Sunday, February 18, 2007


Thanks to art critic Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times I discovered a painter yesterday. Howard Hodgkin is well known by art lovers everywhere, but is a new one for me. Maybe I need to get out more.

In language clearly animated and inspired by the works exhibited, Kimmelman labels Hodgkin a "voluptuary", and speaks of “the ravishment of color” inspired by “emotional situations” in “the redolent fragment or vignette". (This is why I read the New York Times. You can't get this stuff in any other newspaper.)

The review prompted my Internet search on the artist, and my response to what I saw was similar to my response to works by Helen Frankenthaler. These artists care about beauty.

And in fact, Kimmelman touches on the subject of beauty and “how as a culture we got ourselves into a mind-set whereby beauty is suspect and elegance seems a weakness."

I wonder about this frequently because I grew up surrounded by aesthetic standards that seem to be out of date, but have never diminished as a standard by which I consciously or subconsciously measure the world around me.

Why is beauty no longer relevant? I wonder if it has to do with a socio-political culture that equates beauty with elitism. If one admires beauty, so the thinking might go, then perhaps it assigns low value to things that do not have it. A pretty face then would be more deserving of attention and care than a homely one. It might be okay to bomb an ugly city, but a crime against humanity to bomb world heritage sites. These are scary thoughts, and justifiably unpopular in a civilized, tolerant, diverse world where beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.

But maybe we don't study beauty as a set of esthetic principles associated with the spirit and philosophy of humanism. In that context, beauty should be a source of optimism, joy and an awareness of what separates us from other animals. That's what it means to me.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Camel No. 9

I’d walk a mile in my Manolo’s for a Camel No. 9!

That’s how the Camel cigarette company is hoping girls and young women respond to their new package. The made-for-Venus-by-Martians packaging reminds me of old black vinyl ballet shoe cases, which carried the near fetishized imprint of satiny pink toe shoes and ribbons, and of little girls' lunch boxes. These were themselves modeled on travel make-up cases and purses of adult women, so elegantly black outside and youthfully pink inside. Pink and black were also popular back then as the colors of tile in ladies’ bathrooms. Or, as in a black hat box lined in pink tissue, like a dainty coffin, opening to the lingering scent of Chanel No.5.

The minty green brings to mind the frothy Rococo boudoir paintings of Fragonard and Boucher; “Light and luscious”, just like the ladies' Camel cigarette slogan says. All that Marie Antoinette fashion is back of course, as are her vices – gambling, superficiality, avarice.

Here girls and women will be gambling with their lives, falling for a cynical use of design and marketing techniques, and feeding the greed of merchants of death. Apparently, more women today die of lung cancer than breast cancer, “by a wide margin” as told to the New York Times by the American Legacy Foundation.

Thanks, R.J. Reynolds, for the Valentine’s Day thoughts. Wishing you the same.

[Photo: Tony Cenicola, New York Times.]

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Global Warming and Food

The way Stephen Colbert feels about bears, I feel about bees. HATE them! Nice way to ruin a picnic or a lovely time at an outdoor cafe. I've never been stung, but freak at the thought.

However, unlike bears, bees provide something very tangible and valuable to my life. I like honey very much.

Is the
of honey bees reported today linked to global warming? There have been lots of studies on the impact of warmer temperatures and rising ocean levels on agriculture, but not on specific foods. At least I can't find any such studies. Anyone?

Local wine makers are thinking of replacing the Pinot Noir grapes with something else, given the warming and drying trend. God, I hope it's not Chardonnay. Oregon has some of the best Pinot Noir in the world, but in the future? Depressing.

We should just do a survey of our farmers, and I mean, local, organic small production farmers who haven't been tinkering with nature's formula like agri-business likes to do, and ask them what they are seeing. I bet we'd get some interesting observations.

Last week I had dinner at Navarre and spoke with the owner, who mentioned the effect the warmer weather is having on vegetables. He produced a plate of a braised green vegetable that I thought was a new one for me. Nay, it was just a local broccoli that had "freaked out" and shot out florets bigger and faster than usual. It was super sweet and reminded me of a Chinese green.

If this is one example, there must be others. And we should be able to paint a picture of what we'll be eating and drinking in the next generation...and what we won't.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

What we eat, we are

Here is a
fascinating article
about how immigrants transform urban areas, make them relatively prosperous, and then find themselves starved of clientele as the neighborhood gets mixed so that they are forced to move on and start over in a different neighborhood.

Basically, the article is about the permanent impact Latin culture is having on the U.S.

I'll wager that 20 years ago few non-Colombian New Yorkers knew what an "arepa" was. It is fast becoming another one of those imported items that make it into our national food idiom, like bagels, pizza and tacos.

"Immigrant Entrepreneurs Shape a New Economy" by Nina Bernstein of the New York Times made me wonder if the U.S. shouldn't embrace this impact rather than try to officially deny it by building walls along our borders. Imagine if we:

- adopted Spanish as an unofficial second language, had it taught at an early age in schools much as Europeans are practically forced to study English. How smart we'd be.
- formalized educational exchanges between the U.S. and our nearest Latin neighbor, Mexico, so that many more young Americans experienced the culture, and so that they internalized the sense that we are dependent on each other. Less fear!
- institutionalized cultural exchanges -- film, dance, music, painting, cuisine, archaelogy at all school levels. How creative we'd be.

In other words, foreign culture as more than just another food to merchandise in an unhealthy version to the masses.

The symbiosis between us and them will exist for a long time. Their population growth is much higher than ours and their economies, for reasons ranging from endemic corruption to underdevelopment, can't support them. Ours can, apparently.

Today the Yahoo home page featured a top story on the origins of the "American classic", the hamburger. Whichever state can lay claim to it, the meat sandwich has A GERMAN NAME, probably reflecting the German immigrant culture it came from. Things always change, and in a hundred years there will a neighborhood in New York or Miami that will claim to have originated the American arepa.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Scared in the USA

I've been having panic attacks lately. I wake up and my first thought is "Are we still here?"

Those mornings, I guess I am hoping that the nightmare we are living is over. With the loss of so much of what I was taught made the U.S. exceptional, things can get much worse before they get better. They did for Chileans and Argentinians in the 1970s, for Venezuelans recently, for South Africans in the 1950s and many other nations and peoples. How far back do you want to go? We are not so exceptional as to be able to avoid a similar fate if we don't pay attention. The breakdown in New Orleans is an example to me of fraying at the edges, threads in our fabric torn and unraveling.

It is not just the removal of habeas corpus, the spread of warrantless wiretapping and spying on Internet traffic, cronyism that renders our institutions into hollow shells (re: FEMA), the removal of Dept. of Justice lawyers who don't tow the line etcetera etcetera etcetera. Given the thugs running the show, I no longer trust that the truth or the good will out, or that truth is even the objective. So what have I got to depend on for my safety, my privacy, my human rights?

Today Republicans blocked debate -- debate! -- on the Iraq war, an issue literally bleeding us of our hope and security. Sen. Gordon Smith of Iraq, after professing anguish over the situation in Iraq and saying he was at the end of his rope, decided the topic wasn't worth a frank discussion for his constituents to see. We Oregonians should all feel infantilized by him. (Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon voted for the debate, thank you.)

As James Joyce once said, "History is a dream from which we do not awake." Or something like that.

Smart Car

At last, the Smart car is here. Driving home the other day, I passed the exclusive Oregon dealer and stopped in for a test drive. The convertible is high on my list of desires. However, at a $29,000 tag is is low on my likely-to-buy list.

But the car has an engine as small as a motorcycle and emits little, and goes 60 MPG. So it is a green alternative to most of what is out there.

Now here is something impressive: if you buy a green home built by Randy Sebastian of Renaissance Homes, a Smart car comes with it.