Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ode to Grandparents

Warren Charles Plauche',MD

I never had viable grandparents, although all four were living until I was grown. My father's parents lived in Brooklyn, New York, and I was on Long Island, but there was considerable bad feeling between him and them so we saw them only on State Occasions every several years. They had been separated since before I was born and I never heard them exchange a single word, although they sat on opposite sides of my aunt's Thanksgiving table. My grandmother supposedly disapproved of my parents' union, so they eloped two months before their planned wedding day, but always celebrated the official one. I have heard that she tried to break up their marriage even after my brother was born, but since I was not there and he, being six months old at the time, is an unreliable source, I don't know if it's true. Everyone who would know is now dead.

My cousin once told me that our grandmother taught her to knit and crochet and to this day, she said, she can do those things better than most people. I was fond of my grandmother but kept it to myself because I knew better than to express an opinion about anything which differed from my father's. My grandfather taught my brother to play chess, but since I was younger and female, he paid me little attention. He did write poems for me on all my childhood birthdays though, Edgar Guest-like rhymes on yellow cap, tucked into a card.

My mother's parents lived in California when I was born but moved to Ohio several years later. We visited them once, when I was seven, but I never saw them again until I went to college in Florida, where they were then living. My parents were more concerned with preserving my chastity than improving my mind, so I was shipped off to the least of the universities that accepted me because my mother's parents, two brothers and sister all lived nearby. I guess they assumed that this extended family would supervise my social life as stringently as they had to keep me "marriageable." To my relatives' credit, they didn't.

I adored my grandparents although I never felt as much a part of their family as my many Florida cousins who had known them all their lives. Every Tuesday, I took two buses from my dorm to my grandparents' house and we walked to Tyler's, their favorite neighborhood restaurant, for the Early Bird Special at 5:00. My grandfather would throw open the door and yell, "This is my granddaughter! Isn't she beautiful?" And every time, my grandmother rebuked him, "Charles, lower your voice." He would pull out my chair, grinning as he announced loudly, "I can't hear you, Daisy. I turned off my hearing aid." On their 50th wedding anniversary, he gave her a solid gold bracelet with large disks for each of their four children, engraved on the back with the names of the grandchildren. The largest disk said, "For 50 years meritorious service." He presented it to her at a large family party, and she read the inscription and threw it at him.

It has not escaped my notice that I have no grandchildren, although my three children are now adults with many qualities that would surely enrich another generation. But I only today put together this lack with the fact that I also lacked most of the experience of having grandparents, and I can't figure out what this means. No doubt some of you will dispute that it means anything at all, but I cannot believe it is random. Like any parent, I want my children to be happy in whatever way suits them. And while I would love to be a grandmother, it is absolutely, categorically, massively not about me. But it seems strange that I have thus far missed out on the grandparent issue from both ends if there is not a connection.

My brother knew all our grandparents better than I did because he was the only child in both families until he was six, when I was born, and he has eight grandchildren on both sides of the Atlantic. Did knowing his grandparents make it possible for him to be one someday? Was the die really cast all those years ago, when I was still a child myself? If I had known my grandparents better, would I now be swimming in grandchildren too?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Josephine the Plumber Got Nothin' on Me

I am inordinately pleased with myself. It does not happen often, so I am giving myself high fives and posting this in celebration. Doubtless you are wondering if I won a Pulitzer, Nobel, or Academy Award. Well, no. While those would all be nice and surely lead to unthinkable earthly delights, statuettes are nowhere near as useful as the award I gave myself, the one that will keep on giving. I changed a toilet seat.

I have had no previous plumbing experience. Flip and I spent seven years renovating an old house, but he did the plumbing and wiring while I ripped out paneling, painted, tiled and landscaped. He is no longer able to do mechanical things, so I am learning despite a decided lack of natural ability. Or interest. Necessity, as everyone knows, is a great motivator. In the grand scheme this is a pretty small achievement, but it reminds me that I can still learn new things. I won't say it shows that I can do anything because I'm a bit too cynical and self-aware for that, but I'll happily settle for being educable at an age when sadly, many people are resting on laurels. And while I hope that my epitaph will be a bit juicier, no accomplishment should be sneezed at.

I would like to commission an occasional poem to commemorate this extraordinary event. Where is that damn poet laureate when I need him? W. S. Merwin was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States for 2010-2011 by the Library of Congress. I had to look it up. It seems odd that we are all familiar with the names of our leading generals in Iraq and Afghanistan, but our nation's leading poet is virtually unknown. I wonder if Merwin can change a toilet seat.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Great Artists Never Die

This has been an incredible week in the Art world. A painting which is almost certainly a lost Michelangelo has been found in Buffalo, NY. The painting, called "The Mike" by the family which owns it, was knocked off its peg by a tennis ball-wielding child in the mid-70's, so it was wrapped and stuffed behind the living room sofa. It has been there ever since. Martin Kober, a retired pilot, claims to have had no idea the painting, which he inherited from his great grandfather, was valuable.

The unfinished painting of Mary and Jesus may be the art find of the century. It is part of a series of Pieta paintings done by the great master, and Antonio Forcellino, an Italian art restorer and historian specializing in Michelangelo, believes it is authentic. He says it is even more beautiful than others hanging in Italian museums. When contacted by Kober, he assumed it would turn out to be a copy, but a scientific analysis of the painting proved that it is probably the real thing. Infrared and X-ray examinations of the painting -- on a 25-by- 19-inch wood panel -- show many alterations made by the artist as he changed his mind, with an unfinished portion near the Madonna's right knee.

"The evidence of unfinished portions demonstrate that this painting never, never, never could be a copy of another painting," said Forcellino. "No patron pays in the Renaissance for an unfinished copy." He added, "The first time I saw it, I was so struck by the strength of it that I felt breathless. Only a genius could have painted this; the darkness which underscores the suffering, the Virgin who looks as if she's screaming and the figure of Christ after he has been deposed from the cross. It's small, but the technique is extraordinary."

The ownership history shows a long and tangled path to that upstate NY living room. The work was done by Michelangelo around 1545 for his friend Vittoria Colonna, 45 years after he did his famed "Pieta," or pity, sculpture of Mary holding Jesus, housed in St. Peter's Basilica. The painting was given to two Catholic cardinals, and then to a German baroness named Villani who willed it to her lady-in-waiting, Gertrude Young. Ms. Young was the sister-in-law of Kober’s great-grandfather and she sent the work to America in 1883. It has been in the Kober family ever since. It is now stored in a bank vault, and will be restored and exhibited in Italian museums next year. It is probably worth about $300 million.

What a magnificent gift to the 21st Century this is! In Art there is hope, perhaps even the reason for our human existence. The key to our redemption. You would think that such an object of reverence would emit a radiance which could be seen and felt for miles around, like the Star of Bethlehem.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

When is Zheng He Day?

Tomorrow is Columbus Day, and guess what? Christopher Columbus was an also-ran sailed. An imitator. A Johnny-come-lately.

Half a century before the first Europeans suspected the world was round, an armada of Chinese ships crossed the China Sea and ventured west to Ceylon, Arabia, and East Africa. Many scholars now believe that Zheng He, the most famous of the Chinese explorers, discovered America while circumnavigating the world. From 1405-1433, the treasure fleet made seven journeys to ports around the Indian Ocean, trading Chinese silk, porcelain, and lacquerware to Arab and African merchants for spices, ivory, rare woods and pearls coveted by the Chinese Imperial Court.

The fleet consisted of giant nine-masted junks and supply ships, water tankers, transports for cavalry horses and patrol boats, with a crew of 27,000 sailors and soldiers. The largest junk was over 400 feet long by 150 feet wide, while the Santa Maria, Columbus' largest ship, was only 90 by 30 feet, with a crew of 90.

It's interesting that the Chinese under the Ming Emperors chose not to exploit these newly discovered lands politically or commercially, as the Europeans did when they arrived. They did not slaughter or enslave any Natives. Zheng He didn't even open a restaurant. We may have to change a lot of place names from Spanish to Chinese when this hits the fan.

Meanwhile, the Nobel Peace Prize was just awarded to Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident who is serving an 11-year prison sentence for campaigning for political reform and human rights. His government has censored the news, blacking out all mention of it in the media, although his wife was allowed a visit to inform him of the honor bestowed upon him. She is now under house arrest and unable to communicate with anyone. Chinese authorities consider Liu a criminal and said that his winning "desecrates the prize," while the state-run newspaper called it "an arrogant showcase of Western ideology" which disrespects the Chinese people.

I wonder if Zheng He would be in prison if he were alive today, not for discovering new lands but for declining to turn them into mindless authoritarian states.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Real-Life Enchantment

One of my favorite childhood fantasies was finding a secret attic in my house filled with treasures from bygone eras, especially art works. If I had visited Paris as a child, it would surely have figured into my reveries.

Recently, an apartment in the 9th arrondisement in the middle of Paris, locked and untouched for 70 years, was opened after its owner died. She had moved to the South of France shortly before World War II but continued to pay rent on the apartment, a veritable time capsule, for the rest of her life. It was filled with furniture, books and paintings, including one by the Italian artist Giovanni Boldini which recently sold at auction for $2.9 million US.

The untitled painting of a woman in a pink evening gown, painted in 1898, was of the artist's muse, Marthe de Florian, a French actress, and had never been listed, exhibited or published. Her granddaughter was the owner of the apartment. A scribbled love note from the artist to his muse was also discovered. One art expert said it was like creeping into Sleeping Beauty's castle, where time had stood still all these years.

Boldini was born in Ferrara, Italy in 1842 and moved to Paris in 1871. He was greatly influenced by Courbet, Manet and Degas, with whom he established lifelong friendships. He became known mainly as a portrait artist whose subjects included the Duchess of Marlborough, Giuseppe Verdi and Edgar Degas. In his portraits of elegantly-dressed women, he developed a 'whiplash' style in which the model appeared to be thrown onto the canvas. Boldini died in Paris in 1931.

Marthe de Florian had entertained her many admirers in the apartment and kept letters from her lovers in packets wrapped with ribbons of different colors. The calling cards of senior statesmen from the period were found tucked away in drawers.

Happily, the exquisite painting went to a good home. The art specialist who authenticated and appraised the portrait said, "It was a magic moment. One could see that the buyer loved the painting; he paid the price of passion." I find that most fitting for a work that was doubtless created in passion and, like Sleeping Beauty, waited silently all these years for the right person to open the door and break the magic spell.

Note: If anyone owns a painting of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse on velvet, it is probably not a Boldini.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

My Brother's Keeper?

A Tennessee family lost its home last week as firefighters watched it burn to the ground with three dogs and a cat inside, along with everything they owned. The rural community of Obion County charges an annual $75 fee for fire protection outside the South Fulton city limits, which the owners had not paid.

Homeowner Gene Cranick said, "I thought they'd come out and put it out, even if you hadn't paid your $75, but I was wrong."

The firefighters refused to respond to several 911 calls, although Cranick offered to pay all costs if they would save his house, and only came to the scene when the field of a neighbor, who had paid his fee, caught fire.

Cranick begged the fire chief to make an exception and save his home, but the chief said, "The city manager will make a statement in the morning and ya'll can see him in his office." The town's mayor sided with the fire department saying, "Anybody that's not in the city limits of South Fulton, it's a service we offer, either they accept it or they don't."

Friends and neighbors said it's a cruel and dangerous city policy, but Mr. Cranick doesn't blame the firefighters themselves, only the people in charge. "They're doing their job. They're doing what they are told to do. It's not their fault," he said. I beg to differ.

Small bureaucratic minds believe that if they make an exception, the rules become meaningless and nobody will pay the fee. I would like to think that most people are basically good when they follow their conscience, but a mindless adherence to inhumane policies is a slippery slope. The Holocaust should have taught us that.

(I don't make the rules; I just work here. I'm just following orders. It's not my problem. It's not my fault.)

I believe that we do have a responsibility to help others when we can. It's unconscionable that firefighters, generally perceived as heroic, even checked their ledgers when the 911 call came in to see if the caller had paid his fee, and even more unforgivable in tough economic times when $75 could buy a family's groceries for a few days. I wonder if we are devolving as a species.