Pattern & Decoration @ MOCA

20 Feb


When I first started teaching art history in the early 1980s, the whole modernist canon as laid down in the 1950s by such champions of masculinist purity as Clement Greenberg and Ad Reinhardt was teetering on the brink of relevance and relegation to history. We started to talk about post-modernism and feminist directions, but the textbooks for the teaching of Introduction to Art History classes were still pretty party line. I remember that the newest editions of Janson and Arnason ended with brief and tentative descriptions of “Pattern and Decoration” artists, and gave a bit of lip service to feminist artists’ works that had been created throughout the 1970s. Some of the older art historians I knew were skeptical, and sniffed at these attempts to champion craft, colorfulness, popular culture, “anonymous was a woman” efforts as–gasp!–DECORATIVE, and therefore unworthy of inclusion in the discussions of “real” and important art. The High Art/Low Art divide may have started to be breached by Pop Artists as early as the 1960s, but “the canon” was still firmly ensconced in most of the halls of academe.

On the other hand, my artist friends, and especially the women, were already moving away from all that heroic purity and were painting and constructing in brilliant colors, incorporating craft, non-Western creativity and artisanry into their efforts, and bringing some fun, intimacy, and even messiness back into their work. (Thank you, JoAnne Carson, Marilyn Lanfear, and Wendy Edwards!) We became aware of  Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party” and the objects produced by the artists of The Woman’s House. As a dutiful product of academe, still trying to understand how to teach and afraid of my own opinions, I towed a thin line between Old School and new ideas. But as someone whose personal aesthetic veered toward a fascination with the decorative, ornament, and construction, I was intrigued by this embrace of craft and the art of the “ornamental other.”

So now, after all those years of changing aesthetics, movements of post-modernism and post-colonialism–all that artistic water under the bridge–it was absolutely thrilling to see this magnificent exhibition of the best of the artists associated with the Pattern & Decoration movement, now on at MOCA, in the Grand Avenue venue in Los Angeles. Not only were the famous pieces there–Miriam Schapiro’s quilts, Joyce Kozloff’s tiles and textiles–but some of the groundbreaking moments associated with those 1970s feminists were there. It was especially wonderful to see included Kozloff’s fantastic counter-manifesto to Ad Reinhardt’s purist aphorisms of negativity (one of the most severe declarations of abstract minimalism): “anti-pretentious, anti-pompous, anti-patriarchal, anti-heroic, anti-genius, anti-master.” Tell him, Joyce!  Women like Schapiro and Kozloff had studied art in schools run by these men, and began their careers more or less compelled to mimic monumental abstraction. Their embrace of the decorative and the crafts associated with “women’s work” was part and parcel of their feminist rejection of a modernism determined by male artists. (There are many good male artists involved in the P & D movement, too, usually exhibiting an interest in non-Western ornamentation–lots of their works in this exhibition as well.)


I was particularly excited to see “in the flesh,” so to speak, Sylvia Sleigh’s Turkish Bath, her riposte to centuries of female nudes painted by men. I always asked my students to ponder the fact that until VERY recently, we had no images of naked men painted by women–women weren’t allowed to study anatomy at the academies, but why didn’t they paint their lovers and husbands? Sylvia Sleigh was a great slide to show to engender discussion about this topic–and she includes ornamental rugs, too! A different take on Orientalism….

The rooms of the exhibition are divided thoughtfully into various themes, beginning with quilts, and ending with 1980s gaudiness. George was so excited by this show, emboldened to follow his own ornamental predilections; seeing this work of folded paper and acrylic paint was a revelation for him.

Finally, for my animal-loving friends, a wonderful painted piece inspired by medieval/Renaissance tapestries: Rabbit and Hounds!


The exhibit is on until May, and MOCA is now FREE!  If you have a chance, be sure to visit–it will make you happy!


29 Dec


In the 1970s, when we were very young and more adventurous than we are now, we lived in San Antonio, Texas. Driving to California then required a lot of hard-copy maps and hard cash to pay for gas. One summer–operative word here is SUMMER–we drove a VW bug provided by Auto Driveaway–the company that found drivers for people who needed to get their cars from one place to another (does this service still exist?)–taking it from San Antonio to Santa Monica.  We set out across West Texas and the rest of the Southwest, all the way across on Interstate 10, in the middle of July–no air conditioning, no radio (there would be little reception across the desert anyway), and already temperatures into the 90s. I have no recollection of stopping overnight anywhere until we got to Tucson. What I do remember is being more uncomfortably hot than we have ever been since, dripping wet on the back of our seats as the temperatures crawled up past 100 degrees. The huge expanses of the West went on and on, the interstate provided a few rest stops with toilets and vending machines and telephones, and we prayed desperately that we wouldn’t run out of gas before the next service station, usually placed about 150 miles between, and usually consisting of one small building with a less-than-salubrious rest room and some gnarled old attendant who lived god knows where and sold lots of beef jerky. There was some traffic on the road, but in some places you saw no car for miles and miles. If the car broke down out there, you just had to wait until someone drove by who could get you to the nearest phone to call for help. Fortunately, our VW held until Upland, California, where we got a flat tire on the freeway–close enough to civilization that we could limp to the side of the road and change it.

Travelling then meant you were totally isolated in this little metal box, barrelling through these open spaces a la Kerouac’s “On The Road.” No one knew where you were precisely, and concerned family and friends just had to wait patiently until you either wrote a post card to them or called once you arrived somewhere. I remembered that trip so clearly as we once again traversed the same route this month. This time–along with entirely different weather and 40 years of experience that would certainly prevent us from doing anything as foolish as driving in the heat of the day through the scorching desert in the middle of summer–I couldn’t help but be struck by other changes. We had our cell phone, air conditioning, GPS via the Google Lady (although I now ALWAYS also carry hard-copy maps), and reservations at hotels and AirBnb houses made ahead of time via the internet.  Only in  a very few spots along the way were we ever out of touch with anyone!  It’s an entirely altered experience of travelling through the Great American West. Whether it is less stressful, more secure, or just a sign of being older and wiser, I don’t really know.  What I do know is that the distances are still very long and very monotonous if awe-inspiring in the expanse. West Texas still goes on and on and on….

But there is a bright spot, and I recommend that everyone take the small detour–70 miles off of I-10, which is nothing “out there”–to visit Marfa, Texas. Those in the arts have heard about Marfa for years; I had always wanted to visit, so took this opportunity to get there at last. I can honestly say that this cow town-cum-serious artist community is one of the only places in the world that I can consider unique.  The minimalist artist Donald Judd discovered the town in the 1970s, and set up a foundation to exhibit his and fellow artists’ works and to support further artistic thinking and creating. As Wikipedia describes his Chinati Foundation (named for the nearby Chinati mountain range), “[t]he emphasis is on works in which art and the surrounding landscape are inextricably linked.”

We were enchanted with the whole scene in town. As an important rail head for West Texas from the 1880s, Marfa already had enough infrastructure to support a community, but was remote and open enough that artists could find lots of spaces in which to work and exhibit. What is so remarkable is that the place has not been turned into a kitschified tourist trap, but offers serious galleries and extremely high-end artistic products. Even the coffee shops are indicative of its melding of small Western town and contemporary artistic lifestyle: located in old cattle auction buildings, one cafe serves things like turmeric and chai, or almond butter and honey on homemade spelt bread. Not your usual good ol’boy breakfast!  That same cafe had for sale artistic candles for $20, and a divine made-in-town perfume costing $78 for a tiny bottle! Again, not the kind of stuff one usually finds in Western towns.

And finally, there was the Chinati Foundation itself. The collections were not open when we were there, and usually are open by appointment only through the Judd Foundation offices in town. But Robert Irwin’s garden in the middle of the buildings can be experienced every day. Beautifully meditative, I could have sat there for hours, with only the sound of the rustling grasses and the huge sky overhead.

Worth the immense drive to get there, and inspiring a more perceptive appreciation of the stark beauty of these open spaces.

Finally: we even had a wonderful Marfa cat experience: a beautiful little female, either pregnant or just fat, followed us all the way down the town’s main street!

Now we have to make the journey again, going back the other way. This time, we’ll stop in Alpine, a less artsy community about 40 miles from Marfa. And then, it’s full-on desert until home.




2 Dec



Usually I start this Christmas letter on Black Friday, but this year we were then in San Francisco, so am only beginning to write today, December 4. Still, since I send most of these greetings by email, I still have lots of time to wish you all holiday cheer.

The photo above is the best thing about this year: we spent several unexpected weeks with the family in Denver. “Unexpected,” because we were supposed to be travelling to Europe for 2 months, but events intervened. In the end, this was a blessing. The photo was taken in May; Lyle is now nearly 4, Lou is now 15 months old and walking (the treatment for his club feet has been successful!). We loved seeing them and looking after them, but our 70-year-old bodies are not as agile as they used to be–and Baby Lou is a beautiful chunker! We were exhausted but happy! They grow so fast!

As those who received last year’s greetings will know, we rented out our house again September-May and went on the road. We spent November-January  in Oakhurst looking after my sister’s house & cats (thanks Robyn & Mark!) while I did get some writing done on my book and took lots of bird photos; then in February (unexpectedly) a brief while in Santa Barbara, my home town (thanks, Packards!); then off to Denver, driving through several Western states in all kinds of weather to get there. And there we stayed, thanks to several friends who let us camp at their houses (thanks to Don & Cyndy, Kari & Mike!). Our houseguests, recognizing our plight, found other accommodations so we could return in mid-May to our Pasadena bungalow. The summer was occupied with medical stuff: I had a hysterectomy and 6 weeks of recovery. Hooray for modern medicine!


We are both healthy and as well as can be expected! I am finishing up writing the book of my “Three German Women” project, which included a brief but rewarding research trip to Vienna; I am now an Art Muse, giving private tours at local museums; and still taking photos of birds and grandchildren. George says of retirement that he is just beginning to realize that all days are not Saturday, he now has a Facebook account, and he reports that he sent out 156 of his homemade notebooks. We are still clinging to the hope that we won’t have to sell our house, and move–where???? If we could find a place that we could afford, where we could take our aged cats, that was close enough to the kiddos, and that had a cultural (and political!) atmosphere that we would enjoy, we would do it. But where is that place?

All in all, a bizarre political and personally odd year. For Christmas, we will be driving to Austin, Texas, to be with Dottie’s family when the kiddos are there, too. What fun! And since many of you expect pictures of our cats, here are the grumpy old boys:


Erika & George, Zuma & Kolo, 450 N. El Molino Ave., Pasadena CA 91101, tel. 626 644 2389 (mobile),,, Let us hear from you all!



Vienna–then and now

2 Nov


The photo above was in an article in the most recent Sunday edition of Vienna’s Die Presse titled “Wien wird jünger und jünger”–Vienna is getting younger and younger, a fact that comes as a surprise to many who still remember the image of the city as filled with old people and old culture. I first lived in Vienna exactly 50 years ago, from September 1969 to August 1970;  I was 20 when I arrived and celebrated my 21st birthday there. At that time, there were still visible remnants of the war, both among the buildings and the people:  a few structures were in disrepair if not outright rubble and Otto Wagner’s Secessionsgebäuden and other architectural monuments were often a bit shabby,  having not yet been completely restored. And oh, those poor old unhappy war widows! Old ladies on the bus would scream at us young ones in mini-skirts, hitting us with their umbrellas and calling us whores, because we shaved our legs. Old men still kissed your hand and called you “gnädige Frau” (or even “gnädiges Fräulein”!), and they still referred to Slavic cities by their old Austro-Hungarian German names–Ljubljana was Laibach, Lviv/Lvov was Lemberg, Bratislava was Pressburg. The traditional greeting was “Servus!”, and some people still remembered old Jewish humorists speaking in their distinct Yiddish-Viennese dialect. Streetcars stopped running at about 10, which often meant, if the Opera had a long performance, you had no choice but to take a taxi home. There was little night life to speak of, except in Ball Season. International phone calls required going to the post office, where one waited in an old wooden cabinet until the call was put through.  Life still followed a rather ritualized pattern:  promenading walks on Sunday on the Kahlenberg,  formal balls during Fasching (with goulasch eaten at 3 a.m.), winter ski trips, visits to the Wienerwald in the spring to pick Bärlauch (a wild garlic, see, and excursions around the Danube and out to Grinzing’s Heurigen for new wine and Liptauerbrot in summer.  For a girl of the Golden West, this was all fascinating and romantic and new, but it did reek of another era, and old people wearing cloth coats and Lodenjacke did pervade the urban landscape. Hippiedom had not made it to Vienna, and never really did. Some demonstrations against the Vietnam War did happen at the university, and we all marched with the Communists and Socialists wearing red on May Day.


Despite the grayness of the weather and dreary Post-War apartment buildings, as well as a bit of sadness overlying the city, we were young and we loved every minute of this new Old World experience. We all got boyfriends and had our first serious romances, we went to a gillion balls in our white gowns (and, in a sign of some youthful flair, some of us even attended an Oben/Ohne Ball–a topless event at the Secession building!). We avoided any association with Americans, spoke only German on the streets, and began to eat like Europeans. Enchanted by all that music and art and Baroque architecture, we were exposed to culture, and to a kind of romance that we had never known existed in our suburban lives back home. I also now learn that it was indeed the case that we experienced in 1969-70 “a Hundred-Year Winter”, one of the coldest and snowiest of the century. No wonder we were all so cold in our little short skirts! But as a California Girl, I even found the weather a novel experience. There was, however, no escaping the fact that Vienna was not a hotspot for the youth of the 60s and 70s, and that the city’s innate conservatism was still a bit restrictive.

By the time I returned in the 1980s–then with a husband and doing research for my dissertation on an Austrian artist–Vienna was beginning to change. Signs of prosperity appeared everywhere: no more women in cloth coats but furs, most of the landmark buildings had been spruced up, and tourism was going gangbusters. Kärntnerstrasse, Vienna’s main shopping street, had become a pedestrian zone, the subways were beginning to run, and people were beginning to have cars and buy apartments. Still, the old trope of Alt Wien–meaning both Old World charm and old people–still applied. Bruno Kreisky, however, Austria’s great Socialist Chancellor from 1970 to 1983, transformed the country, initiating tremendous social reform and, as Wikipedia states, “parlayed a small country’s neutrality into a major moral and political role on the world stage.” ( Because of his reforms, Viennese seemed to be less anxious, more secure, in the 1980s. After years of some deprivation and sacrifice, citizens of Austria were beginning to reap the benefits economically.  Some of the old cafes still served Milchrahmstrudel and Nusstaschen, but franchises were popping up, too.  Supermarkets–big outlet shops on the edge of town or in industrial zones–were taking over from the old inner-city butchers and bakers, although those were still operating. For progress achieved since then, see my blog entries here for the months of October-December 2015.

Now, in 2019, I have just returned from a brief Viennese sojourn, perhaps my last one. I stayed at an apartment, part of a home exchange program, near Yppenplatz, a traditionally Turkish part of town, known for its open-air market, that has now become Hipster Central. The landlords of the apartment are a lovely young couple with two little children–a demographic that seems to be the norm now in this part of the city. Everywhere I looked were young families, with strollers and babies strapped to their chests. Skateboarders, edgy street art, and hip new cafes dominated the area around the marketplace. Everything seems much more open, less connected to that Viennese myth of Empire, and everything is wired. Young people are more likely to be using Germanisms, to the point that when I asked my young landlady why they said “Tschuss” instead of “Servus”, she looked at me skeptically and said that “Servus” was from Bavaria! (It’s not, but the Latinate form sounds stilted to them.) Their accents are not the old-fashioned lilting Wienerisch ones, although their idioms may reflect Austrian origins. These are young Viennese who I can’t see going to Fasching-season balls or even regularly out to Grinzing Heurige. They are, however, still tied closely to their families, they are keenly outdoorsy and athletic, love to travel to distant places like Indonesia, and are quite responsibly into “Bio” foods, organic products, limited plastic, and all things non-GMO. Good Europeans, they still abjure clothes dryers, microwaves, and excessive consumption.

The city itself reflects this youthful freshness, a livelier atmosphere. As the article in Die Presse would have it, the Vienna of Sisi (Kaiser Franz Joseph’s wife Elisabeth) and Klimt is old hat, and the city now ranks among the top 25 of hot places for young folks to go.  This status, along with its ranking as “the world’s most liveable city” by The Economist and Forbes Magazine, demonstrates that its old image as “Wien, du tote Stadt” is long gone. Still, one can find beloved Mozartkugeln, phenomenal pastries, and a very splashy, neon-infused Christkindlmarkt starting in November. The Bruegels are still there, in all their fascinating glory in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. It does seem to me a bit ironic that the Vienna that has been in my heart as the most special place for 50 years, has now, when I am a senior citizen, become a mecca for young people! I am so happy to know that the city I have loved for so long will continue to grow and change with the times, and that, having seen it in the last stages of its sad 20th-century distress, I was able at last to see it as so secure and so prosperous–so liveable.




Update: Three German Women

13 Aug

Maria & Bobby, ca. 1954


As I am just completing the first chapter for my Three German Women book (Maria’s chapter), I thought it would be a good time to recap where I’ve come to on this project, and where it’s going. This has been such a tumultuous year for us, so my writing regimen has been no regimen at all. But I have been making progress. Good news: I have made contact with Maria’s relatives, the children of her twin Gusti. They have given me lots of personal information about Maria and Bobby’s life together (and photos, like the one above).  The narrative has expanded exponentially, as I have learned of Maria’s connection to several other prominent people, most notably the historian George L. Mosse, who became a close personal friend of her family. I have also received permission to publish parts of Maria’s brother’s memoirs, in which he describes in great detail their lives on their country property at Löpten, outside of Berlin. This recounting captures very vividly a rural German lifestyle–prosperous country squire and family improving the lives of impoverished villagers–now completely gone, for better or for worse.  Maria’s story has been the happiest of my trio, and the easiest to write.

Of the other subjects:  Irmgard Kern’s story is the most complicated and harrowing, and has many gaps. Unfortunately, I was unable to visit with her son Vincent Rexroth as I had hoped to in May, and he has not been at all forthcoming with any responses to my queries. (What was the name of her beloved dog in the 1970s?) Thomas Elsaesser, who is hoping to republish Irmgard’s husband’s magnificent book (H.G. Rexroth’s Der Wermuthstrauch), is also waiting for further information, and has had to put his plans for that book on hold. I will try to tackle the writing of Irmgard’s chapter next, and hope that I can pull together what I already have accumulated about her fascinating life.  Her amazingly insightful “Autobiografie,” published in 1934 in the liberal newspaper Frankfurter Zeitung, is really my main motivation for wanting to see this book materialize. I have transcribed and translated the segments, and think this will be a major contribution to literature about the life of women in Germany.

Finally, Anna Spitzmüller, my AUSTRIAN German Woman, will shift my story from Berlin to Vienna. Here, too, I had hoped to fill in many gaps (what was her aristocratic mother’s name???) when we were in Vienna. While we had to cancel that planned trip, I am now hoping that I might be able to travel there for 10 days in October to complete some necessary research. Fingers crossed that my recovery from surgery is complete, and we can afford for me to take the trip.  I am also finding that my research skills are failing me somewhat: Spitzi had great interaction with the Monuments Men at the end of the War, but I have been lax in trying to wade through the daunting layers of official documentation at the National Archives and elsewhere to get any substantiation of her claims about these events. I need to be more dogged in figuring out how to tackle online these documents, not all of which are available digitally.

My biggest concern now, however, is the tone of the book, and what to include in the introductory chapter.  As my blog essays show, I wrote about these women who I had known purely for personal interest, and then, for reasons that I can no longer really clarify, decided that I should expand their stories into a book.  I chose to submit the book proposal to Cambridge Scholars Press simply because I knew the people there, and was pretty certain they would accept the book for publication.  Now I find that this very academic press may not have been the best choice for presenting these stories. Their formats are extremely boring, geared for densely textual manuscripts, with little interest in any kind of graphic design.  For the first time in my writing career, I am writing something that is meant to be presented in a more readable, less academic, format. I have spent my life avoiding the inclusion of “I” and “my” in my writing, and now have to figure out how to be more personal while still including all the information.  And I do want photos, which does not appear to be that desirable for this publisher’s rigid format instructions.

As for my introductory chapter, I have also had to remember that I am not obliged to be comprehensive–I’m not writing a dissertation, or trying to get tenure!  Since the literature on German history of the 20th century is vast, I have decided that I am going to write this chapter as a kind of bibliographic essay, referring only to the themes I want highlighted–the history of German women, women’s education, German responses to modernity and their relationship to the tumultuous events of their history. By emphasizing what I was looking for in the sources that I used to verify my opinions and themes, I don’t have to justify why I did not look at whatever materials others feel I “should” have included, if this were an academic exercise. As my first attempt at writing in a more intimate, journalistic style, and not about art historical topics per se, I am still grappling with how to divest myself of all those years of academic training!

So that’s where I am now, two weeks after major surgery, and with a new deadline from the publisher for the end of January 2020.  Wish me luck!  And please send any information you have about “my” women!


What I learned from our recent peregrinations

25 Apr

The whole fam damily, as my mother would say.  March 2019


We’ve been on the road since last August with one interlude at home, in way too many places, having so many adventures, mini (and major) traumas, and experiences that I really don’t know how to write about the whole thing. But that won’t stop me from trying! I think the best way to summarize this crazy year is with a few statistics, then some bullet points of aphorisms and life lessons learned.

Some statistics:

–We slept in 21 different rooms, so that’s 42 different beds (after 45 years of marriage, we always sleep in separate beds now)

–We have cooked in 11 different kitchens, both gas and electric, some fully equipped, some with as minimal appliances as a hot plate and microwave

–We took care of 10 cats,  including two requiring trips to the vet for injuries and operations,  and minded (briefly) one adorable dog

–[Sorry, Ziggy, I forgot the adorable dog]:



–We made only one flight, LA-Guadalajara and back, but 4 long bus trips in Mexico, and THOUSANDS of miles driving through California and the Southwest, in our trusty 8-year-old Honda Civic

–A lot of our time was spent in wintery climes, which has only convinced me more than before that cold places are not for us (a dilemma when trying to find an acceptable place to live where we can afford the cost of accommodation!). We experienced 4 major snow storms and lots of rain, including 2 so-called “bombogeneses” in Colorado, only one of which was a real terror of a blizzard

–We celebrated our anniversary in Denver, as we had planned, and my 70th birthday also in Denver, instead of Vienna as had been planned

–Instead of two months in Europe, we cancelled that trip and spent 6 weeks in Denver taking care of grandkids and returning 6 weeks earlier than scheduled to Pasadena, thanks to our houseguests who were able to find other accommodations. Here’s what I had to write to our European would-be hosts to explain why we weren’t coming:

We have just arrived in Denver to be with the kids after a rather harrowing drive through the Southwest!  Because of avalanches, the highway through the Colorado mountains was closed, so we had to drive around the mountains through Arizona and New Mexico in HORRIBLE weather. But we have finally made it to the kiddos!  We had to wait until we got here to make the decision: we cannot come to Europe for this trip!  The reasons:  G’s 93-year-old father is quite frail (he is here in Colorado), our kids are in serious temporary need of some childcare help (changing jobs, no nanny, and no money for temporary help right now), we both are having some health issues, and are exhausted after several months of ill-conceived travel peregrinations. We will probably lose our airfare, but it can’t be helped.  Hopefully Norwegian Air may accept my doctor’s advisory note and will refund, but I’m not counting on it.

Norwegian Air (or the travel agent through which we purchased the tickets online) did refund the airfare! AirBnB was another story….


And so what have been the “life lessons” of these travels? Here are a few:

–We don’t ever want to be landlords. Too much trouble, even if the tenants agree to look after the cats

–We really enjoyed our time in Oakhurst at my sister’s lovely place. Gorgeous river running through the property, all kinds of wildlife in evidence, quiet setting to write (and I did do SOME writing on my book). But we realized staying there that we would not be happy living permanently in a mountain community, with no hospital, limited health facilities other than an hour away down the mountain pass, no mass transit at all, and only a few cultural entertainments or activities (not to mention, dare I say it, rednecks). I just have to accept the fact that I am, as the Germans say, eine Asphaltblume–an “asphalt flower”, a city girl. Or at least a medium-sized town girl….with access to countryside!

__I love my new camera (a Sony Lumix DC-ZS70), and despite it unaccountably breaking in December and having to wait for a replacement, I was able to take tons and tons of photos, and get rather good at bird pics. I’ve learned this is a great pleasure for me


__Nature is the most soothing, the most unpredictably exciting way to escape the trials and tribulations of our noisy, complicated, at times agonizingly fractious world. The highlight of my time in Denver was discovering an owl’s nest on Bear Creek in Denver–and coming back to see her owlet as well! (Another thanks to my new camera!)

__True friends are revealed when one is stranded and they take you in

__Do not always assume that your aging friends are sane. This is a sad lesson to learn, and can cause some traumatic moments–and also the loss of long-standing friendships

__Winter has its pleasures, especially if experienced in relatively natural settings.  We still want to avoid the cold as much as possible. When we finally got back to Pasadena, we had been in relatively wintery weather for almost 6 months; we are now basking in the warmth and the verdant landscapes, while eating dinner on our porch.

__We love our grandchildren, and it was a joy to be with them for as long as we were. (See photo at the top!) Family does come first, and all that. But we also learned that at 70, we aren’t as spry and hardy as we were in our 30s. Lifting a 20-pounder, and wrangling a 3-year-old at the same time is best left to younger bodies. 

__Meeting family members that you never knew before–or at least not often seen since childhood–is lots of fun!

__Mexico is unbelievably rich in culture, and has the most diverse cuisine in the world. If it weren’t for the Mexican love of noise, the Mexico City traffic, and the barking dogs, we’d live there in a minute! We met some of the nicest, most cultivated, most dignified and humane, people we have ever known.

_The landscape of the West is vast, sometimes scarily empty and dry, sometimes boringly endless to drive through, sometimes after wet winters abundant and full of nuanced colors. We have been fortunate to see as much of it as we have, but these 10-hour days are long and take a toll…. 

__Finally–and this is the biggest lesson for us–we will never, ever again plan such  peripatetic travels! If we are going to travel for any length of time again, we will plan to go to ONE PLACE and stay in ONE accommodation, then make side trips from there. While our decision not to go to Europe was indeed largely because the kids needed us, it was also because we were exhausted and overwhelmed by the prospect of making so many arduous journeys, organizing so many transfers from plane to train to bus to plane again, after all the travelling we had already had to do.

Now that I have tried to analyze this tumultuous year–and I’ve left out a LOT–let me end by THANKING all the wonderful people we met, the old friends who were so kind and generous to us, and our family members who put up with us in so many ways!  WE LOVE YOU ALL!

Oh, one final cat: I realized I hadn’t included Henry, my sister’s most wonderful cat. Now one-eyed–we had to take him to the vet to have it removed and deal with him having on the Cone of Shame. He is gentle, a superb hunter, and just an all-round lovely old guy. Here he is among the green mossy trees



Uncle Lou and Plastics

4 Apr

A lot of our hand-wringing conversation recently has been concern over the mad proliferation of single-use plastic and its horrible, devastating effects on the environment, as the oceans fill up with all manner of plastic debris that chokes marine life and poisons water and land. These distressing conversations and my feelings of helplessness in the face of such overwhelming pollution has, ironically but inevitably, led me to ponder the career of my great uncle Louis Frank Rahm (1899-1991) who devoted his life to the field of plastics chemistry and engineering. He was the youngest child in my maternal grandmother’s family, described as precocious, musical, and fascinated with chemistry from a very early age. He began work in celluloids in the 1920s; we still have some “art objects” that were produced in the factory where he worked, meant to simulate in cellulose ivory carvings.


Uncle Lou’s display at Leominster, Massachusetts’ Plastics Hall of Fame (now defunct)

Uncle Lou–who I never met, all this information comes from stories my mother told me–began teaching at Princeton University in the 1930s, established the graduate program in Plastics Engineering at the university, and was instrumental in founding the Plastics Institute of America. He wrote a groundbreaking book on plastics molding.  He stayed at Princeton until his retirement in 1964. Family lore has it that his research led to the development of Melmac dishes, and that one of the first sets of Melmac was sent by him as a wedding present to my parents in 1948. I have no idea if this is really accurate information, and no one is still alive that I can ask for verification, but we DO still have some pieces of that original set floating around in the family cupboards. My mother also told us that Uncle Lou continued to play violin, and that at Princeton in the 1950s, he played chamber music with fellow faculty member Albert Einstein.  By all accounts, then, he was a dedicated teacher, a cultivated and ethical man, and a central figure in the development of the scientific discoveries that have led to the world’s saturation and suffocation in non-biodegradable plastics.

So a family history, a personal connection, has led me to these ruminations:  would it have been at all possible for my Uncle Lou to have in any way envisioned that his efforts in science, his belief in societal progress through scientific discoveries, could have been responsible for one of the major culprits in the disastrous pollution of the planet? His is just one of thousands of stories of optimistic belief in progress and education, research and development for industrial uses of products meant to make life simpler, safer, and cleaner–but whose product has now, 70 or more years later, caused a juggernaut of environmental destruction with global ramifications. Were there any people in the 1930s who could have foreseen these drawbacks, and having recognized these failings have implemented some way to control the overwhelming wave of industrial pollution? I am not knowledgeable enough about the history of futurist prediction to know if any environmental visionaries existed then. I am pretty certain, however, that my uncle never doubted that he was contributing something positive to the world. As we talk now apocalyptically about climate change and the death of the planet, I just wonder whether there was a moment when we could have stopped or at least slowed this march toward self-destruction.