The Milkmaid

No question one of the highlights of our visit to NY this weekend was the exhibit organized around Vermeer's famous painting "The Milkmaid", on exceptional loan to the Met from Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum. It's a marvel to behold, and it was a real treat to be able to see it on its next to last day in New York. The painting was displayed along with the five Vermeers in the Met's collection (of thirty-six total known to have been painted by the master.) It was fun to have Cristina explain the painting to us. I was unaware of its participation in a well established genre tradition rich with sexual allusion. It's not just about the incredible realism. It seems that by the time Vermeer came around the tradition was very well established and he could be quite subtle in how his work participates in it. For example, the very small image of Cupid on a tile, in the lower right part of the canvas, is suggestive of the milkmaid's positive disposition towards romance. Perhaps she's got something on her mind besides baking. Or perhaps the spectator does. I was overwhelmed by the painting's detailed realism, in particular, the illusion of movement created by the milk coming out of the jar. The colors, too, are strking. I'd like to read more about Vermeer's life and work. I'd also like to go back and see the film Girl with a Pearl Earring. There's a lot more to write about this painting, and in another entry I'll get to that and to some of the other wonders contemplated on this visit, but right now I'm just too tired and there is work to be done.



The calendar has completed its inevitable circle again. It's always circling, of course, but on holidays our awareness of circularity is much greater. This year we give thanks for being all together. I just can't find the right words. They all seem inadequate, type, delete... Oh well, as Asun reminds me, obras son amores y no buenas palabras... In any case, the house is warmer, happier, righter, when it's like this. (And to whom, exactly, are we giving thanks? I sure don't know. And I don't trust those whose certainty in this regard is absolute, but that's another matter... So, today I'll direct my thanks to Asun, Alma, Cristina, Daniela, brothers and sisters, in-laws, friends... I love you all.) Last night the house had the splendid warmth of apple pies baking. No turkey in the oven this morning, that will be handled by friends this year. And that is just fine. In a few minutes I'll start making some cole slaw. I think there will be fifteen or sixteen of us this afternoon. We'll give many thanks. This year I also want to give thanks to Charles Darwin, in honor of the 200th anniversary of his birth and 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. Thanks, Chuck, for your insights. And for your bravery. No way I would have gotten on a ship like that. You had a huge impact on the advancement of science and in pushing us a littler further away from superstition.



The news. Mainly it's bad. I keep telling myself I need to modify my morning routine somewhat, pay much less attention to newspapers. There is lots of good news out there. I'm an optimist: for every act of violence we read about there are hundreds, thousands, of acts of love and kindness. Where are those headlines? Anyway, last night I learned from Alma and Cristina of another kind of news. Most unfortunate: a couple of employees at Cornell, both married, are having an affair. They exchange, apparently, steamy emails over the campus network. Not good. Incredibly, a slip of the finger... and the emails suddenly are received by the whole campus! Ouchh! And that led me to a story about an unfortunate incident of this kind that ended in tragedy: a man broke up with his girlfriend in a very mean, offensive fashion by email. The message got forwarded, and forwarded... and ended up all over the internet. They guy ended up committing suicide. Urban legend? Maybe he had other issues. Who knows? We never really know do we? Nevertheless, I believe that's no excuse for not trying. And working to unmask the merchants of disinformation, the huksters of propaganda. Yesterday there was an interesting story about the Iranian governments campaign to crush resistance with a soft war: regaining complete control of education and media. Fear and intimidation. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants control. Complete control.


My Stubborn Libertarian Streak

No doubt we have lots of problems in this country. One of the biggest is our shameful incarceration rate. The country as a whole has become like Texas, where everything is big. This is not good. (We'll leave military spending and murder for another day.) The US has five percent of the world's population living within its borders. Yet, we have 25% of the world's prison population. (NY Times, April, 2008) Shame! We had 2.3 million people behind bars last year. That's 2,300,000 human beings. The number today is no doubt higher. This is madness. (I just found a good blog entry on this topic. Follow this link.) A large percentage of the crimes that got people put into jail are drug related. (I wrote about this a little back in April of this year.) And yet Congress and state legislatures do nothing. Well, occasionally they do–they make the problem worse by coming up with more stupid, self-righteous, populist legislation. Typically there is some horrendous crime and people feel, quite rightly, outraged. Get out the sledge hammer! Let them rot in jail! No one should be in jail for being a drug addict. That's really stupid. Let's legalize. Marihuana: legalize it. Cocaine: legalize it. Heroin: legalize it. And regulate. In Pennsylvania if you want a bottle of wine you have to go to an "official" store run by the state. The state employee makes sure no one under the legal age purchases the wine. Good. And you pay a hefty tax. Good. (The selection is not great, not so good, but that could be improved...) Let's do the same with recreational drugs. Want to smoke a joint? Go to an official, state sponsored "Recreational Drug Distribution Center." There will be lots of brochures on the health risks. You'll have to prove you are over age 21. The product will have quality assurances. And the state will have a hefty cut. States already take advantage of general stupidity with gambling. To not do the same with drugs is hypocrisy. And bad public policy. 
Prostitution is another sad, very sad, reality. (And closely tied to the world of illegal drugs.) Police are not going to make it go away. Legalizing prostitution doesn't mean we think it's a good thing. It's not. It's horribly sad. But let's get prostitutes the medical care and social services they need and stop treating them like criminals. I'll write more about this in another entry...


Plaza Garibaldi

Overall I'm not much for "virtual travel". I have met people, especially in Spain, who have become real experts on certain countries or cities without ever having visited the particular place of interest. Typically I'm not interested in acquiring greatly detailed familiarity with the geography, history and customs of specific places by surfing the web. It's a curious phenomenon. Well, now I have an exception: Plaza Garibaldi in Mexico City. I can add it to my list of "must" do peregrinations. Until I do get there, however, I will continue to read about this fascinating plaza, most famous as the epicenter of mariachi music. OK, so in some regards it's just a tourist trap. But it still seems like a compelling place, rich in history, architecturally interesting, and culturally significant. We'll get there before too long. And don't ask me where this interest came from, it's just one of those little mysteries. One detail for today: if I were still a drinking man, I'd head for the corner of Plaza Garibaldi where you find La Hermosa Hortensia, a famous watering hole for pulque, the traditional, pre colombian Mexican drink made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant. Well, we'll go there anyway, but I will pass on the pulque. (In the photo, inside the pulquería La Hermosa Hortensia.)


Grey Mornings are OK

Recently it's been classic Carlisle weather: grey! Then more grey. As I walked to work this morning I felt somewhat trapped, closed in by a horizonless sky. Fortunately it's only my physical surroundings that are dark. The real world, in spite of it all, is wonderful. Life or death. I'll take my chances with life, as death doesn't look too promising. And before leaving for work this morning I had this mundane thought: routine, morning routine, how nice indeed. So many mornings I get up at the same time, follow the exact same steps in making the coffee, then the carrot/apple juice... I don't have a problem with that, because the rest of the day is going to bring plenty of unpredictability. (Mary Oliver's poem "Morning" ends with the line, "I stand in the cold kitchen, everything wonderful around me." Yes, indeed. AND, I get wonderful company around me in the kitchen. Cats are ok, but I prefer people, especially family. It's good both ways. Two plus two is still four (beautiful!), but who knows, the laws of nature could suddenly shift tonight... All is contingent. Well, we don't know that for sure, but I prefer to live as if that were the case. The sun will come out again. Meanwhile, I can continue to be amazed by... by just about everything. Rush Limbaugh said that he thought Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles, "was a shoe-shine guy". Brilliant. And then we've got the "birthers". More brilliance. (In the photo, Mary Oliver.)


Dick Armey

On Sunday the NYT magazine had a profile on former House majority leader Dick Armey. In the article he is quoted as saying the following at a public talk in North Carolina: "“Nearly every important office in Washington, D.C., today is occupied by someone with an aggressive dislike for our heritage, our freedom, our history and our Constitution.” That is not just political hyperbole. It's an intentional, mean spirited lie. Shame on him! Such nonsense. The right's cynicism, its pandering to the know-nothing fringe is fascinating. And it's not going to win them many elections. The article contains several gems, including his belief that Lawrence Summers is not "a real economist." Armey reveals himself to be a political philosopher of profound intellect: “Europe is governed by a concern for the well-being of the collective. That’s what they care about. What makes us different is we begin with the liberty of the individual. We got it right, and they got it wrong." This nonsense is repeated often by the American right and exemplifies how they so often conflate "freedom", "individual liberty", etc. with a regulation-free business environment. Ok, well, I guess it's true that buying a semi-automatic weapon may be just a tad more complicated in Europe than in the US, but that's one freedom Europeans are happy to sacrifice. Freedom of the press? Just as well defended in Europe. Freedom of assembly. The same. Freedom of religion? The same. Rights? How about the right to access health care? Score one for Europe! Dick Armey is the leader of the right wing group FreedomWorks.


Just this and that...

Getting sick is no fun. (Brilliant observation!) Slowly I'm coming out of the fog. The next week will be spent trying to catch up. Just taking note here, for no particular reason, to no particular end: it was cold last night, our first night of the autumn below freezing. Waldo is not happy. Unless there's a fire going, in which case he's quite content to make himself comfortable in front of the fireplace. Jumping around: I just learned about the YMCA's plan to abandon their current locale across the street and build a new place over in Thornwald Park. This is going to be a very contentious issue, no doubt. Down in Cuba: Yoani Sánchez was the victim of police brutality and intimidation yesterday, briefly detained by Castro's thugs. See her blog. Poor Alma is fed up with the hassles caused by the car accident. We all plod on...


The End of Poetry Week

Semana Poética VIII is history. It was tiring, but also a lot of fun. There were some excellent readings, memorable conversations, new friendships... overall I feel really good about it. We had poets with tremendously different works and backgrounds together here at Dickinson... They met us, one another, met with our students... There was one moment on Wednesday night that captured this organized chaos beautifully. Isabel Pérez Montalbán (Spain) and Lev Rubinstein (Russia) had just finished their reading in front of a big audience (over 150 people, that's a lot for a poetry reading). Neither Isabel nor Lev speak English. A student asks a question directed at both of them. The interpreters jump in. There was a funny moment, the poets huddled at the ends of a long table with their interpreters. Muffled mumbling. Smiles. Spanish. English. Russian. English. Back and forth... For many students simply hearing a language they don't understand is a new experience. To sit through a reading, following the translations in the printed booklet or up on the big screen I'm sure gets some of them thinking about language. They've opened up the possibility of learning not taking language for granted. That is, to consider (again, always...) that language needs to be challenged. More importantly: how we use language must always be challenged. Is that really what me mean? Can we say it better? More precisely? Is there any thought there or is it just mumbo jumbo? Does this person know what he/she is talking about? We finished Thursday night with a big paella. (Thank you, Mike, Chris, Tsveti, and Dan!) I made it for close to sixty and there were not more than 45 guests, but they didn't leave anything behind. Nothin'. I guess they like it. In any case, we had lots of fun.