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A light bulb icon appeared on the dashboard of my Jetta alerting me to a burned out bulb somewhere unspecified. A house guest and I were about to drive across the Jamestown and Newport bridges and along various highways monitored by state and local police for some ecotourism and socializing with other friends. Servicing the car was not part of the plan.

After two more days of traipsing around the state with a burned out light bulb, I took the car to the dealer. An hour later as I settled the bill ($4.51 for a left brake light bulb and a few dollars more for labor to install it), I said to the agreeable, young, white man in the service department — a person who knows me as a regular customer just as I know him as the young man in the service department, as a “person in my neighborhood” according to Mr. Rogers, “Good thing I am not a black man. Instead of settling this transaction with you, I might be dead.”

My comment did not fit the circumstances. The young man chuckled hesitantly. No doubt he was thinking, “What did she say?” But he quickly processed what I meant, switched from any light-hearted tone to seriousness and said, “You’re right.”

Suppose I had still been driving my previous car — a 1993 Nissan named Minima. She was an excellent car but not as communicative as the Jetta. When a turn signal went out, the blinking noise the signal made changed from slow to fast. Aha, you’d say, turn signal is out. But I recall no other warnings of burned out bulbs. It could have taken me a very long time to realize a bulb was not working.

If I were a dark-skinned male driving an uncommunicative car would I have to do an inspection of all the lights every time I drove the car in order to stay alive?

I rattled the VW service department man. But we both will likely survive routine burned out car bulbs. In that moment, we both knew it.

 

 

 

 

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April 3rd: A male Eastern Bluebird sat atop a bird nesting box in the meadow causing my heart to skip a beat especially since I knew that a House Sparrow had begun to build a nest in the box. Would that I could speak Bluebird to let him know that I’d do everything I could to keep the House Sparrows at bay. Just before the Bluebird arrived, I had been debating which of the several practices I have tried in the past to follow this year to make the House Sparrow feel unwelcome or, better yet, to go elsewhere far away. Given my success rate, the Bluebird might well have decided not to accept any offer of protection from me. After all for all my schemes, I still have a population of House Sparrows. This Bluebird sighting was therefore both a FOY (first of year) and a last of year. Indeed, he has not returned.

April 15: A male Wild Turkey nibbled insects in the herb garden and the adjacent lawn. I have not seen Turkeys again since then but, unlike the Bluebird, I know he and his relatives will be around into the fall.

April 16: A ground hog munched on the grass in front of the back house. I watched hoping to see whether he would lead me to his burrow. Something finally spooked him, and he dashed in the direction of the canoe, where he has resided in past seasons. Time to review my neighbor, Marilyn’s, trap setting technique. I’d like this to be among the last-of-year sightings but, like warding off House Sparrows, that could be a pipe dream.

May 2: I harvested the first asparagus stems. Every dinner for the next 6 weeks will include asparagus. Towards the end of the season, the mailman may find offerings of the veggie in the mail box. A friend reminded me I could drop off extra stalks at the Welcome House or the Jonnycake kitchen.

May 2: The Sugar Maple beside the porch leafed out. I submit a blurry photograph as proof. The wind was blowing — that’s my excuse. The other Maples will be a week or so slower in leafing out. I should report the dates to the New England Leaf Out (NELO)  project.

May 3: A male Tiger Swallowtail sat on a branch of the wisteria bush. Don’t tell my native plant colleagues who argue that natives attract and support wildlife better than non natives. Two immature but native Lindera benzoin or northern spice bushes are growing out immediately next to the forsythia but they seem too twiggy to have hosted the Swallowtail caterpillar, although spice bushes are said to be the larval host. On May 3rd last year, I saw the first Monarch butterfly in the meadow fluttering near the ground as though it could not fly. It was, in fact, laying eggs. The Asclepias syriaca, common milkweed, is popping through the ground in the meadow. I hope the butterflies return in the coming days.

May 4: A pair of House Sparrows are the only birds to have completed a nest in a bird box. I removed 5 eggs. Tree Swallows are noisily starting a nest in a newly sited bird box — now in the middle of the meadow. They have used this box in its previous locations for years.

May 5: Other Rhode Islanders have reported the return of Baltimore Orioles so I hung my Oriole feeder with an orange and Concord grape jelly. Within a couple of hours, both a male and a female were feeding.

May 6: Lilacs first in the doooryard bloomed. Seven years after transplanting these Lilacs from the southern dooryard to the northern one, the plants have bloomed in abundance! The old stand never produced as many blooms; all the blossoms are white.

May 6: A male Hummingbird arrived at the feeder I put out yesterday!

On ticks: I removed what I think was a black-legged tick from my inner elbow about 2 weeks ago. The next day, I found a full grown dog tick climbing the porch door jamb. I found another dog tick (I hope) on the frame of the northern door to the living room. All three are taped to the fridge. A warm winter, and for my money more importantly a wet April, seems to have provided excellent growing conditions for these nasty pests.

On ants: The carpenter ants invaded the kitchen again at the beginning of April. But after a visit from Narragansett Pest and time. As of today (June 10), I don;t seem to have any more ants. The fruit flies have arrived at the compost bucket, however.

On rodents: The Grey Squirrel population is growing. The Red Squirrel appears to remain a bachelor and is as neurotic as ever. The Chipmunks were out in force starting in April. Mice have not been very willing to take the peanut butter from the basement traps. The groundhog (is he a rodent?) is looking very well fed although I have battened down the garden perimeter fence and Scott and I built a special fence around the raised bed with lettuces and other leafy greens.

The news here is all more than a month old but I’m posting it anyway since this blog is my way of record keeping.

Why didn’t President Rouhani of Iran and Prime Minister Renzi of Italy meet at Ikea? The idea was floated in a cartoon in which a bewildered Mr. Rouhani, with boxes in the background, asks, “Where did you bring me? Ikea?” That would have been a more fitting backdrop for the 17 billion euro deal the Iranian president struck with Italy while in Rome than the Capitoline Museums.

Time is pushing Boxgate, as the brouhaha was called, into history after a brief media stir. Photo of the boxes. But I still find it intriguing, although not for the reasons others have explored.

Elisabetta Povoledo reporting in the NY Times wrote: The statues, in a corridor leading to a grand hall in Rome’s renowned Capitoline Museums, were encased in tall white boxes ahead of a news conference that Mr. Rouhani held on Monday with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy. One of the statues was the “Capitoline Venus,” a Roman copy of a legendary fourth century B.C. work by Praxiteles; some of the other sculptures were of ancient Greek and Roman gods, dressed minimally, if at all. Povoledo goes on to quote the columnist Michele Serra who wrote in La Repubblica: “The problem is that those statues — yes, those icons of classicism and models of humanism — are the foundation of European and Mediterranean culture and civilization. To conceal them is to conceal ourselves.” To not offend the Iranian president, he wrote, “we offended ourselves.”

You likely know that Mr. Rouhani did not ask about Ikea but instead said diplomatically: “I know Italians are very hospitable people and try to do everything to put their guests at ease, and I thank them for this.” Maybe you also know that no one in either Italy or Iran claimed to have made the request that the statues to be covered.

Roger Cohen in an opinion piece for the Times a week after the event Boxgate wrote: “Italy’s decision to cover up the nudes at the Capitoline Museum in deference to the sensibilities of the visiting Glasgow-educated Iranian president has been widely interpreted as final proof of the capitulation of Western civilization to theocratic Islam.” But Cohen was more interested in a different issue namely that neither side would say who asked that the statues be boxed. “One thing,” he wrote, “can be safely said: Nobody will ever know.”

Mr. Cohen was a correspondent in Rome for some years in the 1980s. He describes an Italian phenomenon in which investigations — he was writing about terrorist cases — dragged on for years. “Facts grew murkier, not clearer. It would take decades to arrive at convictions that did not resolve doubts. Italy has never had much time for the notion that justice delayed is justice denied.” He decried Italy’s predilection for “elastic truth.” Of Iran he writes: Iran, too, distrusts clarity. It is a nation whose conventions include the charming ceremonial insincerity known as “taarof” and “tagieh,” which amounts to the sacrifice of truth to higher religious imperative.

What intrigues me, however, is whether this incident is a minor moment in the chaffing of cultures that breaks down one civilization’s art to yield up another. My frame of reference is what was called in my days as a student of art history the barbarian invasions. Wikipedia says that, depending on your viewpoint, you’d call the centuries I have in mind, namely the 4th to the 9th centuries AD, the Barbarian Invasion or the Migration Period. In those centuries, late Antiquity turned into the Early Middle Ages. The question of what caused the transformation seems to be as unsolved today as it was in my day; just dabble in Wikipedia.

The names of the Migration Period styles are synonymous with the names of the populations moving around Europe: Hiberno-Saxon, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Merovingian, and Carolingian. The migrants of today’s world are in motion from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Eritrea, Sudan to name a few places. I easily forget, since I can jet most anywhere in the world, that the Hellenistic and Roman worlds were well connected too. Places in the Middle East — let’s cite Palmyria since its been in the news of late for the destruction of cultural artifacts — spent part of its long history as an outpost of the Roman Empire exposing Roman art forms to those of Byzantium transforming, over time, nudes into funerary figures. All that interaction lead to reinterpretation of visual ideas.

Kenneth Clark, (The Nude, pages 119-126) attributes the Aphrodite of desire to a divinity from Syria. He describes important differences between the Hellenistic Aphrodite of Praxiteles and the Roman Venus who went into the box. Interestingly, he sees — and I’d agree now that he has pointed this out — that the Roman copy is prudish in comparison with the Hellenistic original.

Boxing the nudes of antiquity is, to my mind, a better form of obscuring the past than the iconoclasm of blowing up, say, the Buddahs of Bamiyan, since the works can be unboxed once the danger/offense has passed.

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But the way in which the art of one culture is influenced by migration and political, including religious, forces from other cultures is my interest in Boxgate. André Malraux wrote in The Voices of Silence: “Creative art is given direction by the future and illuminated for us by what future brings to it. Its life story is the life story of its forward-looking works.” I take this inelegant even ungrammatical (poorly translated?) statement to mean that each age reevaluates the art it inherits according to its own sensibilities.

Boxgate was the backdrop for meeting of politicians not artists. A western sculptor today would not be copying a Hellenistic or even a Roman statue. He’d be encasing a shark in a vitrine (Damien Hurst) or fabricating balloon dogs (Jeff Koons) despite his Hellenistic heritage. Maybe Boxgate was a conceptual cultural tidbit too small and too close for us to see as part of an evolution during which what lingers from our humanist heritage will become unacceptable to the world we’re evolving into. Perhaps the next time a theocrat is visiting Rome he will not notice the object of physical desire from Antiquity because she will be wearing a chador. Unless, of course, the meeting is held in an Ikea showroom.

 

Being old and forgetful has its advantages. Since I’m making this claim based on my personal interpretation of both my age and my particular brand of forgetful, let me add that these advantages assume that the society I live in is free, tolerant and based on the rule of law. Recent events in Lebanon, Egypt and, of course, Paris, require this additional caveat. The liberal values I want to live under into my dotage can not condone the loss of innocent lives for attending a concert, supping in a cafe, flying home from vacation, shopping.

The length of my age can be measured in the number of pursuits in which I have dabbled. Being forgetful has required the maintenance of a small library of essential works from those dabbled-in subjects.  Together these advantages provide a way to reflect on a short sojourn in Paris immediately following the horror of a series of coordinated terrorist attacks.

Rain wasn’t expected until the late afternoon, so my old friends Bill and Mijo and I took off in the morning from their 20ième arrondissement sabbatical quarters to walk along the Canal de l’Ourcq to Saint Denis. We did a Rosie Ruiz taking the metro to the Jaurès stop, cutting the length of the walk down to about 5 km.

Our hike started at the bottom of the Basin de la Villette. Bill and Mijo pointed out a folly that is part of the Parc de la Villette. It seems la Villette’s architect, Bernard Tschumi, consulted with Jacques Derrida, the deconstructionist. The collaboration lead to the construction of a number of follies in the park.

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A folly at la Villette

Beyond la Villette, we ran into a closed section of the canal path that required a detour through a new urban forest that promises to restore a neglected brownfield area in the northeastern corner of the city into a series of thriving habitats by 2030. Mijo noted that we will be too old to verify whether this happens.

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We had to ask for help to get back onto the canal path. Although we were now in the Commune de Saint-Denis, most people felt the distance to the Basilica  was too great to walk. They also did not seem to know how to get onto the canal path, although it lay just to the west of where we were. Clearly it is a road less traveled. We soon learned why.

Above the detour, our hike took us past the Stadt de France, where Germany and France had been playing soccer when three terrorists — part of the coordinated attacks of 13 November and wearing explosive belts — were prevented from entering the stadium by security guards because of those explosives or, perhaps, just becasue they did not have tickets. Each detonated his belt, however, one also killing a nearby bus driver. President Hollande was in the audience at the stadium. No one attending the event was injured.

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Stadt de France under the white roof on left

This section of the canal path abuts a seedy wholesale market on one side and derelict industrial area on the other. After some distance, the path on the western side turns into a jogging and biking route that eventually lead us to the village of Saint-Denis. Known in the first half of the 20th century as “la ville rouge” for its communist party affiliations, the commune now includes a large Maghrebian population.

In its heyday in the 12th century, Abbot Suger oversaw the enlargement of a Merovingian church into the first full embodiment of the Gothic style. Even on a gray day, the lightness of the interior is striking. Formerly solid walls have been opened with windows, and the columns delineating the nave from the aisles reduced to slender ribs rising gracefully to arches and vaults that in this new style are supported on the outside of the structure.

Being old and forgetful I once knew a great deal more about Suger, his building, and the abbey’s historic relationship to other religious centers, notably Chartres, and Merovingian and French monarchies. But that Tuesday morning it was not possible to refresh my memory by visiting the tombs and the crypt. They were still in lock-down mode after the terrorist attacks. Perhaps the government knew that before dawn the next morning Parisian police would besiege an apartment near the Stadt de France where terrorists were indeed found and killed.

Once home from my travels I pulled Erwin Panofsky’s translation of Suger’s account of his activities as Abbot of Saint-Denis, the Liber de Rebus in Administratione Sua Gestis, from my small library. Panofsky writes in his introduction to the work: “Rarely — in fact, all but never — has a great patron of the arts been stirred to write a retrospective account of his intentions and accomplishments.” He notes that men of action and men of expression have resorted to autobiography and self-interpretation, but not patrons. “The Hadrians and Maximillians, the Leos and Juliuses, the Jen de Berrys and the Lorenzo de’ Medicis decided what they wanted, selected the artists, took a hand in devising the program, approved or criticized its execution and paid — or did not pay — the bills…A special concatenation of circumstances…were needed to bring into existence the documents produced by Suger, and preserved by time’s mercy.”

I also checked my undergraduate professor, Peter Janson’s, History of Art, who writes mostly about the interior of the church, although as a student of art history I was more interested in the sculptural program on the western façade and would have appreciated a fuller description of that portion of the church in my refresher course. The façade has been renovated since I was there last. I took some photos.

Between Panofsky and Jansen, I replaced any lament at not having an encyclopedic memory with the joy of returning to something I once studied, admittedly with vastly less thoroughness, but, as with any rereading, a different appreciation. Now as I reread, I  paid attention to the fact that Panofsky only translated the Introduction and Second Part (as he calls it) of the Liber de Rebus. He justifies his decision because that part dealt with “the remodelling and interior embellishment of the church” whereas the first part dealt with “the improvement of the Abbey’s economical condition.”

The grown-up me — having parted ways with art history because, as an endeavor, it did not concern itself with how art fit into society, and having spent a subsequent career on the edges of the field of economics and the role of finance in development — would love to know more about how Suger improved the Abbey’s financial condition. Perhaps this section could have been retold in as fascinating a manner as Amitav Ghosh portrayed a 12th century Jewish merchant and his two slaves trading throughout the Middle East in his book “In an Antique Land.”  Or perhaps a scholar like John Michael Montias could have used Suger’s economic essay as the basis for a social history as delightful and informative as his “Vermeer and His Milieu” in which he pieces together a remarkable portrait of 17th century town life and art in Holland. By the way, he discovers that Vermeer had one primary patron who bought nearly half of his mature works.

Back to Saint-Denis and the terrorists. The town hall wore a banner that read: La meilleure résponse à la barbarie, c’est de faire face ensemble.

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“Barbarie.” In my long life I have seen too many unspeakable crimes though, luckily for me, they  have been at a distance. Such crimes are against all of humanity and not possible to forget. “…de faire face ensemble.” No book in my library explains what they mean and how to banish them forever.

Can we hope we share despite differences of culture and religion sufficient repulsion at the barbarism and enough collective interest in our various pasts and futures that we can stand together against it? I’m ready for signs of such progress before I get any older.

The day opened directly under a severe rain with strong winds. From my tree house bedroom windows, I could see great gashes of lightening accompanied immediately by claps of thunder  The solar generator had to fill in for about 10 minutes until the compromised electrical grid returned to service.

The drama, particularly the lightening, made a fitting start to the 56th anniversary of Sallie Parker’s death by lightening. Since 1959 when Sallie was killed, this day more than any other commemorative event —  say my birthday, birthdays of my sisters, parents and children, wedding anniversaries, Victory over Japan Day (just kidding!) — has provided me with a moment to reckon. Though I can’t explain how, August 4th 1959 was life changing for me. Over the years, I have wondered how the events of that day have reinforced my hermetic nature, made me weary of close friendships, or otherwise contributed to my personality traits.

August 4th, because it ended her life, never became an important day in Sallie’s year. My calendar for this day now includes two other recurring but secondary events for me:  the birthdays of my step grand daughter and my brother-in-law. I’m grateful to them, though I doubt they know it, for the reminder not to sink into too much navel gazing on this day. Clearly, after 56 years, I no longer melt in misery. But the wound left by this loss is indelible — more profoundly permanent than the loss of husbands or even parents who lived long lives.

The day has cleared and calmed. Red-tailed hawks are calling instructions to their children as to how to catch the wind or circle the meadow for prey. Two pairs of Monarch butterflies who inhabit the meadow are likewise circling, but closer to the tops of the grasses and silently.

As the sun sets, I’ll go to the beach to join a memorial service for my friend, Cynthia. She got 63 more years out of life than Sallie, did but it would not be a mistake to say that she died too young as well.

Good Friday is the only Christian holiday that causes me to stop and think — about such disparate matters as dangerous ideas and the calendar. Sometime on this day between noon and 3:00pm, I try to remember that these are the hours during which Jesus may have hung on a cross and died.

Most of what I know of Christian theology comes from studying the history of western art which requires familiarity with the Bible as an iconographic source. Therefore, Tintoretto’s Christ before Pilate provides an image for me of Jesus’ trial although his judges may also have included Herod Antipas, the Roman authority in Galilee and a brother of the Herod of the Passover story, and possibly a Jewish Sanhedrin. Certainly both the Romans and the Jews had reasons to be concerned about the following this young Jew was attracting to his ideas that challenged existing beliefs.

Christ before Pilate, Tintoretto, Scuola de San Rocco, Venice, 1565-67

Christ before Pilate, Tintoretto, Scuola de San Rocco, Venice, 1565-67

And that’s the idea that I consider annually on Good Friday: we kill people for what they profess, even when or perhaps especially when, they challenge the status quo.

The religion that grew out of Jesus’ death is no exception. Galileo, for one, was declared a heretic by the Inquisition in the 1560s for his statement that the earth circulated the sun. Talk about a dangerous idea! While Galileo didn’t loose his life, he lost his intellectual and physical freedom, and was forced to recant his views. What do retributions like these for one’s ideas say about humankind?

Unsure how to answer that, I segue-way to another knotty issue: the unorthodox way in which the date for Easter is calculated. Passover and Easter were tied as holidays even before the gospels narrating the Easter story were written. They all (I think) say that the crucifixion takes place in the early days of Passover. But when is that? Jews use the lunisolar Hebrew calendar to determine the dates for Passover. Western Christians, who normally use a solar calendar and therefore follow fixed dates for holidays, make an exception for Easter that mimics a lunisolar calendar. Easter falls on the first Sunday after the paschal full moon, an ecclesiastical event, that occurs on or after the vernal equinox, an astronomical event.

Three of the four gospels — John of course being the exception —  describe a darkened sky while Jesus hung on the cross (see Veronese’s Calvary below) . This is highly likely to have been a dramatization of the mood by the evangelists — or maybe a rain storm as we had today, but certainly not a solar eclipse has some have argued. A solar eclipse is not possible when the moon is full. No matter what the date, Easter and Passover happen at the time of a full moon.

Calvary, Paolo Veronese, Louvre, 1580-88

Calvary, Paolo Veronese, Louvre, 1580-88

The events as told in the gospels that follow the crucifixion are the ones that give this holiday its meaning. But I’m finished with my observations after 3:00 pm on Good Friday. If I’m lucky, the sky will be bright with a post equinox sun in the coming days. I’ll put on my garden clothes and hunt for signs of plant regeneration, safe from most dangerous ideas.

Crucifixion, Dublin, National Museum, 8th century AD, bronze

Crucifixion, Dublin, National Museum, 8th century AD, bronze

 

 

 

 

Goodness! I barely had my bee keeper’s veil zipped on but I completely forget my art historian headdress.

Did you know that for $298.71, a very specific price I note, you can have a hand colored reproduction of Hans Memlings’ Adoration? A web search for images reminds me that the iconography of the Magi begins in earnest in the 15th century in the North and is everywhere in Europe from the Renaissance until the 18th century.

Here are a few images captured from the web. Botticelli, Perugino, Gentile da Fabriano, Corregio, and Murrilo are a few other artists that painted the Magi and whose paintings are reproduced on the web.