Category Archives: Food for Thought

Art Is not Obliged to Be Beautiful

This has been a rainy, humid week. While the rain has been much needed, a few dry days would be nice. The house smells like mildew, and I even had to resort to using the clothes dryer. I know from sad experience what clothes smell like when racks are used for wet laundry during rainy, humid weather. Not good!

On the other hand, it has been a good week for going to the movies and to the Colby Museum of Art.

At Railroad Square, we saw two movies: Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley’s wild, surreal, pointed look at racism and economic injustice in the United States; and Leave No Trace, a sad, beautiful story about an emotionally-wounded veteran and his daughter. If you like character-driven movies, Leave No Trace is a must-see film. In fact, both movies are very much worth seeing.

For a small liberal arts college (1,800 students), Colby has an incredible art museum. It is free and open to the public six days a week. Because we live so close—about thirty-five minutes away—we have the luxury of focusing deeply on one exhibit at a time, which is my favorite way to visit an art museum. For this week’s visit, we focused on Self and Society, a collection of German Expressionist Prints.

On its website,  MoMA notes that  German Expressionism was a “major modernist movement that developed in Germany and Austria during the early decades of the 20th century.” The painters and printmakers—George Grosz and Max Beckmann, to name two—were more interested in portraying emotions rather than the actual physical world. And the emotions they portrayed were usually  dark and grim.

Why wouldn’t they be? Many of the artists had fought in World War I and had witnessed firsthand the ugliness and brutality of that war.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but the post-war period was not exactly smooth and tranquil either. Then  we all know what came next. It seems to me that these Expressionist artists, who would be persecuted during the Nazi regime, had their fingers on the pulse of society. Their art will never go on the cover of chocolate boxes, but art is not obliged to be beautiful.

To be sure, beauty is a part of life, and I appreciate  beautiful art as much as the next person. But ugliness is also a part of life, and there are times when that reality is so great that artists have no choice but to face it and portray it.

Here are a couple of photos I took of prints from Self and Society.

Max Beckmann, “Die Granate (The Grenade).” 1915

 

George Grosz, “No. 73 Restaurant,” c. 1925

 

In the gallery below Self and Society, we came across this—Cracked Question by Elizabeth Murray, who was not a German Expressionist.

But somehow, after seeing the horrors portrayed in Self and SocietyCracked Question seemed absolutely appropriate.

 

 

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The Better Angels of Our Nature

Right now, in this country, the better angels of our nature appear to have fled. I know our country has gone through worse times, but never in my own memory have we ripped children from their parents and put them in cages. It’s gotten to the point where I hardly know how to respond anymore, which I suppose is a sort of victory to those who hate, holler, and rage against those who are a different color. Who are seeking asylum.  Who are poor. Who are struggling with addiction. Who are mentally ill. Who don’t fit into the narrow confines of what is acceptable to a small but vocal group.

Compassion and generosity, two humble virtues, seem to be in short supply right now in a country that has become addicted to anger. I’ve seen this anger first hand in Maine, and I have certainly seen it on TV, all the way to the highest office in the land. Where will it lead? When will it end? While anger is a human emotion, left unchecked it can be very destructive. This is true even when the anger is “righteous,” which is why so many revolutions become blood baths.

This is all a preamble to writing about our nation’s birthday, a national holiday and celebrated tomorrow on July 4. We are having a few friends over for Clif’s legendary grilled bread—and other goodies—but neither of us is exactly in a hip, hip, hooray kind of mood.

The lovely lady in New York Harbor, who has welcomed so many, is surely filled with sorrow and shame.

But after all, a birthday is a birthday. So happy birthday, United States. Here’s to better times. May they come soon.

A Garden Visit

This has been a week of visiting with friends and a much-needed break from fiction writing. I decided to take some time off, and I probably won’t return to fiction writing until mid-July.  For the past month, there was a mighty push to get Library Lost finished, and my batteries need a chance to recharge.  Of course, I’ve been thinking about the third book, and I’ve even come up with a new dimension called Down Cellar, which sounds like hell but is really a place outside time.

Anyway, I digress. Today, my friend Gayle invited me to come see her gardens, and that visit was the cherry on the sundae of a wonderful week. Here is the sign that greeted me when I pulled into her driveway.

That sign made this nature lover’s heart leap with joy, and as to be expected, Gayle’s yard and gardens were green and welcoming, filled with bushes, trees, plants, and water—all designed to encourage creatures that scamper, jump, flutter, and fly.

Like me, Gayle has a lot of shade in her yard, but she gets enough sun for various flowers, including white roses,

columbines,

foxgloves,

and a lovely delicate iris.

Most gardeners are very generous, and Gayle is no exception. She even gave me a plant to take home.

This plant is called Brunnera, and it likes shade. Those white patterned leaves are sure to brighten a shady spot in my garden.

Many thanks, Gayle—for the tour, for the plant, and for providing such a welcoming place for wildlife.

So inspiring.

News, Fake or Real

Yesterday, Clif and I went to the University of Maine at Augusta (UMA) for a panel discussion hosted by its Senior College and the College of Arts & Sciences. The topic, as indicated in this post’s title, was News, Fake or Real. The panel consisted of Bill Nemitz, a noted Maine journalist and columnist; Mal Leary, a senior political correspondent for Maine Public Radio; and Jessica Lowell, a journalist at the Kennebec Journal.

Fake news is an issue very dear to my heart. Indeed, the notion that facts do matter is a central theme in my YA fantasy novel Maya and the Book of Everything.

It is my guess that as soon as humans acquired language, despotic leaders have told lies to maintain power and stroke their egos. However, in the United States, the current administration has brought lying to a new high—or low, depending on your point of view. On Meet the Press, Kellyanne Conway, one of Trump’s advisors, even came up with a term—“alternative facts”—that many of us had never heard before. When Chuck Todd, the host of Meet the Press, insisted that alternative facts were falsehoods, Conway did not even have the grace to look ashamed and instead barrelled on with her talking points.

At yesterday’s forum, Marilyn Canavan, the moderator, ended her introduction by asking, how are we to distinguish between news and opinion? How will we know if news is fake?

Jessica Lowell suggested that readers need to think critically to separate news from opinion. And fact from fiction. She noted how easy it was to share things on Facebook without knowing where the news was coming from and even admitted to having done this herself. (So have I.) Now, Lowell is more careful, and she stressed how important it was to stop and pause before sharing anything, to check the source.

Mal Leary spoke of how fake news often has a sliver of truth. As an example, he used a recent story about chocolate becoming extinct.  The bombastic headline was designed to draw people in, providing the site with lots of clicks, which in turn gives data and potential customers to advertisers. As it turned out, the article explained how climate change might affect chocolate production at some time in the future. But right now, there is no reason to hoard Hershey Chocolate Bars. Leary warned the audience to beware of websites that have weird endings such as .co. For example, Newsweek.com.co is not the same as Newsweek.com. Leary also warned us to beware of websites with no “About” section and of single-source stories.

Bill Nemitz told an amusing but sobering tale of how his publicity photo was stolen by “T.S. Hunter”—most certainly not the author’s real name—whose website was putting out information to disparage a victim of a police shooting in Tulsa, Oklahoma. T.S. Hunter had even constructed a snappy bio that described how he was a poet, the owner of a health food store, had two goldendoodles, and was in love with a muse with a guitar. (I must admit that as a writer, I was impressed by these specific details.) Nemitz pursued the matter, and eventually the blog was taken off the Internet.

Nemitz then defined fake news. First, it was news that was 100% false, such as many of the stories found in supermarket tabloids. Second, there was a gray area, which included news with a slant or a bias but had a grain of truth. Third, fake news could be pure propaganda. Fourth, it could be pieces that misuse data or scientific evidence. Fifth, it could come about because of sloppy or imprecise writing. Sixth, and perhaps most important, fake news is not news with which you disagree.

A Q & A followed the panel discussion, and many good points were raised and discussed. This forum started at 2:00 p.m. and ended at 4:00 p.m. Such a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon and such a relevant topic. Many thanks, UMA.

To end this piece, I am posting some pictures of UMA’s small but lovely campus in winter. And readers, not one of these pictures is fake.

 

In Transition

Yesterday, Clif and I went to the Winthrop Center Friends Church to see In Transition 2.0, a movie about Transition, a movement celebrating community and the environment. It also re-imagines a different economy, based on supporting local stores, farmers, and artisans. Transition began in the United Kingdom, and some of you have perhaps heard of Rob Hopkins, one of the founders of Transition. (Transition Network.org provides a more detailed account of the movement and its various aspects.)

Released in 2012, In Transition 2.0 follows the usual rah-rah trajectory common to upbeat documentaries about the environment and social change. The gist of the movement is explained, and then big and small examples of action from around the world are featured—community gardens (relatively easy); a group that focuses on personal action (again, relatively easy); local currency (a little harder but manageable); and starting a small power company that is based on renewable energy (very hard).

I’m aware that the above paragraph makes me sound like a cynic when it comes to movements such as Transition, but nothing could be further from the truth. As a Mainer, I am very much aware of the problems addressed by Transition, especially climate change and the decline of small communities. I’ve already written about the weird winter we’ve been having and how this seems to be the new normal. Climate change is here, no two ways about it.

However, I haven’t written about how Winthrop, the small town where we live, has gone from having a vibrant downtown with clothing stores, a craft store, a five and dime store, and a little grocery store to having a few sandwich shops, some thrift shops, and not much else.  It’s been sad to witness this decline. There are many reasons for this, including the closing of major businesses and poor leadership. I could go into great detail about this, but I’ll stop here.

Therefore, my sympathies are with Transition, but having once been a part of a failed Green Committee, I am also aware of how difficult it is for people to come together to make a change.  And, to be fair to In Transition 2.0, the movie does acknowledge that groups do fail and even highlights one that has.

After the movie, the handful of us that came discussed what we had seen.  Maggie Edmondson, the Friends pastor, did a fine job of leading the discussion. However, because most everyone came from a different community, there was really no possibility of starting anything in Winthrop.

And yet. The movie and the discussion made me think more about what I can do to live a greener life, about how I should use less of everything, throw away less, buy more local food, and drive less. (This is very difficult in central Maine as there is not much in the way of public transportation). In fact, I grapple with these issues on a daily basis, and seeing this film has made me resolve to do better, do more.

The title of the movie, In Transition, aptly catches what we are experiencing regularly in this country and, I think, around the world. Fires and mud on the West Coast. Dreadful hurricanes in the South. Twelve inches of snow and frozen alligators in North Carolina. Flash floods in Maine in January.

We are, indeed, in transition. Now it’s up to us to decide what to do about it.

The Kennebec River in Augusta, Maine, on January 22, 2018. More rain, more ice dams are predicted tonight and tomorrow, and these, in turn, could lead to more flooding. Good times.

 

Resting with a Cat on My Chest, Hoping for an Angel Sitting on My Shoulder

On Sunday evening, this was the scene at our house.

In fact, I wasn’t resting at all but rather reading and commenting on the many blogs I follow. This is always a delight as I can go around the world yet stay on my couch with my cat—the notorious Sherlock,  who certainly knows how to make himself comfortable—and my mug of tea.

Thanksgiving has come and gone, and it was a merry blur of food, family, friends, and movies. We are a family keen on movies, and we saw two over the holidays—Coco, which we liked very much, and Murder on the Orient Express, a remake that got a resounding “Meh!” from all three of us.

Now it’s onward to Christmas, my favorite holiday. There will be Christmas movies to watch, cards to send, goodies to cook, presents to wrap, gatherings to attend, and twinkling lights to set out.

In Maine as well as elsewhere, December is the darkest month of the year, a good time to ponder the Christmas sentiment “Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All.” Unfortunately, we are far from this notion, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reflect on it, now and for the rest of the year, too.

And if we can slide in a little “ho-ho-ho,” so much the better.  This Christmas song—“We Need a Little Christmas”—perfectly captures the way many of us in the United States feel right now.

Here is a version by the folks from Glee.

I’m hoping to find that little “angel sitting on my shoulder” sometime soon.

A Time to Be Grateful

As noted in yesterday’s post, in the United States, we celebrate a holiday called Thanksgiving. This holiday always falls on the fourth Thursday in November. It’s a time to eat (usually a lot!) and give thanks for the good things we have.

I’m not going to mince words. For progressives, this has been a very difficult year, and because of this, it hasn’t been easy to count blessings. The worries, ranging from nuclear war to dismantling the Affordable Health Care Act, are not trivial.

Nevertheless, there are blessings to be counted. So far, this country is at peace. So far, the Affordable Health Care stands. So far, there is a free press that hasn’t bent to those in power.

On a more personal level, I have a snug house, a loving family, and a terrific library that allows me to go far while staying home.

I also have a wonderful circle of friends. Today, I want to give special thanks to my blogging friends who have enriched my life is so many ways. Through pictures and words, I travel near and far, I learn new things, and I am immeasurably enriched by the creativity—in all its various aspects— of my blogging friends.

So many, many thanks to all my blogging friends. You not only enrich my life, but you also remind me that there is still much that is good in this world.