Monday, May 26, 2008

Coffee, Tea, Madeleines, and Memory

Every morning of my life, my first cup of coffee reminds me of my grandmother, and the year I spent with her after I returned from five years in Taiwan, and while I waited for my father to return from his posting in England.

Gram always got up before me, even on school days, and made coffee. None of the fancy stuff--Maxwell House out of a can--and no fancy brewing technique--just a Farberware percolator. The results were strong and aromatic: coffee smell. I'd almost invariably wake up then, and join her for a cup liberally doused with milk and (then) laced with sugar; it was probably more like "coffee milk" with which my other grandmother treated me almost from infancy, with a bit of doughnut for dunking. I gradually weaned myself from the sugar (Gram drank hers black), but never could do without the milk.

I'm always amused, too, when I go to Starbucks these days for my usual nonfat latte and occasionally grab a pack of madeleines for the trip to school. This combination almost always leads to my turning off the radio and letting my mind go wherever it wants to, instead of listening to NPR for news on the latest catastrophic event.

So Proust's tea-and-madeleine experience is essentially universal, although most people are not eloquent enough to write huge tomes about memories that engage readers for nearly a century. He died the year after my father was born, and the year my house was built (I'm great at finding connections that mean absolutely nothing).

This morning, the combination of fresh coffee (freshly-ground Ruta Maya organic, filtered through a Cuisinart into a carafe that keeps it hot but doesn't over-cook it; still, my tastes have changed very little) and the memory of my grandmother carried me further: to her Memorial Day tradition of gathering flowers and taking them from her house to the family plot in the Big Pine cemetery, thirty miles north. Gram didn't care for cut flowers in the house, claiming that they were better off and would last longer in the garden where they belonged, but on Memorial Day she'd pick everything then blooming: sweet peas, honeysuckle, trumpet vine, and put them in a huge bucket with enough water to keep them from wilting during the trip.

I can still remember the ride north, with the windows open in the Chevy ('57, I think; she later got herself a souped up Chevy Nova). In the high desert, mornings are cool and crisp no matter how hot it gets later in the day. By the time we left the cemetery, it was already warming up, and we were tempted to stay there under the trees. But there were always things to get done, so after a couple of hours of stories about folks buried there, we headed home and the ride back was a little quieter than the ride up. Although I didn't live with her after that year, except during summer vacations, I made the Memorial Day trip several other times during my life, and I'm pretty sure we took my children once--even though they were probably too young then to remember. They've been back, of course, when we buried her ashes and later those of my father. And my one true regret in life now is that I don't live close enough to go up there every year with flowers for her.

On this memorial day, I wanted to note my family's "collection" of veterans in that cemetery. Thanks to, I've now got access to various military records that help fill in some gaps, and I recommend that folks take advantage of this treasure trove if they've got vets of their own.

My father's father, Ira Uhlmeyer, fought in World War I, and his participation in that particular war made possible my enrollment at the University of California, Riverside. I received a La Verne Noyes Scholarship, available only to direct descendants of veterans of WWI. Were it not for that scholarship, I doubt if I'd been able to spend the summer working in my home town (for less than minimum wage at a local frosty shop), and would have had to find better-paying work nearer the college. As it was, I got by with the summer gig in Lone Pine, and a work-study job on campus. At any rate, here's my grandfather's draft card (click for a larger view):

My father, Thomas William Uhlmeyer, served in the Army Air Corps during the second World War, and later joined the newly formed U. S. Air Force and served during both the Korean and Viet Nam "conflicts." He retired after 23 years as a Senior Master Sergeant, never having had the ambition to become an officer because he loved what he did and going to officer candidate school would require changing jobs. Always the raconteur, Daddy wrote down his Pacific theater experiences in WWII, and as soon as I get my scanner working, I'll start publishing them here--complete with pictures.

My cousin Eddie Uhlmeyer (eldest son of grandfather's brother Charles) joined the Army during Viet Nam, but was stationed in Germany for most of his enlistment. He died in an auto accident not long after his discharge, and is also buried in the Big Pine cemetery. Eddie and I got to know one another the summer before I started college, and I still miss him. Like most Uhlmeyer men, he had a terrific sense of humor and was fun to be around.

And so today, as I linger over my coffee, I'm remembering these three men in particular, as well as Ralph Hoard (mentioned previously). I may be a pacifist under the skin, but even those of us who think there are better ways to solve problems than by killing one another appreciate the job our soldiers have done on our behalf. Many of my current students are Iraq and Afghanistan vets. I'm glad they made it back, and I worry every day about the ones who are still "over there." Another of my students recently lost her brother in Iraq, and I can only begin to imagine what today must be like for her family. But as long as people haven't managed to figure out how to keep political conflicts from erupting into war, and as long as we remain mortal, remembering our dead one day a year is the least we can do.

I hope somebody's remembering Proust today, too.

Photos: My grandfather's draft card, courtesy; Proust's grave in the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, taken by Paul Louis, from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Requiem for Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg died last week, at 82--which isn't even as old as my father was when he died of multiple ravages. Rauschenberg had a puckish smile that reminded me of my father's, and the same silver haircut. The cause was announced as "heart failure," and when I heard the news, I wept.

Mind you, I don't usually get particularly verklempt when artists, especially well-known ones, die, but Rauschenberg is among my small coterie of favorites, which also includes Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, and Joseph Cornell. These four men took Cubism's basic idea of collage--originally compositions that included pasted paper, paint, and drawings--and opened up an entirely new mode of creative expression. As innovative as Braque's idea was (for it was, in fact, Georges Braque and not Picasso who came up with it), neither he nor Picasso, nor any of their original followers managed to marry two- and three-dimensional art in the way that "my four" did.

There's a natural affinity between what these men created and the idea of a Wunderkammer. Collage can become a locus of memory: collecting bits and pieces of life, sticking them to a canvas, and recording an idea, a moment, an observation about the human condition. It can also interpret the artist's experience of the world, and help us all make sense of history--as Rauschenberg's large screen-printed canvases did after John Kennedy's death, the subject of Skyway (1964), owned by the Dallas Museum of Art, and pictured here (rather awkwardly, because it's in the Atrium Cafe and I had to shoot it with my iPhone from the stairs). The DMA's image, plus three others from the collection can be found here. Although this isn't really a collage in the formal sense (it has more in common with Picasso's late synthetic Cubist efforts that looked like collages but were actually created entirely in oils), it's an example of one of the possible directions Rauschenberg and others explored: collage as a collection of images, married in improbable ways, but which can produce an almost jarring connection with the objects pictured.

These works have clearly touched a monumental nerve in the American psyche, because their impact includes twenty-first century book arts, and has even reached into the mundane aisles of the hobby merchants, fostering (indirectly) the current craze in "scrap-booking."

Little I could say could even begin to describe Rauschenberg's impact on modern art, and so I'll end by including a list of links to biographies, articles, and obituaries. 82 may not seem particularly young to many people, but I'll miss the works he'll never create, and I hope he left a huge cache of unrevealed works for us to enjoy.

New York Times obituary, by Michael Kimmelmann (includes a slide show of significant works)

Rauschenberg Got a Lot From the City and Left a Lot Behind, by Roberta Smith in the New York Times. It links the same slide show, but also lists New York museums in which Rauschenberg's works can be viewed.

PBS's American Masters episode, with a video about Monogram and the other "combines."

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition featuring the combines (2005/2006) with an introduction and images.

"The Wild And Crazy Guy," Time Magazine's obituary, by Richard Lacayo.

As always, a list of online sources of Rauchenberg's work can be found on the Artcyclopedia.

Photo credit: Canyon, 1959 (Wikimedia Commons photo, taken at the National Gallery of Art in Washington). My shot of the Atrium Cafe at the Dallas Museum of Art was taken on May 15, 2008.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Letters From the Front: 1919

One of the truly fortunate aspects of being bred from a variety of the species Neotoma cinerea (Bushy-tailed Woodrat, better known as "packrat") is that I've inherited hoards of letters. Or, more aptly put, letters of Hoards.

My maternal grandfather, Ralph Disbrow Hoard, married my grandmother, Dorothy Minneola Crumley, shortly before he shipped out to France during World War I. Apparently because his eyesight was too poor for battle purposes, he spent the war as a medic; the experience is probably what prompted him to become an osteopath, because by the 1920 census he's listed as a medical student. I found a biography online from Merced County, California, that notes his marriage on November 29, 1917, and the fact that he spent a year in France. Even though they were married before the war, however, they seem not to have lived together until after he finished medical school--judging from their separate entries in the census taken in Pasadena.

My newest project is to sort, arrange, and read through a box of letters he wrote to my grandmother during his enlistment, many of them from France toward the end and after the war. A brief sortie into the stack and a half-hearted attempt to put them in chronological order prompted me to read through a couple of them--only to find out that my sarcastic streak is probably genetic:

March 23 1919

Dearest Dottums. Oh yay, how my arm aches. Merle and I got our shot in the arm today. They are using the new lipovaccine. It has an oil medium and, oh boy, the kick we're getting out of it.

The vaccination was probably for pneumonia. He says later (April 8), after thanking "Dottums" (I knew her as "Gramie Dottie") for some pictures she had sent of the family cottage at Balboa,

I do believe you're better looking now than when I left. If such is the case, I guess I had better stay over here, not (the "not" is underlined three times).

I thought this locution was specific to twenty-first century teenagers, but obviously it's made the rounds before. He goes on to mention a motorbike trip (he had been a mechanic, so one of his war jobs was apparently with the motor pool) to some of the central sites of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 [click on the map for a larger version], and talks about visiting the museum at Gravelotte--which is quite near Mars la Tour (site of one of the major battles of the war), where he was billeted:

. . . I went through the military museum and it certainly was wonderful. All kinds of uniforms, guns, swords, shrapnel, shells, bayonets, breastplates, helmets, etc., of both German and French. Then there are a great many paintings of that war. Oh, I tell you it was great and I wouldn't trade that trip for a trip through Field's museum.

I'm assuming he's talking about the Field Museum in Chicago, which he probably visited en route to the East Coast for transport to the front. See? Even the museum bug is in the blood.

It seems fitting on Mother's Day to spend a bit of time getting to know my forebears better. I remember both my grandfather and my grandmother as remarkable people, and their early devotion to one another (although they later divorced) is quite poignant. She clearly wrote to him regularly throughout his stint, and he was equally faithful in his replies. I only wish I had the other half of the correspondence.

Photos: Part of the stack of war letters; Map of the Franco-Prussian War 1870, from the Cambridge Modern History Atlas of 1912 (Wikipedia commons)

Edited to add links on 13 May 2008.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Esopus, the Magazine

This morning I received an e-mail from a former student, announcing that her first issue of Esopus had arrived, and that she was "smelling it right now." I had introduced my Art and Design Since 1945 class to it last quarter, and they all responded enthusiastically-- and a couple of them subscribed.

It's difficult to describe Esopus, which is published by a non-profit foundation and comes out only twice a year. It's an amazing bargain (well below its actual cost) at $10 US a pop on the newsstand (if you can find it), or $9 each by subscription. The production quality is superb, and the variety of topics covered and materials used provide a visual and tactile experience unlike any other print medium I can think of. On top of that, they commission a music CD based on a particular theme, and some of the tunes are so witty and intelligent that even a cranky old classical and jazz purist like I am can enjoy them.

The "smelling" part comes from the fact that the papers and inks used for the art works and articles evoke an almost pheromonic response from lovers of paper. I wouldn't exactly call the experience erotic, but it's certainly enticing.

This issue contains a couple of things that have stirred the little section of my brain devoted to wonder: a segment called "Drawing Comparisons," which includes facsimiles of sketches by former MoMA director, René D'Harnoncourt, comparing art works from various island cultures in Melanesia. The drawings are part of regular file-folder feature drawn from the museum's archives; in the past these have included the evolution of a flow-chart describing the influence of Cubism, and sketches by Lewis Mumford of an exhibit that was never mounted. Both Cubism and Mumford are among my abiding interests.

Some of what's included is surprisingly intimate, like the notes to his children by Robert Guest, an exhibition designer. Guest has written lunch-box notes to his kids for many years, and his wife has retrieved thousands of them (an artful arrangement of these notes graces the issue's cover). A few of them are included as "Daily Reminders." One feels privileged to be allowed to read them, even though they're fairly simple: "Take time to relax and think about life." They're illustrated with sweet drawings, and make me wish I'd done this with my children.

The most amazing section this time is well within the realm of the traditional Wunderkammer: Doug McNamara's "Biodiversions," a series (mostly on vellum) of scientific illustrations of organisms that don't actually exist. The drawings are astonishing, amusing, delicate, beautiful, fanciful, and poetic all at the same time. And the paper makes you want to fondle it. I'm not kidding.

The CD will accompany me down the road to work tomorrow. This one's called "Good News," and was inspired by a quotation from Confucius: "The more man meditates upon good thoughts, the better will be his world and the world at large." One of the songs celebrates the tax rebate--which hasn't shown up in my bank account yet, but a part of it will go to support the Esopus Foundation because I get such sheer pleasure from what it brings me--even if it is only twice a year.

Now I'll be looking forward to the newest issue of the quarterly Cabinet Magazine, named after cabinets of wonder, and usually filled with provocative and beautifully written and illustrated stuff on a particular theme (bones, mountains, insects, electricity). It's due any day now.

Photo credit: since this post is almost an ad for the magazine, I hope it's ok to use the cover photo. I know I should ask, but I'm shy.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Family Archaeology

One problem with being old, and being the child of a family of packrats, is that one not only accumulates a large amount of stuff, but the stuff is not only one's own--it's often the legacy of others.

And then there's the problem of having an overactive imagination, one that's constantly coming up with ideas about what can be done with this or that bit of stuff. So that stuff gets collected. And so do things that can be recycled into other things.

Ultimately it all ends up in one or two places in my house. Visits to IKEA have produced a few strong cardboard boxes in nice colors to hold some of it. Those items sit attractively on shelves in bookcases. The rest ends up in closets--specifically one in the study, and in another we've dubbed The Museum of Unfinished Projects. This latter spot is a wonderful space, designed almost like a pantry, with room for a dresser or storage unit under shelves that start about halfway up the wall on two sides. I've got a small bookcase on one wall, which holds an almost complete collection of Martha Stewart Living, several years' worth of Old House Journal, and a more random stack of This Old House. Martha will no longer arrive at my house when my subscription runs out next year, but I find it difficult to toss what I've got.

In the back of the closet, under the deep shelves, I've got two rolling wire carts that hold hanging files. One of these belonged to my husband during his bachelor days, and another was a gift from him and my children on the first Mother's Day we were together. Now they hold tearsheets from magazines--one for articles on food and recipes, another for "ideas"--home repair, craft instructions, inspiration, etc.

Boxes on the shelves contain memorabilia (mostly from my children's growing-up years) and fabric for quilts long since abandoned. Other unfinished efforts include a stuffed pteradactyl, some paper dragons I was going to hang in my son's room after I'd painted them, bereft baskets of embroidery, tins of buttons, bags of pillow stuffing, and boxes of reparable items of too much sentimental value to be discarded.

The closet in the study holds boxes of old photographs and letters, most of these from my mother's family, but a large bag of photos was added about five years ago, when my father sat down with me and went through stacks of family pictures before he died. Since I wasn't ready to admit that he was actually dying at the time, I neglected to ask as many questions as I should have done.

One of the things I've noticed about blogging is that it helps to focus one's energies on tasks at hand. Because the Museum of Unfinished Projects houses a number of collections, it will probably provide blog fodder for at least a few months, and if nothing else, blogging about hunting and gathering should encourage me to sort and consider its contents. If this in fact occurs, I may accomplish something even more important: ensuring that my children aren't left with the task after I've shuffled off.

On the other hand, the very act of sorting through the family midden is an exercise in connection, context, and history. Old photographs, memorabilia from experiences not our own, correspondence, well-loved objects--all of these generate memory, stir the imagination, and provide hints about where we are and how we got here.

In his novel, Howard's End, E. M. Forster utters the memorable injunction, "Only connect"--connect the prose with the passon, connect the fragments, create wholeness. This is in part what we do when we look back at the material remains of our pasts and the pasts of our ancestors. It's probably what makes archaeology a necessary profession in a world otherwise consumed with modernity. It may also explain interest in museums and Wunderkammern: images and objects that connect the very distant past (both on a human and a geological scale) with the present. Excavation and classificaton are acts of history, memory, and connection.

Let the dig begin.

Photo: The Museum of Unfinished Projects

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Constructing the Cabinet

The idea for this blog actually came to me in a dream. I was contemplating the fact that many of the topics I wanted to consider on the Farm had nothing really to do with utopia or William Morris--as much as both occupy my intellectual life. I realized that it might be a good idea to find somewhere else to build a sort of salon: a place to explore and discuss ideas, events, or objects not necessarily related to anything else, or even to one another.

I'm fond of telling my students that I've never been bored in my life. But the reason I've never been bored is that I've been introduced to so many different ideas, places, ways of life, and things worth paying attention to that I've never had time to be bored. There's almost always something interesting going on, and by far the largest repository of wonder is the natural world.

Hence this new blog. I've had so much fun on the Farm, that another, supplementary venue seems only natural. Here there be dragons: and museums and collections and assemblages and all manner of gatherings. It took me a while to come up with a title, because all my initial choices were already in use (I guess I'm not quite as original a thinker as I fancy myself to be). But this is a Wunderkammer of sorts, and so I thought it fitting that I join the ranks of my favorite bloggers with my own contributions to the genre, stamping it with my own "name."

My father discovered many years ago, and much to the family's amusement, that our surname had once been spelled "Ohlemeyer," which, in German, means "Owl Farmer." I immediately adopted it for an avatar, and have gleefully used it ever since for my course pages, and now the two blogs. The fact that owls catch and digest small critters and then spit them out in the form of fuzzy pellets filled with tiny bones is strangely apt. Feel free to think of this blog as being a series of fuzzy pellets filled with tiny gems of interesting (I hope) materials.

North Texas, where I live, is home to large numbers of raptors, including owls. In fact, a murder of barred owls (I know, crows come in "murders," but I couldn't resist) lives in our neighborhood, and during the spring we are regaled most nights by the hoots and screeches of sex-crazed males vying for territory. At times, one can walk out the back door at dusk and be swooped over by large, heavy birds who've been roosting on the house-eaves. One evening earlier this year, we listened as our dog Arlo, a basset-border collie mix, accomplished an astoundingly accurate imitation of the barred owl who sat twenty feet above him, hooting away in a pecan tree.

So it does seem appropriate to use this blog as a way of focusing on the idea of collection, of hunting and gathering (for which we are clearly genetically programmed, although not always in a productive way), and the human tendency to conduct archaeological explorations of everything from lost civilizations to ideas. The possibilities at this point seem endless.

Photo credit: A Barred Owl Rescued after an Accident, T. J. Peterson, Wikimedia Commons.