A Little More About 9/11

Twenty years ago as the Twin Towers disintegrated into a cloudy gray mass of ash, I was on a Lufthansa plane diverted to Gander, Canada. There, on the ground, inside the airplane we sat in stunned silence for twelve hours. Outside our window were scores of other planes similarly diverted. Before any of us could disembark, Canadian Customs had to process untold and unexpected thousands. The flight crew fed us leftover snacks. Passengers remained eerily silent save those few who conversed in hushed tones. “It’s bad,” someone whispered behind me.

Cellular communications were primitive then compared to today. The airplane’s passenger phone service did not work. Only one man could connect, and he shared his cell phone with others who desperately needed to touch base with loved ones. My son was in college in New York City. His dorm was not near the towers, but still I was worried. Had he visited friends who were in dorms nearby? I could not reach him.

Finally, at 1 AM, we cleared customs and boarded a yellow school bus bound for an elementary school. For the first time we saw the horrific events unfold like scenes stuck in instant replay, looping continuously on the school’s TV screen. We sat mesmerized for hours. At 4 AM and sleep deprived, I staggered to my assigned first grade classroom and slept on the floor, cushioned by blankets and sleeping bags brought in and arranged by the kind residents of Gander who also nurtured us with food nonstop. Many locals even welcomed us into their homes so we could shower and clean up.

First chance I got, I lined-up to use one of the school’s computers with Internet access. Upon checking my email, I exhaled with great relief when I saw my son’s, which said, “I’m okay, are you okay?”

For security reasons, we did not have access to our luggage and could only bring our carry-ons. I had my airplane neck pillow, moisturizer, and my laptop. I started documenting our days. My article was published in The Washington Post while I was still in Canada en route back home to DC after almost a week in Gander, thanks to my son who was able to call the editor and relay my story. While the entire world was mourning losses, this article shed a glimmer of light on human kindness during a tragedy. To read more: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/2001/09/18/a-new-perspective-courtesy-of-newfoundland-samaritans/33755790-4cda-4fc3-a925-85884edf5fc3/

With a few exceptions, my experience was similar to that depicted in the play, Come From Away, still on Broadway. It’s theater that excels in highlighting the drama and friendships made that unfolded on an American Airline flight also forced to land in Canada. Unlike those the American passengers, who were not told why they had to change their route, our pilot had alerted us immediately, “There’s been a terrorist attack at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We are being diverted to Gander.” I doubt I’ll ever forget those words. That said, I was engrossed in the play for something it reveals I never thought about then: the massive behind-the-scenes efforts the town made to accommodate all of us with such grace.

The abundance of compassion from strangers is something I will never forget.

A Fond Farewell

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.

— Albert Einstein

Essay just published on Medium:

View at Medium.com

Gone. Vanished. Almost as quickly as cicadas swarmed the Washington, DC, area this spring, no trace remains, and my late summer, early evening strolls are not the same. I hear robins chirping and crows cawing as insects hum and occasional fireflies flicker, but I miss the crescendo of cicada mating songs in surround sound.

Just as we began to emerge from our Covid-19 hibernation, cicadas had gone underground. Their brief visit with us left holes in the earth from which they surfaced, empty shells scattered and crunchy under foot, and dismembered wings. But my impressions of them persist.

During their time with us, corpses littered the landscape. Squished, smashed, or compressed corpses sideways or straight up, wings splayed or detached. I still see their perfectly formed, gossamer wings crinkly to the touch often separated and sprinkled about, shimmering in the sunlight, but now silence prevails. How long did we have together?

I contemplate our collective lost time, our transient nature, our legacy. And I look to cicadas for inspiration.

For centuries cicadas enlivened literature and art, music and sculpted objects. Numerous cultures revered them, drawing philosophical and moral lessons from their seventeen-year cycle of existence. Aristotle in his History of Animals reflects on cicadas, observing their life as symbols of resurrection and immortality. Among his other suggestions, he recommends snacking on them — a delicacy he enjoyed — and boiling them to cure bladder disorders. (No thank-you, I did not feast on them despite numerous food writers’ recipes.) Socrates relates his myth of the cicadas, wherein the music of ancient Muses enchants men who twirl and dance until they turn into cicadas, whose lyrical song suggests art and erotic love. In Aesop’s Fables, a cicada outwits a fox with a leaf, as a substitute for dinner. Journeys of self-discovery, change, and possible upheaval — professional, political, and personal — are embodied in the lives of cicadas.

So, I gaze upon them in my mind: Martian-red beady eyes, Halloween orange-veined cellophane-thin wings — aerodynamically designed for flight. As someone who has no particular interest in nor love for insects, I was fascinated, a strange feeling for me. Having worked at the Smithsonian for twenty years, I always wondered how entomologists could spend their whole career studying one creature. Mostly, I avoid insects. Though gnats and mosquitos love feasting on me, the love is not reciprocal. Bugs annoy me. But, inexplicably, billions of Brood X appear and I’m captivated.

I don’t remember my fondness for cicadas when last they surfaced. But I was seventeen years younger then. Yesterday’s annoyance is today’s fascination. Today, I think about them. I saw cicadas clinging to trees sucking sap, I felt cicadas buzz and breeze pass, harmlessly bumping into me, always whizzing away quickly. I watched them dive-bomb to the ground, searching. Were they crawling away from predators or creeping toward their demise? Did they find the lovers they sought?

Their deafening evening symphony desperately seeking a mate had thrilled me and resounds still in my head, though gradually their song diminished, their chorus missing members. I hear only faint echoes now of their vibrating membranes from their magical life. Was their death violent or peaceful? No matter. It is Nature’s way, this odd life cycle. Their species will revive underground as it has for eons.

I still conjure their multitude of silent wings in their wake. I gingerly pick them up and arrange artistic patterns. Look, I can create a dragonfly, a sea turtle, a tulip, or a work of abstract art to contemplate. The wind blows them away. But impressions remain.

As this round of cicadas edged toward their end, I wondered about mine. Will I be here when they re-emerge? My older brother just died unexpectedly at 73. Compared to a cicada’s seventeen-year stint, long, but still too short. I have a granddaughter on the way, will I see her graduate high school? Already I miss all that I once knew.

But I have hope. Despite our losses, I see life stirring around me again, resurfacing stronger from our COVID-19 hibernation. A celebration of our own enduring humanity and our generational changes. As a newborn cries, Nature constantly renews us with radiant sounds.

A Veterans Day Story for Children

In honor of Veterans Day, I had the pleasure of reading Stubby to elementary school students @Murch Elementary School in DC via Zoom.

Stubby: Inspired by the True Story of an American Hero in WWI is a tale of friendship between an American Soldier and his best buddy, a dog that became a hero in WW1.

Thank you to Shirley Payne, Regina Bell, and all the students and teachers for zooming in. A special thanks for all the great student questions.

Available at:

*Bonjour Books

*Amazon

*Museum store (second floor, near Military History Hall) at Smithsonian’s American History Museum

Recent Publication

My Children’s Book Published!

A heartwarming tale of friendship between an American soldier and his best buddy, a dog. Stubby is the true story of the most heroic dog in World War I. From stray puppy to the only dog ever promoted to the rank of Sergeant through combat and winner of the Purple Heart, Stubby’s remarkable journey is appropriate for all ages.
Available on Amazon

81Q9tG8PcBL

It’s Not Easy Being Green

Find my most recent personal essay online at PurpleClover.com: It’s Not Easy Being Green.

Milan’s Moonlight Castle Concerts

Castle at night

Castello Sforzesco

Under a moonlit sky in Milan, my friend and I discovered a rare evening treat: an ingenious pairing of art and music. Enclosed behind the Castle walls, for only 15 Euros, we thrilled to dramatic staging of details from the paintings of Caravaggio accompanied by the Milano Chamber Orchestra playing Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, and Monteverdi among others.

Three actors from Teatri 35 captivated us as they deftly draped fabric around themselves changing scenes, positions, and dress 19 times using only the billowy material. They enacted images from Caravaggio’s artwork, then adapted final postures, posing like statues for up to a minute or so while Baroque music enveloped the emotional staging. How they held the poses for as long as they did was astonishing to witness.

Called Vivant Tableaux (Living Paintings), this performance technique of scenic representations originated in the Eighteenth Century and gained popularity in the Nineteenth.

Another night we watched an operatic rendition of Cinderella, using student actors in a parody of the fashion industry as a setting. Among the more amusing takes we recognized were four men in white, pony-tailed wigs and sunglasses lampooning Karl Lagerfeld, and a blond-wigged woman spoofing Donatella Versace in expression and gestures. Though clever and amusing, the performance–accompanied by the beautiful operatic voices of students–went on too long.

We noted (but did not go) that Notturni in Castello (Nights at the Castle) planned a fantasy Harry Potter performance another evening. Clearly, the Castle has something for everyone.

Innovative concerts starting at 9 PM en plein air at Castello Sforzesco run from June through August. You can buy tickets in advance on the grounds during the day. For more information: https://www.notturnincastello.it/

 

Henry James and American Painting

Henry James and American Painting Exhibition at The Morgan Library, NYC

On View through Sept 10, 2017

http://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/henry-james

Henry James (photogravure above in 1906 and painting of him in 1862) equated the art of the writer with that of the artist, declaring he saw no difference in their acts of creation. In The Art of Fiction, he wrote, “… the honour of one is the honour of another.” Fascinated with the visual arts, James often explored the artistic process, inspiration, and influence of art in his novels.

I thought I’d run in, glance at the Morgan Library exhibit for a half hour and be on my way, but I lingered for two hours. So engaged was I that I read the accompanying wall text—a rarity for me when many museum labels are often, in my humble opinion, a bullshit attempt to be erudite but are frequently just obtuse. Instead, I found myself absorbed in the text, laughing aloud at entertaining stories and James’ numerous observations about his artistic circle of friends such as James McNeill Whistler, John La Farge, and John Singer Sargent among others. Many of his friends were players in James’ novels, and their lives were fodder for his plots. Much of this is clearly evident in images and text selected.

Early in his career, James himself attempted to paint, but–determined to avoid mediocrity–opted instead to write painterly novels, clearly an inspiration to the co-curators, Declan Kiely, head of the Morgan’s Department of Literary and Historical Manuscripts, and novelist Colm Tóibín. They collected an enticing selection of artwork–paintings, drawings, watercolors, sculptures, photographs, as well as the written word–books, manuscripts, and letters from museums and private collections in the United States, Great Britain, and Ireland. They have assembled vivid stories of artistic connectivity. It’s an inspired exhibit.

To read more, check out the NYTimes review: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/06/arts/design/henry-james-a-poohbah-who-painted-with-words.html?mcubz=3&_r=0

 

Venetian Women in Palazzo Rezzonico

Venetian Women in Palazzo Rezzonico by John Singer Sargent, c 1880

 

A Venetian Interior by John SInger Sargent 1880

A Venetian Interior by John Singer Sargent 1880

An Interior in Venice 1898 John Singer Sargent

An Interior in Venice by John Singer Sargent 1898

Mrs. Edward Darley Boit JSS 1887

Mrs. Edward Darley Boit by John Singer Sargent, 1887

Mosaic Workshop “You Break It, You Make It”

VT BridgeAptly titled “You Break It, You Make It,” Bette Ann Libby’s Mosaic Workshops in the Green Mountains (also Boston) are creative and fun. Not to mention therapeutic. Grab that hammer and smash your old ceramics to bits. (Go ahead, imagine whatever–or whomever– you want.) If you don’t have any old dishes, don’t worry. Bette Ann has enough shards for any project you have in mind, along with all the safety apparatus, cement, and grouting you need. It’s a messy business, but the process is all-engrossing, and, I promise, you won’t think of anything that has stressed you out. For a day and a half, your focus is design intensive. No need to bring any snacks either. Bette Ann not only teaches you the basics and inspires you, she also feeds you well. (Full disclosure: Bette Ann has been my friend since college days.)

This was my fourth mosaic workshop and I’d participate again. The first couple of times, I had specific designs in mind. The third time I was clueless and just made an abstract. This time, having been too busy to give it much advance thought, I settled on my house number—a Bette Ann suggestion.

Considering that you are shattering shards, the workshop location could not be more peaceful. Whether you are juggling pieces of glass, mirror, or ceramics, this hands-on mosaic workshop is an adventure in recycled art.

VT BA house

Mosaic Workshop Setting

Mosaic WS KB & BA

Finished Mosaic

VT

Waitsfield, VT

VT Bridge long view

Historic Bridge in Waitsfield, VT

VT BA KB Bridge

Bette Ann and KB

http://betteannlibby.com/section/9158_Mosaic_Workshops.html?utm_source=August%2C+2017+Newsletter&utm_campaign=August+%2717&utm_medium=email

Val Lewton From Hollywood to Breezewood at AU Katzen Center

VL Paint CansLast few days to see Val Lewton From Hollywood to Breezewood, a retrospective of one of the most talented Washington (by way of Hollywood) artists. Former exhibit designer for Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, Val Lewton had a supreme and unique command of color and composition. (Full disclosure I’m friends with his widow, Claudia Manizozzi (also a painter), and knew Val from my former Smithsonian days. I also own two of his paintings as well as one of Claudia’s. And I wish I had wall space for more.)

VL Truck Cab

I have long been fascinated with building cranes that pierce the sky at construction sites, marveling how something so industrial can be so elegant against the sky. Val Lewton elevates these same scenes and more with his paintbrush to create penetrating and cinematic close-ups of mundane cityscapes: trucks, construction sites, cranes, shovels, gas stations, cars, highways, taxis, traffic jams, smoke stacks, police call boxes. From wrecked and razed construction sites to massive in your face truck cabs you can feel the power of the movement on the road.

VL Whitehurst Freeway

Val makes the ordinary extraordinary in such diverse images as his colorful, overflowing paint cans and his Dale City depictions of suburban sprawl. All on view just till August 13th. If you miss it, check out the accompanying full color catalog with essay by former Washington Post critic, Ben Forgey.

http://www.american.edu/cas/museum/2017/from-hollywood-to-breezewood.cfm

VLTaxisVLDale City

VL Bee Bee

VL Bee Bee air handler