Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Religion of Facebook

I do not understand what Facebook has become.  What started out as a way to keep up with family and friends, a place for vacation shots and endless baby photos seems to have morphed into a bad faculty meeting.  (Yes, that is redundant.)

Where I used to see cat videos, now I see arguments.  Where I once saw photos of memorable meals, now I see endlessly shared-and-reshared political propaganda.  Today (in particular), I see arguments about which political party has been the most uncivil—a stygian task equal to picking your favorite turd in an outhouse.

There are many, many postings on Facebook that I just do not understand.  Why do people post a solitary Bible verse—with no explanation as to why that particular verse is relevant….to anything?  As a method of religious conversion, quoting a single random bible verse seems about as effective as hunting ducks at night.  I suppose if you fired off thousands of rounds straight up in the air at random intervals, sooner or later, you might hit something, but it would likely be the poor, sick, and low flying bird (if it was a duck at all).

If this strange method of digital preaching worked, you could probably stop people from being vegetarians by driving around the city, randomly flinging Vienna sausages at strangers.

Will you be brave enough to share this picture of….well, I have no idea whose picture this is, since I’m face blind and rarely recognize even photos of my family.  Even if I did recognize the person depicted, why would I want to post their photo completely out of context?  Can’t Facebook come up with an app that automatically eliminates any post containing the word “share”?

And while we are at it, what about those endless chain letter posts?  “If you share this, God will reward you with wealth, good luck, and a new puppy.”   Do these people actually believe in a divine and higher power that will pay off like a rigged slot machine if you will only pass on a Facebook post?  If it were that easy to manipulate the Almighty, by now wouldn’t we have….Oh, I don’t know….cured cancer, ended world hunger, or at least come up with a decent tasting light beer?

Why are there so many posts that tell me my Vampire Name can be calculated by coupling the month of my birth with the last brand of potato chips I ate?  Five centuries after Copernicus postulated heliocentrism, why do I still see so many posts about astrology?

Can we please stop the endless postings of Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, etc?  Everyone knows that All Lives Matter.  (Unless you multiply them by the speed of light, then All Lives Energy.)

Why are so many people worked up about abortions, gay marriage, and transgendered people?  I understand that your religion condemns these practices (and damn near everything else in the world) but if even half the nonsense your religion says about these subjects is actually true, why not just wait a while until you out-breed the bastards?  In the meantime, can we have a little peace?

Have you noticed that the same people who are worked up about abortions are equally worked up about assault weapons, but always on the other side of the issue?  There seems to be a very simple solution for both camps:  If you don’t want one, don’t get one, and it is none of your business if your neighbor does.

Facebook is not becoming a bully pulpit, it has morphed into a vast collection of isolated echo chambers, small discussion groups whose members have banded together to yell their favorite slogans at each other, confident that no member will make a coherent argument against their favorite prejudices.

Why do kind and decent people...people I have known for years...suddenly espouse hateful rhetoric online that they would never repeat in public?  Why do we accept statements that seem to justify hatred and bigotry just because someone posted a different opinion?  When did differences of opinion justify labeling someone as evil?

I guess what I am really asking is, "Why are so many people so angry?"  How did such an incredible medium of communication (something impossible just a generation ago) get turned into a tool that all too often brings out the worst in us?  Why do we share more anger than joy?

I want to see more cat videos.  I need more recipes.  Recommend a good cheap wine.  Tell me about the great book you are reading.  I want my sons, Whats-His-Name and The-Other-One, to post more photos of my grandkids.  Tell me a dirty joke.  You probably don’t want me in your political party anyway.

There is a great quote from one of my favorite movies, Harvey as portrayed by Jimmy Stewart:

“Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be’ - she always called me Elwood - ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh-so-smart or oh-so-pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart.  Now, I recommend pleasant.  You may quote me.”

Okay, I just did.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Saving The Night Watch

When you enter the Rijksmuseum, it doesn’t really look like a painting.  Instead, at first glance, you assume there is a group of actors in period costume, interacting with the museum patrons.  It is only after you notice that none of the actors are moving that you realize it is a painting—in this case, the most famous painting in the Netherlands. 

The painting is commonly called The Night Watch, though this is a horribly inaccurate name, since it depicts neither watchmen nor a night scene.  As Rembrandt painted it, it was a group portrait of a company of militia, walking down a street in the daytime.  After almost four centuries, the varnish that Rembrandt used to cover and protect his painting has darkened with age.  Technically, this work is better titled, Officers and Men of the Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Wilhelm van Ruytenburgh.

It would probably be a little tough to print museum signs for the latter name.  Today, experts can’t even agree on the informal name.  Is it The Night Watch or The Nightwatch? 

At eleven by fourteen feet, the painting is enormous—which is even more remarkable when you consider that a couple of centuries ago, all four sides were trimmed in order to make it fit in its new location in the city hall when it was moved there from the military guild hall.  The lopped off pieces are still missing. 

One of the reasons the work was so large was because the painter, Rembrandt van Rijn, was paid by each person in the painting, and the price varied depending on your how prominently a person was displayed.  (Presumably, Rembrandt put his own self-portrait into the work of art for free (or at least at a deep discount.  If you look very carefully, you can just see his right eye staring out from behind the man wearing a helmet in the center.)

Regardless of what the painting is called, the history of how the museum has labored over the years to protect it from vandals and thieves is remarkable.  Despite guards, It has been stabbed with a bread knife, sprayed with acid, and slashed by a shoemaker’s knife.  And like most of the art in Europe, the Nazis wanted to steal it and take it home for der Fuehrer.

Long before the Nazis marched westward through the low countries, Willem Sandberg, a conservator at the Stedelijk museum in Amsterdam became concerned about the theft of art from Jewish families in Germany after Hitler came to power in 1933.  Equally alarming to Sandberg was the wide scale theft of art that had occurred during the Spanish Civil War.

Since Sandberg had traveled to Spain during the Civil War and had seen how the Prado Museum had hidden its art work in caves, when the Dutch government appointed a committee to preserve the artifacts of Dutch heritage, Sandberg was put in charge.  The committee also could count on the services of several experts.  Sandberg later wrote that the expert on air pressure was still arguing with the expert on fungi when the Nazis arrived.   Thankfully, Sandberg had ignored the rest of the committee and had had done as he wanted.  (This is pretty much how most committees and juries work—either they do the bidding of one forceful person or they deadlock and nothing is accomplished.  France was run by a committee.)

Roughly twenty miles outside of Amsterdam, a secret bunker was dug into the side of a sand dune.  One can only imagine the difficulties in preparing a secret, underground, and waterproof warehouse in a country where most land is below the water table.  You obviously do not have a lot of suitable sites to choose from if your best choice is soft sand.

Once the project was started, Sandberg not only protected the art from his museum, but from other institutions such as the Rijksmuseum, and even from private collections.  By the end of the war, art from over 500 collections, including works from the Van Gogh and Mondrian family were kept safe.   

It is important to remember that the Nazis not only stole the art they coveted, they also destroyed the art they either disliked or didn’t understand.  When Hitler held an art show in Munich of stolen “deviant art”, he was dismayed when half a million Germans flocked to see the work of “moral and cultural degenerates.”  The art show was never repeated and over a thousand works were burned.  Many times that number were sold to foreign buyers, with an alarming amount of the art never returned to the rightful owners.

Still more works of art were lost after they were looted and moved to Germany only to be destroyed by Allied bombing before the end of the war.  These works include masterpieces by such artists as Caravaggio, Klimt, and Courbet.  Van Gogh’s self-portrait (right) was lost when Berlin was bombed. 

As the German army neared Amsterdam, a surprising amount of art was hidden by Sandberg.  Eventually, it took several bunkers to hide all the art.  And what of The Night Watch? 

It reached the bunker the day the Netherlands surrendered.  Transported by truck to the bunker, it was carefully removed from its frame.  A similar sized painting, The Battle of Waterloo by Pienerman was wrapped around a long wooden pole, and The Night Watch was wrapped around the outside of that painting.  The long round cylinder was then carefully crated and spent the next five years in the camouflaged bunker.

Most of the people responsible for creating the bunkers were eventually arrested by the Germans and many were executed.  Luckily, Sandberg was in the bunker when the Gestapo came to his house looking for him, so he escaped capture and spent the rest of the war working for the Resistance, creating false identity papers for Dutch Jews.  Sandberg's wife was among those arrested, and she spent fifteen months in prison. 

The Germans never found the bunker—though not for lack of trying.  After the war, the Dutch authorities have spent decades trying to find the rightful owners of  the privately owned artworks, but, sadly—even after seventy-three years of continued attempts—they have still been unable to return many of the works to either their owners or to  those owners' heirs.  Compared with the lack of effort of some European governments, however, the Dutch are to be commended for their continuing efforts.

I’m happy to say that The Night Watch is still hanging in Rijksmuseum, whose curators are still taking great pains to insure the work’s safety.  The huge painting is mounted on rails, and in the event of an emergency (such as a fire or the sudden arrival of the German Army), it can slide down through the floor into the safety of a private, secure new bunker.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Dear Drew,

I was so sorry to hear about your broken arm.  From abundant experience, I know how uncomfortable wearing a cast can be.  Trust me, after a week, you will get used to it and by the time they finally take the cast off, it will feel strange not to have it on.  I am sure that next year, you will be playing football again.

It has always been surprising to me how many people have never broken a single bone in their entire lives.  It you lead an active life, participating in sports, or just trying to see what’s over the next hill—it seems impossible not to have the occasional injury.  This is the price we pay for enjoying a full life:  we were not meant to live our lives sitting on a sofa playing video games.

About half a century ago—way back when I was in high school—I was on the track team, despite being a slow runner.   I was nowhere near fast enough for most of the events, but I had fairly long legs and was pretty good at clearing the high hurdles.  It has been a long time, but I seem to remember that the hurdles were set at 39 inches height.  The real secret to making it over the hurdles was to hit the approach cleanly and not ‘stutter step’ just before you made the jump.  The object was to make clearing the hurdle part of your stride.

It took a lot of practice to learn how to hit the approach cleanly.  Using a piece of light bamboo, I made a hurdle in my backyard.  I probably hit that old fishing pole with my knee a couple of hundred times before I could work out how to pace my steps where I could clear the hurdle without having to adjust my last step.

This was probably the only event in track where I showed any talent.  However, for whatever reason, the coach also insisted that I also compete in the 440 events, but I never finished anywhere near the top.  They probably could have timed my efforts with a calendar instead of a stop watch, but as you well know, you have to do what your coach tells you to do, so I ran the 440.  Coming in last gave me a great view of the rest of the runners!

In the hurdles however, it was a different story.  Your grandfather (my brother) was two inches taller than I was, but our legs were about the same length.  Maybe that was why I found it so easy to clear those hurdles.  For whatever reason, I never broke stride and always hit the hurdles cleanly (probably because all that practice in my backyard made me confident of being able to clear them).  In about half the matches we held, I came in either first or second. 

My other great love in high school was airplanes.  I loved everything about them, and was taking flying lessons whenever I could save up enough money to pay the instructor.  When I was broke, I just hung out at the airport looking to do odd jobs so I could talk to the pilots.  I washed a lot of planes just so I could hang out with people who would talk about flying.

The people who were teaching me how to fly also repaired and restored old airplanes.  One day, they had a scaffolding erected around an old 1930's plane, a large twin engine plane, that they were working on.  I was fascinated and the mechanic, a friend of mine, said I could climb the scaffolding if I wanted a closer look.  I went up that scaffolding as fast as a stabbed rat.

And just about as fast, the scaffolding collapsed.  I found out later that someone had used a soft aluminum bolt on one of the joints instead of a steel bolt.  Bigger and heavier people had been up that scaffolding all day, but the bolt sheared when a lightweight, skinny high school kid climbed up onto the scaffolding.  Sometimes, you just can’t figure out why accidents happen.

I fell onto the concrete floor of the hangar, busting an ankle and breaking small bones in both feet.  As accidents go, this was a small one and none of the injuries were that serious.  I was young—not much older than you—and the bones mended cleanly and quickly. 

Naturally, that was the end of my track career for the year.  I was heartbroken at the time, because I missed the big district track meet a few weeks later.  I watched that track meet from the side of the field.  It would have made a great story if I could tell you that the winner of the hurdles was someone whom I had beaten earlier in the year, but the truth is that a guy from a different school flew over the hurdles like he was half gazelle.  His time that day was shorter than my best ever had been

All of that was a long time ago and, looking back on the events, I am proud that I worked so hard at learning to jump those high hurdles.  I remember how happy I was to compete in the few events held before the accident.  I don’t regret the long hours I spent practicing.

Strangely, though, I don’t regret climbing that scaffold, either.  Oh, I wish it hadn’t collapsed and I wish I hadn’t fallen and broken my ankle.  But, I still want to be the kind of guy who needs to climb a scaffold to get a closer look at an old plane.  If offered the chance today, I would still climb up a scaffold.

I’m not telling you to be foolish, but to be proud of the things you have done, even when occasionally you end up having the small injury.  You earned that cast on your arm:  it means you did something most people can’t or won’t do. 

Life is too short to be safe all the time, for it is a terrible fate to be bored to death.

Hope you’re back on the field and doing what you love, soon,
Your (occasionally) Great Uncle.