"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Friday, January 28, 2011

January: Forward Vision, Backward Glance

Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld, 1861
by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796 - 1875)
French Landscape Painter
The Legendary Orpheus, greatest musician of Greek mythology, and his wife Eurydice, who died young but was granted leave by Hades, god of the Underworld, to return from the dead, upon the condition that Orpheus, who had descended to claim her, should walk in front of Eurydice without glancing behind until they were both safe in the Upper World.
Corot's 1860 Sketch
for Orphee Entrainant Eurydice


So the first month of 2011 is nearly gone! Not only is the old year past, but fast away the new year passes as well! However, we can't let January get away without paying our respects to Janus, the ancient Roman god of "gates, doors, doorways, beginnings, endings and time."

As I wrote last year around this time, it's good to remember that our opening month is named for this two - headed, two - faced deity who possessed knowledge of the future and wisdom of the past. Conveniently, Janus could see forward into the New Year and backward into the Old. It was customary to place his image, maybe a small statue or amulet, at the front entrance of every home where he could look outward at the passersby as well as inward toward the home dwellers.

Speaking of passing fast away, let me recommend a timely, stylish, and informative blog out of Philadelphia: Obsolescing: watching technologies as they wane. It is a nostalgic blog, but also forward thinking -- like Janus! Each post reads like an elegant reverse treasure hunt, presenting items such as typewriter erasers (not to mention typewriters!) and telephone books (not to mention telephones!) and tracing each technology back to its origin.

I like the way that my friend Ann de Forest and her co-blogger David Comberg describe what their blog is about: "We are not so much interested in wringing our hands over what we are losing as in considering the experience of loss that has always been a part of technological change." As they explain in their very first post (March 26, 2009): "Documenting objects and experiences that are rapidly disappearing from our daily lives, this blog elegizes the obsolescent and extinct, celebrates creative reinterpretations of technologies liberated from their original function, and analyzes the particular language used to talk about those technologies as they are vanishing."

No time for hand wringing! The technological landscape is changing much too quickly for such indulgence. Besides, if we take that approach, there are so many things to mourn, how could we ever find enough hours in the day? Better, surely, to spend that time looking forward. The backward glance must be swift, the forward vision steady, especially if we hope to master each miraculous new life - enhancing technology.

In several of her essays, Ann takes a closer look at these conflicting emotions:

1. "The Nature of Elegy" (July 7, 2009): "If change is loss, as pop psychologists love to say, then we all must be in a state of perpetual mourning. Depending on your age, you grieve for skate keys or glass milk bottles or the iceman’s cart; for 2-sided record albums, Checker cabs, solid black desk phones; Polaroid cameras, typewriters, cork in wine bottles, the Walkman – the list is endless. Even as we embrace convenient, new technologies, it seems to be human nature to lament whatever the next new thing replaces."

Further examples, such as Robert Louis Stevenson's insistence that electricity was inferior to the dear old gas lamp, illustrate the point that lamenting waning technology is hardly a new phenomenon. It was ever thus.

2. "An Emblem for Our Times" (July 7, 2009): "We all – no matter how old we are – can name a thousand things, the stuff of our childhoods, that now are virtually extinct. I’m sure I’m not alone in having felt an irrational pang for the passing of utilitarian objects that I never paid much attention to when they were commonplace" (e.g., the typewriter eraser mentioned above).

Yes, I have felt that pang! In fact, I feel it now, just reading these words. For things like the Joe Namath Popcorn Popper (try ebay). It's not the machine itself -- I mean, really, who wants to wash that thing? Anyone can see that microwave popcorn, in it's own sealed, disposable bag, is far superior -- cleaner, healthier, safer, easier -- you name it. But the memory isn't about any of those features; it's about Santa Claus bringing such a cool present for the whole family to play with, back in 1972!

On the coffee table:
Joe Namath Popcorn Popper & Princess Phone
As my sister Peg wrote, back when I
this same photograph a few months ago:
"Our pink princess phone! I loved that phone
and spent a lot of time talking on it late into the night.
Sometimes even when Mom & Dad didn't know I was on the phone!"
Because of another amazing feature -- an extra long cord! --
we could even pull the phone into the closet
(behind the door I'm leaning against) and shut the door.
How we loved that privacy, secrecy, and coziness!

But I digress! Back to Obsolescing . . .

3. One of my favorite recent posts is the autumnal "Ode for the Season" October 6, 2010 with it's allusion to the bereft Orpheus and Gerard Manley Hopkins' mournful little Margaret: "I think that the emotions that autumn elicits, the melancholy my own primitive soul starts feeling as the days shorten, are akin to the distress and sorrow we feel as the objects of our life, the utilitarian technologies that once surrounded and defined us, fade into memory. News of a past technology’s demise makes us suddenly, desperately long to hold, to touch, to smell, to hear the things of our past. Like Orpheus leading his beloved from the Underworld, we look back to reassure ourselves that the everyday things we have known and loved and remember still exist in their full corporeal presence (That’s why we revel in the sensory details — the typewriter’s clacking keys, the mimeograph ink’s distinctive scent.) Instead, we turn back to watch, in sadness and horror, as the objects of our lives, the tangible evidence of our own existence, slip from our outstretched arms" (~ Ann de Forest).

[detail from Corot's painting]

So as January comes to a close, should you crave a late night reminiscence of the old year or desire some early morning reading in contemplation of the new months ahead, turn on your astonishingly capable laptop computer and take a further look at Obsolescing: watching technologies as they wane. Enjoy the nostalgic, visionary musings of Ann de Forest and David Comberg.

Republican Janus Coin, c. 225 - 212 BCE

Next Fortnightly Post
Monday, February 14, 2011

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Friday, January 14, 2011

Keep Christmas With You

~~ Reminds Gerry of his grandfather's "Old House" in England ~~
Urban Garden Under Snow

by Douglas Percy Bliss (Scottish Painter, 1900 - 84)


Presents From A Friend!

"But while we often like to comfort
or flatter ourselves with the thought that the future is now,
the brute truth is, the future is not now. The present is now.
The future is later -- in some cases much later."

quotation from the humorous little book,
Santa Lives! Five Conclusive Arguments
for the Existence of Santa Claus

by wry humorist Elllis Weiner (b 1950)
Coauthor of Yiddish with Dick and Jane and The Joy of Worry


The following poem by W. H. Auden is one of my favorites, but with all the presents put away, and the neighbors' (not mine! not yet!) undecorated trees abandoned by the curbside, I was afraid that I might have left it too late for blogging. You often see this poem appearing last, in the final "end - of - season" section, in the holiday anthologies and poetry collections. The opening lines tell you right away that it is a post - Christmas poem, appropriate for the day or even the week after -- but the middle of January?

Luckily, I came across an incredibly insightful, helpful essay, by ethics professor William F. French, entitled "Auden’s Moral Comedy: A Late-Winter Reading" (click to read). Not mid - January, mind you, but "Late - Winter." Clearly, I still have plenty of time! Actually, I'm early!

French writes that Auden's poem "has more to do with the serious confrontation with emptiness in late winter than with holiday good cheer in December." He suggests reading it near the end of January or during February, "when the chilling winds and numbing routine have taken their toll . . . Only a late-winter reading allows access to the deeper layers of meaning in the poem." Although it is better known by its subtitle ("A Christmas Oratorio") French prefers to focus on the title -- "For the Time Being," a concept that he defines in his analysis as "the deadeningly mundane . . . the monotonous sludge . . . the general drudgery . . . the flat stretches." That's the Time Being for you! (See Ellis Weiner above for a more humorous explanation, but just as true.)

As the ennobling sentiments of the season recede, we must accept the fact that "our ordinary existence is lived out in a post-Christmas world . . . the mundane world of the everyday," the quotidian, shall we say. Here is a brief excerpt from Auden's lengthy (around fifty pages) "Oratorio":

For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio
Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes --
Some have got broken -- and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week --
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted -- quite unsuccessfully --
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility . . .

The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are . . .

And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all . . .

In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God's Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.

by W. H. Auden (1907 - 73)
Anglo-American poet
Born in England, later an American citizen


Consistent with Auden's "unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought / Of Lent and Good Friday," contemporary poet Steve Turner presents a somewhat bleaker vision:

Christmas is Really for the Children
Christmas is really
for the children.
Especially for children
who like animals, stables,
stars and babies wrapped
in swaddling clothes.
Then there are wise men,
kings in fine robes,
humble shepherds and a
hint of rich perfume.

Easter is not really
for the children
unless accompanied by a
cream filled egg.
It has whips, blood, nails,
a spear and allegations
of body snatching.
It involves politics, god
and the sins of the world.
It is not good for people
of a nervous disposition.
They would do better to
think on rabbits, chickens
and the first snowdrop
of spring.

Or they'd do better to
wait for a re-run of
Christmas without asking
too many questions about
what Jesus did when he grew up
or whether there's any connection.

Steve Turner (b. 1949)
British music journalist, biographer, and poet


And finally, some excellent post-seasonal advice from Sesame Street. If you're not familiar with this song already, perhaps from watching Christmas Eve on Sesame Street a couple hundred times with your kids, then you are in for a treat. Click on the title to view the children's surprising and touchingly rendered sign language presentation:

Keep Christmas With You All Through the Year
When Christmas time is over
and presents put away,
don't be sad
There'll be so much to treasure
about this Christmas day
and the fun we've had
So may happy feelings to celebrate with you
And, oh, the good time hurry by so fast,
But even when it's over
there's something you can do to make
Christmas last:

Keep Christmas with you
All through the year,
When Christmas is over,
You can keep it near.
Think of this Christmas day
When Christmas is far away.

Keep Christmas with you
All through the year,
When Christmas is over,
Save some Christmas cheer.
These precious moments,
Hold them very dear
And keep Christmas with you
All through the year.

Christmas means the spirit of giving,
Peace and joy to you,
The goodness of loving,
The gladness of living;
These are Christmas too.

So, keep Christmas with you
All through the year,
When Christmas is over,
Save some Christmas cheer.
These precious moments,
Hold them very dear
And keep Christmas with you
All through the year.

lyrics by David Axelrod (b. 1936)
American lyricist,composer, and producer

music by Sam Pottle (1934 - 78)
American composer, conductor, musical director

from Christmas Eve on Sesame Street

Which one should I open next?
Next Fortnightly Post
Friday, January 28, 2011

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading