In the Wind. . .

July 3, 2019

Momentous mementos

In the 2016 movie Sully, Tom Hanks plays Chesley Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who secured a spot in popular and aviation history by safely landing Flight 1549 on the Hudson River in January 2009. In the film and especially in the cockpit voice recordings of the actual flight, Sully was the epitome of cool. As air traffic controllers were frantically suggesting alternative emergency landings at LaGuardia and Teterboro airports, Sully simply said, “We’re gonna be on the Hudson.” All 155 people on board the plane survived, and the episode quickly became known as “The Miracle on the Hudson.” We live in lower Manhattan, and every time I drive on the Henry Hudson Parkway I think of that grand river as Sully’s landing strip.

The movie dramatizes the incident from taxi to take off to splash down, then moves into the chaotic aftermath of the crash. The action shifts back to the hour or so before the flight, and we are introduced to several of the passengers. An aging father and his two sons race to catch the flight they almost missed. A young mother apologizes for her infant son to the friendly man sitting next to her. “He likes to throw everything.” “That’s okay, I like to catch everything.” An elderly woman in a wheelchair and her middle-aged daughter argue in a gift shop. She wants to buy a souvenir for a family member, and paws over the kitschy New York knick-knacks. “Mom, you were never this generous to us when we were kids.” “How ’bout a snow-globe?” “Mom, here’s one.” “Okay, I’ll buy you a [much smaller] snow-globe, too.”

I have a snow-globe. It is my talisman, bringing inspiration and good luck to my superstitious mind. It contains the statue of Pythagoras that stands at the end of the breakwater at the entrance to the harbor of the town of Samos on the Island of Samos in the Greek Aegean Sea. It shows Pythagoras standing erect with index finger pointed skyward forming the long side of a right triangle with a leaning beam forming the hypotenuse (a2 + b2 = c2). The majesty diminishes when you see the great man’s finger is pointing at a compact fluorescent bulb. We sailed into that harbor in 2014, and I was thrilled to see my hero welcoming us, the grandfather of music who discovered and defined the overtone series, and whose observations are the root of the tuning of western music. There is a 4,700-foot mountain on Samos that rarely receives snow, and never mind that it never snows on the plain or near the coast of the island, I brought that snow-globe home.

Many of us have mementos on our desks, bureaus, mantles. A shell from a beach in Florida, a pocketknife that was a gift from a friend who died too young, a lucky silver dollar, a ticket stub from a World Series game. In the winter, I sometimes grab a shackle from a box of miscellaneous sailboat parts and keep it in my pocket, just to reassure myself that winter will end sometime, and that we will be back on the water.

One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.

Donald Hall (1928–2018) was a prolific writer of both poetry and prose. In his late forties, he married his former student, the poet Jane Kenyon, and moved to the house in rural New Hampshire where his grandmother had been born. The family called it Eagle Pond. Hall had spent summers there as a kid, helping his grandfather with farming chores, an experience that fostered and nurtured his life-long fascination with the concept of work. He had given up the security of a tenured position at the University of Michigan to settle in New Hampshire with nothing to do but write. There he felt freedom in his work, though his method of writing poetry often involved as many as four hundred drafts.

Wendy is his literary executor, and it was with trepidation that we drove to the ancient house in New Hampshire for his estate sale. One of Hall’s books bears the title, String Too Short to be Saved. That could have been the motto of the sale. At first glance, it seemed there were thousands of glass ashtrays. There were cups from the New York World’s Fair, loose gears from a bicycle, rental car receipts from trips forty years ago, at least four empty bottles labeled “Paine’s Celery Compound,”1 and oh yes, the autograph score of Three Donald Hall Songs by William Bolcom. It was as if no one threw anything away for five generations. The ten-year-old daughter of an English teacher from a neighboring private prep school was dying of boredom while her father searched the house hoping to find the box of short pieces of string.

A wood block plane, a hammer, and a carpenter’s ruler told of the industrious rural farmer keeping things working. A pitchfork, a wood wheelbarrow with spoke wheels, a shovel, a rake all hint at the back-breaking work of farming when the most powerful machine was a horse. New Hampshire is known as the Granite State,2 and any farmland is reclaimed from wild forest. It is legend that the easiest crop to grow there is rocks.

And there was an Estey reed organ, a dilapidated mess that once must have filled the parlor with the strains of hymns played by Donald’s grandmother. It is just under seventy miles from Eagle Pond to the Estey factories in Brattleboro, Vermont, and Google Maps™ tells me that it would take around twenty-three hours to walk. I suppose that is about the speed of the horse or ox-drawn cart that carried it to Eagle Pond. When it stopped working, or the last family member who could play it passed away, it was granted a spot in the shed where it could waste away.

We are given a touching look into Hall’s life-long connection with the farm at Eagle Pond in his book Life Work (Beacon Press 1993), where he chronicles how the family’s needs were met through the daily, weekly, seasonal, and annual repetition of essential chores. He tells of spending summers helping his grandfather with those chores, cutting and raking hay by hand, hauling it to the barn on a horse-drawn cart, and pitching up overhead to the loft. When he moved to Eagle Pond, he practiced his life’s work in the shadow of the example set by the generations that preceded him surrounded by the artifacts of the working farm.

The selfie generation

Do you remember when photography was expensive? We would come home from a vacation or study trip with thirty or forty rolls of film to drop off at the drug store. Six days and fifty bucks later, you would have a bundle of snapshots, your mementos from the trip. Today, we snap away at our heart’s delight. Doesn’t cost a dime, unless you consider that in any airplane, any coffee shop, any movie theater, or any concert hall, every single person has a thousand-dollar phone in his pocket.

In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at the Met is a current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It closes on October 4, 2020, so you have plenty of time to get there. It features sumptuous iridescent portraits by the likes of Jan Steen, Vermeer, and Rembrandt, portraits carefully crafted in the seventeenth century. Rather than stepping into a drug store photo booth, a Burgomaster posed by a table for days so his image could be immortalized, a memento of his impression of his own grandeur. A Young Man and Woman in an Inn, their cheeks boozy rosy, are gazing sloppily at something that is amusing them, but while it shows a moment in time, the image took days, weeks, maybe months to complete—a moment set in four-hundred-year-old paint that is so vivid you imagine you can smell their horrible breath. You can tell by the color of their teeth.

Many of these paintings, especially the portraits, were commissioned by the people seen in the images, people who were prepared to spend plenty of money to immortalize themselves. Others were the whim of the artist, capturing a bucolic scene, a frantic scene, or a way of life. Still Life with Lobster and Fruit gives us an idea of how food was prepared in a seventeenth-century kitchen. As far as I know, there is no actual record of what Moses looked like, but in Abraham Bloemaert’s painting, Moses Striking the Rock, the prophet points his scantily draped rear end to the viewer, pretty much concealing his miraculous production of water for the Israelites. I suppose that Bloemaert was being careful not to assume too much about what Moses was actually like as a person, because if I were asked to name the painting without knowing the intended subject, I would call it Barebreasted Muscle-Woman with Pitcher.

Now that I have your attention, you can view all these images at www.metmuseum.org. Click on “Exhibitions,” then “Current Exhibitions,” and scroll down to “In Praise of Painting.” Then choose “Exhibition Objects.” Each image is a memento of a moment, of a personality, or of an allegorical story.

The shorthand of emotion

Leo Tolstoy wrote, “Music is the shorthand of emotion.” Leopold Stokowski wrote, “A painter paints pictures on canvas, but musicians paint their pictures on silence.”

When you are standing in a gallery viewing a painting or sculpture, you are seeing exactly what the artist left behind. The physical touch of a human being is present in the brush strokes. You marvel that Rembrandt himself, the very man with the bumpy nose, made that little squiggle four hundred years ago. You can tell something about the person or the person’s mood by the brush strokes. Look closely at a square inch of a painting to see how the paint was applied, how coarse were the bristles, whether the strokes were straight or not. Then step back and study that square inch in context to see how the texture catches the light, how it affects the square inches around it, and how it contributes to the complete work of art.

Claude Monet revolutionized painting by substituting little dabs of paint with broader brushstrokes, leaving an impression of a scene. Does that make him a dabbler? Between 1890 and 1891, Monet painted twenty-five scenes of stacks of hay in fields around his home in Giverny. Each Meules was a study in light at different times of day, in different weather. Each evokes the other senses, the whiff of drying hay, the whistling of wind across an open field. People must really love Monet’s dabbling. As I write, my iPhone chirps the news that one of those canvasses sold this afternoon for $110,700,000, a record high price for an impressionist painting. How’s that for making hay while the sun shines?

If a painting was like a musical composition, you would not see the image, but you would be schooled in reading the code, the language that unlocks the artwork. You would complete an equation and an artwork would appear. If the viewers of art were like musicians, each viewer would perceive a painting differently, according to the level of his skill. If you were a beginning viewer, you would see a fuzzy image with muddled colors, because you did not have the chops to see it properly.

The same concept can apply to preparing food. A beginning cook can read a recipe, assemble the ingredients, and produce a gooey or burned shadow of a favorite dish. An experienced cook has a starting sense of what happens when you apply heat to a piece of meat or a vegetable, and the skillful chef understands the chemistry and the artistry of making food sing.

Last weekend, on our way to the estate sale, Wendy and I stayed at a country inn whose website made it clear that they were very proud of their restaurant. Rightly so. The drinks were made with the best stuff, blended beautifully, and served in attractive glassware. The wine was nicely chosen and delicious. Each dish was made with the best ingredients, their flavors artfully combined. The servers were friendly and attentive to just the right degree, knowing not to interrupt the nicer moments of our conversations, but being sure we were having a nice time.

The beginning musician can make a weak stab at a monumental musical masterpiece. I have heard countless performances in which the players were not equal to the music. But when the players are up to it, magical things happen. They read the code and interpret the language to get the notes right, but there is so much more to it than that. Like the chef who adds a slurp of wine to a sauté at exactly the right moment and exactly the right temperature to make flames dance over the stove and the dish come alive, so the musician adds a dash of alchemy by blending tempo, intonation, inflection, and energy into a momentary creation that has life and produces energy.

“. . . Musicians paint their pictures on silence.” During a concert at Symphony Hall in Boston on May 5, 2019, the Handel and Haydn Society performed Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music (K. 477). Conductor Harry Christophers brought the piece to a steady measured conclusion, the final chord especially alive with a crescendo followed by decrescendo and held his arms aloft to maintain the capture of the audience’s attention. Several rich seconds of tense silence passed, the kind of silence that makes me fight back tears, and clear as a bell, a young boy’s voice piped up an expressive “Wow!” With the innocence of a child, he spoke that single word that expressed the feelings of everyone present, and the audience broke into laughter and applause.

Boston’s classical radio station, WCRB, was broadcasting the concert so the moment was captured and immortalized. Executives of the Handel and Haydn Society spread the word that they wished to find the “Wow Child” to give him an opportunity to meet the conductor, and sure enough, the word spread to the family of nine-year-old Ronan Mattin whose grandfather Stephen had taken him to the concert. International news outlets quoted Ronan’s father saying that Ronan is on the autism scale and “expresses himself differently,” that he is a huge fan of good music, and that his parents and especially his grandfather take him regularly to high-end performances. David Snead, president of the Handel and Haydn Society, said that it was one of the most wonderful moments he had ever experienced in a concert hall.

You can hear this delightful moment yourself. Enter “Mozart wow child” in any search engine and you will find dozens of stories and the live recording. Ronan Mattin’s “wow” had inflections similar to the final chord that so moved him.

Remember the decoder rings that came as prizes in boxes of Cracker Jack™? When you play a piece of music you are deciphering a code. You have learned the language of the printed score, the recipe for the instant creation of an artwork. The composer has left that for you as a memento. You put on your secret ring, say the magic words, and poof. You have a work of art. When you finish, no one will ever hear the same work of art. You will never do it the same way, nor will anyone else.

Wow.

Notes

1. “A true nerve tonic, an active alterative, a reliable laxative and diuretic. It restores strength, renews vitality, purifies the blood, regulates the kidneys, liver, and bowels. Price $1.00.”

2. A popular bumper sticker says, “Don’t take New Hampshire for Granite.”