My review of California Design, 1930-1965

April 4, 2014 at 5:41 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on My review of California Design, 1930-1965

Here’s a link to my article about the exhibition California Design, 1930-1965, which originated at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (aka LACMA) and is currently on view at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum. It will be published in North Shore Art*Throb next week, but you can read an advance copy on my blog: Living and Selling the Dream: Exploring Lifestyle Aspirations through California Design.

Did anyone notice that there was no Sunday Links Post?

February 26, 2014 at 2:30 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Did anyone notice that there was no Sunday Links Post?

For years I’ve been using Diigo, another third-party service (and a very good one), to gather links to interesting articles. They would then get published to my Berkman blog once a week as the Sunday Links Post. But the other week I noticed that something wasn’t working, and consequently nothing got bookmarked. I missed that Sunday’s entry. (I’ve missed other Sunday entries, but those were on purpose. This one wasn’t.) It made me think about how Boris Mann is on the right track when he controls his links directly, via his blog. (See his comment on my blog post here.)

That “fail” with the Sunday links post seems to me part of the conversation about keeping stuff on your own site(s).

Oddly, most of the conversation sparked by my Feb. 20 post happened on Facebook.

So I took all those words and re-posted them to my blog. Check it out – and you don’t even have to log in to FB…

Blogging has changed for me. A lot. But maybe not enough.

February 20, 2014 at 5:00 pm | In yulelogStories | 3 Comments

It’s not really bye-bye Berkman blog, but I have had my own domain for ages – and today I decided to post something there.

It’s about my perceptions of how blogging and online conversations have changed over the years.

But grandma, what big teeth you have…

December 7, 2013 at 6:11 pm | In yulelogStories | 2 Comments

Had to go to the mall this afternoon – what a nightmare. Store upon same store, selling the same stuff over and over again …it was like Kafka meets Dante in one of those hellish circles. In the course of my twenty minutes there, I amused myself by taking photos of some of the advertising in store windows. Specifically, I took photos of the always toothy smiling women. Here’s the collage:

The lipstick model’s smile is actually not as outrageously big as the bright red lip color makes it seem. But check out the extreme chompers on the model at the top left, as well as the image directly below her. And what about the trio of ladies, top right? That seems to be Christy Turlington (?) on the left, whose bite seems positively velociraptor-ish. The Asian model next to her has a smaller enameled area, and instead displays an alarming expanse of pink gums.

I remember a time before Julia Roberts (who, we all know, has a perfect smile) when it didn’t seem necessary for every model to have quite such a huge abundance of dental matter. A smile didn’t have to be – what’s the word?, “incandescent,” I believe they call it? But we’re all Americans and therefore more of a good thing is always better. Therefore, what was merely incandescent yesterday must today be positively atomic, radioactive, literally radiant, blow your mind big. ‘Cause bigger is always better, right?

Perhaps we used to think only of horses as having huge teeth – and maybe of chimpanzees, too. Maybe we didn’t see chimps on an everyday basis, but lots of Europeans (and Americans of yore) saw horses a lot, as well as mules and donkeys and asses, all of which have gigantic teeth. And often those animals only showed their teeth when they were frightened or about to bite.

So how is it that we now want all women to look like this? Disclaimer: I’m not saying these models aren’t beautiful. They are beautiful; they have beautiful teeth. But, is it just me, or does all that toothiness sometimes starts to look a little scary? Just a bit? My point-of-departure here is that such a biting display of dental prowess didn’t become the norm until fairly recently, and I can’t help but marvel at how quickly the norms have changed. A big mouth used to be considered a flaw. No more.

Here’s a great article, The Serious and the Smirk: The Smile in Portraiture, which puts the smile into an art historical context (e.g., “…in the long history of portraiture the open smile has been largely, as it were, frowned upon.”). (n.b.: art history is good; you learn tons of stuff.)

Anyway. There you have it, a small collage of big teeth. And here are some quotes and links about women or teeth or smiles (or all three). Enjoy.

…it is suggested that whilst the teeth of both sexes act as human ornament displays, the female display is more complex because it additionally signals residual reproductive value. (source)

Within female saints’ legends the tortured body parts are often sexualized and utterlygendered. Thus, this paper will argue that the gorge and its components are not only treated asa “door” through which beliefs and vocation are uttered, but also metaphorically as a vagina or vagina dentata. The teeth play a crucial role as they function as the only visible barrier  between inner and outer body, as a symbolic “hymen”, which is “deflowered” in the legend of St. Apollonia among others by pulling the teeth out. Within the legends of female saints – mouth and vagina – the two culturally established entrances to a woman’s body seem to beused interchangeably. (source)

…the Victorians thought of open-mouthed smiling as obscene, and nineteenth-century English and American slang equated “smiling” with drinking whisky. (source)

In animals, the exposure of teeth, which may bear a resemblance to a smile and imply happiness, often conveys other signals. The baring of teeth is often used as a threat or warning display—known as a snarl—or a sign of submission. For chimpanzees, it can also be a sign of fear. (source)

On one hand, it goes without saying that teeth are signals and status symbols. One of the first things people will say about a lower-class person is that they are either missing teeth (typically mentioned of whites) or are wearing grills or gold caps (typically mentioned of blacks). And rich people and nearly all celebrities get extensive work done on their teeth.  Having good teeth is so important to perceived sexual and overall social attraction that it affects peoples’ ability to get jobs. (source)

Smiling makes its entry into Western art primarily in the Renaissance “vanitas” paintings depicting the folly of human existence and the temptations of the flesh, from sex to gambling to cheating, observes Richard Estelle, a Philadelphia artist who, along with his wife, Camille Ward, has studied the art history of smiles. The only folks grinning in those pictures are the fools about to have their wallets lifted or their money taken by cardsharps. To the old masters, smiles were for losers. (source)

In memoriam: Jim Falck, artist

October 15, 2013 at 11:19 am | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on In memoriam: Jim Falck, artist

On October 5, the painter Jim Falck died. From Fargo ND, he spent many years in Boston and eventually moved to Beverly on the North Shore. From 1991 till 2002, my family and I lived in the house across the street from his. We became friends over that time, and when we moved away to Victoria BC in 2002, Jim made sure we stayed in touch. In 2012, we moved back to Beverly, to the same neighborhood in fact, albeit this time not right across the street from our friend. It was such a gift to reconnect “irl” with Jim after ten years of letters, postcards, and finally emails – he was a very uniquely gifted individual who enriched the lives of those around him.

Although I’ve stopped posting to my blog over the past year or more, it seemed appropriate to publish my thoughts about Jim, his ability to cultivate friendships and gardens, and his painting here, since it was the home of my more thought-felt writing.

In memoriam: Jim Falck, artist

Jim and I met sometime in the months after my husband and I moved into the house across from his. It was September 1991, we had a 5-month old son, and by the time the new year rolled around I was on my first real teaching job at MIT. The semester went by in a blur, and by the summer of 1992 whatever garden had come with the house had disappeared under crabgrass and behind overgrown rhododendrons, which entirely obscured the house’s wraparound porch. Sleep-deprived and shell-shocked from a full teaching load, I can’t recall much of anything, and I’m not sure I interacted with Jim at all, except for a wave or casual hello.

But we must have become friendly, somehow, and eventually (was it still 1992 or was it now 1993 already?) it was my awful rhododendrons that brought us together. Whether it was after I decided to put a proper garden into the front patch of our property, or before, I can’t remember, but Jim just couldn’t bear the sight of those overgrown shrubs any longer. He asked whether I’d mind if he pruned them, and of course I said yes. Across the street he marched, armed with alarmingly gigantic loppers.

Here the word snicker-snack comes to mind, but that wouldn’t do Jim’s pruning justice. It was more a light-sabre job: immensely skilled, fast, and laser-precise. Intense. Almost scary. Surgical. Artistic. The formerly dumpy, lumpy rhodies were now “floribunda”: tree-shaped, elegant, looking like a million bucks. I began to eye this neighbor with a mixture of awe and curiosity. What else could he do?

I didn’t yet know much about him. Seen from my house, Jim’s front garden looked unassuming. A small strip of lawn, a few shrubs, a Dogwood tree he planted; on one side a shared driveway, on the other a small patio, mostly unadorned (the profusion of potted flowers and sculptural reliefs came later, bit by bit). I couldn’t see behind the house – but that was where all the action was.

Jim was intensely private, and unless you were invited in, you could easily miss the amazing magic he wrought. He didn’t keep people out, there were no fences around his house. But unless you had a reason to wander back there, you didn’t see the gorgeous garden hidden in plain sight.

I finally got to see it after he pruned my rhodies and I was falling all over myself about the terrific job he’d done.

No matter where in the growing season we were, Jim’s garden had something going on. He was quirky about it, though, not fussy. He thought nothing of pushing plants around, moving them quickly to where he thought they’d look better. If a plant wasn’t earning its keep, out it went. If, on the other hand, it was flamboyantly showing off, it got the star billing it deserved – for the duration, because of course the garden was changing all the time. What was constant was its beauty, vitality, and vibrant color.

Other gardeners incorporate utility, opting for vegetables or drought-resistant plants or some such useful aspect. As far as I could tell, Jim didn’t concern himself with that. Sure, he had some tomatoes in pots, and if a drought-resistant plant was beautiful, it was welcome in his garden. But the first consideration was always aesthetic, artistic. The garden had to perform as an aesthetic entity.

That garden was in many ways also a metaphor.

After Jim was diagnosed at the end of August, and as he lay dying while friends were calling or visiting from all over the world, I thought about just how immense his garden was, …still is. Just as the plants in his backyard were oblivious of one another, but assembled in an artistic display that spoke to the vigor of the gardener, so his friends often knew nothing of one another, even as together we make quite the tableau.

Because Jim was intensely private, he never boasted about his many accomplishments, his experiences, his many friends. But of course he had them – the accomplishments, experiences, and friends.

And as in a garden where plants are unaware of one another but connected in an ecosystem, taking turns at blooming, showing off, and giving pleasure, his friends contributed to the richness of his life. He appreciated each of us for what we could bring into the mix.

Although he was so very private, there was simultaneously a great intensity and energy to Jim, which I already alluded to in describing how he pruned my rhododendrons. Jim was nothing if not vigorous. He attacked his garden, he attacked the work of pruning shrubs, weeding, and moving plants around. There was nothing halfway about the man. It’s not that he bullied his plants – or his friends. Ever. But he didn’t treat them with kid gloves, either. Never one to hold back, he’d freely give his opinions on the current criminals in power, just as he was willing to rip out an overgrown garden denizen. Likewise, he held strong opinions of people close to him, sometimes changing his mind about how well he liked someone – always based on how he perceived what they did and expressed.

I think this ability to attack, to do battle, was essential to his art. Because Jim was an artist, his nature wasn’t to destroy anything, but attack it he did.

The French talk about “la lutte d’amour,” the battle of love. The idea has given rise to some great art. It’s a very fraught topic, but it used to be a given that men couldn’t understand women and that there is always a battle between the sexes.

It’s also a given that most of Jim’s work is about sex.

Is it about battles, too?

Well, yes, if by “battle” we mean the willingness to engage, to go direct. To go face to face with the object of desire. To engage wholly, holding nothing back. To expose oneself in the heat of battle, to expose oneself to the other, and to render thereby what amounts to a self-portrait of the artist as a lover.

Take a look at Jim’s vibrant output and notice the battle, the engagement, that’s taking place in almost every painting. Jim worked in the great tradition of modernism started by the French Impressionists, pushed forward by Cézanne and Picasso, then continued by an Abstract Expressionism that’s distinctly American. While an art historian can look at his work and see those influences and more, there’s nothing second-rate about Jim’s output. I think that’s because, unlike many younger artists, he wasn’t embarrassed about the tradition. Yes, it was “expressionistic,” and we’ve had it drummed into us that expressionistic work isn’t “cool,” but Jim knew different.

For him to have painted otherwise would be like a gardener wanting flowers that can only bloom on cue, or only in muted shades of pastel, or only if the sky is perfectly cloud-free. And only if the gardener controlled the entire spectacle with a remote control from the safety of his computer.

Not Jim. He got dirty. In his garden he got his hands dirty, and he didn’t shy away from a “dirty” expressive painting, either. He attacked his canvas, engaged with the medium and its limitations, and the figures he painted reflect the battle as they struggle to emerge from his often vehement, always vigorous brushstroke, emerge from the paint that binds them into the flat of the canvas. It was always the “unflat” bits – the naughty bits, if you will: breasts, penises, vaginas – which, being naturally protruding or suggestive of holes and openings, become the focal points. He’d line up the bodies, just as Cézanne did, in pairs or sometimes threesomes or more, with the lines of arms and legs making a nice flat pattern from one edge of the canvas to the other. And then the unflat bits, the voluptuous parts, would bust loose, throwing the two-dimensional logic of the demure canvas to the wind. In his best work – and there’s a lot of it – the tension is palpable, the heat of battle gets into your nostrils.

Hardly anyone gets that elemental anymore.

Here’s hoping that Jim, who was such a great gardener and terrific artist, planted many seeds.

Spring 2013, Jim hanging his show at Montserrat College of Art library

Additional material:

Link to a gallery of some of his paintings

A 2012 video of Jim painting, at Montserrat College of Art, Beverly

(part of a group show of temporary wall paintings)


Started a Tumblr

September 27, 2013 at 1:38 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Started a Tumblr

Prodding myself to start writing again, but unwilling to write here, I started a Tumblr. It’s photos, and short stuff. But I just posted something slightly longer about Happiness. Damn that trip hop music. 🙂

Trying to write,…

February 20, 2013 at 4:08 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Trying to write,…

…but. I’m trying, halfheartedly only since I’m feeling quite half-dead. But I just can’t seem to make it happen.

Not a happy place to be.

Maybe I can get started by defacing this blog.

Money money money

January 11, 2013 at 9:58 am | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Money money money

Two money-related things I have a hard time wrapping my head around.

First, Quartz Daily points me to an article by Matt Phillips, The US Fed had a greater profit than Apple and Exxon combined last year, wherein we read that the profit made by the Federal Reserve, which it has to hand over to the US Treasury, was $89 billion.

Phillips adds, “Apple and Exxon combined only made a bit more than $82 billion in profits during their most recent full reporting years.”

It’s weird, but it’s how it’s done: “…the Fed buys US government bonds, the US government pays the Fed tens of billions of dollars in interest payments, and the Fed then turns around and pays that money back to the Treasury.”

Meanwhile, back in pundit-land, we’re treated to what Jonathan Chait brilliantly analyzes as the meme of a “right-thinking sentiment,” which assumes that the two major parties in Washington can’t come together to solve problems, viz. the debt problem (see his Jan.8 article, The Eternal Folly of the Bipartisan Debt Fetish).

Chait agrees that the debt is a problem worth solving, but he balks at how it has hijacked punditry and what we see as politics.

I don’t have anything to contribute here, except to say that the complexity of how Federal Reserve profits are (a) made (read the article) and (b) transferred back to the government makes me think that all the political posturing around The Debt and how “the government” should learn to budget “like householders do” is baloney. Obviously, a government budget is not a family household budget. (If it were, where’s my Federal Reserve handing over its profits to my Treasury?)

Chait in turn nails the pundits for ignoring far more pressing issues. Like unemployment. And the environment (climate change). In this article,, he writes:

I consider the long-term deficit a problem worth solving, though I would argue that mass unemployment and, especially, climate change are more urgent problems. I would like to know the case to the contrary, but if there is an argument for elevating the deficit above those priorities, I am not aware of it. Overt argument is not the preferred style of respectable centrist pundits. It is too rude.

And so, when figures like Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson are invited on to programs like Meet the Press, they are treated as disinterested wise men rather than political advocates. The host, David Gregory, asks them to hand down rulings on politicians. He does not question their own ideas. (Notably, the Sunday talk shows, a haven of right-thinking, deficit-obsessed centrism, have given over little attention to climate change in the last four years and have not quoted a single climate scientist during the entire span.)

So, we have everyone focused on the debt and on “the fiscal cliff” (which, in the run-up to January 1, 2013, seemed on par with Y2K, another dud), while we ignore climate change and employment/wages. We’re focused on a near-chimerical Federal budget (which we claim has qualities resembling our own household budgets, even though that’s laughable) as we ignore real household budgets and ecological budgets. Great.

But Chait goes deeper and further, pointing out that manufactured despair over the Federal budget is making mincemeat of real political debate. We’re devolving to pablum, and he blames the centrist, right-thinking pundits who dominate the discourse via television and print:

That the two parties must meet in the center and agree on a deficit plan is something that respectable people repeat to each other so often it becomes obviously, uncontroversially true.

Obama seems co-opted by this meme to the point where he seems incapable of advocating a more trenchant position. And yet, the meme continues, with more and more calls for “meeting in the center.”

What a disconnect.

Perfect purpose

July 29, 2012 at 2:12 pm | In yulelogStories | 1 Comment

Seems I’ve been too buried in my house project to get a weekly links post together this Sunday. Instead, I’ll just point to an article on my old hometown’s newspaper site: B.C. teens, twenty-somethings turn to Botox for forever 21 look. It made me wonder about a bunch of things.

According to the article, more and more very young British Columbia women are getting Botox treatments. They have no wrinkles, and their use of the procedure is mostly prophylactic – to ward off the wrinkles that may appear decades from now. (Botox’s use as an aid in the fight against acne is mentioned, although I’m not sure how that’s supposed to work, exactly, unless facial mobility contributes to zits. Maybe someone can enlighten me here? Edit: the google to the rescue, first result for “can botox prevent acne” is “may also prevent breakouts by decreasing skin’s oil production.” Note: “may” – and besides, does oil production cause acne? Didn’t think so…)

Anyway, I was really struck by this:

For some, plunging a Botox-filled syringe into a young woman’s skin poses more emotional risk than physical, and speaks to an insidious undercurrent of superficiality coursing through west coast culture [emphasis added].

“At age 13, what is it preventive of?” asked Dr. Gayle Way, a Vancouver-based psychologist. “The big fear is that, ‘oh my gosh, I’m going to turn 30.’ Is it happening more in B.C. because we’re kind of the California of Canada? Could be.”

The part about an insidious undercurrent of superficiality coursing through west coast culture struck me.

Some things I noticed in my ten years here:

My former Victoria dentist has a thriving business administering Botox and fillers. Booming industry.

If you have misaligned teeth in BC, chances are you’re not just going to get braces. You’ll instead get your jaw broken (and reset) to produce an ideal, perfect result. (Your dentist or orthodontist might suggest it even if your teeth aren’t misaligned at all. You may have a “shy” chin, prompting him or her to suggest a radical intervention.)

Victoria friends told me of their daughters or their daughter’s friends who were getting their breasts augmented, apparently a fairly common procedure among the BC teenage set.

I find this fascinating, if totally creepy: imagine the weeks of anticipation leading up the operations, the shock to the nervous system of full anesthesia, the potential of risks, the inevitable pain, the healing, the possible complications…

All this, done for perfecting beauty…

I live in New England now, and can’t help but think that people here don’t hold with that kind of folderol. Maybe it really is more of a West Coast thing?

But is the pursuit of perfection all bad? Perhaps not (although surgeries and Botox are pretty far out there, imo – and, sure, ymmv). For another angle, consider other aspects of life where West Coasters excel at pursuing perfection, …while New Englanders lag behind, it seems mostly because they couldn’t care less.

Take food. Sometime in 2007, Tourism Victoria (motto: “Victoria – full of life”) came up with an ad campaign that touted the city’s “orgasmic” culinary delights. (The links have all but disappeared; however, see this post on Vibrant Victoria to read part of Shannon Moneo’s article in Toronto’s Globe and Mail about the branding campaign.)

I challenge New England cities to promote themselves as having an orgasmic food scene. Not gonna happen. In a land where Dunkin’ Donuts (in Canada, think Tim Horton’s) still dominates coffee culture and where Starbucks is considered by (too) many to be “fancy” coffee, the artisan, hand-made approach to what you put in your mouth is mostly alien. “Handmade” – or rather: homegrown – might come up as a traditional staple in the summer months, when going to a farm or downtown farmer’s market to buy either berries, corn, cider, or – rarely – baked goods, amounts to contact with artisanal food production. But it doesn’t seem to survive past the harvest. Once the cold weather returns, you get in your car and drive to the supermarket.

Not so in orgasmic Victoria, or in Vancouver – or in Portland Oregon, another city I know reasonably well. Perfection is sought around food – whether it’s the best damn pie in the universe, or amazing coffee, or quirky, fabulous restaurants, or “how I wish we had them here because they’re not your average soulless chain and have great stuff and super-friendly staff” supermarkets.

The people who work in these stores and restaurants seem ok with their jobs – most of them will tell you that they’re really artists or creatives who are just doing “this” to pay the rent. But they’re happy to be doing this, because they know that they’re part of something with a purpose. I can’t say I’ve seen too much of that back in New England, where there doesn’t seem to be a purpose to creating the perfect cup of coffee or the perfect fresh handmade pie or the perfectly stocked market with drool-worthy delis and well-informed, helpful staff.

I guess the article raised at least two questions for me. What are you going to perfect? (Yourself? The local economy? An aspect of the culture?) And what’s the relationship between perfection and superficiality? (That taunting sentence, about the “insidious undercurrent of superficiality coursing through west coast culture”…)

It’s true that (for the most part) New Englanders don’t seem to know from foodie culture – and don’t bloody care, either. I won’t go into detail about the drabness of the small local supermarkets, which don’t seem to bother keeping up, or the blandness of the large chain supermarkets, which don’t seem to care and where staff is mostly indifferent. A culture where Kielbasa is considered ethnic and a jar of Mama Mia tomato sauce is considered home cooking. But New Englanders are genuinely much nicer than West Coasters (who are surface-nice). The West Coast does seem superficial, compared to New England.

Maybe a search for perfection is a race, and a bit of a hallmark of people who can be indifferent to other, less-worthy seekers. But injecting a bit of purpose-driven perfection-seeking (especially around foodie culture and artisan entrepreneurship) might not be a bad thing. As long as the injection isn’t delivered via a needle…

Image from Random Order’s website of their perfect pie.


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