Bamboo and Rattan @ the Clark

Sunday, May 31, 2009

My interest in Japan goes back to high school. I finished a year of Japanese language at Pasadena City College and a year of its history at UCLA. So I’ve been vaguely aware of the Clark Center for Japanese Art & Culture for several years. I’d just never gotten there. The Clark sits only 28 miles from my doorstep, but it’s not in a direction I’m accustomed to travel.

Yamaguchi Ryuun, White Wave, 2006

Kings County is largely dairy country, the milking sheds and herd corrals interrupted only by the alfalfa fields that support them. Most of the dairy families trace their roots to recent immigrants from Holland or the Azores. It’s not the kind of landscape where one would expect to find one of only two museums in America dedicated entirely to Japanese art.

The land has a poor record for supporting high culture. In the late 1970s, a Canadian hoping to found a Shakespearian theater studied a map, saw a ‘Stratford’ (another 14 miles of dairy land beyond the Clark) roughly midway between the Los Angeles and San Francisco markets, and came for a look. At Stratford, he found a fork in the road, a hay barn, and some farm-worker housing. Not ready to give up, he backtracked through Hanford and all the way to Visalia before he could find a host community for his company. For several seasons, they produced some fine theater, but the L.A. and S.F. crowds never materialized. Without those crowds, the show went dark.

So it is pleasantly surprising to see another attempt at world-class culture birthed among the dairy herds. In this case, the herds help insure the endowment. Founder Willard G. Clark began the center with money earned in the international bull-sperm market. He still lives on the property, separated from the museum complex by Japanese gardens and a pond. While the literature rack presents opportunities for sponsorships and donations to help expand the work, the existing program looks healthy.

My immediate inspiration for making this visit was to preview a possible reward-trip for a handful of my hardest working students. (I’ve taken students to the Getty, but the round trip is 370 miles.) My seventh grade history class does a unit on Japan, and the Clark Center came to mind as we talked in class.

Fujisuka Shosel, Fire,2006

I arrived on a Saturday afternoon, the final day of an exhibition on contemporary Japanese bamboo art. The Clark is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 1:00 to 5:00 PM. One building houses the offices and an impressive collection of books. I didn’t come with either the credentials to poke through their rare texts or a subject I was ready to research, but I know where it is now, if I’m ever up to that.

My entrance interrupted one of the curators at her work. She took my five dollars, showed me their literature rack, and then escorted me to the gallery. As we left the office, we passed a coat of samurai armor for an exhibit that begins next August.

One enters the exhibit hall through sets of outer and inner doors, between which the visitor slips out of his shoes. After a small anteroom, the main hall is large enough to display 25 or 30 works. (In storage, somewhere on the grounds, another 1,700 works from the permanent collection await their turns.) I was met at the door by an intern from Germany, and found one couple already present. Later, a mother and daughter joined us. Sometimes we gathered around a particular piece and discussed it with the intern. Other times we separated and enjoyed the art in silence.

I came to this exhibition with negligible background on bamboo art. As a child, I remember studying a couple of rattan and bamboo chairs, and I once spent ten days in an Amazon village where I watched the women splitting vines, soaking them, and weaving them into basketry. These pieces begin with some of the same basic techniques. Apparently, within the current generation of Japanese craftsmen, some who had apprenticed working on lampshades and containers shifted their attention to abstract sculpture. Their work demonstrates attention to form and texture, with color schemes that owe much of their subtle variations to shadows within the work itself. I found it interesting, but my 7th graders will probably be more excited by next August’s Samurai armor.

Outside, the Clark Center has a display devoted to Bonsai. In the afternoon breeze while I was there, it came with the authentic aroma of, well, this might be a good place to invoke the wisdom of Proverbs 14:4, “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.” (English Standard Version) The Clark testifies to such abundance.

I enjoyed my first visit to the Clark, and as new exhibits pass through, I hope to go back. Not quite fourteen years old, the museum has made an impressive start. I hope it grows.

More photos of both this exhibit and the next one can be found here.

This is my review of the Clark Center's May, 2012, exhibit on Kamisaka Sekka and Rimpa.

Thanks, Lucho: tribute to a great teacher

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Yesterday I attended the memorial service for Luis “Lucho” Figallo, long-time Spanish teacher at Golden West, the high school where four of my five children attended. All four studied under Mr. Figallo, probably averaging two years apiece. That’s eight Back-to-School Nights, eight Open Houses, and somehow, we always got around to see Mr. Figallo, even when we didn’t have kids in his classes. Oftentimes we stayed late in his classroom. After all the other parents had gone home, Lucho would offer advice to my fledgling-Spanish-teacher wife. He was always ready to give help, switching back-and-forth between beautiful Spanish and his own ebullient brand of English.

For most of the nearly 20 years I knew Lucho, he insisted that he was “going to retire in another two or three years,” but he only left the classroom two years ago. He was a people person. He loved his students. He loved his subject. After teaching high school all day, he taught night school at the local community college, often to classes full of his former students. I saw a post today on the College of Sequoias site, from a former student at both schools who then went back into Mr. Figallo’s Golden West class as a substitute teacher. “. . . even though he wasn't there in person his loving presence was felt. I don't know if it was because of all the kind smiles on the student faces or if it was because of that jolly old piñata with Figi's resemblance.”

I know the history of that piñata. A committee worked on it, but it took its final form in a back bedroom at my house. And it did bear an uncanny resemblance to Figallo. He was wearing a beard in those days, but it was that smile (and if I recall, the Panama hat) that gave it away.

Each of my children who had him has fond memories of Mr. Figallo, but my greatest debt goes back to the year my eldest son entered 9th grade. We were just back from five years in Colombia, but my son was very unsure of his Spanish. Under Mr. Figallo, I saw his confidence grow. Then, just before Easter, Figallo pulled Matthew aside. The youth group from the church where Lucho was an elder needed a translator for their Spring Break trip to Mexico. Would Matthew consider helping out?

Matthew went. He was one of the youngest members of the group and had not been part of any of the team-building exercises or fund-raisers. However, as the translator, Matthew found himself where the action was, in a key position of leadership. He came home secure in his Spanish and suddenly aware of new gifts as a leader. But it did not stop there. Lucho continued to support and encourage Matthew through another decade and a half. The confidence Matthew gained studying under Mr. Figallo has carried him into fluency in German, Russian, and Portuguese and starts in a couple more. Thanks, Lucho.

Lucho grew up in Peru and came by himself to the US as a young man, learned English while working in a grocery store, and earned a masters degree in Spanish Literature. A coworker gave him a Bible. He studied it carefully and decided to base his life on what he found there. At the end of his life, battling cancer, he and his wife prayed that God would give him the strength to make one last trip to Peru, to say goodbye to the family he left behind, and to encourage their Christian walks. Coming back into Los Angeles, when the pilot announced “We are now beginning our descent,” Lucho said only, “I’m not going down. I’m going up.” With that, he stood in the presence of Jesus.

A life well lived.
Thanks, Lucho. I hope Mary has the piñata.

The Diary of "Helena Morley," a review

Monday, May 25, 2009

(I am double-posting this review as a way to inaugurate my new blog, Back Lit. Here at Capers with Carroll, I post more frequently, but with shorter posts on a wider variety of timely topics. There, I will have fewer pictures, but longer essays, more focused on literature, and less tied to current happenings. I hope to begin writing reviews of whatever I am reading. Some will be new publications. Others will come from the pile of books I collected but was too busy to read during my masters program. Still more will be from the old and out-of-print treasures I enjoy finding at used book stores or saving from boxes of discards destined for the dumpster. I also plan to resurrect papers I wrote for classes, for some of which I put in far too much effort to only have them read by one professor.)

The Diary of "Helena Morley"
translated and introduced by Elizabeth Bishop
Paperback, 282 pages, Farrar, 1995
Film adaptation (2004) by Helena Solberg, as Vida de Menina.

For a bibliophile like myself, one of the lasting blessings from sending my children to college is that the books they bought for now-forgotten classes still occupy bookshelves here at the house. Thus, when I finished reading the last assigned novel of my own masters’ degree program and turned to the shelves for my first, guilt-free, frivolous reading in five years, my eyes fell on this diary, penned by a teenaged girl in a backwater-Brazilian mining town in the 1890s, published in Portuguese (Minha Vida de Menina) in the 1940s, translated into English in the 1950s, purchased by my daughter in the 1990s for a History of Latin America class at Westmont College, and left behind seven years ago when that daughter made Brazil her home. I now have my own cache of Brazilian memories, but I don’t think they are necessary to appreciate this book. In Brazilian literature it is considered a classic, but its appeal should be far broader.

Helena Morley (pseudonym for Alice Dayrell Caldeira Brant, 1880-1970) had a British-physician grandfather who migrated to Brazil and grew wealthy and a father who bought and managed marginal diamond mines and grew poor. At thirteen, attending a four-year normal school that would qualify her to teach primary school, a teacher assigned her to keep a diary. By her own description, Helena was mischievous, intelligent but lazy in her studies, and more fond of house work than homework (the diary being an exception). She was her grandmother’s favorite, but burdened by a godmother, her aunt, whose ‘love’ seemed to be expressed diabolically. Readers see her alert to both her own inner thought life, and her context in the larger community.

That community, Diamantina, Minas Gerais, some three hundred miles inland from Rio de Janeiro, is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site as an example of Brazilian Baroque Architecture, but the population still hasn’t reached 50,000. Her neighbors were poor families with both adults and children sorting through piles of gravel, picking out tiny diamonds or flecks of gold. Helena was there to witness the arrival of the first post office, and discussion about a possible railroad line. She thought the train money could be better spent bringing the town clean drinking water, and worried that the post office was replacing the lame delivery man who had to be lifted each day onto his donkey.

Brazil outlawed slavery in the years just before this diary began (newborns in 1871, and older slaves in 1885), and one of the interesting dynamics in Helena’s community involved the relationship between those who had once been masters or slaves. Her grandparents had owned slaves. Upon emancipation, most of the males moved to the big cities to find work and most of the females (more than available work required) stayed on to enjoy economic security with grandma. Helena’s daily entrees offer a wealth of material on the interaction between these two groups. There were resentments in both directions, yet honest affection, as well. There was also a pattern of white women with empty nests taking in orphaned black babies and raising them almost as pets.

Throughout, Helena describes her own conflict over Catholicism. She asks her mother to stay on her knees while Helena takes tests she hasn't sufficiently studied for, and catalogues saints by distinguishing which ones offer effective returns on prayer, and which ones don’t. She suffers under an aunt who, after the family has already offered sufficient prayers for the evening, then launches into long prayers to move the souls of nearly-forgotten relatives from Purgatory to Heaven. Helena also struggles with the belief it is a sin to consider her priest homely, and then wonders how she can confess that to him.

The story is full of rich characterizations; the neighbor lady who steals chickens, but then offers heroic help when Helena’s mother is sick; the father who reinvests all of his income in buying new mines, leaving his family in poverty; the grandmother who holds the family (and servants) together. There are also delightful vignettes; the women-folk carrying laundry to the river and Helena interrupting her bath and hair-washing to catch a dinner’s worth of the crawdads nibbling at her feet; the monkey who would toss Helena the ripest fruit from the top of the tree; the disaster when—at age 14, against her will and with no orientation or instructions—the crazy godmother arranges for Helena to substitute teach one month in a classroom of hellions.

In my day job, I teach junior high. Some things never change. The day after I read Helena’s account of being caught with a crib-sheet during a test (a footnote tells us they are called concertinas in the Portuguese), I saw one of my better students awkwardly trying to use one during the test I was administering. Helena’s teacher walked around and stood beside her for most of the test period, enabling the other students to use their own concertinas unnoticed. I walked around and stood next to my student. She sweated under the pressure, and after a while, handed me her test. Across the top, I wrote, “Would you like to start over, without the cheat-sheet?” With downcast eyes, she nodded agreement. In her diary, Helena lamented her poor luck.

Separated by 115 years, different languages, and all the changes of our modern age, a fourteen-year-old is still a fourteen-year-old. That a junior-high-aged girl produced this finely-layered story reminds us how observant this age-group can be. My own students can ignore the lesson I’m teaching, but will notice if I wear a new shirt. Helena has that same capacity. She carried me back three generations, across 6,000 miles, to another culture, and showed me the students in my classroom today.

California Election After-Thoughts

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

California’s polls have been closed almost three hours, with the voters rendering judgment over a lose-lose choice. On the five budget-balancing (well, not even balancing…call it juggling) propositions, voters ruled that the chaos of the unknown is preferable to the shell-game offered by the state’s elected leadership. The margins are running between 40-60 and 37-63. The only the measure to pass prohibits politicians from voting themselves raises during years running deficit budgets. That one is up 77-23.

Our state has been ungovernable for a decade, maybe two. The reasons include a hodgepodge of ballot propositions, and term-limits. The first takes away the legislature’s flexibility in fashioning a budget. The second takes away their incentive to do so. Since reelection beyond a second term is denied them, they have very little reason to go the extra mile. Then, since the legislators as a group are transitory, the savvy movers-and-shakers come from the armies of staffers and lobbyists who never find themselves termed out. The end result is a legislature that busies itself fiddling while California burns.

Today’s Prop 1F, therefore, while it’s a feel-good “Take that!” for the voters, does nothing to solve our problems. Many of the suggestions I hear do no better. For example, denying legislators’ their salaries during periods when the state enters a budget year without a new budget sounds good, but provides insufficient leverage.

However, what if we did away with term limits, but replaced them with a stipulation that anytime the legislature failed to approve a version of a budget by the deadline, no member of that legislature could appear on the ballot at the next election? I would even let members run write-in campaigns to retain their seats, or return to office after sitting out a term.

Term limits have not given us better government. Neither has government by ballot proposition. We need a legislature that functions well enough to erase the need for ballot propositions. We want to reward good service, and penalize poor service. We want to overcome the tendency for a senate or assembly seat to become a lifetime appointment. We want to provide the incentive for our legislators to sweat a little on our behalf, and level the playing field for a challenger when the incumbent’s performance has fallen short. I believe my proposal would be a step in that direction.

New Heights in Bad Poetry

Saturday, May 09, 2009

One comment on my last post sent me scurrying back to the keyboard to draft another entry for Chip MacGregor's Bad Poetry Contest. I may finally be a contender for the lava lamp.

Love or Not-Love

    Love or not-love,
    how does one distinguish?
    To nurture one,
    the other to extinguish.

    If some folks seek Nirvana, not love,
    should government protect us?
    And bail us out as if we’d swooned
    to falsified perspectus?

    Oh, the newly married, running home,
    with cries of, “Mamma, not-love!”
    Should seek relief by filing forms

Posted by Brian at 11:54 AM 0 comments  

Attention, Aficionados of Fine Bad Poetry

Friday, May 08, 2009

As an adolescent, I wrote quite a bit of poetry that, even now, I look back upon as being several cuts above the, well . . . adolescent. I stopped writing poetry when I married. Subsequent soul-searching led me to the conclusion that my verse had been tied up in my loneliness. No longer lonely, my muse fell out of use. In my recently-completed program for a masters degree in creative writing, I produced nary a poem.

However, what my MFA professors could not draw out of me, a blog competition has. Literary agent Chip MacGregor runs an annual Bad Poetry Contest. I took a class from Chip at Mount Hermon, in 2003, and read his blog regularly. I’m still a little miffed at him for not recognizing the brilliance of my entry last year. The poem has been up since last May for the thousands who read his blog, but I figure it’s time to share it with the tens (sometimes twelves) who read mine. Chip threw down the gauntlet with the assertion that

    There are only four words in the English language that rhyme with love: "Dove" and "Above" are the popular choices. "Shove" and "glove" don't really count. Use of the baby word "Wuv" can get you shot. (British citizens who enter are allowed to use the word "guv," as in "guv'nor," but don't push it. We Scots have been pushed around by you people long enough.)

I thought I deserved at least an honorable mention for expanding his list 0.4-fold with this entry:


    like a lot
    in a pot—
    rice and mutton
    (nice for gluttons).
    It warms your innards,
    even for beginners.

    “Mazel Tov!”
    A reset button
    When I’ve hit bottom.
    It turns plain sinners
    into winners.

This year, I’ve decided I won’t wait twelve months to share my poem here. I won’t even wait to hear if I won the Grand Prize lava lamp. So here is my 2009 (untitled) Bad Poem:

    this post-modern poem is self-referential
    bad as i hope it will be

    it won’t rhyme
    any time
    except by accident

    forward or



    it phlaunts its phreedom to dephy conventions
    boldly going where no poem has ever gone

    read it and weep

And if this one doesn’t win, I’ll cultivate a new bad poem for next year.