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.”

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Views of the Common Man

The hardest part about drawing trees is seeing them properly, and finally I decided to do something about it.
I had made a few failed attempts at the red maple by the driveway before I concluded it was too mixed up with the other trees. So I went over to Hadley and did the big, solitary Boundary Oak, and that went a good deal better.
In two weeks I felt ready for landscapes, and when I kept the trees distant—and small in my drawings—they came out pretty well.
Last Saturday I believed myself ready to draw a breath-taking vista. My home is in the Connecticut River valley; the Pelham Hills are to the east and the Holyoke Range to the south. The vistas are there: all you need is a little height to see them from. So I set out in my car to find one of them.
Getting the height I wanted was easy: I just took Station Road over to the Pelham Hills. Getting a view was not: you have to buy property on the hillside and build a million-dollar house on it.
At any rate, that is what people have done, and they do have a magnificent view—Long Mountain, Mount Norwottock, Bare Mountain, Mount Holyoke by the river, farms and pasture-fields. You can see parts of it every now and then from the road. But you can’t see enough to draw it.
My first thought was to go along until I saw someone on their front porch shelling peas and holler from the car, “Can I use your view for a while?”
No one was shelling peas.
I did see a man walking from his car back to the house. He looked at me carefully as he went. And I saw two women walking their dogs and having a conversation. They stood still and stopped talking until I had passed.
So I didn’t get my big view. I went back downhill and found a small view. There is a place on Mad Woman Farm where you can see Mount Norwottock through the trees.
I have thought about it, and I think the small views are better in a way. Of course if a large view shows up, I will look at it for all I’m worth. But most of us, most of the time, live among the small and close-up vistas. These are the things that summon us to become artists: Queen Anne’s Lace (my mother’s wedding flower!), white beeches against gray clouds, Mount Norwottock through the trees.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Madame Blavatsky’s Dog and the Current Crisis

Monday my sister and I had lunch in Philadelphia with a colleague of mine named Bert. We met at the White Dog Cafe on Sansom Street, amid the University of Pennsylvania in a block that was originally a row of brownstone residences. During the early months of 1875, Madame Blavatsky lived in the house that is now the White Dog Cafe.
During her time on Sansom Street, Madame Blavatsky got an infected leg, and the doctors talked of amputation. “Fancy my leg going to the spirit land before me!” she said, and waved the doctors away.
In place of amputation, Madame Blavatsky treated herself by sleeping with a white dog lying over her leg. Given the state of medicine in 1875, the dog was as good an option as anything else, and Madame Blavatsky recovered. She hailed the experience as a transformation, and in September she founded the Theosophical Society.
The dog cure was not so unusual for Madame Blavatsky. She also performed levitation, clairvoyance, telepathy, and materialization (i.e., materializing objects out of empty space).
Where are the great masters of the past when we really need them? The very day we were lunching in Philadelphia, only a few hours’ drive away in Washington the economic masters of the present day were administering their own attempts at levitation and materialization.
My friend Bert is a business academician and lecturer and author. Of course we asked her what she thought.
“No one really knows how deep this is,” she said. “It will take a long time to fix this,” she said. “It really is an option to do nothing and see how things shake down, and then figure out what to do,” she said. “We have become a debtor nation,” she said, “all the way down to the family level.”
How can you argue with any of this?
No one knows if the 700-billion-dollar figure is the right amount for a federal rescue plan: it is a guess. It seems true to me that it will take longer than one hurried weekend to fix something as broken and complicated as the global economy. Doing nothing is always an option—although it galls people who think that doing anything, anything at all, in an emergency is better than doing nothing.
As for being a debtor nation from top to bottom—well gee, the levitators in Washington don’t exactly want to say this, but they are saying it endlessly: If Congress doesn’t pass this bill, the bankers won’t grant credit, and—to give a concrete example—the home-theatre installation companies won’t be able to borrow money to buy huge flat-screen televisions to sell to people on credit, and they won’t be able to borrow money to meet their payroll and pay you, the average home-theatre installer, and so you won’t be able to make your payments on the planer and band saw you bought when you went to the hardware store for nails and they told you you could get 10 per cent off if you put it on the new credit card they handed you as you walked in the door.
It sounds like levitation is what we need, and if the white dog worked for Madame Blavatsky, maybe the policy geniuses in Washington can get one more dance out of the old girl yet.
If  levitation doesn’t work, we might have to consider our last desperate option: the way of wisdom and virtue.
Surely things will not come to such a sorry pass as that. But if they do, here are words from Madame Blavatsky to get us started:
“Behold the truth before you: A clean life, an open mind, a pure heart, an eager intellect, an unveiled spiritual perception, a brotherliness for one’s co-disciple, a readiness to give and receive advice and instruction, a courageous endurance of personal injustice, a brave declaration of principles, a valiant defense of those who are unjustly attacked, and a constant eye to the ideal of human progression and perfection—these are the golden stairs up the steps of which the learner may climb to the temple of divine wisdom.”

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

My Foreign Policy Experience in Luxembourg

Reading the newspapers I sometimes get a breath of fresh air.
I got one the other day when I read about Sarah Palin’s foreign policy experience. The paper said that the Alaska governor had made a trip to Iraq and Kuwait to visit Alaskan Reserves and had visited a couple of other countries, too, including Ireland.
Well, the colonel of the reserves was pretty sure Governor Palin hadn’t actually gone into Iraq: she didn’t have permission to cross the border from Kuwait. But she had apparently got close enough to where she could get a good look at it, which is like seeing Russia from Alaska, or New Hampshire from Brattleboro, or seven states from Rock City.
But it was the governor’s experience in Ireland that was real fresh air for me. Her plane had put down for a refueling stop, and she had remained aboard until it took off again.
As I thought about this, I realized that getting foreign policy experience is not as hard as I once believed. I realized, in fact, that I myself have enough experience to be a U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. Indeed, I am awash with experience, because I have been to Luxembourg six times.
I made each of these six visits during the course of three round-trips between Basel and Brussels. Basel is the Swiss university town and pharmaceutical hub on the Rhine—a river which I have picked up so many rocks from the banks of that they fill a small saucer on my window sill. Brussels lies at the end of my three round trips to it, a city with three train stations in a broad, flat, partly French-speaking country which is not however France.
But to return to Luxembourg—My foreign policy experience there has prepared me for my ambassadorship by giving me two key concepts.
The first is that whereas the train goes into Luxembourg head first, it comes out hind part before. This fact so astonished me on my first visit, that I thought I had merely forgotten which way the seats in the car were facing. But the fact was confirmed on my second visit, and by the time I made my sixth trip to Luxembourg, it had become a commonplace.
The second key concept follows logically from the first: the country of Luxembourg is not big enough to turn a train around in.
You may by now be thinking, Broyles, you will not be the only person in line for the Luxembourg ambassadorship. True. But not to worry. I have Plan B: an ambassadorship to Canada. My parents visited Niagara Falls one time on the Canadian side and called me from a pay phone, and I could hear the falls over the telephone.
Keep your eye on this blog. I’ll post my foreign mailing address.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Truth and the Red Bar

Yesterday several of us drove to Boston to look at art. I sat in the back seat behind Chris, but don’t worry, I had room, and so when he asked us about our emotional state while talking politics, I was comfortable enough to confess that I felt a lot of angst about it. Laurel said how can you know when they are telling the truth, and what does it mean to tell the truth anyway.

When we turned into the main gate to Boston College, I was looking sideways while Chris was looking straight ahead, so I saw the surprised look on the man’s face in the guardhouse as Chris zoomed in without stopping. The man brought his chair down to rest on four legs and looked up from his newspaper and leaned forward and his eyebrows went up. His eyebrows told the truth, and I wondered if you could tell the truth—i.e., look like that—and get elected president.

Steve Schlosser at the McMullen had put together a wonderful exhibit of work by Georges Rouault. Steve walked us through the rooms in chronological order and told us things and then turned us loose to go back and look more closely.

Everything looked sad and dark. Tears were “at the heart of everything”: an old clown whose age couldn’t be hidden by paint any more, a washed-up prostitute who still had to pretend she was a joy-girl,  judges in tight collars too stupid to hand down just decisions. The face of Christ was everywhere, immeasurably sad, with eyes almost always closed, like the image pressed into Veronica’s handkerchief.

Then Steve took us into the next room and showed us that in 1930 a new element started showing up in Rouault’s pictures. It was a horizontal red line, like the balance-bar in a ballet school. Rouault put it behind clowns, acrobats, dancers—people who were liable to lose their balance and fall.

It was Rouault’s way of saying that even in a world racked by instability—and Steve showed us that Rouault’s was: born in 1871 in the cellar of a house that was being shot up by artillery, lived in France during World War I, fled south during World War II when the Nazis occupied Paris, knew all about the extermination camps and the Bomb and the cold war (he died in 1958)—even in a world racked by instability and miseries and tears, there is a red line of redemption, and this, as much as the tears, is a part of the truth of our experience.

It is hard to tell the truth.

Artists in the twentieth century sought like anything to tell the truth. That is why so many of their images are distorted and ugly. It was a distorted and ugly century. Most artists didn’t see any redemption in it, which is okay, because it can be hard to see. But what isn’t okay is the reflexive rejection of someone else’s vision of redemption just because I can’t see it. Artists do this as much as anyone else. Maybe that is partly why—as Sandra Bowden pointed out to us—Rouault was dropped from the sixth edition of Janson. It is sometimes hard for even artists to tell the truth and get elected.

On the drive back from Boston I thought about this some, and slept some, and Chris bought me ice cream. It is so hard to tell the truth and get elected to anything. We only want to hear about tears at the heart of everything, or else we only want to hear about redemption.

Thank the dear Lord that Rouault got it right. The misery and instability and danger of falling. The red balance bar at our hips.

Friday, September 12, 2008

McCain and Technology

It is amazing how things work out. The other day I wrote to my sister in an email that I couldn’t decide whether to go to the barber shop that day or the day after. I went the day after, and it is amazing how things worked out.
There were three people in front of me, so while I was waiting I tried to draw a picture of Mindy cutting a guy’s hair, only she moved a lot and the guy was the only good part of the picture. Mindy said that you could send Barack Obama two dollars by text message, and that John McCain didn’t even know how to text message. She made her point so strongly that her arm didn’t turn out right in my drawing.
Another guy in the shop commented that you didn’t have to know how to text message to be president of the United States, that text-messaging was the least of your worries.
My first response was to think that’s right, the president has other people to dial phone numbers for him and to explain what he meant after he said something and to tell him which helicopter to get into and when to get out of it.
So after my haircut I went to the grocery store to see if they had any Nellie & Joe’s Famous Key West Lime Juice, and I got to thinking. Suppose McCain is in Stop & Shop to pick up a few things and Sarah Palin wants to remind him to get pickles. So of course she is going to send him a text message that says, “Pickles.” He had darn well better be ready to answer that call at the drop of a coin, to fulfill that mission without blinking.
So you see how amazing it is the way things work out. If I had gone to the barber shop a day earlier, I wouldn’t have seen how even little things like that are worth thinking about.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Does Reading Last?

Television acts like a drug. Fernando was telling me this the other day. A study has demonstrated that when people watch TV they feel better than they did just before and just after.
“It makes them feel happy and relaxed,” Fernando said, “but it doesn’t last.”
Next day Laurel asked about reading: “Does it last longer than TV?”
Until Fernando and I can get funding to find out, I will deliver my hunch: yes, it lasts a great deal longer. Or it can, anyway.
I still remember the pleasure I got out of reading Robinson Crusoe when I was fifteen, lying on the kitchen floor with my head propped against the washing machine. And the feeling of divine discontent and longing I got reading The Wind in the Willows when I was sixteen and about thirty more times since then. And the sudden quivering jolt I felt in my spinal column reading E. D. Hirsch’s Validity in Interpretation at thirty-eight.
Then Laurel’s husband, Chris, asked, “And how did you feel watching It’s an Incredible Life?
Hmm. I’m sure I felt good. But I don’t remember it.
“It’s because when you read, you become that character,” Laurel said. Surely that can be emotionally affecting. And I think there is something more, too.
Here’s what I think. Reading lasts—especially reading complex enough to engage you to the tip-end of your spine—because it takes so much work.
Television takes a little work, too. You have to pay attention a little bit, you have to remember a little bit. But as a genre, ordinary television programming doesn’t work you too hard. The canned laughter tells you when it’s funny, the actor’s voices tell you when they are sincere or sarcastic, the flash-backs remind you that the murder was done with a bullet to the brain.
Movies work you harder. I am talking about the complex ones, the arty ones. You have to pay attention more closely and remember more carefully and think more. Two weeks after watching Blowup you might still be trying to figure out what was real and what wasn’t.
Reading works you harder still. You have to construct the whole she-bang as you go along. You have to decode a sequence of alphabetic characters and construe grammar and build up a context and look words up in a dictionary.
You have to figure out that the names Alyosha and Alexey refer to the same person, and you have to remember that Dmitri is the only son who believed he had property.
You have to know that Aphrodite, Ares, and Apollo side with the Trojans and Hera, Athena, and Poseidon side with the Achaians, that these are gods and goddesses, not men and women, and that Ares is a two-face.
You have to realize when something is comic. When the spotted ponies begin walking through people’s houses, you must decide whether this is hilarious or merely incomprehensible.
Sometimes you have to supply a central fact of the story, because the author makes you work even for that: that the man taking the fishing trip is a traumatized war veteran. And sometimes a central fact is not even a fact but an unresolved dilemma: does the terrified boy who climbed to the top of the water tower climb down again?
Now what were we talking about? It started with television’s drug effect—drugs don’t last—and then there was something about the effects of books lasting, sometimes, for a very long time. Yes. And that reading, good reading, is work, because the author constructs a whole world, puts it into code, and then you have to reconstruct it with your own brain if you are ever going to get it at all.
Ah. And getting it is the whole point of doing it, because we become more than we were before.