Saturday, January 15, 2011

Winesburg, Ohio

Winesburg, Ohio by George Willard is a snapshot of  small town rural America at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The book was first published in 1919, a year after the end of the First World War. For many returning war veterans the book was nostalgic. These youths left the cities, small towns, and farms of America to travel to a decidedly different Europe and experience in one short year the death and destruction that Europeans had endured for four long years. For a few veterans who enlisted before finishing high school, at seventeen like my grandfather, it was perhaps something simpler. Perhaps it was filling in a few missing pages in their life story. What they had missed by enlisting before the end of high school.

The book remains relevant today. It is the story of the awakening of a young mind.

The book begins with the writer, an old man with a white mustache, who has difficulty getting into and out of bed. But once this feeling of nostalgia is created, the story shifts in time to when the writer, George Willard was a young man living in the small mid-western town of Winesburg, Ohio. There are two points in our lives when we discover the essential truth to the meaning of life. One point is high school, just before we begin our life's journey, and the other is when we are near the end of the long road of life. 

And the truth is like this:

That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful.


And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.

It was the truths that made the people grotesques....

Rereading Winesburg, Ohio after many years, I am struck by the how time and age act on the writer's words. Then, I was like George Willard, the central character of the book. George was a high school adolescent, the writer for the local paper of Winesburg. As such he was both an observer of people. His descriptions of  of the people who populate his hometown make up the stories that became the book. Then it was fresh in his mind, later the characters and their impressions grew and took on a particular color and meaning.

Grotesques, he calls them, not because they are necessarily horrible, but rather because many of them had been shaped into caricatures.Some might be beautiful or amusing, but all were shaped by life and forced to wear of face that was not of their own choosing. Each caricature a mask of an exaggerated emotion. Each character a one-dimensional image of life. Each character the revelation of a truth or not even that, a half truth.

 "Oh, you Wingbiddlebaum, comb your hair, it's falling into your eyes," commanded the voice to the man, who was bald and whose nervous little hands fiddled about the bare white forehead as though arranging a mass of tangled locks.

Words can convey meanings that are not always understood. And so an off-hand remark to Wing Biddlebaum in Hands, the first story in the book has a special meaning unto itself.It is important to note that the reader of these words does not at first blush understand their significance to Wing Biddlebaum.Only as the story unfolds do we realize that these simple words set forth a cascade of memories that frame the telling of this story.

Grotesques as a word seems a little harsh to describe the characters of Winesburg, Ohio. And even Sherwood Andersen in his introduction admits that the word is use only to describe how in time the characters of the book  became big in the author's mind. Understanding this nuance, grotesque seems the correct word choice. Each individual reveals an important truth in the life of George Willard. Bing represents on one level the admonition to youth that one must try to "forget all that you have learned. You must begin to dream. From this time on you must shut your ears to the roaring of the voices [of others]." The story of the Hands is also an admonition. Failing to heed Bing's warning, life can become a retreat into darkness in which one repents daily of a weakness in not choosing individuality.

Friday, January 7, 2011

To a Mouse

It is a Friday morning in Kansas in January. The weather is turning frightfully cold, a "weary winter comin' fast", and I sit here "cozie", coffee in hand in a warm room.

What of the creatures of the world who do not share such luxuries? Robert Burns wrote of one such creature - a mouse, whose cozy world came to an abrupt and unexpected end one winter's day.

Robert Burns lived a short and, some would say, frightful life (Burns would say "cowrin, tim'rous"). He was born in dark and dour Scotland. His father died when Robert was 15. Robert and his brother Gilbert labored on trying to make a success as tenant farmers on a failing farm. A lawsuit made money scarce, and so Robert wrote.

He married his sweetheart, Jane Armour, over her parents' protests, but not before they had four children out of wedlock. After the marriage they had five more children. Meanwhile, Robert found time to have four other children by four other women.

One might guess that Robert Burns lived like the mouse - his "best laid plans" gone astray. Five women, eleven children, a failed farm, Robert Burns' later fame and fortune eluded him in life. Unlike the mouse Burns must have kept a fearful eye on his past, and another fearful eye on what was to be. One day, ploughing the fields of his farm, Robert turned up a mouse, and so inspired this poem.

He died on a cold winter's day of rheumatic fever at the age of 37. At the same time his wife was in labor with their ninth child.

by: Robert Burns (1759-1796)


WEE, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie,
Oh, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi' bickering brattle!
I was be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murd'ring pattle!


I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion
An' fellow-mortal!


I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen-icker in a thrave
'S a sma' request;
I'll get a blessin wi' the lave,
And never miss't!


Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
Its silly wa's the win's are strewin!
An' naething, now, to big a new ane,
O' foggage green!
An' bleak December's winds ensuin,
Baith snell an' keen!


Thou saw the fields laid bare an' waste,
An' weary winter comin fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro' thy cell.


That wee bit heap o' leaves an stibble,
Has cost thee mony a weary nibble!
Now thou's turn'd out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld!


But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft a-gley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!


Still thou art blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I cannot see,
I guess an' fear!

 The Robert Burns Archive

Read more about the death of Robert Burns.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Plato on Madison Avenue

The typical reaction on Gap's Facebook to Gap's new logo, released in October of 2010 is: "This is the worst idea Gap has ever had. I will be sad to see this change take place," a Facebook user said. "If this logo is brought into the clothing [store] I will no long[er] be shopping with the Gap. Really a bummer because 90% of my clothing has been purchased there in the last 15+ years."

The 20 year old logo was, and is, in need of a make-over. The need is demonstrated by lagging sales and the store's product line, which has changed little, despite the fact that its original demographic group has grown up and been replaced by a younger group, focused on health and fitness. Sadly, Gap misses the mark with its new logo. Perhaps, the focus should be on a new product line, and then let design form follow.

The idea of design puts in mind Plato's ideas on form. Forms are really nothing more than ideas. For instance, a chair is universally recognized as something to sit on. But, if a thousand people were given a  thousand pieces of paper and a thousand pencils, they would come up with a thousand drawings of what a chair looks like. To Socrates and Plato, his alter ego, forms are unchanging; the world of physical appearances is changeable. A logo change to Plato represents not so much a change in company as a change in which consumers view the company. And, by the measure of sales and customers, gap is not keeping up with the times.

Cultural distinctions highlight the differences in the way we view a product. For instance, whether I live in Florida or Montana will likely affect the way I see a chair. And, this distinction holds across countries, social and economic groups, and age.

The point for the designer is that design must be representative, amorphous, and simple. Gap's original iconic design, for instance, represented a straight-forward, no-sense expression of its no frills approach to clothing. this simple blue and white repitition of its company name was instantly recognizeable to its audience. no wonder that the generation x-er who wrote in on Facebook was "bummed" when Gap attempted to change his image of the brand.

What would Socrates say about this hullabaloo? At first blush, he might remark that it really doesn't matter much what form the logo takes, because Gap is really about an idea, cheap functional clothing for a new generation. Socrates was, by report, ugly, and so we might further conclude that he didn't care as much as to how things looked, just how they were seen. Reread the Parable of the Cave, if you doubt this statement.

To demonstrate that form does influence perception, I give the following example. To the left are the new and old Gap images with the colors inverted. My immediate thought is that the changes are symbolic of Urban Outfitters or Banana Republic.Design does affect our perceptions of the world. And, if this fails to convince you, think about the annual critique given to Hollywood's best and worst dressed stars at the Oscars.Lady Gaga in meat is revolting but attention grabbing.

Plato's failure to accept that we possess notions of beauty would render him incapable of finding a job on Madison Avenue. After all, even if our ideas on beauty are ephemeral, they exist at least for the moment.These ideas affect the flower we choose, the sunset that we admire, or the partner with whom we choose to dance at the party.

Design is a fundamental aspect of the human experience. And while notions of good and beautiful design may change with time, these notions determine our life decisions. Gap's Facebook fan (former?) expresses his new distaste for the company and so influences Gap's decision to take a new look at how it markets itself.

Socrates and Plato be "damned", a chair is not a chair if no one will sit on it.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The meaning of Auld Lang Syne

Auld Lang Syne - The Scottish phrase has been commonplace for centuries and isn't far removed from the English 'once upon a time'. Literally, the phrase means 'old long since' or, idiomatically, 'a long time ago'.

This explanation of the verse is my tribute to friends of old who are no longer here.

Auld Lang Syne

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?

(Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) transcribed this now traditional New Years Day verse, having heard an old Scottish gentleman recite the lines. Burns admits to adding two lines to the poem. They are the third and fourth stanzas that reference time spent upon the braes and in the burns.)

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

(It is for the reader to decide who is drinking, childhood sweethearts or bosom buddies. These days it doesn't matter for friendship knows no gender.

If you didn't already know it, a 'cup o' kindness' is a drink. ) 

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp!
And surely I’ll be mine!
And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

(In a Scottish pub, drinks were poured from kegs with pint tankards the standard measure of drink. The stowp was the device on the keg which controlled the flow of ale. Here, each buys his own pint and toasts the other over a 'cup of kindness'.

This line is the most enigmatic of the poem, for traditional hospitality demands that a friend buy the others drink. My take on this is that the poet suggests that real friends do everything 'even-steven'. True friendship is not a debt of gratitude, but a bonding of souls.)

We twa hae run about the braes,
and pu’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
sin’ auld lang syne.

(A gowan is a wild flower. 'Pu’d the gowans fine' romantically suggests 'plucking' or more appropriately 'courting' the fine young ladies upon the Scottish hillsides. Of course, it may also mean that the two were picking flowers.)

We twa hae paidl’d in the burn,
frae morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
sin’ auld lang syne.

('Paidl’d in the burn' translates as paddling in the stream, something, as a youth, was playfully done from early morning til the setting of the sun. Time and the broad seas have risen and roared, separating childhood friends. Interestingly, Robert Burns himself once thought crossing the 'braid' sea and emigrating to America.)

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!
And gies a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak a right gude-willie-waught,
for auld lang syne.

(The word 'fiere' comes by way of the French, suggesting a brave and proud compatriot. So, give me a hand my trusty friend and together we'll take a good drought of ale for the sake of olden times.)