Wednesday, 30 March 2011


This artist, probably best known for this painting at the Whitney, died Sunday.* He was a fantastic and unique artist who combined modern inspiration with medieval techniques to great effect. He was also an absolutely lovely man, and I'm greatly saddened by his passing.

I had the opportunity to meet George on several occasions during my time at now-defunct museum. At 89, I'm not sure he was entirely present, but I think that part of the reason I felt that was due to his sheer lack of understanding as to why anyone would want to meet him or discuss his work. He was nonplussed by the public's interest, both in his art and in himself. At the same time, I don't think anyone (even George) could deny that it pleased him, as well.

By the time I met him, he'd stopped painting; a combination, I think, of not feeling that he had anything left to say, and his own declining health. He rarely left his home and rarely had visitors. He had even stopped attending his church, where thirteen of his works still grace the sanctuary.

However, through a combination of enthusiasm and probably some sort of bribery, George agreed to do a book signing last year. As we seated him at the table in the museum, he looked blankly up at us. "You want me to do what?" It was simply beyond his comprehension as to why anyone would want his signature - especially on a book that he'd never seen before. His doubt was quickly forgotten, though, as he gawked at the massive crowd that lined up around him, smiling and eagerly holding their books and prints. The many visitors were delighted to meet him, and he couldn't help but be delighted with their smiles and tears as they explained what his work meant to them.

He resumed painting that week.

He also ventured from his home more often than had been his wont. Several months later, I was shocked to find George at a meeting of local artists. He sat cheerfully and silently in an arm chair as his colleagues flitted about the room. From time to time, another artist would come to sit beside him and engage him in conversation. There were several who utilized the same techniques, and more than one who identified him as an inspiration for their work. I think their enthusiasm and respect for his work took him by surprise - but he couldn't help but be pleased.

"Unassuming" doesn't even begin to describe him.

George lived a long and, I believe, full life. I'm glad that the revival of interest in his work came while he was still around to see it and wonder at it. And I hope he was still painting up until the end.

* Apologies for awkwardly avoiding his name, but Google would out me almost immediately if I included his full name in this post - I make more than a few identifying statements here.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Chris Bray Describing William Cronon

Professor at a public university, known for his smart scholarship in the field of nineteenth century U.S. environmental history, writes a blog post attacking a contemporary political initiative undertaken by his governor. The governor's political party tries to embarrass and intimidate him, and he scrambles onto a pedestal as he shouts for them to stop. You can't attack me, he says. I'm a scholar.

I suppose that's a fair description, if you replace "writes a blog post attacking a contemporary political initiative undertaken by his governor" with "writes a blog post pointing out the machinations of a well-funded and influential conservative vested-interest group and the possibility that it is unduly influencing the political decisions of the dominant political party in his state and its currently out-of-character policies". Then yeah, I can see where you're coming from.

You can "change the tone and the nature of the question" all you like, but it doesn't change the fact that the reason the Wisconsin Republican Party is trying to take on Cronon is because he's hit a nerve.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Wisconsin Republicans Vs. William Cronon

If you haven't yet heard, the Wisconsin Republican Party, in response to an unflattering (but otherwise objective) blog entry by the AHA's President-Elect, William Cronon, has decided to try to intimidate him by fishing for ammo to use against him from his address. They're using a FOIA-type request, which to me (and more importantly, to Dr. Cronon) seems to be a politically-motivated misuse of an otherwise exceptionally good law. For the full story, the full text of the Open Records Law-based fishing request from Stephan Thompson, and some fantastic analysis by Cronon himself, go here:

Abusing Open Records to Attack Academic Freedom

To say that this reflects poorly on the Wisconsin Republican Party is one hell of an understatement. The name McCarthy shows up a few times in the article, and though I think it's a stretch, I don't think the comparison is wide enough of the mark to be completely baseless. And that in itself is scary.

Happy reading.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Standardized Testing

via Historiann.

"They get paid money to put scores on paper, not to put the right scores on papers," he says. "They have a bottom line. Why anyone would expect anything else is beyond me."


Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Procrastination by way of genealogy

My hobby recently, in an effort to both avoid writing my paper for PSU and distract myself from the hell that is waiting to hear back on my PhD apps, has been genealogy.*

Genealogy is one of those rare hobbies that even other genealogists simply do not want to hear about. No matter how fascinating your family history is,** or how many of those family members were alive in recent memory, it's simply not interesting to anyone other than yourself.*** Even other genealogists in the family start to glaze over after 10 minutes. My grandmother will go on for hours about the family, and even though it's my family too, I quickly start wondering exactly why anyone cares.****

I've discovered why: it's addictive. You may nod in agreement, but I don't think you understand. I've barely been at work on my tree for a month, and I've already added 1,800 people who are somehow related to me.


Clearly, genealogy is the best procrastination device ever created.

Part of the attraction is that my grandmothers (yes, both of them - I really didn't stand a chance) had already done a fair bit of genealogical work. On my mother's side (the less obsessive side of the family), this mostly took the form of the back of shopping lists scribbled with names and dates taken from gravestones, along with a couple cheat-sheets created by my mother. (wait, Duffy was whose mother? So who are the O'Learys, then?) On the obsessive side of the family, I had access to 6 stapled reams of paper detailing each ancestry line back either to 17th century Massachusetts or to the 19th century immigration from Ireland (usually the latter). Both these things were useful for laying the groundwork, and after that, ancestry dot com was happy to provide me with census listings and birth certificates and the like.

I found my grandparents' marriage license. How cool is that? They'd probably rather I didn't, as it was only 6 months before my mother was born. Oops.

What I find most fascinating, however, are the glimpses of average life from the 19th and early 20th century. My great-great grandmother married to save herself from the almshouse - which is where her mother spent 50 years, because neither of her two children were ever settled enough to take her in. I wondered why she didn't get a divorce when her husband left her in 1900. But how could she have, with 12 children at home, and her mother waiting in the poor house? Her sister married three times for the same reason - but even that wasn't enough, for after her death, her own daughter ended up in the almshouse as well.

My god-knows-how-many great grandmother, Mary, stated in 1900 that she was a mother of 13, but only 4 were living. All but one survived infancy. Two died before they reached 13. One died in the Civil War. Three died around 1880, between the ages of 14 and 18 - presumably from the same disease. One died at 41, and one died in prison.

Granted, Mary lived to be 80, so I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that she outlived so many children. But it really is quite sobering.

Oops, sorry - I think I just did what I complained about at the start of the post. (are you glazing over yet?)***** But there's the point: genealogy isn't necessarily interesting. History, at least as far as I'm (and probably you're) concerned, is. But history, especially modern American history, tends to, by necessity, gloss over the majority of people. While I was the curator of the now-defunct colony museum, I researched and exhibited about the wealthy, famous artists who lived there. The ordinary, working class people, however, only showed up when they did something notable for the "important" people - when they were their housekeepers, or their models, or their mistresses.

The flip-side is the attention that we now pay to the lowest in society: the immigrant girls working in the mills; the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire; the slums. With such extremes, it's easy to forget that there was a middle ground, especially in the rural areas where there weren't factories or wealthy artists.

Out of all 1800 people that I've found in my tree, only one young woman ever worked in a mill. Only one was an artist. Most were farmers, laborers, furniture makers, lumberjacks. Most did absolutely nothing of note, whether that be producing artwork or fighting for humane working conditions.

It's nice to be reminded of that once in a while. History is written by the victors, but it's made up of the millions of people of little-to-no note.

Maybe that's why genealogy is so dull: it's just the ordinary people, without the historic struggle or the glamour. Some days, though, I think I'd rather talk about the woman who watched 9 of her children die than the artist who produced triumphal monuments, using his mistress as the model.

* You can add "avoid writing a new blog post" to the list. It's been 5 months since my last post, but I'm going to pretend it hasn't been nearly that long. Blame Twitter for my prolonged absence.

** Do you know how many Mehitables are in my family? More than 5, and that's already more than 5 too many.

*** Worse than Mehitable, if you can imagine such a thing, is Mindwell. Seriously, who names their kid that? It practically guarantees she won't mind well, if only to spite you.

**** I'm not sure about Brainard as a name, either. Brainard's almost as popular in my family tree as Glen(n), which is rather nicer - but I'd actually recommend the former, as all the Glen(n)s in my family took off and left their wives and children. Seriously - Glen(n) doesn't have a good track record among the Vaulting ancestors.

***** Patrick, on the other hand, is a lovely name, but with 2 Patrick Duffys, 3 Patrick Costellos, a Patrick Byrne, a Patrick O'Leary and a Patrick Magee in my family history, I'm going to recommend against.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Dare to Compare?

These are the "offices" we've made for ourselves. Above, Vaulting; Below, Vellum.

So yes, our "offices" are the North-East and South-East corners of our bedroom, but somehow Vaulting's seems so much classier than mine. Maybe it's the shiny black desk and Apple laptop on her desk and the laminate table with an old Linux box on mine. Maybe it's the glass and brushed aluminum lamp on her desk, or the plastic halogen lamp broken and fixed with construction putty on mine. Maybe it's the nicely framed print of the School of Athens on the wall over her desk, or the bras and radiator behind mine, I'm not sure. O_o She's always been the classy one, I guess.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Transitional Generations

Dean Dad has another spot-on post up today about Generation X as transitional. But I think he's missed something. I'm in no position really to judge his statements about Generation X, but I can say that we Millennials (of which I'm just about the leading (read: oldest) edge) are transitional too.

DD writes: "Those of us who went through grad school in the 90's probably remember when “post-” was the prefix of choice. (For younger readers, it was similar to the use of “e-” ten years ago or “i-” now.) It started with “postmodernism,” but quickly grew to become a cultural habit. “Posties” were those who couldn't stop proclaiming the “death of...” whatever. The cultural mood at the time was that we were at the end of something, but the next thing hadn't arrived yet. We were late to the party, but didn't really have one of our own."

He goes on to productively apply this line of thought to administration in post-secondary education (as you might well expect from a blogger in his position), but I got stuck on the very idea of a generation as transitional.

If gen-x caught the tail end of a party, what's the party me and mine caught the leading edge of? Well, we tend to view "post-"anything with skepticism, that's for sure. We have the internet, well, after a fashion (at 12 or 13 I was impersonating an adult on newsgroups and chat rooms -- remember those? chat rooms? mIRC anyone? -- so that I could gain instant access to that automatic respect that being an adult seemed to confer in a discussion). We have PVRs and MP3 players, we're blamed for everything from the death of print journalism to the death of movies.

But I guess what I'm getting at is that we're in a period of non-stop transition now. There may never again be a time like the first half of the 20th century where people could do the same thing their whole lives and be secure. It's certainly not true now, if in fact it ever was.

Dean Dad writes that "being the transitional group can kind of suck. You fight like hell to board a sinking ship." Unfortunately, this could be the metaphor not solely for Gen-X, but also for every generation hereafter.

The new "party" seems to be the Kurzweilian pace-of-change party -- in which things will from here on in change faster than they have before. That means faster sinking ships, faster ship building, and generally faster ships. The new rule is transition, and the new currency is adaptability.

And so I suppose in a way yes, Gen X has got the brunt of it -- they've gone from the illusion of stability (which was just slower change) to faster change, and they're the first to have to deal with it. But it's a new reality for me and mine, and it's not going to get any better. From here on in, we're going to have to be one thing above all else, and that's "flexible."

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

First They Came For The Bigots (and then they stopped there, and nobody really minded...)

Oh, America. America the Free.

There are a lot of things I love about this country. But there are some oddities I can't quite figure out. As a Canuck south of the border, there are some things that just seem off: the demonizing of the word socialism; the insistence that gun ownership be protected by the state; the no-holds-barred attitude to freedom of speech.

That last one is what's come up in my news feed twice recently, in differing ways.

On the one hand, we have this: the upholding of the "no lying on the news" law in Canada that's essentially preventing the spread of Fox-News-Style-Insanity north of the border. Canada has put a limit on freedom of the press, though it's not one you should really concern yourself with. It just says that it's illegal to lie on the news.

On the other hand, this: the US supreme court has said it's okay for right-wing bigots to picket funerals. America the Free won't curtail the Westboro Baptist Family's noxious hate speech because, as Chief Justice John Roberts says, we can't curtail "even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."

I'm just not in favour of absolutism, I guess. I believe, strongly and wholeheartedly, that there is indeed a definite time and place for the curtailing of freedom of speech. Incitement to violence is one good example. Hate speech is another. Lying on the news? Yeah, that should be illegal too.

Incitement to violence is fairly obvious - speech that calls for violence can and will be listened to, and making it illegal holds culpable for the violence those who called for it. Hate speech is violent in itself: is society improved in any respect by speech whose sole purpose is to promote hatred? No. And the deliberate misrepresentation of facts in a medium that is trusted (read: lying on the news) does violence to one of the most cherished institutions of western society -- the democratic process. It should be no more legal to lie on the news than to lie during an election campaign (which should be, and sadly is not yet, illegal).

Do these curtailments of freedom of speech harm society? Is there any social good that could come from allowing hate speech, calls for violence, or lies on the news? My answer would be no, what about yours?

It's not a slippery slope. Healthy debate should be protected -- but the key word there is healthy. A debate with someone who refuses in their argument to acknowledge the basic dignity and humanity of their opponent isn't a healthy argument, it's a racist/sexist/homophobic screed. Nothing useful is produced.

Reporting of the truth -- with whatever point of view you wish to report it -- should never be banned. Truth is the cornerstone of western civilization and I stand behind it. The truth will out.

Lies, (not different opinions, those are fine, but lies) on the other hand, should be banned from any media purporting to deliver truth. I'm all in favour of left- and right-wing news stations, so long as they tell the truth. We hold legally to account advertisers who make false claims -- why not news stations?

As for the Westboro Baptist Family, they do nothing but spread hatred of a minority group at the expense of society. It is not healthy debate, it is hate speech.

So anyway. That's why the Canadians ban them entry to the country.