The long history of :)

Thanks to the ubiquitous emoji, we’re now communicating more than ever in semiotics, and most specifically with some simple yet telling arrangement of two dots for eyes, and some visceral version of a frown, grimace, or smile.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this emotive shorthand predates the PC age—after all, the Kool-Aid man has been knocking down walls since the Seventies, wearing not much more than a smile. (How does an anthropomorphized glass pitcher bust through bricks, anyway?)

But how far back does it go? Several hundred years seems a stretch, yet the legal document at the top dates from 1635, and seems to clearly include a less-than-smiley face at the lower left, incorporated into Slovakian notary Jan Ladislaides’ signature.

Perhaps the 17th Century was the onset of the emoji era, because here we also see what was arguably a bit of clever typography aptly integrated into Robert Herrick’s 1648 poem, “To Fortune” (my highlighting) —

Indeed, until very recently these were thought to be the earliest usages of our beloved :) and :|

But then…

Say hello to the self-evidently friendly Karkamish Smile, recently unearthed at a Hittite site in Turkey, which pushes back the Age of the Emoticon about 3,700 years.

Researchers are cautious, admitting that the design was intentionally drawn on the jug but saying they can’t be sure what exactly the ancient potter meant by it.

But we know, don’t we? We who so easily and frequently dash off a wordless update as to our current emotional state, with little more than a colon or semicolon, and an array of punctuational rictus options. We even know how the potter was feeling that day. He wasn’t :\ … he was :) .

We like to think our technology has isolated us from our ancestors. Think that no longer. We now know something we share with them, something that transcends language and media and time itself. And that, more than I can express in words, makes me very, very :-]

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Send me art

You already know what a sizable percentage of humanity’s wit, wisdom and culture is readily beam-downable to that device you keep in your pocket (and that might not be the safest place to keep it, by the way). But what if, on those (hopefully frequent) days when you’ve a yen to browse some art, you didn’t need to risk the hit-or-miss of an amorphous image search, but instead could just invite an already curated collection onto your phone, and into your heart and soul?

All praise, then, to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. SFMOMA has harnessed the twin progressive pillars of cellular technology, and their own collection, to make artwork more accessible than ever before. They call it Send Me SFMOMA, and it’s a way of making their entire catalog (only 5 percent of which is on display at any given time) yours for the texting. Works like this: Send a text to 57251; include the message “Send me”– followed by anything you intuit is the proper prompt for the artwork you need to see. Could be a name, a description, a color, even an emoji. The guesswork is half the fun—I tried Send me brilliance, Send me insight, and Send me horror, only to be told by SFMOMA’s fast-acting AI that matches could not be found. The request shown here for Dada, though, yielded a surprisingly apt piece, albeit one surprisingly anachronistic. Likewise the Send me America result at the top of this page might have been enough to spin the cranium of one of our newly minted chest-thumping nationalists. A timely reminder that Vespucci lent his name to not just one country, but actually a pair of continents? A teachable moment initiated by that aforementioned AI? Why not.

Because art does teach, and exposure to the wide realm of cultural inspiration changes minds, broadens perspectives, and forges oh-so-necessary connections. We become a community of appreciators, and a tribe of seekers after understanding. Or at the very least, we seize an opportunity to see something we’d never seen, which in turn must make us think of things that’d otherwise never come to mind.

The kind of art that induces this marvelous effect is all around—it’s in your local gallery but also on the mural down the street, and maybe even on the paper or canvas before you that you’d limn if only you could find the time. You are the creator and the consumer, and the seeker and the learner, if only in the potential state. Perhaps for your sanity, for all of ours, you need to find a way to turn potentiality to actuality.

Could the start of that journey be a mere text message away? That seems trite and unlikely…but still. The number again is 57251. Hadn’t you better check it out?

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Whisky business

SOME whisky business
slowed our trek
it slowed the way we
share our throes.
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We ran our road
we had our wreck
we have still more
and on it goes.
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I cannot say I
miss our start
or missed a chance
to spin the wheel.
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Our broken thoughts
our secret art
is all that works
and all I feel.
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You’re careless now and
I’m without blame
while whatever was
goes behind the wall.
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Whatever is next
has its own shrill shame
and what we were
may survive our fall.
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When in the course of human events

The course of human events can be a harrowing run, and even in the best circumstances the road takes you, eventually, to landscapes you did not expect.

The act of political estrangement that began on the Fourth of July, 1776 was a spark lit in darkness, and it serves us well to remember just how complete that darkness was. The framework of representative democracy was still a decade and a war away—the document signed that day didn’t create a new society, it just began to chip away at the dross that encased the old one.

The powerful and necessary reminder here is that destruction is the inevitable precursor to creation. Old growth is cleared to make room for the new, tarnish is abraded to reveal the gleam. Old institutions become tired, corrupt, self-serving; an act of removal is their only redemption.

These theses are timely, and not only because today is America’s birthday. Today is also America’s crisis, as was yesterday, as will be tomorrow. For reasons we all know, which aren’t even necessary to enumerate, the organs of American governance are being tested like never before. And they’re not acquitting themselves well in response.

Maybe that’s for the best. Maybe the presence of a lunatic at the helm and of enablers and sycophants all around him remind us that it is our responsibility, ours alone, to right our own ship.

Either the foundations of our society survive the present assault, or they don’t. In any case rot is revealed, and a course of remediation is suggested. How we react—what we create in response to this destruction—will be the true measure of our fitness as a people. The destiny of America is being written by our action and our inaction, for good or for ill.

The course of human events has brought us to this critical, horrific juncture, and the anniversary of our Independence is as an appropriate time as any to reflect upon that, and upon all its many implications.

But let us not reflect too long. Let’s get busy saving our country.

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Rhapsody

Because sometimes only verse will do…

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Summer Solstice 2017 – fiat lux

Whether this particular day marks for you a simple celestial event unique to our solar neighborhood, or a sacred quarterpost within the wheel of the year, it remains unarguable that something special is happening right now.

We in the northern hemisphere experience the longest day (in terms of daylight hours) of the year. Our friends in the south experience the shortest. In either case the day culminates a pattern of the season that’s been building, that now stands still, that next begins to subtly shift the other way.

It’s orbital mechanics, the tilt of the poles. And it’s magick. It’s both.

The dichotomy doesn’t matter. What matters is that the seasons change, and we change. And it could just be that we’ve never needed that more.

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Patronage made easy

One of the best bumper stickers I’ve seen lately is also one of the most succinct: Buy Art.

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And so you should. But does it cost Medici money to enter the rarefied world of art patronage? Oh no.

This beauty here, I call him Ziggy, is a quality print lovingly derived from the original, breath-taking brushwork of Northeast Ohio artist Kat LoGrande. I purchased it from her very hand a week ago, on a hot late-spring day, at a lively arts-and-culture event in Chagrin Falls. Kat and my wife were already acquainted; I had a chance to chat, get to know her, and (blessed day) buy this now-treasured addition to my modest yet growing collection.

Like all the best art, it both becomes integral to the room, while simultaneously transforming it. And like the most extraordinary art, it can somehow reveal itself, slowly—at its own pace—on a schedule all its own. By this I mean, I thought I was familiar enough with the subject of inspiration (Where are the spiders?), and I’ve surely looked at this work often enough, intently, since it came home with me…

Yet somehow, just a moment ago, I finally noticed his eyes.

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RIP Adam West (Sept. 19, 1928 – June 9, 2017

Must the Dark Knight brood? Does every incarnation of the Batman need to be darker than the last? Maybe that’s a question for today’s superhero fan base, but we’re fortunate to have had it answered long ago.

From 1966 to 1968 the incomparable Adam West played a version of Bruce Wayne and that wealthy do-gooder’s alter-ego unlike anything seen before, and unlike anything we’ll ever see again. Within a short-lived ABC series and one feature film Adam West showed us that deliciously deliberate, self-conscious camp can in the hands of a master thespian be raised to the level of high art. Is that hyperbole? Tune in next week…and see for yourself that this cultural touchstone is here with us to stay.

William West Anderson, better known and beloved by all as Adam West, passed away last night in the company of his family, after a short battle with leukemia. Sincerest condolences are offered to that family, and to all of us who grieve him as though we knew him. And sincerest appreciation to the man who’s made us laugh for generations—thank you Bruce, thank you Batman, thank you Mister West.

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Kathy Griffin’s double fail

Michelle Obama once told us everything we need to know about maintaining a sense of honor and dignity during these woeful times of bitterness and divide. She said, “When they go low, we go high.”

Kathy Griffin, alleged comedienne, certainly disregarded this dictum when she posted that picture of herself and the bloodied Trump head. But of course, she as well the rest of us are under no obligation to follow Mrs. Obama’s sage words. I’d suggest though that one should have some powerful reason to go against not just demonstrable wisdom, but plain common sense.

I see no such reason here. It wasn’t funny, it wasn’t ironic, it made nor served no larger point. I’m so perplexed as to why she did it I’m half-tempted to conclude she just wasn’t in her right mind.

The argument I’m hearing, of course, is that we saw similar dread imagery, and far worse, involving President Obama throughout his years in office—nooses, lynched effigies, racist depictions best disdained and forgotten. And it’s true: those infamies were committed by nitwits on the right, both anonymous and famous (looking at you, Ted Nugent), with little repercussion.

Maybe that empowered Kathy Griffin to act. If so, although she wasn’t speaking for anyone but herself (we already know what the Obamas would have said about it), she should have felt empowered to go full-bore, Nugent-like. Wango tango, if you will.

Instead, she folded like a cheap shirt. She first apologized (not, perhaps, her worst instinct), then said she was bullied, broken, her career over.

Sorry-not-sorry, but I can’t work up an erg of sympathy for you, Grifs. You sowed the wind, then flinched from the whirlwind. You threw a punch at a notoriously thin-skinned backbiter (who, by the way, is now at the pinnacle of power) then was surprised and dismayed at the flurry of blows coming back your way.

I’d never recommend anyone follow the worst examples of right-wing boorishness, but if you do, own that shit. Don’t apologize, don’t back down, and for sweet fuck’s sake, don’t publicly weep when things get ugly. What would Ted do? Something shitty, no doubt, but at no point would we see his tears.

Somebody got scalped last week, Kathy Griffin, but it sure wasn’t Trump.

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Memorial and monition – Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing

We take this day as personal time, hopefully as a time of reflection and gratitude but in any case as a day that exists as an exemplar of freedom, bought and paid for, like all freedoms, with blood and sacrifice.

On past Memorial Days this page has taken the opportunity to recognize and recount the story of a single fallen hero, so we might see within that tale a larger story, an ongoing one, of duty and honor and loss. Lt. Alonzo Cushing’s story is no different, except that it carries with it, perhaps, some faint echo of a warning.

Alonzo Hersford Cushing graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in June, 1861, just two months after the onset of hostilities of the Civil War. He was commissioned as an artillery officer, and bestowed the ranks of second and first lieutenant, sequentially, both on the same day. Junior officers were badly needed, the time for celebration was short, and the twenty year old was destined for battle, and soon.

For the next two years Lt. Cushing was to command artillery batteries at some of the more notable engagements of the war, including Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. His final action, the site of his ultimate heroics, would be at was perhaps the most famous skirmish of the most famous battle: defending Cemetery Ridge against Pickett’s Charge during the Battle of Gettysburg.

Cushing’s Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery, was decimated during the charge. Cushing was wounded by shrapnel to his shoulder and was ordered to the rear. He disregarded the order and stayed at his post. A second shell fragment nearly eviscerated him; he held his abdomen together while keeping up the rate of fire with the cannon he had left to him. Too weak by now to project his orders to the men remaining in his command, he was helped to stand by his first sergeant, who faithfully passed his orders down the line. Lt. Cushing was then struck by a rifle bullet, a fatal shot to the head. He was 22, and his war was over.

On November 6, 2014, 151 years after he gave “the last full measure of devotion,” Alonzo H. Cushing was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama.

It may be trite to cast the past as prologue; in better days the story of Alonzo Cushing could be one of inspiration. Today it must be taken as warning.

Between 1861 and 1865 this country was torn asunder to answer questions of federalism, of states rights, and most urgently, the probity and ethics of the enslavement and ownership of human beings. The Republic had been designed to answer such questions with thoughtful debate, but that system failed so that the answers could only come by way of the blood of young men like Alonzo H. Cushing.

That failure is now a century and a half behind us, and our nation is once again sliding toward a disastrous division. Debate, compromise, mutual respect of divergent ideals are not only waning, they’re scorned as betrayal by the extremists who drive the divisions.

I’m not saying that a Second Civil War is the inevitable outcome of our current shattered civic dialogue…but I’m also not saying it’s impossible.

The least honorable, the least American among us are those insisting on ideological purity—whatever that ideology might be—and they’re demonizing and marginalizing all who disagree. The most recent, most horrific escalation in this regard is that these small men are now turning to violence in ever increasing numbers. Blood is being spilled for political dogma.

This cannot stand. Alonzo Cushing and 620,000 others died the last time that America let the sound of guns replace the voices of our reason. If this Republic is to survive we must reverse this terrifying trend and return to the civility and self-respect that has always been, and will always be, the core of our greatness.

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RIP Roger Moore (Oct. 14 1927 – May 23 2017)

There are two venerable British-born franchises with a rotating stable of actors playing the lead: James Bond, and Doctor Who. In both cases (and I’ve informally verified this in conversations with fans of both, from both sides of the pond), one’s favorite is whoever is occupying the role when one first delves into it.

Roger Moore was James Bond between 1973 and 1985. Those were the formative years for we Gen-Xers, and thus we formed an attachment to Roger Moore as 007. We may have gone back and watched the Sean Connery films, and we might have stayed with the Bond brand through the years of Brosnan, Dalton, and Craig. Doesn’t matter. For millions of us, Roger Moore, smooth as silk, was and forever shall be Her Majesty’s secret servant, James Bond.

Sir Roger Moore, KBE, passed away today at age 89 after a brief battle with cancer. We are shaken, and we are stirred, and he will be sorely missed.

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Virtual exhibitions bring art to us all

Hopefully there’s an art museum, gallery, studio, or exhibition space within easy traveling distance from wherever you’re sitting right now. And hopefully it beckons you, and you grace it with your patronage just as often as you possibly can.

But…we have to admit there are limits inherent in the museum experience. Say, for example, you wished to examine the Mona Lisa. Aficionado that you are, you will settle for no cursory glance. You need to delve into each brush-stroke, and immerse yourself in the passion and the process that was consuming Leonardo roughly 514 years ago when he was capturing that enigmatic smile.

Let us assume, in this hypothetical scenario, that you have equal access to both the Louvre, and a steady WiFi connection. That means you have options, seen here. So judge for yourself, which of these experiences will best slake your thirst for artistic understanding:

This digital age of ours has already granted unprecedented access to art, artistry, and artists around the world. That access is poised to expand exponentially.

The Pharos Project is partnering with some of the most prestigious art institutions in the world (fourteen so far, including the Frick Collection, Washington’s National Gallery, the Bibliotheca Hertziana in Rome, and Paris’s Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art) to digitize and upload for free worldwide access millions of art-related images—not just the artworks themselves, but also historical notes on attribution and provenance, and even photos of the backs of the artwork, and x-rays taken during restoration efforts.

By 2020 Pharos expects to have seven million images available online.

So how exactly does this looming virtual mega-museum fit in with your local patronage activities? Hopefully seamlessly and synergistically. Let your hometown (or any town) art institutions be your home base for culture, venues for immersion and visceral experience. And let the experiences you find there whet your appetite for deeper, perhaps more scholarly exploration—with Pharos lighting the way.

Art and culture remain our most civilizing influences. It’s fortunate indeed that we’re bringing them with us as civilization expands into places, even digital ones, where we’ve never gone before.

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Mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters

Mother’s Day just might be the most well-earned holiday on our calendar.

That’s not just because of the honors due to all the mothers who selflessly put themselves in the integral, irreplaceable centers of functional family life. Those are the moms who build a society one hearth at a time, and if we have enough of them and we respect them enough to let them work their magic, then they’ll build us a society we can be proud of. 

But present reality isn’t quite that rosy, is it? A Sunday in May notwithstanding, our track record of support for the supermoms–for all the moms, really–is dreadful and trending downward.

Conversely, it has to be admitted, the supermoms are in the minority. There are all kinds of mothers, and there is a universe of experiences in terms of how we were all raised up. The more complicated of a relationship a person has with their mother, or with the idea of motherhood, the less likely they are to agree that mothers are owed a uniquely capacious reservoir of esteem and deference.

One has to wonder, then, if the bad and the sad among those countless individual experiences are to blame for the ways in which modern America treats its women. Maybe respect and tolerance are nurtured-in traits, and the absence of proper nurturing nurtures instead hate and misogyny.

If so, I’d still call that just an excuse for inexcusable behavior.

Everyone drawing breath at this moment has one thing in common: a woman gave us life. And whether that woman went on to be a supermom, or something less, or absent entirely, becomes irrelevant in light of personal dignity and responsibility. You make the choices on how you’ll lead your life, and you get the credit or blame for how things turn out.

So to the men and boys who hate and fear women, who are more strident and vocal than ever before, I say this: Get over your mommy issues. Grow up. Have the courage to be a better person.

Girls and women are more than half our population. Some of them are or will one day be mothers—but not all of them. They fit into no single template, for they are and should be free to chart their own course. And they should be respected and supported as they do so.

It’s common to remind the misogynist that the woman he disparages could be his mother, sister, wife, or daughter. That may be true but it hasn’t seemed to move him. Maybe he can’t be moved.

But that doesn’t matter, and it’s beside the point. None of us should have to appeal for respect. That women are constantly forced to do so only goes to show the depth of the injustice.

So in the end it doesn’t matter if she’s your mother or your wife or your sister or daughter—she’s her own person, she’s a citizen, she’s a fellow inhabitant of our benighted and imperfect world. She has every right and invitation to live her life on her own terms. Get behind her or get out of her way.

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To all the mothers, happy Mother’s Day and thank you for the gift of life. And to all the women: be strong, drive on, and never mind the troglodytes.


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May Day

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.MAY DAY has in the popular lexicon become an emergency broadcast, a cry for help.

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But perhaps more accurately, it’s a cry for solidarity. And it is born on the shared experiences and collective self-sufficiency of the olde artists and artisans. It was they who brought us together in vernal celebration beneath the May Pole. It was there that the tribe wove itself into an entity.

May Day ever remains so. Our tribe has grown and the arts we practice belong to a new millennium. Our natures keep their constancy, though, and it is in our nature to honor and celebrate ourselves, each other, and our never-tiring efforts to build and beautify our world. Happy May Day to you, to yours, and to us all.

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Earth Day 2017 – now we march

Never before has reason and rationality been so key to the survival of our species and our planet. Denial of overwhelming evidence and disdain for the proven efficacy of the scientific method has created an unprecedented, unparalleled danger, of the existential sort.

That’s grim, startlingly so. But all is not lost.

Turns out that disdain and denial aren’t as widespread as the Cassandra media would have it. Turns out that although there are those who foolishly or cynically dismiss the self-evident (and, regrettably, too many of these hold positions of power), we can now see clearly that their numbers are small, and diminishing.

There are more of us than there are of them.

It is prophetically fitting that today is both Earth Day, and also the day that the resistance comes out to March for Science. Make no mistake: this is, and must be, a revolution. The stakes couldn’t be higher; to cede science is to cede our home planet. And as our revolutionary slogan proclaims, there is no planet B.

May Earth Day 2017 stiffen our resolve, and may it be remembered as the turning point in the struggle wherein we saved ourselves. We all are equally responsible for whatever outcome is on our horizon. Whether we veer away from self-destruction, or we continue on the path we’re already on, the choice—and our future–is entirely in our own hands.

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