Monday, April 28, 2008

Ignorance Can Be Better than Bliss

Maybe it's because so much of my day job requires me to be certain, and to do my research thoroughly. Maybe it's because I was beaten up and terrorized as a grade schooler because I was a know-it-all and too stupid to know how unpopular that would make me. Maybe it's that knowledge can be a very dry and dusty thing, making you more like Owl (the ultimate "dessicated scholar") and less like Pooh. Maybe it's tangled in the truth of Einstein's remark that imagination is more important than knowledge*.

But I get a major kick out of ignorance**.

As I've gotten older I've bemused and amused (and occasionally alarmed) my children by rushing off into the unknown with a gleam in my eye, a drunken tilt to my head, and laughter ready to roll out at every new delight. I adore getting lost on road trips, and the longer I'm lost the better I like it. I enjoy watching strangers in restaurants and airports, imagining what kinds of lives they might lead. I love to find a totally new subject or topic, something I'd never even considered before - not because I'm going to learn it, but because it renews my sense that there is so much that I don't know. I used to be an obnoxious beast about knowing the names of all the plants and animals around me - now I chortle with glee when I find something new, and I don't run right off for the field guides. I often prefer not to know the name or taxonomy at all. Instead, I will remember and recognize the creature again later, with the same crowing of delight, and I'll ponder what it might be related to, or what it might be called. My dearest used to carry this even further, and bestowed names of her own.

Lately when I cook or paint I find myself craving a new flavor, a new color. The kind of thing you'd find by suddenly turning off the color wheel, say somewhere between red and orange, and down some side track, probably not paved, maybe just two grooves in the grass between the trees. It would be attached to new emotions, never before felt. I imagine it as exciting as magenta and more bent and jazzed than aqua or periwinkle, but it would not be reducible to any combination of any existing hues. And with my spice rack I find myself turning it round and round, looking for something. I know just what it would be like, but it's not there. Somehow, if I keep turning it, or go the other way round, maybe it will be there, between the herbs de provence and the chervil, perhaps behind the celery salt. Sometimes I actually look at the bottles in the lesser known center of the circular rack, actually hoping that something new will be there. I want to be taken by surprise.

Maybe this is also behind my stash of unopened Dunnies. I buy one every so often and I put it in my pocket, unopened but burning a hole in my mind, until I put it away in my art supplies. I come to my art bench and feel them there, unopened and unknown. They pull on my gently. Which ones are they? I love to resist the tug and leave them unopened. It's more interesting not to know - at least for a while. Once in a while I open one - because it's fun to find out, knowing I have the luxury of an infinite number of other things that I still don't know. There will always be plenty of benign ignorance to enjoy.

What I mean is that while I love discovery, I also love to hoard troves of new things, under the cover of ignorance, until I'm ready to properly savor and delight in the first peek into the box. I guess this isn't the ignorance of the old saying about bliss - that refers to the innocent state of ignorance about something bad. I'm talking about ignorance that can be lifted at any time - an ignorance that comes with the accompanying knowledge that there is something there to be discovered, and how to do it.

* Einstein wrote, "Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand." Of course he was not embracing ignorance - he was using imagination to push back ignorance and advance understanding. Knowledge is static - imagination is active. Knowledge will always, by its nature, be in the past, a part of the already - imagination takes us somewhere new.

** I do want to separate the kind of ignorance I'm discussing here, which is an exciting kind of mental suspense, from ignorance parading as knowledge or from the poor judgment of people acting without critical knowledge. Ignorance which causes pain and mayhem is not what I'm discussing here. For example, the ignorance of the followers of Robert Mugabe is not a benign or intelligent state of mind. The ignorance of the sheep in George Orwell's Animal Farm is unwise and dangerous. The ignorance of facts that often leads to major mishaps in war is not what I'm talking about. Instead, I am referring to the lovely freshness of the unknown, and a desire to sometimes leave it that way, but only regarding things which are not urgent or important for safety, justice, the happiness of others, etc. And I believe that a delight in the unknown and unknowable, a certain playful attitude about our own mental terra incognita, provides essential perspective as we learn the things which our work and life demand us to know thoroughly. Sometimes the dark is dangerous - sometimes it's fun. We need both, and we need to know the difference.

The illustration above is a psychological self portrait (of my alter ego, Virgil Tangelo), called Virgil's Escape. A bubble bath is a great place to daydream. This painting is owned by a good friend in Tennessee.

Saturday, April 26, 2008


Sunday the red tulip hung listless from a wall vase. Monday it revealed its secret interior of brilliant red and velvet black, accented with gold. For nearly a week it held this extroverted pose, then it dropped its petals, like a faded kimono.


I was getting tomorrow's shirt from the car downstairs. I'd left everything in the hotel room except the car keys and the room key. On the way back, shirt in hand, I sensed the oddness of the very different types of keys I was using. Then I felt the nakedness of being in a strange place with no ID or anyone who knows me.

On the way to the room I had a recurring daymare and considered what might happen if I forgot my room number - or worse, if numbers ceased suddenly to make any sense. I would not be able to find my room. What if I wandered from the hotel and could not find my way back? How would anyone know who I was? Realizing that my memory was the only thing connecting me to my ID, my things, my place in the world, and realizing that memory relies on a series of cells and chemicals in my brain, it seems to fragile, so provisional. I felt a little thrill of fear.

Then I put my key in my lock, got back into my room, and shook the idea from my head with a grin and typed this. That night I had a recurring nightmare where I'm driving my car with the seat all the way reclined and my eyes tight shut. I can't figure out which pedal is the brake and which is the gas, the car is speeding up, I just know I'm coming up on a mountainous curvy stretch or into a crowded town, and my eyelids will not open and I can't make my muscles sit up. It goes on and on and I can't believe I haven't crashed or killed anyone yet.

A little stress at work lately...

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Blythewood, SC

On my last trip to Columbia, SC I couldn't get a room in town (the Masters in Augusta swamps everything for seventy miles around). So I stayed in Blythewood, about ten miles up I-77. Near the highway is the usual new concentration of boring hotels (though I was grateful for a room in one - a smoking room (yuck) because it was all they had), strip malls, fast food, etc. My favorite restaurant in town is an all-you-can-eat buffet called Southern Pig. I bet you can guess what the food is like. Even with this old style southern food, though, this part of Blythewood could be anywhere new in the U.S.

So after dinner I got in my car and went in search of old Blythewood. I found traces of it on this sign (click on it for a larger image). When I moved to NC, back in 1978, this kind of advertisement for a grocery store was the norm. Duke's Mayo - with a limit so no one would come and get twenty jars... Naturally pork was the meat mentioned, though it might also be whole fryers. My first job in NC was as a bag-boy at a local Winn Dixie - so I knew all about those adverts, and the whole aisle of fifty different kinds of self-rising flour, and the huge bottles of vinegar and picking salts and canning jars and hams in cloth bags and heaps of sweet potatoes. This IGA sign was like getting a whiff of lilacs - taking me back to a simpler time.

But Main Street turned out to connect only a handful of older buildings, and most of them were houses. A drive out into the countryside revealed that the old abandoned farms, with forty or fifty years of pines and oaks on them now, were giving way to little homesteads, built in the current style, many quite pretty in the long spring twilight with the pink of the newly sprouted oak leaves and the green of new grass. Some had big gardens, ponds, chicken barns, and looked like a modern version of an older South Carolina, but most were just a tiny patch of suburbs painted over the scrubby hills around what must once have been a tiny hamlet. I saw almost no people.

Then, on the way back, I found the biggest chunk of unchanged Blythewood. It was a long road of trailers and little houses built in the fifties and sixties. It's near the highway, running for miles north of the new strip. It appears that as the white South moves into the bland twenty first century, the black South is still stuck in the middle of the twentieth. Everything is smaller and poorer, but it has a lot more character, and I saw a lot more people out enjoying the beautiful evening and each other.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


My true love admires the beauty of the dogwoods every spring. But the more beautiful of the two came home and shared a bed with me, where two taller dogwoods reflect the morning sun on our white coverlet, and we doze and dream together.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

WCOM and Cat's Cradle Benefit

Oldest son and I went to a concert last night at Cat's Cradle in Carrboro, NC. It was a benefit concert for the local Carrboro radio station, WCOM, and seven groups played in succession, with two stages going so they could be setting one up while the other was in use. See links to the groups' websites at the end of this post. Most have a way to listen.

It was oldest's first rock concert - we've been more into folk music on a local level, and haven't gone to any big rock acts. He's a fan of Stranger Spirits, a local band, and they were the first act to play. The sheer volume was a surprise to him, I think.

I'd never been to Cat's Cradle before, though the venue has been there for as long as I can remember. The concert was interesting - some of the groups were pretty good - but...

The sound quality really is as terrible as we'd read in reviews of the place. The chief problem is that they turn up the drums to the loss of just about everything else. The playing and singing were pretty good in some of the groups - quite good, in a few - but you couldn't hear that except during the rare moments when the drums let up... We'd listened to most of the groups on the Internet before going, so we would know who we wanted to stay for, and not one group sounded right. Drums mashed out everything else, and the other sounds were wooden or muffled. It seems like it would be easy to fix at least the imbalance, and I can't believe no one has pointed it out to them - so I'm tempted to believe it's someone's misguided pet notion that the percussion needs to be that loud.

The venue is run down - looking like it's gotten a lot of tough treatment and little love or care. The essentials are all OK, and it wasn't dirty - but it's well worn and ugly. Maybe that's the atmosphere appropriate to rock - unvarnished, exposed, raw truth... It wears it's history, scars and all. That said, the atmosphere was warm and real - can't fault it there.

At the bar I got a Heineken, the first I've had in over twenty years, and it took me back in time. It seemed the right beer for the place. I laughed aloud at one point during the concert, though, seeing all the cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon in people's hands. I'd heard it was in fashion at the moment, specifically in cans. When I was in college no one would drink the stuff, even though it was the cheapest beer available, because it was so terrible. Emperor's new clothes. What if I stood in the middle of the floor and shouted, "Look! The beer has no good flavor!" There were also several rockers in the audience with long emaciated effeminate faces and makeup, reminding me of Marilyn Manson. Many of the girls were dressed in dresses with empire waists, many with polka dots, and their hair was pinned up to show their long necks and bare shoulders, but with long boots on underneath. Jane Austin as go go dancer. Blindly following the latest fad, the crowd seemed like sheep to me.

Speaking of farm animals, in the mens room I was confronted by strange urinals. They were basically an eight foot long trough of stainless steel that didn't flow too well from the ends to the central drain. Line up and pee companionably, I guess. Mooooo. Fortunately for me, with my shy kidney, it was not crowded.

That same lack of crowd was unfortunate for the radio station. Almost two thirds of the audience was non-paying - the members of the bands. People stood around looking pretty indifferent to most of the music (except when the red bearded guy from Oregon, lead singer for Harmute, who could almost carry a tune and wrote only slightly pretentious lyrics, was in the spotlight - the girls seemed to like him). The crowd applauded politely, but no one danced. The best assembled and adroitly performed music we heard was by the duo known as the Water Callers, who created a lot of sound, had good harmonies, attacked their music, and had interesting and fun lyrics - but they got less attention than anyone. More of a folk and blues sound than this crowd wanted, I think.

All in all I left with the impression that the people were there mostly to be seen, to be cool, to be admired, to be heard - but few people were genuinely interested in hearing or admiring anyone else. It seemed pretty juvenile - which surprised me, because I'm into a lot of what rock and punk and current bands are doing, I like it, and I don't feel it's childish at all. This was a more petulant crowd, though - not getting what they felt they deserved, and more into the success and attention they weren't getting. Pouty. I recall some concerts when I was in college in Greenville, NC. They were packed, the music was strong and well assembled, the singing was good, and everyone danced and jumped until we were all exhausted, wired, and nearly deaf. This had none of that positive energy. The Water Callers, seemed to be the most mature - genuinely into the music for the music, and listening more attentively than most. Stranger Spirits seemed the most relaxed and having the best time - they weren't trying to prove anything.

I think the groups were disappointed with WCOM's turnout - I suspect the station didn't do enough to get word out and a crowd in, and the bands ended up playing for each other. Seeing and interacting a little with the station crew and concert organizers (I bought a t-shirt to offer a little more support - I had to use sign language under the oppressive drums to indicate I wanted an extra large), I got the distinct impression they were introverts. Not the best people to organize a rock-a-thon or any other big "event." The poor turnout put a pall on the atmosphere, I think, which some of the bands seemed to struggle against all evening.

While I was glad my son got to see Stranger Spirits, we've agreed we need to go see them in a different place, with a different tone. And we'll probably go see the Water Callers given a chance. But mostly, I think it would be good to get him to a real rock concert, because the overarching feeling I have about last night is disappointment. And my ears aren't quite right this morning...

Acts that played last night (we stayed for the first 4):
Stranger Spirits - have opened for John Mayer - a strong band - we have all three of their albums. They know how to have fun, have some interesting lyrics, and can rock and roll. The lead singer can let loose, and knows how to push his voice. We particularly enjoyed Friday Night and Chicken Fried Rice (a real rock-n-roller we'd never heard before - one of the hi-lites of last night).
The Water Callers - Americana, Blues, Country, Acoustic - a duo that produces a lot of varied sound, with engaging lyrics and strong harmony. They attack their numbers with energy, and good technique, both vocal and acoustic. We'll be looking for their album in a few months, and other opportunities to hear them better.
Harmute - They sound a lot better on the Internet, with much quieter drums, and the lead singer stays on key better when he can hear himself, I think. The backup vocal was nonexistent last night, but it works on the website. They're really an acoustic band with thoughtful lyrics that don't work so well cranked up to rock volumes. We heard Persephone last night and I didn't even recognize it. I'd like to hear them again, when we can really hear them.
The Prayers & Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers - The lead singer bares his soul and has a good voice. They got a pretty good listen from the crowd, actually. It wasn't our sort of thing, too political for our taste, and we left during their set.
Sweater Weather - Too repetitive a style for us, I think. Love the group name, though.
Violet Vector and the Lovely Lovelies - We would have stayed to hear this band if they'd been earlier and we hadn't been so disappointed with the sound at Cat's Cradle. They've got some fun numbers, and an eclectic style mostly out of the 60s and girl groups. A bit of B-52 spirit, the Go-go's, some Chenille Sisters - all stirred around with retro organ sound underneath - listen to Can You Dig It. We may look for them elsewhere.
Crash and DJ Trizzak - Sounds to me like rap on top of a modern jazz foundation. Interesting, but not our thing at all.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Elevenses* and the Hillsborough Farmer's Market

My dearest and I went walking through the lovely old historic district of Hillsborough. We went for the last views of the dogwoods, cherries, redbuds, tulips, and fresh new green of high spring, but we also ended up talking about school politics, national politics, emotions, groundhogs, the new library and the not-free parking deck that will accompany it, summer schedules, stubbornness (and who has the most in our house), Dubai and the new tourism in the Middle East, and shoes and ships and sealing wax... It was our usual smorgasbord.

Then we went to the farmer's market, where we dropped off old egg cartons and picked up a fresh dozen free range chicken eggs and mild breakfast sausage from a young local Amish or Mennonite farmer, pound cakes, fresh rosemary and olive bread, a lilac candle, and a big jar of authentic NC bread and butter pickles. So then I had to go home to wake our oldest (he loves to sleep in on Saturdays) and have elevenses. My earlier toast and eggs were a pale imitation of what I now prepared.

The sausage was fresh, done in the Amish style, and the eggs were thick shelled and scrambled to a uniquely creamy finish. They were prepared in a little of the sausage fat, with nothing more than freshly ground pepper, and salt (from my home-made stove shaker, which began life as a jar of quince jelly made at a Trappist monastery - stories make things taste better). I finished with sliced orange and some of the bread and butter pickles (no artificial green or wax on those cucumbers - the colors were the muted ones of old fashioned canning). Served on my favorite old mismatched plate with a big glass of milk. Ahhh. Might be skipping lunch...

* Elevenses - a word we first encountered in Lord of the Rings, and thought was made up for Hobbits. Not so.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Faces of Pansies

I was struck by the "all-over-veins" of the top left pansy, and then I decided to find some others in the house at the moment.

These were taken with my new tiny Pentax Optio E40 (a gift from work for years of service). It plays a sweet little flute trill when it opens, which always makes me smile. I'm looking forward to having a camera with me on every business trip.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Duke Forest - Korstian Division

It's been a long time since we used to hike Duke Forest regularly. We watched whole pine forests grow up and be harvested, which makes me feel my age.

Late Sunday afternoon we walked from Mt Sinai Rd, along the Concrete Bridge Road, to the turn to the Wooden Bridge Road. At the bridge we left the road for the foot trails along New Hope Creek. I took photos of the creek, but having fly fished and canoed, I'm always frustrated by the views from the banks because I know all the best views of a creek or small river are from the surface of the water.

Along the trail I found this wonderful patch of "that." At least we've called it "that" for the last twenty five years, seeing it often in spring, without any flowers to aid in identification, and then never noticing it again when it might be blooming. So it remains a mystery, with its variably lobed leaves. If you DO know what it is, please don't disenchant me by providing the name - we're quite happy greeting it every spring with laughter and, "Look - it's that."

Then there were the American beech trees - glorious in their brand new foliage. This one had leaves bursting from spots along the trunk almost to the ground, it seemed so full of itself. Few trees seem as richly alive to me, in leaf or in winter, as beeches.

On the way in and out there was one section that Duke timbered since the last time we came. Broom sedge had grown up to hide the scars of harvesting, and Duke had done a cleaner job than many lumber companies do. What struck awe in me was the seed trees left behind to repopulate the plot. They were so TALL. I snapped numerous pictures of this slope, the road, and these tall silent trees. I couldn't get enough of them, both going in and coming back out.

I hated loblolly pines (pinus taeda) when I first moved to NC back in 1978. They seemed so scrappy and irregular to my northern sensibilities. How did I miss their tall grace, their stately quiet, especially at the edges of the day? Over the years I've grown to love them. There is even one near our house that I have told many of my troubles to, over the years, while making a stone staircase going down the opposite slope.

Then I realized that I had painted these trees and this hillside this winter - it was truly them, though I'd never seen them before, in another case of my paintings happening backwards in time. It was the second in a series with self portrait crow characters - Winter.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Angels in the Architecture

Abstract 16 went under the palette knife (actually I used a brush). It got acrylic dashed and splashed on it. Then I contemplated the results and my inner desires. I put more blue on and the face of the blue angel appeared. Over several days I worked on it and the columns around it, drawing the image out of the chatter. Then it seemed obvious to put a seraph on the right, and I added the third column, as well. Above is Abstract 16, upside down, which is how it was oriented (but with paint all over it) when the angel emerged. Below is the painting it became. Click on the images for closer looks.

I looked at hundreds of photos of angels, in art and other places, and was distressed at how much we prettify them. In actuality few of us, even as we perhaps feel guarded by angels, would care to encounter one. Their first words to humans are frequently, "Be not afraid," or, "Get up off the ground." They're not particularly patient with us (witness Zecharias struck dumb after doubting the word of Gabriel). The children in Fatima were first approached by an angel, who eventually told them he was the guardian of Portugal; their adult word, later in life, to describe how it felt in the angel's presence was, "Annihilation." They're good, if they're working for God - but they're not for the faint of heart. They may be dazzlingly beautiful, but they're not pretty. I can see how people through the ages might have worshiped them. A mistake, but understandable.

So I painted them as powers, as otherworldly, even as they appear with what humans would recognize as faces.

Long before I finished this I realized I'd call it Angels in the Architecture. You can find that lovely phrase in an unlikely spot - here. Listen carefully (it's near the end) - and if you know who this is, the weird thing is who appears to be singing (and who doesn't).

This one and The Storm will take their turn in place of Cats and Koi and Autumn in the frames over my desk at work.

All painting images referenced above are Copyright (c) 2007 or 2008 by Steve Emery.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Storm

When I blew up I had a watercolor abstract on my table. It was going nowhere. So I got out white acrylic paint and a bigger brush and whacked it. Then I finally threw paint around (literally) and tore at it with a piece of loose prismacolor pencil lead (neon orange), creating color in some places and sgraffito in others. Here's what it looked like after that - I didn't even recall taking a photo until I found this one this morning while downloading others.

During my Intensive Journaling, over the following week, I broke through into a different place with my painting, and tackled something different (for me). This is the result. The image emerged from the paint (you can see his arm in the photo above) and the emotions inside me. I threw more paint around, acrylic and watercolor, doing more gestural painting than usual and letting paint be paint. Then the refining took the last few evenings, pushing shapes and colors around to create a bit more depth, to concentrate the focus, and to coordinate the movement.

I intend my next pieces to push as far as I can reach. I want to paint my dreams.

And I need to tackle faces. They scare me, because I'm pretty sure the first ones won't come out. So what? As Bob Rankin would say, "You've got to get over that fear right now."

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Monkey Bars

This was mostly done before the running stopped. It's a bit timid, but I like some things about it. I finished it yesterday mostly to clear the board - I need it for something more daring (for me). Paper's already stretched and drying as I write this.

Sibs, kids, nieces and nephews were climbing on a "jungle gym" (I grew up call it Monkey Bars) during our Christmas family get-together. This is a composite of four photos I took, in order to get the grouping I wanted. I didn't like the bars everywhere - so I left them out. I also took liberties with clothing - no one was really wearing a red skirt, and it wasn't really a tee-shirt kind of day, though that's the feeling I wanted.

The next piece I completed (and will post later this week) is pretty different, for me. And Abstract 16 is going under an acrylic barrage this afternoon, so the blog post will be the only trace left of it under that title. It looked more like underpainting to me, anyway.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

John Rosenthal and the Ninth Ward

Take a moment and experience the Ninth Ward through the eyes and camera of John Rosenthal.

"I wanted the photographs to say “See, this was here, and that was there.” For a photographer, that seemed a simple enough and legitimate task. After all, the moment we allow ourselves to forget the intimate details of a Somewhere, Donald Trump and his ilk, waiting in the wings, will happily make an entrance and build us a new and improved Nowhere—monolithic, impersonal, luxurious, and white." John Rosenthal on photographing the Ninth Ward.

See what was here, and what was there - go look.

I was powerfully moved by some of these shots, especially Church of Living God2, which made me weep. I'm wide open right now, doing the depth journaling exercises of Ira Progoff in an attempt to break up the hardened ground of my emotions, and this photo pierced me. Tears are a good idea - they help free my own deeper reasons to grieve as I deal belatedly with the onset of my Dad's cancer - the shock and fear catching me only now, months later, when I finally quit running because my family called me to stop the damage.

I've written less emotionally about John Rosenthal's photographs before, here.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Where Am I

Voices finally reaching me
shouting stop;
bright flashing in my face.

Can't hear my own ragged breath,
standing deaf,
only listening for pursuing feet,
only hearing the wind of flight.

That wind is hot on my skin,
in my hair like a brush fire,
roaring over me like a storm.

My past is burning.

A crazed animal,
too shocked to sense
the damage to my home,
I've run for months
into this space beyond the trees
where out of breath,
out of time,
the burning leaves of autumn
consume the spring.

I'll fall and rise from this spot.
I'll run no more.