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When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said generations ago that “I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life fro simplicity on the other side of complexity,” he meant that to find elegance, you must appreciate, embrace, and then travel beyond complexity. When we use the world elegant, we’re describing a solution that is as surprisingly powerful as it is uncommonly simple: it does to the heart of a wickedly complex problem with such laser-like clarity that it leaves no doubt that the solution is the right one, or at the very least a long way down the right road. Elegant solutions solve intractable problems once and for all without causing further ones. Put another way, not everything simple is elegant, but everything elegant is simple.
Elegance is “far side” simplicity that is artfully crafted, emotionally engaging, profoundly intelligent.
This passage is from In Pursuit of Elegance, by Matthew E. May, a small but loaded book that explores May’s four key elements of elegance—symmetry, seduction, subtraction, sustainability. Delving deeper into each of these concepts, May’s examples span a wide variety of topics. He has an entire chapter on symmetry devoted to the fractal nature of Jackson Pollock’s paintings and how that observation was tested and demonstrated by scientist/artist Richard Taylor. Amazingly, the term fractal was coined in 1975 by Benoit Mandelbrot, long after Pollock’s death. When Pollock described his work with these words, “My concerns are with the rhythms of nature. I am nature,” he unknowingly presaged a whole new field of scientific research.
The implications of elegance go well beyond the fractal organicism of Pollock’s style. There are large scale concerns that May addresses in the book:
A world in which “not doing” can be more powerful than “doing” is a different world than the one we are used to, with important implications. Because the most pressing challenges facing society are in urgent need of sustainable solutions—elegant ones. Because without a new way of viewing the world we will most assuredly succumb to employing the same kind of thinking that created so many of our problems in the first place. Because precious resources such as land, labor and capital are at all-time premiums, and in some cases are rapidly shrinking or being depleted. Because by nature we tend to add when we should subtract, and act when we should stop and think. Because we need some way to consistently replace value-destroying complexity with value-creating simplicity. Because we need to know how to make room for more of what matters by eliminating what doesn’t.
I found this article by John Tierney in the New York Times particularly helpful at resetting my ambient guilt factor. It’s a bit long, but worth reading clear to the end. I hope it brings a little relief to your background rumblings of discomfort as well…
For most of the year, it is the duty of the press to scour the known universe looking for ways to ruin your day. The more fear, guilt or angst a news story induces, the better. But with August upon us, perhaps you’re in the mood for a break, so I’ve rounded up a list of 10 things not to worry about on your vacation.
Now, I can’t guarantee you that any of these worries is groundless, because I can’t guarantee you that anything is absolutely safe, including the act of reading a newspaper. With enough money, an enterprising researcher could surely identify a chemical in newsprint or keyboards that is dangerously carcinogenic for any rat that reads a trillion science columns every day.
What I can guarantee is that I wouldn’t spend a nanosecond of my vacation worrying about any of these 10 things. (You can make your own nominations in the TierneyLab blog.)
1. Killer hot dogs. What is it about frankfurters? There was the nitrite scare. Then the grilling-creates-carcinogens alarm. And then, when those menaces ebbed, the weenie warriors fell back on that old reliable villain: saturated fat.
But now even saturated fat isn’t looking so bad, thanks to a rigorous experiment in Israel reported this month. The people on a low-carb, unrestricted-calorie diet consumed more saturated fat than another group forced to cut back on both fat and calories, but those fatophiles lost more weight and ended up with a better cholesterol profile. And this was just the latest in a series of studies contradicting the medical establishment’s predictions about saturated fat.
If you must worry, focus on the carbs in the bun. But when it comes to the fatty frank — or the fatty anything else on vacation — I’d relax.
2. Your car’s planet-destroying A/C. No matter how guilty you feel about your carbon footprint, you don’t have to swelter on the highway to the beach. After doing tests at 65 miles per hour, the mileage experts at edmunds.com report that the aerodynamic drag from opening the windows cancels out any fuel savings from turning off the air-conditioner.
3. Forbidden fruits from afar. Do you dare to eat a kiwi? Sure, because more “food miles” do not equal more greenhouse emissions. Food from other countries is often produced and shipped much more efficiently than domestic food, particularly if the local producers are hauling their wares around in small trucks. One study showed that apples shipped from New Zealand to Britain had a smaller carbon footprint than apples grown and sold in Britain.
4. Carcinogenic cellphones. Some prominent brain surgeons made news on Larry King’s show this year with their fears of cellphones, thereby establishing once and for all that epidemiology is not brain surgery — it’s more complicated.
As my colleague Tara Parker-Pope has noted, there is no known biological mechanism for the phones’ non-ionizing radiation to cause cancer, and epidemiological studies have failed to find consistent links between cancer and cellphones.
It’s always possible today’s worried doctors will be vindicated, but I’d bet they’ll be remembered more like the promoters of the old cancer-from-power-lines menace — or like James Thurber’s grandmother, who covered up her wall outlets to stop electricity from leaking.
Driving while talking on a phone is a definite risk, but you’re better off worrying about other cars rather than cancer.
5. Evil plastic bags. Take it from the Environmental Protection Agency : paper bags are not better for the environment than plastic bags. If anything, the evidence from life-cycle analyses favors plastic bags. They require much less energy — and greenhouse emissions — to manufacture, ship and recycle. They generate less air and water pollution. And they take up much less space in landfills.
6. Toxic plastic bottles. For years panels of experts repeatedly approved the use of bisphenol-a, or BPA, which is used in polycarbonate bottles and many other plastic products. Yes, it could be harmful if given in huge doses to rodents, but so can the natural chemicals in countless foods we eat every day. Dose makes the poison.
But this year, after a campaign by a few researchers and activists, one federal panel expressed some concern about BPA in baby bottles. Panic ensued. Even though there was zero evidence of harm to humans, Wal-Mart pulled BPA-containing products from its shelves, and politicians began talking about BPA bans. Some experts fear product recalls that could make this the most expensive health scare in history.
Nalgene has already announced that it will take BPA out of its wonderfully sturdy water bottles. Given the publicity, the company probably had no choice. But my old blue-capped Nalgene bottle, the one with BPA that survived glaciers, jungles and deserts, is still sitting right next to me, filled with drinking water. If they ever try recalling it, they’ll have to pry it from my cold dead fingers.
7. Deadly sharks. Throughout the world last year, there was a grand total of one fatal shark attack (in the South Pacific), according to the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida.
8. The Arctic’s missing ice. The meltdown in the Arctic last summer was bad enough, but this spring there was worse news. A majority of experts expected even more melting this year, and some scientists created a media sensation by predicting that even the North Pole would be ice-free by the end of summer.
So far, though, there’s more ice than at this time last summer, and most experts are no longer expecting a new record. You can still fret about long-term trends in the Arctic, but you can set aside one worry: This summer it looks as if Santa can still have his drinks on the rocks.
9. The universe’s missing mass. Even if the fate of the universe — steady expansion or cataclysmic collapse — depends on the amount of dark matter that is out there somewhere, you can rest assured that no one blames you for losing it. And most experts doubt this collapse will occur during your vacation.
10. Unmarked wormholes. Could your vacation be interrupted by a sudden plunge into a wormhole? From my limited analysis of space-time theory and the movie “Jumper,” I would have to say that the possibility cannot be eliminated. I would also concede that if the wormhole led to an alternate universe, there’s a good chance your luggage would be lost in transit.
But I still wouldn’t worry about it, In an alternate universe, you might not have to spend the rest of the year fretting about either dark matter or sickly rodents. You might even be able to buy one of those Nalgene bottles.
This morning I received an email from George Wingate, an artist and my first roommate in Manhattan oh so many years ago. He sent me an excerpt from a page torn from an old New Yorker that he found while cleaning his studio barn. Kenneth Tynan comments on the death of Janet Flanner in 1978 who, writing under the pen name Genet, was an éminence grise for many of the American ex-pat crowd in Paris during the 1920s and 30s:
Janet Flanner has died, aged 86…Enthusiasm, even at 80, never failed her for the promise of the day’s doings…She always urged me to visit aging celebrities and question them before they died: “Tax their brains…It’s like lobsters. Go for the head–there’s tasty chewing there.” As there was in Janet’s, on which I contentedly fed whenever we met. One consolation, I suppose, is that here at least, is a life-enhancer who outlived the shits–an American life with a perfectly resolved third act.
Turns out I had planned to see George today at his Edenic retreat north of Boston with my niece Rachel, visiting from Utah. While he continues to paint jewel-like landscapes and evocative still lifes, he also has turned his artist’s hand and eye to the land that surrounds his late 18th century home. What was once a large nondescript yard with a clay tennis court in slow decline is now an exuberant array of flower fields, stream beds, tree borders and trails.
We sat on his deck overlooking this extraordinary patchwork of color and texture, and continued the discussion of third acts and later-in-life epiphanies.
“When I was 25, before I became an artist, I didn’t know what I wanted to do or for what I was best suited,” George told us. “I took an occupational guidance test and was advised to consider being a gardener.
“My response to this suggestion was not positive. I felt like I was being told that I wasn’t good for anything but raking leaves.
“I wish that career counselor had taken the time to unpack that idea for me and suggest that I consider some variants on that theme, like landscape architecture and landscape design. Now, so many years later, I have found my way right back to that place. I AM a gardener.”
And a remarkable one, to be sure. Because Rachel is young, the fact that it took George many decades to figure out what work feels whole and integrated for him seems wrong or unfair. While it is age appropriate for any 22 year old to see it that way, I had a very different response. George has found his “perfectly resolved third act.” And for me, the fact that he found it and can have it makes all the difference.
When I started this blog in 2006, I did not anticipate how deeply satisfying it would be to develop companionship around content that matters to me. Sharing visual art and poetry are gestures that happen best outside of time, ones that are well suited for the disembodied 24/7 nature of cyberspheric reality. Discovery in this venue is much less invasive and more self-directed than getting a phone call from me at 2AM saying, “You have to see (or read) this!”
Connection based on content matters to me, even more than I had supposed. So of course I was thrilled when my new poetry pal Pam McGrath sent me some excerpts from an article, The Third Thing, by Donald Hall.
The relationship between two extraordinary poets, Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon, has become something of a legend in the world of contemporary poetry. There are many salient narratives in the story of their life together: The theme of two artists supporting each other’s work; the challenge of two highly individualistic people cohabiting with respect and kindness for each other; the burden of extreme suffering and grief (Hall had several bouts of cancer, and Kenyon suffered from depression. Eventually it was leukemia that ended her life); the ongoing longing for meaning, authenticity, expression. In speaking of this extraordinary marriage as its sole survivor, Hall exudes dignity and grace. I love his concept of the “third thing”, which of course can take so many forms in a relationship.
Thank you Pam, for this and for being such an engaging fellow traveler.
What we did: love. We did not spend our days gazing into each other’s eyes. We did that gazing when we made love or when one of us was in trouble, but most of the time our gazes met and entwined as they looked at a third thing. Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment. Each member of a couple is separate; the two come together in double attention. Lovemaking is not a third thing but two-in-one. John Keats can be a third thing, or the Boston Symphony Orchestra, or Dutch interiors, or Monopoly…
Meantime we lived in the house of poetry, which was also the house of love and grief; the house of solitude and art; the house of Jane’s depression and my cancers and Jane’s leukemia. When someone died whom we loved, we went back to the poets of grief and outrage, as far back as Gilgamesh; often I read aloud Henry King’s “The Exequy,” written in the seventeenth century after the death of his young wife. Poetry gives the griever not release from grief but companionship in grief. Poetry embodies the complexities of feeling at their most intense and entangled, and therefore offers (over centuries, or over no time at all) the company of tears. As I sat beside Jane in her pain and weakness I wrote about pain and weakness. Once in a hospital I noticed that the leaves were turning. I realized that I had not noticed that they had come to the trees. It was a year without seasons, a year without punctuation. I began to write “Without” to embody the sensations of lives under dreary, monotonous assault. After I had drafted it many times I read it aloud to Jane. “That’s it, Perkins,” she said. “You’ve got it. That’s it.” Even in this poem written at her mortal bedside there was companionship.
From Donald Hall’s poetry volume, “Without”:
Her Long Illness
Daybreak until nightfall,
he sat by his wife at the hospital
while chemotherapy dripped
through the catheter into her heart.
He drank coffee and read
the Globe. He paced; he worked
on poems; he rubbed her back
and read aloud. Overcome with dread,
they wept and affirmed
their love for each other, witlessly,
over and over again.
When it snowed one morning Jane gazed
at the darkness blurred
with flakes. They pushed the IV pump
which she called Igor
slowly past the nurse’ pods, as far
as the outside door
so that she could smell the snowy air.
Maybe it is because Harvard has planetary status in the Boston/Cambridge area, but it seems everyone is still talking about J. K. Rowling’s commencement address last week. Her topic–“The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination” is delicious just in its titular power. But the speech (which you can read or watch at Harvard Magazine) has lots of wisdom to offer even if failure and Harvard are hard for some people to place in the same sentence.
Of course some of the graduates took umbrage at the choice of having the author of a series of children’s books as the keynote at a school that, according to some students interviewed on NPR, was used to hearing from the intellectually gifted and powerful, like Madeleine Albright. (We won’t even go there, not now anyway.) But most people I know who heard her were moved by her message.
I’m excerpting a few paragraphs about failure. I’ll highlight her second theme, imagination, in tomorrow’s post.
Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.
Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.
So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.
Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above rubies.
The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned.
Given a time machine or a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.
Maybe you are like me. Maybe you too get easily seduced by the pace and pitch of another culture. Whenever I return from being and breathing with fellow humans who don’t speak my language and are refreshingly free of the troubles that plague anyone who lives in this country right now, reentry is a slow drying out. Of course I missed my beloveds, both friends and family, but what a much needed break from an invasive, oversaturated, misaligned cultural context that feels oppressive to me. It feels like the jackhammer out your bedroom window, the one that starts at 6am and doesn’t let up all day. The one that no one asked if you minded.
I spent the last week with my daughter Kellin in Florence. She is working on her masters in art history and is currently the most single minded person of my acquaintance. Her life has been streamlined free of the time-draining distractions that certainly eat up hours of my days, like feeling obligated to read the New York Times, to answer every email and to know the standings in both baseball leagues. Climbing into her canopied life was like coming face to face with the underside of a mushroom–an intricate, fragrant, fragile complexity. It is no wonder that she hopes to spend many more years living there.
Her passions are infectious, and her latest is Mannerist art. So in addition to my usual pilgrimages to see everything by Giotto and Simone Martini in both Sienna and Florence, I was given a thorough list of where to find the Pontormos, the Rossos, the Bronzinos and the Del Sartos. I’m an easy convert, but I am convinced she could win anyone over to the pleasures of these amazing artists.
We’ll be back in December when she presents the results of her research. That is just six months away, but it is a point in the future to measure my own success at simplifying, singleminding, purifying my intentions.
How refreshing to find an art “feel good” counter story in the New York Times, especially one that offers pre-coverage of the ever contentious, rhetoric-infested, “I can’t wait to hate it” Whitney Biennial. This piece made me feel hope, like someone opened a window in a stale, stuffy room with tired furniture and too many people talking loud.
The values in this article mirror many of my own. And since this point of view typically doesn’t get much air time, I am savoring this rare expression of authenticity and stand alone integrity. It also draws a sharp contrast to Terry Teachout’s recent piece in The Wall Street Journal about artists who lose their gifts when they get caught up in self-importance. (An excerpt of Teachout’s piece can be read on Slow Painting.)
I’d like to think that this point of view is the bellwether for a new and more meaningful set of art signifiers.
Fritz Haeg is not the best-known artist in the Whitney Biennial, opening next month. He has not had a breakout solo show at the Zach Feuer Gallery. He is not being wooed by Larry Gagosian. His prices at auction are nonexistent.
“I don’t even sell work,” he said with a laugh.
But in an art world growing jaded with such signifiers, Mr. Haeg, an architect by training and a landscaper by nature, may end up the surprise star of the Whitney show. Among the “homes” he designed for 12 “clients” are a beaver lodge and pond for the sculpture court, an eagle’s nest over the entry and other cribs around the museum for a mud turtle, mason bees, a flying squirrel, a bobcat and other critters that once lived on the Upper East Side.
Given that Madison Avenue is one of the world’s fanciest shopping streets, you would think Mr. Haeg is casting stones. In 2005, for his first nature-ruption series, “Edible Estates,” he replanted front lawns in places from Salina, Kan., to London, with vegetable gardens.
But his work is more than simple eco-commentary. From his Los Angeles home (a vintage geodesic dome), Mr. Haeg has carved out an intriguing niche within modern architecture, performance art and eco-activism.
This is clear even with his new “Animal Estates,” as the Whitney installation is called. The beaver lodge, for one, will be stained black. “It’s going to look as if Marcel Breuer had designed a beaver lodge,” he said.
Mr. Haeg grew up northwest of Minneapolis, near St. John’s University, with its buildings that, like the Whitney, Breuer designed in the 1960s. St. John’s, a Roman Catholic university run by Benedictine monks, made an impact on the young Mr. Haeg, whose father graduated from the school. “The Abbey Church there is burned into my subconscious,” he said.
Today, even as Mr. Haeg is putting his beloved geodome on the market and deaccessioning unnecessary objects, there is one thing he is hanging onto. That is a teapot made in the late 1990s by Richard Bresnahan, who since 1980 has run the St. John’s pottery program, working only with local materials, from clays and glazes to wood for the kiln.
“It’s one of the only things I’m keeping,” he said. He bought the pot, a traditional Japanese double-gourd shape, a few years ago on a return visit with his father to the campus. “The first time I visited Bresnahan’s studio, I was blown away,” he said. “This is a part of the art world that’s really been marginalized: handcrafts and the stories of how things are made. I don’t think many artists think about where their materials come from.”
The teapot meshes not only with his ideals equating art’s ends and means, but with his retro ’60s aesthetic, a blend of pop-kitsch and eco-sincere. “It reminds me of my geodesic dome a bit, the way it’s this sphere up on three feet,” he said. “And the glaze — it’s very hippie, like it’s still forming itself. And there’s a nice conversation between the light, handmade cane handle and this big orb that’s solid and made of clay.”
And despite the exalted pedigree of the piece, he uses it all the time. “I drink a lot of tea,” he said.
Though Mr. Haeg calls himself a lapsed Catholic, the teapot reminds him of his admiration for the integrated way of life observed by the Benedictines at St. John’s: praying, teaching, farming, hiring high-modern architects.
“They really believe that everything matters,” he said. “There’s something so simple and primitive in the best possible way of what the life at St. John’s is and what the clay pot represents. It’s sort of a reminder that design isn’t just about physical acquisitiveness. It can be a means to a more fulfilled life.”
If it doesn’t make you embrace the Benedictine creed, it at least makes you think about switching to tea.
New York Times
Sometimes the life force tank empties out. It’s a kind of ennui, an emotional exhaustion that often sets in about now, when the winter is still running its weather patterns even though the soul is ready for spring. I’m also feeling overwhelmed by the complex intensity of this political season and of course, football (do not go there, please).
This extract below, from a New York Times Book Review piece a few months back, surfaced mysteriously to the top of my desk pile. It is an apt description of my current state of mind. Which can, like the weather in New England, change rapidly:
“In ancient Chinese rituals,” Gray [author of “Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia,” ] writes, “straw dogs were used as offerings to the gods. During the ritual they were treated with the utmost reverence. When it was over and they were no longer needed they were trampled on and tossed aside.” That is our probable fate. He quotes Laotzu: “Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs.” If we don’t wipe ourselves out first, the cosmos may do it for us.
Elsewhere, Gray has emphasized what he calls the modus vivendi: the possibility, beyond mere tolerance, of embracing the multiple forms of human life as a good thing in itself, since no single arrangement could ever realize the full range of ends that people pursue…“In the future, as in the past,” Gray writes in “Black Mass,” “there will be authoritarian states and liberal republics, theocratic democracies and secular tyrannies, empires, city-states and many mixed regimes.”
We may not like it, but we can get used to it. In “Straw Dogs,” he counsels a kind of neo-Stoic withdrawal from the whole mess: “Contemplation is not the willed stillness of the mystics but a willing surrender to never-returning moments. … Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?” Hitherto, the ideologues have sought to change the world. The point, for John Gray at least, is to put up with it.
I received a book in the mail as a gift from a friend* I haven’t seen for some time: Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go: Waking Up to Who You Are, by Thich Nhat Hanh. As is often the way these things go, I opened it up to a few passages that had deep resonance for me. While I have many friends who are seriously walking the Buddhist path, my interest and knowledge is more of the sideline variety. But as is the case with most mystical writing, wisdom can speak to anyone regardless of context or commitment.
The book features the teachings of Master Linji, a 9th century Zen teacher. He used the term “the businessless person” to describe the person with nothing to do. “As I see it, there isn’t so much to do. Just be ordinary–put on your robes, eat your food, and pass the time doing nothing.” What a thought. That’s about as far from American consciousness as it goes.
Here is Thich Nhat Hanh’s overview of Master Linji’s message:
Insight can’t be found in sutras, commentaries, or Dharma talks. Liberation and awakened understanding can’t be found by devoting ourselves to the study of the Buddhist scriptures. This is like hoping to find fresh water in dry bones. Returning to the present moment, using our clear mind which exists right here and now, we can be in touch with liberation and enlightenment, as well as the Buddha and all his disciples as living realities right in this moment.
But the following extract is the passage that speaks most poignantly to me. For any artist, the question–the project–is everything. To rethink the concept of a question as something that does not require an answer but has the capacity to destroy obstacles and shift everything–“tear apart the veil of ignorance and liberate us”–is a humbling thought.
In school, when we want to ask a question, we remain seated and put up our hand. We use our head, our intellect, to ask a question in order to get a bit of knowledge in return. But Zen isn’t like that. Here our aim isn’t to find out and store up knowledge about Buddhism; it’s to ask the right question, the question that has the capacity to destroy our obstacles. If we don’t have that question, it’s better not to come forward. Our question should be something that can tear apart the veil of ignorance and liberate us. Maybe it can teach our teacher and the whole community, too.
That’s a project for a life time.
*Thank you to Andria Klarer–seeker, mystic, friend.