Sunday, July 31, 2022

Literacy and Crime

I think a lot about literacy. In part, perhaps, because I am a writer and would like it if there were still readers around to read what writers write. 

I also think about it because of what I remember about how being able to read opens people's minds, enables them to engage ideas that ennoble them. 

About a half century ago I heard a man speak about Literacy Evangelism. His organization would go to villages and teach people how to read. The stories he shared about how much their self-worth increased never left me. "I am not just a beast or animal. I can read." The impact was profound.

These thoughts were re-awakened in me by Neil Gaiman's Art Matters and Other Insights for Writers. Early in the book he shares the importance of reading and how it makes us better people. He warns against trying to force books on our kids. If they are reading, that is good. If they develop a love of reading, that is great.

At one point Gaiman shared that politicians calculated how many prisons to build based on how many illiterate young people there were. Even if that is a myth, it's apparent that there is a direct correlation between literacy and living a successful life. (I could share a Michener anecdote here, but will save it until you ask.)

All this to say that our education has been failing our children and literacy rates have been dropping. How have we lost our way? How can we get it back? 

What follows are some stats about the relationship between incarceration and low literacy from

  • 85 percent of all juveniles who interface with the juvenile court system are functionally low-literate
  • Juvenile incarceration reduces the probability of high school completion and increases the probability of incarceration later in life.
  • High school dropouts are 3.5 times more likely that high school grads to be arrested in their lifetime.
  • High school dropouts are 63% more likely to be incarcerated than their peers with four-year college degrees.
  • Mississippi has the second highest incarceration rate in the nation. The average adult inmate reads on a sixth-grade level when admitted. Half of the state's inmates never finished high school.
  • The same article cites this disconcerting stat by Donald Hernandez in his book Double Jeopardy: "children who do not read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers."

    Libraries are great. If you don't have the money to buy books, you can always borrow them. There are few things more wonderful than libraries.

    Thanks for reading.

    P.S. When my grandfather got married he was illiterate. Grandma, who had been a schoolteacher, taught him how to read and write so he could fill out a job application. I always remember him sitting in "his chair" in the living room with a newspaper in his hands, the television up loud.

    If reading is a struggle, don't give up. It's never too late to begin. Start where you are at and keep practicing. Find library books at your reading level and don't give up.

    Friday, July 29, 2022

    Recipe for Nervous Breakdown Soufflé

    While rummaging through old folders (am on another cleaning binge) I came across this recipe I'd forgotten about. If you try it, let me know what you think.

    * * * 

    Nervous Breakdown Soufflé


    One case of Neurotic Pride

    2 cups Basic Anxiety

    1 fistful Self-Reproach 

    1/2 teaspoon Self-Doubt Extract 

    A dash of Legitimate Shortcomings 

    One ounce Self-Hate 

    One can Deep Depression 

    A pinch of Sharp Criticism

    * * * 


    Peel and dice Neurotic Pride. Mash pulp with fork. Strain and set aside.

    In large container, combine Basic Anxiety, Guilt, and Self-Reproach. Blend in Self-Doubt Extract and Shortcomings. Agitate.

    Add Self-Hate and Neurotic Pride. Stir until completely mixed up.

    Simmer for one year in an atmosphere of intimidation and fault finding.

    Slowly stir in Deep Depression. Bring mixture to a rapid boil.

    Ignite with a pinch of Sharp Criticism. 

    Serve with spilt milk, burnt toast, or sour grapes. 

    * * * 

    If you liked this, then check out my Recipe for a Disaster

    Thursday, July 28, 2022

    Throwback Thursday: Problem Solving

    "Essentially, painting is problem solving." ~ ennyman

    It was a thought I scribbled on a piece of paper while painting this weekend. Making art involves solving a whole slew of problems. 

    First, what surface should I paint on, or create on using what medium? Am I working toward a goal? (For example, a portrait of a person.) Or am I allowing the event to simply unfold? If I just smear colors on a surface, which colors? What kind of music should I play, since that also influences the serenity or rapidity with which I lay paint on the surface?

    There is a whole sequence of steps involved in each decision which most artists approach intuitively rather than scientifically. This intuitive process is fine tuned through experiment and experience. We know, for example, that doing "this" doesn't work. Though in a moment of incredulity an artist might try such a thing to see if he or she can make it work. Many artists are boundary pushers, questioning the rules and continually re-writing their own.

    Problem solving begins with identifying and defining the problem. As a blog writer I do this every day. Problem: what will I write about today? Step two: how can I make it meaningful for my readers so that it is not a waste of their time to re-visit? Magazine editors do this all the time.

    The next step in problem solving is coming up with a strategy. The problem might be, what should we have for supper? The strategy usually begins with rummaging around the fridge to see what is available, gathering information in order to help make the decision. Additional information might include an intuitive knowledge of how close the nearest store is, how much time you have, and how many days till the next paycheck.

    For artists, every situation is unique. Sometimes one is working at mastering a certain skill or new style. Sometimes one is trying to produce something for a specific purpose, perhaps to fulfill a commission or complete a series. Sometimes one is simply exploring the possibilities of line, shape, form and color. The problem is that which confronts you on the canvas.

    There's a sense in which life itself is a canvas. How we express ourselves is a form of problem solving, sometimes haphazard and sometimes deliberate. Sometimes bold, sometimes subtle. Some days it's nothing short of beautiful.

    May you have one of those beautiful days today.

    Wednesday, July 27, 2022

    World Chess Champion Magnus to Retire and Other Stories

    Up until recently I never heard of Magnus Carlsen, but having gotten into chess again after a 50 year hiatus it was inevitable that I would learn of him. My friend Dan, whom I have been playing on Friday nights since June, asked if I had seen the movie Magnus, a film about the Norwegian chess prodigy who became a grandmaster at age 13 and world champion in 2013.

    So, one evening instead of starting the evening with a chess match we watched the film Magnus instead. Great film. It's essentially a documentary of his life by a family that recognized his gift and nurtured it. The film follows his development from pre-school to his defeat, at age 22, of 5x World Champion Viswanathan Anand.

    When the news broke that he was retiring, it now meant something to me. How many times do you hear announcements in which you are clueless who they are talking about?  His brilliance lay in his intuitive approach when playing.  

    For the record, Magnus will not be retiring from competitive chess. He's simply not planning to defend his title. 

    Trivia: Magnus mean "great" in Latin, a name he has lived up to.

    Middle segment of recent match: Hansen v Newman

    * * * *


    Lower airfares are returning this fall. The average airfare for round-trip domestic flights this fall is $298, according to data from travel-booking app Hopper. That’s down from May, when average fares exceeded $400. (WSJ)

    Brad Pitt pays $40 million for house on the California coast. House was built just over 100 years ago, a very reasonably priced fixer-upper for sure.

    According to a new poll from the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics finds a majority of Americans think the government is corrupt and stacked against them.

    Senators from opposition parties stage walkout during plenary as senate president shuts down a motion for the impeachment of president Buhari over the security situation in the country. (Nigeria)

    Seeing every indications that terrorists are about to take over Abuja, Nigeria Federal Ministry of Education has directed the closure of all Federal Govt colleges in Abuja & has ordered immediate vacation of students in the Nation's capital. (Punch)

    * * * *

    On a more positive note, check out the latest blog post from Nevada Bob regarding his battle with cancer (Part 3):
    Nevada Bob Takes His Cancer Fight to Tijuana

    The Death of Common Sense: How Law Is Suffocating America

    Photo by The Good Funeral Guide on Unsplash
    “We need a new idea of how to govern. The current system is broken. Law is supposed to be a framework for humans to make choices, not the replacement for free choice.”
    --Philip K. Howard, The Death of Common Sense

    Niall Ferguson, in his book The Great Degeneration, identifies the four pillars that lifted Western Civilization, which Ferguson calls The Four Black Boxes. They are:

    1. Democracy -- the consent of the governed.

    2. Capitalism -- and the vibrant society healthy markets produce.

    3. Rule of law -- secure property rights, fairness and (in theory) equality.

    4. Civil society -- how we treat one another.

    Ferguson's book is a warning though. The 2010 volume is subtitled How Institutions Decay and Economies Die. In the book he shows how all of these platforms have become corrupted and are in the process of decay. It's not a pretty picture. 

    I mention Ferguson's book in order to reference point 3, the importance of the rule of law. When I read Philip Howard's The Death of Common Sense: How Law Is Suffocating America in the 1990s, I immediately placed it on my Top Ten Recommended Readings list. It's apparent that regulations and red tape are both strangling our economy and stealing our joy. 

    Here's a quick overview of the book.

    The bloated bureaucracy; the rules; the laws; the regulations; are so integral to our lives that we no longer would recognize a life without these burdensome evils. We continue blindly with no discretion, a growing behemoth, with no end in sight; this was never meant to be. With the thousands upon thousands of pages of rules and regulations we believe we can remove all conceivable risks, contemplate every eventuality, plan for everything; all in the name of "rights", and fairness. What is meant for good, and to bring about harmony, only results in stagnation, closed businesses, higher prices, less choice, rise of litigation, etc. We all pay a price. Ingenuity pays a price. Ironically, "[t]he more precise we try to make law, the more loopholes are created." Mandated perfection only ends in the opposite, along with an incredible waste of money and manpower, not to mention it treats individuals as criminals. This expansion of law into agencies and programs was never meant to be. Three big culprits (though there are many) are OSHA, EPA, and the USDA.

    For example, right now the U.S. is experiencing a housing crisis. Even though most community leaders are aware of it and are making pronouncements about fixing it, very few seem to recognize how deeply entrenched government regulation is contributing to the problem, almost always in the name of virtuous aims such as safety and fairness. Examples abound.

    Here's another example. We complain about the high price of meds while failing to see the mind-boggling amount of paperwork required by the FDA to get a drug approved. I once read that the paperwork alone would fill a semi trailer. There has to be some kind of incentive for doing 10 years of research to get a product approved. (This is not a defense for the excesses of Big Pharma, but important for the sake of perspective.)

    Ferguson, in his book, tells a story about how it took a little girl months to get a permit to set up a lemonade stand in New York City.

    Here's more about Howard's book:

    "The Death of Common Sense" consists of four long chapters, presented without an introduction or conclusion. They deal with (1) the impossibility of devising laws and regulations that will sensibly address every variation and permutation of a given problem without the need for human judgment; (2) the pitfalls of elevating legal process over objectives; (3) the destructive consequences of creating "rights" for more and more disadvantaged groups without much heed to the burdens imposed on the rest of the population; and (4) the author's proposed solution to the problems discussed, which is for all concerned to stop looking to the law as a source for "final answers."

    Reviews from Amazon:

    Totally Amazing and Scary!
    The message is quite clear: our legal system is very sick, if not broken. The result is that no one wants to take responsibility for fear of being sued or inconvenienced. Plus, the definition of "rights" has been so badly distorted by legislation and court system that the social and actual costs to Americans is becoming intolerable. The direction we are all heading is only making the conditions worse. Something has to change, but how long are we willing to wait?

    Frustrating In Its Accuracy
    This book came highly recommended by an attorney friend. I have not finished reading yet because it is so frustrating in its accurate portrayal of government and its often illogical way of operating. Having worked in government, I do understand the need for rules and consistency, however the examples portrayed in this book so clearly display how so many rules exist for the sake of the rules themselves. The intent behind the rules are lost and the results often are more harmful than good. If only our government officials could take off their blinders and take to heart the messages from this book. This country would be in a far better place.

    * * * * 

    Something to think about.

    If interested, you can find a copy of this book here on Amazon.

    * * * *  

    Monday, July 25, 2022

    Thoughts on Journalism after Watching The Fifth Estate, a Film about Julian Assange

    The Fifth Estate is a compelling film about the emergence of Wikileaks as a global force. It's extremely well done, especially seeing Benedict Cumberbatch become Julian Assange. The film is co-written by one of the characters in the film based on a book by that self-same person, Daniel Berg. 

    This is not a review of the film, but a handful of. thoughts about journalism, stimulated by having watched this last night. 

    The world is full of secrets, but governments are especially shrouded in fog and veils of secrecy. If, however, government is purportedly as extension of the people, is granted power to rule by consent of the people, then how can we effectively trust them if we can't see what they are doing?

    This is where journalism comes in. This is what "freedom of the press" is supposedly about. But when government agencies do really awful things and lie about it, the only way the truth gets out is for whistleblowers to call attention to these misdeeds. Unfortunately, the whistleblowers almost always pay a price for this, which can include losing one's livelihood, their standing in the community or even jail.

    As Julian Assange put it, "This... really defines the essence of what we're trying to achieve. Privacy for the individual, transparency for institutions, with your personal safety as a whistleblower guaranteed through anonymity as an individual."

    Daniel Domscheit-Berg
    Daniel Berg, is a German technology activist who Assange recruited to help execute his vision. After a critical leak in which Assange and the team published unredacted material that put lives in danger, Berg split from Wikileaks and wrote a book about it titled Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website, which became the basis for this film, the chief criticism being that the story is slanted.

    The reviews are fairly mixed, but I see this as an important film because it raises good questions and addresses issues that need to be assessed. 

    What follows are quotes from various sources dealing with the journalistic profession.

    "It takes two things to change the world and you'd be surprised how many people have good ideas. Commitment, true commitment, requires sacrifice."
    --Julian Assange

    Julian exposed another set of wars...what do you say to people like 
    Chelsea Manning and Julian, who’s the principal target of the legal and judicial brutalities taking place, when they reveal stuff, which everyone knows it’s true, since some of it is on video — Americans bombing Iraqi families, totally innocent... laughing about it and are recorded killing them? That’s a big joke. Well, it isn’t a big joke for the millions who have died in the Arab world since these 20 years of war began. And Julian, far from being indicted, should actually be a hero... He should never have been kept in prison for bail. He should not be in prison now awaiting a trial for extradition. He should be released.
    --Tariq Ali

    You have to start with the truth. The truth is the only way that we can get anywhere. Because any decision-making that is based upon lies or ignorance can't lead to a good conclusion.
    --Julian Assange

    WikiLeaks... published nearly 400,000 field reports about the Iraq War, which contained evidence of U.S. war crimes, over 15,000 previously unreported deaths of Iraqi civilians, and the systematic murder, torture, rape and abuse by the Iraqi army and authorities that were ignored by U.S. forces.
    --Marjorie Cohn

    If Julian
     is to be prosecuted, then there’s an equally good case for the editor and journalists in The Guardian... New York Times, Der Spiegel, El País, La República and all the other organizations involved in this coverage being prosecuted, too. Obama, in spite of his liberal background, failed to stand up to the pressure from the intelligence agencies, and he used the draconian 1917 Espionage Act and other laws against whistleblowers and journalists. In fact, Obama was responsible for more prosecutions and action against journalists and whistleblowers than all the other presidents in the U.S. combined.
    --Ewen MacAskill

    The fat Russian agent was cornering all the foreign refugees in turn and explaining plausibly that this whole affair was an Anarchist plot. I watched him with some interest, for it was the first time that I had seen a person whose profession was telling lies—unless one counts journalists.
      --George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

      Secretive power loathes journalists who do their job: who push back screens, peer behind façades, lift rocks. Opprobrium from on high is their badge of honour.
      --John Pilger

      Journalists can help people by telling the truth, or by as much truth as they can find, and acting not as agents of governments, of power, but of people. That is real journalism. The rest is specious and false.

      It was a fatal day when the public discovered that the pen is mightier than the paving-stone, and can be made as offensive as the brickbat. They at once sought for the journalist, found him, developed him, and made him their industrious and well-paid servant. It is greatly to be regretted, for both their sakes. Behind the barricade there may be much that is noble and heroic. But what is there behind the leading-article but prejudice, stupidity, cant, and twaddle? And when these four are joined together they make a terrible force, and constitute the new authority.

      Today's quotes were prompted by the following statement from an article on Medium. It has nothing to do with The Fifth Estate, but makes a thoughtful contribution to what is being stirred here.

      "What prompted me to journal for the first time in so long is the sense that I was hitting a new inflection point. I felt that the density of my personality had deteriorated. My inner life as of late has only one or two tempos. A full orchestra became just one oboe, and a viola. The cellos are gone, as well as the French horns."
      --Timothy Kim, [journals] 11-26-2021

      * * * * 
      Trivia: Julian Assange contacted Cumberbatch and tried to dissuade him from being in the film.

      Trivia: On September 18 2013, Wikileaks released a mature version of the complete script to the public, because "the film is, from WikiLeaks' perspective, irresponsible, counterproductive and harmful." They also published a "Talking Points" memo "because it represents a frank internal appraisal of [the film] and what is wrong with it."

      Statement from one of the reviewers on
      "It seems like so much of what we hear today, from politicians and celebrities and publicists is 'spin.' And most of us are aware that there's more than they're telling us."

      Feedback welcome. This is intended as a conversation starter. Feel free to comment.

      Sunday, July 24, 2022

      An Observation from Solzhenitsyn's Warning to the West

      Photo: Gary Firstenberg
      The following was penned in the mid-Seventies. In what way was this visionary Nobel Prize-winning author right on and in what ways off the mark? How much of this description would be accurate for today? 

      Russia Before the Revolution: Today, the West Follows in Her Ways.

      "And what we see is always the same as it was then: adults deferring to the opinions of their children; the younger generation carried away by shallow, worthless ideas; professors scared of being unfashionable; journalists refusing to take responsibility for the words they squander so easily; universal sympathy for revolutionary extremists; people with serious objections unable or unwilling to voice them; the majority passively obsessed with a feeling of doom; feeble governments; societies whose defensive reactions have become paralyzed; spiritual confusion leading to political upheaval."

      A. Solzhenitsyn--Warning to the West, p. 130

      * * * * *

      Related Links

      Remembering Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: A Profile in Courage

      Solzhenitsyn Indictment of the West Still Stands

      Saturday, July 23, 2022

      The 2015 Acoustic Salute to the Music of Bob Dylan

      Today I received an email about the 2015 concert at Sacred Heart at the beginning of Duluth Dylan Fest. It was indeed a very. special event, with Mayor Don Ness making a proclamation that it was Scarlet Rivera Day here in the town where Bob Dylan was born and continues to be celebrated. 

      Scarlet Rivera and Jim Hall in rehearsal
      The event was titled Acoustic Salute to the Music of Bob Dylan.

      For me it was a privilege to be part of it, with Marc Percansky as MC, the late John Bushey performing magic like the master entertainer he was, and a fabulous array of musicians and performers.

      Here's the setlist along with hotlinks to the segments from each of the three segments of this wonderfully crafted event.

      Marc Percansky - My Life In A Stolen Moment
      John Bushey with assistants Lisa Berg and Zane Bail - Magic
      Mayor Don Ness - City of Duluth Office of the Mayor PROCLAMATION Scarlet Rivera Day

      SET 1
      The Boomchucks - Paths Of Victory / Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie
      The Boomchucks - It's Good To Be A Rolling Stone

      SET 2
      Kenny Krona - She Belongs To Me
      Gaelynn Lea - Let It Go
      Rob Wheeler - Dignity
      Kenny Krona - Someone To Let Me In
      Gaelynn Lea - All The Tired Horses (You Are Alive)
      Rob Wheeler - Dreamers Waltz

      SET 3
      Jim Hall with Scarlet Rivera - Tears Of Rage
      Ed Newman and Elliot Silberman - One Too Many Mornings
      Courtney Yasmineh - You're A Big Girl Now
      Jim Hall - Problem Tune
      Ed Newman - What Good Am I?
      Courtney Yasmineh - Hang On For The Ride


      Nelson T. French - Remarks

      SET 4
      Sam Miltich - Don't Think Twice, It's All Right
      Todd Eckart - Lay Lady Lay
      Barbara Meyer with Lonnie Knight - Autumn Leaves
      Sam Miltich - Girl From The North Country
      Todd Eckart - My Sweet Friend
      Barbara Meyer - I'll Be Your Baby Tonight

      SET 5
      Billy Hallquist - Subterranean Homesick Blues
      Gene LaFond and Amy Grillo with Scarlet Rivera - Born In Time
      Lonnie knight with Scarlet Rivera - Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues
      Scarlet Rivera with Gene LaFond and Amy Grillo - Every Grain Of Sand
      Billy Hallquist - Buddah's Rosary
      Gene LaFond and Amy Grillo with Scarlet Rivera - Crash On The Levee (Down In The Flood)
      Lonnie Knight - All Along The Watchtower
      Scarlet Rivera with Gene LaFond and Amy Grillo - One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below)
      Billy Hallquist with Lonnie Knight - Tomorrow Is A Long Time
      Gene LaFond and Amy Grillo with Scarlet Rivera - Listen To Your Heart
      Lonnie Knight with Barbara Meyer - This One's For You
      Scarlet Rivera with Gene LaFond and Amy Grillo - The Sacred Wheel Of Give And Take

      All - I Shall Be Released

      * * * * 

      Here's my 2015 review of the concert. In it I include details about the thoughtful rationale for how the concert was arranged.
      The two songs I performed can be found on Part 2 at 8:15 (One Two Many Mornings, with Elliot Silberman) and 19:34 (What Good Am I?)

      Thursday, July 21, 2022

      Throwback Thursday: Is That Really What You Want? How Do You Know? Thoughts from The Century of Self.


      For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
      the more knowledge, the more grief.
      Ecclesiastes 1:18

      A couple weeks ago I saw a question on Quora that intrigued me. Someone asked, "What is the hardest truth?" Several thoughts came to mind, one of them being the awareness of how chained we are by habit, genetic disposition, the formative influence of our upbringing, our tastes, our temperaments… and that to change our selves is exceedingly hard and far more difficult than we imagine.

      The irony is that we believe we're free agents. It certainly feels like we're free. I can order anything on this menu that I want, right? I can watch any movie I want. Or read any book I want.

      In 2002 the BBC broadcast a four-part documentary called The Century of Self. It's an eye-opening look at recent history from a new angle, from "behind the curtain" as it were.

      When we think of influential people in our lives, I doubt that very many of us think of Sigmund Freud. Most people (I have no evidence and am only guessing here) associate Freud with the idea of a patient lying on a couch talking to a psychologist taking notes, or with what seem like strange notions of repressed sexuality, Oedipal complexes and the like. The Century of Self addresses another way in which Freud influenced us, through techniques of mass manipulation developed and implemented by his nephew Edward Bernays, the founder of modern Public Relations (a term which itself is a euphemism for propaganda.)

      "By satisfying the masses' inner selfish desires one made them happy, and thus docile." Bernays, this program claims, was central in the development of "the all-consuming self which has come to dominate our world today."

      Why are there so many hoarders among us these days? How is it that there are so many storage facilities in existence today, a whole industry that sprang up to store excess stuff, stuff that people don't use or need or know what to do with because they have so much other stuff?

      * * * *
      The series has four parts. They were:
      "Happiness Machines"
      "The Engineering of Consent" 
      "There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads; He Must Be Destroyed" 
      "Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering"

      A description of Part 1 includes this paragraph:

      Bernays was one of the main architects of the modern techniques of mass-consumer persuasion, using every trick in the book, from celebrity endorsement and outrageous PR stunts, to eroticizing the motorcar. His most notorious coup was breaking the taboo on women smoking by persuading them that cigarettes were a symbol of independence and freedom. But Bernays was convinced that this was more than just a way of selling consumer goods. It was a new political idea of how to control the masses. By satisfying the inner irrational desires that his uncle had identified, people could be made happy and thus docile.

      The BBC PR for this documentary describes the program this way:
      To many in politics and business, the triumph of the self is the ultimate expression of democracy, where power has finally moved to the people. Certainly, the people may feel they are in charge, but are they really? The Century of the Self tells the untold and sometimes controversial story of the growth of the mass-consumer society. How was the all-consuming self created, by whom, and in whose interests?

      * * * *
      Related Link

      There's much more that can be said here, but it's time to start my day. If you have time, the programs are enlightening. You can also read a synopsis here on Wikipedia.

      Meantime, life outside goes on all around you. Think about it.

      Wednesday, July 20, 2022

      Recent Readings: The Fifties and The Miracle Worker

      Ann Bancroft and Patty Duke
      in The Miracle Worker
      It seems like a habit of mine to take a big fat book and turn it into a summer read. This year's lunch hour mental nourishment has been David Halberstam's The Fifties. When I acquired the book at a June library sale I wrote a note to myself on the first page where I usually place my name and the year I bought it. The note reads, "Still trying to understand myself and my generation."

      If you were a Baby Boomer, I can't recommend a better volume than this one for highlighting the multitude of events that shaped our world going forward. Television, suburbs, rock and roll, the Cold War--what a decade.

      I also generally like to close the end of my day with some thoughtful reading. Two standouts from my evening reads were The Glass Menagerie and The Miracle Worker.

      The Glass Menagerie is a powerful play by Tennessee Williams which I wrote about here. The Miracle Worker, by William Gibson, proved to be equally potent. 

      If you are unfamiliar with the story of Helen Keller, then I strongly recommend it. It's an astounding story that has been converted to a three-act play about a girl born both deaf and blind and the young woman, Anne Sullivan, who broke through her isolation and opened her up to the world by teaching her how to communicate. The three-act play also went on to become a film by the same name.

      There's a sense in which the unlocking of Helen Keller was serendipitous. Anne Sullivan knew all too well what lay ahead for Helen if she could not be reached.  Sullivan herself had been blind, and with her brother had been put in an institution. Any number of other people could have been hired, but Sullivan had experienced things few others ever had. She also had nowhere else to go, though she hid this fact from the family that hired her.

      In the 1962 film version of the play Anne Bancroft (Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate) is Anne Sullivan, with Patty Duke in the role of Helen Keller. Bancroft and Duke played these same roles in William Gibson's 1959 Broadway play about this story which was based on the book Keller published in 1904 titled The Story of My Life.

      The scope of the play is quite narrow: the arrival of Anne Sullivan to assume responsibility for bringing "light" to the deaf and blind girl of an Alabama family. In addition to disagreements about how to best help Helen, there is friction between Sullivan, who is from New England, and the Southern culture which is still distrustful of the North. 

      Here's a bit of trivia that's not in the play. Mark Twain took an interest in this story. It was Twain who first called Sullivan a miracle worker. Twain also arranged funding for Helen Keller to attend Radcliffe College. (I'll bet you didn't know that.) She became the first deaf/blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree there.

      Keller went on to write 14 books, countless articles and gave speeches in 36 countries around the world.  

      Related Link
      Interview with John S. Hall, the Blind Poet of Ritchie County

      Monday, July 18, 2022

      Sirpa Särkijärvi Returns to the Joseph Nease Gallery in Duluth

      Finnish painter Sirpa Särkijärvi was in Duluth this weekend to give an artist talk to a strong turnout at the Joseph Nease Gallery (JNG) here. This is Särkijärvi's second visit to the JNG here in Duluth, the first being with a powerful exhibition titled Transcriptions in 2019.

      I was able to sit with her for a few minutes before her artist talk Saturday to discuss her current work and career. Sirpa, who is tall and slender, was wearing a pastel yellow dress with a Mickey Mouse image on the front. Her gentle appearance seems almost at odds with the volcanic force of her work, which she said emerges from within.

      She talked about the psychological aspects of how the mind works, and about relationships, and how we learn about who we are through interactions with others. "Every person is different," which brings out different aspects of our selves.

      detail from painting below

      It was interesting to learn how Finland supports its artists and covers their expenses when they have exhibits abroad. It is as if the nation is proud to showcase its talents. 

      Her current show has six pieces that are similar in power yet more complex than her 2019 show. Within the figures there are many other things happening as you can see here. I asked how this came about.

      She replied that in 2005 she was doing something similar in that she had other things happening within the images beyond the images themselves. These new works, all created in 2022, draw from and incorporate some of that exploration. "I don't plan too much," she said, adding that she relies a lot on instinct.

      The artist is originally from Northern Finland, in the vicinity of Lapland near the arctic. She now lives in the south, about 200 km from Helsinki.

      When I asked about the influence of having come from such a cold, remote region, she said something that made me think of a conversation I had with Native American photographer Vern Northrup. Both Sirpa and Vern said the same thing: you have to prepare for winter. You don't take it for granted.

      In Sirpa's case, she compared her painting approach to that very notion of preparation. She described what is involved with getting her acrylic paints to have a precise consistency. Her style is fluid so the paint must be very liquid. 

      I said that it seemed her paintings had a bit of Francis Bacon influence, and she confirmed that there was some of that. And though quite different from Willem de Kooning, there's a sense of the same energy being released in the process. "I have to work quick," she said with regard to her own process. 

      detail from painting above

      "Because I'm a reasonable human being, when I paint I have to lose myself," she said. There a conscious side to her painting (preparation) and an unconscious side. "That's why I relax and connect to myself. There are no rules."

      * * * 

      Notes from Her Artist Statement

      Sirpa at the JNG with Tara Austin
      works in background
      Särkijärvi (b. 1974 in Muonio) is currently based in Turku, Finland. She's interested in approaching her subjects from the perspective of literary deconstruction or critical reading, revealing hidden conflicts of meaning. She seems very in tune with the ideas that we are not isolated individuals. We cannot escape each other's' influence.

      Her paintings are inspired by our motivations, needs and the inconsistency of our actions, which together form the complex entity that the artist attempts to reflect in her work. What is between the lines is also important.

      Intertextuality, everything that has been experienced, seen and learned influences the artists's interpretation. Finally, viewers also receive and interpret everything in the painting through their own backgrounds and experiences.

      Beginning of presentation at the JNG
      Särkijärvi creates her paintings in several long and methodical painting sessions. Her method is technically demanding as 
      she uses dozens of pre-mixed colors and it requires a lot of preparation, and development of the idea. Särkijärvi says that her goal is to immerse herself in the work so that painting becomes a tool for thought and contemplation. She paints with fluid acrylics onto a horizontal canvas where the paint flows and mixes to form planes of color, movements and strokes, and the fragmented structure creates illusions that change depending on the distance they are viewed from.

      The vibrant and explosive material turns into considered and controlled images of humanity. The paintings seem at the same time out of control and closely controlled, just like the human mind often is.

      Sirpa Särkijärvi lives and works in Turku but she was born in Muonio in Lapland. Her family's long history and deep roots in northernmost Finland have left their mark on her identity and influenced her visual approach.

      * * *

      Related Link
      Sneak Preview: Sirpa Särkijärvi
      Joseph Nease Gallery  home page

      Sunday, July 17, 2022

      An Example of Polarity Management: The Grateful Dead's Truckin'

      A few decades back my brother Ron, a psychologist, shared a concept with me that seems to have endless applications, the idea of Polarity Management. The concept is illustrated perfectly in two lines from the Grateful Dead's lively hit song "Truckin'." 

      If you remember the song, it's essentially about life on the road as a band, with commentary about the various places they stayed or performed from Houston and New Orleans to New York, Buffalo and back to Bourbon Street. It talks openly about life on the road, which for many if not most bands included drugs at the time, so it was a counterculture anthem, not mainstream. 

      The stanza that sums up polarity management is this one:

      You're sick of hanging around and you'd like to travel
      Tired of travel, you want to settle down

      I guess they can't revoke your soul for trying
      Get out of the door - light out and look all around

      Who hasn't had the experience? You get tired of doing nothing and become restless, so you get busy. At a certain point, if you're too busy, you crave a break, a downtime.  So we pause, and it refreshes, but then that pause generates a longing to be active again. It's a cycle

      There are dozens, even hundreds, of polarity cycles. Finding the balance between work and play is a problem that leads us into cycles. Some people like structure in their lives and create rigid lifestyles which at times feel like constraints or even shackles that we need to shake off. In our relationships, we may find our natural inclination to be supportive of whatever friends pursue, but then we fall back into a sense in which we feel a need to challenge them a little. ("Are you sure you're marching down the right path? Remember what happened last time.")

      In our current post-covid business environment many executive and management level workers are struggling to find a balance between working in the office again (centralization) and continuing the "cocooning" style of working from home and connecting on Zoom. One thing for sure is that the benefits and weaknesses of each style have been experienced so that at least alternatives to what used to be a historical method have now been questioned. What comes next? It waits to be seen.

      Roller coasters are exciting, but if we went to an amusement park and spent 98% of the time being flung all about, arms akimbo, we'd be ill. The excitement is fun, even terrifying, when it is temporary. Finding balance between equilibrium and drama is big part of life for many people 

      Truckin' was penned by Robert Hunter, the only songwriter in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who was not a performer, a lyricist for the Grateful Dead. Bob Dylan and Hunter collaborated on Dylan's 2009 album Together Through Life, which I listened to almost continuously as I set up a major art show that summer in what is now called the Lincoln Park District here in Duluth.

      To learn more about Polarity Management ask Google. Or see what's available in your local library. Numerous articles and books have been written on the subject. At the heart of them all is an apparent desire find the Golden Mean, a life of balance of sorts betwixt and between all the forces pulling us back and forth in various directions.

      For me, there's a lively sophistication in the arrangement in which all the players seem to dance around the melody in this song while no one actually plays it. The singer carries that melody, surrounded by an entourage of sound that is lively, pressing ever forward. It's catchy.

      If interested, you can learn more about Truckin' (not necessarily polarity management) here at

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