Sunday, March 22, 2015

Culture Fixes

Prof. Tom Barden on WPA & Writers Program,
Lourdes Lifelong Learning, March 2015 
Whenever I hear about the WPA I become nostalgic and wistful.  The Works Progress Administration, headed by the indefatiquable Harry Hopkins, a close advisor to FDR to the very end, put millions of Americans to work during the Great Depression, including artists, writers, dramatists, musicians, folklorist.  I think it was one of the most successful New Deal programs. It's aim was work rather than relief. It shined a brilliant light on the resilence and strength of the American people in hard times.  And it strengthened our cultural fabric for future generations, up to the present.

WPA posters
Not only did the WPA result in wonderful buildings and great architecture, new roads, bridges, parks, zoos, libraries and post offices, but also fabulous public art, a series of State tour guides (still great resources), innovative folklife, folk music, and oral history projects, including the narratives of former slaves living in the South, wonderful theater, and a historical records survey. These programs were of, by and for the people, not just the elites; they touched the lives of millions of ordinary citizens.

Best of all, these extraordinary and varied projects have withstood the test of time. Close to home, I think of the Toledo Zoo. the Valentine Theater, the Toledo Public Library, and on a national level, the creation of the National Archives and Library of Congress. No matter what city or state you live in, I'm sure you can boast a WPA legacy, the program was that far-reaching and enduring.

WPA posters
Today, when the arts and humanities are undervalued and underfunded, it's good to remember what a little federal funding can do to enhance our social and cultural life.

Tom Barden, professor emeritus of English at the University of Toledo, did just that in his Lourdes University Livelong Learning lecture on the WPA Cultural Agencies.  Barden presented a good overview and historical context for the New Deal before focusing on the work of the WPA and the Federal Writers' Project.  Barden emphasized that Americans owe a debt of gratitude to Harry Hopkins and his Grinnell college colleagues, who created, managed and implemented the  pioneering cultural programs.

Barden especially lauded the Writers' Project's State guides, quoting from John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley: "The complete set comprises the most comprehensive account of the United States ever got together, and nothing since has even approached it."   Steinbeck's final road trip around America bears witness to the influence and significance of the WPA and its cultural programs

Just before attending Barden's lecture, I had finished reading William Giraldi's depressing New Republic article on "the destruction of America's creative class" (February 2015),  Giraldi bemoans the marginalization of artists and writers in a now-dominant cultural mindset that denigrates them and has pushed them from the middle-class into the starving classes.  They are barely surviving.  I was glad to be reminded of a time when our government employed them.

Oh sure, conservatives lambasted the whole idea from day one, screaming that the federal government should not be in the culture business, using the very same arguments against federal funding for the arts and humanities, for museums and public broadcasting, that we hear today.  Notable among the rabid detractors was Rep. Martin Dies (Texas), who railed against the "communist" programs and in 1938 created HUAC, the ignoble House on UnAmerican Activities Committee. Sen. Joseph McCarthy took it from there.

Professor Barden's lecture was informative and timely.  The arts and humanities add meaning and beauty to our lives.  The WPA offered real jobs to our "creative class" during the New Deal.   What a difference it made in the nation's quality of life! What a difference such large-scale and well-funded projects would make today, in a world shaken by ignorance and violence, at a time when critical thinking and creative endeavors are needed more than ever.

Some sources;
*William Giraldi, " Creative Destruction," The New Republic, , February 2015.
*Scott Timberg, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class" (Yale U Press, 2007).
*On WPA history, documents and images, lots of online resources, including the Library of Congress (
*Jerre Mangione, The Dream and The Deal: The Federal Writers' Project, 1935-1943 (1977; Syracuse Uni.Press, 1996). A Google eBook. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Chasing the Years

At the pyramids with Jud, enjoying 70 years and eons more. 
I look at my youthful self, and marvel at the vitality.  I look at myself now, and wonder about mortality.  The pyramids loom on the desert horizon. We come full circle in more ways than one. Life goes on, and we go with it.  

Another birthday rolls around, the inexorable march of time.  Most of the time, I feel like I'm chasing my years, not the other way around.  Oh sure, there are days the years chase me.  I hunker down and let it happen. Afterall, I have the full force of 75 years behind me.  In front of me, who knows? What does it matter? In front of me, I have learned, is the best place to be, mindful.  I am surrounded by family, friends, bustling activities, new things to learn. 
Age has not diminished my interests or my outrage at injustice.  I rant with my brother in heaven, and my sister in Florida.   My mind overflows with memories. The computer is full. A click here, a click there, and I'm a young girl in Rochester, a mom at the beach in Nantucket, a worker bee, a grandmother, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine.  Sometimes I alight on a sense of loss or pain, but then, a field of daisies is a click away.  Mary Oliver comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, "Let it Be."  

"That's John Lennon, mom, you're thinking of the Beatles." 

Oh, right! A needed reminder. The memories flow together sometimes. But, look! I see a robin. My first sighting.  A sign of spring.  Soon I'll be digging in my garden, listening to the birds, watching small green buds pushing up the brown earth.  

Mindful by Mary Oliver 
Every day
I see or hear
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me,
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It is what I was born for--
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful
the very extravagant--
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab, 

the daily presentations. 
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these--
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean's shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?
Meeting friends on the Street in Starobelsk, 2011.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Black Sea: The Heart of the Matter

This view from Istanbul.

“In essence, the balance of power in the Black Sea has been tipping since the ‘little green men’ first moved into the Crimean Peninsula. Any country on the Black Sea is now a target along with any vessel deployed there.”
General Philip Breedlove

yahoo and wiki images
The Black Sea.  It’s on my mind.  It’s been on Putin’s mind even longer, beginning with his deliberate and vicious stealth campaign to take over Crimea (which he now brags about) to his invasion of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine (more gloating about destabilization).  The subterfuge, propaganda and lies are mind-boggling. It must have felt like this as Hitler took over Europe up to World War II.  So far nothing is standing in Putin's way.  

The Black Sea is the watery theater of an ancient, complicated and tumultuous history. This drama has many acts, from prehistory to the Greeks and Romans, to the Ottoman Turks and Constantinople, from the Crusades to the Crimean War and other 19th-century wars, from World Wars I and II to the rise of the Soviet Union and its dissolution in 1991. 

I’m not a Black Sea expert, but I wish I was. I remember thinking when I was in Yalta, in Yevpretoria, in Sevestopol, in Odessa, in Istanbul, that if I was starting graduate school all over again I’d explore Black Sea studies.  It is that impressive to see firsthand, that engrossing.  Just look at a map.

The Sea sparkles like a diamond in the rough, with its fishing meccas, historic sites and resorts. It’s surrounded by six countries, each with its own history and cultures: Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia, Russia, Ukraine and Turkey. The Black Sea receives water from the Don, the Dnieper, and the Danube rivers.  Imagine! It connects to the Mediterranian through the Aegean Sea.  The Turkish straits connect the Black Sea with the Aegean Sea and comprise the Bosphorous, the Sea of Marimara, and the Dardenelles. Istanbul is the only city in the world that straddles both Europe and Asia.  The Black sea connects the East and the West.
This map gives a hint of the Black Sea's
incredible history and potential.
Russia is now militarizing Crimea.  It is moving its anti-air and missile systems to the peninsula it stole from Ukraine, according to NATO Commander and Air Force General Philip Breedlove. “These weapon systems—from air defense systems that reach nearly half of the Black Sea to surface attack systems that reach almost all of the Black Sea area—have made Crimea a great platform for power projection into this area.” (quoted in Will Catheart, “Putin’s Plans,” the Daily Beast, 3/1/2015). I predict Russia is moving its nuclear missiles there, too. 

Thus Crimea’s geopolitical direction and complexity is changing again, drastically, and with it the fragile balance of relationships that characterizes the Black Sea.  The Sea’s history is like that.  It doesn’t move in a linear fashion into the future.  It is full of twists and turns, crises and tragedies, the pulls of the past, the push of the present.   

“In essence,” General Breedlove said, “the balance of power in the Black Sea has been tipping since the ‘little green men’ first moved into the Crimean Peninsula. Any country on the Black Sea is now a target along with any vessel deployed there.” 

The Black Sea is rich in petroleum resources as well, a critical strategic consideration.   Moreover, it’s a lot easier to get to them than the resources in the Arctic, although that far-northern region is being militarized by Russia, too.  The Soviet Union started drilling for petroleum in the Black Sea’s western portion in the 1980s.   Ukraine began drilling in the 1990s, within an "Exclusive Economic Zone," inviting major international oil companies for exploration.  Discovery of  new oil fields in the area stimulated an influx of foreign investments.  It also provoked a brief dispute with Romania, resolved in 2011 when an international court redefined the Exclusive Economic Zones.  I'm not sure of the present status, but the Black Sea is still up for grabs. 

Putin is trying to make his way there by hook and by crook, mostly by crook. He has Crimea, which I view as a tragedy of historic proportions, an illegal annexation that should not be tolerated.  His proxies are close to Mariupol and Berdyansk on the Azov.  I've been harping about this for a long time. I'm scared of what may happen. Look at the map again.  More Russian troops and weapons continue to pour into that area.  International observers are not allowed to watch. 

“Putin has the entire Black Sea to gain,” General Breedlove notes. “This is why the Kremlin is seeking economic dominance of the Black Sea corridor and energy transit routes and military dominance as well.”  The future of the Black Sea looks foreboding. 

Russian troops amassing in eastern Ukraine (yahoo).
Some sources: 
Charles King, The Black Sea: A History (Oxford, 2005).  An extraordinary Black Sea scholar, King has also written books about Odessa, Istanbul, the Caucusus, and other historic places in the region 

Neal Ascherson, Black Sea (Hills and Wang, 1995/2001 fifth edition). 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Lourdes Lectures Span Spectrum from History to Hot Topics: The Edmund Fitzgerald and Understanding Islam

Lecture on the Edmund Fitzgerald.
"She was a good ship and she had a good life." 
The lecture topics at Lourdes University's Lifelong Learning program yesterday couldn't have been more different.  One explored the sinking of the Great Lakes cargo ship the Edmund FItzgerald, and the other, understanding Islam. We went from history to hot topics! Both lectures, however, provided food for thought. 

I never knew there were so many theories about why the Edmund Fitzgerald went down in a violent storm on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975.  Carrie Sowden of the Great Lakes Historical Society covered most of them.  "She had a good life," Sowden said of the "Fitz," but it ended tragically. Yes. Haven't we all heard Gordon Lightfoot's ballad about the wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald? It's a great song, honest, factual, beautifully told, and the spirit of the ballad lives on.

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called 'Gitche Gumee'
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy

With the song floating in the background, over 100 people listened with rapt attention as Sowden presented a fascinating look at the Fitz's history and how it sank. Was it the ship's structure, the steel, the hatches, the hull? The nature of the storm, the weather and the waves? Did it hit some reef that caused damage and flooding? Was it the heavy load she carried,miscommunications, "pilot error? The arguments rage to this day. 

"We're holding our own."  These were the last words of Captain Ernest M. McSorley, a seasoned seafarer with great experience plying the Great Lakes from Duluth, Minnesota, and Wisconsin over to Detroit, Toledo, and other ports, He sent the message to the Arthur Anderson, which was travelling on a parallel route.

Then the Fitz went down, near the entrance to Whitefish Bay. taking all 29 crew members with her. Their bodies were never recovered, but artifacts and pieces of wreckage have been found, including the ship's bronze bell.They are displayed in various museums, such as the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, the Dossin Museum and the Mariners' Church in Detroit, and the Great Lakes Historical Society. 
They might have split up or they might have capsized;
They might have broke deep and took water.
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.

The Q & A session revealed a very well-informed and informative audience. We heard personal stories (very moving), comments from welders and people knowledgeable about cargo ships, comments from builders and Great Lakes experts. This session greatly enhanced the talk.

Iman Whaheed.
Majid Al-Islam Mosque
With our heads full of information about a historical subject, my friend Teddy and I moved across the hall of the Lourde's Franciscan Center to learn more about the "hot topic" of the day: Islam. We switched intellectual hats, as it were, and let curiosity guide us. Iman Whaheed, religious leader of Toledo Majid Al-Islam Mosque, provided an overview of the long history and major tenets of Islam.  He talked about "the five pillars" and noted the similarities of beliefs across different religions. "We're all in the same company, just in different departments," he remarked with some humor. He focused on the universal and transcendent, the true meaning of the Koran and the prophet Muhammed. He led us away from equating Islam with extremism, with ISIS, with terrorists. We needed to hear this; we need to understand Islam. The discussion was also fascinating. 

History and "hot topics."  The past and the present.  Intellectual arguments about a historical tragedy, and emotional points of view about a major world religion.  "Keeps your brain going," my daughter remarked when I gave a brief account of my day.  I can't argue with that! 


Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald Lyrics
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called 'Gitche Gumee'
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy

With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty.
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early.

The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well seasoned

Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
And later that night when the ship's bell rang
Could it be the north wind they'd been feelin'?

The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
And a wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too,
T'was the witch of November come stealin'.

The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the Gales of November came slashin'.
When afternoon came it was freezin' rain
In the face of a hurricane west wind.

When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin'.
Fellas, it's too rough to feed ya.
At Seven P.M. a main hatchway caved in, he said (2010 lyric
change by Gordon Lightfoot: At Seven P.M., it grew dark, it was
then he said,)
Fellas, it's been good t'know ya

The captain wired in he had water comin' in
And the good ship and crew was in peril.
And later that night when his lights went outta sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Does any one know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
If they'd put fifteen more miles behind her.

They might have split up or they might have capsized;
They May have broke deep and took water.
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.

Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice-water mansion.
Old Michigan steams like a young man's dreams;
The islands and bays are for sportsmen.

And farther below Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her,
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the Gales of November remembered.

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed,
In the Maritime Sailors' Cathedral.
The church bell chimed till it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call 'Gitche Gumee'.
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early!

Lyrics found <a href="" rel="nofollow">here</a>

Monday, February 16, 2015

Remembering Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov

Map showing Mariupol and Berdyansk (yahoo image) 

Luba, Irina,Luda on a night stroll.
This columned gazebo is iconic.

On the beach at Berdyansk
I have such a special place in my heart for Berdyansk, Ukraine, on the Sea of Azov. It's about 40 miles down the coast from Mariupol.  My host mom Luba and 8 to 10 of her women friends invited me to join them on a vacation.  It was about a seven-hour bus ride from Starobelsk.  I was a new Peace Corps Volunteer.  I was just getting acclimated; just recovering from a bad case of the flu; didn't understand the language; didn't know the geography or the terrain; didn't know what I was doing in eastern Ukraine, but I said sure.  I told my Peace Corps manager it would be a form of "cultural immersion," and he agreed. And it was.

Yahoo photo, overview of Berdyansk.

We stayed in a bed and breakfast, about 4 beds to a room.  Luba and her friends brought tons of food, along with wine and vodka.  We had wonderful meals around a large table outside the house, in a pretty garden.  In retrospect, I think I should have contributed more.  We were a boisterous and joyful group.   We walked to the beach every day through a neat little neighborhood, found a spot among hundreds of other vacationers, spread out our blankets, and enjoyed the sun, surf and compansionship of close friends. I had brought my MP-3 player to listen to music, which I shared with the other women; they had fun with the selections (from classics to Rolling Stones).   There was a place to buy ice cream and treats, as well as a kind of arts and crafts market, where I found wonderul souvenirs and Ukrainian trinkets.

Places where vendors set up and sold their wares.
Such fun to see the lights at night..
I used my dictionary, but it was mostly pantomime and, yes, lots of frustration.  I said Я не понимаю a lot.  I couldn't join in all the jokes and banter, couldn't respond or participate in the lively conversations, but I kept up as best I could.  I called us the Women's Club of Starobelsk.  Женского Клуба Старобельске. The women hugged me and laughed.  At night we walked along the beach into the center of activities, bright lights, ferris wheel and games, restaurants and cafes.  The women were careful about spending money, and very resourceful. But we stopped for a beer and just laughed and laughed into the night.

Such a pretty place.  Such wonderful women.  How kindly they treated a stranger and a novice. What incredible memories.


This is a blog I wrote about preparing to go to Berdyansk with Luba.

SUNDAY, JULY 19, 2009

My Peace Corps Bikini

I have been invited to join Luba and her friends for a holiday in Berdiansk, a resort on the Sea of Azov, about 7 hours south of Starobelsk. Great excitment. We're taking a bus, leaving on Wednesday, 22 July. Luba asks me about a bathing suit. When I show her my old faithful one-piece suit, she crinkles her nose and shakes her head vigorously from side to side. In any language, that means "no way." OK, well I'll look for a new one.

So here I am at the Sunday bazaar, on a sweltering hot day, looking for a new one-piece bathing suit. They are nowhere to be found. Only bikinis. It's what everyone wears. Everyone. At last I find a stall that has a one-pecce suit. One. Large size. I ask the proprietor, a serious woman probably in her 60s, to show it to me. You want THIS, her look seems to say. Yep, that's the one for me. Well, ok. She hauls it down from way at the top of her displays with her hooked handle. I try it on, behind a skimpy curtain that doesn't provide much privacy. No matter. She looks at me, crinkles her nose and shakes her head vigorously from side to side. The same signal in the same universal language.

She takes down another and hands it to me. A black and yellow bikini. I don't think so. Just try it she urges, and sure enough she gets me into it. A bra and a little bottom. She nods approvingly. THIS is for you. I point to my middle. No problem, she says. "Normal'no." Which means the same thing in Russian and English. OK, I'll take it. Now I know I am in a Peace Corps frame-of-mind: open to anything!

Off I go with my package. The more I think about it, the more I like it. When I get home, Luba, who is in her next-to-nothing bikini, asks what I bought. You want to see? Off I go to my bedroom to try on my sexy black and yellow bikini. Beautiful, she nods with enthusiasm. You're all set for Berdiansk. I point to my stomach. She smiles and says, "normal'no!

Sunday, February 15, 2015


Dear President Obama,
     The "glimmer of hope" to stop the fighting in Ukraine is gone.  How could it work, when the only answer is Putin's withdrawing his troops and weapons?

Putin's proxies won't stop; they are afterall well armed, and beyond the law. They aim not only to gain more territory, but to keep Ukraine destabilized. There is no way to win militarily, no sense in sending arms to Kiev. Keep raising the cost to Russia with sanctions, but no weapons when weapons won't work.

The situation requires a new approach, a paradigm shift.  Here, respectfully, is another way: Whatever the proxies destroy with their Russian weapons, in areas they are now entrenched, they get to keep.  Not autonomy, but independence. These special places are not just "occupied," they are decimated. It would take billions to rebuild them, billions which Ukraine doesn't have.  

Jud's sunflower,
I know this part of Ukraine pretty well, having served there as a Peace Corps Volunteer for two years. I know the people, places, culture. I travelled from Starobelsk by car, bus, train, plane (no longer possible). Crimea was a favorite. I loved Mariupol and Berdyansk, swam in the Sea of Azov, spent lots of time in Lugansk, visited PCVs in towns and villages now destroyed.  Most of my Ukrainian friends have fled, especially those at universities, NGOs, libraries, local government and cultural institutions. A huge brain drain. Their families are torn asunder, people who housed, fed me, shared traditions, made a stranger feel at home.

Should the rest of Ukraine have to pay for the total destruction Russian proxies have inflicted? Not possible. Should they support occupied Lugansk and Donetsk oblasts when Ukraine will have no control over how they are governed?  

Let Russia and their proxies (who know only how to fight, nothing about governance) have them. Yes, Ukraine will be smaller but hopefully one day, like Georgia, more prosperous. Will Poroshenko consider this, hard as it is (it pains me at this distance), focus on Ukraine's economy, and seek the help of the rest of the world in a new plan?

If  Ukraine pulls out of current war zones, granting not autonomy but independence, then there is no need to rewrite its Constitution on orders from Putin (galling); no need for fake elections; no need to spend billions on what are now wastelands. I've been told most Ukrainians do NOT want their taxes or their nation's resources, under such economic stress, to go to terrorists who are outside of the law. Sad, but true.

The only thing to "negotiate," then, is securing Ukraine's new borders.  Not offensive weapons (they will only prolong the violence and killing), but defensive support and international monitors.  A new way: the ruins to Russia, defense of the new borders, continued economic support.

Thank you. Respectully yours.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The World is Full of (Paper) Possibilities

At the Toledo Museum of Art's new Werner Pfeiffer exhibit, "Drawn, Cut & Layered,"
 with Michelle and the boys. We love lunch at the cafe.  The background painting is "Scottish Highlands" by French landscape painter Gustave Dore (1832-1883).
The Werner Pfeiffer exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) is interesting and thought provoking.  You can do so much with paper.  Pfeiffer has explored all the possibilities. The art is fun and accessible, and the boys, ages 3, 12 and 17, liked it as much as their mom and me.
TMA brochure (different from
the creative exhibit brochure)

The hard part was keeping Chase from touching the art. "Don't touch," a nice guard scolded gently, taking him by surprise.  We repeated the request a few more times as we moved along from one interesting piece to another. Pfeiffer loves puzzles and contradictions, metaphors and wordplay, his bio says. They inspire his art.  So tempting to see and not touch. Chase would reach out his hand, pull it back, then fight back tears in frustration.  I didn't blame him. I wanted to touch too.  We decided we had to go to the art table and have some hands-on activity.

The "drawn, cut and layered" brochure at the entrance to the exhibition is itself a puzzle--folded in a unique and complicated way. The docents enjoyed showing us how to open and close it. It was a bit tricky.  Kyle got it, and helped me open mine.

Pfeiffer, who is for me a new artist (always a pleasure to meet). grew up in World War II Germany (born 1937 in Stuttgart).  It left an indelible mark on his 50-year career. "There was no paper; there were no books," he says. "I grew up with a real respect for paper and it affected me all my life" (ArtMatters, January-April 2015).   Pfeiffer's way with paper includes 200 one-of-a-kind and limited edition books, dimensional prints, collages and sculptures.  I liked the three-dimensional, multi-layered works, the mobiles and the art that pops.  As Pfeiffer himself hoped, we came away from his exhibition asking the question: "How is this possible with paper?"