21 July 2006

The First World

For most of my life I have admired the beauty that is there to be found in dirt, in ugliness, in the mundane. I've had a lot of opportunity to appreciate that kind of aesthetic in Beirut, I've seen it in my books about Damascus, and driving from the Jordanian border to Amman led me to believe that Jordan's also got something of a shabby-chic aesthetic. This kind of beaty within the ashes is at times overwhelming, and I find it much more moving than the beauty of cleanness.

I have often wondered why this would be, why I would be so moved by the discovery of visual perfection in the worn out, broken, dirty, grimy patches of life. And now I think I have the answer. Growing up in the US there was a lot of clean. Germany is even worse (better?). When you see something truly falling apart at the seams it is the exception, not the rule. I think my eye was drawn to these hideous exceptions because of their rarity. Beauty of this kind was completely organic, spontaneous, an accident. Clean is never an accident.

As we move west, I'm noticing a lot of clean. Huge, expansive, seemingly unending stretches of super-clean, super-new, super-nice public space. Looking around the Tel Aviv airport I almost feel like I'm watching a movie or having a dream. No garbage. No broken floor tiles. No dirt. Anywhere. Welcome to the First World.

Clean like this, is indeed overwhelming, and to my used-to-the-grime eyes, and even beautiful.

20 July 2006

Tel Aviv

We have tickets for tomorrow evening. Amman to Tel Aviv, Tel Aviv to Atlanta, to Charlotte. All you Ws who can't wait to see us: we will give the girls a chance to settle in a bit and then we will see about a visit to the St. Louis homestead. I'd like to coordinate that with Kathleen's delivery--let me know if you'd rather not have us around until after you return from VA.

Stella and Danielle news: both girls LOVE going under the water in the swimming pool. At first we thought Danielle was being extra careless and falling down too much, and then we noticed that when her head went under the water she got this HUGE grin on her face. So we started letting her go under as much as she wanted (mom/dad assisted dunking). Makes her completely happy. Once Stella saw that, she could not be out done by the baby and decided it was her new favorite game too. She had been very resistant up until that point.

The girls are up, and that means we are off to the pool again.

19 July 2006


Happy Birthday to my brother! I miss you and I hope to see you soon.

We arrived in Amman very early yesterday, and so we have now had two days here. We are slowly figuring out how to keep the girls well-fed on room service. We have learned that Danielle likes applesauce. So far, they are having a very happy vacation, and have no idea that anything else is going on. Stella even sort of liked the bus ride. We were lucky to be sitting next to a family with children exactly the age of ours, and Stella spent almost the whole drive playing with an Austrian/Albanian boy named Bruno. Like her former play-buddy Zayd, Bruno was a very even-tempered child and that's good because Stella is easily put off by pushy, aggressive kids. We've had a fun time with Bruno and his family ever since, meeting up at the pool etc., but his family is off to Vienna in the morning.

We have obtained permission to travel to Tel Aviv where flights are not so booked as they are here. I'm actually looking forward to that. I can add Israel to a growing list of countries I've traveled through, but never seen.

Thanks to all of you who have commented and mailed me and who are otherwise thinking about us and keeping your fingers crossed. I hope you are all sleeping at least as well as we are these days.

18 July 2006

Flight into the Wilderness

We are in Amman Jordan, in a very lovely hotel. If there ever was a time to stop worrying about our safety, it is now. We will be fine, and very likely, soon in North Carolina.

Our hotel is located at the edge of the Dead Sea. It is about as super luxurious as the one we left.

The drive here was completely awful. We were not informed of our departure plans until 4:15 on Monday morning, at which point we were told to be packed and ready to board busses at 7:30. We were not told our destination or any other details. Travel was safe, but it took us several hours at the boarders (Lebanon/Syria and Syria/Jordan) for every part of the process to leave/arrive.

I now have a lot of new and really great stamps in my passport, but we paid dearly for them. Being stuck in a bus for 24 hours was part of that payment, but the toll all this has taken on the girls is also significant. And about the girls; we were expecting to handle our girls together and we were expecting the journey to take about half that long , but that task fell almost entirely to me. Matthew was asked to manage our entire Bus. He was almost constantly busy (coordinating with security control, communicating with the other busses, gathering and transmitting information about the passengers, desperately trying to get the people to fill out their transit paperwork properly, etc. etc.). He did a great job. And frankly, so did I.

So we got here shortly after seven, I think, and we have a nice room that is sadly without any accomodation for babies or children. We have no idea if we will even stay the night here. When I bought the internet card that is making this post possible, I heard the UN Security people request use of a conference room in our Hotel for today at 4. Maybe there will be news of the next step. But for all we know, they are interested in getting the Staff out of here to their end destinations as soon as possible. It is my understanding that as soon as a flight to the US is available, they will put us on it--whether or not we have gotten any sleep.

I am having a hard time reconciling the very five-star expereince I have had during this blocade/war/evacuation with all the stories I've heard about how these things have played out in the past. I've been inconvenienced and quite a lot, but nothing more extreme. I find myself very worried about our things, books, art, dishes. I wonder if I will ever see my own bed again. Will our things be there when we get back? Will we be robbed again? What if they take my wedding china? Does it even matter? I hate that the thought of losing these things bothers me so much, but it really does.

13 July 2006

Not at all about Art

Its been about 6 hours since the airport was bombed--all three runways are out of service. Part of me is laughing at all the rich Lebanese with foreign passports who always talk about how lucky they are. If anything happens, they say, at least we can get out of here. Not now! Of course, I’m in the same boat they are but I still think its funny (schadenfreude, moi?) to know that we are all underdogs now.

Anyway, someone asked me in early 2003 if I really thought that Iraq posed a threat to the US. Well, back then the whole “Oops, gee, looks like there aren’t any WMDs” had not come out. Not knowing better, I thought maybe Iraq did pose a threat. That doesn’t add up to a pre-emptive war, but I thought there was a trouble brewing that turned out to be a carefully crafted illusion.

Now some words about Israel and the current skirmish they are having with Hezbollah/Lebanon. Lebanon is weak and poor, and Hezbollah exists because Lebanon’s government is too weak and poor to do anything about their existence. Israel has therefore decided not to differentiate between the impotent government that can not control Hezbollah and Hezbollah itself. Hezbollah probably does pose a threat to Lebanon’s government, but the more pressing question is: does Hezbollah pose a credible threat to Israel? Frankly, Israel is not a nice neighbor and their actions really strike me as arrogant, heavy-handed, and unjust. Israel is a rich, powerful, aggressive nation. Hezbollah isn't a nation at all, and barely has the capacity to launch puny little attacks over the southern boarder. They like to show that they can manage that. But that really is where it ends. They can’t take out Israel’s airports. They can’t do anything even remotely on that scale. Not in a million years.

Israel has decided that their best tactic is to come down on Lebanon like a ton of lead. I have to say that bombing the airport was an effective strategy on their part to shut down the Lebanese capital and government, but that in NO way does anything to Hezbollah. Israel’s actions, if anything have weakened the capacity of Lebanon to deal with Hezbollah. By damaging the airport, the infrastructure that supports Arab tourism in and around Beirut, they are damaging the only people who really have a mandate to rein Hezbollah in. Which then begs the question of why Israel is doing what it is doing.

The politics of a rich, powerful nation bullying a weak, poor nation are really on my mind. Should the scale of power, money, strength, etc. matter? Israel is doing this not because it is right, but because they can. Lebanon is a sitting duck, a fantastic whipping boy. Israel likes to spin this as a hard-line approach to terrorism, a zero tolerance policy. But I fail to see how damaging the government and infrastructure of Lebanon makes Israel safer from Hezbollah. Why not restrict the conflict to the forces in the south that started this?

Back to the US, I really wish we (all of us) would stop defending the mess we have gotten ourselves into in Iraq and admit that we would have been much better off securing our ports and boarders. I wish there could be a collective acknowledgement that Iraq has been a profound waste of time, money and lives. I wish that we would accept and agree that the war was ill-conceived. And most of all, I wish that we would have the decency and character to commit never again to engage in a war simply because we are big enough and strong enough to do it.

05 July 2006

Happy fourth--a day late.

Jasper Johns, White Flag, 1955.

04 July 2006

Progress and Decline

I want to talk about progress and decline as totalizing discourses: as meta-arguments that shape what we see and how we see it.

Progress and decline are among the most seductive totalizing discourses of our era (the ones that have survived despite postmodernism’s critique of such discourses). It is very, very tempting to look at charts, numbers, data-mined this-and-that and come up with a clear chain of events that shows either the waxing or waning of an individual’s health, an economy, a president’s popularity. These days, nearly anything can be represented in numbers, and numbers are the epitome of empirical fact.

Progress and decline might seem just to be patterns that emerge from data. It might seem that they just sort of innocently wave at you, calling out, “Hi! Looks like your company is dying!” And I guess maybe, for some kinds of data gathering, that might be all it is. But we tend to draw conclusions from progress and decline, and we tend to forecast the continuation of these. I remember back when I was a kid and the student demonstrations at Tiananmen Square took place and the Berlin Wall was torn down, everyone said “Communism will soon die out”. Every time the leadership in China shifts and they get a new Chairman there is rampant speculation about the decline of communism in the immediate future. In the west, we believe so strongly in the inevitable decline of communism and our own democratic superiority that we see it happening even where it clearly has not been.

That is the danger of a totalizing discourse. It colors our perception of the present and the future, and it causes us to even recast the past so that what happened lines up with how we anticipate the future will be.

Progress and decline are difficult narratives to thwart, particularly in art. We like to think of art and artists as progressing through phases that are easily categorized and labeled. We like logical transitions, logical building-upons, logical progress. And at the right time, when we are sick of Mannerism, or Baroque, or Rococo, or Neoclassicism, or Academic Painting, or Realism, of Romanticism, or any other style that has given way to another style, we will carefully chart its decline in the face of some other progress.

What I’ve been wondering about lately though is this: Not every culture has such a well developed sense of waxing/waning in art. Chinese painting, for example, emphasized and extolled the same visual qualities (in essence the same style) for centuries. There was no narrative of progress. It was, if a narrative at all, one of continuity. So, does postmodernism mean anything at all to contemporary Chinese artists?

03 July 2006

The Wisdom of Roland Barthes

One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realized then, with amazement I have not been able to lessen since: “I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.”
Camera Lucida, 3.

Photography is cool. It always has been. At about this time, 1o years ago, I decided it was time to quit wasting semesters, so I signed up for the classes that would have led me to a degree in photography. It wasn't meant to be, but I still think that art and anything remotely connected to it is more interesting than anything else. Though I'm definitely in the life-long-commitment-to-art camp now, I marvel at how I got here. The experiences I had in those classes nearly a decade ago were so formative that they are still fresh in my mind, and I hope they always will be.

. . . the realists do not take the photograph for a "copy" of reality, but for an emanation of past reality: a magic, not an art.
Camera Lucida, 88.

I think my love of photography comes from being in love with seeing. If I had to choose a sense (only one) to keep, it would be my sight. It has always been that way, even before I signed my life away to the visual arts. Maybe that's why I was never much more than a mediocre musician, and remain to this day insensitive to culinary fineries. Unlike my sisters and mother-in-law, I care more for color/pattern than texture when I buy clothes. Looking simply is a joy, and one that I perhaps too much privilege.

01 July 2006

A picture to share

Lots of very random thoughts, none of which have to do with my thesis or with art or with why I have not been blogging lately. Pooh, pooh.

This is my daughter. Isn't she a sweetie? This picture was taken on one of the rare days when she has allowed me to put her hair in pigtails.

Her shirt was made buy Aunt Kat, who is a super-neat Aunt to have. That, on her shirt is a peacock feather. You can read all about how cool it is here on her Aunt's blog.

Also, the other day, there was a discussion on Aunt K8's blog about sock fashions. Compare Star's "up" style with her cousin's.

And I love that the shoes in the picture don't fit, and don't match. We were out shopping and she was trying on display shoes--a favorite passtime.