Sunday, May 31, 2020

Had A Visitor Today

Wow.  I wasn’t sure what to expect of W.E.B. Debois.  I’ve had his “The Souls of Black Folks” from 1903 on-deck here on my desk for the last month or so.  Knowing that there was within a critique of Booker T. Washington I made sure to read his autobiography first.  Yesterday.  It’s hard not marvel at Mr. Washington’s progression slavery, through utter destitution to glimmers of education which germinate into a forceful intellect and singularly impactful leader for the African America People.  And Booker T. Washington was willing to accommodate.  And he was skillful at knowing what was possible and what might be something one could stretch for and his good efforts built an enduring black institution in Tuskegee.  But DeBois, a free, northern born contemporary, born twelve years later in Great Barrington, Massachusetts acknowledges the triumph of Washington while gracefully and forcefully taking him to task:  It is not possible to accept a racial categorization of inferiority, it is wrong to settle for anything less than African Americans striving for and involved in higher education and blacks must have the vote to be acknowledged as real men.  “Wow,” because I wasn’t expecting him to be so artful.  On Atlanta:

“It is a hard thing to live haunted by the ghost of an untrue dream; to see the wide vision of empire fade into real ashes and dirt and to feel the pang of the conquered, and yet know that with all the Bad that fell on one black day, something was vanquished that deserved to live and something killed than in  justice had not dared to die; to know that with the Right that triumphed, triumphed something of the Wrong, something sordid and mean, something less than the broadest and best.  Al this is better hard; and many a man and city and people have found in it excuse for sulking and brooding and listless waiting.”

Once again I am struck by the parallels to the emergence of China and what a singularly remarkable thing that was to live through. In the essay on the “Meaning of Progress” he revisits a small country school he’d taught at when he was young.  Some of the people have grown up crooked.  Some of the facilities have been plowed under a highway.  And the rich description of the simplicity of the school he taught in brought to mind not only the simplest of class rooms in China but the even more spartan set up of students in a village we were brought to in Malawi, the pictures of which occasionally rotate into my screen saver which were tragic and heroic in equal measure.

I marvel at his turn-of-phrase.  I doff my hat to his gentlemanly deference coupled with his rapier thrusts.  I imagine hearing his voice and inject, perhaps erroneously, an African American brogue to emphasize a point here or an ironic question there. He died in 1963 in Accra, which is a chapter I’ll have to find to find out more about.  Perhaps there are recordings of him speaking.  (It took me all of eight seconds to find a recording of him from 1960 entitled: “Socialism and the American Negro.”)  That’s a story unto itself, I’ll have to explore some other time, when the pianist Randy Weston and the intellectuals like Stokely Carmichael (aka Kwame Ture) was in Guinea while W.E.B. DeBois was not far away in Ghana. 

My older one attends Reed College in Portland, when there isn’t a pandemic on.  She finished out here freshmen year like the rest of the country, sitting in her room, banging out classes on zoom, remotely.  One class, Intro to Anthropology decided to have a number of the class photographed for a project it was conducting, into; life during the virus.  And unexpectedly, for the first time in many months, we had a visitor today.  A young man, who is a freelance photographer, has come into our world, like a visitor in a Turgenev novel.  My daughter and he are sitting outside talking.  I am intrigued by this.  So is my wife.  Our younger one has opinions as well.  And it dawns on me, at least, how isolated we’ve all been when a visitor becomes the most remarkable component of anyone’s day.  He said he’d come back when the sun was better, and he did.  They’re out there now in the evening light.

Saturday, 5/30/20

Wort. What's A Wort?

think I missed deciduous trees living for so long away from home in places like San Francisco and Hong Kong and Beijing where they just don’t grow.  Eucalyptus are lovely in their own way.  I appreciate the banyan trees that stand immutable in the creative destruction of Tsim Sha Tsui and poplars of Beijing, despite all the spring-time catkins the female trees all emit.  But it was only when I hopped over to Tokyo or much more infrequently went up to Dong Bei (aka Manchuria) that you get to see proper deciduous trees.  The trees I grew up with. 

Yesterday I impulse-purchased a Swamp Tupelo and an Empress Tree from Ty Ty nursury in Georgia.   The Swamp Tupelo, as the name suggests likes a nice drink now and then.  It thrives in but doesn’t require a particularly moist environment.  It can grow up here even though it sounds like it wouldn’t be wise to plant north of the Mason Dixon.  We have a wet patch off to the north side of the house.  It catches the runoff from the mountain above us and it’s always sopping wet.  Why not put something in there that thinks damp is a plus?  The Empress Tree is a flaming purple affair that seemed a find compromise to the jacaranda-sort of tree I had in my mind. 

Well, I got an email today saying they wouldn’t be shipping these trees till December.  May was the last month they were shipping.  Ahh but it is May.  Can’t we talk?  Are you not shipping because there is a risk in this warm weather?   I wrote them an email with all my questions and the autoreply suggested that no one was reading emails during the Covid affair.  One would have thought that this would have been the easiest of services to maintain.  Call this number, if you want engagement.  Today I did and after a bit of holding it all up to the light: “gee, is there no way you could just send it now?”, I cancelled the order.

Today, I came out and paid my wife a good morning.  She was meandering around “her” garden, her property and she asked me to re-identify a plant or two with my app.  The Virginia Spiderwort has an evocative name and was obviously planted long before we arrived.  The purple flowers open in the day and close themselves at night.  St. John’s Wort, Spider Wort.  What’s a wort?  Surely it has the unfortunate association of a wart.  A quick look suggests that ‘wort’ is the traditional term for a plant with medicinal purposes. 

Behind the garden is a beautiful, black tree that has no branches low to the ground.  It rises up some twenty feet before the bottom branches reach out in a thick, uniform fashion forming a cone for the next, dense twenty feet.  I’d marveled at the tree all winter.  Have tried on more than one occasion to identify the tree with my app.  Today I noticed a low- lying branch and poked the app up into the tree till, low-and-behold I was informed that this was a Black Tupelo.  Well, I’ll be darned.  I didn’t have to order a Tupelo from Georgia.  I have a forty-footer right here in the yard.  I stood back then and admired “my” Black Tupelo, which can only sound rather southern.  And then I went to inform my wife. 

Friday, 5/29/20

One Without The Other

This morning I decided to finish “The Half That Was Never Told.” by the Cornell professor Edward E. Baptist.  His thesis suggests that rather than a backward, preindustrial process, bound to die out before long anyway, competing as it was against the budding industrialism of the north, the industrialism of England, slavery based production of cotton was in fact a fine-tuned torturing of human endurance to extract maximum cotton output from work on large plantations, which fed the mills of England and New England.  The Industrial Revolution these places led, was fueled in part by the monstrously stern extraction of maximum output by slaves under the threat of the whip and worse.  You couldn't have had the one without the other. 

Having read three complementary, earlier histories of the institution and the aftermath one after the other before reading his work, I take note of how anchored Baptist’s history is in perspectives of slaves themselves.  Slaves are not mere toiling masses, and numbers and statistics.  In a corporeal treatment which focuses on the hands of slaves and the necks of slaves and the backs and blood of slaves and we are never far away from one or another enchained protagonist being transported from Virginia or Maryland on to the new cotton-fields of Alabama, Mississippi and ultimately east Texas.  I noted the discomfort of being unable to escape the central, human indignity with every chapter. 

No better place to take up from the ‘World War II in Color”, meat and potatoes overview of the great conflict, we finished the other night, with a similarly simple, in-color summary of the Korean War conflict, which followed not long after.  My younger daughter, who is the Korea-phile in the house stormed off in the end asserting that “The Korean War was the dumbest war ever.  They all killed each other for three years and nothing changed.”  Superlatives aside, all that was accomplished surely left neither side with much of any advantages the didn’t otherwise have, beyond the blood soaked loyalty of the allies that they fought alongside with. 

Her maternal grandfather fought as a Chinese volunteer in that war against American aggression.  Her paternal step-father was enlisted during that war against the expansion of “communist slavery.”  And now she wants to know about what would happen if the North fell.  What would it mean to China and to Russia and to all Koreans?  We seem to have caught her attention.  I signed up today as a PBS donor so that I could have access to another complementary history:  “Korea:  The Endless War” which we’re talking about having a glance at later this evening. 

Thursday, 5/28/20

Than Paint An Englishman

Jacques Louis David was the painter, revolutionary my younger daughter chose for her upcoming history paper on the French Revolution.  She’d asked and I gave her a mini-lecture on what I could recall of that pivotal axis.  Was it two year back now that I read Carlyle’s The French Revolution, a History, A Tale of Two Cities and Chateaubriands’ “Tales From Beyond the Grave.”  But unlike the clear pivot of something like the America Revolution or the Russian Revolution, the French Revolution defies easy summary. 

The March edition of the ‘The New York Review of Books” had a review by Lynn Hunt concerning Napoleon’s War’s and a new history of the French Revolution.  I found the following sentence from the review’s opening paragraph to be breath taking: 
“The cascade of events between 1789 and Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815 gave birth to much of what we know as modern politics:  revolution as a leap into the future,, “right” and “left” as political markers, the notion of universal human rights, the extension of voting rights to most men, the “emancipation” of the Jews, the first successful slave revolt and the first abolition of slavery not to mention the use of terror as an instrument of government and guerrilla warfare as a tactic of resistance, along with the police state, authoritarianism, and the cult of personality as ways of circumventing democratic aspirations.” 

I bought my daughter a few different books ranging from easy to difficult about the French Revolution in general and her heretofore to me, largely unrecognized subject, Jacques Louis David.  I secured a book of prints arranged my Mari Pietcheva “Jacques Louis David  229 Colour Plates,” which are lovely to gaze upon and consider but are not accompanied by much substantive text.  “Jacques Louis David, Revolutionary Artist” by Warren Roberts was a proper biography which I decided to read today after reading my daughter’s first draft of the work. 

And while I’ve been familiar, certainly with the 'Death of Marat', I don’t think I knew much of anything about him nor the movement of his day to consider and paint towards the virtue of Rome, before diving wholeheartedly into the revolution as a Jacobin.  A close friend of Robespierre and Marat, the signer of execution warrants, the painter of the revolution, it is astounding that he escaped with his head to reinvent himself as a reluctant court painter for Napoleon,  championing the ideas historical thrust now of Greece until he as exiled from his native land during the second Bourbon restoration and lived out his final days under British rule in Belgium: 

“David took a certain pride in his position as a political exile:  After the Duke of Wellington had tried to have him expelled from Brussels he asked the artist to do his portrait  David’s refusal made Wellington furious David’s comment about the portrait he had been asked to paint was “I would rather stab myself with a sword than paint an Englishman. “

Politics and ideological stridency tends to have the best of most artists after a time.  Perhaps the most intimate loadstar for me is when I consider the life and the art of John Lennon , how risky and incandescent he burned on “Some Time In New York.” And how it seemed to leave him empty, not long thereafter.  David was more than a mere commentator on the Revolution, he was an active agent and that he survived the terror at all is remarkable, all the more so that he was so capable at reinventing himself during the unlikely rise of Napoleon which was one hundred and eighty degrees the opposite marching orders of the Jacobins, though he was more judicious about keeping distance the second time around. 

In the end, I suppose I felt said for David.  He struggles with Napoleon and his minions and other officials to simply be paid.   They try to stiff him for his work and it all feels rather beneath him.  He winds down his life till the age of seventy-seven in exile.  He still wants to lead the school of French painters, but his students, as students always must, were leaving him behind. 

Wednesday, 5/27/20

What The Lawn Is

Guys came today to mow the lawn.  One friendly, bald, tattooed gent suggested he’d be driving the mower while his thinner associate nodded under his cap and went to grab the weed-whacker.  I was a lawn mower for-hire once.  I offered them coffee.  “No thanks.  We got ours.”  And I suggested that if they needed to use the bathrooms to just say the word.

I have mowed this lawn once this year, just about in its entirety, before I conked the push-mower out, inadvertently catching a root.  My estimation for the time needed to push-mow the whole place was at least seven hours.  I was kind of enjoying the pace of a one-hour patch per day.   Go get sweaty and push the thing around in the sun, up the hills, into the wet spots.  There is nothing quite like hand mowing a lawn, strip by strip to develop and turf expertise understanding of just what the lawn is. 

I got them started, with some suggestions for where to concern their activities and set off for a bike ride not long after.  My daily route take just under and hour and by the time I got back the man on the riding mower drove my way as I walked my bike up the hill.   “Just the man I wanted to see.”  He explains what I already assumed, that the patch over to the north side of the house is too wet to cut.  The wheels sink in an he can’t get anywhere.   I get it.   I’ve did it myself two weeks ago, and even with a push mower it was very hard to progress in some patches. 

They worked for a little over two hours before they left.  It looked good to my eyes, though my wife said that they knocked over one of her lights and chewed up a few flowers.  And they were off before I could say: “thank you” or “good bye.”  And I calculated the cost that I’d negotiated ahead of time with their boss, who was running a business that needed margin to exist and considered how tough it must be to make a living mowing lawns these days.  Even with all the tools and machinery that I never enjoyed.  My memories of the trade were of securing funds to expand a record collection, not for sustaining one or more lives. 

Tuesday, 5/26/20

Don't Want White Things

Lowes, I’m back.  I lived for all of my life without a Lowes.  Throughout adulthood I never thought to go to Lowes.  It didn’t come up in conversation in Beijing.  Now I visit Lowes every week.  Lowes-less life now seems jarring. 

I recognize the checkout guy.  I don’t believe he recognizes me and there is something, at least to be said for that.  “Hey, where can I get a stake about this high, that I could use for tomatoes or straightening a tree?”  I don’t want to grow any tomatoes but figure ‘tree-straightening-sticks' wouldn’t have made any sense. “You’ll find everything you need, plastic and wooden, everything right there.”   I walk around the necessarily long queue of six-foot-spacers and over toward the cabinet he’d pointed to and found some green plastic poles about two meters long that seemed just about right.  They even had plastic clips right there as they knew I’d be wanting to attach something to these things.

Nice enough.  But it is unclear if these will cut it with my wife, who as accompanied me today to provide her executive clearance on any such line of sticks that are going to be placed in her yard.  I beckon her over and to my pleasant surprise the sticks are not met with immediate rejection.  She pulls one toward her face with furrowed-brow skepticism but they are not rejected and now a purchase can be made.  “Make sure you plant the part with the plastic into the ground, not sticking up in the air!  I don’t want white things.”

I haven’t spoken with my sister in a long while.  She’s been down in Brooklyn.  she suggested as many as twenty-percent of the city test positive now.   We talked about health and family and commiserated with each other over how challenging work was just now, while conceding the great fortune that we each had of relative stability when others were completely upended.  I told her I was frightened for U.S- China relations just now, during the election cycle. Things would get worse now, before they’d get better.  Before we got off the phone we shared in the tribal catharsis of outrage, humor and despair as it concerns Donald Trump.  Half-full, and fully embracing the error of my earlier presidential predication concerning this man, I took the cheerleaders role of insisting, ‘we were gonna do it.’  This nation will vote Donald Trump out of office in November, 2020.

Monday, 5/25/20

They Only Grow Out West

My wife and I were at the head of the trail that leads from our place to rail trail.  I’d noticed something which plant identification app had suggested was Oriental Bittersweet.  We looked at one and then other plant zeroing in and out trying to prompt to app to a positive identification.  She had me pretty deep into the flat plain that runs besides the old tracks when she spotted a group of silvery trees, which the app suggested were Trembling Aspen.  I’d thought they only grew out west in the Rockies.  I’d even thought of buying one and trying it out here. 

This copse of trees had one large aspen that rose up about four meters into the canopy.  The others were all under two meters high.  We agreed at the time to replant a few up to somewhere near the house and after some debate about where that would be, I set out today to replant some trees. 

The spot is on our property.  And it is right up against the well-trafficked rail trail and, sensitive to people assuming I was out poaching things from public property, I paused, awkwardly, every time someone passed by.  A first tree stood my height and I tried to cut out a circle around it with a one-foot radius.  I did my best to spare its roots, but the ground was rocky and mixed with the tendrils of many neighboring trees.  I pried up the circle I’d cut and finding it too large for the blue tube I’d brought along, I lugged it up about one hundred yards back up into our lawn and dropped it into the whole I’d dug for it. 

I brought up five more trees this way and created for myself a diagonal causeway of six aspen trees, ten feet apart in the shape of the letter w and the letter v positioned immediately adjacent to one another: wv.  I added potting soil and tried to step the soil down so they would stand up straight, but it became immediately clear that some of them would need a stake to hold on to if they were to have any hope of growing straight. 

I walked feet back up towards the house and imagined what they’d look like and what they’d sound like in a few years, if they were to survive.  

Sunday, 5/24/20