Wednesday, June 26, 2013


He deserves paradise who makes his friends laugh. ~anon.

Coming upon an infestation of tiny ants on our kitchen counter, I consulted the Internet experts. I learned that I should first determine if they were “sweet ants” or “grease ants” by putting out a swab of jelly in one spot and peanut butter in another to see which one attracted them.

This was after everyone else had gone to bed; I knew that our guests, my sister Betty and bro-in-law Jeff, were rising early for their departure the next day, so I put an explanatory note by the two unsightly blobs: “Ant test spots.”

Coming into the kitchen, I did a slight double-take to see that the jelly spot had been smeared a bit, and another note next to mine:

“Thank you for the teaspoon of jelly; our ant village was on the verge of dying out, and this will keep us going for many more months.”

The Ant Community

“P.S.  Thanks also for the peanut butter, but it doesn’t appeal to us, so we’ve taken the liberty of inviting our cousins, the Greasy Ants.”

Thursday, June 6, 2013


The Rock
I wrote a while back about making my peace with certain simulated or imitation objects in my life; my only criterion was that they would be convincing enough to fool even me. I backed this up with a reference to the ancient art of trompe l’oeil (“to deceive the eye”). But I’ve changed my mind – at least as it pertains to my garden boulder. Caryl says I paid good money for this rock (although I find it hard to believe that I actually spent as much as she says I did. I won’t argue, though; she’ll produce the receipt.) The rock is very convincing; you would be hard-pressed to pick it out of a field of real boulders. The problem is that I tell everybody it’s fake. I can’t help myself. This sort of defeats the purpose—I think it’s like the criminal who has a deep-seated need to be found out. So, out of the shame I’ve brought upon myself, I’m going to get rid of it.

Nighthawks, Edward Hopper
This brings me to an only slightly more serious foray into the world of imitation. Recently, while dining at a very nice restaurant, I noticed a framed copy of  Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks hanging on the beautifully paneled wall across from our table. Now, I concede that this iconic image is not the most creative choice for use in a restaurant, but it worked for me. And it got me to thinking: Why not display framed reproductions of great art (known and unknown) in our home? Or, rather than “great” art, perhaps I should say art that has actually been meaningful, influential, or moving in one’s life—whether recognized as “great” or not—but is out of one’s reach in the original.

Let me pause and note that I can imagine a reader saying, “Gee, Dick, you’ve come up with the idea of art reproduction – nobody else has ever thought of that!” And maybe this will turn out to be an exercise in the obvious, but hear me out.

Caryl and I have two or three pieces of original work that we love; we have a number of limited edition prints that speak of important places or scenes or moments in our life. (We don’t have anything that was bought because it matched the pattern in the sofa.)

But we don’t have Van Gogh’s self-portrait, we don’t have a Renoir still life (which are fabulous), we don’t have Schedoni’s The Holy Family With The Virgin Teaching the Child to Read (right), which deeply moved the parent and grandparent and teacher in us when we saw it at the Ashmolean. Why not?

I regret that, mostly because of my disorganized life, I have not followed through with an early resolve to explore galleries and get to know the work of young or undiscovered artists and to purchase their work, not as an investment or to take advantage, but to find things a poor preacher could afford. I'm still interested in this endeavor
Untitled Ceramic Sculpture, Joel Froehle
(including more of the primally interesting ceramic sculpture of our son-in-law, Joel Froehle). But even so, the art I'm talking about would still be beyond our grasp. So...

I think many of us have avoided the reproduction approach to art and its place in our homes not so much out of snobbery (although we’ve probably all seen one too many warped-cardboard prints of The Starry Night or Sunflowers hanging in the furniture store), but because of a sense that it's just not done--there is one and only one original, and anything else would be, well, artificial. At one level this is, of course, true. But we don’t let this stop us with poetry or literature. We are not embarrassed to read a “copy” of  Paradise Lost rather than seek out the original manuscript. I once heard a book of poetry described as “a work of art that you can carry in your coat pocket.” One of the most enthralling hours in my recent life was the day, about ten years ago, when I took my newly-acquired small, slim, hardcover copy of the Poetry of R.S. Thomas out of my pocket and sat at the counter in Key’s Restaurant in St. Paul reading the poems while eating my bacon and eggs. (Hey – I was kind of an Edward Hopper character myself!)

Of course I’m not talking about filling one’s home willy-nilly with the pieces that easily come to mind (although a house filled wall-to-wall with Mona Lisa and Sunflowers and American Gothic and The Scream and other well-known greats could be it’s own kind of fun artistic expression. I think it’s called kitsch). I'm thinking rather of a loving and exciting exercise in exploration and the revisiting of or discovery of the things that strike at the heart – familiar or completely unfamiliar.

The great museums have great web sites, The Ashmolean in Oxford, The Art Institute of Chicago, The National Portrait Gallery in London, The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the great Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam…. Most give you the ability to browse the entire collection and download your selection, or to purchase a poster or an “archival replica” for a reasonable price.

If you have reservations about this approach, so do I. (For example, what would an "archival replica" of a piece of sculpture be?) Nevertheless, I think I’m going to make a gingerly start of it. But first I’m going to ask my art professor son-in-law what he thinks. He was kind to me about the fake rock – kind, and rather quiet.

And about that rock – it’s available. Caryl just showed me the receipt. I’ll sell it to you on the installment plan.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


I. Fountain of Sorrow

“What have we gained and what have we lost?” is an apt analysis of the effects of the (literally) amazing technologies introduced in our day – and of the products of technological evolution and revolution throughout history. (A sonnet by the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas describes the labor-saving productivity of the newly-introduced tractor while lamenting how the roar of its motor shuts out the melody of the birds singing from the trees at the edge of the field, “bills wide in vain.”)

This gain-loss paradox occurred to me recently when a friend e-mailed regarding the new “Auto Awesome” photo enhancement app from Google. Auto Awesome apparently relieves the exhausted photographer of the task of rifling through all his photos, and digitally (instantly) produces a montage of pictures in which (for example) everyone is smiling.

Another friend commented that such a technology could well lead to a “brave new world in which everyone is smiling in every photo.” And, he added, “Jackson Browne could never have written the first verse to ‘Fountain of Sorrow’ in such a world.”

Here’s that verse:
Looking through some photographs I found inside a drawer,
I was taken by a photograph of you.
There were one or two I know that you would have liked a little more,
But they didn't show your spirit quite as true:
You were turning 'round to see who was behind you
And I took your childish laughter by surprise;
And at the moment that my camera happened to find you,
There was just a trace of sorrow in your eyes.
I almost wept at this reading. Okay, I did weep. For one thing, “Fountain of Sorrow” has long been a favorite song, by the organically poetic Jackson Browne; for another, my friend spoke the lamentable truth: A “trace of sorrow” in a photographic image would be so easily edited out by the digital wonders of “Auto Awesome.”

What have we gained? And what have we lost?

II. Fountain of Light

Here’s a “gain:” E-mail. My friends Jeff and Warren and I—a friendship that reaches back fifty years—have an ongoing e-mail conversation. Sometimes we’ll go a week or two without picking up the thread, but no longer. The main reason I think e-mail is a gain is that I have come to believe that it actually allows for more depth and intimacy than a phone call. (Two exceptions: 1] Of course two lovers may find a ninety-minute phone call – spanning the miles that separate them – to be more intimate than e-mail. 2] E-mail has it’s dangers, especially when used to vent disagreements that are better talked out in person.)

In fact, it was in one of these e-conversations that Warren introduced us to Google’s Auto Awesome technology (see above), and Jeff replied with the reference to Jackson Browne. (My contribution was to steal their observations for this blog post.)

Our exchange caused me to visit again the whole of “Fountain of Sorrow,” a song I have never tired of. (The Canadians think that Leonard Cohen should win the Nobel Prize for poetry—and, what the heck, he’d have my vote; Jackson Browne is in the same league, that is, not a serious contender for a literary poetry prize, but a sublime creator of words and music with real meaning—real heart.)

But my favorite lines in “Fountain of Sorrow”—lines that I have felt deeply about since I heard them forty years ago—are not the profoundly revealing opening lines to which Jeff referred, but these, the very last lines of the song:
You could be laughing at me, you've got the right,
But you go on smiling so clear and so bright.
These lines have always spoken to me of friendship, love, acceptance—even gospel. They are indicative of what I receive from those who love me. (Remember, friends, the people who really love you do so in spite of who you are as much as because of who you are.) They could laugh – they smile.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, Warren and Jeff laugh at me plenty—in e-mail and in person. But, boy, do they smile. It’s what makes our ongoing e-mail—for me—a “fountain of light.”

Here’s the song: Jackson Browne on “Austin City Limits.”