Internet Sampler

Monday, April 9, 2018

Smile!: Unscripted Reactions to Candid Photography


"There are only two styles of portrait painting: the serious and the smirk."  – Charles Dickens 


Who can get enough of  personal imagery, especially if it’s of you? Rembrandt painted nearly eighty self-portraits; Frida Kahlo, fifty or so.  Online, some folks claim to have hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs of themselves. I myself have rather fewer, alas, none of them any good. But given so particular an affinity for one’s own physiognomy, it seems  ironic, indeed  lamentable, that the latter be treated as a peculiar possession so reluctantly parted with as to begrudge others even the occasional effigy. Most folks, it turns out, are  unenthusiastic about having their picture taken, especially impromptu or candid ones. More about this in a bit. 

Under African sun, 1976
Portraiture emphasizing facial likeness was little known until the time of 18th dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten in the 14th century BC.  The first portraits to appear in a truly natural or realistic modern-day style were probably the Fayum mummy portraits from Greco-Roman Egypt in the 3rd- 4th centuries.

During Europe’s Medieval period, having one’s portrait painted was considered vanity, jeopardizing one’s standing in the grace of God. The diminutive figures of donors in the sacred art of the Middle Ages often seem tenuous, a little precarious – obeisance on all fours symbolizing at once penitence yet vanity, or penitence as vanity, a sort of blurring of the line between hubris and humility, punishment and reward. One never knew when one’s piety might be in question, one’s soul at risk. Better to pay the Church – or at least an artist.

Even in today’s world, some members of the Amish community consider photographs to be “graven images” that violate the Bible’s Second Commandment. Other Amish feel that active cooperation in photography of oneself smacks of pride and is a sin for that reason. 




During the Renaissance, such attitudes began to change dramatically – the personal likeness or portrait eventually becoming fashionable not just amongst royalty but the middle classes as well. Portraiture of one sort or another, especially photography beginning about the middle of the 19th century, has been more or less on the rise ever since.

"You brought me a potato, and you expect a peach!"– Gilbert Stuart (to a client dissatisfied  with his wife's portrait)


A “decisive moment” of sorts. New York City, 1974
With today’s smart phone camera, however, this trend may be reaching an apogee of sorts. Camera-computers you wear on your face like Google Glass, the technological successor to the smart phone, have been roundly condemned as over the top for intrusiveness. Early adopters were ignominiously dubbed “glassholes.”  Larry Rosen, an expert in the psychology of technology, offers an analysis of this.

On the other hand, most new technologies to varying degrees have had to weather the travails of unfamiliarity on the path to popularity, and the same may be true of Google Glass (Google hasn’t thrown in the towel on the device). Even so, one might wonder if patience with today’s avalanche of personal depiction, or at least with the turn it’s been taking, may be starting to wear thin.

Fingers do the walking – and the talking. Rye, New 
York, 1977
Personal imagery or depiction of people has always had something of a numinous quality about it that taps into the human psyche. The sympathetic magic of the voodoo doll is perhaps a good example. Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, in a novel treatment of the same idea, imagines how one might preserve untrammeled youthfulness by outsourcing the decrepitude of age and ravages of debauchery to a likeness of oneself painted on canvas. To the devout, depictions of Jesus’ sacred heart such as adorn those crimson votive candles or hold center sway in some household shrines have similar import – never mind the plethora of iconography to be found in houses of worship.

Fashion model on a photo shoot focuses 
on the other photographer. Piazza di 
Spagna, Rome, 2002
At the extreme, the personal image or photograph has been imagined, not merely to engage the psyche, but actually make off with the soul! The Lakota leader Crazy Horse famously refused to be photographed because of such a belief, as did other Native Americans who thought photography showed disrespect for the spirit world. The same was true for some of Canada’s First Nation peoples. In Central Africa, fear of the photo was found amongst the Yaos people (page 90), as it was in 19th century Japan (which has come a long way since). Even today, some Aboriginal cultures forbid the display of pictures of the deceased for at least a year after death. For others, it’s disrespectful to show such images at all or even utter the names attached to them. 

But it’s typically been difficult to separate the fear of photography misunderstood as a medium of sympathetic magic from alarm over its imagined power to literally hijack the spirit or soul. In either case, many pre-industrial folk historically have been wary of having their pictures “taken.”

Relying on some imaginative notions about quantum mechanics, Michael Fryd proposes an amusing tongue-in-cheek explanation of the supposed physics of photographic soul snatching. If his theory is correct, though, you could end up kidnapping your own soul, or at least unplugging it, by taking a selfie, so beware.

Quite apart from primitive notions of imagery’s magical properties, people today for various reasons are still chary about being photographed, especially if it’s a candid shot done on the fly without their permission. One woman has even posted a shrill manifesto listing her objections and premeditated responses.

In a report published in 1980,  Guile et al. noted that study subjects reacted to candid or impromptu photography as an invasion of personal space – typically responding to the photographer by either smiling or running away. Interestingly, no aggressive responses were observed.

Likewise, photographer Eric Kim has said that in the course of taking an estimated 300,000 candid street shots, he encountered aggressive reactions on only three occasions, none of them serious in his view. His discussion of how to go about doing this kind of photography is instructive.

As distinct from the public at large, police and the military are notoriously wary of and often belligerent about being photographed.  In many foreign jurisdictions, it’s illegal and/or dangerous to do. Given the nature of their professional duties, some sensitivity at having any sort of device with a barrel, sights, or rangefinder pointed at them might seem understandable. But unfortunately the reluctance of these groups probably has more to do with issues of public accountability and how to avoid it.

When it comes to candid photography, no figure looms larger than the late Heni Cartier-Bresson (1908 – 2004), still considered by many the doyen of his genre. Publication of his photo anthology The Decisive Moment in 1952 set a standard that in many respects still prevails today.

As phrased in the book’s title, the “decisive moment” expresses Cartier-Bresson’s idea that the photographer must be able to recognize the precise moment in which multiple elements of a scene come into equilibrium, then instantly seize that moment – the “decisive moment” – to capture the image on film. As he put it, “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition in a fraction of a second the significance of an event, as well as the precise organization the forms that give that event its proper expression.”

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In reality, the famous phrase has become a shibboleth of candid photography that makes better sense put in context. Like most serious practitioners of the genre, Cartier-Bresson would “work the scene” (he was also a photojournalist), taking multiple shots of a situation, then choosing the best one(s) from a contact sheet. Yet every exposure in the collection, even if discarded (a contact sheet for “Seville, Spain, 1933” is extant, but most were destroyed after vetting), would still represent a decisive moment in its own right. The famous photographer would sometimes shoot an entire roll of film to get a single publishable (in his judgement) image – it’s selection a sort of definitive moment for the collection as a whole. 

Moroccan guide Omar Kyam gamely posed for 
pictures but strongly warned against photographing 
“any kind of police.” Marrakech, 1976
Thus understood, “decisive moment” contains less of an idea of preternatural, almost superhuman graphic acuity-cum-reflexive responsiveness on the part of the photographer and instead takes on an element of trial and error. Cartier-Bresson himself once said “Of course it’s all luck" – but then he was notorious for this kind of self-deprecating hyperbole, having also once declared “As for photography, I don’t know the first thing about it.

Despite such pronouncements, Cartier-Bresson’s talent was formidable. For me, a better understanding of his technique and methods makes his work that much more accessible.

As for the “decisive moment,” it’s an ideal for which one strives.

“The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks!”Henri Cartier-Bresson 


Though Cartier-Bresson claimed not to manipulate his subjects, he often staged portraits, either through stylized composition or by using props. Some of his street photos, like “Barrio Chino, Barcelona,1933” or “Behind the Saint-Lazare Station, Paris, 1932” are so extraordinary that doubts about staging still linger. In point of fact, he was well-known to lay in wait for passersby to walk into a pre-composed frame – which might be considered staging of sorts.

Curiously, photographic self-portraits by Cartier-Bresson are rare, perhaps reflecting his unassuming personality and predilection for privacy. Only three are known to exit. He disliked publicity. 

To me,  the most compelling thing about candid photography like Henri Cartier-Bresson's is its strong people-centeredness. Whether in a studio or on a street corner, people, I believe, are the photographer's greatest challenge by far.  Naturally, it would be simpler to snap pictures of, say, trees or rocks but apart from the likes of Weyerhaeuser or a few antique Freemasons, who could abide the monotony? Artistic treatment or interpretation of living creatures, especially people, through photography is invariably more intimate, more complicated – and that much more interesting.

Sometimes even when your subject objects.



Too agitated to notice photographers, a  groundskeeper berates a pet owner for encouraging his dog to 
cool off in the Venus fountain. Gardens of the Villa Borghese, Rome, 2017



Filming policemen from the rear or with their eyes shut reduces the risk. Left: minor traffic accident,
Hanoi, Vietnam, 2009; Right: lunch break,  Santa Lucia de Tirajana, Gran Canaria, 1976



Capturing this corpulent pair with a telephoto
lens kept the photographer well out of notice.
Montego Bay, Jamaica, 1977

A concerned policeman fends off tourists from snoozing pooches. Puerto Montt, Chile, 2014























Having compelled a photo to assure the camera
was not an infernal device, an airport security official
flashes a smile. Munich International Airport, 1994



Photo fatigue. Three Rivers Campground, Lincoln National Forest, New Mexico, 1997



Defeating  the photographer’s stratagem, a street vendor blocks the camera.
Varanasi, India, 1999


























Too stoned to care, an enormous Indian bull elephant stares impassively.  A
mahout had foolishly tormented the intelligent creature while he was in musth,
whereupon the bull seized the man and taking him to the nearby Narayani River,
drowned him. Remorseful, the elephant then returned the lifeless body to camp and
laid it on the ground. Thereafter, handlers took care to feed the big male industrial
doses of Valium whenever he went into musth and confine him to quarters. Tiger Tops,
Royal Chitwan National Park, Nepal, 1999








































With almost Tantric detachment, a Himalayan domestic yak strikes a placid pose. Outskirts of Thimphu,
Bhutan, 1999






























































Thursday, March 1, 2018

Juliet’s Balcony

“Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?”

I’m not a big fan of fiction. At best I get through the first chapter of a novel, sometime not more than several pages. Then comes the sensation that I’ve seen it all before and that neither enlightenment nor entertainment are likely to ensue.  Alas, I feel like the fellow in the New Yorker cartoon, “The man who knew enough.”

Courtyard, Casa di Giulietta
If fiction is dying as Ted Genoways, editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, speculated a while back, I wish it a good and speedy demise. Too many novelists, it seems to me, labor mightily trying to make sense of characters who are but avatars of themselves (however much they may deny it) in what amounts to a game of amateur psychoanalysis. And an amateur psychologist who has himself for an analyst has a fool for a client.

Professional psychology, on the other hand, has achieved such remarkable levels of sophistication (some view one imminent psychologist, Steven Pinker, as a contemporary hero) that it has arguably far surpassed fiction as a means of understanding ourselves.

Real life Juliet on a Verona 
street corner. But where’s 
Romeo?
For example, why bother with novels based on the 20th century’s two world wars plumbing the darkness of the human soul when you can read psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment (or watch the film)? Far more engrossing than Hemmingway, the Zimbardo experiment might yet be called “A Farewell to Norms.” For what it reveals about the average person’s potential for evil, yours and mine, is more compelling – and appalling – than anything to be discovered in fiction. Indeed, it’s an archetypical example of truth being stranger than fiction.

Anyway, aren’t real people always more complex and appealing than the fictive ones who crop up in novels –  from whence perfervid book reviewers gush over them as though they were long-lost acquaintances, and authors with much-studied coyness and gravitas “explain” them to credulous talk show hosts?

“Doctor, I have this acquaintance who has these hang-ups about sex…”

Or the young woman I once knew who always referred to herself as an abstraction, “my organism.”

Some novelists, of course, blame the internet for the genre's decline, but they ought look closer to home. The truly self-aware writer handy enough with prose to be actually worth reading is a rare bird indeed. Give me non-fiction any day.

Still, fiction has a long and illustrious history stretching back to the Gilgamesh tablets and other such myths, and it’ll always have its enthusiasts. Its seven or eight basic stories will be told and re-told (mainly as short stories, one hopes) forever.

Two gentlemen, Piazza Bra, central Verona
Books that treat on fiction can be just as loopy as fiction itself. Recently, I consulted Nicola J. Watson’s work, The Literary Tourist, for insight into the phenomenon of literary travel, and right away the wickets got sticky. Such travel, as she explicates it, sounds like a turn through a Disneyland for literati during which time one’s cognitive life, despite the road trip (or perhaps because of it), bleeds profusely into the imaginary (or vice versa). Indeed, it sounds like a journey from which one might not fully recoup – as though stepping into the pages of Madame Bovary whilst in Tostes or Yonville (the book’s settings), say, you find yourself hopelessly entangled in a whale bone corset with patent leather bindings and no end in sight.

Here’s Watson evoking her children’s visit to the Lake District, setting of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons (I’d never heard of it either), as a metaphor for the emotional experience of the literary tourist:
“In miniature this is a description of the emotional experience of the literary tourist. It is not simply that so and so was there, but rather that so and so imagined something there, and it was and was not the same thing, just as parents are and are not, ever, children, and just as children are and are not the same thing as their parents. It is a perfect description of the eruption of the uncanny, the familiar rendered strange.”
To me, this does and, well, doesn’t make sense, may or may not add up to jamais vu. Would you very well stray into the drink during an outing at Walden, say – on account of the sudden uncanny strangeness of ponds – because you happened to read Thoreau? The credulous reader should bring water wings.

Watson again:
“Indeed to go somewhere in order to read or contemplate a particular
book just there may be one of the most direct ways we have of unsettling
our sense of the real and experiencing precisely Derrida's sense of
the non-existence of 'natural presence'.”
Maybe. Or perhaps one is just a reader with an overactive imagination and a penchant for tourist traps. You wonder to what extent some books on fiction might ought be considered fictional themselves.

Still, one can imagine a kind of merging of the real and the fanciful that for some folks might invest certain places with particular meaning, and Watson’s book does contain interesting tidbits.

The 18th and 19th century, she says, saw tourism to places connected with literature grow significantly, witnessing the rise, for example, of William Shakespeare's Stratford-upon-Avon, Sir Walter Scott's Abbotsford, Robert Burns’ Alloway, and the Bronte sisters' Haworth. The phenomenon persists today so that by now there’re any number of such places to visit, e.g., 'Inspector Morse Country' and the 'Morse Bar' at the Randolph Hotel in central Oxford; King's Cross Station with J.K. Rawling's train platform for Hogwarts school marked “Platform 9 ¾,” complete with a trompe-l’oeil luggage trolley disappearing into the wall; Sherlock Holmes’ digs (a museum) at 221B Baker Street; or Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn in Cornwall.

A few months ago I happened to find myself a literary tourist by default – in Verona, the setting for among other things two plays by Shakespeare.

Arriving at the Piazza dei Signori one afternoon we learned that our next stop would be Casa di Giulietta or Juliet’s house, reportedly the city’s most popular tourist attraction by far. The guide then warned us to beware of pickpockets in the crowd that was likely to be packing the courtyard (Italy, you know).

According to urban legend, touching Juliet’s
breast assures eternal love and good luck. Some
might consider giving her a lick like this in poor
taste, but not this brassy lad.
And so it was. The courtyard was jammed with young folks, some apparently so eager for proximity to the famous love story they’d set about debauching the Juliet statue.

Besides the Nereo Costanti bronze of Juliet, the courtyard's other focal point is the balcony, albeit not an original feature of 13th century Casa di Giulietta. It was constructed for the benefit of tourists from pieces of a 17th century sarcophagus sometime after the house was purchased by the city of Verona in 1905.

The balcony, for that matter, is not an original feature of the play, Romeo and Juliet, either, first appearing in 18th century Drury Lane productions by actor, producer, theater manager, and Shakespeare adaptor David Garrick. Earlier productions had Juliet conversing with Romeo, not from a balcony, but a floor length or tall window.

Perhaps aroused by erotic symbolism,
Juliet takes a page from the Brothers Grim:
“Romeo, Romeo, my hair art for thou, Romeo.”
As Lois Leveen breathlessly explains in a piece for the Atlantic, balconies, especially Juliet’s, are rife with sexual symbolism, which is the reason a balcony was added to productions of the play in the first place:
“Indeed, it's become a trope in stage and film versions of Romeo and Juliet to have Romeo climb up to the balcony, an architectural mounting that anticipates the sexual mounting that will end in both characters' death. This may be precisely why the balcony has become irresistible, despite its absence from Shakespeare's play.”
If you feel this might be a bit of a stretch for modern eyes, you’re not alone. But it’s Shakespearian fiction, after all, so you can see whatever you like in the play. Anyway, it’s probably no greater a stretch to image that at some point Elizabethan set designers may have installed a few bars across the lower section of a floor length window, creating what we know today as a Juliet balcony, even if it wasn’t as sexy.

In spite of it all, I must admit to fancying certain pieces of fiction, notably the works of Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. If these stories appeared fantastic at the time they were published, today perhaps they seem just a shade less so, anticipating as they do the discoveries of quantum physics.

Love notes to Juliet plaster a courtyard wall of Casa
di Giulietta. A 2012 city ordinance imposing a find of
€ 500 for such postings appears to be little enforced.
What’s more, I have it on good account that the actual bunny hole down which the White Rabbit disappeared is to be found, not in Oxford or Godstow, but in Llandudno, Wales, of all places, and I can’t wait to go and see for myself.

Even if it seems stranger than fiction.









Friday, January 26, 2018

The Justice of Dogs

“Justice is…not some bone-in-the-sky ideal…”
– Robert Soloman, A Passion for Justice


What is justice and what has it to do with dogs? To some these questions might seem odd, but the answers turns out to be quite interesting. For dogs, like other mammals, have a practical or operational sense of fairness that’s not dissimilar to our own even if they don’t think about it in abstract terms.

Joe in later years backpacking on the trail. 
Accommodations such as this had become 
constitutive to his sense of equity.
Amongst us humans, abstract ideas about justice have varied greatly over time and have differed in nearly every culture. One of the earliest examples is from Plato around 348 B.C. To him, justice was having and doing that to which one is best suited. A just man is a man in just the right place, doing his best and giving back exactly in proportion to what he’s received.

If that sounds a bit arbitrary, perhaps it’s because justice, at least in its application, so often is. All too frequently, the administration of justice proves to be haphazard, hit or miss, dependent upon one’s being in just the right place at just the right time. Not every mess, after all, gets sorted
by Judge Judy.

For animals in particular, including man’s best friend the dog, injustice has historically been more often the rule than the exception. Only in recent times with the enactment of sanctions against animal abuse – the criminalizing of animal cruelty in many jurisdictions, outlawing of blood sports like dog fights – and novel research into animal psychology has progress has been made toward the protection of sentient species other than us humans and a better understanding of how the social functioning and behavior of non-human animals might shed light upon our own.

Still, it’s not too much of a stretch to surmise that Plato, say, may have owned a dog and been inspired by it. Perhaps a rescue dog from the pound, wise in its ways, a genial companion like those garrulous interlocutors in the Phaedo, from which he garnered particular insights. Every idea starts somewhere, and dogs as we’ll see possess a sense of justice or fairness that is in certain respects curiously Platonic.

Dogs were the first species to be domesticated and after millennia as our boon companions have become attuned to us in surprising ways. Some suggest that cohabitation with dogs may have significantly improved the chances of survival for primitive human groups, dog domestication thereby contributing to our own evolutionary success. More than any other species, dogs have acquired over time the ability to understand and communicate with us  through a set of social-cognitive skills that seem almost akin to those of human children.

For their part, human children have been known to communicate as though they were dogs as can be seen in this letter from ten-year-old Richard Nixon to his mother:

My Dear Master:
“On balance, the fundamental issue before
the courts is bones, the ineluctable attraction
of bones and how to pick them.” –  Justice
Dächson “Pooch” Barcley, Fido District Court
of Appeals. His honor it was who first propounded
the novel doctrine of qui subducto ossium (who
ran off with the bones?).

The two boys that you left with me are very bad to me...I wish you would come home right now.                 
                Your good dog, Richard

Maybe young Richard felt mom was more centered on the family dog than on him and so assumed a canine persona in order to attract her attention. Dogs accorded the status of a family member, a common occurrence in many households, can take up a good deal of attention in much the same way that, say, a handicapped child might. So fairness of focus could conceivably become an issue.

Still, any social worker will tell you that in homes where the pets are well-cared for, so are the kids, probably even Nixon.

You wonder what Plato’s dog would have made of it.

In a recent book, Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, authors Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce argue that morality is basically a set of behaviors – altruism, tolerance, forgiveness, reciprocity and fairness – that cultivate and regulate social interactions and are readily apparent in the interactions of dogs at play.  Morality, they assert, is an evolved trait humans share with other social mammals. While such ideas may make anthropomorphophobes apoplectic, they come as no surprise to pet owners who’ve long recognized that the family dog was pretty much one the of the kids.

Our dachshund, Joe, adopted as a puppy and part of our family for nigh on fifteen years, was a prime example. Until he was housebroken and in the habit of sleeping through the night, he bunked in a cardboard box. After that he moved into our bedroom – and into our bed. Since his short little legs made it hard for him to reach the bed in a single bound, he’d use the cedar chest at the foot as an step. Sometimes, if the night were warm he‘d just sleep on the cedar chest.

Henry in a pensive mood. 
Every so often, we’d have to negotiate with Joe over who got the best spots in the bed. Such deliberations usually took the form of a log roll accomplished by hoisting one edge of a sheet or blanket. This may have seemed unfair to Joe at times, but such is the life of a dog.

Like all dogs, Joe loved to play games. Among his favorite was keep-away with rawhide bones. Next to chewing these bones, what he loved most was guarding them from potential thieves – the covetous brigands amongst us intent on stealing those bones – whom he’d vigorously recruit by barking at the rest of the family until he got our attention. He’d casually toss out a bone a few feet in front of himself, then lie in wait for someone to try to snatch it. You’d get down on all fours and creep up, growling as you came: “I’m gittin it,” or “I’m gonna git it.”

Joe would tense, hold his ground, and gaze fixedly at the bone, growling himself. When you finally made your play, he’d yelp and bound forward, grabbing the bone in his little snapping jaws. Why thwarting these mock attempts at bone theft gave him so much pleasure, I’ll never know but it did.

Still, this play was not without its hazards. Joe seriously wanted to win, and you had to take care not to get bit. So it was a good idea to remind him ahead of time not to bite you.

“Now don’t bite Daddy.”

One time he did bite me, pretty hard though unintentionally. When I scolded him for playing too rough, he remorsefully brought the bone over with a hangdog expression and dropped it in front of me by way of apology. Like any dog, he knew that biting too hard was against the rules of play, felt remorseful, and wanted to make amends.

Indeed, dogs understand the practice, if not the principles, of justice quite well. Studies have shown that they’re very careful to signal their intent to play –  to communicate that their subsequent behavior should be interpreted as play, not aggression. And if things get too rough, they’ll apologize and regroup in order to preserve the game.

Caynighn “Saggy” Barksdale, decd.,  R.H. Kenilworth Distinguished
Professor, Howland-Packwood School of Law. Critics averred Barksdale was
a dogmatist and – despite appearances – altogether too snug in his skin
on the Constitution. Yet to many jurists, he seemed ceaselessly appealing –
the Yoda of jurisprudence.
We nearly always let Joe win at the keep-away game. For another rule, you see, is that stronger members of the pack must handicap themselves or role-reverse in order to allow younger, weaker members a fair shot at winning – fairness here again being a sort of social expectation, not something abstract.

One Christmas Eve as we were distributing presents from under the tree, my wife noticed Joe off in one corner of the living room looking glum. Without saying a word, she went to the kitchen and gift-wrapped one of his rawhide bones. Then with great fanfare, we “discovered” his present under the tree. You never saw such a happy dog! He leaped for joy and rushed over to claim his gift. Clearly, he’d recognized that treats were being distributed to everyone but him and was feeling left out. Just handing him a bone later in the evening wouldn’t have been the same. He needed to receive a gift along with everyone else. It was only fair.

As Joe grew older we got another dachshund, a rescue dog named Henry, to be a sort of companion for him. Henry took to this role surprisingly well, allowing Joe to be the alpha and comforting him by licking his ears. The day Henry arrived, though – equipped with several rawhide bones of his own – Joe felt he had to establish who was boss. He studiedly picked up the largest of Henry’s bones and stalked off with it, pausing to glance over his shoulder just to make sure his brazen ploy was being fully appreciated.

Over the next several days there ensued a series of bone raids as Henry and Joe took turns stealing each other treasures back and forth. Their beds were on opposite sides of the bedroom, each with an adjacent pile of bones. First, one pile would grow while the other shrank, and vice versa.

Finally, I intervened by dumping a large pile of new rawhide bones midway between the two beds. With the market thus flooded, theft of bones somehow lost its cachet.

When it came to milk bone treats, we likewise made sure that Joe and Henry received them in equal portions and at the same time – dogs being quite sensitive to inequitable treatment. Observational trials have shown, for example, that if one dog sees another receiving a reward for doing a task or trick for which he himself has received nothing, he’ll quickly stop cooperating.

Joe and Henry weren’t Yodas of jurisprudence nor canines of letters.  But like most dogs, they had a surprising sense of what was fair and what wasn’t – and on occasion, of how to ignore it.







Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Aesop’s Fables: The Fox, the Mouse, and the Snack in the Grass

The Fox, the Mouse, and the Snack in the Grass
One day a Fox was out hunting for his lunch. Fruitlessly, he searched hill and dale, meadow and wood, finding nothing to eat. On the verge of despair, he suddenly came upon a thick crust of  bread dropped in the grass by some careless passerby. As he had not eaten for two days the Fox was quite hungry and at first thought to seize the crust at once before someone else made off with it. But just as he was about to snap up the morsel, he noticed a Mouse eyeing the bread from the door of its nearby burrow.

So the Fox paused.

“Why, hello, honored sir,” the Fox called out to the Mouse. I happened to be passing by with this crust of bread and thought you might enjoy it. I’ve been waiting here this little while to make sure you were home. Winter is coming on, and I imagine you may be hungry. I myself have more than enough to eat. That is why I wish to share this crust with you.”

The Dog, the Cock, and the Fox
“Thank you, kindly,” replied the Mouse. “That is very noble of you. It’s not every day one encounters such generosity as yours.”

Still, the Mouse was hesitant, suspecting the Fox of mischief.  Furry woodland folk had a way of disappearing whenever the Fox was about, never to be seen again, and the Mouse did not wish to share such a fate himself.

The Lion, the Bear, and the Fox
Yet like the Fox, he, too, was very hungry and eager to claim the enticing snack the Fox had offered him. And waiting until the Fox had departed seemed almost too much to imagine.

Noticing that the Fox had seated himself a considerable distance off, the Mouse ventured “Folks say you are an accomplished jumper, but I can hardly believe the tales of your prowess. How far can you really jump?”

The Lion, the Ass, and the Fox
“Don’t believe everything hear,” replied the cunning Fox. “My skill is not so great, especially since I injured a back leg. I can barely jump the length of my own shadow and prefer not to jump at all.”

Believing the Fox’s words and throwing caution to the wind, the Mouse scampered out to grab the crust and retrieve it to the safety of his burrow.

Whereupon the Fox, pouncing easily from just where he sat, dined happily upon both crust and Mouse.




Bide your time, the better to dine – and don’t believe everything you hear.



Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Blue Lagoon: Heaven and Hell in Iceland

“Hell is other people!” French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously exclaims in No Exit, his existential play set in the metaphorical hell of a closed room populated by three individuals condemned to spend eternity in each other’s company.

Sartre had the notion that the gaze of others, observation by others, somehow deprives one of one’s freedom, locks one into a particular way of being, thus making one weak and fragile, a subject. So an eternity of such scrutiny was an idea of hell.

Yet Sartre himself hardly eschewed the limelight. Like the pop star who flies into faux dudgeon at the sight of paparazzi but somehow makes sure to wind up in the viewfinder, he had a devious propensity for headlines. Even his refusal of the Nobel Prize for literature may have been a publicity stunt. You wonder if for him, existential angst didn’t somewhere run headlong into narcissistic self-absorption.

A guardian angel wrestles with nicotine addiction.
According to one authority, an angel’s celestial service
corresponds to the function it performed in a prior
earthly existence – as a lifeguard at the Y, say.
Indeed, for most of us, the regard of others is what keeps us sane, prevents our descending into self-deception and delusion. When you’re about to go off the deep end, isn’t it typically others, your friends, family, sometimes even strangers, who restrain you from the brink?  A balanced, realistic view of oneself must to some degree take into account what other people think. Sartre’s solipsistic perspective is apt to be more than a little prejudicial, and taken to extremes, a conduit to lunacy.

In the end, despite being given an opportunity to escape, the three characters of No Exit resign themselves to an eternity of togetherness. Even Sartre, it seems, couldn’t get his head around the idea of perpetual solitude no matter how free it might make him.

Magic bar where but the touch of your chip-equipped
bracelet conjures up intoxicating libations.
Which brings me to my point: what seems like hell at first might begin to look better, even like heaven, later on. And visa versa, of course. Heaven and hell can be hard to tell apart.

Indeed, philosophers and clerics have debated forever about the nature of hell and heaven. For some, they are actual places, whether temporary or permanent; for others, merely states of mind or spirit. Modern physics asserts that no information about the body or mind is preserved after death so that heaven and hell could just as well be inventions of Marvel Comics.

For my part, I believe there is a physical heaven – in a black lava field southwest of Reykjavik, Iceland, of all places! It’s a geothermal spa called the Blue Lagoon. And though you don’t have to be dead to get there, who knows? For some, death might very well be part of the journey.

Heavenly bodies call to mind the martyrs’
reward of 72 virgins in Paradise. But even
dried out like prunes by the Blue Lagoon’s notorious
powers of desiccation, these ladies  wouldn’t
pass 
muster for the prophecy’s actual promise of, not 
virgins, but 72 raisins.
The Blue Lagoon, you could say, is an accident of industry, a byproduct of the Svartsengi geothermal power station.  This facility uses brine superheated to 464 °F by a mantal plume 6,500 feet below ground (hell down there) to generate electricity and pipe hot water (via heat exchanger) to Reykjavik twenty miles distant. Effluent from the plant, rich in minerals like silica and sulfur, is continuously pumped into a waste water lagoon, the blue one, at 99-102 °F, maintaining a depth of 3-4 feet and completely exchanging the lagoon’s volume about every two days. Silica suspended in the water renders it an opaque milky white. Sunlight refracted by the silica creates the lagoon’s eponymous pastel blue.

The way the spa manages its guests is a marvel of near celestial wonder. For starters, you have to have a reservation. Upon arrival – after standing in line with the rest of the faithful (or patient) for what already seems like eternity – gatekeepers vet your credentials. Deemed suitable for admittance, you’re issued a plastic bracelet with an electronic chip for identification purposes and sent on your way to a sanctum of communal showers (segregated by gender, however). This is a sort of cleansing purgatory where earthly impurities are washed away like sins before you enter the lagoon.

After a good dousing, you walk down a flight of steps, then pause for a moment or two to sort out the three-fold way – pick a path for the final leg of your journey into the salubrious blue.

The first path leads to an unobtrusive indoor incline some eight feet or so wide that continues out through a set of low plastic curtains into a secluded estuary of the lagoon, just the ticket, perhaps, for anyone who’s been feeling the chill – agnostics, say, or the faint of faith. For this route permits you to completely immerse yourself in the lagoon’s reassuring warm waters while still indoors before braving the curtains to the cold out yonder.

A second route leads directly through a set of swinging outside doors that give upon a much larger incline, like a boat ramp, which you descend into the water on foot in full view of the assembled host – as though you were making an entrance for baptism, say. This would be the way of the zealot or true believer.

Finally, off to one side, there’s a wheelchair ramp where once submersed, the lame and halt may float free of the confines of earthly affliction.  At my age, it’s a miracle I didn’t have to go this way.

In the event, I was inclined to the indoor warm-up.

Because the lagoon is so shallow, no one really swims in it. You simply walk about. Or if it’s cold and blustery as is often the case, you submerge yourself up to the chin and glide about in an effortless crouch – buoyed up as by faith, in a manner of speaking, or at least by the mineral-laden waters.

Scattered strategically around the periphery of the lagoon are wooden housings accessed by boardwalks that contain hot water feeds from the power plant. When the wind gets intense, you can shelter in the lee of these structures and luxuriate in the heat plume. Feeling the warmth of the flush, it’s as though some benevolent leviathan of the nether waters were peeing on you just to vouchsafe your coziness.

Sometimes a bright notion
On account of steam rising into the cold air, the atmosphere at the surface of the Blue Lagoon can be nearly as opaque as its waters.  Out of this ethereal mantle, blissful souls emerge as though from nowhere, only to fade again into the mist as quickly as they’d appeared – a natural cadence of being and nothingness, as it were, sans espresso, cigarettes, or Simone de Beauvoir.

It was a rainy, chill afternoon. As the air grew colder and the wind picked up, guests began to congregate in intimate groups around the pump house plumes, sharing greetings and stories of their stay in Iceland. One charming Canadian couple, newlyweds, told of their hassle-free nuptials at a rural Iceland church following arrangements they’d made online. Another Canadian, a military person, spoke more somberly of experiences during deployment overseas.

At a pump house close to the paddle-up bar, a gaggle of young men, apparently in town for an IT convention, sipped drinks from plastic cups and kept an eye out for young women adrift of their moorings.

Afloat for four hours or more in this aqueous Eden, at last it was time for me to leave. Getting out, however, proved to be hell. The prolonged, exertion-free soak in warm mineral water left me dehydrated, flaccid as a noodle, dizzy, and weak. I’d have almost preferred the wheelchair route.

Then there was an obligatory pass back through the purgatorial showers – ironic when you’re returning from heaven. Making my way to the lockers – bypassing the showers – I learned of this exit rinse-off requirement from a demonic-looking attendant or custodian who barked out a reprimand like Cerberus in broken English. You never know when error or corruption may overtake you, especially in Paradise.

Still, heaven had thought of just about everything. Just a touch of my chip-equipped bracelet popped open my locker. There was even a dispenser for shear plastic baggies with which to pack up your sopping wet bathing suit.

The road back to Reykjavik passed under lowering skies and rain showers through miles of jagged black lava, bringing to mind the Italian poet of the Late Middle Ages, Dante Alighieri, and the Divine Comedy, his epic journey through heaven and hell. Unlike mine, however, Dante’s afterlife doesn’t serve Egils Gull lager or feature the LAVA Restaurant. It has more to do, I'd say, with vengeance served cold than fine dining.

Sure, I’d return to Iceland’s heaven-cum-hell in a trice. One of these days. One way or another.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Wolves of Canyon Road


                                         “Goodness, what big eyes you have!” said Red Riding Hood
                              
                                         “The better to see you with,” replied the Wolf.


In Santa Fe, New Mexico, on a mile-long stretch of Canyon Road, can be found the greatest concentration of art galleries in the U.S. Among these, at Canyon and Garcia Street, stands the Carole LaRoche Gallery. Ms. LaRoche has been proprietor and artist in residence there since 1982.

Red Wolf and Flowers (33/100), giclée 
on paper, 8.25 x 10.25 in., Carol LaRoche
LaRoche’s work at first glance appears deceptively simple – basic, figurative depictions rendered in pastels or acrylic on paper or canvas, prints in monotype or giclée. The backgrounds are characteristically spare and schematic or completely monochromatic and solid. The central or dominant forms or figures are typically bold and forthright. Standing out sharply against the expanse of more muted background hues, they often appear solitary and self-contained, even monumental.

LaRoche favors animals, particularly wolves which she regards as guardians and protectors, though she also creates images of other creatures, both wild and domestic (burros, bears, buffalo, birds, horses, deer, cats, and the occasional elephant, lion, and zebra). She does shamen-like human images as well.

But her main passion, it seems to me, is wolves – wolves that come singly, a few at a time, or in packs. Red wolves, black wolves, golden, blue, or magenta wolves. Wolves cradling birds (Edward Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom comes to mind).

Opined one reviewer of LaRoche’s creatures, “their still, vulnerable faces reflect their inner souls, conjuring up angels, oracles…”

Alice
That’s certainly true as far as it goes, but to me there’s a good deal more going on in this work, especially when it comes to the wolves.

LaRoche’s wilderness canines are looming, portentous creatures – almost mythical or archetypal. Indeed, when confronted with the likes of them, it’s the observer who’s apt to look still and vulnerable. Gazing in fascination, one can but trust that these resplendent beings are protectors and guardians as LaRoche prefers to think of them – and not, say, covetous of your soul!

Red Riding Hood
A few years ago, during one of my visits to the LaRoche gallery, I purchased a limited edition wolf print, Red Wolf and Flowers (giclée on paper). It came in a sturdy black wood frame faced with glass – intended primarily to shield the art, of course, but perhaps the new owner as well. The print has hung over my desk ever since.

Thus far, Red Wolf has yet to escape that picture frame, at least from what I can tell. Still, though I fancy him securely confined, staring at me through a bed of brightly colored flowers that conceals his face almost up to his eyes, he in turn keeps me constrained – transfixed, almost paralyzed – with that piercing gaze of his.

For a truly overpowering prospect he be! The great mass of his orange-red head, thick neck, and truncated portions of shoulder and chest contrasts starkly with a dark grey background. His ears point nearly straight up like horns, signaling a state of high alertness and perceptivity. His muzzle, rendered with no more than a single black line, thicker at the left angle of the jaw to suggest shadow or space, is broad, flat, and puissant; a roughly triangular smudge partially concealed by the flowers comprises his nose.

You feel a frisson of disquiet and foreboding about the piece. Is Red Wolf stalking from cover, or is he merely peering through the flowerbed? Is his hard stare meant to convey some sort of remonstrance, or is he simply indifferent, looking straight through you?

Ironically perhaps, there’s also a touch of edgy comedy here. It’s as though crafty Mr. Lobo were contriving – with obvious difficulty and little success – to hide his imposing presence behind but a scant nosegay, to conceal himself with a posy of wild flowers instead of the usual sheep’s clothing.

Yet droll as this seems, you're left laughing nervously. For if the wolf's intentions are malign, he doesn't seem to care in the least if you know it! A taste for gallows humor comes in handy here.

But without a doubt it’s the eyes that have it. The most arresting aspect of the work by far is Red Wolf’s great yellow eyes and a gaze of such intensity you wonder if he’s some sort of demiurge. Eye contact is a powerful force that, sustained like this, could variously signify aggression, affection, or deception.  It’s physically and mentally challenging, yet hard to escape. A fixed stare of this sort obliges you to respond in some manner – perhaps by adjusting your tie, looking at your watch, or even walking out the door – but you have to allay the unease somehow. It can be downright discombobulating.
(1978)

Even now, Red Wolf hovers up there on the wall, staring at me inscrutably through the flowers…tulips...maybe daffodils…

In other news, there’ve been rumors recently of unusual grassroots unrest on Canyon Road, though it's not clear just how it all started. Ms. LaRoche’s wolves, it seems, have been slipping the confines of her studio and venturing off on their own, turning up surreptitiously as interlopers in musical compositions, legends, folk tales, and children’s stories – in some cases, making quite a muddle of things.

Thus, Deacon Carroll’s Cheshire Cat seems to have disappeared once and for all, courtesy of you-know-who. And guess who’s been stalking Little Red Riding Hood.

Now it appears the Boy Who Cried Wolf may have had good reason to all along.
Three Billy Goats Gruff – Lazy M Ranch ‘Annunciation’ version

The Wolf and the Seven Kids has somehow acquired a replacement antagonist – never mind about Richard Scarry’s. Likewise for Maestro Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.

As for the Three Billy Goats Gruff, it’s no longer a troll that awaits them under the bridge.

And someone’s been trying out new insufflation techniques on the houses of the Three Little Pigs.

Clearly, things in Santa Fe have gotten out of control, and I suspect Carole LaRoche could use a hand. So thither I suggest you hie, there to become like me a guardian of the guardians: adopt a wolf – better still, a pack of them – frame and all, at the Carole LaRoche Gallery. Her staff will be happy to assist you. Or you can establish custody online or by mail.

Got to run now. I’m all out of ink – and somebody’s at the door.



                                                           Carole LaRoche Gallery 
                                                           415 Canyon Road Santa Fe, NM 87501

                                                           Email: email@laroche-gallery.com
                                                           Phone: (505) 982-1186

                                                           Carole LaRoche Gallery on Facebook




NB: I have no commercial or financial relationship with the Corale LaRoche Gallery.

Images used with permission