks to more than the painter; it also serves the historian and the history teacher. We need to put aside our bias, employing careful selection and an exacting approach to verisimilitude. And while the product may be marked by a strong, implicit point of view, it is more likely free from the dangerous artificiality begotten by ideological imposition.

I recall my drawing instructor in college requiring us to practice a technique called "contour drawing." We had to draw the outline of our subject without looking at the paper or really picking up our pencil. It was partly to train our hand-eye coordination, but most important, it was to force us to closely examine our subject for what it was and divorce us from our pre-conceived notions of how it is supposed to look. In doing this, it surprised me with how often my suppositions were wrong, which in turn, wrecks the whole artistic attempt. A line can betray a commitment to the supposition instead of the thing itself.

For history to be worth anything, one has to be like Homer and hold versimilitude as the highest ideal. If we don't, any other emergent ideal is rendered defective because of its faulty basis.

*Paul Johnson, Art: A New History