Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Rochester Painting

We had some arboreal death and destruction in our yard last week.

The elm tree that had shaded part of our property for the thirty-plus years we have lived here - and for at least that long before we arrived - contracted Dutch Elm disease. In March and April, when all of its comrades were proudly modeling their springtime green fashions, the elm remained as naked as mid-December. We called the tree-care company that has treated the elm for several years, and they gave us the bad news.

It took three men with a cherry picker, several chainsaws, and a bunch of ropes about eight hours to totally dismantle the stately tree. By law the wood, being diseased, had to be removed and professionally disposed of. Three days later two other men came by with a stump grinder and eliminated the last above-ground vestiges of the elm. Because the trunk was so large, and its root system was so deep, it is doubtful if we can plant another shrub of any significant size to replace it.

In the process the lumberjacks moved some of our lawn ornaments - including a pair of pink flamingos that were located in a small woodland garden next to the site of the deciduous massacre. They laid the displaced avian ornaments on the grass alongside another perennial bed.
"They remind me of the Rochester painting." Mars said to me.

The "Rochester painting" is "Shooting Flamingos" (1857) by the American artist George Catlin. It is housed in the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, New York. Mars and I used to visit that museum frequently during our many visits to that upstate New York town while our son attended college there. It is an unpleasant subject matter, and a troubling painting. Yet this oil on canvas work became, in some strange way, my favorite artwork.

But it wasn't an aesthetic judgment that I felt good about.

The piece is one of ten works that Catlin painted on commission for Hartford Connecticut gun manufacturer Samuel Colt. The shooter portrayed is the artist himself and the location is the Grand Saline on the Rio Salado, south of Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is shown blasting his weapon - with almost cartoon-like intensity - into the air towards the long pink line of softly painted birds flying overhead. Flamingos plummet helplessly to the ground and lie strewn, dying and dead, on the landscape. The scene was painted from memory - Catlin was apparently too busy emptying, loading, and firing his weapon to even take a moment to sketch.

The painting was prominently displayed, but even if it were not, we (or at least I) would have sought it out. I was never quite sure why. Was it like the roadside accident that you slow down and crane your neck to gawk at? Or was it more like the attractive force of the baptism scene from "The Godfather" - one of the most emotionally affecting cinematic segments I've ever witnessed.

"In the final extraordinary baptism scene, probably occurring in 1955, Michael acts as godfather at the christening of his sister Connie's (and Carlo's) child, his nephew and namesake... The scene brilliantly crosscuts back and forth from the church to locations throughout the city as gangland murders are orchestrated. With controlled intensity, Michael engineers a cold-blooded mass killing of Barzini, Tattaglia, Greene and all other rival gangleaders of the Five Families to settle the "Family business." While methodically committing the series of vicious and bloody counterattack murders to confirm his position as the new godfather, he is at the church altar listening to holy recitations of the priest during the baptism - in juxtaposed scenes." (

This whole Godfather thing was brought to mind by two other exemplars of this parallel editing technique that Mars and I witnessed in the past month or so.

We pretty much missed the television series West Wing in its original incarnation so we are now backfilling that gap in our education via DVD. In Season 1, Episode 10 Toby (the White House Communications Director) becomes obsessed with providing a proper burial for a homeless Korean War veteran who is found dead on the National Mall. In the end, the somber military funeral that he orchestrates is crosscut with scenes from the feel-good White House Christmas festivities.

We also watched the season finale of Glee, in which Vocal Adrenaline (the rival singing group) is performing the Queen classic rock number "Bohemian Rhapsody" at Sectionals competition, while Quinn (one of the Glee gang) is having her baby, with ensemble, at the hospital.

"The full-length "Bohemian Rhapsody," its bombast cut with the operatics of Quinn's delivery, was one of those examples of the weird, multivalent collision that is Glee working in every way: it was entertaining, over-the-top, risk-taking and simultanously [sic] utterly artificial and very real." (Time magazine TV critic James Poniewozik)

That totally explains my fixation with the dead flamingos. I am not just another sadistic bird hater posing as an art house aesthete. I am much, much better than that.

Art does not just happen. Totally without the cooperation of George Catlin - who was just trying to make a few bucks doing an ad poster for a gun company - my imagination must have fashioned its own private "multivalent collision" between the raw violence of flamingo slaughtering, versus its artistic depiction and the cultivated setting in which the artwork was displayed.

Now I wonder, "How quickly will it occur again if I leave our own pile of fallen lawn ornaments lying in the brush?" And "Should I be nervous that Mars keeps playing the Baptismal Fugue from the Godfather soundtrack on our stereo?"

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Holy Mallow Batman!

If it were not for my wife Mars' patience and persistence in successfully nurturing the hollyhock seeds from our daughter-in-law Monica's New Mexico plants into towering, flower-bearing, stalks I would never have learned about Saint Cuthbert and his mysterious connection to classic confections. And what these tall, showy flowered plants really should be named.

It all began when I wondered about the etymology of the strange sounding appellation that had been affixed to this Eurasian member of the mallow family.

mid-13c., holihoc, from holi "holy" + hokke "mallow," from O.E. hocc, of unknown origin. The first element is probably of hagiological origin; another early name for the plant was caulis Sancti Cuthberti "St. Cuthbert's cole." hagiology |_hag__äl_j_; _h_g_-|

Interesting! - but even more interesting if you know what all of the words mean. Who was Saint Cuthbert? And what the heck are hagiological, caulis, and cole?

"In some versions of the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game, Saint Cuthbert of the Cudgel is the combative deity of Wisdom, Dedication, and Zeal. Originally created for the World of Greyhawk campaign setting, he was later made part of the generic "core pantheon" for the game's third edition." (Wikipedia)

I cannot be certain, but that's probably not the one that I am looking for.

"Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne [634 to 687] was an Anglo-Saxon monk and bishop in the Kingdom of Northumbria which at that time included, in modern terms, north east England and south east Scotland as far as the Firth of Forth. Afterwards he became one of the most important medieval saints of England, with widespread recognition in the places he had been in Scotland. Cuthbert is regarded as the patron saint of Northumbria. His feast day is 20 March." (wikipedia)
As a boy Cuthbert was a shepherd until, at the age of 17, he had a vision and became a monk, then a soldier for several years, and then a monk again. In 676 he retreated to a cave on the Farne Islands to pursue a solitary life of prayer and the institution of special laws to protect the birds nesting there with him - among them Eider ducks, which are called cuddy (Cuthbert's) ducks in modern Northumbrian dialects.

There are several stories of God miraculously providing food for Cuthbert. Eleven years after his death his casket was opened and his body was purportedly found to be still perfectly preserved. Numerous miracles were attributed to his intercession after prayers were said near his reliquary and he was probably the most popular saint in England prior to the martyrdom of Thomas Becket in 1170."

This is clearly the hagiological ("literature dealing with the lives and legends of saints") part of the etymology of hollyhock - although in my brief readings about the holy man's life I could find nothing floral related other than a slight resemblance between the staff he is frequently shown as carrying, and the thick stalk of the plant.

Some parts of the etymological explanation however raised as many questions as they answered - e.g. the definition of cole -

noun chiefly archaic a brassica, esp. cabbage, kale, or rape.

Which sidetracked me immediately to the meanings of brassica and rape.

"brassica |_brasik_| noun a plant of a genus that includes cabbage, turnip, Brussels sprout, and mustard. • Genus Brassica, family Brassicaceae. ORIGIN early 19th cent.: Latin, literally 'cabbage.'" "rape 2 noun a plant of the cabbage family with bright yellow, heavily scented flowers, esp. a variety ( oilseed rape) grown for its oil-rich seed and as stockfeed. Also called cole , colza . • Genus Brassica, family Brassicaceae, in particular B. napus subsp. oleifera. ORIGIN late Middle English (originally denoting the turnip plant): from Latin rapum, rapa 'turnip.'"
But I digress. So far I have learned that hollyhock is another name for Saint Cuthbert's cabbage - even though there seems to be nothing to tie him and the spherical vegetable together. Maybe stalking the "caulis" in "caulis Sancti Cuthberti" will get me somewhere.

"1. In architecture, one of the main stalks or leaves which spring from between the acanthusleaves of the second row on each side of the typical Corinthian capital, and are carried up to support the volutes at the angles. Compare cauliculus 2. In botany, the stem of a plant. Or perhaps: 1. An herbaceous or woody stem which bears leaves, and may bear flowers."

And finally - ta-dah!:

chou: "fashionable knot in a woman's dress or hat," 1883; earlier "small, round, cream-filled pastry" (1706), from Fr. chou, lit. "cabbage" (12c.), from L. caulis "cabbage," lit. "stalk" (see cole).

Small, round, cream-filled - something like a Mallo Cup perhaps?
Mallo Cups are candy shaped cups filled with marshmallow cream and coated with a rich chocolate and coconut topping. They were created by Boyer Brothers of Altoona, PA in 1936 and are claimed to be the first cup-candy made in the U.S.A. - although Reese's disputes this.

I thought "Holy Mallo!"

The etymology that I started with said "holi "holy" + hokke "mallow".

So, of course, I Googled "Holy Mallow".

And I got back the recipe for homemade mallo cups from, along with a five-star rated comment that said "Holy Mallow Batman! These are just like the real thing!!"

Another perfect example of how, with the aid of Google, the etymology of any word can be made into a perfect circle.

And proof positive that my wife's hollyhocks should properly be called Mallow-Mars - early-21c., from Mallow "mallow" + Mars "Mars".

Friday, July 09, 2010

Who's Next?

Wethersfield Connecticut is the next Santa Fe.

Lots of places have been similarly acclaimed, and Mars and I have been to at least one of them - Marfa Texas. We also are frequent visitors to the flourishing, artistic New Mexican village that they all seek to emulate, and where daughter-in-law and son reside. That is as much experience in this subject matter as you are likely to find in our neck of the woods.

Like many catchphrases, "tnSF" is deliberately ambiguous. At least one of its meanings is that a locality successfully uses culture to drive commerce - something that the capitol of New Mexico does with it's blending of fine art, Native American crafts, and museums.

Another connotation is that a city has sold-out its unique, natural identity to become a faux-artsy, fancy-schmancy tourist destination run by outsiders.
Marfa was just a small sun-blistered, desert-dry, West Texas town in the 1970's when eminent and successful New York minimalist artist Donald Judd moved there - purchasing an entire decommissioned Army base with sixteen dilapidated buildings on which he established his Chinati Art Foundation.

Twenty-plus years later the artists and enterprisers arrived.

"They're championing the community as a rising colony of creativity, not to mention a pleasant weekend getaway-if you have a private jet. Many even say it's the next Santa Fe-not too far-fetched a comparison, since Marfa has the same dry climate, the same sharp light, and the same blend of desert and mountains. But a large percentage of Marfa residents think Santa Fe is horrible and that the kinds of people it attracts would reduce Marfa to a pop imitation of its former self. Which moves the old guard, which remembers it as a ranching town landlocked by cattle kingdoms the size of small states, to wonder what the hell is going on."

Sounds exactly like Wethersfield to me - dwindled away dairy farms, rising colony of creativity, pleasant weekend getaway.

And it is not just because of the revival of Comstock Ferre, located at the epicenter of the Connecticut's oldest and largest historic district.

"The company, known for years as the country's oldest continuously operating seed company, closed in August 2009 after 189 years because annual sales were falling. But it will reopen next week under a new, historically minded owner - Jere Gettle, owner of a 12-year-old Missouri-based company called Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

"Under Gettle's ownership, Comstock Ferre's 1.6 acres will be operated as if it were the 19th century. Gettle says he's been studying the company's rich history to ensure historical accuracy." (Hartford Courant)

Nor is it the conversion of several barns and a carriage house into facilities for
the soon-to-be-open Wethersfield Academy for the Arts - "learning art in the setting of an atelier, a method of fine art instruction that allows students to be trained by a professional in a small group. The method is modeled after Europe's private art studio schools of the 15th to the 19th centuries. The place will keep its historic feel, but the academy will put the barns to good use..." (Hartford Courant)

In fact those elements pale in comparison to the main thing that makes me believe our small settlement is well on its way to Santa Fe-ness - hollyhocks.

"Hollyhocks against an adobe wall may be Santa Fe's signature plant. Bees and butterflies love them and they come in a multitude of colors - pinks, reds, whites, almost black but never in blue. One garden writer describes hollyhocks as 'elegant in a wayward, random fashion.'"
Actually that's an understatement. I would say that you couldn't swing a dead javelina in Santa Fe without hitting one of these drought-tolerant, heat-loving members of the mallow family - a diverse grouping that also includes hibiscus, cotton, and okra.
Several of them grow in our daughter-in-law's front yard where they seem to thrive, largely unattended. For the past two autumns Mars has extracted dormant seeds from these, at the time, straw-like flowers - and transported them cross-country where she then sowed them in the perennial bed along the south side of our one-car garage. (In Wethersfield a gray vinyl sided wall is as close as you get to adobe.)

We had been told that hollyhocks could be finicky starters - that they might be biennials, triennials, or one-season perennials. They also are subject to rust - brown spots on yellow, sick-looking leaves.

The first growing season a couple of them poked their heads a few inches above ground, apparently decided they didn't like what they saw, and just hung out at that height, in that flowerless state, for the duration.

That autumn Mars appropriated some more seeds.

Last spring they reappeared, and seemed to be going great guns (getting tall, showing buds) until an unanticipated monsoon season overwhelmed their vascular systems with too much H2O and drowned them.

Not to be deterred, Mars repeated the southwest to northeast transplant ritual one more time. This spring there was the average 3-4" of rain per month. Then, shortly after my newly acquired rain barrel got to be three quarters full - all precipitation halted.

Now a duo of hollyhocks has shot up to N.B.A. heights, with buds and flowers sprouting out of every pore. Other momentarily shorter ones are beginning their ascent. One could be an aberration; two is a trend; but three or more is definitely a movement.
They self-seed. And, as we have seen on our property with other seed-droppers, with the help of resident squirrels and birds these magnificent mallows will soon be dominating the landscape throughout our tiny hamlet.

There also is word that our town's newest seed merchant will be attempting to revive the Wethersfield Red Onion - at one time the agricultural staple of our the local economy and now, in two dimensional form, our town emblem.

Soon, with globes of burgundy bulbs and towers of pink, white and red flowers decorating every vinyl wall in sight, our hometown will become the new Holy Grail of destination burgs. And Santa Fe will aspire to be the next Wethersfield.

Being devotees of both cities, we can help. Mars will just have to leave a little room in her carry-on for a few onion seeds on our next flight out west.

(Hollyhocks photos by Mars)

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Message #33744

I sent the an essay to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" in response to the following solicitation.

"We've been asking newsmakers and other guests to tell us about the summer job that had a personal impact on them. To kick off the series, Melissa Block shares stories from Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki and former first lady Laura Bush.

"The series will run throughout the summer, and we hope to hear from listeners as well. Tell us what jobs had the biggest influence on your life, be it the work you did or the people you met."

It was rejected - I think.

"Response to Message #33744:

Dear Jim,

Thank you for contacting NPR.

We are grateful for your comments to NPR News. Your feedback is important to us, and your thoughts (on poison ivy, the universe, and especially Stanley the Seminarian) have been noted. Thank you very much for telling us about your summer job.

NPR is always delighted to hear from listeners.

Thank you for listening, and for your continued support of public broadcasting. For the latest news and information, visit

NPR Services"

I recall a vignette from a novel about a magazine editor who again and again keeps receiving the very same article, which he, again and again, keeps rejecting. Finally he writes to the would-be author, "When I say 'not at this time' - it means never!"

Not wanting to become a literary stalker, I am publishing it myself right here.


Albert Einstein, on his deathbed, supposedly said that there was only one important question in life - "Is the universe friendly?

The family that I grew up in could have told him their answer without even thinking about it, a resounding "No!" Everywhere they looked there were forces ready to ruin their lives: depressions, wars, labor strikes, sickness - and poison ivy.
"You're going to the park? Oh God, don't get any poison ivy."

"Watch out for the poison ivy in that field!"

"Careful you don't end up with a good case of poison ivy."

No one in my family had ever caught it. And no one could ever point it out to me.
"It's always hidden in the thick brush. You never see it until its too late."

I successfully avoided underbrush and poison ivy until the summer of 1961 when, at the age of eighteen, I took a summer job with the town maintenance department. My first assignment was to clear out some overgrown bushes in a town park.

I prepared for this undertaking by encasing myself inside a protective shield of long sleeves, cotton gloves, jeans, thick socks, and sneakers. It was sunny and in the high eighties. The other workers wore tee shirts. Some wore shorts. Except for Stanley, the Catholic seminarian. He also wore a long sleeve button down shirt and chinos. But no gloves. I suspected that Stanley always dressed that way.

We were ordered into the woods.

Some, like Mike in his short sleeves and shorts, crashed through the underbrush. Stanley walked in unhesitatingly, gliding along. I brought up the rear, trying not to show panic as I looked around for my unrecognizable enemy.

Two hours later I saw it for the first time. Mike yelled for us all to come over. He was shirtless, and was eagerly rubbing shiny green leaves over his chest.

"It's poison ivy!" he said gleefully. "I'm not allergic to it. Anybody want some?"
Most of the gang laughed and slapped each other, but no one took Mike up on his offer. I backed off, checking to see that I wasn't noticed. Stanley looked bored and returned to his job.
After work I stopped at the local YMCA for a swim and a shower. There was no sign of poison ivy infection. The next day went pretty much like the first until I stopped at the "Y" on my way home. I had tiny red bumps on my arms and chest. And they itched. When I got home I showed my mother.

"You've got poison ivy. You can't possibly go to work tomorrow."

Well maybe it wasn't all that bad.

The next day I went to see the doctor who was paid by the city to take care of such things. His office was in his home. All the windows and doors were closed and it felt like they had been closed forever. There was a large fireplace littered with discarded hypodermic needles and cigarette buts in his examining room. He looked at my arms and chest.

"Poison ivy all right. I'll give you some shots to dry it up," he muttered through his cigarette-holding lips.

"Will it stop the itching? How long will it take?" I asked.

"Get some Calamine Lotion for the itching." I knew Calamine lotion from mosquito bites. It was a cold, pink liquid that stuck to your clothing and dried into a scaly white second skin.

"The shots will dry up the poison ivy before it oozes." He gave me a shot. "I guess you'll need one more." He backhandedly flipped the needle into the fireplace and then gave me a second injection.

"Come back in three days for more shots." I started to leave. "Oh, and make sure you fill out the forms so that you get paid for the work you miss." I got paid? Just for sitting around in the sun - and not scratching. This was the perfect summer job.

For the next two weeks my days were basically the same. Each morning I would cover the poison ivy with Calamine lotion, and then hang around the house all day. I would read a little, watch a little television. Each evening I'd apply Calamine again, and watch some more TV. Every three days I went to the doctor for shots. My only symptoms were itching and having my clothes stick to me. Still I did pretty much nothing for the next two weeks.

Finally the rashes dried up, the itching stopped, and I went back to work. This time I was assigned to help prune the town trees in the neighborhoods. Stanley the Seminarian was part of my work team.

"Didn't you get poison ivy?" I asked. I actually figured it was too earthly a problem to befall Stanley. "Yeah, I had it all over my body. But I had my job to do. So I worked."

I got my paycheck that day. Fifty percent pay for being out on a job-related disability. I hated Stanley.

Six years later I married a woman from a gardening family. In ten more years we bought a house and I began my evolution into a serious home gardener. A short time into my avocation I got poison ivy again - on my arms and chest - while working on my property. But this time I had things that I really wanted and needed to do.

So, following some advice I found in my health club's newsletter, I chose not to use the clothes-sticking pink liquid, and instead treated my itching with hot showers and normal activity. It worked.

I have gotten the itchy affliction pretty much every year since - usually from some new place on my property that I never see until it is too late. That is just the way it is if you want to do what I do.

So, if Einstein asked me now fifty years after that ill-fated summer job, "Is the universe friendly?" - I would tell him "No." But the universe isn't unfriendly, either. It just is - poison ivy and roses - and each one of us has to decide for ourselves whether to make it into our enemy or our friend.