A beautiful day in July.  Not too hot, with a strong cool breeze.  It is meat pick up day.  We got our postcard and friendly call from Polyface farm last week telling us it is time to come get our order.  T&E meats had called to ask us how we wanted our beef butchered.  I recalled mom and dad doing this, but as an adult I was bewildered.  I checked their web site, and found that the Salatins had been behind the resurrection of T&E (the former owners had been past retirement age and needed to sell).  Local butchers have largely gone the way of many animals in the world- extinct.  The folks behind Polyface and some of their friends knew this was a mistake, and managed to save one of the last in the area.

So we blundered our way through a cutting order with the help of a funny and kind young butcher.  Then we waited. We got the call, and this morning we loaded kids and coolers into the van.  The quality of the sunlight bouncing off of the cornstalks as we drove the “back way” was amazing.  The coolness of the streams and woods blew into the open windows when the road curved into a hollow.  The buzzards were out- garbage men for the road kill, and the bright yellow tits moved so fast in front of the hood that all I would see were flashes of yellow and black.  The farm itself does not distinguish from any other on the road.  There is one small sign, nothing else.  No fanfare, and to get to the shop one has to drive around back of the farmhouse itself.  Evidence of the recent conference, confab/shindig that drew over 1600 people from as far away as New Zealand, Australia, France, and other points on the globe was no where to be seen.  Two beautiful, tow headed boys bounded of the shop screen door and stopped short eyeing my boys.  They were the same ages, and struck up a quick conversation about the white mountain of a dog panting on the concrete porch.  After a short sizing up, all four boys took off.

We walked in and let the folks at the counter know we were there for our order.  As usual, a friendly conversation was struck about the success of the shindig, the abysmal small organic farm rules, how the Valley is a lot like Napa before it became overhyped, and getting local farms to cut back on pesticides and the like to lower the skyrocketing nitrogen counts in the rivers.  The pork and chickens got loaded first, then the side of beef.  Once in the van, the boys could not be found.  All four were seen playing near the house after some searching, and ran up to announce that they were going to see the new chicks.  What could we do but follow?  The boys gently held the chicks, and laughed about their behavior.  Then it was time to see the bunnies.  Off they zipped, and again we followed.  The impromptu tour was wonderful.  The boys were gentle and kind to the small creatures they got to hold and observe, then off again to some new site.  Rocks HAD to be thrown in the stream, and old baguettes that were intended for the big brown chickens became quick swords.  We had to leave or the meat would begin to get warm, but walking toward the van was not without some wistful whining.  My eldest quickly invited the Polyface boys to come visit when they were in town saying, “Like city mouse and country mouse!”   An airplane toy gotten last year at the Smithsonian, which had fascinated one of the Polyface boys all along the tour, was spontaneously given with a “You can keep it”.  I nodded in agreement.  Thank you’s and waves, and we were off.

Right now the smell of cooking coq au vin fills the house, the basement freezer door will just close, and we are off to pick up grandpa for an antique car show and antique tractor parade.  The zucchini and tomatoes need to be picked, and I have given over a patch of parsley to the monarch caterpillars.  The pumpkin vine almost spans the whole length of the garden, and tiny pumpkins have sprouted. The new pop-up camper sits waiting for a last summer trip to visit to relatives, and the creeping morning glory has made a full assault on the lavender bee garden.   Robotics camp has another week, and the pool still echoes with screams in mid-afternoon.  This is mid-July, 2011.

Vim, vigor, and vitality

I have been discussing the merits of and seemingly endless fascination I have with Alexander Calder this week with my husband.  Husband has been doing some seriously deep thinking about masculinity, fatherhood, and related topics as he sketches new creations.

I find that issues of quality, craftsmanship, virility, masculinity and humor overlap in many of the artists I admire.  These are qualities often disregarded, or as one critic has written, there was no category for the work of Calder for a very long time (think of his wire “portraits”) and he was dumped into the category of the decorative (which is the way art historians and dealers/gallery owners dismiss much of the art world they do not understand).  I think art and the makers often go misunderstood in admirers need to admire, and that is a waste.  Humor in visual art has gone disregarded for so long (there seems to be a stupid, unreflective assumption that humor in art somehow makes it less serious or meaningful, when the exact opposite can be true), it has been reduced to superficial snark in a work, or simply the nervous titter of viewers too insecure to let loose with a belly laugh.

Too much of what passes for art, particularly in the 20th century (and feeding the 21st), is a habit of consumption and the need for social celebrity.  Big Art is the commodity, the oohing and ahhing at price quotes for the work of mostly dead people, and the speculation of what it might be worth later.  It is the drawing room sensibility of the wealthy, most of whom care little for art history, craft, or aesthetics and more for the symbol of wealth art can represent.  Real collectors are often a little crazy, and like to get to know artists.   They collect what they love, what strikes them, and engage in works of art in ways that make them feel very alive.

 I admit to admiring a certain “muscularity” in works of art.  I enjoy a raw masculinity, an edge, in the art I choose to spend time with.  Muscularity, wit, and humor can be very persuasive and I admit, arousing.  What porn can not do for me, muscular and multi-layered art can.  Is this the solipsism of the educated?  Do we channel our baser impulses, have we learned so deftly how to distance base needs into high minded forms? Is it safer than more common forms of activity?  Or is it less safe?  Conventional sexuality is explored in a few simple moves of imagination and action.  It is when we let our imaginations run, have an active fantasy life, and have a partner with whom we can explore, isn’t it then when we risk?  When we allow ourselves to be truly aroused, all senses alert, without threat or fear, stimulated beyond the box of sexuality, isn’t that when we challenge ourselves as human beings?  Art is an ideal I can never live up to, a series of fascinations that never cease to surprise me, but is more often the search for gems in an arena that can often bore with the monotony of poorly executed, unthought out (or one-liners as Husband says), witless, and decidedly “emperors new clothes” riddled events.

 But.  But when a work, or a series of works, and at best the oeuvre of a particular artist engages me I can find myself supremely aroused.  I would seem a pedant to quote various aesthetic theories at this point.  So I won’t.  Suffice it to say I like using my mind and I like it when there is a responsive harmony between using my mind and body, a heightened collective of senses, an experience (as Dewey would say) that lingers in memory.  Thank you Calder, thank you Pollock, thank you Husband, thank you innumerable masters of the muscular art.  Thank you too, those women who have made me become engaged, if aroused in different ways, alerted my senses and sensibilities to a new idea or facet of critique.  Thank you to the apprentices and support staff, who in an age of misguided singular attribution of works go unmentioned, and therefore the art significantly less understood.  My life would be so much less than it is without you, and your work.  Thank you.

The pleasure of beautiful things

Advice for the retail world:  make it an experience again.  Not the “rarified air” experience, like so many haute couture lines that opened retail shops in the recent past, designed by those who seem to think shopping should be like going to an art gallery, with the same high prices, cold air, and tomb like ambience lacking in any human presence (to their surprise, they lack the requisite robotic and emaciated shoppers as well).  No more the grab and go of malls either, or should I say teenager theme parks complete with heavy browed security to prevent those ever looming petty thefts and feared eruptions of violence.  These bastions of cheap consumerism, garish color and sound, and the worst edibles known to man, anchoring neighborhoods surrounded by big box stores, acres of asphalt, and exchange-name restaurants proffering the same fare trucked in every week are dying. The experience is run run run, acquire without thought, and keep going.  It is exhausting, boring, discomforting to observe and perversely, makes me both sad and glad to see it all go.  Change is difficult.  Atrophy limb by limb, week by week, while weeds peek up through the sea of black, and the workers left in stores that remain walk to the only source of sunlight, the front doors, and peer out. 

If retail is to have any presence in the future, re-examining what obtaining goods is about might be useful.  I do not intend to raise dairy cows, so I must procure dairy goods from suppliers (dairy farmers themselves, and I am lucky to be able to go to the farmers market or visit a local dairy if I choose) or the “middle men”, the grocers.  I can go to the Wal-Tar-K’s and pick up toothpaste, a tarp, and milk at the same time or I can go half a mile to a neighborhood grocery store; small, with a surprisingly wide variety of goods, cheerful and funny employees, and quirky promotions.  The experience of the latter is infinitely better, and the overall grocery bills the same. 

For other things, objects I do not buy on a regular basis, I had been retreating to the internet.  Shoes, clothes, and toys in the sizes, materials, and styles I wanted were available, even if the experience was the same as reading a catalog.  Then wide spread information theft arose, and already this year we have had our credit card company send us new cards because, they announced to us, our information had been “compromised” (read: stolen) by a retail merchant.  I am going back to cash, which helps me stay on a budget, and clearing out all my internet information.

I wonder about the pleasure of beautiful things.  Not only obtaining them, but observing them, seeing them, feeling them, and being surrounded by them in a retail space.  I suggested to our local Apple store manager that she put in a coffee station, as they already have the big circular bar to service patrons and Apple stores offer instructional chits that patrons can use at their leisure– go in and learn when you choose.  She replied that the mess would be horrifying.   She is a nasty old woman who is rude and condescending, and chalks up her lack of business to people not using her brand of machines.  She is a delusional idiot, like so many business managers at all levels.

If this contracting economy is teaching us anything, it is that the days of buying for buying sake is over.  Encouraging it any further is stupid, and the self-sufficiency and recycling of products (gardens, second hand stores, people learning to fix things) that is rising up is a good thing that may help us reformulate what it means to “have” anything at all.

Service, the idea that knowledgeable people with a good attitude can help you when you buy something, needs to come back.  Loyalty from consumers because a store backs up the things it sells (without hassle), because objects are easy to find, in stock, help is always ready, and provides the intangible social and informational resources buyers need (as we regularly experience at our local hardware store) all this should be valued again; not sheer loyalty for “brand” because it is marketed as chic, or used to be dependable, those superficial reasons of buzz, not truth. 

Spaces for social interaction need to be considered.  Think of department stores of mid-century, when there were comfortable places for people to rest, literally rest, have a coffee, or chat.  Also offering “public facilities” that had anterooms with mirrors and chairs (let’s add baby changing areas in ante-rooms of BOTH sexes too, with truly safe tables and disposal methods), a gateway between the intimate and the public.   Think spaces for truly examining items, not simply crammed together racks of confusion that dwarf individuals with claustrophobic environments.  Spaces organized with consideration for the process of appreciation and the ability of patrons to freely move, even two at a time are needed.  The old calculation of “items per square feet or inch” is useless to everyone but bean counters.

Think about spaces where light and sound could be calming, without feeling like generic elevator music; imagine spaces that encouraged patrons to be patrons, not just consumers.  Imagine learning to save and spend money on things you need, and to learn how to appreciate the things you want.  How to look, how to see- as John Berger has said.

Growing up I had an annual shopping trip with my grandmother.  She always made sure to teach me, to remark upon the quality of the items we saw.  Were the seams finished?  Was a blouse cut to a fit?  Were the sheets multi-thread?  Were the towels sized well?  Were the shoes leather, and sewn correctly?  With the raise of an eyebrow, she would dismiss much of what she saw.  A child of the depression, she knew it was not worth it to buy shoddy goods.  Even if it meant you only bought a pair of shoes rarely, you bought good shoes that fit, and clothes that would last, as well as appearing beautiful.

Of course, I had to live through my own young adulthood.  I squandered cash on stylish, but foolish items.  I learned.  I also learned that a terrific, barely used black wool swing coat that fit as if it were made for me, although made thirty years ago (and I checked the thread- it was well made and had not deteriorated) was one of the best things I ever bought, for five dollars.  A vicuna over-coat here, a vintage skirt there.  Quality fell out of favor as resale became a mark of shame.  No more.  There is great pleasure in beautiful things, in quality, and the experience of learning about them.  Retail, take note. 

This all points to a more local point of view.  Locally or regionally made and produced items, lower shipping costs, higher dependability, less production and consumption for a cycle of “throw away”, and responsibility to the deeply interconnected nature of commerce is necessary.  To have buyers, those buyers must be employed.  To have service, workers must make fair wages with life sustaining benefits of time and insurance.  The cries that objects will be too expensive if we do this are lies. There are trade offs in where expenses go, and, as we are learning the hard way, no manager or administrator (read: CEO.  They are only titled managers at best, nothing more) is worth the outrageous salaries they are often paid.  There are plenty of bright, energetic, dedicated people of all ages willing to work hard for fair wages who can run companies.

Also, encouraging farmers to grow such things as industrial hemp (no THC), and other fibers, and milling them regionally actually SAVES money.  The whole fast buck lie is falling down, and only those who want to steal the last pennies off the corpse are the ones screaming that any other model of capitalism is socialism or “worse”.  It is a complete lack of imagination, a lack of responsibility, and a lack of honesty that drives them; all this, and fear.  I have compassion for the fear, we are all afraid of change, the unknown.  I have no tolerance for the hatred, the thefts, and the willful ignorance that slows down progressive change for the better.  The hateful rants of the fearful greedy is a position not only immoral, it is ugly.  If beauty is truth, and truth beauty, then maybe we all ought to do a lot more thinking, and talking, about what truth is right now.  The pleasure of beautiful things will only come when we know that they are truly beautiful, worthy, and have the time to consider them wisely.