Tuesday, September 22, 2009

This Internet...

I likely would never have known these things without the Internet. A couple of days ago, I unearthed three years' old news that an old school friend had died. This morning, I learned in the same manner that another old friend died--back in 1994! Shreela Ray was a fellow poet and student at the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa in the 1960s, a member of a small group that met regularly to read poems and talk about them. She was Indian by birth, extraordinarily beautiful and smart, and she wrote poems filled with love and compassion for her fellow humans. How could she have died so young? I was shocked and horrified. And much saddened. I wish I had kept up with her, had read the poems she wrote later in life. Aside from the simple dates beside her name, 1942-1994, I have been able to discover nothing more about her life since we parted ways.

Ellie and I watched the Lifetime special on Georgia O'Keeffe last night...

and I have to say that I was underwhelmed. I tend to think--dare I say it?--that O'Keeffe's work has suffered considerably from overexposure in the poster and postcard market.

I tend to prefer her elegant abstract images...

The Lifetime biography concentrates, of course, on her long and stormy relationship with the pioneer photographer Alfred Stieglitz who championed her work in the New York art world of the early 20th century--and both characters are well played by Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons, who manage to powerfully dramatize the sexual tension between the two vision-driven artists they portray. And their antagonisms were as strong as their mutual attraction. As Holland Cotter, the New York Times art writer points out in his review of a current O'Keeffe show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, "O'Keeffe wanted the power to include sexuality in her art's expressive range. Stieglitz wanted the power to define her art purely in terms of feminine sexuality, and to market it accordingly." Sieglitz, in this version, comes off as the archetypal early 20th century artist--self-involved, demanding, domineering, and pathetically unable to see past his own immediate needs. O'Keeffe, by contrast, is alternately submissive and assertive, constantly seeking to balance her sense of herself as a powerful independent woman and an artist and her love for a man who needed her more as a prop for his own ego than as a partner. Though it managed to capture much of this dynamic, I found the story line of the film to be disappointingly thin, and the truly compelling moments few and far between.

More compelling, for me, was the remarkable appearance of Barack Obama on the David Letterman show last night. Critics, I'm sure, will carp about presidential dignity, about Obama's current media blitz and the dangers of overexposure, but I thought it was a delightful hour. He accepted with a light touch of graceful humor the gift of a ridiculous heart-shaped potato. He spoke with comfortable ease about his family, the summer, the charged political atmosphere of the day, and moved on to discuss weighty issues--the economy, health care, Afghanistan--without resorting to cliches. I like that he listens to questions thoughtfully and answers the question that is asked, not the one he would have liked to have been asked. He actually thinks, and works his way rationally through his thoughts as he comes up with his answers. He is fair-minded, acknowledging other points of view; but at the same time clear about his own. When he doesn't have one yet, he's clear about the need to wait until he has gathered all the information that he needs and heard arguments on all sides of the issue. Isn't that what we would want?

This man, let's face it, is a lot more gracious than the rest of us. We all know his job better than he does, and assail him--more, or often less politely--for not doing things our way. The further we get into his presidency, of course, the more there is to complain about. I have no idea what can be going on inside that calm and self-assured exterior, and I often wish that he'd veer a little bit more over to my side. But I hugely admire that ability to seek the middle way, to listen and bide time, because that's where wisdom lies. Sure, I'd like him to resolve decades' worth of problems in the blink of an eye. And sure, his campaign rhetoric deluded us into believing that he could. Failing that, however, I'll settle for a president who thinks with both his head and heart. Which I still believe he does.

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