"To be too certain of anything is the beginning of bigotry." -- Novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Is It Art, or Not?

     We're driving out to Wisconsin to visit my daughter. On the way we stopped in Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan.

     The university is famous for many things -- well, yes, a 108,000-capacity football stadium, the largest in the U. S. -- but also site of a 1960 speech given by John F. Kennedy proposing the idea for the Peace Corps. Students from Michigan were largely responsible for getting the Peace Corps off the ground.

     The highlight of our stay was a walk around the art museum, where several large sculptures are displayed on the grounds. But as we wandered through campus I began to think: Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between the artworks and the more mundane, functional facilities like benches and lightposts. They all kind of look alike!

     So what about you? Can you tell which of the following are photos of art, and which are pictures of the everyday things you might find on any college campus, or any city street? For example, is this a photo of a construction site, or a genuine piece of sculpture?

     Okay, that's an easy one. It's a sculpture called Orion by Mark di Suvero, named after the famed hunter of Greek mythology. What about this next one. 

      It's not officially art, although it is an artfully arranged line of bicycle racks. How about this one . . . does it say something about the fate of the world?


     Well, whether it does or doesn't, it's not art. It's just a rock. But the next one must be art, right?

     Yes! It's a cast bronze called Ternary Marker, by Beverly Pepper, who honed her vision of shape and form during her years working in a factory. What about this next one -- a sculpture, or just a group of old tree trunks?

     It's another cast bronze called Angry Neptune, by Michele Oka Doner, a group meant to evoke ancient totems engaged in an abstract conversation. But if that's art, what is this?

     This is art, in a way -- it's architecture. But it's not part of the exhibit, just a close-up of a building on campus. But this next one is obviously art, right, a monumental piece signifying the absurdity of mankind?

     Nope. It's actually a bench. But, no fooling, this next one is art . . . 

     It's called Requiem by Erwin Binder and was commissioned by Bob Hope to recall an eternal flame meant to memorialize fallen heroes. And finally . . . 

     This one is called Daedalus, by Charles Ginnever, inspired by the Greek god who escaped from prison by making wings out of wax. He warned his son Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, but of course he did and so his wings melted and he fell to his death. The sculpture is meant to represent wings in flight. Can you see it?

     I don't mean to be disrespectful to art -- it's actually pretty impressive stuff. But hey, what's wrong with having a little fun. You might also check out a previous piece I did called Is This Art? which features some high-minded art, as well as low-minded pipes and poles, from the art museum in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Sometimes I Think I'm a Liberal ...

     I believe in helping the poor, the weak, the unlucky, the unrepresented. I think immigration is good for America. I believe in equal rights, and I believe we all have a responsibility to others, whether it's paying our fair share of taxes, treating others with kindness and respect, being careful about our impact on the environment. I guess that makes me a liberal.

     So why is it that I find liberals so annoying? Liberal politicians are sanctimonious. Liberal newscasters try to make us feel guilty. Liberal academics look down their noses at us.

     Meanwhile, many liberals -- many of the liberals I know anyway -- preach integration and equal access but live in wealthy, segregated suburbs with exclusionary zoning codes. They rail against a border wall, but live behind walls of their own in gated communities. They preach environmentalism, but drive SUVs and jet around the world visiting ecotourism hot spots before these spots are ruined by the very people who are going there.

     That's why sometimes I think I'm actually not a liberal, but a conservative. After all, I believe in law and order. I'm certainly not in favor of defunding police. But wait . . . if you're a law-and-order conservative, doesn't it make sense to put a lid on all the guns circulating around the country? I don't want the criminals, the mentally ill, and all the impulsive and angry Americans to be so well-armed that they pose a threat to us every time we visit Chicago or Baltimore or set foot on a school campus.

     I also believe in environmentalism and conservation. Conservation. It's right there in the word . . .  conservative! 

     I believe in personal responsibility. People should take care of themselves as best they can, and not be looking for free handouts from the government or anyone else. But that means higher estate taxes, because that's just a free handout from someone else, and higher taxes on investments and unearned income, because -- there again, it's right there in the word unearned. You didn't earn it so why should you be able to keep it all? It should be shared to support the social structures that allow us all to thrive in America -- schools, roads, parks, childcare, a decent social safety net.

     It also means that people should be responsible for their own health and have medical insurance -- rather than palming off their medical bills on hardworking Americans who have insurance through their employment. Therefore we should have a system that everyone can access -- through the government if necessary -- and also be required to join in and pay up . . . or pay up if they can, but if not at least people are not flooding emergency rooms and costing taxpayers billions of extra dollars. In other words, Medicare for all, or some such equivalent. So is Medicare for all conservative, or liberal? I'm not sure I know.

     I also believe in freedom. Freedom of speech, for sure ("cancel culture" is more than annoying, it's dangerous), but more particularly, the freedom to live out our lives the way we want, as long as we're not hurting anyone else. I live in Pennsylvania which is famous for the Amish. They have an unusual lifestyle. But they have the freedom in America to thrive and prosper in the way they see fit. So can, and should, Mormons, Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics, Hasidic Jews, men, women, gays, lesbians, the non-binary . . . and aging white dudes like myself.

     May we all be treated with respect, without harassment or discrimination, and be able to go to any restaurant we want, sit wherever we want, live wherever we want, and know that our children and grandchildren will be able to go to a decent school, breathe clean air, drink potable water, and not be burdened by the mountains of debt, or the ancient prejudices, left behind by their parents.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Past Is Present

     My wife and I took a trip up to New York City to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We wanted to see the exhibit of Winslow Homer paintings.

     I honestly didn't know much about Winslow Homer, except for his famous painting called "The Gulf Stream" which depicts a black man stranded in a boat surrounded by sharks.

     Homer, born in Boston in 1836, began his artistic career as a magazine illustrator, then went on to paint powerful scenes from the Civil War. He was able to capture the emotional struggle of both the enslaved people . . . 

"Near Andersonville" (1865-66) -- Black woman in a door
with Confederate soldiers in the background

     . . . as well as common soldiers on both sides of the battlefield.

"Prisoners from the Front" (1866) -- Union Army officer with four captured Confederates

     After the war he turned his artistic eye to the struggles found at sea. He moved to the Maine coast in 1883 and spent most of the rest of his life (he died in 1910) chronicling the energy, the wrath and the threat of the ocean.

"The Life Line" (1884) -- Inspired by a rescue Homer witnessed in Atlantic City, NJ

     He also voyaged down to southern climes, painting scenes in Bermuda, the Bahamas and Key West, Florida.

"Flower Garden and Bungalow" (1899) -- Watercolor of picturesque landscape in Bermuda

     But he always returned to the sea for his most inspired works.

"The Gulf Stream" (1899) -- Black man faces sharks in turbulent waters

     We ourselves were inspired by Manhattan -- first from the roof of the museum . . . 

View from Metropolitan Museum, looking south down Central Park and the East Side

     ... and then by the view from our hotel in Jersey City, NJ, just an eight-minute ferry ride across the Hudson River from downtown Manhattan.

Looking at Manhattan from our hotel restaurant where we had brunch

     Note to fellow travelers. The Winslow Homer exhibit is open until the end of July, alongside all the other artistic and historical offerings at the Metropolitan Museum. (Masks are required.)

     Yes, prices have gone up. We were shocked by how much we had to pay for our hotel room (over $300) . . . which is why we stayed only one night, in Jersey City, because prices are higher still if you stay in Manhattan. (We saw a report while we were there:  median rent for an apartment in Manhattan is now $4,000 per month.)

     We've already booked a trip to Wisconsin, to see my daughter. Fortunately, we made reservations a while ago, when prices were still semi-reasonable. But (gulp!) we're still going to have to pay over $5 a gallon for the gasoline to get there.

     It seems if you're going to travel these days, you really, really have to want to go there. We're glad we were able to visit New York City. But we're probably not going back anytime soon. We've got credit card bills to pay!

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Are You As Healthy As Your Parents Were?

     Do you think you're as healthy as your parents were at your age?

     More than one study suggests not.

    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the average life expectancy has been increasing ever since 1900, dipping only slightly during the two world wars. But for now, at least, the progress has stopped. Life expectancy at birth peaked in 2014 at 78.9 years. For the next couple of years life expectancy actually inched down, to 78.7.

     Then Covid hit. In 2020 life expectancy dropped to 77.2, and in 2021 it dipped again to 76.6.

     The more relevant number for us, however, might be average life expectancy at age 65 -- which of course is much higher since we've already survived plenty of slings and arrows. So for people who are now 65, you on average can expect to live to 84.6.

     Of course, we're not all the same. If you're a 65-year-old man you've only got 18 more years. If you're lucky enough to be a woman you can expect to live another 21 years.

     There are a lot of individual differences. Unfortunately, a lot of us are not as healthy as we could be. In my own case, I'm healthier than my mother, who got breast cancer in her 60s (but lived to age 89), but I'm not as healthy as my dad who was perfectly fine until just a few months before he died at age 91.

     A RAND study from 2019 focused on a group of people age 54 - 60 (who are now age 57 - 63). Comparing measurements to a similar study from 1992 the survey found "particularly large increases in rates of obesity, diabetes and, perhaps surprisingly, self-reported pain levels." The study also found more people in this age group had difficulty performing routine daily activities. The conclusion: on average we are not as healthy as our parents were at our age.

     The silver lining to the health cloud: fewer people are smoking compared to 1992. Only 8% of people age 65 or over currently smoke cigarettes.

     Obesity seems to present the biggest health issue. The share of older people with class II obesity, defined as a BMI of over 35, tripled from 5% to 15% between 1992 and 2016. And class II obesity brings on a full plate of health issues, including "very high risk level of diabetes."
     The study also showed a growing health disparity based on education and income. The middle class is getting sicker, but the poor are getting sicker even faster. Part of the disparity is behavioral. In general, poorer people smoke more, drink more, take more drugs, are more obese. Part of the disparity is situational. Poorer people tend to live in more dangerous neighborhoods; they suffer more environmental problems such as smog and tainted water; they have less access to doctors and medical facilities.

     The surprising conclusion, however, is that despite a temporary longevity setback from Covid, and a persistent problem from obesity, diabetes and heart disease, as well as other factors such as depression, accidents and crime, the experts expect our average longevity to once again start to increase.

     Largely this is due to advances in science and medicine. Or as the study puts it, "It may be that the health of individuals in their late 50s declined over time due to increasing levels of unhealthy behavior, but that continually improving medical technology has offset these behaviors."

     In other words, the medical establishment is saving us from ourselves. And Medicare is paying for it. Thank you all! But after reading all these reports, I'm beginning to worry that we'll end up living for a long time, but our lives will turn out to be an endless series of aches and pains and medical problems. Who wants to live to be 90 if we have to guzzle drugs with nasty side-effects and keep getting poked with painful procedures that are embarrassing and humiliating?

     So I'm beginning to think that maybe I should shed a few pounds. (My BMI clocks in at 27, which tips me into the "overweight" category -- you can calculate your own BMI at this BMI calculator.) Maybe I should make a point of getting more exercise on a more consistent basis. And maybe I should do what my mother always told me -- lay off the sweets and eat my vegetables.