MAXING OUT


River Landscape with Ferry, by Salomon van Ruysdael, 1649. This is a new acquisition of the National Art Gallery, in Washington, DC.

Did you ever face a problem that seemed to expand until it touched every aspect of your life? How did you cope with it? At the moment, I am doing research for a story on credit card debt. I have just added a post on credit card debt, loan applications to Twitter, soliciting stories about loan applications. I would like to hear from people whose credit card debt had a serious impact on their lives. How did they manage? How did credit card debt affect the quality of their lives?
The story is in the seminal stage. Its crux is what happens when a society geared towards consumerism does exactly what it is programmed to do then crashes. More on this later.
Dutch painter Salomon van Ruysdael ( 1603-167t) lived during the Dutch Golden Age. Rampant affluence, courtesy of the West India Company spice trade, allowed greater social mobility New riches . Flush with profits from the Indies, the nouveaux riches elevated consumerism to a quasi-religious position. Paintings from that period reflect an affluent society represented by burgers bedecked in lace and jewels. Landscapes are tranquil and idyllic, still life paintings give an illusion of unending riches, posh brick houses are “as solid as ennui.” Their iconic stability seems to speak for the entrenched power of Dutch bankers. But did poverty and debt lurk behind these fortress-like facades? I know that Holland occasionally exported its poorer citizens to the Indies. One of my remote ancestors ended up in the Caribbean along with several underprivileged fellow Jews–not all Sephardim did brilliantly in the spice and sugar trade.
Not all Americans got rich during our Golden Age. I wonder who will paint the America of the Eighties when abundance seem eternal. Will their art last beyond this century? Who will pain the anguish of those who were lured by the sirens of acquisitiveness only to see that prosperity was just a bubble on the verge of bursting? These are the people flocking to banks, begging for loans. How do they face the schadenfreunde of whose circumstances allow them to weather the crisis comfortably? The economy will rebound, according to predictions. By next year, the job market will supposedly improve. Credit card companies will no longer have as much latitude as previously. But at the heart of the problems is the American attitude towards ownership–I own, therefore I am. Will that have changed?

HOMELY MATTERS


Butter rum cake with strawberries
BUTTER RUM CAKE AND KOSHER PIG
My friend John has a strange predilection for the likeness of pigs. So much so that his collection of pig-like objects has grown larger than his artistic sensitivity can abide. Consequently, he has issued a moratorium on gifts of a swinish nature, which leaves me in a quandary. What am I to do with the tea towels I embroidered with a sweetly retro piggie munching on a candy cane and the porcine Fred Astaire doing the soft shoe routine? Who uses tea towels anyway? They are a nostalgic remnant of a time when women whiled away long winters at hearth. No one whiles rime away anymore. In Little Macondo, most folks I know rush about doing the things they used to do when they were part of an affluent society. Repose is for those have no jobs, own no homes, have no social position to maintain. Being middle and upper middle class is full time chore hereabouts. It does not exclude the sorrows common to the proletariat, but it obscures lesser worries such as the water bill, the cost of gas, ailing lawn mowers. Middle class people do not worry. They delegate. They do not do manual labour. They outsource. For all that, they have little free time and if they want a little chunk of nostalgia, such as tea towels, they head to Anthropologie.
I know the ways of the middle class from personal experience. For the past few years I have been learning a simpler lifestyle that marginalises me more than being an immigrant ever did. Living simply has not yet caught on in Little Macondo as the cool thing to do. I am patient. I embroider tea towels using saccharine patterns from yesteryear because they straddle the line that separates the hideous from the homely cute. I also bake, on occasion though I understand that what is truly middle class is to get one’s baked goods from a little Jamaican baker no one else has heard about. In a pinch, there is Trader’s Joe. Me, I bake my own cakes. The one above is a plain yellow cake drizzled with a glaze made from melted butter, rum and confectioner’s sugar. Add strawberries Romanoff and it’s pig heaven. Neither tea towels nor cakes make me into a superior person, but they are certainly less labour intensive than clinging to the social ladder.

IN THE MIDST OF DEATH, IN THE MIDST OF LIFE


IN THE MIDST OF DEATH, IN THE MIDST OF LIFE

Hello Ryiad, Rabat, Barbastro, Jerusalem, Teheran, Mega, Rouen, Lisbon and Pawpaw! It is rainy and cool in little Macondo by the Potomac. Roses, irises, oriental poppies, spirea and sweet rocket are blooming, asparagus is ready to harvest and it is time to plant more strawberries. I am about to have a slice of freshly baked corn cheese bread and a cup of espresso. How about you? I am assuming that you also have breakfast, wherever you live and I hope that you have plenty to feed yourself and your family, plus a few extra pennies to blow on books, a box of chocolate, flowers, a bottle of good wine, music, movies, and whatever you like and your religious beliefs permit. Out there, in the big world of realpolitik, things are not so pretty. People are killing each other in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Darfur, and Sri Lanka, among other places.

I suspect that some of you might think that killing is not such a bad thing. Some of you might believe that you go boom-boom and you fly straight up to where your seventy virgins await you. That is your thing. I confess that I do not understand it. It is not that I am that terribly afraid of dying. I just happen to have seen enough death to gather that it is dadblasted final. Besides, there a few features this side of paradise that I would like to enjoy a little longer.
Being on the sunny side of sixty, I belong to a group whose peers seem to be departing life all too often. Two of mine died within the lat couple of months. A couple of days ago I helped bury a good friend. Actually, some of us who love her scattered her ashes in the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, below Harpers Ferry. It was a sunny afternoon. The sky was as clear as the best aquamarine. Gold flecks shone on the cool river water and and on the hills, the old trees had the achingly beautiful green of new saplings. A gentle breeze turne the surface of the water to a froth of lace. A Pawlonia tree showered us with it royal blue flowers.
After we had scattered ashes and roses into the river, a pair of wild ducks made its leisurely way to the shore. A swallowtail butterfly, old quaint old buildings of the town seemed to huddle together arund gardens where e pink clematis yellow roses bloomed. In the hour long trip home we saw more wildlife than we usually see in a week. Baby turtles sunned themselves on a log on the Potomac. A trio of groundogs played in the grass. Deer watched us from the woods. A great blue heron fed in the shallows. Mourning doves sang in the wheat fields. All about us there were reminders that in the midst of death there is unquenchable life.
I think that you out there in Rabat, Teheran, Rouen, Jerusalem, and I, in this little town in West Virginia are good neighbours. We have more in common than you imagine. We hve known love, loss and we have learnt to carry our burden of grief with dignity. We know that some of that grief could have been avoided if only we could have chosen wise leaders. As it is, we have to do goes on when our best as individuals. We cannot determine the results of the talks between Obama and Netanyahu. We cannot prevail upon Ahmadinejad to stop rattling his nucler saber and bringing the world closer to complete disaster. We cannot stop floods in Brazil, nor keep the swine flu from spreading globally. What we can do is to respect each other. Life is short. We can do nothing better than to honor our shared humanity and tend the seeds of peace as carefully we tend our gardens.

GARDEN FOR THE PEOPLE



Cottage garden design is a populist concept. It requires no vast tracts of land, no armies of gardeners and none of the expenditures associated with the prim landscapes of baronial holdings. True cottage gardens have no formal design. It is a style that evolved from of working people’s hunger for beauty and their need to supplement meager diets with homegrown vegetables. Since land ownership was limited to the elites, workers were limited to the exiguous space immediately next to their homes. There they planted edible crops intermingled with flowering plants culled from the woods. This kind of intensive gardening helps minimise labor since it suppress weeds that might compete with flowers and vegetables for water and nutrients.
There those who consider British artist and landscape architect Gertrude Jekyll the quintessential cottage gardener and it is true that in her writing she referred to cottage gardens as one of her source of inspiration, but so were the principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement–design unity, joy in labour, regionalism and individualism.
I don’t know about design unity since these very words contradict everything I have learnt about cottage gardens. As for joy in labour, I have little to say, what with the gnats on full battle mode, heat and humidity making a mockery of last week’s cool interlude. For all that, the gardens of West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle evidence plenty of and individualism. While they evolved from the British model, the vigor of native flora alone would preclude duplication of, say, a garden in Yorkshire. In my little garden, Virginia creeper, mayapple, wild ginger and solomon’s seal are a rampant challenge to most imports. Even so, I have been able to grow flowers traditionally planted in cottage gardens–roses, columbines, dianthus, daisies, hollyhocks. Mid-May, they come into their own as shown in the photos above.