Category Archives: History

The Myth of the Ever-More-Fragile College Student

Screen Shot 2016-05-08 at 12.35.07 AM

Photo by Matthieu Spohn for New York Magazine: Science of Us

New York Magazine’s Science of Us website, which features articles related to human behavior, shared this article  by debunking what has been a creeping assumption among media outlets, college counselors and other alarmists that millennials are fragile, anxious and unfit for the “real world,” and have been coddled and weakened by our overweening, infantilizing society.

Cultural critics posit that today’s college-aged young adults are becoming more stressed, anxious, depressed and generally emotionally frail than ever before, and they say that colleges and society in general are babying them and causing increased neuroticism. This long, extremely detailed and well-researched article points to evidence that those who believe that today’s youth are going to Hell in a handbasket rely too much on their own confirmation bias; undervalue the importance of huge socioeconomic changes over the past decade (including a deep and damaging recession); and, most importantly, ignore actual metrics and provable data that show their negative assumptions about millennials to be overblown at best and highly inaccurate at worst.

Those who deride millennials are often extrapolating from small samples while ignoring actual, repeatable results from larger longitudinal studies at colleges across the nation. I highly recommend this article for a more factually based and nuanced perspective.

Why the Boston Globe’s Trump Satire is Good Journalism

Globe 1

The Boston Globe’s satirical front page warning of life under a Trump presidency, published in their opinion section on April Fool’s Day

This morning the Boston Globe shared a brilliant piece of satire in their opinion section: a mock-up of what their paper would be like one year from today if Donald Trump were to win the presidency. Predictably, social media is blowing up with explosions of outrage from people who don’t know the particulars or the place of opinion pieces in journalism and have no awareness of the importance and history of satire in affecting political change. They say they are appalled and offended and that the Boston Globe has lost all credibility. Let us pause to consider some important truths.

The mocked-up pages of the newspaper did not take over the front of the newspaper. Those who go to the Boston Globe will find the satire in the opinion section, the same section in which other political positions are taken every single day in thousands of newspapers and news sites across the nation and around the world in the form of editorials, op-ed pieces and political cartoons.

For those who cry “Outrage!” that the Globe would stoop so low as to share a political opinion in the form of satire, I ask them: does your favorite news source publish opinion pieces? Have you never seen a political cartoon? Do you not read infographics which selectively choose which facts to highlight every day? These tools have been used to sway popular opinion and have been integral pieces of journalism for hundreds of years. Newspapers and journals have always taken stands; very few of them do not endorse candidates for president. The best of them present their opinion pieces in the clearly labeled opinion section; they do their best to report the facts with little adornment throughout the rest of the paper and then put the opinions of their editorial board and columnists in a section expressly labeled as a place where people take sides and try to persuade. The Boston Globe did exactly this with their publication of their “Donald Trump’s world” satire.

Confused and misinformed modern readers often erroneously believe that it is the job of the media to be completely without bias at all times. Ironically, this idea is most often promulgated by followers of extreme-right news media whose every pronouncement has conservative political overtones. There is not a middle ground to every question, and the correct journalistic response to opposing views is often to refuse to sit squarely in the middle and pretend that there is no right or wrong answer when facts point clearly to one side over the other. In many situations, there is a clear and fundamental truth at stake, and not just a matter of opinion. Vaccines do not cause autism, for example, and sweeping worldwide climate change is real. Reporting on such issues as if they were controversial and unanswerable questions to which we don’t know the answers would be to mislead readers into thinking that established facts are mere opinions.

When trained journalists turn their well-informed and often cynical eyes on a world full of opposing opinions, murky details and obvious facts, it is their job to not only gather and separate facts from misstatements but also to ask questions about where those facts will lead us. It is their job to think of the likely consequences of a world in which each of the presidential candidates went on to be elected and then ran their administration according to their stated beliefs. Usually they do this in words or cartoons. In a world in which newspapers are quickly dying for lack of readership and most people gather the bulk of their news from online sources, the most effective way to get attention for their opinions is now to take chunks of information and spread them via Facebook or Twitter or Instagram alongside punchy visuals.

Globe 2

Another page from the Boston Globe satire

By creating a stunning visual parody mini-newspaper as a warning of what could come, the Boston Globe knew that they would be able to get attention for their opinions and get people to consider consequences in a more visual, visceral and immediate fashion. They knew that they were taking an editorial risk, but that their message would be carried and discussed by thousands of news outlets and social media platforms around the world. They decided to present an editorial in visual form to get attention, yes, but they buttressed their opinions with facts, quotes and context in the way of a warning. This is their Orwellian admonishment to those who will not bother to read newspapers or consider facts anymore.

The job of any editorial board is to get attention and sway opinion by asking people to consider the consequences of their choices. Those who raise the alarm that the Boston Globe has now shown itself willing to trick people with fake news are the same people who haven’t bothered to actually look at the well-produced parody itself, nor to consider that they get much of their own information from avowedly conservative sources with axes to grind who are more than willing to publish opinion and pretend that it is fact.

As has happened throughout history, a large proportion of the population is bored by and tired of politics and won’t read the facts about the candidates’ actual stances on substantive issues. The average citizen of the U.S. only thinks of the candidates in broad, cartoonish terms without thinking through what the consequences of our electoral choices may be. People justify their political agnosticism and ennui by saying that all candidates are equally corrupt and evil and all of them will lead to the same bad outcomes, so their votes are meaningless and futile. This is demonstrably false.

Being a good citizen requires mental effort and a willingness to expend some time and expose one’s opinions to rigor. Lives and livelihoods depend on it. Rights are won and lost over such things. People starve or go without medicine or surgery because of politics. Wars begin and end, countries are invaded and people go to jail or are freed or executed based on the choices we make at the polls. The stakes are so incredibly high that those who spend their lives following politics obsessively and who report on these issues feel they have a duty to use every tool they have in order to get us to sit up and take notice when it’s time for us to make life-changing, world-altering decisions. The Boston Globe has done this using pointed and potent (and clearly labeled) satire. I applaud them for it.

Black Power and Beauty in the Portraits of Kehinde Wiley

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 12.45.30 PM

“Willem van Heythuysen” by Kehinde Wiley.  The pose and the title are based on a 17th century portrait by Dutch painter Frans Hals. Photo from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

As you enter “A New Republic,” the exhibition of paintings, stained glass windows, sculptures and triptychs by Kehinde Wiley currently at the Seattle Art Museum, you are met by the direct and confident gaze of an African American man astride a rearing horse. The man wears a camouflage jacket and trousers, Timberland boots and a bandanna tied around his head; a heavy gold velvet cloak encircles his shoulders and billows dramatically in the air. Though he and his horse stand on a rocky crag, their backdrop is not of nature but of a red and gold wallpaper design such as one might find in a Victorian drawing room. Draw closer to the monumental portrait and you’ll see hundreds of seemingly randomly placed undulating sperm cells delicately filling the interstices between the golden arabesques of the backdrop. More swirling sperm fill the egg-shaped corner medallions on the huge and ornate gold frame in which the painting hangs, obviously and humorously reminding us that this painting is all about manliness and the power of the male gaze.

Here is a celebration of the masculine life force. Those who know something of the history of Western art will smile, since the pose, the horse, even the words engraved on the rock upon which the rearing horse stands all come directly from one of the most famous equestrian portraits ever painted: this is a direct homage to Bonaparte Crossing the Alps, Jacques-Louis David’s 1801 equestrian portrait of Napoleon at the height of his power.

Continue through the exhibition and you’re met by other grand equestrian portraits. One painted shortly after the death of Michael Jackson features the late King of Pop wearing armor and portrayed as if he were King Philip II of Spain in a nod to a 17th century Baroque painting by Peter Paul Rubens. However, most of the portraits here depict not recognizable faces but everyday people found by the painter during one of his “street-casting” sessions. Wiley approaches strangers in public and asks them whether they’re willing to be photographed, usually in their own clothing, so that they might later be painted in the pose of an old master portrait of their choosing. While their likenesses may hang in major museums around the world and garner huge prices from avid collectors of Wiley’s work, the models usually remain anonymous, since Wiley prefers to title his portraits not after the sitters but after the people depicted in the portraits to which he pays homage.

Evoking well-known Western masterworks of the past with modern-day young men who display all the signifiers of 21st century African American masculine style is fresh and arresting, as is this fact: although they borrow the poses of major dead white European males, Wiley’s versions of the portraits usually depict black men between the ages of 18 and 35.

Wiley, himself a black, gay, American man, says that he chooses men in part for their sexual attractiveness to him, though he does not ask their sexual orientations. But in gazing upon them, he is knowingly sexually objectifying them, which has traditionally been seen as a way to take power away from the person who is being objectified. However, Wiley does this with the sitters’ assent and participation, so his sitters have the ultimate power over whether they are depicted in new works of art by a prominent internationally known artist, and in what pose they will be remembered. Wiley’s subjects exude power and self-awareness, but  are left unnamed and undescribed. He chooses them not for their personalities, influence or station in life. It is enough that they are black, beautiful and capable of presenting themselves in a composed, dignified and quietly confident manner.

Kehinde Wiley at his Williamsburg, Brooklyn, studio with his painting “Jose Alberto de la Cruz Diaz and Luis Nunez” (2013). Credit Chad Batka for The New York Times

Kehinde Wiley at his Williamsburg, Brooklyn, studio with his painting “Jose Alberto de la Cruz Diaz and Luis Nunez” (2013). Photo by Chad Batka for The New York Times

Wiley’s creations in all their varied media serve to focus his gaze on attractive, confident young men who wield evident power with total comfort. Their poses are usually not so much arrogant as entitled: they address viewers directly without fear or anger. They often display the sartorial signs of success, including name-brand shoes and clothes. Even when they find themselves in dandified poses, Wiley catches them looking unsurprised to be presenting themselves as worthy of their evident power.

Over time Wiley has added more women to his work, and some of his most recent portraits feature elegant women in formal designer gowns instead of in their street clothes. Their hair is elaborately coiffed and they look like fashion models, but again, there is a sense of self-awareness and power in their expressions. These proud black men and women command attention without effort; they are vivid and dynamic symbols of black strength and power who assert the importance of their place in history and in the modern world.

In an interview with National Public Radio’s Audie Cornish, Wiley said of his decision to incorporate obvious product placement in his works, “Branding says a lot about luxury, and about exclusion, and about the choices that manufacturers make, but I think that what society does with it after it’s produced is something else. And the African-American community has always been expert at taking things and repurposing them toward their own ends. This code-switching that exists between luxury and urban is something that was invented in the streets of America, not Sixth Avenue.”

Most of Wiley’s portraits on canvas are based on photographs that he takes and then adjusts with computer applications to heighten their contrast and make their colors more vivid. But though he takes great care with the paintings of his subjects, he assembles groups of assistants in his studios around in the U.S., China and elsewhere to undertake the background painting in his portraits, much as the great 15th to 17th century painters of the Renaissance and Baroque period had their assistants fill in the areas behind the human subjects.

The backgrounds in his large portraits on canvas are not usually naturalistic landscape or elegant rooms—they are flat, decorative, repeating floral motifs such as one might find on wallpaper by Victorian designer William Morris or by 18th century designer William Kilburn. These floral backdrops hang behind the subjects of Wiley’s paintings, but sometimes elements of them—tendrils or branches or floral sprays—curve around in front of the subjects, surrounding the carefully rendered, three-dimensional human beings with flat fantasy gardens come to life. These delicate, elegant backgrounds contrast with the often dramatically manly subjects of the paintings, heightening the objectification of the body and pointing out the physical beauty in African Americans who have often been made to feel “other,” less than, ugly and unwanted by white Western arbiters of taste, style or value.

In 2006, Wiley found a crumpled police mug shot on the ground near his studio in Harlem. He used this symbol of a young man’s having been stripped of his freedom and power to inspire a beautiful portrait. The anonymous young man is portrayed with great dignity and honesty. Of the painting, NPR’s Audie Cornish said “It’s also the antithesis of the work people may recognize. … If anything, your work, for a lot of people, has been a rebuke of the mug shot when it comes to black men.” Wiley replied that his usual choice to portray black men in positions of power is indeed “a rebuke of the mug shot, it’s an ability to say ‘I will be seen the way I choose to be seen.’ All of the models are going through our history books and deciding, out of all the great portraits of the past, which ones do they feel most comfortable, which ones resonate with them. And so I go through the studios with individuals who go through art history books and choose how they want to perform themselves.”

The mug shot portrait is unusual for Wiley in that, while it shows an evidently self-possessed man displaying dignity and internal strength, it was created without the subject’s knowledge or consent. This back-story makes the viewer consider the question of the subject’s power or powerlessness, and whether Wiley has bestowed an aura of power on the man in the mug shot portrait while denying him the power to determine how and whether to present his face to the world in general. The questions of who has power, where it comes from and whether it is deserved hang over every piece in this exhibition, just as these questions unfortunately hang over the heads of all African Americans who feel that their presence and worth are constantly scrutinized and challenged as they go about their daily lives.

While many of Wiley’s works celebrate temporal authority, this new exhibition also places young black men in the context of spiritual and religious iconography, often posing as if they were martys and saints. One room is filled with elegant gilded triptychs, portraits painted on upright wooden panels with hinged closable doors on either side of the portrait, similar to the way that saints were depicted in shrines in Catholic chapels during the Middle Ages. These paintings don’t have vibrant stylized floral backdrops like the huge portraits on canvas do, but are intimate works of art with either Renaissance-style landscapes or Medieval-style gilding shimmering behind the beautifully, naturalistically painted portraits of black men in modern-day dress and hair styles. The T-shirts and tattoos and dreadlocks make it clear that the men featured in the triptychs are very much modern-day men in timeless settings.

In the stained glass room, tall and vibrant windows as boldly colored and intricately decorated as original 19th century Gothic Revival windows feature men in Converse shoes or Timberland boots, quilted vests and hoodies, African cloth shorts or cuffed jeans standing on plinths like statues, their halos shining above their heads. In these religiously inspired pieces, the subjects still exude great power, but their symbolic association with those who were too good for this world, who were martyred for their purity and courage, shows another aspect of greatness; the power that these men display takes a different, quieter form than his other work.

After the dramatic room-filling portraits on canvas, the intimate triptychs and the solemn, saintly stained glass windows, his oversize bronze busts of black men and women are impressive in that they show further diversity and skill, but they don’t mesmerize the way his other more colorful two-dimensional works do. However, the sculptures do show a charmingly cheeky side to his wit. In one exhibit, three nearly identical black female heads are arranged in a setting reminiscent of ancient Greek and Roman artworks depicting the mythological Three Graces. The three are joined together by enormously long and undulating locks of braided hair. In another, a solemn, dignified man wearing a dashiki, his chin up and head back, looks for all the world like a noble statesman posing for an official portrait from the front, but a bronze hairpick sticks surprisingly out of his natural afro in the back. The importance of black hair as a cultural signifier and symbol of connectedness and continuity within the black experience is underscored by the use of hair as an important decorative and unifying element in a number of Wiley’s paintings and sculptures.

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 2.17.15 PM

“Shantavia Beale II,” a painting by Kehinde Wiley, 2012. Photo from the Brooklyn Museum

Art critics are divided on whether to celebrate or deride Wiley for his techniques, his subject matter and his style. Some find the quality of the background painting that he hands off to assistants to be subpar; my experience of his paintings is that they appear to be composed and finished with care, and that they give an impression of greater precision than most large artworks do upon close examination. Other critics deride his reuse of tried-and-true, immediately recognizable poses from masterworks, finding it derivative.

I see Wiley’s reworking of clichéd art-historical tropes into fresh new hip-hop-infused celebrations of modern style as a bracing twist on tired themes. While some writers praise his prolific, vivid output across different media, others complain that he outsources the painting of the backgrounds to other artists (just as was the custom of the great European artists of the Renaissance and Baroque eras) and doesn’t give enough credit to the artists who inspired him. Some detractors find his choice to reuse classical poses unoriginal; they neglect to mention that the history of art has always involved the borrowing, reworking and downright copying of old masters by the new, and that it is this very obvious borrowing from the white Western artworks of the past that helps us to set these works in context and face the racially charged questions they evoke.

In the 16th century Michelangelo copied the sculptures of ancient Greece and Rome; in the 19th century Manet copied the pose of 16th century painter Titian; in the 1960s, Warhol made slavish copies of Campbell’s Soup cans and Brillo boxes and ushered in a whole new art movement. Pop art is today among the most valued and collected genres of art despite being derived from the most banal, repetitive and disposable elements in modern culture. If Warhol is a genius for having his (often unpaid) underlings endlessly reprint silkscreened images of popular entertainment icons based on photos that he didn’t take, color them unevenly in unnatural colors and then turn them over to him to sign, how can Wiley, whose works have layers of meaning and historical signifiers that Warhol’s works often lacked, be dismissed for following in the footsteps of earlier masters?

It is certainly possible for someone to find Wiley’s work lacking for purely aesthetic and technical reasons. However, it does seem that critics are often in a hurry to try to take him down a peg and to speak ill of him more directly and dismissively than they do other less-talented artists who also take inspiration from historical sources, like John Currin, or from artists who elevate pop culture (and even kitsch) to new heights (like Jeff Koons), but who happen to be white. It seems to me that Wiley’s composure and the confident ease with which he expresses himself in interviews might strike some as signs of unearned or unwelcome entitlement. The sense of pride and power with which he imbues his portraits can be found in his demeanor, but I see it not as arrogance or as a threat but as a strong sense of self. I wonder how much the discomfort some feel about his works stems from an unease over the idea of an African American having the power to make artistic choices and elevate those who look like him.

Criticism of Wiley, his work style and his aesthetic reminds me of white criticism of Beyoncé’s latest songs and videos; they’re unapologetically created from a black perspective with a black audience in mind. If we white folk appreciate it and want to buy it too, great, but it’s not specifically for us, and it isn’t the job of black artists to comfort or pander to whites.

Critics seem often to be looking for reasons to denigrate Wiley—his backgrounds are too thinly drawn, they say, or his use of decorative motifs undercuts the seriousness of his work. He cares too much about making things pretty and not enough about making them real, some cry. These complaints feel manufactured to me, and they deny the visceral power, the thrill, the vibrant, vibrating beauty that leaps off his canvases and suffuses the galleries in which his works hang or stand with a glowing, thrumming life force. Trying to reduce works of such emotion and energy to dry theoretical constructs strikes me as ridiculous, like trying to freeze-dry sunshine or to express color using only grey-scale photographs.

Like Warhol and Koons and Rubens before him, Kehinde Wiley is a successful businessman with many people working under him in order to allow him to manufacture expensive luxury goods at a fast clip. But Wiley’s works have a unique power to them, and they are fresh and unusual individual creative works; they are African American cultural signifiers like no others in the art world today. Wiley is clearly obsessed with creation and beauty, and regardless of whether he has assistants to help him, he is personally constantly visualizing and manifesting new visual magic all the time. While the subjects of his portraits look at ease with themselves, Wiley himself is happy to go to uncomfortable places with his art, and to challenge himself by traveling the world, learning about and painting brown-skinned people in Africa, Asia and Europe as well as here in the U.S.

In his NPR interview, Wiley told Audie Cornish, “My love affair with painting is bittersweet. I love the history of art — you asked me about that moment that I first looked at the stuff and when I first fell in love with it. It was only later that I understood that a lot of destruction and domination had to occur in order for all of this grand reality to exist. So what happens next? What happens is the artist grows up and tries to fashion a world that’s imperfect. Tries to say yes to the parts that he loves, and to say yes to the parts that he wants to see in the world, such as black and brown bodies — like my own — in the same vocabulary as that tradition that I had learned so many years before. It’s an uncomfortable fit, but I don’t think that it’s something that I’m shying away from at all. In fact, I think what we’re arriving at is the meat of my project, which is that discomfort is where the work shines best. These inconvenient bedfellows that you’re seeing all over this museum are my life’s work.”

Kehinde Wiley says yes to history, yes to his desires and yes to his vision of the world. His affirmative energy and his willingness to sit with and address uncomfortable questions of gender, orientation and power makes for an electrifying exhibition that invites us to enter into Wiley’s vision and live in A New Republic of his creation.

Jervis McEntee and the Hudson River School

McEntee

Jervis McEntee’s “Autumn Landscape,” 1867

“I start with no new vows or resolutions but with a fervent hope that I may be diligent, truthful and able to resist temptation in whatever form and to have the courage and the will to live up to my ideal of a true life.” — Painter Jervis McEntee’s diary entry from January 1, 1883

 

Jervis McEntee was a member of the Hudson River School of American painters, a mid-19th century art movement known for romantic, poetic landscape paintings. McEntee’s works frequently feature autumnal subject matter and an earth-toned palette, which lends his work a melancholic air. “Some people call my landscapes gloomy and disagreeable,” McEntee wrote in his journal. “They say that I paint the sorrowful side of Nature, that I am attracted by the shadows more than by the sunshine. But this is a mistake. I would not reproduce a late November scene if it saddened me or seemed sad to me. In that season of the year Nature is not sad to me, but quiet, pensive, restful. She is not dying, but resting.”

 

While McEntee never had the success of some of the better-known members of the group, such as Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt, he was a close friend and traveling companion to major Hudson River School artists. Though best known for his quiet and solitary paintings, McEntee socialized regularly with other artists. He and his wife Gertrude, a singer, welcomed many painters, writers and performers into their home. Together they encouraged the arts in America much as French salonnières of the 17th and 18th century had done.

 

Upon McEntee’s death, his mentor Frederic Church wrote to the painter’s sister, saying, “You have lost a brother and I a lifelong friend—a man pure, upright and as modest as he was gifted.” McEntee kept detailed diaries describing his interactions with artists, his travels, exhibitions and prices of paintings sold at them and his chronic economic woes. While I find his paintings evocative and moving, he is today best appreciated for his diaries, which are kept in the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. They give rich and fascinating insights into the lives of 19th-century American artists.
 

Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself

fdr

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the following statement during a campaign speech in November 1940, just over a year before the U.S. entered World War II:

“We are a nation of many nationalities, many races, many religions—bound together by a single unity, the unity of freedom and equality. Whoever seeks to set one nationality against another, seeks to degrade all nationalities. Whoever seeks to set one race against another seeks to enslave all races. Whoever seeks to set one religion against another, seeks to destroy all religion. “

This is a noble statement, but the president himself made the grave error of rounding up all people of Japanese descent and imprisoning them in internment camps during World War II on the baseless assumption that they would be less patriotic, loyal or law-abiding than people of other ancestries. He was wrong. Not one single Japanese-American was determined to have committed a treasonous act anywhere in the United States before, during or after World War II. Not one.

Indeed, many of those same Japanese-Americans fought nobly for the U.S. and Allied Forces during World War II, even as their families were imprisoned at home. FDR’s words quoted here are right and beautiful, but even he was blinded by fear. He had said at the outset of his presidency that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself, and fear is certainly the source of hatred for people and ideas other than our own. Fear makes us turn inward, and that allows us to remain ignorant, to refuse to empathize, ask questions or try to figure out how it feels to be one of those people who frighten us.

Fear keeps us from facing the humanity of our enemies, and makes us see enemies among our friends. It makes American governors look at orphaned Syrian toddlers and see danger; it makes Trump rally audiences look at a single African-American man who asks to be treated as if black lives matter, and then beat him to a pulp because he peacefully but loudly speaks up about bigotry in public. It is only by seeing others as human first that we can figure out how to talk to and deal with them honestly, honorably and peacefully.

[Image source: missrevolutionaries.com]

Einstein Was a Refugee

al

When Albert Einstein came to the U.S. to escape persecution by the Nazis, prominent Americans like Charles Lindbergh were warning the nation of the dangers of letting outsiders into the country. He and many popular politicians, religious leaders and businessmen (like Henry Ford) got on the radio, lobbied politicians, published antisemitic books and pamphlets and joined with white supremacist organizations to spread fear and hatred toward Jews. Many said that Jews were communist agitators without morals who would infiltrate the American way of life, degrade American culture and destroy Christian values. So this supposedly Christian nation turned away Jewish refugees out of irrational fear based on a lack of understanding of others’ religious and cultural beliefs. And it’s happening again. One state government after another is shutting its doors to Syrian refugees, describing them as dangerous jihadists and assuming that Muslims are all wild desert people without morals. ISIS/ISIL/Daesh wants a religious war, and we’re playing right into their hands. Don’t let us harden our hearts against refugees based on irrational fear. Don’t let the terrorists win.

Suburbia

bill

Photo of a Tupperware party by Bill Owens from his book Suburbia

When I was a child growing up in the San Francisco suburb of Livermore, the publication of photographer Bill Owens‘s exploration of Bay Area suburban life, Suburbia, was a big deal in my home town. His book of photojournalism, published in 1973, garnered significant media attention; it was even written up in Time magazine. The book was of particular interest in Livermore because its stars were our town’s own citizens. The Tupperware ladies, toy-gun-toting little boys, Barbie-collecting girls and block party barbecuers whose black-and-white portraits  filled the book lived in the Livermore-Amador Valley. Several of my mother’s friends and our own family doctor appeared in its pages.

Even now, historians, postcard manufacturers and bloggers republish photos from the book. Art galleries, major museums and other institutions around the world include Owens’s photos in exhibitions. Gallerists and pop culture historians point to his work when they want to expose the supposedly tacky superficiality of American suburban life during that awkward period between the clean-cut, rule-following fifties and the shaggy, sexy, if-it-feels-good-do-it seventies.

Richie

Photo of six-year-old Richie Ferguson by Bill Owens from Suburbia

Bill Owens took these now-iconic photos when he was a staff photographer at the Livermore Independent News starting in 1968. My mother’s boyfriend at the time was himself a reporter at the Independent who worked alongside Owens, so I met the photographer at a party shortly after the publication of his book. He had the no-nonsense confidence of a man who is used to sizing up a situation quickly, figuring out the most visually compelling elements, and getting in and out of an event in a hurry, before his subjects have a chance to become too self-conscious or studied in their poses. News photography has always required such skills, but in the days of film photography, there was a pressing need to be able to edit one’s work on the fly and be quick about it. Film was costly, and all photos needed to be developed and cropped by the photographer on short deadlines if they were to make it into the next day’s paper. Taking too many shots or too much time was a luxury that local papers and their staff photographers could ill afford.

In the seventies, there were few television channels or news radio stations, and of course there was no Internet with which individuals could share news directly, so the local newspaper was the primary source of in-depth information on all things regional. Newspapers had to report on crime, business, sports, laws, fashion, civic and social events, so photographers like Bill Owens had to get in and out of multiple places and events daily. But while Owens came from that journalistic tradition, in his photoessays he took the time to focus not only on what people did, but also on how they felt about their lives and suburban surroundings. He let his subjects express their pride, ambivalence and concerns about living in a growing, post-war, middle-class community. It was a time of prosperity and expanding social and sexual openness, but also a time of war, increasing crime and political unrest. Our town was largely insulated from the drama and violence that was shaking bigger cities at the time, but middle-class angst and drama were plentiful.

In his photographs and in the commentary his subjects provided, Owens caught suburbanites in private moments. They questioned whether they were capable parents, or took pride in living what they considered to be the good life. Some admitted that while they’d found the money to buy a house, they couldn’t afford to furnish it. People opened up to him, agonized over whether they were setting good examples for their kids, beamed as they showed off their prosperity, or sat half-naked on the edge of a bed daring the world to judge them for being comfortable with themselves.

Ozzie Davis

Photo of Livermore’s Ozzie Davis Toyota dealership by Bill Owens from his book Suburbia

The world was used to urban photographers like Diane Arbus or Gordon Parks taking awkwardly intimate photos of people looking embarrassingly real in big, gritty cities like New York. Time and Life magazines brought images of war and rioting into our homes each week in full-color photo spreads. In comparison to large-scale photojournalistic  works about the Great Events of Our Time, a photoessay treating the inhabitants of a middle-class enclave near San Francisco as if they were significant enough to be worthy of their own project was a fresh and intriguing idea. It was exciting to be in the spotlight after always feeling like we had been on the edges of things.

Livermore is less than an hour from San Francisco, which was the hippie movement’s Ground Zero during the 1960s. Though only a half-hour from Berkeley, scene of some of the nation’s most bitter and frequent anti-war protests during the years when these photos were taken, Livermore had for many years been a bastion of traditional conservative values.

A wine-growing community dotted with ranches, Livermore was known as little more than a cow town until the early 1950s. My high school’s mascot was a cowboy, and the street behind the main school building is still called Cowboy Alley. But while the community had long been based on rancho culture, by the 1960s and 1970s Livermore’s biggest employer was what was known as the “Rad Lab,” rad being short for radiation: Livermore was and is the site of one of the nation’s largest national nuclear weapons laboratories. What is now known as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory opened its doors in 1952, and by the time Bill Owens’s book was published two decades later, the laboratory directly employed about 10% of the city’s population.

For six decades, Livermore has had one of the largest concentrations of top nuclear physicists in the world, meaning that my town was home to a huge number of highly educated, fact-loving scientists, their well-educated spouses, and their smart and skeptical kids. Most of those who worked at the lab were strong believers in the theory that the specter of “mutually assured destruction” by the Soviet and U.S. superpowers in case of a nuclear war would keep either side from initiating war as long as both sides kept designing, building and stockpiling more and more threatening, long-range and expensive weaponry.

The Cold War-era belief that spending billions on the development and creation of weapons of mass destruction was necessary to keep us safe from communists (who were building their own gigantic nuclear arsenal on the other side of the world) sounds like a conservative stance to us today, but there were plenty of political moderates and even liberals working at the lab. Democrats like Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were staunch anticommunists who had instigated and escalated our involvement in wars meant to stop the spread of communism. Fear of communist expansion and take-over was by no means a solely Republican fear. Engineers and physicists who prized rational thinking above all were often open-minded and modern in their thinking in many fields and they came in many political flavors, not just conservative ones.

By the time that Bill Owens set about photographing our city’s denizens, formerly rural Livermore’s population included many erudite, cultured people of all political persuasions who were curious about the world in general. Many of the problem-solvers who had descended on Livermore from around the globe brought with them great worldliness and interest in culture and erudition. Though Livermore had once been thought of as a quiet farming community out in the boonies, by the 1960s it was surprisingly full of eclectic amateur theatrical events, excellent public schools with award-winning musical ensembles and a community symphony. An ambitious annual cultural arts festival takes over much of the downtown corridor during early October every year to this day.

However, because of the popularity of Bill Owens’s book, the place where I grew up became famous for people who represented everything superficial and embarrassing about suburban American culture. The real Livermore was a lively mixture of experts in fields from agriculture and livestock to nuclear weaponry to the arts. The book that both celebrated and embarrassed us was on the coffee table of every hip and educated family in town, and we felt both pride and chagrin over the images shown within its pages. There was delight over the fame the book brought us, and recognition of ourselves in the photographs and stories told in the book, but also a bit of shame over the parts of the book that made us look like overconsuming, self-absorbed buffoons.

Another understandable but misleading aspect of the book was the fact that the long agricultural history and natural beauty of the place got lost in the focus on the tract housing developments and accoutrements of post-war Northern Californian living, so the richness of the culture and the long history of people living close to the land in Livermore and the surrounding valley all but disappeared.

Big cities like New York can handle having people think a large proportion of their citizenry is odd or tacky, but Livermore has suffered unfairly over the years by having people choose the least flattering photos and stories from our signature photoessay to represent our whole populace. Although those of us who lived in the Bay Area in the early seventies grew used to hearing that our region was rife with proto-New Age philosophies, encounter groups, redwood hot tubs, free love experimentation and all varieties of omphaloskeptic behavior, for many people (like my self-righteous hippie father) Bay Area suburbs like Livermore came to represent not the cool, sexy, mind-expanding elements of the Age of Aquarius but the shallow, consumerist, un-self-aware aspects of modern living.

In the decades since I left Livermore, the city has nearly doubled in size thanks to its proximity to the tech boom in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. My home town has long been one of the more affordable corners of an outrageously overpriced region. It is still home to one of the nation’s top nuclear weapons laboratories, as well as to Sandia National Laboratories, which develops, engineers and tests the non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons. But its economy and culture are no longer quite so closely tied to the nuclear research culture as they were when I lived there. Yet echoes of that culture reverberate in modern literature and film: the writer of the popular science fiction novel The Martian, Andy Weir, grew up in Livermore. He went to my high school, worked at Livermore’s Sandia Labs, and he is himself the son of a particle physicist who worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. It’s likely he had a literature or composition class with my mother at some point; I like to fantasize that she may have encouraged his considerable writing talent in some small way. Though Weir wasn’t even born when the first of the photos in Suburbia was taken, the influence of Livermore’s science-friendly, intellectual, problem-solving culture helped to nurture his curiosity and imagination, just as it did my own.

Child of the Sixties

Laura in GG Park, March 1969

The author in Golden Gate Park in the late 1960s

Among my childhood photo albums are pictures of me wearing daisy chains and sitting on the grass in Golden Gate Park. I have vivid memories of spending time with my father and his friends in the park and in the adjoining Haight-Ashbury district when I was a very little girl. I was tiny, but I remember San Francisco, the epicenter of the hippie movement, during 1967’s legendary Summer of Love and in the years thereafter.

Though I grew up in the suburbs, I often visited what people in the Bay Area refer to simply as The City. All my life I have felt a special pride in my connection to San Francisco. My mom gave birth to me there, in a hospital just a few blocks’ walk from the famous intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets. My dad (whom I only lived with for the first few months of my life, and only saw occasionally from babyhood onward) brought me to various hippie happenings there during his visits with me from the time I was about three years old. He hoped to make up for what he saw as the soulless bourgeois childhood I was supposedly experiencing in the Bay Area’s eastern suburbs.

The PBS American Experience documentary on the Summer of Love shows a San Francisco very much as I remember it during that time, albeit from about three feet off the ground. As a young child, I found San Francisco’s hippies often scary and off-putting. Even as a very little girl I had a sense of the importance of personal space and a desire that things be done safely, with purpose and according to plan. I was much more of a cautious goody-goody than even my mother, a high school teacher whom my father denigrated for being too suburban. I followed rules; my father and his friends generally did not. My dad hated authority, rules and The Man, so he and his friends would take joy in challenging the establishment whether or not I was with them.

I was always the only child present on visits with my father, and was usually ignored, so I spent a lot of time in watchful anxiousness, hoping not to be put in harm’s way. I was frightened by his and his hippie friends’ lack of concern with their actions or with me; they were lackadaisical, careless, loudly vulgar and sometimes stoned, so I felt ill at ease and unprotected with them.

People often talk about how loving and peaceful hippies were, but I saw also an enormous amount of anger directed by them toward rules, history and authority. That anti-establishment anger was often channeled for good in such campaigns as the fight for full and equal rights for African-Americans, women, Native Americans and homosexuals, among other downtrodden groups. The often strident and unpleasant but necessary challenges to the entrenched establishment gave young people in particular the courage to question the wisdom of their leaders and force their government to justify its wars. They gave the populace the courage to stand against unjust laws and corrupt political practices. It was this movement that eventually gave journalists the courage and necessary establishment backing to bring down a powerful sitting president during the Watergate scandal just a few years later.

While the nation often benefited from the outspoken challenges of those who had felt stifled by government, big business and the limiting social mores left over from the 1950s, there was also an upsurge in more generalized antisocial behavior. The rise of the hippies led not only to social activism, peace and love, but also to huge numbers of (mostly) young people breaking rules just for the hell of it. Many wrapped their destructive or selfish behavior in a cloak of righteousness. Some took advantage of the new social openness to examine their psyches and motivations honestly and to try to relate to others in more direct and healthy ways; others just found this newly socially acceptable preoccupation with self an excuse for narcissistic behavior.

The ensuing decade of the 1970s was dubbed “The Me Decade” with reason. During the 1960s, modesty had lost favor while self-regard and constant awareness of one’s own needs and desires became viewed as positive things. Exuberant self-expression and in-your-face sexuality went from being shocking in the early 1960s to being surprisingly common within a decade. In the early 1970s, when I visited the high school where my mother taught (and which I would later attend), obvious bralessness was very common not only among the students but even among teachers. Some of the younger teachers wore hot pants to school. Overt sexuality was, however, considerably less evident in high school teachers’ fashions by the time I myself entered high school later in the seventies.

To be fair to those who were part of the laissez-faire San Francisco hippie culture of the 1960s, I saw plenty of self-absorption and self-aggrandizement even among more establishmentarian suburbanites during that time and in the decade that followed. Social boundaries were not well respected in general in the late 1960s; millions of people (not just hippies) were sharing their formerly private thoughts (not to mention their bodies and lots of adult-themed talk and media) with great abandon and carelessness, and we kids were often exposed to too much knowledge too soon. Those of us who appreciated having some boundaries in our lives were often ignored or denigrated by people who felt superior because of their mod, carefree sensibilities. Some, like my father, mistook the desires of others (like his young daughter) to follow laws, keep order or avoid conflict or offense as being necessarily conservative traits. They are not.

There was a middle ground in which people challenged the status quo more gently; they didn’t want social anarchy but still believed strongly in the promise of liberalism. Yes, many San Franciscans, hippies included, sought peaceful, meaningful, respectful social change and worked hard for it. But from my own perspective, as a very young person, I saw measured, realistic and inclusive social activism in the suburbs, too, even among those whom my dad and his friends found so hopelessly square.

Fluffy Mackerel Pudding

Fluffy

[A treat from the archives: this has been revised from an article originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

In the 1970s, Weight Watchers and other companies created packs of recipe cards that they gave away with hideous giant plastic recipe boxes in order to try to hook gullible Americans (and perhaps Canadians, though I hope they had the good sense not to follow their U.S. cousins) into subscribing to a series of monthly recipe packs which arrived with billing statements and hefty postage fees. The special introductory offers provided a free recipe box and the first set of recipe cards in the hopes that the person ordering them (a.k.a. the sucker) would then get (and pay for) a new set of recipe cards every month. After a year or so, the sucker would have a whole collection of supposedly mouth-watering original recipes that would allow a hungry family to eat hearty, wholesome meals that would satisfy all their nutritional needs and cravings for just pennies a serving.

Once the vast majority of Americans realized they could get a free plastic recipe card box and 24 or so cards featuring scary color photographs of unappetizing food and then cancel their “memberships” in the recipe clubs, they were all stuck with giant awkwardly sized recipe boxes into which nobody could fit any of the recipes they might actually want to keep. I know this because I ordered my own giant plastic free recipe box when I was a child, and I kept it for years figuring I would someday figure out how to store actual recipes in it, to no avail.

A few years ago, I stumbled onto a brilliant website with fabulously unappetizing (and splendidly captioned) examples of Weight Watchers recipe cards from 1974. (The photos and captions are also available in book format as The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan: Classic Diet Recipe Cards from the 1970s by Wendy McClure.) Whenever I return to the site in hopes of lifting my spirits, I always start my pilgrimage to Tacky Town with my personal favorite recipe: “Fluffy Mackerel Pudding,” the highlight of the “Convenience Fish” section. The name speaks volumes.

Next, I make my way through the pack to revisit other mouth-watering delights such as “Hot Wrap Ups,” which include a hot lettuce, pickle, chive, caper and celery combo, as well as “Rosy Perfection Salad,” an exciting little number featuring shredded red cabbage in molded purple gelatin. Who could say no to a brandy snifter full of “Jellied Tomato Refresher,” or a man-pleasin’ pan full of “Mackerelly“?

The “Fish Tacos,” which are completely tortilla-free, look especially  enticing with their shredded green cabbage, tomato chunks and some sort of chopped fish on a bed of . . . toast. And in the “Budget Best Bets” category, don’t forget “Frankfurter Spectacular,” a sexy little dish of hot dog halves wrapped around a pineapple core and garnished with carrot, potato and pineapple chunks. Between meals, why not fix yourself a plate of “Polynesian Snack,” featuring the excitement you can only find in a dish composed of canned bean sprouts, buttermilk, pimiento and fruit pieces. That’s snackin’ satisfaction!

For a peek at “Snappy Mackerel Casserole” or the famous tortilla-free “Marcy’s ‘Enchilada,'” you must check out the Candyboots Web site. The wicked captions on each card are the artificially colored maraschino cherry on the top of the whole delicious experience.

Want to make your very own dinner of fluffy mackerel pudding tonight? Here’s the recipe:

FLUFFY MACKEREL PUDDING

2 stalks celery
1 medium green pepper
8 ounces drained, canned mackerel, flaked
1 tablespoon dehydrated onion flakes
2 teaspoons prepared mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon mace
Dash of ground cardamom
2 medium eggs, slightly beaten
2 medium eggs, hard-cooked, and sliced

Put celery and green pepper through a food grinder (or chop finely in blender). Combine with mackerel, onion flakes,mustard, salt, pepper, mace, and cardamom; mix well. Blend in raw eggs. Divide evenly into 4 (8 ounce) heatproof cups. Bake at 350°F (moderate oven) for 35 to 40 minutes. Garnish each with 1/2 sliced egg. Makes 4 luncheon servings.

For more off-putting recipe ideas from the 1970s, check out the Dinner is Served 1972 blog.

Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds Admit Impediments

Laura Pride

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

—from Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare

All year long, I’ve anxiously and hopefully awaited the Supreme Court’s decision on the question of marriage equality, wondering every day for months whether they would do the just and proper thing by all LGBTQ citizens of the United States at last. This week, as the nation awaited the decision with bated breath, I hoped that the answer would come on Friday, June 26, since that was my late mother’s birthday, and I could think of no greater honor to her memory than to have a landmark civil rights decision giving millions of people financial, emotional, legal and medical protection be announced on her natal day. On Friday, my dream came true.

I’m a straight woman who has already been afforded all the benefits of legal marriage more than once. I have never had to worry that a partner would be excluded from my hospital room, disallowed from taking custody of our child in an emergency, denied inheritance rights or social security or medical benefits, or publicly humiliated, shunned and mocked for calling himself my partner without benefit of marriage. I have lived a privileged life because I happened to be born with the prevailing sexual orientation during a time and in a place in which I could choose my partner of my own volition without being abused, threatened or punished for my orientation or my choices. But while I am heterosexual, I also cherish a number of gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans friends and family members, and my life would be pale and hollow without them. Since childhood, many, at times most, of my nearest and dearest have been and continue to be homosexual or bisexual men and women. They always will be. To watch them be denied basic honor, dignity, respect and rights because of their orientation has sickened and disturbed me since I was a girl, and I have been a devoted ally to my darling LGBTQ loved ones (and to all the millions of LGBTQ strangers out there) for decades.

I cried with joy and relief early on Friday morning when I read the news minutes after the decision was announced, and I look forward to shedding more tears of joy at the weddings and anniversaries of my friends for decades to come. The world is so much brighter, fairer and more hopeful each time we extend justice and equality to those who have been denied it. We are so lucky to be alive to witness this beautiful day.