Happy Chinese New Year

Happy Chinese New Year
Photo by Fortune, c. 2012

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Happy Spring Equinox

Well....what a first day of spring here in Oklahoma City. The view out of my window is white with swirls of snow. But it will be rushing towards the 90s and above soon enough, with a few tornadoes, hale and windstorms thrown in for good measure.

This Winter I actually did some seasonal reading. Several books kept my attention. If you have ever struggled over the difference between "it's", "its" and "its' " then Words Fail Me by Patricia O'Conner is the book for you. She's a advocate of clear, simple writing and gives very funny examples of how not to write. With a warm sense of humor, she is deeply sympathetic towards poor writers who suffer the trials and tribulations of trying to complete decent sentences, one after another.

I've been following with great interest the work of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates on ancestry, genealogy and DNA tracking presented in a series of PBS programs: African American Lives, and most recently, Faces of America. Professor Gates has done for culture and humanities what Steve Jobs has done for technology. Like Jobs, he has forever changed how we see the world and ourselves.

One of the great ancestral mysteries in American history is the story of Thomas Jefferson, our 3rd president, and his slave Sally Hemings, with whom he is said to have fathered seven children. It only remains a mystery for those who refuse to accept the paradox of Jefferson, a paradox that we still live today. It is perplexing how the author of the Declaration of Independence could be one the most prosperous slave holders of his day. But that is how it was. Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Martha Wayles Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson's deceased wife. That he would take Sally to his bed should come as no surprise given the proprietary nature of the institution of slavery. She was, after all, his property and said to have been extremely beautiful.

Annette Gordon-Reed has written a monumental book on the subject,
The Hemingses of Montcello: An American Family. Gordon-Reed is a researcher possessed and her scholarship has been greatly rewarded with every literary acknowledgement imaginable, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. The unique aspect of the Hemings family is they were able to remain a cohesive unit in spite of being owned by several families over many generations. Gordon-Reed places the reader right in the middle of the life and times of the Hemings family as property of Thomas Jefferson, in the heady moments of America's struggle against England for its independence. The book is scholarly but wonderfully accessible. At over 900 pages (plus notes, bibliography and the index) I have a ways to go and do not want to finish it too soon.

This winter I've learned the value of "reading in the round." So, I am also reading The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery, John Chester Miller's seminal work published in 1977 and finally Jefferson's Children: The Story of One American Family by Shannon Lanier and Jane Feldman which brings together both the black and white descendants of Thomas Jefferson.

In 1787, Sally Hemings accompanied Thomas Jefferson's young daughter, Polly, to France where she remained there for 24 months. Historical records indicate that Jefferson purchased expensive clothing for Hemings and that she most likely attended galas and balls, though not accompanied by him, which would have caused a monumental political scandal. As American anvoy to France, Jefferson certainly would have been a highly sought after guest and her brother, James, a chef trained and certified in French cuisine, most certainly cooked for such events. Interestingly, this rare and aristocratic world had a parallel one referred to as the "demi-monde" or "half-world." It was distinguished by the same aristocrats - aristocratic men, at any rate - who paid top dollar in jewels, land, expensive horses and homes to keep the company of infamous courtesans who electrified both Paris and London with their lavish extravagances.

How fascinating that on the edges of the elite world of power and influence of the 18th and 19th century orbited another where, contrary to the women of proper pedigree, these female players were fiercely independent, opinionated and were highly sought after confidants. These women who generally rose from extreme poverty prided themselves on handling their own affairs - sexual, financial and otherwise. Katie Hickman explored these outrageous women who lived and traveled all over Europe in Courtesan: Money, Sex and Fame in the 19th Century. The book commences with Sophia Baddeley in 1770 and ends with the passing of Catherine Walters in 1920 and the end of the era.

So, there you have it. Next post: my latest music fascination.


Friday, March 19, 2010

What a Bummer!

Generally I pay only passing attention to the celebrity love dramas incessantly reported on in the tabloids. Like any of us can ever really know what goes on behind closed doors! But it makes for something to do while waiting in the grocery line and in the crash-and-burn climate that's running rampant in the world of celebrity, well...what can you do? The stuff seeps in.

So, message to Sandra, message to Sandra Bullock: I will not pretend to know her beyond what I have seen in the media, esp. her recent interview with Barbara Walters. She gave credit to her husband for her ability to risk taking on the most difficult role of her career because he "had her back." I can only imagine the emotional devastation she is living. I pray that she will get to the other side of this, hopefully, without irreparable damage. She deserves so much better.

The thing that is most irksome about this affair is the unfair timing of its exposure. After so many years of hard work in roles not considered Oscar worthy, Sandra Bullock finally gets her moment in the golden boy's sun and here comes a sucker punch to her gut for the whole world to see. What a bummer! The time when she should be reveling in her success will be overshadowed by a crushing betrayal, a shadow that will be present every time she looks at her Oscar.

What, is Kayne West giving lessons on how to take the life out someone's success? This gives a whole new meaning to being "blind sided." What deep irony. Maybe after all the smoke clears Sandra Bullock's Oscar and all that it brings will outshine this sad episode.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Happy Birthday, Lee, Peaceful Travels

Lee Alexander McQueen
March 17, 1969 ~ February 11, 2010

When I heard of Alexander McQueen's suicide I pulled out this image of his skinny legged jeans that I have carried with me for years. Why I keep these things I'll never know but once in awhile their relevance emerges. I love denim; the look and feel of it; it's color, practicality and adaptability. This is the image that made me to start paying attention to Alexander McQueen. They were the advance-guard of the current fascination with skinny leg jeans. I look at these incredible jeans and marvel at his show videos on his website, and my heart breaks a little more for the loss of this brilliant but troubled angel of dark and moody complexity.

I am not given to Gotham Chic and prefer clean, simple lines.
That I loved his work speaks to the allure of his immense artistry and skill. I was intrigued by the workings of his mind, the meticulous precision of his work and, of course, his breathtaking shows. His original blend of futuristic design, storytelling and technology created a self-contained world that we were allowed to observe. His shyly distracted appearances at the end of of his shows suggests that the audience was just one of those things that came with the heady turf he roamed. I had the feeling it would have been just as satisfying for him to present these grand spectacles to a small group of friends.

The recent passing of his mother and the suicide of his friend and mentor Isabella Blow in 2007 left him emotionally devastated. From everything I have read, these two women were his anchors. Without them, why not take his leave? What or who could keep him grounded in the pain of his loss? Not his brothers, sisters or father, not his thriving business nor the anticipation of continued creative output could keep him here on this earth. The loneliness must have been excruciating.

An 2004 article in The Guardian in which Joyce McQueen interviewed her famous son and youngest child reveals a mother and son who delighted in each other. From the image that heads the article by award-winning photographer Dan Chung to its content, it's clear that this mother and son delighted in one another. Ironically, his greatest fear was dying before her.

With a Sun, Moon and Mercury in Pisces and Scorpio ascending, McQueen embodied the deep mysteries of these two water signs. Pisces often expresses the urge to move beyond set boundaries, easily living in a dreamy other worldliness. Blended with the intense sensuality of Scorpio - and his aggressive Aries Venus - it's no surprise that the clothes he created for women were shrouded in ethereal mystery, witchy courage and confrontational sensuality.

I do not condone the taking of one's own life but I do believe there can be extenuating circumstances that render this physical experience unbearable. And also that there are people whose spirits are so expansive they can tolerate life in a human form but for so long. They arrive on this plane, make their mark and then move the heck on. I have read a bit about the current stressful astrological progressions in his life. With the loss of his mother and mentor, there were certainly many pressures overwhelming him. But if only he had been able to get through the next few months of grief and healing. With the jovial, expansive Jupiter moving through Pisces for a year bestowing good luck and blessings on the children born of that sign, things would most certainly gotten better for him. In just one more moment, help and lighter, better days were just around the corner...with just a little more time. I like to think so anyway.

But it was not to be for Alexander McQueen. Instead, we are left with Plato's Atlantis, his mysterious and magnificent Spring/Summer 2009 collection inspired by his love of deep sea diving. His alien looking models teetering on hoof-like shoes created a sensational uproar. How very Piscean of him.

Images of McQueen's very last collection for women and, according to many, his most alluring and wearable, can also be seen at the above website. The brilliance this complicated artist will remain unparalleled for decades to come.


Monday, March 8, 2010


The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences got it right!

I am thrilled that Kathryn Bigelow got the much deserved Best Director's award and that The Hurt Locker was awarded Best Picture. Many props to Mo'Nique on her win and especially for her acceptance speech, which made clear her priorities and celebrated her husband's wisdom. He's got to feel like the fiercest man on the block. A big shout out to Geoffrey Fletcher, the brother who won for adapting Sapphire's Push to the screen. While it would have been extraordinary for the Gabby to win best actress, it was nonetheless wonderful that Sandra Bullock received the honor.

All in all it was a great evening in spite of it being haunted by the spirit Kanye West.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

Go, Bigelow, Go!

If you long for the days of real emotionally gut wrenching movie-making then Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is the film to see. In it we are taken behind the scenes to follows a bomb disposal unit stationed in Baghdad, Iraq. These are the soldiers who seek and disarm road side bombs. With great sensitively the film captures the chaos and hopelessness of war as well as the madness of adrenaline addiction.

I loath war and haven't watched a war movie since my dad took our family to see The Guns of Navarone years ago. I walked out fifteen minutes into the screening. Even as a kid war images weirded me out. So what drew me to The Hurt Locker? First I was intrigued by the idea of a woman doing a war film and also that she is James Cameron's former wife and they are going head-to-head for Best Director and Best Film (okay, I confess, I can be as shallow as the next person). She did not disappoint.

I believe a film should haunt, linger in the heart and mind for a time and, at its most excellent, expand your world view. For my money, this year The Hurt Locker is that movie. Since seeing it, the mere mention of a 'bomb squad' causes its truth to flood my mind. I see the images and am once again reminded that as a species we must find another way to resolve conflicts, one that doesn't require bombs and guns and killing.

James Cameron spent $400 million to make a 3-D spectacle that has changed the movie-making game and will continue to generate a lot of loot in the industry (with that over the top budget this is the very least we should expect). But Kathryn Bigelow has accomplished something much deeper. With The Hurt Locker she reminds us of the painful complexity of war and how it destroys the human spirit. With poignant storytelling, she and script writer Mark Boal asks us to call forth our better selves and re-think the sacrifice we all suffer through war. There are no winners.

Kathryn Bigelow has more cojones than a football field full of guy movie executives and I applaud her for being so bold, so true and so gentle. I am greatly anticipating her acceptance speech for best director.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Dinka's Avatar

Well, it's been a long while since I have written but I am back in time for Oscar Season! I've seen a number of them but have missed many. Besides Precious, the most intriguing film story is the directorial face-off between Avatar and The Hurt Locker by ex-spouses James Cameron and Katherine Bigelow,respectively.

Hands down, Avatar is the technical marvel of the season. Like everyone else I left the theater awed by its 3-D brilliance and wanting to see it again (I never did). But the brilliance of Avatar rapidly dimmed. It has been ultimately replaced by general irritation every time I hear Cameron's stoic pontifications about having to wait 30 years for technology to catch up to his vision and the film's political implications that we as a species must be mindful of the environment....blah, blah, blah.

What Cameron hasn't shared publicly is that he had no problem finding tons of creative inspiration for his story about the rescue of the environmentally and spiritually conscious Navi people by the white guy who "went native." This character, of course, ends up with the biggest, baddest flying animal. He defends the Navi and their nature/spirit-based world from the military industrial complex that wants their land for its own selfish economic purposes. Okay, we get it. We've lived it a million times over. It's the same story of victimization that every group of indigenous people on this planet can tell and here in the 21st century in this country we are still told that these people can only be saved by a courageously transformed member of an enemy clan. It's so exhausting.

These Dinka women of southern Sudan in this photograph by Angela Fisher wear beaded collars identical to that worn by Moat, the high priestess character. Adornment on the male characters can also be traced to the Dinka people. While more difficult to prove, I suspect the physical characteristics of the Navi were also inspired by the Dinka who tend to be extremely tall, lean and muscular. At 7'7", NBA star Manute Bol is a classic example of a Dinka man. Add dread locks and tails (I can't even deal with the tail thing) and you have the Navi. I wonder how much of the mega-millions that Cameron, et al., are making off of this film will go to hellp the people that so inspired his vision?

Presently hundreds of thousands of Dinka people are war refugees and have been flung as far and wide as Canada and the United States (see film Lost Boys of Sudan.) Human trafficking and slave trade continue to plague those who remain in Southern Sudan. Supermodel Alex Wek hails from the Dinka people. You can find segment of a BBC special about her return to her home at:

What a little Avatar cash money could do to assist the Dinkas' plight.

I doubt that my cultural concerns matter much to James Cameron or The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when it comes to awarding or receiving an Oscar. I have found numerous film reviews that take Cameron to task about the predictable, shallow content of Avatar but none that specifically deal with his co-opting the Dinka's aesthetic. What would compel him to do so? I would anticipate a dismissive response claiming that all artists get their inspiration from somewhere. True, but the difference in this particular instance is that there is such a tremendous need. The film-going public certainly won't care. And who would tell them? Only a trained eye could recognize Dinka beadwork. Plus, we are notorious for the "entertain me" syndrome. Authenticity, cultural context, paying respects for origins of film image, thinking about the images that fill the screen before them...ah, not so much. What a sadly missed opportunity.

Happy Oscars

Photo of Dinka man by Angela Fisher

Next: The Hurt Locker