this world in which we live

Rather than attempt any written response to the events and aftermath unfolding from the dark day in Connecticut, I’m choosing instead to share a few new finds on the order of the art in children’s books and the worlds they open up — it is where I’m choosing to dwell for a spell.

More information here: Little Big Books: What Makes Great Children’s Picture Book Illustration
including these illustrations


and for those of us who want to know more: A Brief History of Children’s Picture Books and the Art of Visual Storytelling

all links here courtesy of BrainPickings – follow: @brainpicker

Another pocket

In the mid to late 1800s, Felix Nadar, a French photographer, experimented with and pioneered the use of artificial lighting in photography. Nadar was the pseudonym of Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, born in the 19th century and died in the early 20th century; both birth and death were witnessed by City of Lights where Nadar was also buried, in the Pére Lachaise Cemetery. Not quite as impressive as the recently deceased woman who “lived in three centuries,” but what he lacked in temporality he made up for in technical achievement and inspiration.

Below are a few of Nadar’s portraits that especially captivated me, in large part because in some instances I had concocted completely different images in my mind (eg., Manet) and in other instances, I realized that I had never bothered to imagine a visage for said person (e.g., Rodin). And the ones that render me speechless (e.g., Bernhardt). The portraits evoke in me a deep sense of gratitude for the basic notions of light and dark, and caught in the spaces in between is the very essence of the camera obscura out of which the camera as we know it now was first born; wherein:

“The dark, far from representing a total absence, remains in our photographs like information at rest.”—Cia de Foto (h/t @_firescript)

Claude Debussy, ca. 1908


Alexandre Dumas, 1855
Edouard Manet, ca. 1870

Sarah Bernhardt, 1865

For a more complete look at Nadar’s photographic works around the world, goto Felix Nadar Online.

In the aftermath

A friend texted me to say that the images coming out of New York City in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy look like they belong in a disaster film. I couldn’t agree more. Despite the howling winds on Monday night, my neighbors and I came through the storm relatively unscathed, all of us harboring more than a bit of survivor’s guilt as the stories and photographs of the otherwise bright city shrouded in darkness stream across all of our media. The lights were finally turned on in lower Manhattan on Friday night. The photos in the slideshow below were taken on Thursday, just as dusk began to dissolve into evening; I had attempted to meet a friend in the Lower East Side to help with food packaging and redistribution for nearby residents who had been without power or electricity for nearly four days. Using my feet, slowly running subway, and bus, I made it as far as 20th and FDR before realizing that without a flashlight or other light source, continuing on would not be a prudent decision. Before making the trek back home, I snapped a few pics with my phone. In a few instances, I lightened the image to allow some of the background to come through that had been almost entirely obscured by the thick curtain of darkness; the sheer absence of light, of sound, of humans in this normally densely populated part of town was purely suffocating. I allowed myself a few minutes to indulge in this moment, to take in my environs via camera as well as sensorily, before releasing the awe that threatened to settle in — I wondered, then, of what value is awe (at nature, above all else) in a time like this? In a time when awe is better channeled into cleaning debris from parks, from streets, from neighborhoods, much of which is happening throughout the city in demonstrations of humanity and connectedness.

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And from the NYTimes: Glimmers of light in a darkened city


I admit it. When I first saw the email telling me that our university, like so many other institutions on the eastern seaboard, was closed, I experienced a distinct burst of giddiness. A day “off” is the thought I dared to allow out of my subconscious mind onto the stage of discernable thought. I awoke to little more than thick, cloudy, tannish grey skies and a wet mist that quickly grew into a steady drizzle. I ventured out to our local market — the corner bodega, for you city folk — to pick up some coffee, taking a few snaps along the way but I returned with little more to show for my adventure than a damp sweatshirt and an ample supply of caffeine. I optimistically set out to accomplish a herculean number of tasks. After all, we were “off.”

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Seven hours passed by in a swirl of phone meetings, email catch up, and some writing – not the kind I was aiming to do, but of the kind I needed to do… after the tinny sounds of raindrops falling against the air conditioner swelled into a single, agitated noise… I made an empty-the-fridge frittata, use-up-the-fruit crostata, and made decent headway with the consumption of assorted sweets and treats under the convenient guise of preparing for possible power outage by minimizing food waste… all the while, the anxious weight of the word “yet” hung in the air as I, like the rest of the city, awaited the mythic winds that would prove to be even more harrowing than the “Frankenstorm,” as the popular press has taken to calling Hurricane Sandy, of 1938 – the last time a hurricane that even approached the current conditions. From the Slate story:

Without warning, a powerful Category 3 hurricane slams into Long Island and southern New England, causing 600 deaths and devastating coastal cities and towns. Also called the Long Island Express, the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 was the most destructive storm to strike the region in the 20th century.

At present, we are in the thick of Sandy’s turbulent fury. Outside, the wind screams as if in pain, a protestation of a sinful sort. Mine is an interior apartment, my windows have unremarkable views, which today provides an additional layer of protection against the churning squalls. I offer a note of thanks.

It is impossible to do anything but be in this storm. By being, I mean following along on twitter and occasionally on facebook, via text and email to my siblings and spouse, and becoming unavoidably transfixed by links to images and video that are flooding my twitterstream of rising water and submerged NYC iconography, sparking wires and resultant fires, of building facades turning to dust. And this is what the wind map of the United States looks like at present.

Another inappropriate thought: How beautiful… like a painstakingly hand-drawn etching of this world rather than the otherworldly chaotic havoc that it signals.

Whatever sense of wonder I was lost in, I was wrested violently from its comfort by the sounds of sirens, honking cars, metal clanging as if something was tumbling down the length of fire escape, a phone ringing relentlessly next door… Neighbors’ voices and the opening and shutting of doors interrupt the windswept operetta continuing ad nauseam on the other side of surprisingly dense window glass.

Like many of our counterparts, our university is closed again tomorrow, as is the NYC transit system, city public schools, and apparently everything south of 23rd street – which has receded into darkness unwittingly. My giddiness has dissolved into a state of anticipation tinged with irritation, still somewhat laced with wonder but not free from unease that settles in when a situation remains unsettled.

Waiting … for the impending aftermath… for power outage… for the unpredictable…

Metal clanging again, more loudly this time. Wind makes its presence known, lest we attempt to retreat into our dreams to forget whatever nightmare may await us in the light of day. Wind and water, a lesson in humility…

Is it somehow fitting, then, that Neruda found his way into my reading today?

Ode To Enchanted Light
by Pablo Neruda

Under the trees light
has dropped from the top of the sky,
like a green
latticework of branches,
on every leaf,
drifting down like clean
white sand.

A cicada sends
its sawing song
high into the empty air.

The world is
a glass overflowing
with water.

in honor of centenarians


“Another year closer to death!” some comically cruel cards remind the recipient.

A way to mark the passing of time.

An excuse to gather with friends, family, and loved ones; take time for a nice meal or hike or visit to the spa; be kind to oneself; be kind to others.

A Jehovah’s witness would take no notice at all. An American president receives a card electronically signed by millions of his nation’s residents.

There may be cake or ice cream or both, as has become custom for kids and the kid-at-heart population here in the States and in many countries worldwide.

A childhood neighbor of ours, who was of Russian descent, once told me about a special bottle of vodka he was expecting in honor of his birthday.

I suspect being born on February 29th would pose a bit of a challenge.

In Vietnam, everyone’s birth is celebrated on New Year’s Day, a day called Tet. Only newborns are given a celebration on the actual day of their birth.

My grandfather would have turned 100 today. I mentioned his birthday a few weeks ago, ironically enough in a post that was published on my grandmother’s birthday.

Had he been alive, we might have sent in his name to The Today Show on which centenarians are given a birthday greeting by the rapidly aging Willard Scott.

If he was a British resident upon his centenary, he would have received a customized message from Her Majesty, the Queen.

I occasionally wonder what he would have made of this world in which we live, now. In the past three and half decades since his passing, nothing of the world he knew at the time of his death has remained. His family has migrated to distant lands, the country of his birth is, in some ways, unrecognizable (although the village of his birth, seen below, looks remarkably untouched — save the motorcycles casually parked along the side), and from I have been told about his demeanor, he might have had a difficult time understanding a society in which celebrity haircuts are front page news while wartime chicanery with fatal consequences is buried deep within the fold. And what explanation would he offer in making sense of a nation with more than a billion residents that is consistently among the lowest medal earners in the Olympic games; perhaps he might have said that he and his countrymen spent their time pondering other matters and would have elegantly evaded the question with a question of his own… clever bugger.

Birthday greetings, dear young man.

Perinkulam, Palghat


650. That, according to Jordan Weissman, a writer for The Atlantic, who extrapolated the number from claims about workers’ productivity issued by McKinsey Global Institute, is the number of hours the average “working stiff” spends on email at work. His calculations are as follows:

“we spend 13 hours a week, or 28 percent of our office time, on email. Assuming two weeks vacation, that multiplies out to 650 hours a year.”

Nevermind the obvious “buts” that undoubtedly come to mind — 13 hours out of how many? The last time my work week was 40 hours — HA! Who gets two weeks vacation? But I email on vacation! — and consider the following math:

An average year has 8760 hours (or, as the musical Rent has drilled into my mind, “525, 600 miiiinnutes!”) — and a leap year, such as the current one, has 24 hours more. The figure of 650 hours, then, or roughly 7%, doesn’t seem quite as egregious as perhaps it’s meant to be. And frankly, I think the approximation of 650 hours per year, which is less than two hours a day, might be a low estimate…for some people…

After all, email needn’t mean the drudgery of replying to inane requests for the same document, statistic, or reference you’ve already sent along at least ten times. But perhaps it can’t be helped, and perhaps that’s why many of us have multiple email accounts — to perpetuate the illusion that we are entirely different people when we check the gmail account versus the .edu one; that the mindful and present person we can be with the former is all but a ghost when we click open the latter…

What is more appalling, however, is the nonchalant recommendation that concludes Weissman’s article:

“McKinsey suggests that by moving to social media-based information platforms — think some of the more recent versions of Microsoft Sharepoint — would make workers 25 percent more productive. True?”

False! My guess is that the average person working within an institution, be it for/non/or anti-profit, has to communicate with a bevy of others — you know the ones: the humorless, the martyrs, the overly performative types — with whom a generic status update or tweet such as “Skpg mtg. Kthxbye!” just wouldn’t feel right. (And now I’m imagining various members of our institutional administration huddled together around someone’s tablet, smartphone, or laptop as they try to decipher that…)

Nor would it “increase productivity” — another much-loathed phrase — because people would be increasingly running around, even more so than now, fretting over the very mechanism that intends to simplify. People already become stressed when composing messages to an audience of one or a few. Dare we imagine the social paralysis that may descend upon the masses if everything was deemed to be necessarily public?! (…even though a very tiny part of me suspects that private is merely an artifact of nostalgia, alive in our memories alone…)

So, to recap:
Less time spent on inane emails that say the same thing 25 times over? Yes!
Imposed socially mediated communication for the sake of some false sense of productivity? Um, maybe not quite.