"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Fashion As Art–The Ensemble Of Color, Line, Culture, And History

Amanda Barkley was a slave to fashion, or at least so said her mother who, a very practical and parsimonious woman, could not see the point in ten pairs of shoes and as many socks, halters, camisoles, and jumpers.  She had grown up in France where even the wives of merchants and store clerks always looked good in their well-tailored clothes, chosen with taste, kept for years and accessorized, hemmed, and trimmed to keep up with the latest trends.  If they were not exactly in vogue, they kept up the universal French standards of couture, patrimony, and culture.

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A Frenchwoman didn’t need more than one or two outfits which she wore on special occasions; but even in her more common workaday dress she was always well turned out, attractive, and very respectable.

So Amanda’s mother came by her criticism honestly.  Her daughter’s love of fashion went far beyond modest good taste.  It wasn’t so much the clothes themselves but the number of them that offended her sensibilities. 

Yet Amanda persisted in her interest in fashion. She grilled her mother about women’s shoes – what’s the purpose of high heels? Why don’t men wear them? Where do flats and slippers fit in? – and Mrs. Barkley , as attentive to ‘teaching moments’ as any parent, but worn down by her daughter’s bullheaded drive, decided to answer as fully and correctly as she could but hoped that such dry, disinterested and matter-of-fact responses might through her daughter off the path.  

Amanda so loved to look great and had such a unique sense of style that she indeed spent more time considering what to wear than most girls.  Deciding on an ensemble, arranging and balancing elements with an eye to color, line, and statement took time and effort.  She was a trend-setter for every age group, the arbiter of fashion from fifth grade on. 

For some reason she became fascinated with clerical fashion.  She thought the Pope in his finest regalia was the coolest thing on earth, and was surprised that this high fashion had remained so long cloistered in the Vatican.

If she were a man, she thought, she would dress like the Pope.  “Look at all that gold embroidery”, she exclaimed to her mother, “and his little red slippers.”  It turns out that Benedict had an eye for style and design, and loved the traditional red shoes of the great Popes of history which, unfortunately, had fallen out of fashion. He restored the use of the red papal shoes, which were provided by his personal cobbler, Adriano Stefanelli from Novara.  To add a flourish and personal touch to the shoes, in 2008 Benedict restored the use of the white damask silk Paschal mozzetta  which was previously worn with white silk slippers.

No one except Benedict and the gay priests in his holy entourage paid any attention to the red shoes or the white silk mozzetta, and Amanda Barkley was one of the very few outside the Vatican to give the Pope kudos for fashion; and the older she got and the more sophisticated she became, the more she appreciated the very cool fashion sense of the Catholic Church.

The entire Vatican was tops in Amanda’s book.  She loved the profuse elegance of the robes of the cardinals of the Inquisition, and imagined Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, the Grand Inquisitor watching Spaniards being dismembered on the rack in his flowing red robes.

She appreciated the more modest and temperate dress of modern day cardinals and archbishops whose elegant simplicity exuded power and authority without vengeance or Biblical injunction.

“Notice the continuing red motif”, she wrote in her Harvard PhD dissertation, “its quiet assertiveness, and reserved authority.  Note the clerical collar, absent in the paintings of The Grand Inquisitor, as a muted sign of Church authority and a Papal willingness to conjoin his bishops with parish priests. Black takes center stage, although set off by the discipline of the red cummerbund, and the elegant red Edwardian sleeve buttons exude the aristocracy of the Church.”

After studying fashion history, trying her own hand at classic design, and then seduced by the anachronistic, flamboyant, and dramatic dress of the Vatican, she discovered San Francisco fashion - a mix of black, gay, Latino, and lesbian styles unique to the city. Her particular talent was an instinctive sense of what would look good from one street culture matched with another and an ability to confect creations that were never entirely derivative; attractive but never tricked out; slightly ironic but never predictably so; and above all graceful.

The eclectic, thrift shop style was just underway when she arrived on the West Coast.  Designers had begun to add pieces of an ensemble in unusual ways.  Pieces that never had ever gone together were now matched.  The old palette of complementary colors was discarded as were patterns.  Now plaids and stripes, checks and frills; hems and embroidery; broad swatches and minute detail all went together.  Retro, archived, ironic, and passé clothes, jewelry, and accessories were all in.  Sexy and folk went together.  High heels and funk; rural cracker and Broadway.

This new style was ground-breaking because it relied so much on irony, history, and cross-cultural trends.  Amanda, however, not only had no difficulty negotiating this new world of eclectic fashion; but she developed her own unique ‘art of accretion’.  It was one thing to design from with only line, color, fabric, and balance  another to cobble together fashion statements; but another altogether to understand the nature of fashion itself. 

Braque and Duchamp disassembled what they saw, then reassembled to reflect the past but within a new, personal, but singularly cultural dimension.  Amanda never intended to deconstruct the fashion of Dior, Balmain, and St. Laurent; nor to reject traditionalism out of hand, but to incorporate their good taste and incomparable sense of color, line, and dimension.

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Amanda never considered herself an artist – she had been too traditionally educated to think of art in terms other than Sargent, Whistler, and Homer or the interpretive work of Kiefer and Bacon.  Yet what is art if not an expression of personal vision, zeitgeist, culture, and history?

Her mother reluctantly admitted that perhaps she had misjudged and misunderstood her young daughter.  Mrs. Barkley, in addition to her French parsimony, had had a strong dose of classicism at the Sorbonne, and was responsible for this narrow view of art. 

To her credit Amanda took her mother’s classicism seriously but politely put the rest aside.  Her maturity as a a fashion artist attested to the strength of her creative vision, her social and historical insights, and her ability not only to see beyond cultural boundaries and limitations but to borrow, amend, match, and complement them.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Practical Man–Life In The Toolshed With Little Room For Anything Else

There must be people who are both practical and insightful, who can wrestle with existential questions and with water damage, kitchen remodeling, grouting, and insulation, and who are just as at home in the tool shed as in the library; but they are few and far between.

There are many ways that personality is expressed – parsimony, joie de vivre, worry, libertinage, compulsive, reclusive, spiritual, industrious, devil-may-care, boisterous, or lazy – and the dramatic differences in point of view, preference, outlook, and worldview are significant.

Political philosophy alone is a deal-breaker when it comes to friendship.  How can a man who believes in a progressively good human evolution every share a table with one who believes man has been stuck in territorial, aggressive, self-interested time warp for millennia? 

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How can a woman with a profound spiritual faith, a belief in the Second Coming, salvation, and The End of Days possibly be close friends with a radical atheist? An environmentalist with a que sera sera laissez-faire nihilist?

The purpose of the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator Test is supposedly to help employees understand the very different motivations, behavior, and attitudes of their colleagues.  By understanding that everyone is hardwired into personal categories (introvert-extrovert, thinking-feeling, judging-perceiving, etc.); and that collegiality, cooperation, and collaboration can only be achieved by valuing personality difference, productivity can be increased.

Of course Myers-Briggs allows for no bleeding between categories, no elisions or transference.  One either is or is not ISTJ; but the designers of the test were not after fine distinctions in personality and character.  They could have designed a moral chart which reflects the wide human spectrum in approach to others; or focused more on the subtleties of emotional attachment, ambition, self-confidence, and dependency; but they chose to be down-to-earth, management- and results-oriented.

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Of all these distinctions from political philosophy to work-based attitudes to moral judgment to plain old orneriness, pickiness, and jealousy, perhaps the most important one is missing – practicality vs insight.

The liberal arts are in decline at most universities.  Most students prefer courses in genetic engineering, computer science, artificial intelligence, or rocketry to Blake, Milton, Kant, and Cotton Mather.  This is where the rate of return is greatest; and considering the $50k+annual cost at competitive private universities, heavy debt loads, and parental expectations, the choice is clear.

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While students at less competitive and academically demanding universities may be encouraged to pursue courses in women’s studies, negritude, endemic racism, or multiculturalism, the curriculum for success is evident.

In other words, the bias against insight, creativity, and search for meaning and first principles is set early and often. 

This trend is not surprising.  America has always been a can-do nation of entrepreneurs, problem-solvers, investigators, and risk-takers.  Compared to France which has valued intellectual pursuit, excellence in the arts, culture, and philosophy, and a personal engagement in the country’s rich, diverse patrimony; and understood work as only a means to an end, in America work is all.  As Engine Charlie Wilson, former President and CEO of General Motors famously said, “The business of America is business”.

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Even more importantly America grew up on the farm. Broken-down tractors in the yard, old refrigerators on the front porch, car parts in the garden meant that things were fixed not replaced. Such necessity became an ethos.  The American farmer or rancher came to symbolize economic independence and survival. Practicality was not only required but idealized.  There was no time for frivolity.

Sinclair Lewis is perhaps best-known for Babbitt, a satirical novel about the ignorantly bourgeois American.
The men leaned back on their heels, put their hands in their trousers-pockets, and proclaimed their views with the booming profundity of a prosperous male repeating a thoroughly hackneyed statement about a matter of which he knows nothing whatever.
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o practicality and anti-intellectualism come naturally.  There is something immoral or at least not quite right about paying someone to repair a stove, fix a running toilet, trim the trees, or build a new deck when any able-bodied homeowner should be up to the job; and something definitely wrong about doing none of the above.  A man who has outsourced his finances, his yard work, his repairs, and his car maintenance, streamlined his life to lead a life of intellectual leisure, is suspect. 

Adult learning classes in most communities are How To – how to manage your estate, refinish your furniture, repair household appliances, grout the bathtub, unstop drains and toilets, and change the oil on your car.

At best when the practical man forays into the world of ideas it is about politics.  A responsible vote requires work, diligence, and discipline.  Electing the best candidate will enable programs and policies favorable to the voter.  Better schools, lower taxes, a stronger military, and a more rational immigration policy are practical matters with national implications.

‘Opposites attract’ has always been the nostrum to describe the best marriages.  How dull and uninspired a relationship would be if there were no disagreement, no drama, or no challenges. A marriage between a practical woman and an insightful man would be a good thing not a potentially conflictive one. Each would share their perspective and each would learn from the other.

Not so. Of the many possible Myers-Briggs combinations, placement on the social or political scale, or personality tics and quirks; of the many possible differences that could be expressed in a marriage, practicality vs insight is perhaps the hardest to overcome, far harder than ever liberal progressive vs social conservative.

The practical man cannot see beyond his measurements.  His valuation of everything is based on cost, efficiency, and economic return or liability.  Not only that everything he does by matter of course and choice is practical. He likes financial management, home maintenance, landscape improvements, and car repair.  He likes getting estimates, comparing cost and past performance, and vetting contractors. His life not only revolves around the practical.  It is the practical.

The insightful woman is just the opposite.  She pays more at the register to reduce opportunity cost. Time has a higher value than cash outlay.  Pays more for a premium product than spend time comparative shopping.  Pays more for gas around the corner than on a commercial strip.  Pays more at a nearby premium food store because of no-thought, low-risk, high-confidence buying than an outlying Costco.

Not only does practicality bore her, but it is a waste of time, energy, and resources.

Most importantly, it gets you nowhere.  At least with reflection there is a chance for a spiritual or intellectual revelation before it is too late. God gave man his greatest gifts – intelligence, creativity, and insight – and to ignore them for a more settled and controlled life, is to waste them. 

Konstantin Levin, a major character in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was obsessed by meaning. How could God have given man reason, intelligence, insight, creativity, and wit and then after a few short years consign him to the cold, hard ground of the steppes?  He could never answer the question, but he never let the practical necessities of farming overwhelm his intellectual life.

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van Ilyich (Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich) suffers from an incurable disease.  All his life he has made practical, determined efforts to structure it to allow for no surprises, no intellectual conundrums, no doubts or no illusions.  Yet as he faces death, he is without the only important resource – insight.

The world would fall apart – or never get built in the first place – without practical people.  Yet modern life seems to be obsessively focused on hammers and nails, keeping the rain out; adjusting and comparing; making more space; and refinishing the hardwood floors.  We are losing the art of reflection and the reward of insight, let alone the pleasure of getting there.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Recipes - Sherry-steamed Broccoli with Portobello Mushroom Butter

Broccoli often needs a lift, and this simple recipe does the trick.  The broccoli is steamed in sherry instead of water, and garnished with a mushroom butter.  The steaming suffuses the vegetable with the sweet sherry taste, and the mushroom butter is the perfect complement.

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Sherry-steamed Broccoli With Portobello Mushroom Butter
* 3-4 lg. heads of broccoli, stems cut and trimmed
* 2 Tbsp. European-style unsalted butter
* 1/2 pkg. dried porcini or Portobello mushrooms, cut up
* 1/4 cup Amontillado sherry (for soaking dried mushrooms)
* 1/2 cup sherry for steaming vegetable
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- Steam the broccoli in the sherry and approx. 2 cups water

- Soak the mushrooms in the sherry and 1/4 cup water for 20 min

- Squeeze the liquid from the mushrooms

- Melt butter over low heat, add mushrooms

- Cook over very low heat for approx. 20-25 min.

- When broccoli is tender, trim, arrange on large plate

- Drizzle the butter/mushroom mixture evenly

- Add salt and ground pepper to taste

- Serve