Saturday, January 27, 2018

Words and Character

It seems as though people are judging others more and more by their political positions—their stand on particular issues or even specific bits of legislation. While this is certainly one point of reference, it might be more useful to look at how they treat others, both in person and in writing.

What initially got me thinking about this was an article in TheAtlantic (December 2017) tracing the personal history of a major neo-Nazi. The article included a discussion of what this man was like in high school. Some of it is perhaps not surprising—problems with drugs and destructive (and self-destructive) behavior. The surprising part was that his political positions seem to have been quite different.

“He often wore a hoodie with a large F[***] RACISM patch on the back…. [He] set up his own website, for a fake record label… that he used to dupe bands into sending him demo tapes. Here, his leftist leanings were on full display: He wrote posts encouraging people to send the Westboro Baptist Church death threats from untraceable accounts, and he mocked the Ku Klux Klan and other racist organizations.” (p.59)

The article doesn’t say whether he did anything of a productive nature toward reducing racism and homophobia—I’m inclined to doubt it. It sounds like his way of responding was to hurl threats at and mock the opposition.What interested me was that while his targets have flipped 180 degrees since high school, his way of treating them remains unpleasantly the same.

It seems to me that there has been an increase in the amount of public name-calling and general nastiness all around. One of the things we’re taught as we grow up is not to blurt out everything we think. Words can hurt. Treating others with respect requires that we consider the effect of our words before we speak.

Of course, there are some people who just don’t care whether they hurt others, and some people who positively enjoy upsetting people and making them angry (or frightened.)  That says enough about their character right there. The neo-Nazi in the article seems to be one of those.

But I would hope there hasn’t been a sudden increase in the number of people like that. I’m hoping that what is happening is that people are getting careless, writing messages and posts and comments and so forth while in the grip of white-hot rage, and sending them off into the world without taking a moment to calm down,  reread what they’ve written, and consider the likely effect on their words. Calling names will not change anyone’s mind. It can, however, lose you a lot of sympathy.

Could that be what’s happening? I started writing this, thinking that people can change their views on issues and even sometimes their prejudices (in both directions, apparently), but that maybe how they treat other people doesn’t change very much.  It would be interesting to find some data on this. But now I’m hoping that people can change how careful they are with words. Hopefully for the better.

Till next post.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

In Praise of Airport Art

This morning I was re-watching a documentary, “Empire of the Tsars”, and was once again wowed by what I was seeing. Though the documentary is about the tsars of Russia and not about Russian art or architecture, the film shows the narrator walking in and among some amazing sights.

Walls completely painted top to ceiling in golden images. Not sure if this was at the monastery the first tsar came from, or the private chapel of the last tsar. Maybe both.

St. Basil’s Cathedral, in Red Square, looking like a fairytale crossed with an Easter egg. (Have I mentioned that my house interior is pale green, pale yellow, aqua, and peach? There used to be some pink, too, till my daughter got older and repainted her room jungle green. Now it’s lavender, and entirely in keeping with the rest of the house.)

The Peterhof palace, with its fountains and gilt… lots and lots of gilt. (Have I mentioned my fondness for shiny things?)

And many other impressive buildings, with lots of golden trim, ornate carving, and so on.

On the one hand, I was deeply impressed with this reminder of what human beings can create. On the other hand, I was reluctantly reminded that many impressive and beautiful things have been built at great cost to a lot of ordinary people.

But it doesn’t have to be so, does it? We can have interesting things to look at without being horrible to people, can’t we?

Design in inlaid linoleum flooring at Indianapolis airport
Inlaid linoleum in Indianapolis
And so I want to say a few words in praise of the art on display in airports. I really like airport art. Silver trees spreading their branches up to the ticketing floor, delicate translucent jellyfish hovering above a concessions area, colored linoleum inlaid into pictures underfoot, and giant “marble” machines where balls clank their way past flags, down funnels, ring bells, and then come to rest on a ski lift for balls, being gently raised so they can start all over again.

I like art in public places generally, but airports seem a particularly good spot for a few reasons.

1.      Airports have vast spaces that can accommodate art that is two stories tall, or needs to be well above people’s heads, or runs the length of a (long) corridor.

2.      These vast spaces are indoors, so no worries about weather.

3.      Airports are full of people. Not just local people, either. And while some  of these people are in a hurry and aren’t going to look at the art any longer than it takes to walk past it, others have time on their hands (sometimes lots of time) and can stop and stare on their way to get yet another coffee.

4.      Art--some forms in particular--have the potential to take travelers out of themselves for a moment. I’m thinking in particular of those tunnels with lights and sounds, which feel a bit like you’ve temporarily left the airport for somewhere else. Of course, I’m sure there are some travelers for whom that somewhere else is not an improvement. They would rather just walk or people-move down another forgettable corridor on their way to terminal C.  You can’t please everyone.  I like the feeling of otherwhereness.

I imagine having art in the airport adds to the cost of something—concessions, perhaps, via increased rent? But given the number of people going through, and the cost of everything else associated with maintaining an airport, it doesn’t seem like it would be all that much per person. I’d be happy to pay a little extra for a more interesting travel experience. Not a huge amount extra, mind, so I suppose the gold leaf and ornately carved marble are out, and not just because they aren’t in fashion. (Then again, we are richer than we realize.)

Art composed of old-fashioned luggage at baggage claim in Sacramento
Baggage claim in Sacramento
So the next time I’m in a new airport, possibly as a result of a canceled flight (thus going from Boston to Raleigh via Detroit, say), I will try to notice all the different artwork. Maybe I’ll take a few pictures as a reminder of what I’ve seen.

It isn’t the Peterhof palace, but it will give me something to remember on the plane ride home.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Sewing, Knitting, and (Un)happiness

This week I’ve been sewing myself a pair of pants. Loose-fitting, double-pleated pants in emerald green, feather-weight corduroy.

It is a fact about sewing (and pretty much any other craft) that I cannot complete a project without mishap. I only use one pattern for pants, but I always seem to be making some minor change—trying to deal with their distressing tendency to split in the seat, or else fiddling with the waistline yet again to keep it current with my own.

Even when I don’t run into trouble with the changes I’m making, there’s usually a piece that gets sewn wrong-side out, or a seam that extends where it should not. Or something completely different—this time I spent over half an hour searching for my seam ripper, which eventually turned up under a sofa cushion. It’s frustrating.

So why am I sewing pants instead of buying them? Granted, stores don’t carry pants that meet all my criteria. (Double-pleats, loose-fitting, not too tight at the waist but not too loose in the seat, soft fabric, useful pockets…) Still, I could probably pay a sewing pro to stitch up a pair to my specifications. I could even get them to finish the seams properly, which I haven’t done for this pair.

Maybe it’s the same as my reason for trying to make French bread. It’s the challenge of the thing.

That’s probably part of it, but I don’t think the situation is quite parallel. At any rate, while thinking about this, two other things kept coming to mind. The first is a comment that my husband made. It echoes something in a book by Stephanie Pearl McPhee, the Yarn Harlot. If I could remember which book, I would quote it, since she puts things so wonderfully. But I can’t, so I’ll have to approximate.

Knitting projects, like sewing projects, often go awry. Knitters end up ripping out mistakes and having to re-knit chunks of their project. Other times, they discover that the size small sweater has somehow turned out to be a giant’s size small. And so forth. Unless the knitter is restrained and keeps her frustrations to herself, at some point her spouse may inquire, “Do you really enjoy knitting?”

It’s a reasonable question, given the amount of grumbling.

And the answer is, “Yes, I really do enjoy knitting.” Even if this blasted hat won’t go around my head…. Grumble grumble.

It’s easy to see how sewing projects and knitting projects are connected. Less clear is why I kept thinking of a section from a book I had recently looked at, The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being, by Daniel M. Haybron. The part that struck me actually comes right near the beginning of the book. First, the author comments on an experience that led him to the topic of the book. He used to spend summers on a small fishing island as a child, and remembers it as being a very different world, a good place to be, “the only place I’ve ever felt like a fully developed human being.” Later, he compares two hypothetical societies, A and B, and describes them like this:

“Consider then, two communities, A and B. A typical member of A, on a typical day, is in more or less the following condition: at ease, untroubled, slow to anger, quick to laugh, fulfilled, in an expansive and self-assured mood, curious and attentive, alert and in good spirits, and fully at home in her body, with a relaxed, confident posture. A denizen of B, by contrast, is liable to be: stressed, anxious, tense, irritable, worried, weary, distracted and self-absorbed, uneasy, awkward and insecure, spiritually deflated, pinched and compressed. The differences, let us suppose, owe mainly to difference in the prevailing ways of life in these communities.”

A bit later he says,

“Notice that the descriptions of A and B made no explicit reference to happiness or unhappiness. But it should be reasonably apparent that, nonetheless, happiness is precisely what they were about: what A has in its favor is that its residents tend to be happy, whereas the people of B tend not to be.”

What has this got to do with my experience sewing pants? I’ve just said that sewing includes a significant amount of time spent fussily trying to adjust the pattern and then discovering that I’ve messed up and must rip out some seams, all of which tends to produce frustration and anger. The author’s description of society A involves people feeling good in various ways, while it is society B that is described as habitually tense and frustrated.

But then I thought about the origin of his example—the island community that he described and the hard work of its inhabitants—and the fact that they undoubtedly had moments of similar frustration in making things work, but also presumably moments of great satisfaction with their work and its results. I thought about the fact that I genuinely do enjoy sewing, and what that means, and I’ve come up with two possible connections:
1.  Enjoyable activities don’t always look enjoyable.
2.  "Difficult" doesn't equal "not happy-making."

I’m stuck for a conclusion here. It seems trite to conclude simply that worthwhile activities involve some work, some parts that aren’t fun—but isn’t that what I’m saying? Or is there something more?

Maybe if I reread the book, which I don’t remember very well, I’ll have more to say. Meanwhile, I’ve got a nice new pair of pants.

Even if they do make me look nine weeks early for St Patrick’s Day.

green corduroy pants with two pleats sewn at home
Add caption
Till next post.

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Idea of Soup

It’s cold outside and there’s a thin layer of snow on the ground. January. My mind is filled with The Idea of Soup.

Really, I should say it is filled with My Idea of Soup. Yours may be quite different. My Idea of Soup tends to be filled with chunks of vegetables, possibly also with beef but not chicken, and garnished with chopped parsley. I don’t think I ever actually garnish soup with chopped parsley—I rarely remember to add parsley at all. But in My Idea of Soup, there is fresh green parsley.

My Idea of Soup. Where did it come from? I can think of several sources.

One is my favorite jigsaw puzzle, “Cubbyhole Cottage.” I was six or seven years old when I received it—my younger brother got a 60 piece puzzle with a jet plane on it. We used to have competitions to see who could put their puzzle together faster.

Cubbyhole Cottage jigsaw puzzle by Springbok
Cubbyhole Cottage, by Springbok

I liked to imagine myself as one of the people living in this old-fashioned house. Most often, I imagined myself as the girl in the purple dress and cap—the one stirring the soup. She seemed like the most important person in the house, as she was making the meal. The others were tidying, or setting the table, or watering the flowers, or just playing. Not nearly as important. Also, I liked the girl’s ruffle-edged apron.

Close-up of kitchen in Cubbyhole Cottage jigsaw puzzle
The hearth is the center of the home, even if not quite the center of the puzzle.

Another source for My Idea of Soup is a story by Margaret Wise Brown, “Mister Dog”, in a book of bedtime stories from long ago. The illustrations are by Garth Williams, one of my favorite illustrators.

The story is about Crispin’s Crispian, a dog who belongs to himself. One day, after various adventures,  he meets a boy who belongs to himself and invites the boy to come live with him. They stop by the butcher shop on the way home, and the dog buys a bone while the boy gets a lamb chop and “a bright green vegetable.” The dog makes soup and gives some to the boy, who contributes some of his bright green vegetable to the soup.

Page from Mister Dog, showing boy and dog with soup and green vegetable
See the bright green vegetable in the soup? Also, I love the cuckoo clock.

And now you know why My Idea of Soup is garnished with fresh parsley.

Finally, there is the old story of Stone Soup. There’s something appealing about all those people contributing a bit of this or that to the pot, and ending up with a tasty, nourishing soup “from a stone!” I love that idea.

Alas, in practice I’ve found that adding random vegetables to my soup tends to work about as well as mixing a lot of random paints together. The result is muddy and not particularly appealing. Even when I try to stick close to basics, the results are variable. However, the following ingredients generally work for a “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” soup (except that as I said earlier, I tend to forget the parsley.)

·         Some chopped onion, usually sauteed in a bit of oil first
·         Bite-size stew meat, dusted in flour and browned a bit before adding liquid (now cooked on the side so the rest of the soup can be vegetarian—but add some broth to the meat to take advantage of the browned bits on the pan)
·         Canned diced tomatoes with liquid
·         Carrots, diced or bite-size as you wish
·         Water as needed
·         Potatoes, in bite-size pieces
·         Salt and pepper
·         Sage, rosemary, and thyme
·         Parsley, either dried with the rest of the seasoning, or fresh and added at the end

Sometimes I add a bay leaf or a splash of soy sauce. Sometimes, if it doesn’t need to be vegetarian, I add a dash of Worcestershire sauce. I’ve tried adding mushrooms, but results vary. Sometimes I add some broth along with the water, but I don’t like the way a lot of vegetable broths taste and I’m not sure whether they help the soup or not. Basically, I keep messing with it, but I haven’t been keeping accurate records so I don’t have a good sense of what’s working.

So I guess that’s what I should do, to fulfill My Idea of Soup. I should keep records the next time I make some vegetable (and beef) soup. Maybe I’ll even make some tonight. After all, it’s freezing outside and my husband has a cold.

Coziness and caring. Isn’t that what soup is all about?