March 2, 2017
“In a virtual world becoming even more paperless, the sound of pencil on paper is a vanishing sensual delight.”
— William Least Heat-Moon, Writing Blue Highways: The Story of How a Book Happened
One of the things about being old is that we have lived through the extinction and obsolescence of so many things. I took a few moments to jot down some of those things that I grew up with that are no longer part of my landscape:
- the ticking of clocks
- winding watches
- the smell of mimeographed paper (and purple ink)
- rotary phones
- card catalogues in libraries
- film cameras
- the slam and ding of typewriter carriages
- the dying dot when we turn our television off
And here are a few more that are on the endangered list:
- tying shoelaces
- legible signatures
- cursive writing
- balancing checkbooks
- writing checks
- public telephone booths
- button boxes, needles and thread, mending
- hand-written letters
- clothes lines, clothes pins, and line-dried laundry
I’m happy with many of the advances in technology and medicine, but I am not always pleased when a well-working technology is upgraded against my wishes. The incremental improvements are often not things I need nor want, and I have to spend time figuring out how to accomplish favorite tasks with new keystrokes and procedures — and they are almost never intuitive to me. I can empathize with Calvin Trillin when he wrote that the most dreaded word in the English language for him is “upgrade.”
One of the big challenges for my future will be keeping up with the accelerated pace of technological changes. I worry about the proportionate increases in screen time everyone is experiencing, especially young children. I still get such joy from physical work and playing with my hands — cooking, writing, painting, housecleaning, holding books I’m reading . . . The passive pleasures delivered through screens seem shallow and less soulful.
David Sax, in Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, writes optimistically about a return to things analog. He says, “Surrounded by digital, we now crave experiences that are more tactile and human-centric. We want to interact with goods and services with all our senses, and many are willing to pay a premium to do so, even if it is more cumbersome and costly than its digital equivalent.” And, “. . . if you want vibe, warmth, soulfulness, things like that, you will always be drawn back to analog.”
Yes, we can build an artful, well-lived life through our conscious choices. But we are often bucking the tide. Sax quotes Nicholas Carr in The Glass Cage: “We assume that anyone who rejects a new tool in favor of an older one is guilty of nostalgia, of making choices sentimentally rather than rationally. . . . But the real sentimental fallacy is the assumption that the new thing is always better suited for our purposes and intentions than the old thing. That’s the view of a child, naive and pliable. What makes one tool superior to another has nothing to do with how new it is. What matters is how it enlarges us or diminishes us, how it shapes our experience of nature and culture and one another.”
January 31, 2017
I mentioned in my January 4th blog post about The Book of Joy that I would paint copies of the book covers from some of my favorite reads in 2017. Some of my paintings are adaptations rather than true copies. Here are the covers from the best books from among those I read in January:
Sun, Moon, Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets by Tyler Nordgren. I wrote about this book in my January 5th blog post and how it heightened my anticipation for the total solar eclipse on August 21st of this year.
Coast Range: A Collection from the Pacific Edge by Nick Neely. I liked this book of essays and Neely’s musings about collecting and collections. He says, “. . . I had the collection bug: the impulse to hold, and possibly hoard, the world.” His objects are familiar to my landscape — salmon, madrone trees, beaches, rivers draining into the Pacific Ocean.
Mink River by Brian Doyle. I liked this novel so much that I am reading more of his works.
Tasha Tudor’s Garden by Tovah Martin and Richard Brown. The photos of Tasha Tudor in her garden are luscious. I love the little watercolor vignettes, too. This book takes us through the four seasons of the year.
One Vacant Chair by Joe Coomer. I love this book because one of the protagonists is 62-year-old Aunt Edna who for the past twenty years was the live-in caregiver for her ill mother and an elementary lunch lady AND an artist. She painted only one subject over and over — chairs. “She was still painting chairs and only chairs . . .” She painted for herself: “Painting isn’t for bill paying. Painting is for painting.”
The story takes place after the death of Edna’s mother. The clan gathers and her niece Sarah — who is experiencing a life crisis of her own — decides to stay on with Edna while she closes up her mother’s estate. Sarah is a successful commercial artist of Christmas ornaments, but she regrets not following her dream to become a fine artist. Edna’s advice to Sarah is, “It’s the only important thing, the work itself. I want you to stop worrying about what your pictures look like for now. You should just enjoy holding the brush or pencil in your hand, the time spent. . . . you have to like the moment of working or your work will become valueless.”
I love how art-related musings and philosophy intermingle with the story. And how the subject of a painting, like a chair, can evoke metaphors about life. The characters are quirky and flawed, family dynamics are stressed, and yet this is a warm-hearted novel.
January 17, 2017
My close friends and family know that I love reading about and researching places I will be visiting on upcoming trips. For me, this process of discovery whets my anticipation and clues me in to things I might look for when I am actually on the ground at my destination. I don’t want to over plan, and I do want to stay open to serendipitous encounters. But I very much enjoy the planning stages.
So with my calendar pencilled in to drive to the Oregon Coat to see the total eclipse of the sun on August 21st, I was thrilled to come across an essay, “Total Eclipse,” by Annie Dillard about her experiences watching the 1979 total solar eclipse in the Yakima Valley of Washington State. Her descriptions were so vivid that I modified some of the things I had been imagining about seeing the sun disappear. For example:
- I might not actually see the moon as I normally picture it in the sky in those moments leading up to the eclipse. Dillard says, “You do not see the moon. So near the sun, it is as completely invisible as the stars are by day.”
- The eclipsed sun might appear as a very small circle in the sky, not as the big, overwhelming orb I had in my mind’s eye for such an extraordinary event: “The hole where the sky belongs is very small. A thin ring of light marked its place. . . . the ring is as small as one goose in a flock of migrating geese . . . The sun we see is less than half the diameter of a dime held at arm’s length.”
- I hadn’t thought about how swiftly the dark shadow of the moon would come at the moment of total eclipse, and how terrifying this approaching darkness might be. Dillard and the people watching on the hillside where she stood screamed involuntarily. Here is how she describes it: “The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed — 1,800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight — you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like a plague behind it.”
- I am now prepared for the draining of color from my surroundings in the sudden darkness. With the absence of light, objects apparently take on an unearthly silver cast: “The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. . . . The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. . . . The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver.”
I sensed that Dillard’s experience of watching the total solar eclipse was so alien and disorienting that she was at a loss for words to describe it until time passed and she had some distance from it. She says, “I saw, early in the morning, the sun diminish against a backdrop of sky. I saw a circular piece of that sky appear suddenly detached, blackened, and backlighted; from nowhere it came and overlapped the sun. It did not look like the moon. It was enormous and black. If I had not read that it was the moon, I could have seen the sight a hundred times and never thought of the moon once.”
She says, “The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover. The hatch in the brain slammed. Abruptly it was dark night, on the land and in the sky.”
The total eclipse “began with no ado.” The moon, when it exactly covered the sphere of the sun was “an abrupt black body out of nowhere.” The time of the sun’s absence was short — about 2 minutes, and then it was over.
Witnessing a total eclipse of the sun promises top be one of those experiences that one remembers for their entire lives. One comes face-to-face with the implacable movements of the planets, moons, and stars, something so immense and out-of-our control that it must make one feel insubstantial and unnecessary to the workings of the universe. It is hard to anticipate how I will feel if I am fortunate enough to watch the 2017 eclipse. I am praying for clear skies!
“One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.”
— all quotes from Annie Dillard, “Total Eclipse,” from Teaching a Stone to Talk
January 5, 2017
“It is a spectacle pure and simple, the most magnificent free show that nature presents to man. . . . [N]ot to view the coming one would be literally to lose the opportunity of a lifetime.”
— “On the Solar Eclipse of 1925,” The New York Times
To witness a total solar eclipse total solar eclipse is a rare phenomenon. The last time one touched the mainland United States was in 1979. But on August 21, 2017 some of us in the United States will have a chance to see one without traveling too far. A continent-spanning eclipse like the one this year hasn’t occurred in the United States since 1918.
Total solar eclipses happen when our Moon is exactly the right distance from the Earth to cover the sun completely. For a couple of minutes, the Earth is fully in the shadow of the Moon.
Eclipses actually happen fairly frequently, but sometimes the Moon’s shadow is cast in the endless reaches of space. Imperfect alignments happen, too, and those are partial eclipses. To experience a total solar eclipse in one particular point on Earth more than once is very rare indeed. Astronomer and physics professor Tyler Nordgren, in his new book, Sun, Moon, Earth, says, “Though eclipses happen roughly twice each year, each one follows a different path across our planet. The patterns repeat in shape every eighteen years, but each time, the path is positioned one-third of the way around the planet and a little farther north or south than before. . . . eventually any spot on Earth can expect, on average, to see totality every 375 years.”
The path of totality for the August 21, 2017 solar eclipse cuts a swath across the entire United States. You can find maps at http://www.GreatAmericanEclipse.com. It will start at 10:26 PDT on the Oregon coast and 93 minutes later will move away from the Atlantic coast.
I have made camping reservations on the Oregon coast for a few days overlapping the day of the eclipse. That morning, I will have to drive about 2 hours south to be in the path of totality. Barring clouds (always a possibility on the coast), I should experience one of Nature’s most awesome shows.
The descriptions in Nordgren’s book have primed me to expect a wondrous and multi sensory few minutes: “. . . the temperature drops, birds grow quiet, shadows sharpen, and colors become muted and fade. Then, all at once, the Sun turns black and the stars come out. Overhead a ghostly aura steams outwards around the Sun’s dark disk.”
And, “The corona, a ring of immense pearly tendrils, envelopes the darkness and stretches off into the sky in all directions. It is unimaginably beautiful and only visible during these few precious minutes of totality. All around it are the brighter stars and planets, invisible until now; it is a day that has become night at noon, with the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars overhead all at once.”
You don’t want to miss this year’s eclipse because you will have a long wait for another one. The next total solar eclipses on American soil will happen in 2024, 2044, 2045, and 2052.
I wonder how I will be affected by seeing a day with two dawns and midnight at noon?
“. . .[T]he great lesson of the eclipse to the masses who saw it is that one little unusual phenomenon in the skies makes us realize how closely akin we all are in this common planetary boat out on an ethereal sea that has no visible shores.”
— The New York Times, January 25, 1925
January 4, 2017
Today is the first time in 2017 that I took the time to pick up art materials and make art. It felt good. It is a bright, sunny, cold day, and the light was good for painting at my table.
As I look forward to this coming year, I’ve decided to focus on four main art projects/themes/activities for 2017:
- To continue working on line drawings in pen and ink or pencil. I have a new book to put these in. I think I can only get better if I draw a lot.
- To copy famous art works by master artists from history; my own version in watercolor;
- To do more portraits of animals and people; and
- To take the time to draw or paint the covers of some of the best books I read in 2017.
My first book cover painting and pencil sketch are from The Book of Joy by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
These two wise men spent a week together discussing various aspects of joy and obstacles to feeling joy. They offer insights into eight “pillars of joy” — four qualities of the mind and four qualities of the heart:
The facilitator, Douglas Abrams, wove the Dalai Lama’s and Archbishop Tutu’s comments and observations with recent findings from academic and scientific research. It was interesting to see the overlap. One researcher, Sonja Lyubomirsky, found the following three factors have the greatest influence on increasing joy and happiness:
- our ability to reframe our situation more positively
- our ability to experience gratitude
- our choice to be kind and generous
Another researcher, Richard Davidson, discovered four independent brain circuits that influence our happiness and well-being:
- the ability to maintain positive states
- the ability to recover from negative states
- the ability to focus the mind and avoid mind wandering
- the ability to be generous
I especially appreciated the discussion about negative thoughts and emotions, like feelings of worthlessness, envy, loneliness, etc. The Dalai Lama was a strong advocate for building our mental immunity so that we are less susceptible to negative thoughts and feelings. He believed that preventive measures can be learned and cultivated, things like meditation or keeping a gratitude journal. Archbishop Tutu, on the other hand, felt that human beings are not always in control of the negative emotions and thoughts that crop up during times of stress. He believed that because negative thoughts and emotions are inevitable, we should accept that they come and forgive ourselves for having them. We can learn and grow and develop stress resistance over time after experiencing challenges and situations and people that test us.
Reading The Book of Joy was a perfect way to start the new year. The two holy men remind us of our common humanity and that we are in this life together.
“. . . ultimately our greatest joy is when we seek to do good for others.”
— Archbishop Desmond Tutu
“Too much self-centered thinking is the source of suffering. A compassionate concern for others’ well-being is the source of happiness.”
— The Dalai Lama
January 2, 2017
“Every day is a new opportunity to begin again.”
— from The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu
It’s January 2nd and seems quite natural to reflect and make resolutions for the year ahead. I like the thought of beginnings, starting something new. For me, the fresh start applies not only to possible projects I might take on in 2017, but also to relationships. I have regrets over acting badly at times, especially with those closest to me, but I find solace in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu which I am reading in The Book of Joy. He says that sometimes negative thoughts and emotions are inevitable because we are only human, after all. We are not perfect. So we should accept our occasional failings and forgive ourselves. We hone our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors as we work through our flaws, failings, challenges, and heartbreaks. We can grow through our struggles. We can allow ourselves a fresh start.