Category Archives: History

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.

Can An Algorithm Rate Artistic Creativity?

Burghers STanford

Detail from one of Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais”

Wired UK and other media outlets report that computer scientists Ahmed Elgammal and Babak Saleh from Rutgers University have developed a visual algorithm which they believe can accurately rank historical artworks according to their creativity. Elgammal and Saleh define creativity as “the originality of the product and its influential value.” They use this definition to create what has been called an art network based on paintings’ (and some sculptures’) similarity to earlier works. Their experiment evaluated a variety of elements including color, texture and type of scenes depicted. Elgammal and Saleh compiled a database of art works from the 1400s to the present and used their algorithm to draw parallels between creative works.

This study, which purports to use computer science to measure the absolute creative worth of over 62,000 original works of art, is highly subjective and filled with inherent bias despite the programmers’ efforts to tease out evaluative absolutes by setting strict criteria. They seem to have assumed that their criteria covered the most important elements of what makes a work original or creative. Sadly, the whole enterprise and is at best flawed and at worst counterproductive to an accurate appraisal and understanding of what makes great works of art great.

A primary problem with such a test is determining what works to include and by which artists. For example, one artist who fared poorly in this project’s evaluation is August Rodin, an immensely popular French sculptor who has had an extraordinary impact on sculptors who came after him. Rodin is best known by the general public for two works, “The Thinker” and “The Kiss,” which are, to my mind, among his less exciting pieces. Indeed, “The Thinker” was conceived as a small part of his masterwork, “The Gates of Hell,” a monumental sculptural bronze work which depicts scenes from Dante’s Inferno, and versions of “The Thinker” appear in each of the cast bronze versions of the gates on display in museums around the world. Those who study and collect art are generally much more excited about “The Gates of Hell” and Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais,” which are considered his most emotionally powerful works. Each was cast in multiple versions and is  displayed in numerous locations around the globe.

“The Gates of Hell,” a  bronze gate covered in writhing bodies, and the somber collection of chained men dressed in rags that makes up “The Burghers of Calais” are, I would argue, more important to the development of 20th century sculpture than “The Thinker” or “The Kiss.” They are, however, much less well-known among those who only have a cursory interest in art. These more influential works are deeply psychological and disturbing sculptures featuring people in torment, not the placid, pleasing sculptures that those who know little of Rodin’s work may think of when they hear his name. Rodin, who lived a long, passionate and prolific life, created thousands of heads, bodies and body parts of clay and bronze and he created portrait sculptures that sometimes offended those who posed for them with their raw, unfinished, often ugly qualities. For more than a century, serious students of art have studied and copied Rodin’s work and techniques, and his more distorted and disturbing  sculptures have been among the most influential works of the last 150 years among modern artists.

If your specialty is programming and not art, you might not know to include those works among your sample. You might choose only his more generally popular works and assume that because they are more frequently copied, photographed or parodied, they are the more important pieces. And if you do that, you’ll get a skewed result, which is exactly what happened.

This study is getting a great deal of attention because of what was written about it by Daniel Culpan of Wired UK and in careless quotations of his work by other publications. Mr. Culpan is not conversant enough with art history to know basic terminology about the discipline. He did not appear to know enough about the subject to challenge some of the computer scientists’ biases and assumptions, and he apparently did not fully read even the short precis of the paper which he seems to have skimmed. He failed to mention, for example, that the artworks include not only paintings but also sculptures. The republication of and references to his article by Ars Technica and Smithsonian both repeat this error. Also, the art historical term “old masters,” which Mr. Culpan apparently erroneously believes means all important artists of the pre-20th century period, actually has a more specific meaning and commonly refers to works painted from approximately the 13th to the 18th centuries, up to about the year 1800.

Two of the artists Culpan describes as “old masters” who rated poorly in the computer assessment of their creativity actually lived and worked significantly after the “old masters” period: Ingres painted in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; Rodin sculpted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They are artists we consider to be part of the canon, but Ingres predates the modern era by only a few decades, and Rodin worked during what most art historians would consider to be the modern era.

Some wonder whether this study “proves” that some long-lauded artists might have been overvalued by those who lived before computer-aided evaluations were available. In the cases of Ingres and Rodin, their works (and Rodin’s in particular) are so unlike any others by their contemporaries that they are easily recognizable as having been created by those masters. I would argue that Ingres and especially Rodin were powerfully influential and that they saw things with a different eye than those who came before them. However, they worked primarily with traditional subject matter—figurative portraiture—in recognizable ways; i.e., their subjects’ body parts are generally recognizable as such and appear in the name locations as real body parts do, unlike paintings or sculptures by artists like Picasso, say, who moved eyes and limbs around on the bodies of the subjects he painted.

Sometimes Picasso painted multiple views of the same body part from different angles and incorporated them all into one portrait. Artists like Matisse distorted the colors of body parts, painting faces green or red when it suited him. Such altering of basic elements of human anatomy in one’s art could be considered more creative, and showing creativity (according to this definition) could be considered to be a better or more advanced form of art, or more impressive or important than producing images based more closely on figurative norms. Making recognizable portrait paintings of nobility, as Ingres did, could be seen as less “creative” than building most of one’s oeuvre out of stacked boxes and lines, like Mondrian, or collages, like Braque, or simplifying figures to their essential shapes and distorting them, like Munch or Picasso or Dali or Lichtenstein. But reducing creativity to such simplistic, easily measured or described metrics is unfair and damaging if it allows us to discount the importance, beauty, influence and ineffable magic found in historically earlier, more subtle or more “mainstream” works of art.

Taking these works out of their historical settings does them a disservice in determining how influential they were on the art that followed. The creators of this study tried to determine the influence of artists on those who followed them and to determine how different they were from what came before. But such differences were much more subtle during earlier centuries, and changes in style usually came about more slowly in past centuries than they did from the mid-19th century onward. Changes in art sped up throughout the 20th century, and now there are so many competing styles, media, techniques, mindsets, methodologies and concepts that one can no longer describe a prevailing artistic sensibility as being representative of the modern era. Technology and speed of communications changed artists’ ability to influence each other, and that sped up creativity, by one measure of the term. But since we modern types tend to think of “creativity” as an inherently positive term, I fear conflating the idea that something is “different” and therefore more “creative” in some ways with the idea that it is therefore better or more valuable.

In past times, the differences between two styles of art could be seen as monumentally important to earlier artists or to professional art historians, but those differences might be almost imperceptible to modern people without training and context. For example, Early Renaissance master sculptor Donatello and High Renaissance master sculptor Michelangelo each created important statues of the biblical figure David between about 1440 and 1504, and those who study art history see them as vastly different in feeling, symbolism, strength, influence and style. Someone without training, however, might very well see them as two boring, traditional nude dudes. Someone with no training at all can look at paintings by Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and Andy Warhol side by side and see that each is different from the other and none is like anything seen before, and by that measure they could be seen as much more original, creative or even valuable than the works of Michelangelo. Each of those artists is hugely important and influential, but to put Magritte into the same category as Michelangelo would be ridiculous and unfair. Michelangelo’s works’ relative similarity to sculptures done by Roman artists 1500 years earlier does not make him a less creative or important or original artist for having copied and appropriated techniques from ancient works so well.

I fear any project that would use loaded terms like “creative” to rank, describe or value artists is likely to mislead those outside of the art world into believing that there are absolutes and discernible metrics that one can use to boil artworks down to their essence and take the guesswork out of determining meaning or value or rank. Such a ranking tool cannot exist because an essential element of art is that it can be valued in multiple ways, and that a work’s value is not solely the price for which it can be sold but is also derived from the meaning it has for the creator and its viewers. One can no more value a work of art than one can a human life. Yes, it can technically be done in a court of law or an auction showroom, but each of us holds a particular person or possession dearer than any court or auction house would, and we would argue that that person’s or thing’s imputed value has nothing to do with the value we sense within our head and heart. That is what makes art great and more complex in meaning than a garden hose or a box of cash. Each of us brings our own meaning to and derives our own value from a work of art in a unique way, and a computer program cannot do that for us.

According to this computerized assessment of relative creativity, Munch’s “The Scream” is on a par with Velazquez’s entire artistic output. In actuality, Munch’s dark, disturbed paintings owe much to the interior moodiness of 17th and 18th century masters like Velazquez and Goya, just as the nihilistic artists and writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries could not exist without the influence of the writers and artists who came before. To take them out of context and rank them in this raw and bloodless way feels, to me, preposterous.

Margaret Keene’s big-eyed portraits of the 1950s and 1960s were distinctive and immediately recognizable and they inspired many copies. These aspects of her work could be considered signs of great creativity according to descriptions of elements considered by this study. Keene’s works are, however, generally considered to be kitschy, shallow and lacking in artistic merit. Rodin, on the other hand, created rough, lumpy, often ugly portraits that many believed looked half-finished or hideous, but this freshness and openness to a reassessment of what constitutes a completed form had huge influence on modern sculpture. However, most people who know little about art history are only familiar with his statues “The Thinker” and “The Kiss,” which are more smooth, finished and conservative in their style than most of his works and are less appropriate examples of the originality and influence of his work on artists themselves. I think his scoring so poorly on this “test” of creativity better shows the weakness of the creators’ understanding of which works of his should be evaluated and included in the test than it does the level of his creativity.

The project is interesting, and it is heartening to see people in tech fields showing an interest in the fine arts. However, the metrics the project uses to measure artistic merit are biased more toward novelty than quality, and they discount many of the key elements of artworks most prized by professional art historians and collectors. Elgammal and Saleh make so many value judgments based on personal opinion that the result is a controversial evaluative tool of very limited use.

 

What Makes a Woman “Feminine”?

Vanity Fair

Caitlyn Jenner‘s photos were published in Vanity Fair earlier this week, as we all know by now. She looks beautiful in them, and I wish her only happiness in her life as the woman she has always felt herself to be.

Since she seems to have taken charge of all aspects of publicizing her transition from Bruce to Caitlyn, we must assume that Ms. Jenner had the final say regarding which of the photos taken by top celebrity portraitist Annie Leibovitz she wanted to have featured on the Vanity Fair cover. Of all the photos from that spread, the one on the cover shows Ms. Jenner in the most vulnerable possible state: sitting in white underwear with arms pinned behind her and her strong, beautiful legs awkwardly pressed together. All the others show her looking more in-charge and comfortable with herself, not to mention in prettier clothes. For example, here she is relaxing:

Sofa

Here she is about to drive her $180,000 sports car:

Red Dress

In each of these images, she shows herself to be in command of the moment and of herself. In one, she looks away from the camera as if unaware and unconcerned about its gaze; in the other she wears sunglasses and a body-conscious red dress, and she exudes power and control. Compare these to the cover image in which her wrists and ankles could be bound for all we know; they’re certainly pulled tightly back and out of the way, and she looks directly at the camera, unsmiling and very aware that she is being appraised by the viewer in her half-naked state.

After a lifetime of being lauded for physical strength and power, which were so often conflated with her appearing to many to be the epitome of manly attractiveness, it is understandable, but I think a bit disturbing, that she and Vanity Fair should see the opposite—a physical position of seeming powerlessness—as the apotheosis of feminine beauty. While it is true that stripping away clothes could also be taken as a symbol of stripping away what she felt were the public lies about her private self, both she and photographer Annie Leibovitz knew full well that by portraying her without clothes or visible hands or feet they were also using visual shorthand to get across the idea of her vulnerability as part and parcel of her newly-public femininity.

She is in fabulous physical condition, as one would expect a disciplined gold-medal-winning Olympic decathlete to be, and one can understand that she might want to show that off—it must feel great to show the world that she can look so conventionally attractive as a woman. And, of course, Vanity Fair wants to sex up the cover as much as possible to sell more issues. But I wonder: did Ms. Jenner or Vanity Fair think that placing her in as vulnerable a state as possible was a necessary part of making her look most feminine?

If people think that what makes Ms. Jenner appear to be “feminine” is the fact that her near nudity and constrained pose leave her looking vulnerable and fragile, that saddens me, since in that case the choice is clearly not about glamour (which can be strong and empowering) per se; it is instead about playing up weakness as a womanly trait. Caitlyn Jenner is plenty glamorous in all the photos, so the choice must have involved what she and Vanity Fair think makes her look most like a woman, and that appears to be weakness, vulnerability and the impression of greater sexual availability (i.e., fewer clothes, direct gaze, body seated rather than standing and legs and arms out of the way). I’m concerned about underlying sexist and disempowering messages about femininity and beauty that could be sent to the world by this photo spread when the most fragile and powerless-looking of all photos taken becomes the image chosen to symbolize feminine beauty out of all the beautiful, powerful images available.

I am not denigrating Caitlyn’s choice to transition from male to female, nor her desire to share her story and her first photos of herself in a beautiful and powerful way. I support and applaud her in this. I am merely questioning what this episode in popular culture tells us about how we may conflate powerlessness and vulnerability with ideals of female beauty.

Nordic Splendor: The Baldishol Tapestry

Baldy

I’m currently traveling in Scandinavia feasting my eyes on Nordic art and design, both ancient and modern. One of the highlights so far was the Baldishol Tapestry, a Medieval masterpiece dating between 1040 and 1190 AD. The tapestry was rescued from the Baldishol Church in Hedmark, Norway, when it came to light after the demolition of the church in the late 1870s. By then it looked like tattered old rags and was covered in dirt acquired from its previous use: protecting the feet of the church sexton from drafts. (Click on the photo below to see a more detailed image of the tapestry in its current setting.)

Baldeshol Tapestry

Now that it’s clean and displayed in a dark room under climate control, this brilliantly colorful tapestry (which is contemporary with the world’s most famous Medieval tapestry work, The Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the Norman Conquest of 1066) is in remarkable condition. This wall decoration, once of of a series meant to encircle a room, symbolizes the months of April and May, and is the only surviving early medieval tapestry believed to be of Nordic origin. It is on display in the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo.

We No Speak Americano

You may have heard the international dance hit “We No Speak Americano,” which was recorded in 2010 by Australian duo Yolanda Be Cool and producer DCUP. But did you know that the Italian song it’s based on, “Tu Vuò Fà l’Americano” (“You Want to Be American”), goes back to the 1950s? Variations on the song in Italian and English have been performed by scores of stars as diverse as Sophia Loren, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Pitbull, Matt Damon and Jude Law, and even Alvin and the Chipmunks since then.

Yolanda Be Cool’s song is based on (and features samples from) the 1956 Italian pop hit “Tu Vuò Fà l’Americano,” which was written in the Neapolitan dialect by Italian singer Renato Carosone in collaboration with Nicola “Nisa” Salerno. It was commissioned for a radio contest and the song, which combines swing and jazz elements, became a huge hit almost immediately. It was featured in several Italian films by 1960s, including a sexy dance number performance by Sophia Loren in In Started in Naples. It also features in the 1999 film The Talented Mr. Ripley. The song satirizes the Americanization that swept Southern Italy after World War II and tells a story of an Italian man who pretends to live like an American, enjoying whisky and soda, rock ‘n roll, baseball and Camel cigarettes, but who is still dependent on his parents for money. The Puppini Sisters sing a spunky, sprightly version of the song in three-part harmony on their album Betcha Bottom Dollar; Pit Bull sings a version, “Bon Bon,” primarily in Spanish; Trio Manouche does a Gypsy Jazz-inspired version; and French group The Gypsy Queens does a fun version with American jazz chanteuse Madeleine Peyroux in bouncy Neapolitan style. Every version of the song has its own very danceable quirks and charms.

The Strength That Comes from Acknowledging Frailty

Watercolor on paper by Laura Grey
Watercolor on paper by Laura Grey

I have a deep fascination with history and historical objects that make the past more accessible and understandable to us today. I often incorporate them into my art, writing and home environment. Not a day goes by that I don’t consider how the past (either my own or the time before my existence) has shaped me. I’m always asking myself how I can bring the things and the knowledge of the past into the light and share its importance and meaning with those around me who may not know how many wonders have been created, shared, discovered and often lost. I incorporate bits of history into my world wherever I can. I fear the idea of people losing what has gone before, or failing to notice connections and patterns that could help them avoid repeating the same errors others have already made. I’m also saddened when people live without context, unaware of their place on the continuum of history.

I think each day of the people and relationships I have lost, and of the sadness I feel about the fact that part of my history died with them, too. But I also feel grateful that I have given my own child a context for her life and mine so that I can continue to enjoy my relationships with those who have gone before us by relating their stories to my daughter and letting them become touchstones and stories and elements that bind my past to her future.

Something I’m so glad to have learned along the way is that one’s relationship with people who have died (or who have simply disappeared from our lives, if not from the world) doesn’t end with their death; we can still learn from and about them, change the way we feel about them, and grow in our understanding and acceptance of (or sometimes anger toward) them long after they’re gone. My relationships with my own very difficult parents have changed a lot in the 13 and 20 years since their respective deaths. I’m grateful that despite the finite nature of their own histories, they are still a part of my ongoing history. They live on through me. People can even have meaningful relationships with those who died before we were born. Yes, those are one-way relationships, but they can still teach and inspire and help to form us, and I find that so comforting. I love that both my mother and my long-dead grandmother are living presences in my daughter’s life through the stories that I share about them. Their history becomes part of my daughter’s own life.

I suppose studying history also reminds me of how fragile and temporal we and all of our creations are, and how even the greatest among us is or was human and flawed, scared and mortal, too. Perhaps that’s why I so love cemeteries and memento mori paintings and mourning jewelry. That fascination sounds morbid, but it’s not, really. It’s not a love of death that I feel when I see such things; it’s a love of the touching human reminders people build to those who have moved them and shaped them. These are reminders to be grateful, to make the most of what exists now, to share and expand on love, to express what should be expressed, to recognize how fleeting it all is, and to acknowledge just how much power each of us has to affect others, power that we don’t like to admit that we hold because it’s scary to think of wasting such a precious thing the way we all do every day.

In the 1970 film Patton starring George C. Scott, General George S. Patton shares the following, haunting thought, which has always stuck with me: “For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph — a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters and musicians and strange animals from the conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children, robed in white, stood with him in the chariot, or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”

I think one of the great discoveries that has come with time for me has been learning what tender little people we all are inside, and that even the most assertive and confident-seeming among us has doubts and failures and awkward unguarded spots that the armor doesn’t fully cover. There is comfort in that, not just because it humanizes great characters, but because their successes actually seem greater when I consider that they were accomplished by life-sized people who had to navigate the world just as I do, yet they found ways to do great things despite their very human limitations. They weren’t giants walking the earth, they were humans stuck in failing bodies challenging themselves to think in fresh ways and act where others only pondered. Knowing that the people I most admire are not immune from human frailty helps me to feel more compassion for them, and sometimes for myself.

In Flanders Fields

flanders

 

In Flanders Fields

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”

One of the most-often-quoted poems of what was for many years known as The Great War, “In Flanders Fields” was written by Canadian physician Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae in 1915. The poem was inspired by the funeral of McCrae’s friend and fellow soldier Alexis Helmer, who died in the Second Battle of Ypres. According to legend, fellow soldiers retrieved the poem after McCrae, initially dissatisfied with his work, discarded it. “In Flanders Fields” was first published on December 8, 1915 in the London-based magazine Punch. The poem refers to the red poppies that grew over the graves of fallen soldiers. The popularity of the poem led to the remembrance poppy becoming one of the world’s most recognized memorial symbols for soldiers who have died in conflict.

 

Dulce Et Decorum Est

owen

To my mind, Wilfred Owen’s account of a mustard gas attack, “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” is the greatest of First World War poems. The title comes from an ode by the ancient poet Horace, who said “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”: It is sweet and right to die for your country. Owen’s account questions the sweetness and rightness of death in battle.

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Owen died just before the end of the war. His parents received news of his death on Armistice Day.