Friday, September 27, 2013

Daddy and Daughter Memories

This weekend is my daughter's first away from home when family or moving-in to college was not involved.  She has a free weekend.  Her boyfriend will be visiting her.  They are going to the Braves game tonight.  I Facetimed with her this afternoon.  And so she starts the path toward adulthood.  By coincidence, Jennifer found this video on Facebook.  I don't do Facebook.  But the video touched my heart thinking about time when my daughter and I did silly things at a silly age.

Tonight You Belong to Me was first recorded in 1927.  I have blogged before about how much I enjoy music from this period.  My daughter and I used to sing songs together every morning when I took her to school from pre-K up until she started driving herself.  We practiced harmonies together and made up three or four songs that she often requested we sing.  So this video was particularly pertinent and poignant to me tonight.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Dalai Lama and "New Pope"

Late Friday I stuck my head in the office of my company's IT manager. He is relatively new with us, an interesting guy, very knowledgeable about history and music, laid back and jovial. A pleasure to chat with. In recent weeks, we have discussed a wide range of topics albeit usually brief and punctuated with snide comments and humor. Nothing too serious.

But this time our conversation drifted over to the fact that his wife was reading a book by the Dalai Lama, which naturally caught my attention. He and his family are Episcopalian, which is often one of the more open and liberal of the many Christian pathways.

So I sat down and we talked a bit about Buddhism. I mentioned to him, for the first time, that I had spent six months in India in the mid-1980's mostly studying yoga (which, as I pointed out to him, had more to do with Hinduism). And that I had personally met the Dalai Lama in the late 1980's after a talk he gave at Emory University. I was part of a Buddhist meditation group at the time.  The IT guy's bright, expansive mind fired questions. The dialog continued. I reached a point where I was struggling to put an idea into words.

"The Dalai Lama's view on things has....evolved....over the past couple of decades. He has really become much more in your face about openness." His fairly recent comment that "religion is no longer adequate" as a basis for ethics in society was a mind-expander to me. I asked our IT guy what other renowned religious leader of the world would be allowed to say such a thing and remain the figure head of his religion? Buddhism, it seemed to me, was the only religion where such a statement by such a power figure would be possible.

The conversation quickly shifted gears though when the IT guy mentioned what his family calls "New Pope" and how impressed he is with some of New Pope's comments. It brought to mind a conversation I had with Will up at Dream Lake several weeks ago. I offered the Pope's very open (for Catholicism) comment on homosexuality. He said recently, "Who am I to judge?" The IT guy knew this quote and smiled broadly saying "Yes, now isn't that different? I'm liking New Pope" said with a warm, joyful smile.

We agreed that a new openness might be developing among some of the world's major religious leaders and that this, perhaps, reflected good things happening in society as a whole. Of course, the mass of followers are still in their tribal, phobic, narrow-minded condition. They are religious because they need to raise families, deal with the death of their parents, survive the challenges of one week to the next, so they don't think much beyond all that and the assistance religion gives them in dealing with daily life. Nothing wrong with that. But the masses are a far cry from accepting homosexuals and searching for ethics outside of religious foundation.

The conversation lasted about a half hour, just up until it was time to leave for the weekend. Still, it was nice to find this open-minded guy whose wife was reading a book on happiness by the Dalai Lama, and who was willing to discuss matters of the highest importance to me, beyond this mundane realm of things. Apparently, he is a cool guy who takes matters a notch above the herd. So we connected.

He was especially interested in my trip to India so many years ago. I spoke in general terms except, for some reason, one vivid memory popped into my mind. I was sitting around having afternoon tea with everyone at the ashram in January 1986. While I met a lot of Americans traveling in India, on this occasion I was the only American around. Everyone else was either Indian or European or Australian. Anyway, someone mentioned that they had just learned that the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. I have mentioned this previously in this blog.

I was suddenly isolated. To everyone else this was a tragic loss of life. But, to me, it was a loss of a distinctively American kind. It was a deeper and broader wound. Without expecting it, I almost immediately felt the distance between my culture and all the others represented. They could not understand what the shuttle program truly meant from a sociological perspective. It was almost a spiritual crisis for me. How incredibly sad.

And yet, simultaneously in that moment, I became aware of how any culture, how any of these other seekers of truth around me enjoying a tea break on a warm tropical January afternoon 27 years ago within their own traditions and accepted norms, their Lifeworlds, scientific or not, could experience themselves as I was experiencing myself. Paradoxically, the moment taught me something I have carried with me ever since. The distances between our cultures are actually in harmony with their universal aspect, and that which seemingly separates us actually unites us, if you can only apply your experience to the perspectives of others during their moments of crisis or sadness.

So, while I felt isolated I also experienced a greater unity. That powerful moment of empathy and compassion has been applied countless times by me in the decades of my life that followed and it turned out to be one of the most powerful and obviously lasting experiences in my Indian adventure.

Then the IT guy was interrupted by a phone call and work had to resume. You can only drift in and out of these types of conversations with people. But, I know he and I connected at that level, each in our own way, of course. I look forward to further discussions with him on religion, art, music, technology, whatever might come up between us. It is a great and rare thing to find a fellow traveler in tune with the zeitgeist. I think we can learn from each other. And the memories he triggers help me recalibrate the importance of certain things...which, in turn, takes me down the path a few steps more.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Neil's Newest Song

Neil Young showed up at a small club in the northeast two nights ago with his wife Pegi's current band.  He did a set with them that featured a nice bluesy jamming new song.  "Ain't going home to mama..."  Rock it, Neil.  Nice guitar work.  That's Spooner Oldham on keyboards and Rick Rosas on bass, both of whom worked the CSNY 2006 Freedom of Speech tour (among several other recent albums by Neil) which Jennifer and I caught in Atlanta.  Find out more here

CSNY has a long-awaited live release of their 1974 tour which is being delayed for various reasons until 2014, the 40th anniversary of the tour.  David Crosby, for one, hopes Neil will meander back toward the historic foursome and tour a bit next year to promote the album's release.  That would be awesome but you can never predict what Neil will do next.

Neil is filling in some time since Crazy Horse had to cancel their remaining tour.  Neil and the Horse recently ranked Number 5 on Rolling Stone's list of Top 50 Live Acts Right Now.  Not too shabby for the 67-year old rocker.  Too bad they had to cancel the final leg of their tour.  But, as you can see, nothing stops Neil, he keeps on driving... 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Into September: The Unlikely Story of the 2013 Atlanta Braves (so far)

If you had told me in March that going in to September the Atlanta Braves would have the best record in all of baseball with Dan Uggla (.184) and BJ Upton (.194) both playing regularly and batting under .200, I would have thought you were an idiot. Image how you can play 136 baseball games saddled with two major free agent signings that cannot hit the ball.

Yet that is the unlikely story of the 2013 Atlanta Braves. They are 83-53 going into to play today.  How did they get here? Well mostly with pitching. Good starting pitching from young arms. Great relief pitching, maybe the best in baseball. The Braves bullpen has the best ERA of any team.  The Braves offense has been mediocre overall this season but some players are shining.  Feddie Freeman (batting over .440 with runners in scoring position) and, surprisingly, Chris Johnson (leading the league in hitting with a .333 average as of this post) are hitting opposing pitchers without mercy. Brian McCann is back with his feared power after missing the first part of the season. Andrelton Simmons is an awesome defensive shortstop, it seems he robs somebody of a hit at least once a game. After a slow start, and now unfortunately lost due to injury, Jason Heyward (who carried us through a mid-season 14-game winning streak) was killing the ball in the lead-off position and showing spectacular range in the outfield.

Put all that together with a solid year by Justin Upton (who carried us through a 10-game winning streak at the start of the season) and fine fill-in performances by Evan Gattis (NL Rookie of the Month for both April and May), rookie Joey Tradoslovich, and decent play from Jordan Schafer and you can see how Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has cobbled together enough hitting and fielding around the pitching to win a lot of games.

Statistically, as of September 1, the Braves are a mediocre 12th in the National League in runs scored, 9th in slugging percentage, and 10th in on-base percentage. They are 16th in batting average hitting .251 as a team. Blah. But on the pitching side of the equation the Braves are 2nd in earned runs allowed with an impressive 3.18 team ERA. They are 2nd in quality starts, a distinction for their strong and very young pitching staff, who are also 2nd in WHIP, 3rd in opponents batting average, allowing .240 per game on average. Very unblah.

The Braves have the best home record in baseball, making home field advantage exactly what they have left to fight for this season. As of this post, they are two games in front of the Dodgers and four games ahead of the Pirates and the Cardinals for the NL best record. Even including the AL best teams, the Red Sox are a game behind Atlanta. The Braves want their postseason experience to be played mostly at home - where they dominate with a 49-19 record as of yesterday.

This is a homegrown pitching staff. Mike Minor, rookie Julio Teheran, Kris Medlen, rookie Alex Wood, rookie Luis Avilan, the already great Craig Kimbrel and the disabled Brandon Beachy are all products of the superior Braves minor league system. That system produced Chipper Jones and Tom Glavine. The Atlanta farm system has given them Freeman, Simmons, McCann, Gattis, Schafer, the injured Jonny Venters, the injured Heyward, who was just starting the lead this team. The system also birthed other promising players on the 40-man roster: Terdoslavich, the injured Tyler Pastornicky, Cory Gearrin, Todd Cunningham, and Philip Gosselin are filling in the gaps thanks to the many injuries this team has been forced to deal with in 2013.

The heart and soul of this team is in its minor league players. Two grand and glorious free agents don't change that. Other players like Justin Upton and Johnson were traded for former Brave minor leaguers Martin Prado and Randall Delgado. They were not paid for by cash alone but by great talent scouted and developed by the Braves organization. So, Upton and Johnson seem more a part of the family, bought with the blood of the team by giving up its youth so to speak. Uggla and Justin's older brother, and the combined $13 million they are paid this season, are so far the only blotch on this fine organization. Despite the trades, youth triumphs on this team. The Braves are one of the youngest teams in baseball.

What makes the Braves record even more remarkable is they have weathered a long list of injuries, many of them significant. Probably the biggest of them all was the aforesaid injury to Jason Heyward. Heyward, out earlier in the season too, was just beginning to come into his own. He had raised his batting average from the lowly depths of Uggla/BJ territory to a respectable .253 before he went down. Then there's the only veteran leader on the pitching staff, Tim Hudson. A proven pitcher who gets a lot of ground balls and can pitch you consistently deep into ball games. Out for the season. That same status goes for the entire left-handed side of the Braves bull pen at the start of the season. Venters and Eric O'Flaherty, both of whom have been dominating in past seasons. The Braves managed to fill their slots with the rookie Avilan and the recently signed Scott Downs.

BJ Upton has sucked all season long at the plate. He has never gotten going any better than the pathetic Uggla. He went 4 for 6 in a recent walk-off win. If the Braves have a shot at winning some playoff games they are going to need BJ or Uggla to get hot with a bat. Their low averages are costing this team runs.  That will kill them in the postseason, regardless of how great your pitching might be.  Every team's  pitching is pretty damn good in the playoffs. For the Braves to make playoff headway they need some hitter to replace Jason Heyward. Either BJ or Uggla have to step up. Otherwise I fear a rather mediocre postseason experience, especially if we lose home-field advantage. The Braves are 34-34 on the road. What's more, they've only scored 34 runs as a team since August 18.  Last in baseball.  Blah.

Whether we can keep the best record in baseball or not, we definitely want to play at home. So let's win home field advantage outright in spite of all the youth and injuries. The usual story on the Braves is that they can win seasons but they wimp-out in the postseason. An amazing five trips to the World Series during the 1990's produced only one world championship in 1995. Those years were a wonderful but frustrating time in my lifetime of being a Braves fan. Last season they made the new wild-card playoff (which I detest) and lost. In 2010 they made the playoffs as the wild-card team for Bobby Cox's final season...and lost in the first round. So, it goes.

It is fun to win with a young team. There's nothing I enjoy better about baseball than watching a young pitching staff take responsibility for winning. The Atlanta Braves organization is a strong one throughout the minor leagues. There is plentiful talent and great coaching to develop talent. Whether the Braves are truly play-off material is yet to be seen. But the fact is, we aren't chasing anybody for anything. As of now, everybody has to catch us. We have the best record in baseball and are in first place by 14 games in the loss column. My god what a lead!  Let's get tuned up of October.

Note:  The Braves beat the Mets today 13-5.  So that helps with the number of runs scored since mid-August.  We are 50-19 at home.  Booya!  Schaffer went 4 for 5 but had to leave the game late due to a lower back strain.  Hopefully, it is nothing more serious.  Freeman had a career day with 5 RBIs.  Killing the ball.  Johnson had two hits to up his league leading average to .334.  Johnson's polar opposite at the plate, Uggla (.185) even managed a single and a walk.  Perhaps the big story, however, was BJ Upton with a walk and two doubles.  If I were a praying man I'd ask for divine intervention on BJ's hitting.  We need him to end the season hot at the plate.  Barring further injury and assuming everyone else keeps playing ball, BJ's bat could take us deep into October.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Berthe Morisot and Friends

Berthe Morisot Reclining, by Eduoard Manet.  1873.
The history of art contains several wonderful feminine achievements. But overall in terms of painting and music, for example, men dominate the scene, especially the further back you go in time. So, it is of interest to me when I come across a maverick woman who was able to break through the various cultural challenges for her time and gain notoriety alongside her male colleagues.

Such is the case with Berthe Morisot, an impressionist painter whose work I have admired for years, though certainly not with the same awe as with Renoir, Monet, and Manet. I knew comparatively little about her, however. But recently completing Sue Roe's group biography The Private Lives of the Impressionists expanded my knowledge of all the French Impressionists and about Morisot in particular.

The early impressionist movement was an extraordinary time in the history of art. Roe captures how Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, and Cezanne all came to know one another, paint together, often sharing the same studio. The book covers their friendships, disagreements, their lovers, and the dynamics of struggling artists at that time in France. This small group was introduced to Degas through Manet, who knew all of them personally and hovered on the periphery of their movement without ever actually exhibiting with any of them. Manet was a giant compared to the others in the early days. His scandalous paintings (Olympia and The Luncheon on the Grass) and his well-accepted portraits meant that he enjoyed a wider audience and was more profitable than any of the others during his lifetime. He was more or less the influential hub by which the group was formed.

Berthe frequently used her sister as a model. This shows her formal pre-impressionistic style, which dominated European art at the time. 1870.
I already knew that Monet and Renoir often sat side by side and painted the same scene from their different perspectives. I knew about the talent and influence and tragic early death of Bazille, killed during the Franco-Prussian War. But it was news to me about Pissarro's special relationship with Cezanne. The latter was chronically disillusioned while the former was extremely supportive. Indeed, Cezanne might not have stuck with painting at all had Pissarro, among others in the small group, offered plentiful encouragement.

Roe's book informed me that Renoir placed his lover, Aline, in his great Luncheon of the Boating Party. She is the one holding the dog in the detail Jennifer snapped when we saw the work in DC. Renoir placed his friend and peer Caillebotte in the background as well.  I ask you to consider all these great painters. Consider that they all knew each other, traveled together, painted each other and the same subjects. Surely this was an exceptional and unprecedented moment in the history of art, all this greatness bound together as friends, colleagues, and pioneers of an art form.

Chrysanthemums or Overturned Basket. 1885.
The book makes it clear that impressionism ultimately was "discovered" and accepted as a serious art form only after it exhibited in New York in the 1880's. All eight of the historic exhibitions in Paris were more or less financial and critical flops. Despite this, others joined the group in coming years, including Caillebotte and a talented American woman, Mary Cassatt, who moved to Paris and was part of the group for a couple of years. Both of these painters were instrumental in keeping the annual exhibitions going despite what was, at best, mixed results.

In reading Roe, however, it was Berthe Morisot that stood out to me somewhat more than the others. Probably because I knew so little about her. She was a beautiful, pale yet dark, single woman, who studied art and met Manet along the way. Manet introduced her to Degas, who appreciated her young talent and, in turn, she was brought into the general impressionist group. But Manet had a special attraction for Morisot, though it was never consummated in any form other than the fact that he painted a multitude of portraits of her over a brief span of years. She became Manet's favorite model in addition to being a budding painter in her own right.

Roe describes some of these posed portraits: "He posed her sideways, cross-legged on on a studio chair, and holding close to her face a black Spanish fan, spread wide, the spokes suggestively covering everything but her mouth. As she lifted her arm, the transparent, gauzy black fabric of her sleeve fell to her elbow, revealing bare, white flesh. She wore pink shoes, her right foot pointed to reveal her ankle almost to the calf. In the portrait, Manet emphasized her pink shoes, to draw attention to her exposed lower leg and naked forearm. The portrait is teasing and seductive, fraught with subliminal desire. When he finished it, he painted her again, standing this time, one hand clasped to her throat (as if holding together, or about to undo, the collar of her robe), one foot, still in pink, provocatively exposed.

"Manet was fascinated by the eloquence of a tellingly placed foot. The background of Berthe Morisot with a Fan (1872) is blood-red, painted in bold, wet streaks, and the position of the figure, off center, draws attention to this visceral swathe of color. All the indisputable eroticism of Manet's aesthetic is distiller into these portraits. In Berthe Morisot with a Pink Shoe (1872), she stares at the painter...In his paintings of Berthe, Manet was exploring something new, searching, in this nuanced connection between painter and model...In Berthe Morisot Reclining (1873), painted a few months later, the element of seduction is unmistakeable. Her dark eyes seem to follow the viewer round the room, and her reclining pose is indisputably provocative." (page 103)

I became better acquainted with Morisot back in 2007 when I saw Manet's reclining portrait of her at an exhibition in Atlanta. The painting captivated me and I revisited it a couple of times before leaving the museum. I began researching Manet a bit more and, in turn, learned about Morisot, though I did not realize until Roe's group biography that she posed so many times for Manet. Of course, I had heard of her before. I was aware that she was a minor impressionist and that In the Garden at Maurecourt was her most famous work. But, seeing her posed the way Manet presents her, her dark eyes staring at me, objectifying me as if the painting is watching me (Da Vinci's Mona Lisa and Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring have a similar effect), stayed with me long after I left the exhibition. In a way that day in 2007 is directly connected with my recent reading of Roe's book. In that sense it is as if time has not passed at all.

Morisot was courted by and eventually married Eugene Manet, the painter's brother. One interesting discovery I made about their relationship that was not mentioned in the Roe book came instead from a review of the 300-plus paintings in my Art Authority iPad App. It seems that, just as Morisot posed for Manet the painter, Morisot painted his brother several times both before their marriage and after they had a daughter together. This was an interesting compliment to the things I learned in Roe's group biography. I chose several Morisot paintings from the App for this post.

Eugene Manet on the Isla of Wight. 1875.
Eugene Manet and His Daughter at Bougival.  1881.
Eugene Manet and Hist Daughter in the Garden. 1883.
She exhibited at every French impressionist exhibition but the first. Roe portrays her as a powerful force among her male counterparts, often organizing the exhibitions and serving on various informal committees within the group. She and Mary Cassett were treated as full equals by the male painters. Her work is dominated by portraits of mothers with children, though there are certainly other fine examples of a broad range of subjects, landscapes and still-lifes. Among the group, she was closest to Renoir and Degas. Of course, she became closer to Manet than anyone but for his brother, her husband, who she painted.
Self-Portrait. 1885. 

This striking doodle of a painting, Portrait of Berthe Morisot and Her Daughter.  1885.
Woman Wearing Gloves (The Parisian).  1885.
Understandably, her productivity diminished for several years after the birth of her daughter, but she never completely stopped painting. She participated in all the aesthetic discussions and debates inside the dynamic impressionist group and with its many critics. She certainly contributed as much as anyone to the ultimate acceptance and triumph of impressionism in the art world. I no longer consider her a "minor" impressionist, though she is not as brilliant as Renoir, of course, or Monet or Manet.

It is interesting to note that Morisot painted In the Garden in 1884, a time when the impressionists were fragmenting and on-going exhibitions were becoming iffy. The movement was entering its second generation of artists. Roe's chronology gives you some perspective, the painting is mentioned on page 258 of the 270 pages of history. Morisot painted this work later in her life, after she had already made many exhibitions of art and after she had already influenced the movement. Sittings for Manet's work were past experiences for her by the time she created it. But, she remained committed to the movement and connected to the group.

Young Woman and Child, Avenue du Bois. 1894, one of Morisot's last works.

The Cherry Picker. 1891.  This one is in pastels.  Morisot did a fine oil painting of this same scene but I prefer this version.  It has a Van Gogh quality about it to me.

Laerte the Greyhound.  1894, another very late work.
Edouard Manet dies within the telling of Roe's book, which offers this marvelous insight in to Morisot. "In the two and half years since Manet's death in 1883, Berthe had been struggling to come to terms with her grief. She distracted herself by organizing children's parties for Julie in her smart new home in the rue Villejust, where she also gave dinners for painters and writers including Mallarme, Degas, Renoir and Monet. With Eugene, she tended Edouard Manet's grave; they bought a plot beside it so that eventually Eugene might be buried alongside his brother.  When Edouard Manet died, something died in her too; she told Edma she was devastated; his charm had been such that she had somehow imagined him immortal. She remained loyal to the cause of the impressionists, and by 1886 was one of three remaining members of the original group. While they exhibited in Paris for the last time as a group, Durand-Ruel, in New York, was exhibiting six of her works. Her works (in Gallery C) included In the Garden, one of the gentle, sunlit portrayals of her garden at Bougival, its long grass and lush foliage evoked in here distinctive, loosely applied diagonal brush strokes, and Marine View, a souvenir of the scene of her betrothal to Eugene Manet." (page 258)

In the Garden at Maurecourt. 1884.
In the Garden is an amazing work. The woman and the child are relaxed in the shade close to the edge of an open space. There are two empty chairs across a lawn as well as a rather large basket perhaps. They are alone in a secluded spot. Dark dense foliage lies beyond them. The woman is looking back at you, the viewer. She is watching you just as Manet so often painted Berthe watching you. I think the woman's gaze is Berthe's, though of course that is pure uneducated speculation. It is a romantic notion. And this painting inspires me to ponder in reposed splendor. It calms me and welcomes me in. Berthe's gaze says whatever you want it to say. But you cannot deny that she has something to tell you when you view this wonderful piece of timeless art. Can you hear her as your eyes meet hers?