Monday, April 27, 2009

Looking for the Real Wayne Wells

An email arrived from Wayne Wells the other day. A short one. He didn’t include a photo, and after fifteen years a person needs to be reminded of what his friends look like. I did a Google image search, and most of the results were wrong. Three pictures, however, seem about right.
In Wayne Wells 1 the bowtie is right, but the hair is questionable. Too straight. The thought passing through this person’s mind, however, is the most telling evidence. Obviously he is listening to a woman explain why she does not need a new Electrolux, and he is thinking, “Lady, I can find so much dirt in your house that you will beg me for the Diamond Jubilee model.”
Wayne Wells 2 is problematic because I can’t tell whether Wayne Wells is meant to be the upper or the lower. My opinion is that Wells is the upper figure, because this is the way he used to settle who would pay for fajitas whenever he was in Waco. I never knew him to have to pay.
Wayne Wells 3 is the most likely of all. I admit the hair is wrong. Too straight again. But it is only temporarily straight, because while warming the audience for the Beastie Boys in Chattanooga, he noticed the elders of his church come in wearing suits and stern looks. (The picture taken immediately after this one does not show Wayne’s face, but his hair is in its normal tight curls again after he learned that the men were not his elders after all, but actors who had come straight from the set of a new C.I.A. thriller being shot on Lookout Mountain.)
What a wonderful time to be alive! You can not only use the internet to reconnect with old friends, you can also see what they look like in the present day.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Remembering Dee and Darwin

One of the recent media pieces about Charles Darwin said that for twenty years Darwin delayed publishing his ideas about natural selection because his wife Emma was a Christian.
“In her day,” the piece said, “people of her background and class believed in an afterlife.” (As have people of about a zillion other backgrounds and classes and days—but we digress.)
Therefore, we are told, Darwin delayed publishing because of the upset it would cause Emma to think of herself going to heaven whereas he was all set for “the other place.” (Click here to read the piece.)
In a general way the story of Darwin and Emma made me think of my late friend Dee and his wife Doris.
Dee was a small-particle physicist with impressive credentials, and he was a Christian: he believed in God and the Resurrection and other Christian things. He and Doris and their two children attended the same church as we did.
Dee and his family lived on our street, so he and I used to sit on the porch and talk, and I learned that he opposed creationism. He thought it was a pseudo-science put out by people who had never done a particle of original research in their lives but just got everything out of books written by other creationists and put their ideas into other books to be read by other creationists. So one reason he opposed them was that their methodology was flawed.
Their philosophy was flawed, too. One evening I brought up the idea that some people had, that the world was created relatively recently—six thousand years ago—but it was made so as to appear very old. (This idea apparently arose because creationists needed a way to accomodate the evident age of the universe, as well as its size, which is another way of saying the same thing.)
“Then why not say it was created six minutes ago,” Dee said, “and made to appear very old.”
It’s easy to see his point. Once you say the universe was created at some other time than when it appears to have been created, then it ceases to matter when it was created, and you may as well go ahead and say it was created when it appears to have been—that is, that it is exactly as old as it looks.
So Dee and I sat on the porch and talked, not only about these matters but about most things under the sun, and years passed.
Then late one afternoon Dee let it drop somehow that he had composed a manuscript demolishing creationism. He had not told me about his book for all these years, and it was another year before he let me read it. Doris would always stop him. She would sometimes hear what we were talking about and remind us both how unpleasant it could be to upset people when they were settled.
That’s not too much like the story of Darwin and Emma. But like Darwin and Emma, it is another story about how married people have instantaneous access to a second opinion.
Overall this is, I think, a good thing—to work at your job and to raise your children and to live your life with another person with whom you have a fine relationship and whose ideas will serve as a second opinion to your own, just as your ideas will to theirs.
So Darwin delayed publishing his work for twenty years. Yes, and? That is not long, given the scale of the universe. The book was apparently better for it, too—wiser and sadder.
So Dee never tried to publish his book against creationism. Yes, and? Certainly not everything that has been written has to be published. It is also a wonderful thing to write and to talk about what you have written on your own front porch in the afternoon sun.

Monday, December 1, 2008

What Shall We Give the Children?

We once went down a street in our neighborhood quite late in December and saw two children. The first wore a cowboy hat, vest (lots of fringe), chaps (more fringe), boots, and a pistol belt with enormous white-handled pistols. He stood motionless in his front yard. The second wore a brown paper bag as a hat and danced ecstatically, twirling a coat hanger on his finger.
We saw a piece in the newspaper that helped us make sense of this.
The article explained that children’s toys, if they are good toys, are tools to unlock the imagination. This unlocking is what Jean Piaget called a “transformation,” by which children “bend the world to the service of desire.”
What we got out of that was that a paper bag was a good toy, because you can make it a hat, a boat, a basket, a grotto devoted to the Virgin Mary. Anything you please. Whereas a cowboy hat is only a cowboy hat, and the more it is a cowboy hat the less it can be anything else. Therefore it is a bad toy, and will probably immobilize any child who puts it on his head.
(Now it does occur to us that an imaginative child—what might even seem to be a bad child, if there is any such thing—might think of some other uses for a hat than putting it on the head. Some of these uses might ruin the thing as a hat, but would thereby increase its value as a toy. In any case, the hat would be transformed.)
Let us therefore write down to give all the little children paper bags and coat hangers for Christmas this year. And blocks, finger paints, clay, story books with lots of pictures, building sets, microscopes, hammers, glue, scissors, colored paper, and, naturally, soup.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Creativity Begins In . . .

Creativity begins in dissent. I heard someone say that a long time ago and believed it. But now I am not so sure.
Here is why.
I was painting with a friend the other afternoon—or rather making graded dilutions of my colors to see what water did to them. When I finished there was still time left over, so I made a copy of a print hanging on the wall.
The print was “The Bath” by Mary Cassatt. As I made my quick little copy, I saw the care with which Cassatt had composed her painting.
The four essential elements overlap one another: the woman, the little girl, the basin of water, and the pitcher. Together they form a unity that you could almost cut from cardboard and place over any background you like. Almost: Cassatt anchors the pitcher at the bottom edge of the composition, so the unity of woman and girl and bath belongs to this room and no other. Therefore Cassatt presents us with something universal, for the more particular a thing is, the more universal it is.
Look at the care with which the bodies of the woman and girl are disposed. The negative space made by the girl’s legs is mirrored by the space made by the woman’s arm and the girl. The woman’s hand and arm are mirrored in the girl’s hand and arm. The girl’s other arm is crooked to hold the woman’s knee: the woman’s arm is crooked to hold the girl. Both faces look down at the large hand and the small foot in the basin. Their postures are in fact identical. And yet they are two separate people. Their hair color is different, their skin tones, their features. (You cannot see this in my little copy. Go to the link.)
Look at the careful rendering of the essential elements: the modeling of the girl’s tanned arms and pale body, the folds of the woman’s dress, the gold line decorations on the basin and the pitcher. Then look at the careful carelessness of the brush stokes in the background. Quick. Dash.
I cannot see the creativity of this painting beginning in dissent. Even if you could find some art critic—and I am not saying you can—writing about the plight of the working class and the inequality of women washing grubby little feet while the men sit about in banks smoking cigars—even if you could find such opinions, I am not sure they have anything to do with the care and attention put into this painting.
It seems more likely that Mary Cassatt had simply found something she loved looking at and put this care and attention into this painting so someone else could see it, too.
As for dissent—lots of creativity surely begins there, as well as in anger, outrage, hatred, disillusionment, despair. As well as in playfulness, maddness, religious rapture, crankiness, and many other things you might name. But I am putting away the notion that any one of these things, and it alone, drives creativity.

Friday, November 14, 2008

How I Learned To Make Banana Bread

Thursday morning I made banana bread by a recipe Annika and I saw on Boosh Koosh. We had been having a bagel in the kitchen when she saw the DVD on the table and asked for it. I had been wanting to draw a picture of her awake, but she had never been still long enough. I thought if I put the DVD in, I might have time to get off a quick drawing.
We watched a particularly powerful episode where the blue dog and a young man named Joe dress up and do “Little Red Riding Hood.” The recipe was in a kitchen sequence, when Riding Hood was packing her basket for Grandmother.
The director presented the recipe in pictographs: pictures of three bananas, two eggs, one stick butter. There was even a simple animation showing how you peel the bananas and drop them whole into the bowl.
I was eager to try it. I keep bananas in my room to prevent Low Potassium Level, but I don’t often eat them, so they were in perfect condition and there were plenty of them.
It worked great! I put the whole bananas, two eggs—cracked—butter, two cups of flour, some white powder in a spoon, and salt into the bowl and went at it with a wooden paddle held vertically like they showed on Boosh Koosh. At first the flour tended to go up into the air, but after a moment the eggs took hold, and pretty soon even the bananas were beginning to break up. After an hour in a 350° oven, I was spreading butter on a hot slice of banana bread that I would never have made unless I had wanted to draw a picture of Annika.
Isn’t that the way it is in life sometimes? You have to do it fast or not at all, surge ahead or miss your chance, flail away with a wooden paddle or have no banana bread. And here I have come all this way without realizing it until now. No matter. Once we learn to go all out, we fly.

Friday the Thirteenth Was on a Thursday This Month

What do you think about when you wake up in New England on a cold wet November morning when the Patriots lost to the Jets by three points? I thought about having beignets and coffee at the Cafe Du Monde while a street musician sings “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”

Thursday, October 30, 2008

All a Dream

You may not like listening to other people’s dreams, but I have to talk about it.
I dreamed that it was the middle of the night, and I was lying in bed dreaming. All at once five or six people came into my room. I knew they were Republicans. One of them was solid and chunky, and he had a plastic I.D. card pinned to his suit. He demanded an explanation: “Why are you not voting for John McCain!”
I should be telling my shrink about this, and I will, as soon as I can get in to see him. I have this kind of dream every so often. Usually it is someone demanding that I explain my religious beliefs—not a secular guy who thinks religious claims are false, but a fundamentalist from my home town in Alabama who thinks it wrong to read the Revised Standard Version. Last night’s dream was a variation on the theme.
I stammered out Reason Number One: “Sarah Palin!”
I was about to give another reason, but the man in the suit was already arguing with me about my first reason. I felt foolish. Well, how would you feel if you had to sit up in your own bed in the middle of the night and defend yourself to five or six fully dressed Republicans?
That is why I hate to dream. I am always having bad dreams. Dreams about politics and religion. Dreams about missing class for a whole semester. Dreams about public bathrooms with wet floors and all the places taken.
You’d think that at my admirable stage in life I was entitled to a few good dreams. Drawing a sheep and getting the lines right. Running tirelessly through fields of endless poppies. Being asked a question and getting the answer.
But no. I would wake and find it was all a dream. The sheep is crooked, my back is tired, and the answer escapes me.
However, I will keep on drawing crooked sheep and trees that look like broccoli. I will still walk everywhere I can. I will still give my own answers and not anybody else’s and be wrong and so what. I will still vote for whoever I want to. And I will get a bumper sticker for my car that says, “I am not afraid.”