Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Sound of Silence

The other night I was at church to sing in the choir for the Orthodox Palm Sunday evening service, the Bridegroom service, as it is called. All the excitement and energy of the Palm Sunday morning liturgy now completed, it was time to quietly celebrate these evening services of Holy Week. Their tone is reverent, peaceful, reflective. They represent Christ's journey beginning with His arrival in Jerusalem to his crucifixion, death and glorious Resurrection. If you follow along, attending these beautiful services, you becaome a true participant in the events as they unfold in a kind of "real time". They are not of the past, some historic tribute or memorial, but we are actually there!

After the choir sang, we came downstairs for the remainder of the service. It was extremely moving for me, to hear the Byzantine chant, see the priests in their opulent vestments, smell the beautiful rose incense, all in a candle-lit setting. The Orthodox service is a feast for the senses. When I left at the end of the evening, I turned off the car radio, and came home in silence. It was like a breath of fresh air.

Frankly, and I am guilty as well, we are inundated with sound, images, action! All the time. We truly, in our modern world, do not leave time for contemplation, or anything that involves solely giving of one's time to a particular pursuit, without "multi-tasking" as it were. There is always the fear of missing something.

And so, in a sudden reaction to all this, when I got home I decided to be quiet. I DID NOT turn on the television. I DID NOT turn on any music. I DID NOT flood the house with light. I sat down with a decent amount of light, and read a book I've been meaning to start.

When I finally decided to call it a night, I reflected on how nice it was. I thought of folks from the "Enlightened Age", without big screen tv's, Ipads, cel phones, sound systems, electric light fixtures, etc. .....All our modern conveniences. I decided to put them all away for a bit, at least for this week. It's certainly an adjustment, but I am thinking that the price is worth it.

There may be time to write a beautifully-penned letter; not an email. There may be time to practice guitar for more than 15-20 minutes. There may be time to read an entire book in one sitting. Or enjoy a good conversation with a friend, or listen to the birds. I'm lookin forward to the sound of silence.

Friday, April 26, 2013

An Egg-ceptional Art!

When Orthodox Easter rolls around, this year May 5th, we get to see some of the lovely Eastern European religious traditions in all their splendor. One of the most beautiful is the Ukranian tradition of "writing" the Pysanky eggs, the wonderful, colorful eggs that are painted and distributed to family and friends before the Resurrection. I say written becuase the word "pysanka" comes from the verb "pysaty", or to write. The designs are not painted on, but adhered on the egg surface with wax . It is a complex and time-consuming layering process, truly a labor of love, that I will not go into here, but the results are outstanding. And, they last many years, if taken care of.

The colors used and the designs written all have meaning. There are geometric designs, ones from nature, floral, animal, etc. Colors play a symbolic role, too, and all these artistic choices vary per region.

There is evidence that these eggs were decorated way before Christian times, to ward off evil spirits and all, but about 988 AD with the acceptance of Christianity in the Ukraine as the state religion, the symbols took on new meaning. Basically the Pysanky eggs had their hayday in the 18th Century, with the oldest examples dating to that time.

Until now! Recent excavations in the Baturyn region of the Ukraine have found some egg fragments with decor that may well be as old as from the 1600's. The Baturyn egg is a completely natural, blown-out eggshell, colored with a grey-blue dye, and decorated with geometric ornaments. And even though the egg is crushed, it is archaeolically complete and can be restored. Baturyn was sacked in 1708 and all inhabitants slaughtered.

It will be interesting to see the complete restoration, and to know that someone before the terrible sacking and its aftermath, was happily engaged in an artistic pursuit, getting ready for Easter, as we Orthodox do to this day. Being Greek Orthodox, I don't make the Pysanky, but will be making the beautiful red eggs that we crack and enjoy on Easter morning.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Blue People

It seems everywhere you go these days, you encounter "blue" people, or rather, tattooed people. I mean, it's not that they sport one or perhaps a couple, but they are
covered. I'll admit, though I am not interested in getting any ink, some of the art is
quite beautiful, intricate, interesting. But, someday, we are going to have a whole population of crepe-y skinned, wrinkled old folks with sleeves, tattooed arms, or calves, or at least of those tattoos we can see.

Tattooing is age old, especially among native peoples as forms of ritual, rites of passage, religious belief, but there was a resurgence in the 18th Century with the voyages to Polynesia by Captain Cook. Joseph Banks, a botanist, who sailed with Cook, introduced the word "tattoo" from a tahitian word "tatau" meaning "to strike", alluding to the sound that was made when ink was applied to the skin. I guess the ink was pounded, or struck, in since there were no machines.

Sailors, of course, are always looking for new adventure, and what better iconoclastic thing to do but get a tattoo as a remembrance of exotic places, or to nostalgically recall people and places back home. Sailors learned the art, but also, there was almost always a tattoo parlor in every British port. I recall the very simple tattoo of the old sailor in Master and Commander - "hold fast" - one letter on each finger, but some were quite elaborate.

Of course, back home, tattooing was mostly reserved for the odd person, prostitute, criminal, the sideshow freak, those on the edge of regular, accepted society. And as usual, the more the better, as a kind of defiance. It later became kind of fashionable for the elite class to sport a tattoo by the end of the nineteenth century, but earlier, it just was not done. Not for decent people.
In Japan during the Edo period (the 1700's), tattooing was practiced, but the Asian culture has always been a bit more free where self expression and the physical body is concerned, even if it is veiled in their particular, erotic mystery.


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

La Marseillaise: Viva la France!

Today marks the composing of the famous                       La Marseillaise, the battle-hymn of the French republic. It was composed in 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, an engineer in the army, eventually attaining the rank of captain. The song, composed at Strasbourg, where he was stationed, has immortalized him. He wrote the words after a patriotic dinner in a fit of excitement (see painting at right). He was a royalist, by the way, and thrown into prison, in 1793, narrowly escaping the guillotine! He was eventually freed during a reaction to political events, the Thermidorian Reaction, as it is known.

La Marseillaise anthem  is written in a march style, and very emotive. One of my favorite hearings of it comes in the classic film, Casablanca, where it is sung in "Rick's famous, or infamous, cafe. Sung in reaction to the German officers in the bar, it really overwhelms. Brings a tear. I just love it. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the film is in glorious black and white, with all its dramatic lighting, and Rick and Ilsa there, too. Give it a listen:


La Marseillaise is also commemorated on the Arch du Triumph in Paris. See above, the glorious, heroic figures displayed. The chorus below, gives you a taste! Wonderful stuff!

To arms, to arms, ye brave!
The avenging sword unsheath,
March on, march on!
All hearts resolv'd
On victory or death!

 Another great patriotic artistic expression is by French painter Eugene Delacoix's "Liberty Leading the People". Painted a little later in 1830, it depicts Liberty as a goddess/robust woman of the people. The cap on her head, the Phrygian cap, came to symbolized liberty during the French Revolution, 1789-94. It hangs in the Lourve, but many people know it from the cover of Coldplay's album, Viva La Vida.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A Matter of Life and Death

I've been watching Ripper Street lately, a crime drama set in the Whitechapel area of east London, set post Jack-the-Ripper days, around the late 1800's. Great costuming, great set design, and extremely interesting, rather complex stories of what goes on in the underground, the seedy area of this neighborhood, where people are suspicious and scared of the Ripper's return while trying to make their daily way. The first episode dealt with a copy-cat killer of sorts, but then moved on to other noteworthy plots of intrigue and suspense. I just love it, and the character of Homer Jackson, an American, a Pinkerton, with a mysterious, shady past (below, left). He is the surgeon and forensic pathologist for the precinct who has bodies brought to his "dead" room for analysis.

This stuff is so interesting, so I decided to look further into forensics in the 18th Century. The word itself is derived from the Latin word "forensis" meaning "before the forum". These scientific methods of examination were gathered in order to solve questions, thereby helping the legal system to find the truth.

Though forensics go back to ancient China, the 18th Century saw much progress in Europe. In 1775, a German, Karl Wilhelm Scheele, discovered he could change arsenious oxide into arsenious acid, which in contact with zinc reveals arsine. This played a great part in the forensic detection of arsenic poisoning.

One of the first recorded applications of forensics came with a legal case in 1784 in England, when a torn piece of paper recovered from a bullet wound in a victim's head matched another piece of paper from John Tom's pocket. Tom was the assailant, found and later convicted!

In 1800, Thomas Bewick, English naturalist, used engravings of his own finger prints to identify books he published.

Of course, the interest in all of this scientific evidence gathering was done without benefit of the germ-free, hermetically-sealed environment in which they take place today. But, all in all, the beginnings of this very important science made great strides in the 1700's. Imagine if there had been the technology to apprehend the Ripper?

And by the way, though we have these technologies toady, we still sometimes are looking for a needle in the haystack. Just as we endured another terrorist attack (or so it seems) yesterday in Boston, it will not be an easy task to find the perpetrators. The police are even asking the public this day for their photos, videos, etc in order to check out the surrounds. Amazing!


Monday, April 15, 2013

The Ides of April

Today is Tax Day; You can just about hear the groan across the nation as this is said.
It's the 15th, the ides of April, as it were. Beware, as they say!

With the adoption of the US Constitution in 1789, the Federal Government was granted the authority to impose taxes on its citizens: duties, imposts, excises, etc to pay for the common defense and general welfare of the nation. The collection was left to the state governments in order to pay for the Revolutionary War with Congress levying taxes on spirits, tobacco, refined sugar, carriages, property sold at auction and certain legal documents. During the war with France, the US government imposed its first direct taxes on owners of houses, slaves, estates, a recurring tax using the value of the items as the basis for the tax. During colonial times, farmers often received land for free to encourage immigration. Local governments taxed with a "wealth" tax, believed to be a little below 1%. All these little taxes added up to pay for infrastructure, defense, safety.

Interestingly enough, it was President Thomas Jefferson, the quintessential antifederalist who would abolish this tax, and it would stand for the next ten years.

Nobody truly minds paying their "fair share" but the debate on what's fair is a crippling issue these days. But that's a story for another day.


Friday, April 12, 2013

Shaken, Not Stirred!

I’m into my James Bond phase right now. Though I saw Skyfall in the theatre, I was given a DVD for my birthday, so seeing it again, I am interested in the master spy all over again. I have downloaded some of my favorite 007 title songs to drive along with. They are just great, especially the older ones like “Goldfinger” and “From Russia With Love”. They are old school standards, with great horn sections blaring, the singer caressing the lyrics. It just makes you want to get out the martinis (shaken, not stirred, of course)!
And so, I looked into espionage in the 18th Century, and found some interesting bits for you. Spies and counterspies were just as commonplace then as now. During the Revolutionary War, English and American spies secretly or stealthly transmitted information about troop movements, supplies, political maneuvering. Even Benjamin Franklin’s son spied on his father, and reported information to the British government. He was paid to do so, and I guess he obliged.  How shameful!

Just like Bond, these 18th Century secret agents used a number of methods for hiding or transmitting information, including invisible ink, secret codes and blind drops. Sometimes an invisible message was written between the lines of another letter, with chemically-prepared ink. The reader would read the letter over a flame, and the message would appear. How ingenious!
Of course, there are always codes and ciphers, and secret messages placed in a tree hollow, park bench, a common, unassuming location to be picked up later on. How deceiving!

Industrial spying was engaged in, and a wonderful book by Sarah Rose entitled For All the Tea in China, tells the story of a scientist who was sent by the British government to “literally steal the secrets of tea production in China, plant the tea in Darjeeling, and thus make the British Empire less reliant on trade with the Chinese and more self-sufficient by harvesting its own tea in colonial India!” How clever!
And then there was Birch, Harvey Birch. Mr. Birch was the principal character in James Fenemore Cooper’s second novel, The Spy. Cooper lives from 1789 to 1851, wrote this book in 1821. Harvey Birch is a supposed loyalist who is actually a spy for George Washington.  It was the first time a spy was the leading character of a story. How very novel!



Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Pastime Good for the Soul

I've started watching Mr. Selfridge, on PBS Masterpiece, Sunday evenings. It's fun, not epic, but a good replacement for Downton Abbey as Downton's Season 3 came to a horrific close. Frankly, I don't know how they will recover from this one.

Anyway, Mr. Selfridge focuses on the famed Selfridge & Co., London's wonderful department store, opened in March 1909, founded by American-born Harry Gordon Selfridge, from Wisconsin. The flagship store remains today on Oxford Street in the heart of London, second largest only to Harrod's.

Selfridge was a brash American, but his innovative marketing skills led to tremendous success. Previously, most shopping for clothing and accessories took place in individual, specialty stores, where the salesperson showed items to the customer. Selfridge wanted to make shopping a fun adventure, putting merchandise out for customers to examine, see, touch, try-on. Changing merchandise with the season, window dressing as an art form. Well, he must have been right, or as he often remarked, "The customer is always right", because look where the evolution of shopping has come!

So, I decided to explore the concept of shopping. Of course, in the beginning, shopping extended out of the markets or faires, and the exchange of goods. Buying goods at the weekly market, led to customers coming back for more at familiar locations and dealing with the same shop keeper.

By the 18th Century, shopping became less of a chore and more of a pasttime, a curiosity. In London, in 1786, a German visitor exclaimed: "We strolled up and down lovely Oxford Street this evening, for some goods look more attractive by artificial light...First one passes a watchmaker's, then a silk or fan store, now a silversmiths, a china or glass shop. Just as alluring are the confectioners and fruiterers, where behind the handsome glass windows, pyramids of pineapples, figs, grapes, oranges and all manner of fruit are on show."

Shopping and beautiful window displays made the city more beautiful, and often helped bring visitors attention away from the terrible poverty that also existed in the city. At the time, there was still quite a divide between the classes. Still today, even if one's pocketbook is fairly empty, one can still go "window shopping". It's always good for the soul.


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Few, The Proud and the Dress Blues

I was talking with a friend recently who is a US Marine, and asked him about his uniforms, and when does he wear his formal attire, the famed "Dress Blues". He quickly remarked,  "At the annual ball!" "What annual ball?" I questioned. "Oh! The ball commemorating the founding of the Marine Corps!" When I asked him, when it was founded, he immediately, proudly told me, "November 10, 1775!"
Right then and there, I was compelled to look into another 18th Century historical event!

The founding of the Corp began with the Marines assisting in ship-to-ship fighting, providing shipboard security and enforcing discipline, and assisting with landing forces. Its mission was to help with evolving United States military doctrine and foreign policy around the globe.

As US history shows, the Marines have served in practically every conflict, gaining particular prominence with amphibious warfare during the Pacific Theatre of WWII. Their ability to respond on short notice to expeditionary crises have made the Marines invaluable to our military strategies and campaigns.

But, aside from this, the beauty of the Dress Blues is a thing to behold. And, my friend told me that no matter where you are stationed, there is always the annual ball. Nice to know some traditions like this don't go away, or become unimportant.

By the way, in the British Royal Navy, back in the 18th Century, their Marines wore red coats, and were stationed up in the masts to assist with sniper fire. I don't know if they have a fancy dress ball, but they have some nice appelettes, don't you think!?