Monday, December 11, 2006

My Christmas Letter

For those who I don't have addresses for, here's my Christmas letter for you. The paper dolls at left are the start of a Santa Claus set I hope to offer soon.
2007 is almost here and I can’t use the excuse that the semester’s end has delayed me writing my Christmas letter. I thought retirement was supposed to mean one slowed down, but that hasn’t been true for me.

My year’s first surprise was appendicitis in February. I was out of school for about four weeks as the doctor let the incision heal from the inside out—the appendix had perforated and he didn’t want to risk infection. Two major operations within eight months (I had the triple bypass last year) made for an interesting re-evaluation of my priorities.
I presented my final play at Rich East, doing The Skin of Our Teeth. The students gave me the best gift a cast could have given—they bought a journal and everyone wrote a page speaking directly to me. I had to fight back the tears, feeling like Sally Field receiving her Oscar. As a friend used to remind me, “It doesn’t jingle, but it feels good.”

At the end of May I officially retired from Rich East High School after a total of 39 years of teaching—with 36 of those in Park Forest. I was sure I was going to jump right back into teaching, but nothing substantial appeared — and then I found I liked having my own time schedule and doing what I wanted to and not having to drive two hours to work each day.

As summer began things weren't much different. My garage sale hunts continued with my friends Janet and Kathy. No summer Saturday is complete without a couple of hours searching for finds. Unfortunately this year did not turn out as productive as some of the previous years have. I wondered if in these economically challenging times whether people are keeping more of the good stuff for themselves because they aren’t buying as much. I also did some professional cantoring which provided some good spending money.

It wasn’t until September that I began to really appreciate retirement. As school began in Park Forest, I was relaxing in the mountains of New York. When I returned home a new routine was established.

So what do I do with my time, you ask? Every day begins with a walk over to my local Starbucks where I have friends I see regularly. When they talk about a Starbucks community, I can attest to that. I also use the morning time to read.

During the summer and the fall my Creative Muse took possession of me, concentrating on stretching my computer art doing paper dolls which I now sell. I have done about 60 panels so far this year. If you want to see them, check out here. I even got paid to do a program for St. Bernardine’s Women’s club on the paper dolls. (If you know anyone who might be interested in having me speak, let me know.) I now find myself a professional artist and lecturer.

I also worked at honing my photography and writing skills, keeping this blog online and a posting my photographs.

Each Monday evening I’ve been involved with Heritage Chorale (a community chorus of about 50) and every Wednesday evening I have hand-bell and adult choir rehearsals at church. Each Sunday I sing at least one Mass.

During the last couple of months I got back into genealogical research. In the distant 1970s I did many of my lines—in fact I got my mother into DAR and myself into SAR and even wrote a book on the Harness line. Recently I joined which has all census records up to 1930 and extensive ship docket records. After finding my mother's ship crossing to England in 1937, I was hooked again and started updating what I had. It's now evolved into a major research project. I like that it can be online so that anyone who uses can access the information. Hopefully I will be able to publish more information before the year is out.

While some new opportunities have arisen at some local schools and I may get back into teaching, I have to say I am protective of my new freedom.

I also have done several trips this year, having visited my friend Jon and his family in New York several times. I'll return on Christmas Day for a visit.

Well, Sunday was the second Sunday of Advent and this year there are really only three Sundays of Advent with the fourth Sunday being Christmas Eve. I am still head of Art and Environment and we’ll be scurrying around on Sunday afternoon after the last Mass trying in 3 hours to get everything set up for the evening service. (I console myself that at least I don’t have to do 12 Masses like my friend Jon.)

I hope you are doing well and that the coming year will bring health and happiness. Write soon.


Sunday, November 12, 2006

Dead Stories: Isaac Harness

Today in the New York Times Magazine, I was struck by a dilemma described by Randy Cohen, The Ethicist, where a man’s friend had died and the dead man’s wife avoided relaying the cause. The man had asked if it was ethical to look up the death certificate. Said Cohen in response:

The dead have no claims to privacy, something reflected not only in ethics but
also in law: you cannot, for example, libel the dead. As Voltaire said: “One
owes respect to the living. To the dead one owes only the truth. And not that
$50 for the lawn mower I supposedly broke.” (Except for this last.)

I was struck by the idea of losing privacy in death and could only be reminded of my own example in researching my mother’s great-great grandfather, Isaac Harness.

Ike Harness was a wealthy and land-rich farmer in McLean County. He had come to his homestead in 1832 with his new wife Betsy and son. He was 22, as was his wife. His son was born three months before the parents married.

Settling in Lexington in a double log cabin near Mackinaw, he and his wife raised 12 children, six of whom survived to adulthood. During the 1830s and 1840s Isaac became a large livestock breeder. By 1850 he went into partnership with Joseph Greenebaum, a Jew, and established clothing stores in Lexington and Pontiac.

In 1851, not long after the death of three children to cholera, Isaac built a two-story residence with an ell for a kitchen and other rooms. One night, as they all slept, a large rat bit the baby and Ike awakened the family declaring, “If the rats are going to eat up the children, it is time for the family to move.” And right then and there they moved to the new house.

In 1854, the railroad went through town making shipping and transportation easier. Ike and his son-in-law William “Hop” Kennedy” ran a general merchandise store. Advertisements for the store claimed: “Our goods are going off like hot cakes before a starving multitude, and at Living Prices!”

About this time the marriage began to unravel. Said Hop Kennedy about Ike, “he commenced leaving by degrees.” Sometime in the early 1860s, as he moved into his 50s, Ike began an affair with a twice-married hotel 30-year-old laundress, Sallie Loving Wiley Tucker, who had a very dubious reputation. She and her husband and family moved into a cabin just 15 steps down the road. Isaac spent a lot of time with the woman, especially when the husband went off to serve in the Civil War. By 1864 the children had sided with their respective parents: three of the children sided with the father, three with the mother.

Harness’s discretion continued to lapse. A former tenant described finding him at his Sallie’s house one Sunday afternoon around 1:00 p.m. He was lying on her bed, which was pulled out into the center of the room; and while they talked, his mistress sat in a chair and fanned him. Betsy had had enough and told her nephew that she’s supply the eggs if he’d get a group to egg the house, where Ike was staying. They also broke down the door with brickbats and rocks. Ike’s response the next day was, “I can put up doors as fast as you fellows can tear them down; I have the money to do it.”

When Sallie’s husband returned after the war, they divorced and, according to gossip, Ike had him run off. Sallie moved away to Chicago in 1868.

During the war, Ike loaned the government money for bonds. In 1867 he used the money, going in with David H. VanDolah, to create Harness, VanDolah & Company. VanDolah dropped out in 1873. Hop Kennedy joined as head cashier.

The final row with Betsy came as she was in the midst of stirring soap. Ike declared, “I am going to leave! I am going to make my words good.” Betsy countered, “You don’t have to—I am going as soon as I get my soap done.” With that Ike left and moved in just down the street with his son-in-law Hop Kennedy. Kennedy tried to enlist VanDolah to help reconcile the couple (since VanDolah was a regular card player at Sallie’s), but VanDolah said, “the old lady didn’t want him; he knew right from wrong as well as I did; he didn’t think he would go back and I talked to the old lady, and she didn’t seem to be reconciled to having him come back and I let it go.”

Harness’s solution was to follow Sallie to Chicago and then move to Missouri. They had to relocate when he was accused of bigamy and asked to move. Settling in Barton County, Missouri, first on a farm and then in Lamar, their life together was just as volatile as his life with Betsy. Harness returned fairly often to look after his business in Lexington.

In 1884, he received a telegram that 74-year-old Betsy was dying. He rushed back to be at her side, but she died before his train arrived. His son reported him holding her and saying, “My wife. Oh, my wife. If you could have lived until I got here—I had something to tell you.”

In 1894, sick with stomach and kidney trouble, aged 84, he left Sallie in Missouri and moved back to live with one of his daughters. He conveyed a deed to “Sarah Harness” for land in Missouri for $66,000, her “dower interest.” When Isaac died in Missouri, Sallie sued his estate as his surviving wife. Although she could produce no proof of a marriage—she claimed proof was destroyed in the Chicago fire—depositions had to be taken from all the children and interested parties. In the end, she failed in her suit. Isaac Harness left an estate valued at $200,000 and the majority of the estate remained undivided for almost fifty years.

I found all this when I was researching the family history. In a courthouse when you look up probate records, you might find less than ¼ of a legal file drawer. The Harness record filled one entire drawer. I was very excited when I went home to tell my mother of my discovery. As I began relating what I had found, she kept nodding. After awhile I realized that she knew all I was telling her. When I confronted her with the fact, she said that she knew all about Isaac Harness. When I asked her why she had never told me the story, she said she thought I was too young. At the time I was 35.

So I'm still pondering whether one’s right to privacy disappears with death. Certainly any modesty we nurture in life disappears the moment our soul leaves our body. And maybe there is no libel after death.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A Merman

Cleaning out files, I discovered a picture I did back in 2000 when I was using pen and ink with colored pencil and acrylics.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Montages of Excess

As I went to see Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette today, I remembered hearing that some critics at Cannes booed the film. Kristen Dunst is reported to have said something like, “At least I can count on my gay fans seeing it.” On that she is probably right. Dressing up as a queen has always drawn big crowds.

The film’s mise en scene—costumes, hair and makeup styles, set designs, and properties were sumptuously realized. Although most people will have little concept of the history of costume being shown, the care and detail the creative staff exhibited was true eye candy for anyone who is fascinated by the 18th century time period--although occasional anachronisms did appear.

But the most distracting element of this seemingly carefully crafted film was the misguided decision to use modern—often very jarring—MTV music. When I taught my History and Thought of Western Man class, I realized that for many teenagers, things that happened 15 years ago seem as distant as those things that were 300 years ago. Some won’t even understand the anachronisms because they don’t know that time period. But do we really need lush visual montages of excess—clothing, food, the indolent partying of the rich-- to such thought-provoking ditties as “I Want Candy” or “Fools Rush In”? As a friend of mine is fond of asking, “What were they thinking??”

The performances of Kristen Dunst and Jason Schwartzman often rose above their script and by the end I appreciated their growth in spite of a shallow script that had the substance of the candy Coppola loved showing.

If we are to trust the script, poor little Marie-Antoinette had to give up everything from her previous life, including her little dog, when going to France to be Dauphine. She had to be nude around lots of the unfriendly French court. (Yes, if you are a teenage boy, you may want the chance to see Dunst’s thin derrierre.) Louis, who liked making keys, takes way too long to figure out how to put his key in her lock and so his little fun-loving wife is forced to over-indulge in food, clothing and fun. When Marie’s brother finally explains to Louis how the lock works, Marie finally delivers babies. As a result she is also ripe for the one love affair of her life with a hunky Swedish soldier. The French rabble who have kept an invisible distance, suddenly storm the Bastille while Marie’s daughter is learning croquet. The rabble then move on to Versailles where the king and his queen bear up admirably in spite of having sent off all their friends and allies. When the crowd says they want her dead, she charms the rioters by bowing to them from the balcony—although she does not, as you might have come to expect, break into “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” [For a list of the gallimauphry of music chosen, see here.] Dunst and Schwartzman, unfortunately, are not given the chance to do their final noble death scenes because the film ends abruptly as they ride off in carriage to try to escape. But their bedroom at Versailles does the final bow, having been looted by the revolutionaries.

  • Historical fact: If any of my students are reading this, both people in real life lose their heads which are then taken by Madame Tussaud and made into the first wax figures for her popular business. See here.
  • For the controversy over who said, “Let them eat cake” see here.
  • To read an excellent review of the film, check out here.

I must say, my final reaction to the film was to want to read one of the biographies about her. I also was delighted to discover mharrsch’s pictures at Flickr from various art museums. Now that was a find.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Theda Bara's Cleopatra, 1917

This past week I’ve been intrigued by a silent film classic which I will never be able to see, since the last surviving copies of it were destroyed by fire during the 1950s (one of the problems with storing nitrate film which was highly flammable). The 1917 film, considered by some to be Theda Bara’s most important work, was called simply, Cleopatra. Many of the images from the film have become cultural icons (think Bara’s eyes as the logo for the Chicago International Film Festival).

Eve Golden in Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara says that Bara did extensive research on Cleopatra before starting the film. Bara herself felt that the production was historically true to its subject. Looking at the production stills, we see more about pre-WWI fantasies than what life in Ancient Egypt was like. Several of Bara’s over 15 costumes exude pre-Hays Office sex -- appropriately, since Bara was considered the ultimate screen “vamp” (short for Vampire, one who like the prey mantis devours the men who love her). In a couple of cases Bara wears a nude body top, but in some stills she looks very nude underneath tissue gauze and chiffon.

Theda Bara as CleopatraOne of the funniest costumes Bara wears looks very pre-art deco with some French high fashion blending into a futuristic “Metropolis” look. Wearing a vulture headdress with two feathers, the look suggests more sophisticated ant than Egyptian queen. Her flimsy blouse disappears into two straps at the open back. A peplum overskirt a la Poiret covers a skirt with stylized Egyptian motifs and shimmering brocade split trains. French designers of the period can be seen in Haute Couture - Designer Dresses from Gazette du Bon Ton.

Most of the production pictures suggest the actors use of the DelSarte method popular during the late 1800s. Fran├žois Delsarte had created an acting method which utilized a standardized set of stylized gestures to convey emotions. Much of the overly melodramatic acting the early silent films seems to follow this metod.

After researching the film, I created a new series of paper dolls based on Theda Bara and the film. Check out Theda Bara: Just a Nice Jewish Girl from Cincinnati.

Retirement Adjustments

Since I last wrote, I have been adjusting to retirement. Originally I thought I would continue teaching, but nothing appeared and I began dealing with life without a classroom. Once I worked through the Puritan guilt of not “working,” I found myself very busy. To have the freedom to work on my artwork as much as I want seemed incredibly indulgent, but after awhile, when I began selling some of my artwork on Ebay, I realized I have become an artist by profession. Last week I presented a PowerPoint program for the St. Bernardine’s Women’s Club and I realized I could also call myself a lecturer. So for now my retirement feels productive and creative—and I don’t have to get up at 5:20 in the morning to do it.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Paper Dolls

About 12 years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to the world of paper dolls. I have always been taken with graphic design and I immediately became an afficiando of such artists as Bruce Patrick Jones, Sandra Vanderpool, Susan Sirkis, Donald Hendricks, and Tom Tierney. Since that time I have worked creating my own.

As I began learning Adobe Photoshop SE2, I realized how layers and brushes would help me. This year I began using Corel Painter IX and have moved into a new phase regarding the paper dolls. I have slowly developed my own style and realized I prefer figures that are no taller than 7 inches. (Maybe a remnant of my working with 1 inch scale miniatures.) This summer, as I entered retirement, I have done over 23 pages of paper dolls and I have lots more I want to do.

To see some of the new works check out the following:

The Great Chill: or Geoffrey Chaucer's Dead and Gone

Geoffrey Chaucer died in 1400. Or maybe it was 1402. According to authors Terry Jones (Monty Python), Robert Yeager, Terry Dolan, Alan Fletcher, and Juliette Dor in Who Murdered Chaucer: A Medieval Mystery, the only certain thing we can be certain of about Chaucer's death is that he disappears from history somewhere between 1400 and 1402. How he died, where he died, or any additional details are lost to history. The authors believe he was murdered.

Chaucer lived in a perilous time to be on the king's pay. King Richard II's throne was usurped by the next King Henry IV, the man responsible for Richard's death. The authors describe the different between the two reigns as something similar to us going from the free and easy 1970s directly into the religious and intellectual conservativism of the 2000s.

Orchestrating the chilling political climate change was Thomas Arundel, the former archbishop of Canterbury, who returned with Henry IV from exile and proceeded to scourge the kind of religious questioning and humanism that had been acceptable behavior in the earlier reign. Thomas Arundel made a formidable adversary toward someone like Geoffrey Chaucer who was in the midst of writing what we know of as The Canterbury Tales, a work which satirizes the Church and its clergy and celebrates "country morals."

Previously reformers like John Wyclif had been proposing changes in the Roman Catholic Church doctrines and practices. Wyclif, for example, had suggested the need for an English translation of the Bible that the common people could read. And that was exactly the problem. Arundel didn't want the common people involving themselves in such things as church doctrine--in fact he was quite content to have his clergy equally ignorant.

Arundel hit upon a strategy to pull the dissenters into line: the charge of heresy and the threat of being burned alive. (This was approximately 10 years before the birth of Joan of Arc.) England had not until then used this Continental approach.

Arundel needed a litmus test to prove their support. That issue was transubstantiation--that's the moment the priest holds up the bread and wine and they become the body and blood of Christ. Before Arundel the people could question whether the moment described is more symbolic than literal. Arundel made it literal. And anyone who couldn't agree was at risk of a fiery send-off.

The book quotes the experience of one knight:
... On the breaking of the bread the knight looked again , and saw with his own eyes, in the hands of the celebrant friar, true flesh, raw and bleeding, divided into three parts.

Interestingly, Arundel begins his reign of benevolent terror just as Chaucer stops writing the Canterbury tales.

I was struck as I read the book by the chilling of the arts and intellectual thought--similar to what we see happening about 100 years later with Savonarola in the Florence of Michelangelo and Botticelli, preaching destruction of all books and art and creating the bonfires of the vanities.

I could not help but make parallels between Jones' book and Al Gore's chilling assessment of global warming, An Inconvenient Truth. Here we go again, I thought. Religious conservatism is trying to put a strangle-hold on scientific research, the arts, the social climate--and the pro-Bush/anti-global warming camp seems intent on stressing, "Don't confuse me with facts." The leaders have followed Arundel and rather than using transubstantiation they have taken up the fire brands of gay marriage and global warming. Archbishop Arundel can only be smiling.

Who killed Chaucer? I think you've already figured out their answer.

I have a new paper doll based on two views of Chaucer. Check here.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Visiting an Old Friend: “A Prairie Home Companion”

I feel like I have just returned from visiting an old friend, having spent a couple of hours laughing, telling jokes, hearing stories, singing together, and reminiscing about old times.

For over two decades my Saturday nights included the radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion”—often as I drove stretches of Illinois’ cornfields. Many countless hours I spent enjoying the music, drawn into the homespun humor and wisdom of Garrison Keillor and his silly but sometimes pithy comment-filled adventures of Detective Guy Noir. Often, in the midst of fairly mundane patter, I’d hear some epigram of the real that would stay with me. I have remembered—perhaps incorrectly, but nonetheless—a Guy Noir story epigram, “I would rather be burnished with use than rusty from neglect.” Another time, I remember a story Keillor told of Lake Woebegone about how a dove rose up to the rafters during one of the Lutheran minister’s sermons and how everyone sat wondering if it was the Holy Ghost having come to visit them. They are stories that the imagination of radio enhances and the show became routine enjoyment for me.

I love how when Keillor’s stories are well told that they suck me into their world. Robert Altman’s new film, A Prairie Home Companion, based on a screenplay by Garrison Keillor, does just that. There are no Lake Woebegone homilies here, but the entire film becomes that extended fictional narrative where anything can happen.

Some of the musical numbers speak so clearly to some place within me that I felt transcended watching them being performed. Merle Streep and Lily Tomlin as the Johnson sisters were a joy to watch—and I found myself actually tearing up on their song about their mother and family moving on, remembering losses I've experienced also.

The movie is, after all, about death—a character dies, the show is to be killed off and the theatre is to be torn down. But the gentle spirit of Keiller keeps it from being too dark. After all, when Dangerous Woman wears a white trench coat “molded so tightly to her body that you can read her underwear,” humor staves off any fear of that Great By and By. Dangerous Woman says not to mourn the passing of an old man but rather rejoice in what he brought you. Is that any different than Emily in “Our Town” asking us to look at what is passing from our lives and hold on to it as long as we can? As the credits began, I felt good about myself… good about the film… good about life.

The music is one of the first reasons to see the film. I’ve already mentioned my admiration for Streep and Tomlin. The singing cowboys Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly offer two great specialty songs, and even Lindsay Lohan proves that she can belt out with the best of them. The rich husky gospel voice of diva Jearlyn Steele makes you want to join in at the end when she calls you to sing along. I wanted to… I wanted to clap and stomp my feet, but waited to applaud enthusiastically with the rest of the audience at the end.

Watching Altman’s films from McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) up to now, I’ve come to expect the characteristic ensemble acting, the overlapping speeches, the improvisational feel, but I don’t recall any film of his capturing the warmth and affirmation of life that this one does. Perhaps when Altman had his heart transplant 11 years ago, he learned how to share what is important with us.

Like Altman who is perhaps investigating his own mortality and Keillor who is investigating the end of 32 years of performing his radio show, I find myself past a triple bypass and the closure (perhaps) of 39 years of teaching. Like Meryl Streep’s character, I want to continue doing farewell tours for long as I can remember the lines. …And this movie helps me realize that goodbyes don’t wipe out the good memories. And sometimes just being and doing and enjoying for as long as you can is enough.

For Altman observations on the film check out below:

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Otto Wagner

At a garage sale yesterday, I found this lovely print of the work of Austrian
Art Nouveau architect, Otto Wagner. Labeled "Galerie fur Werke der Kunst Unserer Zeit" [?Gallery for Art of Our Time], it has wonderful Art Nouveau murals running across the front of the building. They would have been spectacular. I can't find evidence, however, that the piece was more than an academic piece.

I was delighted to find this framed poster--approximately 3 feet wide-- for only $10. The frame alone would have been 10 times that. But it also prompted me to learn more about Wagner's work.

According to information online, Wagner was part of the Vienna Successionists, which included Klimt (of the famous "Kiss") and Hoffman. Wagner has some beautiful designs. I am particularly taken with his three-dimenstional model of the Imperial Entrance Hall of the Academy of Fine Arts of Vienna (1898).

Wagner's poster is a great addition to my office wall.

For more information on Wagner check out:

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Goodbye GSA

Today I attended my last meeting as sponsor of Rich East's Gay/Straight Alliance. We've had a turbulent history and remain the school and district's "unofficial" club--they let us meet and function as a club but the sponsors are unpaid. But that doesn't matter. What matters is the kids can meet and feel safe.

The GSA began in 2002 as a result of District 227's Multicultural Committee's work on helping gay students. A small committee grew out of a second summer teacher's institute which dealt with training teachers to be more sensitive to the needs of gay students. Ultimately I was selected to be sponsor with Katie Stadt as my co-sponsor.

One of the statements a gay young man at the workshop said was that in his entire education no teacher had ever spoken favorably about a gay author or artist or athelete. "Don't deny us our history," was his empassioned summation.

To learn more about creating the club and the kind of student I would be supporting, I attended a conference that July called Sexual Minority Youth in the Heartland: Issues and Methods for Youth-serving Professionals, at Indiana University, sponsored by the Indiana University Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered Student Support Services. The two-day conference covered such topics as Theories of Sexual Orientation; Safe Schools, Safe Kids, Safe Teachers; Serving Gay Teens at the Library; Cultivating Leadership Skills in GLBT Youth. Former Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders gave the key-note speech on “Leave No Child Behind: Let’s Get Serious.”

Our first meeting began with five students and six adults. The biggest issue on the kids' minds was the need for a safe school environment for all students, especially gays. The structure for the meetings was established and included: snacks, a sharing of concerns, then discussion of things the club is working on, and finally, a history lesson. Students were assured from the beginning that this was an environment where they could feel safe with any issues.

Eventually the club came up with their purpose:

  • to create a healthy, supportive environment for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, questioning and straight students and staff;
  • to increase physical and emotional safety for GLBTQS students and staff;
  • to value and affirm GLBT history and provide educational resources for the Rich East community through text, technology, and teaching;
  • to have lots of fun.

In September the students participated in the AIDS walk/run in Chicago. The safe school issue became a political football in January when the school board voted to take down rainbow stickers teachers had placed on their doors to designate "safe zones" for students. Contentous public meetings only emphasized the need for protection of gay students rights. Many of the civic minded students rallied against what they preceived as an injustice and by the end of the year we had had 30 students attend the meetings. The club won the Student Council's Outstanding Club Award--which they've done every year since.

The students elected to designate the rainbow triangle as their official club logo.

The GSA meets every Tuesday (with the exception of the two weeks before a play production). The students remain politically active and have done not only the AIDS walks but The Day of Silence also and displays at the Village Hall during June. While they have learned that often the system doesn't give them what they want, they have also learned to work to change that system.

I'm proud to have been a role model in the process. I had to fight back a lump in my throat as they left.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Facing Retirement

I am retiring from 39 years of public school teaching this Friday, May 26, 2006. It’s a daunting thought to leave Rich East, which has been my teaching home for 36 years. I still believe I have years of teaching to go, but my daily commute involves an hour drive twice a day. Needless to say, the wear and tear on my body and my car is considerable. And after 11 years of it, I need to move into a new phase of my life.

Among the students I teach were seniors who were also facing this expulsion from the womb with a view with trepidation. The last day of class I gave them my words of wisdom… what I’ve learned in the process can be summarized in the following ideas:

Man is a sum of his actions. So say Sartre and Camus in defining existentialism. It is our actions which make clear who we are, not our dreams nor our thoughts. I tell the students a story I read sometime in the distant past (I think it was by Guy Du Maupassant, but don't hold me to it). In the story, a man knows his soul is black, something others would not like. So he dons a mask in public and wears it all the time. The mask is that of a man of virtue—and he goes about doing good constantly, but he know that in his heart he is not. He never takes the mask off. When the man dies his mask is removed—and his face has become the mask. His actions made him who he was... and the man of good was so because he acted like a man of good.

“Acceptance on someone else’s terms is worse than rejection” (Mary Cassatt). For years I spent my life trying to be who others wanted me to be—and the most common feeling I had was discontent because of it. It was not until I broke with my past and began living on my own and accepting who I was that I could really appreciate Cassatt’s advice.

Life is all about change. The world we inhabit changes constantly. As Samuel Beckett says—it oozes and it flows. We sluff off layers of skin; the sun changes position; and the rocks get worn away a little bit more. Relationships daily redefine themselves. And we move forward because that’s the only direction we can go. If we’re lucky, we can smile in the process of following that move.

So when I say goodbye to the room which has been my strength for the last 14 years and the students which have sustained me for much over twice as long, I hope to move on with a sense of awe and wonder at this new chapter in my life.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Guardian for a New Millenium

Guardian for a New Millenium by David Claudon
Here I was playing with Photoshop CS2, using layers and brushes and a vintage photograph from my collection.

© 2006, David Claudon.

Young Englishman, ca 1890

This portrait uses both Corel Painter IX and Photoshop CS2. The portrait is based on a cabinet card from around 1890. On the back of the card was an advertisement for artist/photographer George Stone, 72 Baron St, Gloucester, England.

© 2006 David Claudon.

Medieval Mourner Pastel Digital Painting

Last year, I visited my friend Jon in New York and we visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of the pictures I took was of this Medieval Mourner statue from around 1450. Experimenting with Corel Painter IX and using Martin Addison's book, Painter IX for Photographers, First Edition : Creating Painterly Images Step by Step , I made this pastel of the picture.

© 2006 David Claudon

Monday, May 01, 2006

Family Album: Britiannia Bray Van Dolah

Britannia Bray Van Dolah My great-great maternal grandmother, Britannia Bray Van Dolah, was born in 1841 in Spencer County, Indiana. In 1853, her father moved to McLean County, Illinois, and proceeded to outlive three wives. Besides farming 160 acres in Martin Township, he taught in a country school.

In 1864, Britannia married Lexington livery and live stock businessman David Hyatt Van Dolah. He supposedly (according to family tradition) had recently paid his brother $300 to fight for him in the Civil War. Britannia and D.H. became doting parents of two sons: James Walter (1865-1936) and Lewis Sheridan "Tad" (1867-1919).

In 1868, D.H., Ike Harness and others founded a bank in Lexington (Harness, Vandolah & Company). As a banker, Van Dolah was a shrewd businessman and amassed a fortune buying and selling land both in Illinois and Missouri. A one point he was said to have owned 2,000 acres in McLean County.

D.H. Van Dolah & Tad From 1878 to 1889, Van Dolah imported French Percheron and Norman draft horses, going to Europe seven times (his wife two). In the picture at left, D.H. is the one with the long beard, while his son Tad lies rakishly at his feet.

According to family tradition, during one such trip D.H. brought back three large diamonds hidden in feed sacks. (Each of my siblings and I inherited one of the diamonds.) It is told that another gift brought from Europe was a beautiful large music box which plays about 8 tunes. The box was a gift for one D.H.'s tellers, Hop (William Hopkins) Kennedy, who had become son James' father-in-law in 1887. (I still own the music box.)

Having traveled abroad, D.H. preferred French crepes for breakfast. One morning "Sis" (as D.H. called her) served him regular pancakes. He stormed out of the house and got in the buggy and began riding around in a circle feeding the pancakes to the pigs. "He was a Tartar," laughed my grandmother, telling the story.

In France around 1897, Britannia admired the French chateau and decided she wanted her husband to build her one. During 1897-1898, the new house--known in Lexington as the "Castle"--was built. Located just west of Lexington the house was the work of Pontiac contractor C. W. Mathewison. Estimates placed the cost of the house between $35,000. and $80,000. Payrolls showed workers earned from 15 to 25 cents per hour. Scaffolds were not permitted to go up outside the house, so they were only used inside the structure.

The 30 room structure had a double-wall constructed of Indiana limestone, Maine granite and Missouri buff brick. The roof was slate.

The house consisted of four stories, complete with a circular oak stairway leading up to the fourth floor grand ballroom. The entrance hall chandelier was brass and custard glass.

According to a news article, "English flocked wallpaper and a pecky cypress ceiling decorate the south drawing room. Special supports were installed for the 300-pound chandelier from a French chateau." The dining room had a Belgian chandelier.

The castle tower contained two round rooms, one used as a study. The second room was a bedroom.

The house was said to have one of the first working elevators in McLean County.

In January 1903 at aged 61, D. H. Van Dolah died of a heart attack.

Britannia on an alligatorBritannia outlived her husband by 27 years, remaining the dominant matriarch of the family throughout. She traveled yearly, but was plagued with ill health the last few years of her life. At right she can be seen on one of her winter trips to Florida around 1912. She sits astride a stuffed alligator. To her right is Ella Kennedy Van Dolah, her son James' wife.

Britannia was 89 at the time of her death in 1930. Said her obituary in 1930:

During the days of her robust health she was a leader in the religious, educational and social affairs of Lexington. She was a member of the Christian Church, the Order of the Eastern Stars and a charter member of the Lexington Woman's Club.

The Van Dolahs are buried in a family section of the Lexington Cemetery (originally known as the Porteus Cemetery). Standing at Britannia's tombstone you can see the house she had her husband build up on a hill to the south-east.

Colorized tintype of Britannia Bray Vandolah, ca. 1868 © 2006 David Claudon. "Castle" picture from Lexington Unit Journal.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Family Album: My Father Dancing

Ivan Claudon

Yesterday I happened upon an internet article written by one of my parents’ friends about the Turkey Creek Golf Course, created in March 1922 on land of my great-great grandmother in Lexington, Illinois.

It was interesting to see my grandfather Charles Carnahan (then 25) as one of the founders since I didn’t know he played golf. I knew that my parents (and brother and sister) loved golf, but not my grandfather.

What I found even more surprising, however, was the following:

When the club house was vacated, the area teenagers took it over and held dances there. Ask Ivan Claudon about the Saturdays he spent cutting logs to burn in the fireplace to provide heat for the building. He still claims to have had enough energy left to spend the night folk or square dancing to records. Harold Siron recalls an occasion or two when Emmett Douglass played fiddle and his wife accompanied on the piano. The hills became a popular spot for winter sledding.

Ivan Claudon was my father. I never knew he enjoyed dancing. I can only vaguely recall seeing him dance once at my sister’s wedding. The above description speaks of a person I never knew.

My father, at the age of 64, committed suicide on Monday, 21 April 1980. Early that morning, he left the ranch-style home my parents had built across from my grandmother’s home. He drove a little over a mile to the barn he had planned to renovate into a retirement home, on property inherited from my grandmother—near the site of the Turkey Creek Golf Course—and then he hanged himself. He had just retired, and he lost a battle with clinical depression.

Depression runs in my father’s family. In the 1930s, his father had been committed for a brief time to a mental institution for being a “spend-thrift” (he bought a race horse and my grandmother saw this purchase at the height of the Depression as signs of a certifiable illness). My father, even though he wasn’t the oldest son had to sign papers for the commitment. I understand now that he always feared he might suffer the same fate. I understood what he had gone through even more fully when I fought my own battle with clinical depression in the 1990s.

My father kept a lot inside. His viewpoint was clearly shown when my mother’s father died. He approached my brother and I and told us not to cry because it would only upset my mother even more.

Before I did the Thornton Wilder digression, I was trying to reconcile the picture of the father I remember with that young man who chopped wood and danced the evening away. We were cut from the same mold and I didn’t even know it.

For much of my youth, my father and I butted heads. It didn’t help that I wanted to go into art and theatre. My father was an electrical engineer, a practical man. Only much later did I realize that he enjoyed the things that I did. But that was after I had married and settled down to teach. Two days before his death he paid a visit to my home in Park Forest. He pulled me aside at the end of the visit and told me he was proud of me. I had a great home and seemed happy. He was saying goodbye.

After reading the article, I’d like to imagine him with me on one of those club nights I used to have when I first moved to Chicago. The two of us going clubbing, having some drinks, and dancing the night away—I could have enjoyed that.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Delta 32

Medieval doctors wore bird-like masks to protect themselves from deadly vapors. Aromatic herbs were placed in the beak of the mask.

According to yesterday's news, the deadly strain of bird flu [H5N1] had been confirmed in a cat in northern Germany, "the first time the virus has been identified in a mammal in the 25 nations of the European union." I pondered what that news might mean as we dealt in my History and Thought of Western Man class with the Black Death.

We showed a PBS film, Secrets of the Dead: Mystery of the Black Death, which examines the mystery of why, when the Black Death came in 1665 to the English village of Eyam, half the people were able to survive. According to the film, with the first deaths, the villagers turned to their rector who suggested the entire town be quarantined. The surprise was that rather than everyone dying, at least half the people of the village survived.

To find an answer as to why they survived, scientists examined the DNA of descendants of the survivors and found that 14 percent possessed a recessive gene mutation called delta 32. Testing the distribution of this gene throughout the world, they discovered none in native Africans, East Asians nor Indians. Research established that the gene is only found in those regions of Europe where the Black Death hit and in America which is where some European descendants moved.

But that’s not all. Noting that the Black Death was a disease that attacked the immune system, researchers began wondering if there was a link with other immune diseases. Scientists looked at the case of Steven Crohn, an actively gay man whose partner was the fifth person to die of AIDS in America. Crohn did not contract the disease. Most of his friends died from AIDS, and he certainly was exposed to the virus. DNA tests showed he did indeed possess the mutant gene, which doesn’t allow the AIDS virus to attack the immune system. Surprisingly Crohn not only had not gotten the disease, he may never get it. And he may be among thousands who have the same immunity.

The gene has been around a long time. Researchers have discovered Scandinavian bodies pre-Black Death who possess the gene.

While the discovery of delta 32 offers tantalizing areas for researchers to study, it does point out how survival of Black Death or of AIDS may be the luck of the gene pool. Perhaps the same may be true with the pandemic predicted with bird flu.

For more information, check out:

Saturday, February 25, 2006

After Brokeback

I have seen Brokeback Mountain three times and wept each time. I have read the short story and the screenplay and wept at each. I guess that makes me a weeper.

Having seen the movie when it first came out, I wanted to write about it but found myself inarticulate in describing why the film is so powerful to me. A friend asked, isn’t that inability to speak about what is important one of the points of the film?

For me the story speaks about our American Puritan ethic of denial. Rather than allowing himself to deal with “this thing that takes ahold of us,” Ennis denies it, refuses to name it, hides it away from view, eventually mounting it as a shrine to what he has lost. For a love story, it’s amazing that love is never mentioned.

Annie Proulx in Brokeback Mountain: Story to Screenplay says that the story is really about destructive rural homophobia. [130] Published first in The New Yorker in October 1997, the “gay cowboys” story includes the possible hate-murder of Jack, which in turn eeirily foreshadowed the brutal October 1998 murder of Wyoming student Matthew Shepherd, something Proulx talks about in her essay “Getting Movied.”

From 1997 to 2004, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana wrote the screenplay, fleshing out the characters of the wives and children, and spent almost seven years trying to get it into production.

It’s interesting to watch the “Brokeback” phenomena grow and take on a life of its own. According to LOGO, “Brokeback” has become synonymous to “gay” (as in “that’s so Brokeback”). One site,, has a series of videos either parodying the film—as in Brokeback to the Future—or ones using footage from the film. One of the most touching is one using footage but substituting Garth Brooks’ “Shameless.” It offers an interesting perspective of both.

sepia shirts

Last week the two shirts that were major symbols in the film were sold at auction for $101,100.51. The buyer referred to them as “the ruby slippers of our time.”

The shirts are perhaps one of the most potent symbols of the story/film and a friend who has seen the movie twice surprised me by not remembering them.

In the story, Annie Proulx allows Ennis to find the shirts, realizing first that it is Jack’s old shirt with Ennis’ blood on it, and then in the next paragraph that his own plaid shirt that he thought he’d lost is carefully worked down inside Jack’s sleeves.

…Stolen by Jack and hidden here inside Jack’s own shirt, the pair like two skins, one inside the other two in one. He pressed his face into the fabric and breathed in slowly through his mouth and nose, hoping for the faintest smoke and mountain sage and salty sweet stink of Jack but there was no real scent, only the memory of it, the imagined power of Brokeback Moutain on which nothing was left but what he held in his hands. [26]

Later, beside a postcard he gets of Brokeback Mountain, he drives a nail in a corner of his trailer and on it hangs the wire hanger and the two old shirts suspended from it. [27]

What I find fascinating is seeing how the symbol was reworked by the screenwriters:

And there, on the back of the closet door, WE SEE THE SHIRTS, on a wire hangar suspended from a nail, and next to them, a postcard of Brokeback Mountain, tacked onto the door. He has taken his shirt from inside of JACK’S, and has carefully tucked JACK’S shirt down inside his own.

He snaps the top button of one of the shirts. [97]

When Jack takes the shirt, he hides Ennis inside his shirt, just as he hides him inside himself… and in the film, we see that Ennis has finally understood and done the same. He says, “Jack, I swear,” but as Annie Proulx writes in the short story, “ though Jack had never asked him to swear anything and was himself not the swearing kind.”

Whether the film will win the Academy Award next Sunday as Best Picture, it has already won that title from the New York Film Critics Circle, British Academy Film Awards, and Directors Guild of American Awards. It has already etched itself into my life and my experience. For me, it was the best picture I saw last year.

Bright Lights Film Journal offers two contrasting articles on Brokeback Mountain:

John Scagliotti offers an interesting perspective from a gay man's viewpoint in Why There Are No Real Gay Men in "Brokeback Mountain."

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A Reading List

The following is a partial list of some of the books I have read since last summer.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Appendicitis at 62

One friend writes, "You're soon going to run out of organs to be operated on just to miss school."

Tuesday night I started the hour-long drive from school to home feeling fine. About half-way home I began feeling sick to my stomach--which for me usually indicates abdomen pain. I've had a couple of bouts during this school year where I thought I'd been hit with food poisoning, spent a day in bed and finally felt better within two days. I asked the nurse at school if it could be appendicitis and she assured me if it was it wouldn't go away. Plus we all know that's something young people get--not old.

Well, back to Tuesday. I came home, went to bed and hoped that I could sleep off whatever I was feeling. About an hour later I was hit by a 10 pain in my lower right abdomen. I couldn't find a comfortable position and ended up lying face down on the bathroom floor tiles hoping it would pass. I wanted to vomit, but didn't feel like I had the energy to get up. After about 20 minutes I suddenly had this feeling that since I live alone, I didn't want people to find me on my bathroom floor. By that point the pain had gone to about 9 and I was able to get dressed and walk out to my car. I drove to my friends Vic and Janet and asked Janet to drive me to the hospital--I didn't want to be alone or would have taken myself there.

We sat in the emergency room waiting room and then the ER from 8:00 p.m. until 3:40 a.m. when they finally decided it was indeed appendicitis. The operation showed that the appendix had perforated. (Thoughts of people dying from peritonitis flashed through my head, but I decided to trust modern Science and God.)

Three days later I'm walking around, changing my own dressings and hoping that it all will heal quickly.

My reason for writing this is to remind you that if you have a pain in your lower right abdomen and it's nowhere else but there and it reaches a 10 in pain... you just may have appendicitis. I'm proof it can go away and come back, but if it had ruptured the other two times, I may not have been so lucky.

"The New World": just another world of lies

The picture at left is based on an engraving which had been made from a sketch taken from life in 1616 of the 19 year old Indian princess by Simon Van de Passe, published by Captain John Smith in 1624.

As I got up to leave the theatre showing The New World, an old man turned to his wife and said, "So whose story was that supposed to be?" "Pocahontas," explained the woman. "Really? Is that what really happened to her?" "I guess, but you know Hollywood."

In many ways the new film is as much fantasy as Disney's cartoon version. "Let's make a love story of these two people... Forget the facts--love stories sell," I can imagine some pitchman saying to the money men.

So change the facts they did. The first and most important one is that according to Camilla Townsend in Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (2004) , Pocahontas was only 10 years old (!!) when she was supposed to have saved the life of Captain John Smith. And that famous life saving moment may not have actually happened since it only appeared in Smith's reinvention and much later retelling of his own history in the Virginia colony of Jamestown--eight years after Pochantos' death.

The real story of Pocahontas is fairly simple. At around 10 she meets Captain Smith. They spent some time together and she helps him learn her language and she his. Later when he writes about her with erotic undertones, he changes her age to 15. Her name means "Mischief" and is a child's name--not what she considers her real name (Matoaka). She loves to do cartwheels and challenges the English boys to compete with her. She also becomes for two years a favorite of the Jamestown settlers.

Around the age of 15 Pocahontas marries for the first time an Indian warrior named Kokoom, who disappears from her life within a couple of years. She is taken prisoner by the English who plan to use her as a hostage against her father. She is converted to Christianity, baptized Rebecca, and marries an English widower named John Rolfe. [Rolfe had married an Englishwoman and together they were shipwrecked near Bermuda as they came to Virginia. Shakespeare uses that shipwreck as the basis for his The Tempest.] Together they become farmers of tobacco and have one son named Thomas. When Thomas is only around 1, the Rolfes go on a business trip to London, bringing along several of Pocahontas' people. There she is a social success, but she succumbs to the British germs and eventually dies as they start their journey home. John has to leave Thomas in England and never sees him again. John marries another Englishwoman and has a daughter. After his death, Thomas comes to America and inherits a great deal of property.

There is a meeting of Pocahontas and John Smith during the visit to London, but during it she berates him for having abandoned promises he had made to her father. Certainly it was not a bittersweet love farewell.

The filmmakers achieved very interesting historical mise-en-scene, but the story becomes a rather Roussean concept of "let's run in the forest with the naturals and find Paradise... but I'm not worth Paradise... etc." Colin Farrell has generally been an interesting actor (although he was absolutely awful in Stone's Alexander), but he progresses into his nature scenes, as he gives up the armor for beefcake tattoos, he attains the charisma needed for this sexual adventurer. (Block out of your mind that the girl he's seducing is only 10 in real life.)

The real knockout of the film, however, is Q'Orianka Kilcher as Pochantos. She is eloquent in her silences and speaks volumes with her eyes and gestures. Every scene with her takes life and succeeds. As a story of love lost, moving on, and letting the past go, she reminds me of Ennis in "Brokeback." She, for me, is worth the price of admission. The film itself is overlong and at times grates, but Kilcher redeems it.

So if a film successfully reproduces the look of the period but is essentially based on lies, how can one accept the veracity of any of it?