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Good migration

 

Self Portrait, mixed media, 10"x14", 2010

My posts can now be viewed at Russell Steven Powell.

 

 

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Recent works

 

Untitled, oil, 9"x12", 2010

 

 

Dangling, oil, 18"x24", 2010

 

Click on images to enlarge.

 

The lovers, oil, 18"x24", 2010

 

 

Lovers, park bench, from rear, oil, 16"x20", 2010

 

 

Untitled, oil, 16"x20", 2010

 

The inscrutable elephant’s eye

At the fair, day 14:

It seldom rains when you want it to (corollary of the Russian proverb, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans”).

For all the schlock, for all the weird stuff, with rare exceptions people are exceptionally patient and polite.

It’s a virtual city within a city.

First attempt with a handheld pocket camera.

Three more days.

Paying the terrorist’s ransom

Untitled, oil, 14"x17", 2010

MORE DISTURBING THAN THE CRACKPOT FROM FLORIDA’S PLAN TO BURN THE QURAN is the media’s giving him a free platform to do it. The wacko blasphemed his supposed faith by appropriating its mantle to justify his religious vigilantism, but who knew or cared? Fewer than 50 people, at the time the media plucked him for stardom.

It’s a tired line, journalists telling us that they have no choice but to publish a “story” like this. Their excuse is alternately framed by bald-faced capitalism—they might lose out to a competitor if they don’t print or air it—and noble appeals to the media’s sacred trust (even though in this instance, the First Amendment applies to the wacko’s right to express himself, not the media reporting it).

A more contemporary justification used by journalists is that stories like this become “news” when they are widely circulated on the Internet (YouTube made me do it!). Using that standard, dancing parrots and eight-year-old opera singers should be front-page news.

When all else fails, the media fall back on the time-honored, self-serving canard that the public not only has a right to know, it demands it. All news, all the time (as long as it fits within the newspapers’ dwindling pages or on the evening news).

The public’s desire is that journalists exercise good judgment, choosing to report stories according to their newsworthiness. By this standard, the proposed book burning should never have made the cut. With minimal provocation or justification—the plan was quickly condemned by both hawks and doves and political and religious leaders of all faiths—the media elevated a fringe player to center stage.

Rather than ignore this terrorist, the media paid his ransom swiftly, with a far-reaching frenzy beyond his wildest dreams. Hopes of gaining the media’s blessing will undoubtedly embolden future wannabes to make similarly ugly threats to draw attention to their deranged and antisocial ideas.

Brilliant for them, I suppose, and good theater helps the media’s teetering bottom line.

Noisemakers

Untitled, oil, 11"x14", 2010

A MOTORCYCLE, ITS ENGINE MODIFIED FOR MAXIMUM LOUDNESS, shatters society as it passes, obliterating conversation. A pick-up truck grunts by, its motor similarly souped-up to announce its arrival well in advance of its passing. It can’t be ignored.

I leave these invasive sounds behind, crossing the road, through the parched fields, en route to the river. Five tinny dirt bikes and ATVs swarm by, fouling the senses—the ears with metallic noise, eyes with clouds of dust, nose with the lingering scent of gasoline.

They criss-cross the fragile trails, beating down the packed earth again and again. I am forced to stop each time, hold the dog by my side, wait for them to pass and the dust to settle.

Finally the air clears and the sound of honeybees emerges from the clusters of cream-colored blossoms I duck behind to avoid the dust. Helmeted boys and young men, the riders of these wasteful machines, nod or wave sheepishly as they pass, but that does not minimize their impact.

Still a mile from the river, I already hear a speedboat racing back and forth, knifing the air with sound that rivals a jet’s, except that it never retreats. As I approach the placid river, the noise is deafening. I see birds but can no longer hear them. A half-dozen people fishing quietly along the banks endure the sound passively; what choice do they have?

The modified motorcycle and pick-up truck, the loud and invasive ATV, the ear-splitting boat (what must it be like on board?), substitute noise for influence. In a world changing beyond their control, the people driving these noisemakers feel they are being left behind, and employ machines to amplify their screams of powerlessness across the landscape.

They fill their emptiness with noise, dominating their surroundings for a brief few moments before reality settles back in. Their anti-social wails are the inevitable price of progress. Hear their roar, hear their pain. They insist.

Make way for e-books

Untitled, mixed media, 11"x14", 2004

FOR THE TIME BEING, Kindle and other e-reading devices are ripe for parody. They are new, expensive and clumsy, and their marketers make grandiose and unsubstantiated claims. But e-readers are not going away, and they have some virtues.

I love the look, feel and smell of a printed book. Yet the advent of a new communications technology does not necessarily mean the death knell of a prior one. Books, after all, have survived radio and television. They will survive e-books as well.

The virtues of the printed book on paper are well known, having been with us now for centuries. They don’t need repeating here, except for some of the ways in which they will continue to remain superior to reading on the screen.

Start with artwork. The computer as we know it simply cannot replicate the clarity of reproduction of photographs or paintings that can be achieved in print. A printed book is more personal than an e-book, too: it may carry the author’s signature, for example, or hand-written marginalia, even a coffee stain. The printed book has texture that is alien to an e-machine.

A printed book is not so precious as an e-book. It bends, making it easier to read than a rigid Kindle or iPad (although I suspect a hinged version will soon be in the offing). A book can be tossed on the bed or dropped on the floor without inflicting damage to it. Try that with your Kindle.

But an e-book offers some attractive features as well. For one thing, you can change the font and its size to make it easier on your eyes (no small thing as I get older). With the iPad, at least (not sure about the Kindle), you can tap on a word and up pops its dictionary meaning—no more interrupting my reading to go look up a word or skipping over it so as not to interrupt the flow of the narrative.

Do we need instant access to purchase a book? In most instances, no. Still, there’s something satisfying about downloading a new book like Four Fish or Freedom Summer on a Sunday morning just minutes after reading a review of it in the New York Times.

I can think of other situations—traveling, for example—when a bookstore may not be convenient to a reader’s location or schedule. If instant access stimulates a desire to read and facilitates a reader’s connection with an author, that’s a good thing.

You can also carry a healthy chunk of your library with you on an e-book, a feature especially useful to scholars doing research or people living in apartments—no need to devote so much wall space to books (hardcover books are aesthetically pleasing, but let’s face it: there’s not much to recommend the spines of most paperbacks).

The cost of an e-book—$13 for Four Fishes—is less than a paper version, too.

Then there are the energy costs, which are still being debated. E-readers obviously require electricity (if not directly then to charge batteries), printed books require cutting down countless trees and expending energy to be printed, stored and delivered (as at least one study concluded, the most eco-friendly way to read is to walk to the library)

Our printed books are the known and familiar, and we admire our local, independent bookstores. But ridiculing the new technology will only protract the transition to a new way of transmitting and receiving ideas, a future that will still make room for the printed book.

Those books and ideas best served by being printed on paper will continue to entertain, educate and delight us in that form. Most of us will continue to buy some printed books, but (eventually) supplement those purchases with e-books as well.

Independent bookstores will have to scramble again to reinvent themselves, as they have had to do before in the face of competition from the big bookstore chains and Amazon.com.

Sadly, some will not survive. But crusading against e-readers will not save them.

Speed freaks

Untitled, oil, 8"x10", 2008

FROM THE TIME WE ARE BORN, we are all motion. Wriggling back and forth on our backs in our cribs, staring up at blurry hands or shiny mobiles as they pass mysteriously in and out of our view, we are fascinated with movement. After all, we would be dead without it; our hearts and lungs pump blood and air even in repose.

We are hard-wired to move. Our atoms cannot sit still. We live on a perpetually moving planet, rotating and tilting on its axis as it simultaneously orbits the sun. This constant motion is the basis for the uncertainty principle in quantum physics, which states that the more precisely the position of a particle is given, the less precisely one can one say what its position is. We can’t be in two places at once.

(Perhaps the best description of the uncertainty principle, especially for the non-physicist, is Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen. It is a brilliant recreation of a controversial meeting in 1941 of two physicists: the older, Jewish Niels Bohr, considered the father of the uncertainty principle, and his former pupil, Werner Heisenberg, who at the time was working for Nazi Germany. In the play, Niels, his wife Margrethe, and Heisenberg argue about the events of their meeting, and all remember it differently. The moment, and their memory of it, changes over time).

We are no sooner living in the moment than we are out of it. Our experience is not a fixed thing, but changes the instant it happens. We take photographs (informally “snapshots”) to try to capture moments that are forever past, and exist only in our selective, idiosyncratic memories.

But I am not here to dwell on the past.

So stimulated are we by motion that, more than half a century later, we remain transfixed by the moving images and bright colors on our television screens, often without regard to content. We’ll watch anything. Before TV came “moving pictures,” shortened to “movies.” Think of the thousands of utterly forgettable films created at considerable expense that have compelled (and continue to compel) us to sit together quietly for two hours in a darkened theater.

We keep trying to manufacture speed, especially with our myriad communications devices. Our computers and the Internet artificially, synergistically accelerate our experience of movement; we use terms like “hyper” (“high-strung or excitable; extremely active”) to describe the link from one place to the next.

Mesmerizing as it is, though, speed exists apart from us. It cannot tell us why are we in such a rush, or toward what end. Motion may be intrinsic to life on earth, but the quest for speed is our creation. The movement of the planets is fixed, after all; our heartbeat is regulated. Time, for all our efforts, cannot be speeded up.

Speed as an end rather than means has no intrinsic value. We humans are perpetually in motion, true, but we are distinguished equally by emotion. With the ability to feel, and reason, we are able to reflect on our experiences and derive meaning from our relationships with each other and the planet. No matter how long it takes.

When it comes to speed, the horse has left the barn, the train has left the station, the entry has been posted. Speed has irresistible momentum—there’s no turning back, even if we wanted to. As we adjust to exponentially greater speeds, though, we can’t lose sight of where we are coming from, or where we are going.

The state of the Fourth Estate

 

Untitled, watercolor, 11"x15", 2010

 

YESTERDAY I DID THE UNTHINKABLE: I plunked down $1.50 for a daily newspaper, The Boston Globe. It felt weird, nostalgic, yet strangely satisfying to rattle through its pages, like writing or receiving a hand-written letter in the mailbox at the end of my driveway.

My newspaper habit began around age 12, when I became a Red Sox fan and obsessively read the agate type for team standings, player statistics and box scores. Soon, other pages drew me in, like the crossword puzzle and comics page (one of the most subversively political parts of any newspaper, and I’m not talking “Doonesbury”).

From there it was an easy jump to political cartoons, movie reviews and Erma Bombeck. Before I knew it, I was hooked on the front page and news sections as well. How this organic experience will translate online for the next generation of potential news junkies—or simply the informed citizenry on which a successful democracy depends—remains to be seen.

For all its wealth of information, the Internet is fragmented in a trillion ways, and cannot replicate the coherent world framed within the pages of every newspaper. That newspapers are forced to make choices about such things as what stories to include, and where to place and how to illustrate them, reveals a willingness to discriminate that the neutral, faceless Internet cannot match. Even if we disagree with editorial decisions, the result is a coherent, ordered universe with some degree of quality control and transparency.

I have worked as a reporter and editor for both daily and weekly newspapers. I still read my local daily, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, every morning with breakfast, plus the Springfield, Massachusetts, daily, The Republican, and a pair of weeklies at work. One of the pleasures of Sunday morning remains sifting through the Sunday Boston Globe and New York Times that arrive curled up in blue plastic sacs at the end of my drive.

It was not long ago that I subscribed to the Globe and Times during the week, too. It was relatively expensive—the Times, at $2 a copy, is even more costly than the Globe—but I thought of it in the same vein as my donations to NPR or PBS. Daily delivery is no longer an option, though, as these large newspapers are not delivered to my small-town address. I must either drive somewhere and buy a paper, or go online.

We all know that it is a rough time for print media. Who wants to pay $2 a copy for news that appears dead on arrival compared to what I can find in the moment, for free, online? Granted, the tactile reading experience is still superior in many ways. A newspaper can be taken anywhere, and its bulk, however messy at times, conveys a certain authority.

Yet the enormous cost in trees to make newsprint, and the electricity and fossil fuels needed to print each day’s edition and have it delivered to homes and newsstands, large and small, throughout the region, does not make good economic or ecological sense, and may not be sustainable. But that doesn’t spell the end of journalism, even if we haven’t figured out exactly what comes next.

There is a refreshing cadre of news seekers on social networking sites like Facebook that scours cyberspace for news (mostly video rather than print) and shares it with their online communities. These items can be enlightening or entertaining, if you have the time to sift through all of them. But it is still a closed circuit of readers with whom the person posting shares friends, interests and, usually, political leanings. Sharing clips this way may be an effective way to galvanize constituencies around issues, but is no substitute for real news.

Written stories typically are shorter on the Internet than in newspapers—we’ve been told again and again that we are developing shorter attention spans and seem eager to prove it. Not that longer stories guarantee quality, but we should be skeptical when the volatility and variability of life is boxed and packaged in uniform bites (such as the 24-minute nightly news on television).

The cherry-picking factor is another way in which online journalism is inferior to print; on the Internet we gravitate only to those things that interest us. This trend is merely an extension of our consumer culture—whatever the arena, we expect the world to come to us; we can’t be bothered to step outside our comfort zones.

Glancing through a printed newspaper, though, we are more likely to peruse articles beyond our main areas of interest than what we selectively choose online. The things we may not like are not hidden from our view in print, even if we tend to pass them by. Thumbing through a newspaper compels us to broaden our horizons in the noblest tradition of the liberal arts.

You still can’t do as much with artwork online as you can in print, although newspapers continue to be stubbornly conservative on this point, negating its advantage. Except for the occasional splash on the living pages, editors are niggardly with photos and artwork, despite the 12-inch by 20-inch canvas of their broadsheet page. (By the same token, though, online publications have been equally slow to exploit the new possibilities the medium offers with audio and video.)

The biggest problem I have with online journalism is the illusion that it is free. Timely and accurate news requires an investment in time and people, and our teetering dailies have borne most of these costs over the years. The Internet can still siphon off what good reporting remains, but online sources have yet to pick up the slack.

We can get plenty of news from the web all right, videotaped and described by amateur news sleuths, unfiltered, unmediated, and out of context. While readers have long complained about a lack of objectivity on the part of journalists, at least having a reporter’s name in print and editors to vet their work gives them some measure of accountability. Not so online—we don’t know much about the new news providers, or their agendas.

Of course, if you are looking for unvarnished opinions on virtually any subject, the Internet is a gold mine. But who has time to read all this stuff (remember those short attention spans), and as a society, are we really better off?

There are many dedicated journalists out there, some of whom continue to practice their trade online, often without a paycheck. New forms are emerging. In the short term, we can pity the demise of newspapers and celebrate our Faustian bargain online. In the long-run, until we get a firmer handle on who delivers the news and how to pay for it, we will all be impoverished.

Dog days


Untitled colograph, acrylic, 9"x21", 2010

THE BEST THING ABOUT HAVING A DOG is having to walk. We humans need walking’s leisurely pace to help ground us, to heighten our appreciation of the physical world. Dogs force us into this—to shed our technological shells daily and embrace our temporal selves.

Our culture is all about speed, flattening time and space so we can communicate with each other instantly from anywhere around the globe. The more we shorten time, though, the less we seem to have of it. We spend more hours getting to and commenting on our experience than accumulating it, it seems, riding in cars or staring at our computers, talking or texting on our telephones, watching televisions.

Yet it never is enough. Speed freaks strapped to our machines, we’ve become seduced by movement over the moment, investing more in the light shows and soundtracks of our lives than in developing the narrative. Without our dogs, we’d be in danger of becoming total nerds and eggheads, going soft in body and narrow in mind.

A dog’s life is a lesson in how and why to take things slow. We’ve designed it that way, domesticating them to fit our needs and schedules, typically keeping them in our homes for 20 hours or more every day. They have adapted well to life indoors, taking advantage of the increased opportunity to rest and sleep, playing with toys, getting massaged, visiting with people or hassling the cats, going for the occasional car ride.

Yet as much as I rely on my machines, Molly needs her daily air. Sitting on the front porch watching squirrels and walkers pass by while I read or doze on the chaise lounge after work is one thing. But our evening walk is her only extended time spent outdoors, without restrictions. The walk fills her with enough of the raw materials of existence—odors, sights, sounds and textures—to live on until the next day.

We people shrink time; dogs make time elastic. Molly’s experience is as local as her nose, and she values quality over quantity, taking as much pleasure from a 20-minute walk as a two-hour one. For her, each moment is expansive, complete and contained as a hologram. She is a furry sponge, absorbing the essence of dirt and grass and air, in whatever time she has to do it.

The first mile Molly is on the leash, west along the paved sidewalk, through a development of huge houses with manicured lawns. From beneath a pale orange cloud cover we enter the shade of a thick canopy of maples as the road turns to dirt and begins to descend toward the river. Where the short hill flattens out, we turn left, along a powdery road tracing the edge of a lengthy cornfield.

Normally I would let Molly off the leash now, but I spot three young deer in the distance. Eventually Molly sees them, too, but their utter lack of movement deceives her at first.

The deer are thin and statuesque. Two of them stand in profile, mirror images of each other, nearly touching noses. Molly does not quite believe her eyes until the first deer bounds away, a white trail streaking from its tail, and the others follow.

Molly strains at the leash, and her nose twitches for another moment as we continue walking. Then she gives it up and I let her run free. She never leaves my sight but, in contrast to my steady pace, she constantly changes speeds, stopping to smell a smashed cucumber, sprinting after a chipmunk, or trotting by my side.

Molly enjoys every moment of our quiet camaraderie, communing with the gritty, tender earth through the soft, firm pads of her paws. The six-foot corn’s musty smell; the jazz of honeybees and crickets, beetles and flies; the slow, subtle curtain of light; the knife-like rows of blue-green onions; the robust young vines from a second planting of cucumbers—these will be the stuff of her (and my) dreams.

As rich and sensual a walk as it is for both of us, I owe it to Molly’s insistence. It’s Friday night, after all. The Red Sox are playing the Yankees, and I already had a glass of wine. Dinner is on the stove, and I’m not really inclined to go out. We’ll skip a day, okay?

No.

This normally mild-mannered, well-behaved dog becomes militant over the need to stretch her legs and mind at least once every 24 hours, at any time of night or day, in all weathers, nudging me until I give in. Molly knows that the ballgame can wait, but there will never be another day like this one.

The best for the least

Untitled, colored pencil, 14"x17", 2006 (cropped)

FEW PEOPLE ARE PUNISHED MORE FOR SUCCESS than farmers. Greater yields equal more work—and lower prices. It’s not like manufacturing, where you can tweak production levels and put excess supply into inventory. It’s not even like the Big Five of agriculture—corn, wheat, rice, soy and peanuts—grains that can be warehoused for years, if necessary. For the local farmer, when tomatoes or peaches ripen, it is now or never.

It’s a matter of scale, of course. The larger farms that specialize, devoting acres to single crops like corn or potatoes, can get good returns by selling through the wholesale market (i.e. your local grocery store) or processing them. Tomato sauce, frozen corn, dill pickles and potato chips all originated on the farm before they were converted into “value-added” products.

But these transmutations along the food chain occur literally miles and months away from the fields where seeds were planted, cultivated and harvested, offering only a faint taste of the farmer’s experience, disguising his or her labor.

Where I live there is a roadside farmstand every mile or so. They appear every year under makeshift tents or umbrellas, on card tables or wagons, or from the back of a pick-up truck. Some appear briefly, selling single crops like strawberries or sweet corn. Some can be counted on to be in the same location every year, while others pop up one summer and are gone the next, as ephemeral as the produce they sell.

No matter how it is sold, this is the freshest, most flavorful and nutritious food you can buy, bar none. In most instances it was picked just hours before you buy it. Much of it is organic or produced with few chemicals, and it is picked by hand, displayed artfully, often lovingly—even in the rear of a pick-up truck.

We pay absurdly low prices for this culinary gold. My neighbor, Tom, grows the sweetest cucumbers I have ever tasted, yet sells them at this time of year six for a dollar. His organically grown blueberries have outstanding flavor, and at $3 a pint cost two dollars less than organic berries found in a local grocery store (of course, you can buy conventional blueberries cheaper from giant farms far outside of New England).

It doesn’t make sense. I scramble for quarters and dollar bills to stuff into the cash box at the farmstand and come home with a pile of tender vegetables fresh off the vine, still warm from the sun, without a blemish. When the crop is at its heaviest, Tom can’t keep pace picking it, and has to practically give his hard-earned produce away.

The supermarket is an inexpensive place to buy produce at this time of year, too, and more and more stores feature locally grown fruit and vegetables. When the tomatoes and summer squash are running as thick as the herring that once clogged New England’s streams, there are good prices everywhere.

I know the rules of supply and demand. But it still feels perverse to pay the least for the best at this time of year, especially given the supreme effort it takes to grow and harvest it.

* * *

August is tractor time. They are out and about early these days, competing with the robins for early morning supremacy. Dawn to dusk they are digging, spraying, hauling, slowing down traffic and causing people to look up reflexively to see what’s going by: a wagonload of cucumbers stacked in wooden bins, perhaps, or racks of wilting leaf tobacco hanging like wrinkled shirts behind a driver who might be a teenager or a grandmother.

Everyone gets involved in the tobacco harvest, in fact; every tractor in town, it seems, from the squat, gray Ford to the aging red Farmall, is conscripted to help move these tropical-size stalks from field to barn. With its broad, arching leaves, it is a beautiful plant to watch growing, and its harvest requires a well-orchestrated confluence of people and machines. Its sweet smell as it is drying over the next few weeks is pleasing, even to a nonsmoker. What a shame it is tobacco!

Tobacco comes and goes, though, depending on price and disease (last year’s crop was wiped out by a fungus), and New England agriculture is nothing if not adaptive. Over the last three centuries the mix of crops has been in almost constant flux as farmers strive to juggle the imperatives of climate with the needs of the marketplace.

As recently as the 1960s, western Massachusetts was noted for its asparagus fields, and in the 18th century New England grew much of the fledgling nation’s wheat crop. When I moved to this small western Massachusetts town along the Connecticut River a decade ago, its fields were awash in cucumbers and a stunning array of peppers—green, banana and cherry—which were trucked to the Cain’s pickling plant in South Deerfield. Then the plant was sold to a Midwestern firm, and resold to a local farming cooperative, but so many restrictions were placed on it that the venture failed.

The area farmers who supplied the plant were forced to diversify. Today, on my mile-long walk to the river I pass alfalfa, onions, cucumbers, sweet corn, potatoes and tobacco. If I alter my route slightly, I see cabbage, kale and pumpkins. The mix and ratios change from year to year; these same fields have been planted with crops ranging from summer squash to strawberry corn since the pickling plant shut down.

These fields are much bigger than those of the typical farmstand (though they are mere specks compared to agriculture in much of the rest of the country). While crops like tobacco, squash and sweet corn are still cut or picked by hand, others, like potatoes and cucumbers, are harvested mechanically. It provides another opportunity to see the fallout from the tension between the soil’s fecundity and cold economic reality, as hundreds of pounds of perfectly good vegetables are left to rot behind the reaping machines’ inefficient blades and conveyors. It would cost the farmer more to pick up these leftovers than he or she could get in the market.

I will savor every meal over these next weeks, piling my plate high with fresh cucumbers and eggplant, peppers and tomatoes and sweet corn grown right here on these soils. Soon they will only be a memory until next summer.

But Tom, six for a dollar? I’ll gladly pay double to keep those cukes coming another year.