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Where We Are Again

 

Last fall, gazing through the glass wall of our rental and across the screened-in lanai and beyond a row of trimmed bushes and a shallow stream toward the sprawling Champions golf course, I continually caught sight of plentiful birds and squirrels and golfers and golf carts and, at least once, an alligator floating past. This fall, we've heard a host of cicadas and observed a few sandhill cranes, one solitary ibis, a handful of limpkins and half a dozen blackbirds, but none of the other birds—osprey, wood stork, black-bellied whistling ducks, and many more ibises—that engaged my attention on the course last year. Directly across from us the breadth of white—likely ground seashells—under tall trees has expanded. I mostly notice a wide range of powerful sprinklers alternately spraying different sections of the fairways at different times throughout the day. Despite spotting course-bound golf carts on our morning neighborhood walks, we've yet to see anyone golfing. Occasionally, a barely visible golf cart in the distance speeds along a pathway, probably manned by someone in maintenance. The golf course, started 60 years ago, has once again been renovated, "tee to green," bunkers altered, fairways stripped and then furnished with new greens and grasses. It's not ready yet for golfers to return.

 

Visiting Sarasota family in earlier years, we felt like vacationers. Autumn in Wisconsin didn't seem so problematic then: Sue's allergies were less intense, the ragweed season shorter-lived, and leaving home didn't feel urgent. In Sarasota we became familiar with certain restaurants, supermarkets, specialty food shops, including a yogurt outlet the grandkids enjoyed, and a well-stocked liquor store. We returned annually to a couple favorite coffee shops and breakfast spots, certain museums or libraries to visit with the kids, city parks for walking, a botanical garden, a wooded preserve near the kids' neighborhood, a state park with abundant waterfowl. We drove across Little Sarasota Bay to Siesta Key to stroll or swim at beaches along the Gulf of Mexico or tour a well-stocked aquarium. We went to places where we added some pleasure to the life we shared with family.

 

But this is a second pandemic year, more intense now in Florida than last year. Last autumn, before vaccine, people expected Covid-19 would run its course and vanish. When we visited our daughter and her family, everyone wore masks and kept safe distance as best they could. The grandkids wrestled with online learning, their parents balanced work from home with work on site, and restraint ruled social interaction. By this fall the two older children and their parents have been vaccinated and only the eleven-year-old hasn't been yet. Sue and I have had our necessary first two inoculations and she's had one more booster shot. At least this year none of us in the family wear masks when we visit at their house.

 

In Florida, as in too many other states, the pandemic now takes its toll principally on the unvaccinated and the anti-vaxxers, encouraged in their folly by a governor—himself appropriately vaccinated—who insists that citizens, especially school children, stay unmasked while mingling with others. We're persistently uncomfortable being here, disinclined to enter places we often used to go, relying still on curbside pick-ups and home deliveries, uninspired now by the same locale that formerly invigorated us. We've merely traded the familiar semi-isolation of our northern home for the more humid but fiercely air-conditioned isolation of our southern retreat.

 

We've been visiting family in Sarasota for decades now and often leave moved by the changes they've gone through: our oldest grandchild began college this fall, her brother and sister have continued growing taller and smarter, their parents appreciate their children's expanding maturity and hold their own in their workplaces. Not least of what I regret about the pandemic is how it distracts me from aspects of my life I value most.

 

In recent days a snowy egret landed on the stream's far bank, unnerving two nearby limpkins. After they departed, only a distant high-arcing sprinkler activated the scene. One day five sandhill cranes honked repeatedly while looking across fairway and stream at our lanai. Another day, during a heavy downpour, three powerful course sprayers added to the inundation at length. Yesterday, briefly, a wood stork and a spoonbill showed up; today an osprey perched in a treetop. I wondered if life here might again become as familiar, as active, as it used to be, even in the absence of golfers.

 

We'll leave Sarasota soon, expecting to return next autumn, when ragweed will be rampant again back home. Which Sarasota will we visit then, the one our grandchildren were growing up in before the pandemic or the one that now hauntingly makes us unsettled and uncertain about the future? Where we be again?

 

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Being a Bird

 

How many times in your reading do you cry out "Oh, my god!" or "No, no ki dding, no"? How often is it likely to be in a book that intends to be mostly informative? I read a lot of nature memoirs or narratives in which writers wander around outdoors and contemplate what they see—Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Gretel Ehrlich, John McPhee, and others. I've read a few birding memoirs as well: T. H. White's The Goshawk, Helen Macdonald's H Is for Hawk and Vesper Flights, Jonathan C. Slaght's Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World's Largest Owl, Susan Cerulean's I Have Been Assigned the Single Bird, and J. Drew Lanham's The Home Place. I own several different bird guides, some a uthored by familiar names—John James Audubon, Roger Torey Peterson, and David Allen Sibley (men who write bird books usually have three names). National Geographic's Field Guide to the Birds of North America (Third Edition) rests on a shelf near our front door, so I can identify the birds who snack at our front yard feeders, and the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Eastern Region travels with us in a backpack in our car. I'm pretty certain that none of these made me blurt anything out loud.

 

But here I am reading a lovely gift from my daughter and her Florida family, What It's Like to be a Bird by David Allen Sibley. I imagine that Sibley has authored the most read bird guides after Audubon. Here I am, past the fact-filled multi-pages of introduction and into the dual-page treatments of individual birds, and I find myself having to stop on pages about Alcids to exclaim once again "Oh, my god!" and "Are you kidding?"

 

We're past the Loon, perhaps the bird I admire most, denizen of Lake Superior and favorite sites along the shores of Isle Royale, of whom I've written before, having discovered how fast their offspring grow to become independent feeders and what good parents they are—I know this—and how they need open lakes to catch flight into the air—but three pages later I'm looking at Alcids, "equivalent to penguins but unrelated," their large bills "strange and wondrous" and unexplainable, and how their related Murres can dive 200 feet below the surface, "unlikely using vision to locate and pursue prey, but"—and I quote here—"nobody knows what senses they are using." "Similarly, no one knows how the birds withstand the pressure of those depths . . . or how they can travel that far and fast without breathing."

 

And then Sibley goes on to Cormorants, another of my favorites, "the most efficient marine predator in the world," where he explains that, unlike humans, whose vision blurs underwater, they have a flexible lens that lets them see clearly. When talking about Sandhill cranes, which I encounter annually, he tells us that "what we call a bird's foot is really just the toe bones," and what we think is the bird's shin is actually its ankle. The book is rich in this kind of information.

 

Did you know that if you record bird song and then play it back at half-speed, you'll hear a wider range of notes and pitches than you thought you'd heard? My recent reading, in a variety of nature books, has made me aware of how much more complicated and sophisticated relationships within and among other species are than our human-centered attention to the world has led us to believe. I noticed this in Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and anticipated it in Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard, our current dinner read. I'm learning it in Elizabeth Kolbert's writing on the shrinking of Lake Powell and Rivka Galchen's article on the potential to view the earliest ages of the universe, both in the August 16 issue of The New Yorker.

 

Almost weekly, sometimes daily, I realize how much what I've always taken for granted was wrong, partly because I gave no thought to it at all but partly because little in my information sources or, to be honest, in my education made me consider it. We're living in an age where what we're doing to our planet's climate is rapidly altering the kind of future it will offer us and learning what we've overlooked in the life forces all around us, including the nature of humanity as well as the nature of the other creatures that we need to share the planet with. Even as I'm exhilarated by what we're discovering about existence, I'm dismayed to realize how long it's taken us to get here and how little time we have left to understand it more fully.

 

 

Notes: Sibley, David Allen. What It's Like to Be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing—What Birds Are Doing, and Why. New York: Penguin/Random House, 2020.

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Audubon

 

I once saw, somewhere, a display of Audubon's original double-elephant folio format (29½ by 39½ inches) colorplates depicting life-sized and lively birds. He later published a smaller seven-volume octavo edition. My copy of the Audubon Society Baby Elephant Folio edition of Audubon's Birds of America, edited by Roger Torrey Peterson and Virginia Marie Peterson, contains all 500 plates reorganized to meet contemporary classifications and measures 4 by 4½ inches. The Spring 2021 issue of Audubon, the Audubon Society magazine featured an article by J. Drew Lanham (his book The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man's Love Affair with Nature was then on my nightstand) titled "What Do We Do About John James Audubon?" The article prompted me to re-read a graphic biography of Audubon I also own.

 

Audubon: On the Wings of the World by Fabien Grolleau, illustrated by Jérémie Royer, follows Audubon's early nineteenth-century travels in search of North American birds. It opens on the Mississippi River in 1820 as Audubon and rafting companions seek shelter from a storm in a cave where he draws an owl. This prologue establishes Audubon's tendency to ignore people around him and concentrate on his sense of artistic mission. His obsession with art is his most elemental characteristic. He continually wanders alone, shooting birds and posing them for his drawings. Pages of panels go by without words, any text only quoting his original writings or appearing as dialogue when he interacts with others, such as his patient wife or infrequent traveling companions. One narrative thread emphasizes his relationship with Alexander Wilson, his prominent predecessor at bird illustration, which later is portrayed as imagined encounters in Audubon's delirium and ending with Audubon's dying fantasy of morphing into an eagle, destroying a vulture-like Wilson, and reigning supreme over a world of birds. The book simultaneously celebrates and complicates Audubon's career.

 

In his foreword Grolleau acknowledges his "retelling" as "a more 'romanticised' version of Audubon's life." He admits that "views expressed in Audubon's writing and in the speech of the characters" reflect "the oppressive attitudes and terminology of the time towards African American and indigenous peoples," but credits him as "an unparalleled ornithological painter" and "one of the fathers of modern American ecology." Endnotes revealing that "numerous episodes . . . were inspired by Audubon's writings" cite specific chapters in his Ornithological Biography and admit to having "invoked a little artistic license" (as when Audubon meets Darwin). Alluding to the section where Audubon meets a runaway slave and gets him to return with his family to his owner, Grolleau acknowledges, "This book does not show that Audubon kept slaves" and his having "chosen to evoke [the subject] only in this episode inspired by his writings." Given his attention to Audubon's art and its enduring influence, was that an appropriate choice?

 

J. Drew Lanham doesn't think so. He claims that, though "relatively few men of his time" spoke against slavery, Audubon "enslaved at least nine people," identified as "servants" or "hands," and was seemingly "unconcerned about" their status. Audubon himself, Lanham suggests, was possibly of mixed race, since his mother might have been (or perhaps wasn't) Creole. Lanham expresses admiration for Audubon's art and acknowledges his enduring influence on ornithology, yet his sense of the artist's racism continually undercuts that appreciation. Identifying himself as a Black birdwatcher and declaring "I don't just love birds, I'm in love with birds," he's continually conscious of his separate status among birders, who are overwhelmingly white.  He identifies most nature writers as "a pantheon that speaks to the white patriarchy that drives nature study in the western world."

 

As a retired pre-boomer heterosexual Caucasian male educator of multi-generational European-American descent, I can easily, in 2021, be accused of racist, sexist, political, and/or philosophical bias no matter what position I take, so I won't take much of one here. Based on the evidence Lanham offers I don't find his argument fully convincing but appreciate his explanation of his mixed reactions. I don't identify myself as a White birder (to the extent I'm a birder) and am seldom self-conscious about my race. Perhaps, if Lanham hadn't examined Audubon's biography the way he has, the race issue would not have intruded between them. We would never be aware of it if we concentrated on the art—the accomplishments— of the person under investigation and didn't explore the artist's potential for flaws of character. I read Lanham's The Home Place without much attention to issues of race until the final chapters, more attuned to his personality and humanity, the elements of family and personal growth that gave me more insight into the human condition. What disturbs Lanham about Audubon is not to be found in Birds of America, a book that Lanham still keeps on his shelves. I'll keep my copy as well.

 

Notes: Grolleau, Fabien, & Jérémie Royer. Audubon: On the Wings of the World. Trans. Etienne Gilfillan. London: Nobrow, 2016.

 

Lanham, J. Drew, "What Do We Do About John James Audubon?" Audubon (v123:n1, Spring 2021: 28-35)

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Going Graphic

 

Children are usually introduced to storytelling and learning to read through picture books, only gradually outgrowing reliance on the visual and gaining mastery of the textual. Reorienting myself to bookstores I once frequented but mostly avoided in these pandemic years, I realized that children's sections helped us become aware of our grandchildren's aging. Where we once browsed picture books, we later browsed various fantasy or adventure or sports series, depending on which grandchild we were shopping for. Occasionally we took all the kids to bookstores to make their own choices—how could we be sure which Harry Potter novel or Wings of Fire adventure they hadn't yet read? Eventually, one by one, they wandered off into teen or young adult sections where we were less familiar with titles and authors. I assumed that, just as I had, they'd outgrow books with illustrations and read narratives presented solely in words. But times changed—one familiar bookstore relocated their voluminous offerings in manga and graphic novels unavoidably close to the restrooms, the last thing you see going in, the first thing you see coming out.

 

I haven't bought a newspaper in a long time, so can't report on what's become of Sunday funnies or daily comics pages. I read them regularly as a child, adventure stories in particular: "Terry and the Pirates," "Steve Canyon," "Prince Valiant," "The Phantom," "Tarzan," "The Lone Ranger," many of them also accessible on radio or in comic books. Often on Sundays my father took my sister, my brother, and me down to Kipp's Cigar Store to pick up a copy of the Buffalo Courier-Express and buy each of us a comic book. I first favored superheroes and western adventures but eventually began collecting Classics Illustrated, the comic series offering illustrated versions of long-established novels and epic poems. I especially preferred those with swashbuckling or frontier themes: The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, The Knights of the Round Table, The Talisman, The Last of the Mohicans, The Deerslayer, Men of Iron, Two Years Before the Mast, and the like.

 

Cinemascope films then popular often emphasized historic spectacle, and I bought comic book versions of them as well—the comic version of the film Helen of Troy disappointed me because it changed the movie's ending and didn't square with The Iliad in my Classics Illustrated version. Classics Illustrated convinced me that serious stories could be told visually—I also saw any movie adapted from an adventure novel or epic tale—and they often sent me to the literary works they illustrated, enhancing my reading.

 

In recent years, I've frequently read books that my grandchildren read first or were reading when I visited. Some were clearly designed for young children—A Treasury of Curious George and Sandra Boynton's Snoozers—and some were clearly trafficking the market for print works in series—graphic adaptations of the Wings of Fire adventure novels, for example—while others merited attention for visually exploring aspects of young people's lives—Raina Telgemeier's graphic novels like Smile, Drama, and Ghosts, or Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts. The New York Times Book Review offers monthly lists of Children's Bestsellers (Middle Grade Hardcover, Young Adult Hardcover, Picture Books, and Series) and a separate list of Graphic Books and Manga, all aimed at younger readers.

 

As it happens, long before I started reading my grandchildren's graphic books, my affection for graphic storytelling had been fostered by a gift copy of Maus: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman, published in 1991 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, the same year Maus II was published, concluding the story based on Spiegelman's father's experiences as a Jew in Germany during the Holocaust. The Jews are portrayed as mice, the Nazis as cats, and other nationalities as other animals. The concept challenged some critics, but most readers found it powerful and absorbing, and it opened the door to the concept of the graphic narrative or graphic novel.

 

The aftermath has been a highly effective and affecting range of graphic narratives, including novels, biographies, and memoirs. Marjane Satrapi's powerful Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (2004) and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return (2005), set in Iran, were eventually made into an animated film and, like Spiegelman's Maus, published in a single volume. Alison Bechdel's first graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, was published in 2007 and its sequel, Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama, its title playing off P. D. Eastman's classic children's book, in 2013; her third memoir, The Secret to Superhuman Strength was published this year. All the books I've mentioned are engaging, expressive, and as powerful as many of the recent text-bound memoirs I've read. I have a feeling we'll keep going graphic for a while.

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Vincent

 

Some years ago, while I was researching the Rhine River, Sue and I toured the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. My familiarity with his paintings was enhanced by that visit and by a museum guide I purchased and read on the plane trip home from the Netherlands. The guide was still on a bookshelf in our study, somehow not yet stored in a box in our garage. But it wasn't my only Van Gogh book. I also owned a copy of Vincent, a graphic biography written and illustrated by the Dutch author Barbara Stok (Laura Watkinson translated it), a volume in the Art Masters Series, which also includes translated graphic biographies of Magritte, Munch, Gauguin, Picasso, and Dali.

 

I'd read Vincent years before but the recent "Beyond Van Gogh" exhibit in Milwaukee prompted me to read it through a few more times. Barbara Stok often draws on materials preserved in the Van Gogh Museum, especially letters from Vincent to his supportive brother, Theo. She provides a balanced portrait of the artist, including his conflicts with other people, his self-absorption and isolation, his tendency to alienate others, as well as his dedication to his artistry. Her illustrations have a cartoon-like quality when dealing with characters, and moments of Van Gogh's anxiety, anger, and anguish are presented with distorted images.

 

Except for those quotes from Vincent's writing, dialogue is the only available text in the book—there are no separate narrative passages. The artist's unbalanced interactions with his circumstances are often presented without dialogue. In the absence of dialogue, the reader must rely on images, often having to make sense of what Van Gogh is feeling or reacting to by studying the context of where he appears or of what he looks at or of what he refuses to acknowledge. In one sequence, we see him noticing a starry night, then walking with his easel and equipment into the countryside to set up a daylong session painting distant wheatfields. The act of painting takes up five wordless panels, until an appreciative bystander approaches and they converse amicably. In another sequence, where he and Gauguin have set up easels in the countryside, the silent six-panel sequence of Van Gogh painting a sower at work adds images of a young Vincent and Theo enjoying the landscape; it's a way to suggest what Vincent is imagining or remembering as he paints, the personal immersion he entertains in his art.

 

Stok's graphic biography manages to visually narrate the course of Vincent's artistic development and engagement and to intimate his isolation and remoteness from others even as he devotes himself to his work and relies on his brother. One sequence shows him having sex with a prostitute and chatting with her afterward, revealing how tangential and unrealistic his relations with others usually are. Repeatedly he returns to his artwork and Stok often replicates some of his best-known paintings: "The Yellow House," "The Bedroom," "The Almond Blossom," "Wheatfields under thunderclouds." She includes the dark moments—the severing of his ear, the residence in an asylum—but omits his death by suicide.

 

Instead, the book ends with a calm conversation between Vincent and Theo about taking a more positive view of existence followed by several dialogue-free facing pages. For the first two, each with four panels, Vincent walks off to prepare to paint. Then the reader is presented with a single image across two pages, Vincent on a dirt road that extends through a wheatfield, painting blue sky, crows on the ground behind him. In the subsequent two-page image he is still painting but our perspective is further away from him, he's deeper in the field, and some crows are taking flight. In the final two-page panorama, Stok reproduces his painting "Wheatfield with crows," the birds in flight, Vincent no longer visible.

 

The Van Gogh Museum Guide informs readers that Vincent felt himself a failure and died after shooting himself in the chest. His brother Theo died six months later. The guide contains a small photo of their tombstones which Stok reproduces in a drawing on the last page of her graphic biography. Her ending is more peaceful and positive than Van Gogh's biography reports. When I first read Vincent years ago, I didn't expect it to be as authoritative as a scholarly study, but I probably didn't appreciate how both evocative and informative it is. My "immersive experience" with Van Gogh prompted me to read the book again differently, to pay closer attention to all those text-free panels and illustrated sequences—to comprehend by what I was seeing, by what was portrayed on the page. Like the immersive exhibit, it gave me an alternative entry into Van Gogh's art. It also raised my level of appreciation for how astute and powerful graphic narrative can be.

 

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Immersed in Art

 

I attended the "Beyond Van Gogh" exhibit at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee twice in one week, first in a family group that included Sue's sister Sarah, visiting from Michigan, then a few days later I returned with our son Tom, visiting from California, whom we hadn't seen in person in a year and a half. I thought that, as someone working with animation on both Cartoon Network and Hulu, he'd be interested in the "Immersive Experience" the exhibit promoted. Of course, what he'd bring to the exhibit would be different from what I brought to it.

 

"Beyond Van Gogh" immerses viewers in Vincent Van Gogh's artwork through audio-visual animation that surrounds them with colors, shapes, music, motion, and quotes from his writing. You enter through a room hung with rows of empty picture frames and dangling panels of explanation and quotation mounted on backgrounds from his paintings. Weaving your way among the rows, you enter a second room with black walls where wavering white dots slowly congeal into the shape of Vincent's face. In a much larger third room Van Gogh's paintings are projected onto every surface—the walls, several tall square columns, every inch of flooring.

 

It's hard to know where to fix your attention. With light and color pulsing around and below you, everything competes for your scrutiny. You may recognize individual paintings you've seen displayed in museums you've visited or encountered online or in books, but it's hard not to be disoriented by the size and scope of what encircles you. The paintings are not mounted in isolation on the walls but projected expansively onto every surface. Moreover, they are often in motion, morphing from one image to another, flowing off the walls and across the floor beneath your feet. You and all the dark figures around you are—Well, yes!—immersed in Van Gogh's artwork.

 

Individual images often come to life. Gazing at one familiar Van Gogh self-portrait towering over me on a nearby square column, his face spilling onto two sides, I saw his left eye blink—or was it a wink? Clouds changed shape in the "Wheatfield Under Thunderclouds" image. As the "Wheatfield with Crows" landscape unrolled across the wall and flowed onto the floor, the crows began flapping their wings and flying across blue sky. "Sunflowers" arose all around us. The "Almond Blossom" painting spread itself across one wall after another until it encircled the room and then its blossoms began sailing across every wall and every column and every patron and everywhere underfoot. At other art exhibits I've taken snapshots to aid my memory; here I started a long video that made me rotate around the room and linger on the closest column, blossoms abounding, until I became aware of the walls slowly changing their image, the blossoms no longer falling and another landscape emerging behind them.

 

Swirls of light on a dark blue background became "The Starry Night," overwhelmingly immersive. The soundtrack played an instrumental version of Don McLean's tune "Vincent," the one that repeats the phrase "Starry, starry night." The melody for Paul Simon's "America" played as well—both tunes would repeat in my head often over the coming days and make me struggle to recall their lyrics. "The Bedroom." "The Yellow House." "Vase of Gladioli." "Vase with Irises." "The Potato Eaters." Self-portrait after self-portrait lining the walls. An abundance of the artist's signatures inscribing themselves in multi-colored squares and rectangles. Countless images constantly replacing one another.

 

I felt absorbed into it—thoroughly immersed. Each time I visited, I left uncertain how to describe it. We all found it overwhelming, my son most impressed by its technology and the effects attempted. "Immersive experiences" have proliferated in recent years. "Beyond Van Gogh" is only one of several such Van Gogh exhibits, some considerably more extravagant and theatrical, and other artists, including Frida Kahlo and Salvador Dali, have also been subjected to the approach. Imagine being immersed in Kahlo's "The Wounded Deer" or Dali's "The Persistence of Memory."

 

Such exhibits inspire mixed reactions. Loath to have artworks transformed into animated entertainment, purists prefer gazing silently upon the originals. I like that too, though in a museum it often means maneuvering my way around other viewers hoping for a close-up look. One screen in the Van Gogh exhibit claimed that the "unlikely pairing of the digital and the classical allows one to dive into this world of paint, to experience it from the inside, to vibrate with it." It can be argued that immersive viewing is apt to send you back into the art itself, trying to get closer to his artistry, if only on a computer screen. Van Gogh surely absorbed himself deeply in his paintings; perhaps he'd appreciate experiencing such a thorough immersion in them this way.

 

Notes: A review by Ben Davis of two other Van Gogh Immersive Experiences and a review by Sarah Cascone of the Frida Kahlo exhibit "Frida: La Experiencia Immersiva" can both be found online in artnet news.

 

Feighan, Maureen. "New 'Beyond Van Gogh' immersive art exhibition fascinates," The Detroit News, June 25, 2021.

 

Schulman, Sandra. "Beyond Van Gogh: Starry Night, Sunflowers and Immersive Madness," Florida Daily Post, April 15, 2021.

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Earthly Delights

 

My wife and I usually visit art museums wherever we live and wherever we travel. I can easily conjure up memories of halls and stairwells in museums in Chicago and Milwaukee and Detroit, the ones we visit most often, and imagine positioning myself in front of an artwork, shuffling among other viewers, squinting at tags identifying title, artist, composition elements, and date. Different sizes of squares or rectangles on the wall require shifts in distance for better viewing. Sometimes we purchase reproductions to hang in our household among photos and paintings by family and friends. Sometimes I'll step near one of them before I leave a room, almost close enough to step into the image or help it spill out into the space before me. We are silent and static as we face one another.

 

Our European travel always included museum visits: the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, the National Gallery in London, the Uffizi in Florence, the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, everywhere amidst bustling tourists clattering from room to room, audio guides pressed to their ears listening to explanations of selected artworks. I appreciate having immediate access to the history and provenance of artists and artworks, but more often I simply gaze at the paintings, as I do photographs of my family on bookshelves and cabinet tops in our home, noting moments frozen in time. Any chance of interaction or interpretation depends on the viewer's memory or imagination. Conversation with a work of art depends not only on what the artist determined should be viewed but also on what the viewer brings to the painting.

 

Most of us are accustomed to more dynamic means of communication. As readers we expect to interpret texts that offer verbal cues, a process equivalent to viewing artworks, but more often we are audiences interpreting performances, what we hear on radios or audio sites, what we see on television or computer or theater screens, not only videos and films but also live interactions with family and friends and associates. Dog-walkers pass by our condo daily, communicating aloud with distant listeners they may see on their cellphones or only hear on headphones, barely aware of the animal guiding them along the sidewalk. We Facebook and Zoom and Google those we share personal and business gatherings with, sometimes a diverting panoply of faces, sometimes more intimately one person at a time,

 

During the recent pandemic year, we've often relied on remote digital interaction. Sometimes it's a plus, communicating with people from a distance, seeing faces of those whose voices we usually only heard on the phone or whom we seldom saw in person because of travel expenses or scheduling. Bookstores now post interviews and readings with distant writers who would never have appeared locally. Our laptops let us participate, even post "chats," as if we were an audience in a live television program. Our chapter of the Ice Age Trail Alliance conducted some monthly meetings that way, the safest way to keep in touch.

 

The art museums we're familiar with have been cautious about determining what would be the most prudent approach to allowing the public to visit in person. Many have found ways to display some of their art online, generating either internet tours of certain exhibits or posting special digital programming. In the past I've appreciated that kind of access to works of special interest to me. The Museo Del Prado has an extensive internet site for Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights Triptych, one of my favorite artworks; it lets online visitors view the triptych both as a whole and in multiple close-ups of its parts and offers abundant multimedia links with closed captions (in English). For anyone who is unlikely to ever make it physically to the Prado, it's a thorough and engaging use of digital technology, ultimately more informative than standing among a host of other visitors to look at the actual painting itself. (Example: My son's photo of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre beyond a row of hands holding up cameras.)

 

But having digital access is not the same as scanning the original artifact itself, developing an awareness of the artist's presence in the design and the execution, and gaining a realization of your own presence next to it. Some of us need to discern the brushwork up close in hopes of understanding what the artist saw emerging on the canvas, while others of us resist thinking about how the painting came about and consider only the totality of what's visible before them. Sometimes the medium is the message and other times it deflects the message. I often ask myself what I'm responding to and why I'm responding that way. The answers may depend on how I see the art.

 

 

Note: Bosch, Hieronymus. The Garden of Earthly Delights Triptych. Museo Nacional del Prado. Calle Ruiz de Alarcón 23. Madrid. 2801

 

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Last Words

 

Joan Didion's essay "Last Words," originally published in 1998, opens with the first paragraph of Ernest Hemingway's novel A Farewell to Arms, published in 1929. Didion claims to have reread it when she learned that Hemingway's final novel would be published the following year, though he had died in 1961 and the last novel published in his lifetime had been The Old Man and the Sea in 1952. He had drafted portions of other work—The Old Man and the Sea was essentially the fourth part of an unfinished four-part novel. After his death, across forty-five years, his family and his publisher released three novels and two memoirs culled from manuscripts he'd given up on, as well as collections of his short fiction, reporting, and correspondence. He had hoped—had requested—that all that material would be destroyed after his death.

 

"Last Words," which appeared in The New Yorker twenty-three years ago, is the second-to-last essay in Didion's most recent collection, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, made up of twelve essays published between 1968 and 2000 in The Saturday Evening Post, The New York Times, and, most recently, The New Yorker. Only one of the essays, "Why I Write," was familiar to me, and because I've read all her novels, memoirs, essay collections, and her play published since Slouching Towards Bethlehem in 1968, I was happy to get this broad ranging gathering of unfamiliar pieces.

 

The last of Hemingway's novels, True at First Light, is taken from his incomplete African novel, started before 1954 and abandoned in 1956 after 810 pages. Didion follows his mention of it in his Selected Letters, a posthumous collection, and notes when "a certain silence [falls] on the matter." She writes, "Eight hundred and ten pages or no, there comes a point at which every writer knows when a book is not working, and every writer also knows when the reserves of will and energy and memory and concentration required to make the thing work simply may not be available." Hemingway had abandoned an earlier four-part manuscript before starting the African novel, eventually published one part as The Old Man and the Sea, and another part was published after his death as Islands in the Stream. The African novel was edited and shortened by half by one of Hemingway's sons and published as True at Half Light.

 

Hemingway's widow, Mary Welsh Hemingway, who decided to ignore her husband's wishes and publish work of his that he did not believe was publishable, claimed, "Except for punctuation and the obviously overlooked 'ands' and 'buts' we would present his prose and poetry to readers as he wrote it, letting the gaps lie where they were." Didion reacts strongly to that editorial decision.

 

"Well, there you are. You care about the punctuation or you don't, and Hemingway did. You care about the 'ands" and the 'buts' or you don't, and Hemingway did. You think something is in shape to be published or you don't, and Hemingway didn't." She later claims that "the publication of unfinished work is a denial of the idea that the role of the writer in his or her work is to make it." She thinks the excerpts being published "can be read only as something not yet made, notes, scenes in the process of being set down, words set down but not yet written."

 

The essay begins with that opening paragraph from A Farewell to Arms and Didion confesses that, as a girl of twelve or thirteen, she imagined being able to "one day arrange 126 such words myself." She reports on what she sees: "Only one of the words has three syllables. Twenty-two have two. The other 103 have one. Twenty-four of the words are 'the,' fifteen are 'and.' There are four commas." Didion's five sentences have thirty-one words. Her next sentence, detailing "the liturgical cadence of the paragraph," is itself 115 words long. It is a sharply observed reading of Hemingway's paragraph and in its own style an homage to the elements of his writing that make it so vital, especially when the words are those he felt he really needed to publish.

 

It's taken me a few drafts to get my overview of Didion's essay and my comments reacting to it in shape to be posted here. I appreciate being reminded that the process takes time, repeated reading, and a variety of revisions. Most of my posts here have gone through that process; those that didn't get posted were those "not yet made," "not yet written." I have to remember that the writing will tell me when and if it's ready to go out into the world. It won't always be ready and I should let it go unpublished if it isn't.

 

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Grave Mysteries

 

The typescript of my unfinished mystery novel, The Graves of Academe, runs 154 double-spaced pages and 16 short chapters typed on the back of pale dittoed handouts or photocopies of pages from my dissertation—if I reverse the pages, I can read discontinuous excerpts from "The Problematics of Marriage: English Comedy 1688-1710." The mystery's opening three chapters in first person are revised by hand to third; the prologue and 13 more chapters, written years later, are in third person. Eight more chapters were tentatively planned.

 

I vaguely recall starting it in 1976 on highways between Iowa and Michigan. Unemployed after my post-doctoral year, Central Michigan University had turned me down for a composition position, but then abruptly hired me when a senior professor died unexpectedly and I was the only rejectee who could teach his popular course, the Bible as Literature. Thus was my career launched. Driving interstates alone, talking out loud to stay awake, I started to generate a first-person narrative about a recent midwestern-PhD hired precipitously at a Great Lakes university where the death of a senior faculty member—a murder—would require him to teach the victim's Shakespeare class.

 

I wrote those first three chapters but then the demands of preparing new classes and seeking academic standing through conference papers and creating a scholarly book from a dissertation chapter made me set it aside. It wasn't until years later, again making solitary cross-country road trips, that I remembered generating scenes aloud and thought of completing the mystery. Changes in my life over six years altered the manuscript's outlook. Chapters 4 through 16 would now be in third person and take a different perspective. While John Rice, the mystery's protagonist, and I had both left midwestern grad schools for Great Lakes universities, both expecting to move on after three years so our schools could avoid giving us tenure, I at least would receive tenure and stay there a total of 28 years. I had been divorced and lived alone for a few years until eventually marrying again; Rice's bachelor relationships with women had become more complicated and I imagined him taking a trilogy of murder mysteries to work everything out.

 

Recently I read The Graves of Academe typescript again, expecting to clean up typos and copy the text onto the computer, but by the time I reached the end, I felt no impulse to complete its narrative. Much of what's there no doubt displays aspects of who I was when I started it, and especially when I tried to continue it, but I don't identify with John Rice as I once did. My relationship to the plot line and the characters changed and I couldn't imagine reviving commitment.

 

As it turns out, I'd forgotten also later completing a different detective story. "Cruel as the Grave" was submitted to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and very quickly rejected. It's a straight-forward detective story, 49 typescript pages long, in which Lt. Will Dryden investigates and solves the case handily and is spurred by the background of the murder to recognize a need for romance in his own life. Its dialogue and plot conform to the conventions of mysteries I'd read and television episodes I'd viewed and drew on elements of investigation and police procedure I'd witnessed often in programs we'd watched. Except for some of the detective's angst about his earlier divorce, I don't sense much of a personal investment from me in the narrative. That is, it is very much different from The Graves of Academe where I can zero in on the background inspiration for certain characters and situations. Probably the Hitchcock magazine found it formulaic, maybe even predictable. I didn't pursue publication for it after that rejection.

 

What I realize now is how much writing of various kinds I was doing when I flirted with mystery writing. I'd spent a year as a singer-songwriter, been writing around 35 short essays for local public radio annually, and published my first academic book. In addition to a second marriage and a new household and an expanding academic career, enough was happening to make inventing mysteries an unnecessary distraction. I had sound professional reasons for turning to scholarly writing and considerable pleasure in all that other writing—perhaps my critical and creative needs were well satisfied when I stopped writing fiction.

 

That may be what I've learned revisiting the fiction I wrote in the past. The stories that seem to work best are those where some part of me inhabits the central character, where the narrative grows out of issues that nag at me, where the storytelling at least provides some tentative resolution that partly satisfies me, whether it satisfies the character who grew out of me or not. I gain more by writing essays and memoirs.

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On the Bus

 

I came into the idea of writing about my early fiction with the expectation that it would be interesting—and possibly amusing—to figure out why I once wrote fiction and—perhaps riskier—to learn what kind of a fiction writer I was. My second effort at confronting an old short story—I might have said "examining" but in this case "confronting" seems more appropriate—tackled "On the Bus." The story centers on the self-absorption and isolation of Mort, a single man working in a department store by day and taking college classes in the evening. Already I've analyzed the story more in this paragraph than I likely did whenever I wrote it.

 

As an undergraduate I'd taken a course from Professor Leo Rockas in which we alternately studied, in translation, the short stories of Anton Chekhov and the essays of Friedrich Nietzsche. Over the semester, we were assigned three projects for each writer: a critical assessment, like the kind of lit/crit paper written in other English classes; an imitation or homage, something inspired by each writer's example; and a parody or satire of each writer's style. It was a good class. I didn't much like Nietzsche (Also Sprach Zarathustra; Nietzsche contra Wagner) or agree with his outlook, but my attack on him ("Root contra Nietzsche") was judged by my prof to be the most Nietzschean paper that semester. It alarmed me a little to think I might have been recruited by the German philosopher.

 

Chekhov's influence on me was deeper and more positive. My stories became more grounded, more restrained, more narrowly focused. "The End of Wisdom" probably shows that influence, though the conclusion might be more moralistic than Chekhov would have written. I may have intended "On the Bus" to follow that model. It's essentially a third-person portrayal of a lonely, inhibited, self-conscious college student who fantasizes futilely about a woman he observes in an apartment window and on a bus, is later attracted to a classmate he also restrains himself from connecting with, and in the end considers the possible consequences of his self-imposed remoteness. Realizing that the first woman is in a problematic relationship he imagines he might have rescued her from propels him to connect with the second woman.

 

It's a long story. Certain narrative elements help identify the author. At one point Mort's workplace is mentioned: "On his job he was the only young man in the store, except for two who worked on delivery. The men's clothing department was run by two older men, one near retirement who begrudged Mort's presence all together, and a middle-aged man who was civil but distant. Most of the women in the store were middle-aged except for a clique of girls his age who worked in the notions department and whose witty interchanges frightened him from attempting any closer contact than a nod of hello." During one summer, I had sold men's clothing for my hometown department store, a more positive experience than Mort's but very similar.

 

The sense of isolation the character exhibits was familiar to me, and the short story draws partly on that persistent and long-lived feeling. I'm sure the story was written while I was a master's candidate in the University of Iowa writing program; there are markings on the manuscript, probably by my graduate advisor (he underlined the "begrudged" remark, for example), but no critical comments. I remember him muttering disapprovingly about my writing, "Chekhovian, eh?" (For other, more complicated reasons, by the end of my first semester I stopped pursuing an MFA and earned an MA and then a PhD instead.)

 

The typescript of "On the Bus" was an early draft never revised any further. Reading it now, I'm aware of how much sentence level editing it needs, a question of prose style, but also how contrived that optimistic reversal at the end seems, hinting at a positive future for the main character. By the time I wrote it I was a college graduate, a former high school English teacher, a graduate student, and a husband, in many ways a different person than my main character. I'd like to think I was more accomplished, more mature, more settled than he, but I also recognize how familiar his insecurity, uncertainty, and isolation were to me. At least one family member objected to the focus on lovelorn bachelorhood, which made me wonder how to write a story that didn't draw in any way, no matter how remote, on my own individual psychology and background experiences.

 

None of my MFA classmates seemed to be writing Chekhovian short stories or tales with happy endings. I didn't know how I would become a different kind of writer. I stopped writing short stories once I left the MFA program.

 

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