Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Our Golden Age of Kids' TV

When we lived near Fairlawn, OH, we loved to shop at the Borders book store there. What a favorite place, where we spent a great deal of money! It closed after we moved, and soon all other Borders stores followed suit, to our regret.

One Christmas season, at the Fairlawn store, I amused my daughter when I purchased a book by Jerry Beck, Not Just Cartoons: Nicktoons! (DK Adult, 2007). I explained that I'm quite nostalgic about her childhood.

Emily was little during the 1990s, now widely regarded as a notable era in children's programming, thanks in part to the Nickelodeon network and its series of imaginative shows. Emily's favorite show for a long time, however, was Muppet Babies, on CBS in 1984-1991 but in syndication throughout the 1990s. We watched those shows every day in summertime, and recorded several on VHS for later viewing. In the early 1990s, she also loved the Bozo show on WGN. I recorded those for her while she was in preschool, and we even considered getting tickets for the show (but there was a multi-year waiting list, and the show ended in the last part of the 90s, as I recall).

With a little research on the internet, I created a list of shows that we watched over the years.  Most were on Nickelodeon but some on Cartoon Network or Kid's WB or the Disney Channel. As I think of more, I'll add them to the list. In no particular order:

Muppet Babies
Tiny Toon Adventures
Hey Arnold!
Rocko's Modern Life
Dexter's Laboratory
Powerpuff Girls (an older relative called this show "Space Bugs," LOL)
Johnny Bravo
As Told by Ginger
Oh, Yeah! Cartoons!
The Wild Thornberries

Time Bandits
Rocket Power
Spongebob Squarepants
Samurai Jack
Chalk Zone
Jimmy Neutron
Katie and Orbie
Danny Phantom
Butt-Ugly Martians
Cat Dog
Dragon Ball Z
Captain Planet and the Planeteers

The Angry Beavers
Invader Zim
Chip and Dale's Rescue Rangers
Fairly Odd Parents
Aaahh! Real Monsters
Sailor Moon

G Gundam (we had all 50-some episodes on DVD, too)

We also watched some Nickelodeon sitcoms, variety shows, and game shows:

You Can't Do That on Television (that's an early one! I think Alanis Morissette was briefly a character on that show, but we didn't notice her because her music career hadn't yet taken off in the U.S.)
Adventures of Pete and Pete
Salute Your Shorts
100 Deeds for Eddie Dowd
All That
Clarissa Explains It All

The Secret World of Alex Mack
The Amanda Show
Double Dare
Wild and Crazy Kids

Are You Afraid of the Dark?
Global GUTS
Legends of the Hidden Temple
Figure It Out

Also Even Stevens on the Disney Channel, and I think a few others. 

But that's not all!   The TLC Network once had a block of shows called "Ready, Set, Learn," aimed at kids. I thought those shows were good, but the network eventually fazed out their kids shows (transferring them to the Discovery Kids network) and devoted programming to different kinds of formats: home decorating, baby shows, make-over shows like "What Not to Wear," and so on. But I remember kids shows like Magic School Bus, The World of David the Gnome, Skimmerink TV, Salty's Lighthouse, Zoobilee Zoo, Book Mice, and The Magic Box. (The Magic Box was, I think, a Canadian show geared toward helping preschoolers learn to read. It was quite well done but it's hard to find information on it now. I've one episode on VHS and wished I'd recorded a few more for "posterity.")

The Nick Jr. block of shows on Nickelodeon included favorite programs like Eureeka's Castle, Little Bear, Franklin, Little Bill, Max and Ruby, Maisy, Gullah Gullah Island, and others. Emily liked Blue's Clues for a while. We also watched Zooboomafoo, Wishbone, Liberty's Kids, and Cyberchase on PBS. She watched Mr. Roger's Neighborhood for a while, Reading Rainbow more often. 

A few shows of the era are missing from our personal list, notably Barney. Emily never watched the show very much, other than one prime-time special (which we recorded) where Barney and the kids went off on a boat and visited a pirate island, and she liked her Barney doll. We never watched Beavis and Butt-Head and Ren and Stimpy---thank goodness. She never watched Ninja Turtles, X-Men, or Darkwing Duck for some reason, and Daria only occasionally.

I hated CatDog and Invader Zim. I disliked the latter's occasional gross-out humor (although the animation was very imaginative) and the premise of one sane person in a world of crazy people (a common enough trope: think both Bob Newhart shows, and many other examples). CatDog was just kind of mean: a character who's different is constantly abused by bullies. No thank you. But Emily liked the show.

We watched some classic shows produced in the decades prior to the 1990s: Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny and his "colleagues," Popeye, and Scooby-Doo.  These will will be on television forever! I remember when Scooby-Doo premiered in 1969: a quartet of kids and their dog riding around in their hippy van, solving mysteries. Who would've thought that show would have such staying power?

I think I'm leaving out more anime shows on the order of Dragonball Z, G Gundam, and Sailor Moon, but I'll have to think about it for a while. We also watched a variety of movies on VHS, but I'll leave those out of this list: our trips to the video store is a good subject for another blog post. Emily did enjoy a series of (what I'll call) Christian adventures that were on TV and also VHS, but I'm blanking on the name of the series, which was well-done and compelling rather than preachy.

I was going to reminisce about some of the shows I've listed here, but they mostly consist of Emily and me, or Emily and my wife and me relaxing on the weekend, or after school, or during summertime: contented family times. If you're reading this post and recognize some of these shows, they'll elicit your own personal memories.

I've a long list in memory of favorite kid shows I watched in the 1960s and 1970s. But I don't think I remember them nearly as fondly as all these which I watched with my daughter when she was young. No need to explain why.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Car Trading Memories

Early last month, we finally traded our 2004 Toyota Sienna van for a 2010 Toyota Matrix hatchback. The Sienna ran very well but was looking worse for wear. It had a minor dent from an unknown person who backed into it. A year ago, I was stopped at the yield sign of an exit ramp in Pennsylvania, waiting for traffic to pass, and a fellow (also waiting the traffic, and distracted because he was late picking up his kid) bumped into me from behind. He was only going 5 or 10 mph but it was enough to crumple a bit of the rear fender.

We didn't need a minivan anymore, now that my daughter is in college. But the van was so handy when she was in high school! We could haul her skis in winter, band stuff in most seasons, and cart her and her friends around to various functions. What a suburban life! The van was also quite useful in moving her stuff to college and then back for summer break.

One of the fun anecdotes associated with the van was prior to our actually driving it. We had purchased it from a dealership in Kent, OH but had to wait until it arrived from the factory. We were vacationing in the West and strolling around the Mt. Rushmore park when we got the call that the van had arrived.

I’ve stayed home with Emily every summer since the one before kindergarten. It was a handy and enjoyable way to manage her activities until she learned to drive and to spend time with her. Naturally, a lot of “van memories” involve her summer camps and classes, and not only that, but getting her to and from school. The school bus drivers were poor along our route, in my opinion, and her high school was only about three miles away.

Rereading John Updike's essay "My Life in Cars"[1] made me wonder how much of my life was spent in the van.  While getting that doggone song from "Rent" stuck in my head--"Seasons of Love" and its famous opening, "525,600 minutes"---I made some calculations. A half-hour every day is a reasonable minimum estimate, given our distance from various things like jobs, church, and shopping. That estimate gives me (if I’m thinking and calculating correctly) 53 total days, over a seven year period, spent driving the van. But that's a minimum: I also drove a few times to visit my mother in Illinois--a 20-hour round trip--on trips to visit Ms. Daughter in college--at first a 6-hour round trip, and then after we moved it was a 28-hour round trip---and various other excursions.

So, a modest estimate is that I spent perhaps four full months, possibly five (out of a seven year period) driving the van. In contrast: in seven years, I also spent about 2-1/3 years asleep. Fortunately, none of those times were spent in the van!!

These thoughts can be read in conjunction with an earlier blog post on northeastern Ohio: http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/2010/10/northeast-ohio.html  Although we owned the van for two years in Missouri, I'll probably always think of it as our Ohio car, a faithful and nicely low-maintenance vehicle that kept us safe and on time through many routines and adventures. 


1.  John Updike, "My Life in Cars," Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism (New York: Ballantine Books, 2007), 86-91.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

First Day of School!

An essay from 1995. I made only a couple changes, and kept the original present-tense, although my daughter is now a senior in college.

Beth and I drove our daughter to kindergarten the other day. It was her first day there. She had attended preschool; she already loves school. But we shed tears nonetheless.

She had a great time, of course! I did too, my first day of kindergarten.  I started at Washington School in Vandalia in the fall of 1962, and then after Christmas break, part of my class transferred to the brand-new Jefferson School, nearer my home. (When we visit Vandalia she says, in five-year-old fashion, "Dad, is that your old, old kindergarten school?" Thanks, kid!) I've been thinking about the differences and similarities between her and my kindergartens. Some things reflect the greater range of choices that are part of our modern age and the social changes of the past decades. But some things seem alike.

Fayette County, Illinois had nine grade schools. Our large Kentucky county has 83.

On my first day of school, I wore nice clothes and Fruit-of-the-Loom underwear (purchased at Vandalia's store The Model) and held tightly to a Huckleberry Hound doll. Emily wears a Disney's Pocahontas tee shirt and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers underclothes (purchased at Target) and likes her Barney doll (although she doesn't care so much for the show). Her sneakers have little lights on them. I wore Buster Browns without lights.

I watched new Hanna-Barbara cartoons on one of our four television stations. Emily watches thirty-five-year-old Hanna-Barbara cartoons (and newer ones on Nickelodeon) from among our forty stations.

Emily has instruction in Spanish and computer use once a week. I learned no Spanish, and computers (which weren't in schools) looked like this: http://www.old-computers.com/history/detail.asp?n=58&t=9

I loved Dr. Seuss and watched for his new books. Emily enjoys Dr. Seuss, too, plus the Berenstain Bears, Max and Ruby, and other series.

Few African Americans lived in Fayette County during my childhood. I had no non-white classmates and didn't think anything about it. Emily has several non-white classmates and doesn't think anything about it.

Mrs. Bannister was a wonderful teacher; so is Emily's Mrs. Smythe. How important are good teachers for a child, especially at the very beginning!

I had a half-day kindergarten. Emily has a full-day class.

Emily's obsessed with being five years old. I introduced myself to Mrs. Bannister by proudly telling her the date I was born.

Mr. Bannister, the principal at Washington, drove a Renault Dauphin in 1962. I have no idea what Emily's principal drives!

In 1962-1963, important word events included the deaths of Pope John XXIII and Marilyn Monroe, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of JFK, and others. Will Emily remember the deaths of Mickey Mantle and Jerry Garcia? The war in Bosnia? Bill Clinton's presidency? The OJ trial?

I loved to get candy at Vandalia's mom-and-pop groceries, especially McCormick's store at Third and Randolph, and the G. C. Murphy store downtown. Emily loves to get candy at Dairy Mart, a local chain.

When Mom became pregnant with me, she gave up a wonderful job at the G.C. Murphy. She enjoyed the downtown scene. "A lunch table in the Abe Lincoln Cafe," wrote Joseph Lyford in 1962, "is the scene of peppery exchanges on all varieties of subjects. One week of noontime debates covered desegregation, the cold war, bureaucratic government, the policies of Alexander Hamilton, teaching machines, Supreme Court decision, apportionment, the separation of powers, and Harvard." My mother loved being a part of all the downtown variety! Giving it up was difficult for her. My dad still worked long hours, of course. Beth and I share in Emily's care, and we've both kept our jobs, although I reorganized my career drastically in order to have more time for her. I see many dads dropping off and picking up their kids, too. Parental roles have changed.

My mom read Dr. Spock. We've read Dr. Mom.

Mom was afraid I'd be homesick during my first day at school, which was also my first time away from home. The predicable thing happened. I didn't think once of home till naptime. I'm sure Emily rarely misses us, too. The clerk at Dairy Mart told me that her (now 17-year-old) son, on his first day of kindergarten, made her wait outside while he went in alone!

I'm thinking about that last point. The popular author Robert Fulgham has written wonderful books, notably, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. His list is famous. He might have included one other thing. In kindergarten I learned: how eagerly, how early we begin to separate ourselves from our parents.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Motels on Old Highways

Motel in Flagstaff on old 66
I used to have a copy of a 1983 issue of Art in America, with Ellsworth Kelly's "Concorde Angle" on the cover. In the accompanying article, the author discussed Kelly's minimalist art and made reference to Kelly's then-recent Concorde series. I don't remember the exact quote but the author noted that Kelly sought in that series to overcome or challenge the form of the rectangle. The quote may have been "the tyranny of the rectangle," but I'll have to find the article and check.

That comment stayed with me because I wasn't sure if the goal of overcoming the rectangle was one of those high artistic concepts which Tom Wolfe lampooned in The Painted Word, or if that was an interesting insight into the way art represents or does not reality. I appreciate contemporary art more now than when I first read Wolfe's small book. But the comment came back to mind when I discovered a book recently, which has been out for a while: Lisa Mahar's American Signs: Form and Meaning on Route 66 (New York: The Monachelli Press, 2002). There is a vernacular story of overcoming the straightforward, rectangular form, in the history of motel signs.
Motel in Centralia, IL on US 51

Mahar provides the history of motel signs along Route 66 during its main years: from the late 1938, when most of the road was finally paved for its complete distance, to the 1970s when the highway began to be decertified in some parts of the country. Of course, motels along 66 are representative of those along America's many other highways. She quotes the geographer J. B. Jackson that "The beauty that we see in the vernacular is the image of our common humanity, hard work, stubborn hope, and ... love" (p. 10). She continues that a formal analysis of signs not only show us the humanity of Americans during different time period but also their values and economic realities.  (To these comments, I added a few scans of motels from my own postcard collection, some from 66 and some from U.S. 51.)

Motel south of Decatur, IL on US 51

Mahar's book is divided into periods: "Symmetry, Geometry, Rigor: 1938-1947"; "Theming and Regional Symbolism: 1945-1960"; "Abstraction and Self-Expression, 1950-1957"; "Specialization, Modularity, Segregation: 1957-1965"; "Intensive Simplicity, 1961-1970s." In the first period, signs were more straight-forward. In the post-war period, the simple geometry and efficiency of the earlier signs "no longer provided a sufficient means of differentiating one business form the next. Motel owners and signmakers responded by boldly theming their buildings and signs." (p. 77). Thus, not only did signs show more visual interest in their shapes (for instance, incorporating designs like tails and arrows), but also more imagination in their names: one saw fewer motels simply named for their owners--"Clark Motel"---and more memorable names like "Desert Hills" or "Ozark Court" or (as above, in Flagstaff) "Flamingo."

During the 1950s, one also saw many more novel signs and asymmetry, and what has been called the "googie" style related to the Space Age. Personally, I like these kinds of signs the best; during my parents' 1960s vacations, plenty of those 50s signs still beckoned travelers along highways. The signs seem quaint and nostalgic now, celebrated in picture books about Route 66 and the Lincoln Highway, and striking where they still exist.

In the later period of Route 66's existence, the 1960s and 1970s, one saw a return to more simple signs, often made of much cheaper materials than earlier signs. Part of this greater simplicity was due to cost savings, but also the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, and the accompanying feeling that we shouldn't clutter natural environments with gaudy signs and advertisements. I think the postcard above, from Decatur, Illinois, is from the 1940s but it does show the original, simpler design.

It is hard to imagine a more thorough treatment of motel signage. Mahar discusses the many geometric innovations, patterns, and styles of signs, including materials, structures, and fonts, as well as years when a popular form (like tails---as in the above postcard of the Holiday Motel in Centralia, IL---arrows, and formal similarities to the motel's architecture) were developed or dropped. She is influenced by material culturalists in the structuralist tradition, like Henry Glassie, and also Paul Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook, which "combined the science of rigorous analytic method with a faith in the power of ordinary objects to reveal larger truths" (pp. 24-25). I've always appreciated a book coauthored by my friend Keith Sculle: The Motel in American Life by John A. Jakle, Keith A. Sculle and Jefferson S. Rogers (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). For good treatments of this aspect of American culture, I'd recommend that book plus Mahar's detailed account.

It makes me wonder if there is a story of church signage over the years: any ideas?  

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Faithful Citizen Curriculum, Now Available

Shameless commerce: The Center for the Congregation in Public Life hired me last year to research and write these lessons, based on their tremendous groundwork and planning. Then the editor did an awesome job of shaping the lessons. If you're part of a church group interested in current global issues and biblical teachings about covenant and ministry, check out these lessons, which include an interview with Robert Bellah and also relevant film clips! 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Downtown Vandalia

An essay about my hometown, written in the early 1990s. My inspiration was Alfred Kazin’s beautiful little book, A Walker in the City.

Like many small midwestern towns, downtown Vandalia has a friendly feel: clean, quiet, and safe. I love to see it. The old state capitol dominates the square; businesses line the quiet streets. Bright signs just into the daytime space and color the night. Power lines zigzag above my head just higher than the cornices of the stores and their memorialized businessmen. From the street the top, second stories look unused and dry. Stop signs, railroad lights, the yellow and black R x R signs, the signs for routes 40, 51, and 185; emblems for gasoline, liquor, and soda; painted ads for Brunswick Tires and Mail Pouch tobacco — look sun-baked and familiar. I’ve always loved the way the signs look, the way the sidewalks look, the downtown architecture, the faces of townspeople. The effect is one of closeness and safety, feelings that attend memories of growing up in a small town.

Even before I come to town I can picture the sights and sounds of my childhood’s cool interiors: the lightning-bolt calligraphy of Zenith ads tacked upon a drab beige wall; bins of stereo LPs and the sound of country music from WPMB; displays of cemetery flowers at the downtown florist; rows of Maytag washers and dryers. I can picture the shelves of pharmaceuticals, beauty products, and boxes of Fruit Stripe gum inside Capps’ Drugs (“Your grandfather traded here,” read the sign outside); the wooden bins of tools inside the Greer hardware store. I can picture one bank’s “giveaway” calendars from which huge numbers were torn at the start of each day; the hard plastic squares of dates, set in holders upon the smooth counters of the bank where I had my first savings account, the wet counter of the soda fountain where I got cherry Cokes; the movie theater with its dim interior. Some of these things are still here, some are gone, and some have been sold, improved, and freshly painted. Some are antique and craft stores. No store sits vacant long.

Vandalia has grown over the years, so the neighborhoods press the city limits beyond the borders of my childhood. But like so many small towns bypassed by superhighways, Vandalia’s economy has largely been diverted by Interstate 70 to the other side of town, and the business district is quiet. “You seldom see anyone you know downtown,” says a classmate, “you see them at Wal-Mart.” Though Vandalians hope to continue revitalizing and preserving the downtown, an older “Main Street” era has passed, and I caught its end. I survey the short business blocks between Third and Sixth Streets and miss the shaded row of small, busy shops near Sixth, Dr. Mark Greer’s downtown office (inside the waiting room were, I recall, enormous mounted animal heads), and, up the block, the corner “Illinois Brokerage” store where my aunt once worked. On busy Saturday mornings it was tempting to take the parking spots reserved for the physicians who had offices in the upper stories of the block. I miss all these places because they are my childhood recollections. The present-day businesses are not inferior, except from whatever moral standpoint my own sentimentality can claim. I miss downtown signs for auto tires, shoes, the Abe Lincoln Cafe, the Shirley Shop, Merriman’s. I miss the Craycroft car lot which I passed as I crossed the Pennsy tracks with a new LP under my arm. I miss the small town clothing stores like the Model and the Hub where as a toddler I hid in the soft darkness of pant legs and dresses hanging
from the low ranks. I miss the G.C. Murphy store, just up the street, where my mother worked for many years before becoming pregnant with her only child, and of her taking me into the crowded store on Saturdays as we stood together upon the wooden floors to buy bags of Hershey’s kisses at the enormous glass counter. I miss the local Ben Franklin store, with its white and orange sign. On summer days, one of that store’s benefits was the air-conditioned interior –worth a trip to town whether you needed anything or not. Exiting into the summer heat caused one alarm. The First National Bank time-and-temperature sign reminded you, when all other conversations failed, to talk about the weather and its effect on crops.

Allen’s furniture store, the local photographer, and two pharmacies are still downtown, but two other pharmacies are gone, as is the Western Auto store and the frame building which served as Democratic headquarters during the ’64 campaign when I eagerly collected badges for “LBJ” and Illinois secretary of state Paul Powell. The “Tri City” grocery store is gone now too. “Before my time” there were several downtown markets. As we pushed our cart past familiar symbols of flour, baking goods, and hair tonic, I’d check my own list for sugary breakfast cereals, Bazooka gum, and candy cigarettes. If we saw him, we chatted with a widowed cousin of Mom’s who came there to shop. Dressed in overalls he always rested on the seats near the exit before he pushed his cart sadly to his old car.

I miss the downtown businessmen and women of my childhood; some are retired or moved, a few have died, but I welcome seeing those folk who are still just inside their doorways and who still recognize me after intervals of time. For years I came to town like a thief, hoping not to be conspicuous because I’d have to contact so many people and it would take time away from filial visits. I’ve changed my mind, and try to see several folk at least for a short time. The older I grow the more I value those people who still stand in the doorways of my private recollections.


This place could be anywhere. Vandalia is typical of midwestern towns and has even been scrutinized by an “outside” author looking for greater movements of social change. Such a community possesses a closely-knit social fabric wherein, as the historian Lewis Atherton puts it, one scarcely needs a name. (Yet a “good name” is indispensable: a good name can make even large financial transactions friendly affairs of first-name basis, and my father is proud that his own name elicits trust.) But with that closeness and rural sociality comes the inconvenience of fewer services and a claustrophobia that may set a young man dreaming. He dreams of greater opportunities beyond the small town, a different kind of human community and new friendships. So he leaves the small town and for better or worse becomes part of those greater social trends. Yet he always thinks of his hometown as a friend who will always be a friend but, since friends want the best for each other, they must live many miles separately and there is always fear that each reunion will be the last.

“He” of course is “I.” I write this neither with regret for being one of the “young people” who have fled the small towns, nor blameful at something which might have caused me to leave, nor scornful toward classmates who stayed. Yet as I raise my own child I often think of my favorite childhood places and consider how those landscapes influenced me through the subtle nuances of human geography, while feeling regret that this won’t be the place where I’ll raise her too.

(Thus, I’ve become the nostalgic nuisance I once thought my parents were. Even better, I’ve incorporated their nostalgia into mine.)

Several things downtown have changed since I was small. The Easterday Building at the corner of Sixth and Gallatin has changed hands several times. I remember inspecting the Jethro Tull and Van Morrison 8-tracks inside the store, during one of its incarnations. Across the street a sign for a downtown cafe-with the greater admonition to drink Pepsi-Cola (“Taste that beats the others cold!“) —
was painted on the side of a two-story building and dwarfed the tiny cafe itself That was a wonderful place. It had delicious cheeseburgers and good conversation among locals. The place closed when its owner died and that sign is gone now, peeled away by years of sunsets and finally painted over. Beside the cafe stand the local grain elevators, next to the ICRR tracks. I am always relieved to see them. They seem so appropriate there, so “small town” beside the clutter of railroad hardware.

The Illinois Central tracks were purchased by Vandalia in 1983, two years after the ICRR ceased all service but the Conrail thunders through on the Pennsylvania tracks. The two lines intersected at Vandalia and the depot, built in 1923 and now a restaurant, sits beside the rails. The Illinois Central saved Vandalia economically prior to the Civil War. Completed to Vandalia in 1854, the ICRR joined the Vandalia Line (established in 1847 as the western line of the Terre Haute and Indianapolis Railroad). By 1905 the Vandalia Railroad Company had combined several different lines, including the St. Louis, Vandalia, and Terre Haute R.R., and the Pennsylvania Railroad held a majority control therein. The railroads made Vandalia a popular stopover for traveling salesmen—the best for accommodations, people said, between St. Louis and Indianapolis and between Chicago and Cairo.

My parents remembered that time as exciting. They grew up on Fayette County farms and Vandalia was a bustling place to “come in” to as the “Spirit of St. Louis” rumbled into town. My railroad memories are very different, since the trains no longer stopped here. I recall how we waited and waited in the family car as the lights of the striped railroad crossing guards blinked bright red, and I’d count the passing box cars marked with the interlocking PRR symbol of the Pennsy. Other times, on foot, I liked walking the tracks and studying the numbered rail spikes, the blue insulators upon the tall power lines, the red no-left-turn lights which stood along Main Street, the disused railroad equipment and the weeds which thrived upon the graveled railroad line. A small concrete bridge forded the Pennsylvania tracks at Fourth Street. The tracks were thirty feet below and if I waited long enough I could scoop up a handful of gravel and throw rocks down upon the passing boxcars. It was great fun for a 12-year-old boy. I could recall the First Street Bridge, never replaced after an August 1962 train wreck demolished it, and the fascination I felt, as a five-year-old boy, seeing freight cars tumbled along the tracks like toys.

Gallatin Street, which is Vandalia’s “main drag” rather than the quieter Main Street, slopes upward at Sixth to an auto parts store in the old Kroger building (where teenagers used to park in its lot at night), to the sanctuary and watchful spire of the Lutheran church — “the friendly church on the hill” – and to the county courthouse. A Christmas tree has for years been annually positioned at the top of this hill, right in the middle of the street. Traffic is less hectic there than in years past. U.S. 40 once passed directly through town, entering town to the east at Gallatin Street, along with the longitudinal U.S 51, then 51 turned north at Fifth Street on its way to Lake Superior, and passed through the rest of downtown and onward to the west. Both highways were rerouted after World War II; instead of passing through downtown they turn north at Third Street, where Vandalia’s older commercial blocks begin, and the former path of 40 (or “Alternate U.S. 40″) is now the charming, winding Illinois 140 west of town. I-70 was opened locally in 1965. But even during the early-Seventies a good deal of highway traffic still came through the downtown. I recall that buses once stopped at the Hotel Eakin—a grand hotel of my parents’ generation. In old pictures the Eakin’s Ford garage stood at that corner with a “gargoyle” Mobil sign out front. My parents remember all the businesses which catered to the highway travelers, the Hotel Evans and its Abe Lincoln Cafe, the Eakin, the Star Hotel, the Wigwam Bar-B-Q (“Gas for the Car, Eats for You”), the Junction Park Motor Co. which sold Mohawk and U.S. Royal Cord Tires, and the Smith Brothers Sales and Service which sold Whippets, Willys Knights, and Nashes. Some of the buildings for these places remain but have been transformed into other kinds of
stores. The sight of buses in that section of downtown where the space created by grocery parking lots, the long side of the Easterday building, a Marathon filling station, the two-lane road, and the railroad tracks and depot provided a large open area, gave a mild impression of an invasion of the outside world–a “stranger’s path”–into the structural closeness of the little downtown. That area still is open although the rerouting of buses to a place more convenient to I-70 and the end of railroad commerce has made that area more benign.

Realizing, perhaps, that “my” Vandalia had lost some of its former importance as a trading center, I felt lonely looking down the railroad tracks into the hot, hazy distance. Yet it was a fond kind of loneliness, as a child understands such things: it was a gratitude for life plus sadness at change. If home is a road that every other road of one’s life crosses, I felt both sad and happy at the prospect of other roads.

I still feel that way. I recognize that my hometown is a mirror for me of the changes in my own life and my own mortality. Yet the older I become, the dominant feelings which I’ve kept about Vandalia are not sadness or self-pity, but gratitude and, of course, affection.


I feel a little guilty–since it betrays the triumph of marketing–by how enduring to my thoughts of home are product symbols. Not surprising, I suppose; antique dealers make a lot of money on both authentic and reproduction signs. Such things become the specifics of one’s childhood life. One of my earliest memories is that of a railroad building on Sixth Street. A billboard was attached upon its north side and the distinctive calligraphy of Coca-Cola, painted on the wall itself, protruded from behind the board. I was a tiny child when the building was razed but I recall recognizing that calligraphy, and what it stood for, and the taste. (I remember the building as huge. But the tiny grassy place where it stood reminds me that, as one grows older, childhood landscapes shrink ). Trademark symbols for Pet Milk and Ked’s shoes, Buster Browns and Hush Puppies, Kiwi shoe polish, Gold Medal flour, Sherwin-Williams’ “Cover the Earth”, Firestone tires, the Standard Oil Company’s flaming torch, Shell Oil’s shell, the Socony-Vacuum Pegasus, and the wildly cursive “GE”-all these symbols stir recollections of going downtown, holding tightly to my parents’ hands, not having a care in the world. Even beer ads–this would have horrified my non-drinking parents–caught my juvenile attention. One purchased the brands, after all, in “package stores”–there were an abundance of package stores and saloons following the late-Thirties oil boom in the county–and “package” was a sweet-sounding word, a word we used at Christmas. Beer signs hung from the old facades and flashed in dark tavern windows. I liked the ads for Falstaff best. They looked like the six-pointed U.S. highway shields that I also liked, except the Falstaff shields were misshapen, as if left on a hot car seat on a summer’s day. I also liked the Miller High Life signs, with their muted colors of red, green and gold, like an old gift in an old home.

Perhaps it is not merely the triumph of marketing which makes me remember such things, but also the fact that one’s childhood memories are a complex of rich associations both banal and sublime. The sight of anything–a business marquee, an architectural relic, a highway sign–triggers a litany of memories that have collapsed into a common experience. Spotting the wooden footbridge over the “town branch” I recall summer days when, walking along Fifth Street near our church, I’d stand upon the bridge and enjoy spitting down to the small smooth stones and lapping water. I’d hum the latest tune from The Who or The Doors or The Jefferson Airplane. I’d head up the hill past the appliance store from which Dad got Frigidaire boxes for me to play in, past the rich wood smells of the lumberyard, and I’d walk under the cool shade of the awnings on the north side of Gallatin. I’d wander to the library for a book or I’d pick up the local paper for my folks. A stroll to town seemed more productive than watching television, yet better than mowing the lawn. If I turned all the knobs on the parking meters I might even hit the jackpot.

I recall an old hotel on Fifth Street, with a group of idle, older men sitting outside in their plaid shirts, caps, and overalls. It is among my very earliest memories although I can’t say for sure if the image of overalled fellows is a later interpolation after seeing such men in a hundred small towns through which I’ve passed. At some point in time, things were slower and easier. Down the street from the shoe store that stands at the site of the hotel, City Hall stands beside the newer fire station. Once there was a room in City Hall where mothers could stop and change a baby’s diaper or rock the child to sleep. The newspaper office sits all the way down on Fifth Street on the corner. I still subscribe to the local paper–I have to know the local agricultural news, the news from neighboring communities, the names of folk who have died, the issues of local politics, the folk who have found morel mushrooms this week, the reflections of the local clergy, and the daily menus of the public schools–but something is lost now that I don’t go to town to obtain each issue. I recall minor traffic jams whenever the paper “came out” on Monday and Wednesday. The Tri-City grocery and the First National Bank had parking lots on Fifth Street that could serve for the local library and the newspaper office too. But people double-parked in front of the library as well as in front of the paper office when the paper came out. People double-parked in spite of the fact that City Hall and the police cars might have discouraged them in any other place than a small town. This row always had a friendly feel to me. In a small town, one could double-park and not fear a ticket. One knew everyone else, after all, and most everything about them.

I make more mental connections as I survey Fifth Street. My grandfather died many years before within that friendly, public space, while walking to a harness shop. I have seen pictures of the street as it
looked in 1935—the striped awnings, painted signs, and other banners which today are replaced by the plain parking lot of the First National Bank–the year Andy Stroble died of a fatal stroke. “He just caught the handle of the barbershop door and fell,” says my father. The two men had “come to town” for trading that day, as they often did. Dad still points out the locations of downtown shops they frequented: hardware stores, doctors’ offices (one of whom, “Old Doc” Morey, always gave Andy a friendly sip of whiskey), trading centers, and a tobacconist’s store with a carved Indian figure outside. Born twenty-two years later I always have wondered what fun Andy and I missed by the fact our lives did not overlap (“Everyone knew Dad, and liked him,” Dad has told me.) But once I met an “old timer” who asked me, upon hearing my name, “Are you any kin to Andy Stroble?” and I was startled to be so easily connected to a man dead these six decades But I remembered that, in a small town, you are ever connected to someone else, and time will ever linger.


Still looking around Vandalia, I think about other things. I like to see a variety of Vandalia friends during visits to Vandalia. There are people I miss seeing: Dr. Phil Cocagne, the outgoing retired physician; my close friend Pastor Arthur Cullen Bryant, a Brooklyn-raised descendent of the poet, who loved Vandalia and looked at small town mores with a dry, amused wittiness; G. V. Blythe, the school superintendent who never failed to buy any fool thing which I came peddling for scouts or school. To this day I buy anything a little kid sells, in honor of G.V. I miss Amel Oberg, my old friend from church who read voluminously and told me many stories of his rich life. I miss seeing my mother’s brother, Harold Crawford, who walked all over town for his bad heart, and another relative who liked to tickle children and claimed that boys lack a rib because of Adam.

I’ve always liked the block where my cousins Don and Hazel Jones operated a gift shop and photography studio. I bought “45s” there and got the tenth one free: Jesus Christ Superstar! . . . now a period piece. Just down the street, I generally got my hair cut at Reeves’ barbershop. I liked its electric, striped pole, its penny gum machines with Lion’s Club emblems glued to the clear globes, and its strewn collection of Field and Streams. The long mirrors on both walls sent reflections back and forth of white bottles of aftershave and scented oils. (How long would the reflections go? The old Pet Milk cans, which my parents purchased, each had a picture of a cow in a Pet Milk can, and the can on the label had a picture of a cow in a can, and so on forever. As I sat in the barber’s chair, I had time to speculate about such things.) Next door was the “beauty parlor,” which always startled me when I encountered the strong, toxic smell of “permanents” in the air. Next door to that shop was Doug’s shoe store. I liked to collect the latest promotional giveaways there. Ked’s Shoes offered kids things like little plastic whistles containing secret “spy” compartments–rivaling the devices of James Bond himself. When school was in session we kids took them to school to scare girls and teachers, whenever we weren’t already involved with catching “tobacco juice”–spitting grasshoppers or playing “Red Rover” or singing childish choruses–complete with mildly sexual references which to us were the height of daring–for the sake of being unruly.

I sometimes wonder what nuggets of lifelong happiness we gain from such hometown scenes. What lasting joy did “spy toys” give me? What confidence did I gain at age four or five when I was allowed to select my own box of cereal from a certain grocer’s comfortable shelves? What self-esteem did I gain when Dad brought me, a tiny child, to a store and introduced me as “the boss,” or when my rock collection was profiled in the local paper, or when I could walk unsupervised to town for a haircut?

Much of Vandalia remains the same. The land itself is as undulating as the Lord and the Illinoisan Glacial Drift made it: the hill at Seventh and Gallatin; the slope of the main drag as it gently tours past the filling stations of “Gasoline Alley” near the Kaskaskia River bridge; the way the patriotically named streets climb the apex of small hills and descend into respective valleys; the topographical pleasantness of the small-town churches. After growing up here I sometimes feel, not irreverently, that my very soul has been laid out in perpendicular grids by the surveyors of the Old Northwest. The neighborhoods are tree-lined and pretty with older homes of Queen Anne and Italianate style set among the Craftsman, ranch, and split-level houses. There are fences and brick barbecues in people’s backyards, canopies of bright green leaves of the town’s great trees, the dogs, cats, and playing children. When I try to imagine what these streets would look like if I were a tourist “just passing through,” I fail utterly. But when I try to do so, I initially think, This would be a pleasant place in which to grow up.


It was such a place. Except for a very short time after my marriage I’ve never lived in Vandalia as an adult and thus the town retains a special quality for me: a freedom from want, a freedom from the need to make my own living, a freedom to have a name which everyone knows. Where I live now, in the suburbs of a city, I’m a wage earner, happy in my privacy, wistfully content with my malls where I rarely see people I know.

Vandalia was by no means perfect. Like most small towns its character lay somewhere between the discord and isolation of famous fictional small towns and the virtuous agrarian ideal of Thomas Jefferson. Many times I’ve walked downtown and thought of stereotypical “small town” things from my childhood, conflicts between town and farm kids; the overheard gossip and scandal; the judgments of people. Yet the town elicits a deep sense of loyalty in many of its natives. It is a loyalty quite different from nostalgic, small-town smugness for, traditionally, it has resulted in progressiveness, civic teamwork, and Vandalians’ laudable and ongoing work of historical preservation. A few years ago most of Vandalia’s citizens gathered on Gallatin Street for a promotional photograph. The sight of 6000 people on one street gained the town national publicity.

I grew up in Vandalia during the Sixties and early Seventies. The character of the county’s agricultural economy was changing. “You starve to death on eighty acres–even on twice that much,” one farmer complained in 1962: the area’s farms were by necessity becoming vast operations needing greater capital outlay than newcomers to farming, including many sons of farmers, could afford. My grandparents–who had productive small farms near Vandalia in the early 1900s–would have had difficulty in the Sixties with comparably limited acreage. Yet the period was only slightly less “cash rich” than the late Fifties and most local people owned their homes and had sufficient income for savings and long vacations.

During that time a good amount of small town patriotism–from the war-veteran courtroom orators to the daily displays of the American flag in schoolrooms, churches, and public offices–was not abated by the deepening confusion over Vietnam. Until it was abandoned in 1969 a dress code in the public schools kept teenagers from imitating the hippies, and kids’ Sixties-era sensibilities had finally more to do with fashion and adolescent self-indulgence than social protest. Yet, when, a young man from Vandalia, the son of a local service station manager, came home from Southeast Asia in a flag-draped casket, I knew better than to believe that small towns had nothing to do with the greater world, or that patriotism was an empty gesture.

So my mind teems with the era’s contradictory images, images of American faith, heroism, and youthful rebellion. I remember deadly serious discussions in our church youth group over the issue of long hair–was it Christian? Didn’t Jesus have long hair and preach love? We practically pinned a “peace symbol” upon the Lord’s seamless robes. I recall discussions among my parents and their friends: what’s wrong with young people today?

The times were a-changing. I grew up feeling part of two eras and I was confused about both: my parents’ generation which sought to relieve their children of the troubles of their own youth, and my own generation which sought to discover its own way. Walking or riding to town, I had solitary time to think about such things. I could view the tangible, mercantile legacy of my parents’ lives while seeking a footing in my own life, about which I hadn’t a clue.


On hot, mosquito-ridden summer days of the Sixties, the 5:30 whistle blew loudly downtown. The American flag at the courthouse came down, and the neighborhoods filled with smell of barbecues and cut grass. The downtown streets remained sunny and hot long after folk went home for supper. At some point, it seems that people went home for supper and just stayed there, for the downtown streets seem so quiet now. Vandalia is larger than during my childhood years, but, like so many small towns, its economy is no longer primarily “Main Street.” I’ll drive through and recall how the streets looked on big shopping days when Gallatin Street, both ways from Fifth, became filled with tables of wares and bargain-hunting shoppers. I’ll feel wistful for those days.

Yet my own memories pale compared to those of my mother who felt wistful at Vandalia’s “glory days” even when I was small. Even though the Depression had gripped the region, Vandalia was a busy, exciting place as people “from all over” gathered on Saturday nights! Cars were bumper-to-bumper! Farmers lined up their trucks near Kelly’s elevator! The present First National Bank was the great Dieckmann Hotel of the railroad era, and it was always full; the other downtown hotels were filled with salesmen and tourists, and the streets were filled with country folk who had “come to town.” Polk Atkinson’s store at Fifth and Gallatin was the chief gathering spot on Saturday nights; the crowds were thick. All her relatives from the farms of nearby Brownstown and the Four Mile Prairie would be in town too. You’d see everyone you knew!

What accounts for the change? Alteration of styles of travel, of course, with interstate highways superseding the older roads and railroads as primary modes. Also the lesser importance of both farm-town and tourist economy and the increasingly indoor quality of community functions–the teens have their malls in nearby towns and their jobs, the adults have Wal-Mart. All these things explain some of the quietness of the business district, a quietness which, ironically, does not reflect Vandalia’s economic healthiness in other areas and its population growth.

Yet I miss the downtown of my childhood, and miss, in a manner of speaking, the downtown of my parents’ childhood “before my time.” In a why, as I look through the old local histories, I feel some sense of connection with Andy Stroble’s 1890s childhood in Vandalia: a time without the sights and sounds I have known, a time without automobiles. My feelings thus emerge as entirely contradictory since they count upon social and geographic change that makes today’s Vandalia different from “mine,” and in turn different from the town of my parents and my grandparents. In which case is change true and good?

I accept such contradictions, just as I accept the contradiction of loving deeply a small town that I’ve chosen to leave. It’s not a matter of Frost's “road not taken,” but rather Wordsworth's "Ode" to our childhood memories: 

… those first affections,
Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain light of all our day…
Uphold us, cherish, and have the power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake
To perish never…

So I become nostalgic for the place of my childhood, and wish for my own child a comparable light.

I’ve used that expression “before my time.” In a way, it has little meaning. Time is something I fight against. I hope to beat the clock which will inevitably beat me, all the while I place my hope in an Eternity which enriches and redeems time.

But space …. therein I live and remember. Little wonder that Christians, unconsciously at least, think of Heaven as a place without time but with “streets” and with earthly, affective ties made everlasting. For unless you keep a diary, you cannot date the time you bought a favorite outfit, got a great bargain, found an appliance box for your child to play in, read a library book which especially moved you, stepped up to a yellow curb, or noticed a place had “changed hands.” You won’t recall delighting in the red shape of a stop sign, a yellow railroad sign, or the number of a U.S. route, because that was the time when you were first learning words, shapes, colors, and numbers. These things have become the particulars of your earliest life, deeply part of home.


This essay originally appeared in Springhouse magazine, then in my book Journeys Home: Thoughts and Places (1995), and then my wordpress blog.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Hurt by Criticism?

Doing some studying of Buddhism for a fall course, I came upon this quotation from the Buddhist nun and author Pema Chödröm, where she explains a term used by her teacher, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, "shenpa," which can be translated "attachment" but has additional meanings.

"Here is an everyday example of shenpa. Somebody says a mean word to you and then something in you tightens—that's the shenpa. Then it starts to spiral into low self-esteem, or blaming them, or anger at them, denigrating yourself. And maybe if you have strong addictions, you just go right for your addiction to cover over the bad feeling that arose when that person said that mean word to you. This is a mean word that gets you, hooks you. Another mean word may not affect you but we're talking about where it touches that sore place— that's a shenpa. Someone criticizes you—they criticize your work, they criticize your appearance, they criticize your child— and, shenpa: almost co-arising." (Source: http://www.shambhala.org/teachers/pema/shenpa3a.php)

This quotation struck me because "attaching" one's inner well-being to the harsh words of others, at least sometimes, is a psychological and spiritual struggle for many people, including myself. I identified this personal trait many years ago and have developed several positive strategies to deal with it, if not altogether remove it.  How fun to see one's feelings explained as a common problem shared by others!

Chödröm's thoughts made me think of this quote from Touching the Holy: Ordinariness, Self-Esteem, and Friendship by Robert J. Wicks (Sorin Books, 2007). This passage has been one of my recent positive strategies to keep things in perspective when I'm blue about something. Wicks notes:

"We need to recognize that it is not 'the end of the world,' 'terribly sinful,' or 'catastrophic' if:

* Someone is angry with me;
* I made a mistake;
* Some people see some of my actions as failures;
* I don't work as hard at everything I do;
* I temporarily avoid some problem;
* Others are better at what they do than I am;
* Some people misunderstand my intentions or don't like me;
* Certain individuals don't take me seriously or may even laugh at me;
* Persons say negative things about me to my face or behind my back.

"The above instances are merely annoyances. In fact, they are good opportunities to practice clear thinking as a means of supporting self-respect....We need to recall that all religious figures, presidents, educators, business executives, philanthropists--no matter what their stature or giftedness---fail badly at times and are not accepted by everyone...

"God creates people with inherent value. So no mistake, failure, loss of image, exaggerated thinking or hurtful comments by others can take away or destroy this reality. We must stubbornly hold onto this fact of faith every day for ourselves, for others, and in gratitude for being made in God's image" (pp. 94-96).

Wick thus provides an excellent way for Christians to avoid being "hooked" by the trap of being hurt by criticism and rejection: we daily and stubbornly hold on to God's love and our God-given inherent value.

Holding onto a sense of God-given value doesn't mean we'll never make mistakes or be criticized! That may seem obvious, but it's not: too many people, including Christians, have a "my way or the highway" approach to life because of their sense of God-given value and calling!  We also may gain a sense of God-given identity but remain as thin-skinned as ever. As we hold to God's love we must be wary of other subtle, selfish mental habits.

Wick gives a clue to avoiding these habits, though, which is to hold onto our God-given value not only for ourselves but for others, too.  This, too, is a common error: people find help in Christ's love for their low self-esteem but they remain harsh and fault-finding. They didn't seem to see that other people needed a fresh, healing sense of God's love as much as they do---or they assume that was someone else's challenge.

But that sharing that God-given value---also known as sharing God's love---is in turn a way that we find healing for our own struggles. Honestly, it's a wonderful source of joy and satisfaction to see that you've tangibly helped someone via God's love!  Ephesians 4:12-16 is a good scripture in this regard:

....to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery [or their criticism!], by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

On a related note concerning people's sense of inner well-being.... Another favorite scripture is Hebrews 13:1-3, where the struggles of other people become, in a way, your own.
We all have different things that "push our buttons." I once met a person with underdeveloped arms and hands, who said he was less anxious about his disability than he was about being criticized for his poor spelling! If another person's "buttons" are not our own, or if those buttons seem odd to us, we're likely to react with dismissal: "how foolish you are to feel like that!" But sharing God's love means that God understands all difficult human feelings and wants us to be empathetic in Christ's name:

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

My Cool Haydn Ring Tone

More amateur "musicology." During our recent, weeklong visit to London, I played a little of Joseph Haydn's 100th symphony, stored on my iPad-- that is, one of Haydn's "London symphonies" (93-104). It may seem like a slightly cheesy thing to do, but I was trying to make some kind of cheerful, spiritual/aesthetic connection as we visited that city for the first time. I could've played some Purcell or Handel after we saw their graves at Westminster Abbey (plus, we saw some "Messiah" manuscripts in Dublin, where the oratorio premiered in 1741, at Trinity College's Long Room), or I could've played some favorite pieces by Elgar and Britten, who have memorials at the abbey, near the grave of Ralph Vaughan Williams. The next time we visit the city, I want to see Abbey Road studios, the site of the UFO Club, and other such places to gain a sense of more recent musical heritage.  

Having a Haydn ring tone is pretty cheesy, too (the slow movement of the 46th symphony), but since I despise the sound of a phone, it's a pleasant alternative to many ring tones. This bit of Haydn music was denied to me in the UK and Ireland because I'd neglected to check with my phone company if I had the proper service functions for overseas calls. The second movement of the Op. 76 No. 3 "Emperor" string quartet would be a pretty ring tone, too (because it's the tune of "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken," and not because it's the tune of "Deutschland Über Alles," LOL).

That quartet was one of the first CDs I ever purchased, in the late 1980s when I realized that my favorite record store in Flagstaff no longer carried LPs. I'd held out on purchasing CDs until the inevitable. During my earlier, student days, I noticed sets of the Dorati-conducted LPs of Haydn's complete symphonies at a record shop. Uncertain which set to try, I didn't purchase any.* But in Flagstaff, I was pleased to find a 6-LP set of Haydn's London symphonies--conducted by Karajan and featuring a pretty rainbow cover---at the then-new Bookman's store. For our long road trips, Beth and I liked a Haydn cassette of the famous trumpet concerto, organ concerto #1 and horn concerto #1.  So I liked Haydn from a few pieces.

I liked him enough to risk a few dollars for an Adam Fischer-conducted, 33-CD set of Haydn's 104 symphonies plus two string quartets for which woodwind parts were discovered, and a sinfonia concertante. That was a wise purchase. I love playing this music during the day when I'm home working. Four or five times over the past few years, I've made it a little "project" to begin with the first disc and play the whole set over a period of weeks.

I don't listen attentively to all the music; it's in the background as I write. But that's a way to discover favorite music as certain passages and movements stand out in my subconscious mind. Almost inevitably, I "perk up" to a slow movement or a menuetto movement: for instance, the minuets of symphonies 61, 71, and 80. My favorite movement from all the symphonies is the slow movement of 44, the "Trauer" ("Mourning") symphony. But I also enjoy the entire symphonies 6, 7, and 8--- named Morning, Midday, and Evening---as well as 16, 22 ("Philosopher"), 82 ("The Bear"), and others. Every time I do a "marathon" I discover a few favorite.  

The April 2009 issue of Gramophone, page 110, contains this comment from critic Geraint Lewis as he reflected on the 200th anniversary of Haydn's death.

"When he died in 1809, no previous composer in the entire history of music had enjoyed such universal and unanimous acclaim. So something obviously went wrong to turn him into Tovey's 'Haydn the Inaccessible' in 1932 (the bicentenary of his birth) and to become Holloway's 'well kept secret' today. With supreme irony, it was the immediate and subsequent evolution of Western music that unwittingly eclipsed and then proceeded to distort a general understanding of most of the output of its essential progenitor, while none the less retaining his essential DNA deep within his being. Whoa there, you may well be tempted to interject! But just imagine that Haydn had perished in the devastating fire which destroyed his tiny house in Eisenstadt's Klostergasse on August 2, 1767. Where then would have been the grit which gave birth to the pearl in Mozart's oyster-shell? And what would have become of young Beethoven without those pivotal 18 months in 1792-93 spent sitting at Haydn's elbow and looking over his shoulder?"

A couple years ago I subscribed to a new magazine, Listen: Life with Classical Music. In the second issue (May/June 2009), David Hurwitz writes about “Music’s Greatest Innovator.” Haydn “enlarged the expressive scope of [instrumental] music to include not just happiness and sadness in varying degrees, but also humor, irony, desolation, ambivalence--the entire gamut of emotional expression” (p. 53). Haydn’s music differs from previous music because “it “involves a uniquely musical quality (that branch of harmony called ‘tonality,’ or more commonly ‘key’) that Haydn used as the organizing principal of a large instrumental work--what later became known as ‘sonata form.’ This later term… in Haydn’s hands really means turning a piece of music into a related series of dramatic events moving through time as you listen… His themes have specific personalities or characteristics that we can hear change, evolve and interact over the course of a movement or entire work” (p. 54). Hurwitz writes that “Baroque music tends to explore one basic emotion, or ‘affect,’ at a time” (p. 54), while in Haydn, “each movement shows a whole range of contrasting feelings and seldom restricts itself to just one” (p. 55). Haydn’s discovery of musical development “put abstract music on the same footing in terms of importance as vocal music because in his hands it achieves a similar expressive depth and specificity. And this, by any measure, was a true musical revolution, something that had never been done before” (p. 56). Interestingly, because Haydn’s music was not readily available and because he did not fit the later Romanic conception of the artist, his reputation faded and he was perceived as Beethoven’s precursor (p. 56).

I want to give a shout-out to Haydn's brother, Michael, too. I recently purchased a CD set of twenty of his symphonies. When I log onto Pandora Radio, I often choose the Michael Haydn play list and enjoy most every piece. Both Joseph and Michael were associated with St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, which we were privileged to visit in 2007 when my daughter's choir toured central Europe and sang there for a noon service.

* 2013 update: I downloaded the whole Dorati set onto my iPad. It's a wonderful interpretation, and I've read reviewers who prefer Dorati's set to Fischer's. But although I enjoy the symphonies on my iPad, I still prefer Fischer's set, where the prettiness of adagio and minuet movements seem (to me, at least) to stand out a little more.

A Facebook friend said that this picture looks like a very fancy Etch-a-Sketch, LOL.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Andrew Wyeth

My wife had business in New York last spring and I came along. One afternoon I walked over to MOMA to enjoy, among other things, the special exhibit on abstract expressionism. I walked through rooms of Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, and Newman, and also enjoyed seeing art by Warhol, Lichtenstein, and others. Still looking at paintings, but also momentarily disoriented with respect to the exit, I wandered through an opening into another room, turned the corner, and realized I was standing in front of "Christina's World," which I'd forgotten was located at MOMA. What a change from the expressionists! I'd seen the photos of this painting--which is about 3 feet by 4 feet---many times, of course.

Long before I started writing about "the sense of place," I enjoyed Andrew Wyeth's art. In the early 1980s I purchased Thomas Hoving's Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth (Houghton Mifflin, 1978), in which Wyeth discusses with Hoving his Kuerner and Olsen paintings and his relationship with the two families. Interestingly, Wyeth commented that people wrote him about "Christina's World," saying that he expressed their own lives in the picture; and yet those people didn't notice that Christina was disabled. At the time I lived in a very rural area and I appreciated Wyeth's ability to artistically depict great, unspoken significance in natural scenery and everyday objects. Wyeth told about his unplanned moments of inspiration, as when his friend Karl Kuerner pulled some homemade sausage off meat hooks on the ceiling. Wyeth, noticing the ugly hooks, used them in the painting "Karl."

Now that the Borders chain is closing, my daughter and I sadly stopped by our favorite store and took advantage of sales. (We had loved our Borders in Ohio, which closed several months ago.) I noticed Anne Classen Knutson's Andrew Wyeth: Memory & Magic (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc, 2005) and purchased it. The book explained well the artistic and subconscious reasons why many of us love Wyeth's art. In her essay "Andrew Wyeth's Language of Things" (pp. 45-83), Knutson quotes the historian Wanda Corn that Wyeth's paintings frequently feature windows, vessels, ajar doors, and womb-like spaces. "In general, the objects he paints fall into three categories: still lifes in nature, vessels, and thresholds" (p. 45). Knutson writes, "Many of the natural and domestic objects that Wyeth foregrounds in his paintings have long been used in western rituals of mourning and death. Flowers, trees, and other organic matter are traditional metaphors for death and the fragility of life, and the enduring properties of granite and other rock symbolize the persistence of memory... Vessels are often used in memorials as metaphors for memory storage, and thresholds suggest transformation, a concept often explored in images of mourning. When Wyeth is not representing the transience of life, he often tries to freeze time in his paintings, just as nineteenth century postmortem photographs were sometimes placed within the face of a stopped clock" (p. 47). His paintings also depict the ephemeral quality of life: the Olsen's house in "Weatherside", for instance, seemed to be dying and disappearing (p. 68).

Little wonder that Wyeth's paintings are attractive and compelling to many of us because memory, death, mourning, and a consciousness of life's impermanence are universal! Someone could do a phenomenology of Wyeth's images and symbols via the philosopher Gaston Bachelard's "poetics of space" and the way (if I recall Bachelard's argument correctly) those images and symbols are ontologically prior to their expression.

Knutson comments that although Wyeth's paintings seem realistic, "[h]is realism is magic realism, prompted by drams and imagination rather than observed reality" (p. 47). (The first essay is by Michael R. Taylor, "Between Realism and Surrealism: The Early Work of Andrew Wyeth".) Interestingly, Wyeth's paintings are often inspired by but do not depict powerful personal memories. For instance, the painting "Indian Summer"---a nude woman, seen from behind, who is looking into darkness---was inspired by a angel figurine that was a Christmas tree ornament (p. 47). "Winter, 1946," a hill down which a boy runs awkwardly and uncertainly, has its background in the accidental death of Wyeth's father, as does "Christina's World" (pp. 58-59).

Like the latter two paintings, Wyeth often "merges" human figures with the landscape. But compared to some paintings, the Helga pictures are more consistently about vitality and rebirth rather than loss. My family and I visited the Helga exhibit at the Canton (Ohio) Museum of Art in 2004. In those drawings and paintings, Helga becomes a kind of embodiment of nature (Knutson, p. 61). But although as strong and "other" as a landscape---unlike Christina, Karl, and some others, Helga never makes eye contact with the viewer---her significance is not simply landscape. As David Kuspit puts it: in people like Christina Olson and also Wyeth's African-American models, "[A]gain and again we see Wyeth looking for signs of ego strength in people in whom one doesn't expect to find it. But Wyeth always takes a lingering, searching second glance, discovering strengths of character in everyday people--a self-respect oddly rooted in respect for the body, whatever its problems" (David Kuspit, "The Meaning of Helga," Andrew Wyeth's Helga Pictures (exhibition book), Washington, DC: International Arts & Artists, 2004, p. 9).

Wyeth died two years ago. His obituary in the New York Times gives an interesting overview of his life and career: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/17/arts/design/17wyeth.html

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

My Awesome U2 Mug

My family and I spent two weeks touring the UK and Ireland last month. What an amazing trip. One of the items I hoped to find on the trip was a kilt of my mother's family name, but alas, even locally available kilts cost over $500, too much for something I wanted as a memento rather than a clothing item. (I spared Scotland the sight of my shockingly pale legs.) We did drive through Ayrshire in Scotland, where the family originated centuries ago. (I can only go back as far as my 4-great-grandfather, who is buried in Ohio.)  I've one Irish branch of the family but I don't know from where they emigrated in the 1700s. In nearly all the places we visited, we enjoyed finding books, jewelry, and other items---and we made it through customs fine!

In a shop in Dublin, my wife and daughter bought some hoodies and teeshirts but I spotted this U2 mug, not too expensive at 6 euros. (Later in the visit, our tour guide pointed out U2's recording studios where, according to him, the group has recorded every album except "The Unforgettable Fire" and "Achtung Baby".) The mug emigrated from Dublin to St. Louis without damage, thanks to the cardboard box and also family plans about what we'd pack in checked luggage and what we'd carry on. Our cat thoughtfully jumped onto the table and sniffed the mug as I took this photo.  

A year or so ago, there was a Facebook "fad," urging people to share their 10 or 15 favorite albums.  As I recall, I wrote down a variety of favorites, some from high school (Jethro Tull's "Aqualung" and "Thick as a Brick", David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World", The Who's "Tommy", Mahavishnu Orchestra's "Birds of Fire"), some classical (Clemens Kraus' 1953 recording of Wagner's "Der Ring des Niebelungen"---although that's technically 15 LPs already---Sir Adrian Boult's recording from the same year of Vaughan Williams' "Pastoral Symphony").

I don't remember if I included U2's "The Joshua Tree", but I should have. I don't listen to it as much these days. But when my wife and I moved to Flagstaff, Arizona in 1987, the Oliver North hearings had preempted most television, and so as we rested in our lamentable Route 66 motel room (Flagstaff has developed many more nicer accommodations in the years since), the best thing to watch was MTV. The now-well-known video of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" was a treat.

The best thing about our four years in Flagstaff was the birth of our amazing daughter. My wife and I moved forward in our careers in "Flag," and I completed my doctoral dissertation. We made numerous friendships which have endured over the last twenty years.  The sound of Edge's bright guitar will always remind me those years in northern Arizona, the snow on the San Francisco Peaks, driving old 66 to work, and the shimmering aspen leaves in autumn.  

(Here's my own favorite U2 song, from an earlier album, sung by the Irish singer Luka Bloom: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjVpLI5c8_U)

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Mouse in the Book of Kells

When my family and I visited Dublin two weeks ago, we enjoyed the National Gallery of Ireland.

Among the many interesting paintings we found was Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ which, like many of the artist's work, is a moving and earthy depiction of a biblical event. (The unibrowed fellow on the right is presumed to be a self-portrait). Nearby was a painting with which I was unfamiliar or had forgotten, Velazquez's Kitchen Maid at the Supper of Emmaus. What an interesting painting: the maid is in the forefront while the meal of Jesus, Cleopas and his friend happens through the door in the background. I found this site which nicely explains the theological and ethnic significance of this work: http://underthegables.blogspot.com/2008/09/fine-arts-friday-kitchen-maid-with.html

In some future post I've love to explore the "spirituality of art": the diverse role of Orthodox iconography, Gothic church windows, and other kinds of art in spiritual reflection, and also visualization meditation in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism.

Down the street from the National Gallery is Trinity College, which houses the Book of Kells and an interesting exhibit that explains the manuscripts many features. You may know that the Book is Kells is an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels (the Vulgate as well as earlier Latin translations), plus other material. But the calligraphy and the insular illumination makes the manuscript a candidate for "Ireland's finest national treasure," as the online Catholic Encyclopedia puts it. (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08614b.htm) According to that source:

"The illustrations and ornamentation of the Book of Kells surpass that of other Insular Gospel books in extravagance and complexity. The decoration combines traditional Christian iconography with the ornate swirling motifs typical of Insular art. Figures of humans, animals and mythical beasts, together with Celtic knots and interlacing patterns in vibrant colours, enliven the manuscript's pages. Many of these minor decorative elements are imbued with Christian symbolism and so further emphasize the themes of the major illustrations...."

The manuscript has been called the "Book of Columba" after the 6th century saint (also called Columbkill) beloved in Irish and Scottish memory. One of my best friends was married in a Parma, Ohio, church named for Columbkill, so his name stands out to me whenever it's mentioned. Once attributed to the saint himself, the Book of Kells possibly was written and illustrated to honor him many years later.  The enthusiastic encyclopedia author continues:

"The most characteristic ornaments of the Book of Kells, as of other illuminated Irish of the period, are the closely coiled spirals connected with each other by a number of curves and terminating in the so-called 'trumpet pattern'. Almost equally characteristic are the zoomorphic interlacements, coloured representations of fanciful beings, or of animals, birds, horses, dogs, and grotesque, gargoyle-like figures, twisted and hooked together in intricate detail. Other frequently occurring designs are a system of geometrical weaving of ribbons plaited and knotted together, and a simpler ornamentation by means of red dotted lines. The versatility and inventive genius of the illustrator surpasses all belief. ... The artist shows a wonderful technique in designing and combining various emblems, the cross, vine, dragon, fish, and serpent. The drawing is perfection itself. It has been examined under a powerful magnifying glass for hours at a time and found to be, even in the most minute and complicated figures, without a single false or irregular line. ... Especially worthy of notice is the series of illuminated miniatures, including pictorial representations of the Evangelists and their symbols, the Blessed Virgin and the Divine Child, the temptation of Jesus, and Jesus seized by the Jews."

This site provides a few examples of some of the pages: http://www.snake.net/people/paul/kells/

I purchased the book by Bernard Meehan, The Book of Kells (Thames & Hudson, 1994). Meehan notes how many human figures are found in the manuscripts: biblical characters, soldiers, and people in different kinds of activity---including a man who seems to have drunk too much wine (p. 71). Among the many animals and birds are peacocks, symbolic of Christ because of the supposed incorruptibility of the bird's flesh (p. 57). One image that I enjoy is a cat chasing a mouse, which in turn has a piece of the host in its mouth. Meehan notes that preserving the communion bread from rodents was probably a concern at the time (pp. 44-45). This humorous image stands out to me; in a different way than the Caravaggio and Velazquez paintings, the image vividly shows how Christ reaches into even the smallest and most everyday cares of our lives.

Looking for online sources about the book, I found this very recent article about increased funding for the manuscript and its related tourism: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2011/0729/1224301563925.html

But on the subject of providence, I need to relate a story from Dublin's National Museum, too.  As the three of us looked at the many displays, my daughter said, "I wrote a paper about this!"  It was the Cross of Cong, 12th century processional cross that supposedly once held a portion of "the true cross." (http://www.fionasplace.net/AnIrishPatchwork/thecrossofcong.html) She hadn't known or had forgotten that the cross was at the National Museum.