Monday, November 21, 2011

Servant Hipness

When my hometown turned 175 years old, the local celebrations and commemorations included a history book, "Vandalia Remembered: Illinois' Second Capital Celebrates 175 Years, 1819-1994," edited by Charles W. Mills and others. One article I love (pp. 33-34) is "From the Depression to 1993" by local attorney Robert Burnside, whom (like Charles) I knew. He describes the many businesses in downtown Vandalia during the 1930s and afterward, commenting that "if any one thing stands out as being the single crucial element of the tradition [from the Depression to the present] it is the decline, and almost complete disappearance, of the sole proprietor, the entrepreneur, the self-made man and the 'mom and pop' operation" (pp. 33). These people were the "backbone of the community" not only economically but in their civic and religious participation (p. 34).

My dad worked for one of these entrepreneurs, Dale Hasler, a petroleum distributor, for about sixteen years. And both my parents were friends with many of the people Bob named in his article. Vandalia's business district is quieter today, but some entrepreneurs and small businesses remain---even a few from this earlier period. I'm sad that many of the businesses are gone by now; the downtown economic vitality of my hometown has followed the trends of other small towns, with larger companies (one in particular) meeting retail needs that small businesses once fulfilled. I like to take a broad view, deny that I'm "self-made," and acknowledge that these numerous local businesspeople were in different ways essential for my growing-up years.

I thought of Bob Burnside's article when I read a recent op-ed piece by William Deresiewicz, "Generation Sell," in the Nov. 13, 2011 New York Times. ( The whole article is well worth reading; I'm leaving out interesting points. The author, trying to discover the basic "idea of life" of our contemporary youth culture, noted that "[p]revious  youth cultures — beatniks, hippies, punks, slackers — could be characterized by two related things: the emotion or affect they valorized and the social form they envisioned." The Millennial Generation's basic paradigm, he thinks, is "the salesman."

"Consider the other side of the equation, the Millennials’ characteristic social form. Here’s what I see around me, in the city and the culture: food carts, 20-somethings selling wallets made from recycled plastic bags, boutique pickle companies, techie start-ups, Kickstarter, urban-farming supply stores and bottled water that wants to save the planet.

"Today’s ideal social form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator as such; it’s the small business. Every artistic or moral aspiration — music, food, good works, what have you — is expressed in those terms."

Deresiewicz goes on to say that today's "hipness" is social entrepreneurship (with Steve Jobs as a major cultural hero). A side to that is the "commerical personality": polite (compared to the rage of the punks, for instance, or the conscious counterculturalism of the beatniks and hippies), good to others, without overt rebellion against anything. If we're nasty, it's in our anonymous posts on web sites rather than anything in our own names. In our own names, we're pleasant and positive---as salespeople are.

"We’re all selling something today, because even if we aren’t literally selling something (though thanks to the Internet as well as the entrepreneurial ideal, more and more of us are), we’re always selling ourselves. We use social media to create a product — to create a brand — and the product is us. We treat ourselves like little businesses, something to be managed and promoted."

I'm thinking about all this. "Branding" isn't a new idea; I've heard the term for several years. The idea, if not the term, has been common in church professional literature, where churches and their pastors are enjoined to discover that congregation's vision and ministry opportunities they can do well in their community. I've also read discussions of how colleges and universities brand themselves in order to attract students, and certainly anyone of us use who uses the internet has to think about this. (For my own professional networking, I've thought about how to "brand" myself and realized I couldn't: I've five or six professional interests that I don't want to narrow to just one or two. So I simply identify those interests and know that my generalist approach is most true to my calling and myself.)

But---thinking about Deresiewicz's analysis---is the popular kind of "branding" a bastardized version of an earlier business model when people created businesses with much higher stakes than hipness and self-identity: surviving a depression, making a faithful living, and giving back to the community?  Also: isn't branding (paradoxically, since it involves modern communication technology) a kind of nostalgia for simpler times (the way some shopping mall shops have store fronts that mimic the ornate facades of many small-town commercial buildings)?

I also wonder..... if you're going to brand yourself, are you thereby also "giving back" and growing spiritually?  Does your "brand" draw you closer to God?  Does it help and serve others?  I'm not being snarky; the answer may very well be "yes," as you seek God's will for your life.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Symphonic Sonata Form

My 300th post on this blog!  Good to devote it to music..... A few weeks ago, I purchased a copy of BBC Music Magazine (Nov. 2011), for the article on Maurice Durufle, whose compositions (so few of them, sadly) are so lovely. My daughter's choir performed the Quatre Motets and the Requiem. 

But relaxing with this magazine, I also enjoyed the article, "What is a Symphony?" by Terry Blain. I learned something that any beginning music student would know but I didn't: symphonies are often structured by the "sonata form." "Basic sonata form [is] presenting contrasting musical themes in an exposition, comparing, contrasting, and extending them in a development, then renewing and summarising them in a recapitulation" (p. 34). Blain writes that Haydn and Mozart were pioneers in the development of this form. The form is so useful because of its adaptability: the ability to use the form to contrast, confront, and dialogue among different musical themes (p. 34).

Obviously different composers have different symphonic styles. Mahler wanted the symphony to "embrace everything," "like the world," while Sibelius (to whom Mahler described this desire) wrote more concentrated symphonies, though no less emotional and profound (pp. 32-33). Of course, different composers of symphonies have been able to use the symphony to express many things like tragedy (Tchaikovsky), comedy (Mozart), political dissent (Shostakovich), "muscular metaphysics"  (Beethoven), and others (p. 34). But some composers don't use the sonata form: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies is Blain's example. Recently I purchased Arvo Pärt's fourth symphony; I need to read the liner notes and learn what resources that innovative composer used.  Surely it's not the sonata form. 

Last night, my wife Beth and I attended a St. Louis Symphony concert featuring Bruckner's seventh. This reviewer, Chuck Lavazzi, notes that Bruckner's symphonies are often described in terms of Gothic cathedrals, "they so strongly suggest a connection between the material and ethereal plans---great blocks of sound alternating with moments of otherworldly beauty"  ( And thus we see one of the most important of life's contrasts---the spiritual and material---expressed in a symphony.

Discovering Ed Ruscha

A few months ago, I saw a feature on "CBS Sunday Morning" about the artist Ed Ruscha. I was surprised I hadn't noticed his art before---my own fault. I'd love to have a print of paintings like "Standard Station, Amarillo Texas" (1963) or "The Canyons" (1979) or the graphite "Twentysix Gasoline Stations" (1964) (or the photographic book), or the painting "Noise, Pencil, Broken Pencil, Cheap Western" (1963), and others, and I want to look for his art at the MoMA when we're in New York next spring.

Born in 1937, Ruscha (pronounced roo-SHAY) is an LA-based artist, photographer, filmmaker, and printmaker. As this article from a recent exhibition in Stockholm indicates, Ruscha has been identified with both pop art and conceptual art, and his work has commonalities with surrealism and Dada, but, according to this article, Ruscha's art isn't wholly identifiable with a particular movement(  He is a contemporary of artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein, was influenced by artists like Jasper Johns and Edward Hopper, and was featured in very early exhibitions of pop art. His West Coast subject matter makes him an interesting artist in the pop and conceptual art traditions.

After the "Sunday Morning" report I ordered the heavy retrospective history, Ed Ruscha by Richard D. Marshall (New York: Phaidon Press, Inc., 2003). Leafing through the book, I loved the quality of his art explained in the above Moderna Museet article, "Ruscha’s overarching theme is words and their constantly shifting relationships with context and message. In all his paintings there are tensions and frictions at play: between foreground and background, between text and image, and between how words look and what they mean."

Unfortunately, the print in Marshall's Ruscha is small, and gray rather than black---a strain for this middle-aged person---so I'm still dipping into the text as best as I can while enjoying the many reproductions. Meanwhile, I enjoyed an article by Laura Cumming ( Cumming notes how Ruscha "painted words out of context, giving them a non-verbal life of their own as figures in a landscape; and he pictured words as images." "His humour is perennial but it coexists with profundity."

I found another article, an interview with Ruscha by Martin Gayford ( Gaylord writes that Ruscha's work "gives one the feeling of being on an endless road through an immense landscape, interrupted by puzzling messages on billboards, at once folksy and mysterious, a journey through a wide space the only features of which are logos, gas stations and parking lots. Joan Didion – another literary admirer – wrote that Ruscha’s works 'are distillations, the thing compressed to its most pure essence'. They are also sometimes surprisingly funny, in a laconic, Marcel Duchamp-meets-Clint Eastwood sort of way. Ruscha invented an entire artistic genre – one of several in his repertoire – that consists of nothing but words and phrases, floating in vaguely defined space: All You Can Eat, ½ Starved, ½ Crocked, ½ Insane, Chicken Rivets, Girls Girls Girls, Defective Silencer Units, Etc, and – especially ironic in the current circumstances – I Don’t Want No Retro Spective, a pastel from 1979."

As with these other referenced articles, that whole essay and interview are worth reading, with many more insights and discussions that I can summarize. I was interested that Ruscha's friend, with whom he drove Route 66 to California in the 1950s, was the musician Mason Williams, whose pieces "Classical Gas" and "Baroque-a-Nova" have been favorites of mine for over forty years.

In still another article,
, the author writes this: "Born and raised Catholic, Ruscha readily admits to the influence of religion in his work. He is also aware of the centuries-old tradition of religious imagery in which light beams have been used to represent divine presence. But his work makes no claims for a particular moral position or spiritual attitude." As I dig into the Marshall text in the days ahead, this theme is something I'd like to learn more about.

"Picnic" (1955)

A post from last year.... Recently I chanced upon the 1955 movie "Picnic" on the TCM network. The movie is based on the William Inge play and stars William Holden, Kim Novak, Betty Field, Susan Strasberg, Cliff Robertson (his first movie), Rosalind Russell, and Arthur O'Connell. The hominess of the title intrigued me. The story concerns a handsome, useless drifter who upsets people and relationships in a small town during the big Labor Day festivities. Although I'd never seen the movie, I must've flipped past a TV production many years ago, because the scene where Rosalind Russell's character pitifully begs Arthur O'Connell's to marry her was familiar. William Holden, 37 in 1955, plays a man in his twenties, while the two young women (Novak and Strasberg) are more believably close to their characters' ages. Holden is handsome and "hot," and a fine actor, and I wonder if he was cast partly because of his star power.
I enjoyed the story and the various characters' interrelationships. One of my classmates says this movie was his mother's favorite. The film concludes with a theme that I can never find touching: the lonely young woman who falls for, and then runs away to locate the handsome but no good stranger who chanced into her life. I always think the heroine is being naive; even if the guy has a good heart, her love will not magically reform him. Mrs. Potts, the kindly old woman who holds the beginning and end of the film together, does realize that we all have to learn through difficult experience, whether in love or other aspects of life. In that respect, rather than in an imagined but unlikely happy-ever-after, the movie's conclusion is heartwarming.

I fell in love with the small town surroundings depicted in the movie. The railroad cars and tracks, with grain elevators in the background, is a happy sight to me, having grown up close to the Illinois Central tracks. So is the way the neighborhood yards are not so sharply separated as in the suburbs where I now live; yards have sheds and small barns that blend the village and the rural, just as back porches blend indoors and outdoors. Mrs. Potts has a 55-gallon metal drum in her backyard for burning trash, exactly as my parents had in our yard. You'd have to enjoy old signs to notice it, but Mr. Potts had the top portion of a yellow stop sign attached to her shed, perhaps to cover a hole in the wall, just as my grandma used a metal Grapette Soda sign to patch the wall of her chicken house. Behind the houses is a little alley, not a street, just the parallel path that cars and trucks would make across grass-covered land. All these sights were familiar sights as I was growing up, not only in my hometown but in small communities which my parents and I visited on weekend trips, checking on relatives.

According to online movie data sources, "Picnic" was shot in five Kansas towns, Halstead, Hutchinson, Nickerson, Salina, and Sterling. William Holden's character arrives (in a box car) in the railroad yard in Salina and, although supposedly in the same town, soon breezes into a neighborhood in Nickerson. That's the magic of movies, as they say.

I've been happy in the places I've lived, but part of me will always miss the kind of rural/small town ambiance depicted in "Picnic." As the movie stresses, this kind of world isn't all that innocent. But "geographically" it's very comforting, always worth revisiting.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Anniversary of a Door

Thoughts from last year... My grandma Crawford lived in an old farmhouse in rural Brownstown, Illinois. Her father, Albert Pilcher, built the house in 1907, but he died only three years later. I'm not sure when Grandma and Grandpa moved to the house, or when Grandma's mother remarried and moved away. My mother was born at the house in 1919. My own association with the house began, I assume, when I was a baby in the late 1950s and continued until the house burned in the 1970s.

I also don't remember when I discovered the tiny letters and numbers on the outside of the kitchen's back door: C. E. Pilcher, Nov. 17, 1907. These were in a lighter color than the door's dark stain. Grandma said that Cassius E. Pilcher was a housepainter, and her father's cousin. I was pretty young, but the old designation was fascinating to me, something unobtrusive and nearly forgotten, like a building's cornerstone.

In fact, I did nearly forget the discovery. For years I puzzled about November 17; it seemed to be a significant day but I couldn't remember. Someone's birthday? Elton John's third album? Finally I remembered the old door.

This coming Monday is November 22. For those of a particular age, we will always associate that day with John F. Kennedy, because we remember that day in 1963. Some anniversaries are much more personal, and so ephemeral they nearly fade from thought until some lucky spark of memory brings them back.

Friday, November 11, 2011

My Cousin Lewis

From last year .... Here's a Veterans Day post: from Frederick M. Hanes, Fayette County [Illinois] in the World War, 1922, pp. 58 and 60.

"Lewis Calvin Crawford, son of Calvin and Rosetta Crawford, was born October 24, 1905 [i.e., 1895] near Brownstown where he lived until he entered the service of his country May 8, 1917. He enlisted at Mattoon and was sent to Jefferson Barracks. Later he was transferred to a camp in Texas and thence to Jersey City, N. J., from where he crossed as a first class private of CO. K., 16th Infantry.

"His father having died several years previous, many a young man in his position would have pleaded that he must remain with his lonely mother. But whenever he spoke of going he would remark, 'Mother, if I did not go and help win our freedom I would feel that I had no right to live here. I could not face the boys as they came home who had fought for me.'

"Lewis was a Bible reader and before going expressed the desire to go across and if possible see the country where the Saviour lived on earth. On the way across however, he contracted measles. Pneumonia followed. He was taken to Base Hospital No. 1, St. Naziarre, France where he died July 15, 1917, the first of the sons of Fayette county to give his life on French soil. His comrades buried him in a French cemetery but later removed the body to an American cemetery. At the request of his relatives the body was again disinterred and set back to his homeland where it was laid to rest in Pilcher cemetery in the family lot.

"When the American Legion was organized in Fayette County the Vandalia Post was named The Crawford-Hale Post in honor of Private Crawford and Sergt. Edward B. Hale, Fayette County's first two sons to give their lives overseas for American ideals.

"Private Crawford was a member of the M. W. A. His mother recalls his favorite hymn which has taken on a new and grander meaning:

"I will follow Thee my Saviour,
Whereso'er my lot shall be:
Where Thou goest I will follow,
Yes, my Lord, I'll follow Thee."

Lewis was my great-grandfather John Crawford's first cousin. In fact, Lewis and his parents are buried very close to my grandparents and great-grandparents. Coincidentally, the Crawford-Hale post began on the same day my mother was born: August 2, 1919.