Monday, May 30, 2011

Raising the Flag

Mount Suribachi isn't too much to behold.  A mere 528 feet above sea level at its highest, the most seasoned mountaineers and rock climbers would only consider it a feat should they wish to have a view of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding island.  In February, 1945, however, it was one of the most challenging obstacles to overcome during World War II and in the end, the battle on Iwo Jima would claim 6,812 American lives.

As the United States military strategically advanced in the Pacific to overtake Imperial Japanese forces, bombing runs into Tokyo from the Island of Saipan were proving to be a formidable challenge due to its incredible air defenses.  It was decided that the Island of Iwo Jimo would need to be taken so the US would then be able to have P-51 Mustang fighter planes join up with the B-17 Flying Fortress sorties as escorts.  On June 15, 1944, the US began routine bombing and shelling of Iwo Jima hoping to weaken the dug-in forces and in preparation of a land assault.  This action undoubtedly pushed the Japanese to create an impressive network of tunnels, pill boxes, and gun nests throughout Mount Suribachi which, in the end, became the deadliest point on the island.

Waves of Marines--some 30,000 in the first rush of landing crafts--hit the Southern shores of Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945.  Reinforcements steadily made their way to beach and the ensuing fight would become one of the most tragic in all of the Pacific Campaign.  The tenacity and ingenuity of the Japanese proved to be a force nearly too difficult to handle but the US did not give up.  After the Northern three quarters of the island was cut off from the forces inside Mount Suribachi, it was only a matter of time before American troops were able to overcome Imperial forces.  Four days of near constant fighting seemed to weaken the Japanese enough to make a final push to claim the dormant volcano in the name of the United States.  2nd Battalion Commander Chandler Johnson called up 28th Marine, 5th Division Captain Dave Severance to lead a platoon to the peak of Mount Suribachi and hoist a flag should they reach the top alive.

Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima by Joseph Rosenthal (1911-2006) was a black and white photograph taken at the moment a second, larger flag was hoisted on peak of Mount Suribachi hours after the first was planted.  A photographer for the Associated Press, Rosenthal was making his daily trip to Iwo Jima to continue documenting the battle and upon landing, heard that the Marines were on top and about to plant an American flag.  Bulky equipment in hand, Rosenthal scurried up the volcano to snap a few shots of the flag as it flew.  As he reached the top, he discovered that the original, smaller flag had been taken down and larger one was about to be hoisted.  Of the six men pictured--Michael Strank, Rene Gagnon, Ira Haynes, Franklin Sousley, John Bradley, Harlon Block--working together to loft the same flagpole that was originally used, only three would survive the continuing battle that took place on the Northern half of Iwo Jima.

Regardless of first or second flag, the image and later created monument have come to symbolize the triumphs of dedicated and extraordinarily patriotic men and women who served the United States in our Armed Forces.

Their sacrifice for this great nation is breathtaking and inspirational.

As time has gone by, our relationships with Germany and Japan have respectfully solidified into strong alliances.

The United States enjoys its democracy and freedom thanks to the millions of men and women who have donned a military uniform.  To this day, over 650,000 members of the military have been killed in action since the American Revolutionary War.  On this day, Memorial Day, we as a nation stand together to remember their service, their bravery, and their sacrifice.  In solidarity and with humility, with the freedom we enjoy to be able to stand and express our gratitude, we salute and thank each one of you.

Monday, May 23, 2011


The infamous image portrayed in numerous films is of a hero dealing with a moral dilemma, listening to the conflicting voices of good and evil perched upon his shoulders.  There stand two make-believe beings, both resembling the hero, small in stature, one dressed as an angel, and the other as a devil.  The two sources of "reason" then make their case for why the hero should or should not proceed with an action that could very well be detrimental to his or someone else's existence.  It's an age-old metaphor for what we all go through when faced with a decision that either reflects ethical integrity or selfish intent.

Essentially, what most of us experience is a moment where our heart and mind meld together to near-instantly justify making a move in one direction or another based upon our understanding of right and wrong.  At times, these cross-roads of moral decision can instigate a much deeper need to reflect on the potential outcome.  Quite frankly, there are moments where a healthy and wise human being will need to take extra time to contemplate the potential repercussions.  But no matter the situation, some level of internal conflict will exist and it will be up to our experiences, our upbringing, and our sense of good and evil to determine how we will act.

Why the existential discussion?  Conflict!  From what to wear to work to whether or not to cheat on a loved one, we all face internal conflicts multiple times a day.  And what keeps most of us sane is our ability to navigate through the gauntlet of benign and some moral dilemma with relative ease.  We've been seasoned by past mistakes and rooted in an upbringing that taught us to typically reflect upon our actions and take responsibility for them.  Like putting one foot in front of the other in rapid succession, we jaunt along our own life-paths seeking opportunity and happiness while carefully navigating through patches of muck and mire.

UNTITLED, 2002 by Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) is a sculpture of an arm with two hands on either end.  Chiseled from a singular slab of marble, this piece has oft been cast in bronze for display at various museums and art events and labeled Give or Take, 2002.  Bourgeois was a French-American artist and sculptor who became known as the founder of confessional art.  She often employed sexual innuendo and imagery in her modern pieces to depict vulnerability and became more interpretive in her contemporary works.  Each of her pieces, however, have been directly associated with her passion of seeing all of us face our own insecurities and inadequacies in order that we may embrace who we truly are.

This particular piece is one of her most subtle but poignant expressions of the natural occurrence of conflict within ourselves.  As we strive to live out our lives, at some point we will need to face realities that may bring about an incredible amount of discomfort and thus, the polarizing decision of giving or taking.  As can be clearly seen, the arm is laid out, underside upward, with an opened hand on one end and a closed hand on the other.  The opened hand seems to be sculpted similarly to how we'd reach out for a piece of candy or change from a vendor.  The closed hand, however, appears to be grasping something specific in such a way that it is snatched up quickly and will not be lost.

Subtly and most importantly--in my humble opinion--is how the arm is laid out with the underside facing upwards. Regardless of the specific intentions of the hands, in the end and no matter what decision is made, we're left vulnerable to who we are in that moment.  The arm is uncomfortably exposed and in direct contrast to how we as humans typically shelter ourselves in rhetorical defense.  For instance, when conversing with another who may disagree with your assertions, often the individual will fold his arms across his chest psychologically exhibiting disagreement.  In children, this is often attributed to disobedient and disgruntled behavior and can be coupled with pouting, whining, or crying.

Ultimately, the piece is simple yet extremely expressive.  Bourgeois' work over her many talented years was almost all an attempt to encourage people to turn and face reality, accept truth, and knowing move forward despite feeling inadequate, insecure, or uncomfortable.  This isn't easy for everyone but that's what makes art so wonderful.  In pieces like UNTITLED, 2002 we're able to understand that all humans deal with similar levels of conflict; that we are not alone in our struggle to become more aware, wiser, and courageous.  Each of us has a choice to make and thankfully, Bourgeois' piece shows that no matter what, we will be exposed in that very moment.  What, if anything, will you give or take?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Avvenimento #247

Somehow, during the Spring of 1989, I was able to convince my parents to let me spend the following Summer in Alaska working for an extremely remote resort.  My 10th Grade History teacher was also a National Park Service Officer stationed at Glacier Bay in the John Muir Inlet.  Because of his connections with the adjacent hotel and lodge, he was able to offer a handful of us the opportunity to earn some extra money, experience the true wilds of America, and take a giant step towards cerebral maturing.  It was an experience I will never, ever forget only tainted by age yet riddled with emotions I dare suggest I'll ever revisit.

It was in August that the Aurora Borealis began to make their appearance.  My first sighting--while the darkness of night was beginning to return--was when my teacher and I took a kayak cruise into Bartlett Cove towards the Strawberry Islands.  These were spherical mounds of land not much larger than a car that would briefly connect when the drastic tide changes would wane, often stranding overly gluttonous bears that wandered onto the islands in search of fresh berries.  As we slid Northeast, the ripples created by the bow of the kayak and each pass of my paddle in the water would activate luminous plankton that yielded a lime-green glow as they were agitated.  And as if this already spectacular and quiet night of exploration couldn't get any more surreal, across the night sky an orange and yellow fractal began to form and connect like synapses.

The most stunning night I experienced, however, was during my final week of work.  I was out late in the night walking around and enjoying the brilliant display of stars when a large ribbon began to form from the Northeast stretching to the South.  In all my life, I've never seen anything natural, technical, or otherwise able to recreate what nature was unfolding right before my eyes.  It was as if I was granted a view of heaven!  Little, old me!  Staring upwards through a liquid stained glass window as the legs of Angels passed to and fro.

Avvenimento #247 by Edmondo Bacci (1913-1978) is an abstract painting exhibiting the collision of darkness and light, color and shadow.  Using a wide palette, Bacci's two dimensional piece seems to dance in three dimensions.  An Independent Editor named Lucy Flint had these poignant words to say about the piece:
The painting is like a scenario in which light is separated from darkness and space from matter.  Planetary forms seem to coalesce out of material produced by a cosmic eruption; they prepare to establish their orbits and generate life.  The immediacy and drama of the event is conveyed through the tactility of the surface.  The paint, mixed with sand, is encrusted on the canvas to form a kind of topographic ground evoking plains, ridges, lakes, and peaks.  The activity of the artist in ordering chaos is associated with elemental creational processes within the universe.
 Ms. Flint puts it better than I could ever even attempt.  What I can share, though, are my impressions which I hope will relay the same beauty I experienced when I first saw this painting.  Rambling as they may seem, I hope you will bear with me.  It's not easy trying to express an abstract piece of art without the ability to allow our hearts and minds meld together.

Immediately, it feels as if I'm viewing an articulate scene of color and movement behind an imperfect sheen of ice.  It'd be like traversing inside a waterway cave inside a glacier where the shapes and brilliant blue hues have already left me breathless.  As I make my way towards an opening, the light of day and reflection off the snow highlight an area inside the ice where some kind of cosmic activity has been captured.  I don't suppose it would be too large an area and most certainly, it'd be something no other human eyes have seen.  There, with mouth gaped open, I would stare at the evolving movements of ink and paint rotating and dancing together.  Almost as if the elements came alive in ways that were not intended for us to see or know.

I can still see the ribbon of Northern Lights in my mind; it was one of those events that left a permanent stain on my memory.  I have no intention of forgetting and though time may have skewed my recollection, Bacci's work exhibits many of the same features and emotions that nature shared with me that late Summer night.  For me, it's an experience I'll probably never get to enjoy again but at least I know I can have the talents of painters like Bacci to please my sense and desire to see and touch heaven.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Weeki Wachee springs, Florida

I was telling the story of an accident to a friend today.  Back in Spring, 1992, a friend and I were travelling down a wide boulevard in Palm Springs around 2 a.m. and broadsided an approaching vehicle that had suddenly turned in front of us.  After all these years, the details of the accident are fairly hazy but the moment it happened is what still mesmerizes me.  Facing possible death can do some amazing things to one's mind and this has only recently been studied on the scientific level in the last few years.  The question that has been asked was, "Can we bend time with our minds during a moment where we feel our life could end in the blink of an eye?"

For me, the nanoseconds before and during the actual crash were more euphoric than an experience with the time-space continuum.  In fact, I found it to be more surreal than anything else--almost like diving from a tall platform and the moment where the air ends and your body enters the water.  And despite sustaining some fairly serious injuries to my neck and spine, I don't recall any pain.  It was as if nothing in the world mattered than that very moment where life become unavoidably and irreversibly complicated.

Weeki Wachee spring, Florida by Antoinette Frissell Bacon (1907-1988) was a photo originally used in a 1947 issue of Harper's Bazaar and has gone on to be used countless other times in magazines and on album covers.  It depicts a faceless, young woman, gently draped by a nightgown, floating elegantly in calm waters while keeping her head just above the surface for air.  Not much else is known about this black and white picture yet so little needs to be said.  Where it was taken, who the woman is--none of it really matters as the timely and poignant film speaks enough volume.  What's left to view is how carelessly she seems to float with her feet lightly kicking and hands relaxed and thrusting downward to aid her buoyancy.

Emotionally speaking, what is missing is color and rightfully so.  The contrast of the dark background with her white dress and natural skin are enough to evoke the sense that she is the iconic subject of what surrounds her of which gives the sense of being overwhelmed.  Whether that be a good thing or bad thing is up to you and that's what makes this such a gorgeous photo.  It is unassuming enough to allow each viewer to choose for him or herself how to feel yet all of us can easily sense the simple and graceful tones it plays.  Art like this is to be cherished but more importantly, this particular piece nearly demands that we each must also feel what it expresses.

I don't know how else to say it other than to be repetitious but this photo gives me a great sense of overwhelming.  Where I am confused in my own emotions is if this feeling is because of the challenges and frustrations life has placed around me or a sense similar to free falling.  Or could it be both?  On the one hand, while I've been immensely fortunate, I still feel the pressures of age, responsibility, and solitude.  My youth is gone and with it my ability to behave and enjoy life as I did when I was a child.  My responsibilities dictate when I can sleep, what I can eat, when to pay my bills, inspire me to get to work, and everything else that needs and should be done.  And spending the vast majority of my free time alone, I know that sense of floating in a void with no one else around and how incredibly somber it feels.

On the other hand, however, there is an uninterrupted freedom in being able to survive it all.  Life itself is extremely precious and there are always moments where I am reminded of that.  Those moments become a catalyst to remembering all that I am thankful for and how far I've come despite the world's attempts to hold me back, tempt me, or keep me from reaching my goals.  When I'm able to grasp reality and elevate myself above it, it's as if I'm afloat without a care in this same world.

In the end, I'd have to say this photo exemplifies that line between that same sense of surrealism whether faced with overwhelming odds or reminded of just how lucky I am no matter what the realities may be.  Part of me wishes that were me, right this moment, listening to the same song I have on now and with my eyes closed while I overcome anything and everything life is about.  Because the slow motion effect floating in the deep has on me is what's most important, not the surroundings which buoy my existence.  It is purely about existing.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Young Girl Defending Herself Against Eros

The combination of life starting, being rejuvenated, and beginning to flourish again gives off a sense of hope and renewal.  It is subtle for most but as the daylight lingers later into the evening in the Northern Hemisphere, as the tree blossoms make their annual appearance, as the peppered chatter of young birds fills the air, so too does love begin to come out of Winter hibernation.  Individuals begin to feel drawn to one another and new relationships are forged fueled by the innate sense of optimism and desirous inclinations to find companionship.

Traditionally, this change in season has been marked by Saint Valentine's Day during which affection is expressed from one person to another.  The actual day of commemoration was created in AD 496 by Pope Gelasius and designed to be a period in which two martyred men both named Valentine were to be honored.  Over time, the day has evolved to become one in which hopefuls express their interest, couples express their passion, and the generic sense of affection for one another is celebrated.  Mythically, it is said that love originates from Eros.  The primordial god of sensual love and beauty, Eros (whose legend is often combined with that of Cupid) mischievously bounds from person to person skewering their hearts with his magical arrow thereby initiating the inclination to fall in love.

Regardless of your beliefs, I think it is safe to say most humans enjoy courtship and the rush of emotions, pheromones, and anxiety that comes with attraction and the potential of love.  Oh, some may not desire it just yet while even fewer may claim they have no interest at all, but there are still so many more who are true to the thrills and goosebumps associated with Springtime, hope, and love.

A Young Girl Defending Herself Against Eros by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) depicts a young female playfully fending off the advances of Eros.  Eros, with determined eyes and arrow perched for delivery in his fingers, is clad of nothing other than his curly locks and feathered wings while he advances on a delicate and seemingly love-ready woman who was otherwise enjoying the countryside alone.  Striking is the playful grin the female subject exhibits as she holds the scampish giver of romantic emotion at arms length.  The frolicksome struggle, meanwhile, takes place in the Arcadian hills rich with warmth, color, panoramic views, and most importantly, life.

Though our female subject wears little, she is obviously of the age where she is most fertile and most are ready for courtship.  Putting modern notions aside, not long ago, the norms of love and romance were handled much more traditionally as is implied by this painting.  Men and women didn't play the games of being coy or aloof as they do today.  No, not long ago, humans in many regions felt that for life to be sustained and to continue to flourish, males and females should pursue one another so that legacies could carry on, family names would survive, and cultures could celebrate their existence through proper procreation.  But these relationships could not begin without the onset of attraction and Bouguereau gently and masterfully depicts this with soft strokes, warm colors, and a bit of humor.

In 1734, Alexander Pope wrote a poem entitled An Essay on Man.  In it, Pope acknowledges mankind's general respect to God and for life by attempting to philosophically rationalize man's rights and freedoms to the ways of God.  His work was an attempt to provide optimism; helping persuade others that they weren't to feel burdened by living a proper, Godly life, but encouraged to do so because of the freedom to do so.  And from his prose come the lasting words which I think embody the hope of love, the excitement of being loved, and the lasting qualities of having love:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never is, but always to be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.