january 2004

1.1.04
Attention mainstream television networks: you don't all need to show the Parade of Roses on New Year's Day, and you certainly don't need to tack on a two hour pre-show. When VH-1's all-day I Love the 80's marathon is a far superior alternative to anything you have to offer on a day when a sizable portion of the viewing public is likely to be watching television from 10 am to 2 pm, is it any wonder that you're losing audience share?

1.2.04
I think we need to take our holidays more seriously in this country. Nationally celebrated days-off, like New Year's Day, should be days-off for everyone. No malls open, no grocery stores, no Wal-Marts or Targets, not even video stores, movie theaters, restaurants, or convenience stores. Everyone should have the day off, and everything should be closed. Do something with your family, or, if you're burnt out after the pressure cooker of the holiday season, take the day to read a book, take a solitary walk in the woods, fix an overly elaborate meal with unusual ingredients, whatever. We should all be forced to take a break from our consumer culture for a day—too often now it seems like our holidays have just turned into excuses to participate in an orgy of unnecessary purchasing.

In Rome, in August, the whole damn place shuts down as everyone takes their summer vacations; if you're a tourist coming to the city then, well, too bad—everyone's gone, and stuff just isn't open. When I was a kid, I remember they used to do these days during the school year when you would try to go 24 hours without watching television, or 24 hours without using electricity, and Adbusters has futilely tried to initiate a similar campaign regarding shopping called Buy Nothing Day (it will never work as a mainstream movement because they try to schedule it for the day after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year), and it just seems like holidays should function something like these days. They should days that really are out of the ordinary, days when you do something different than you do the rest of the year, not just an addition to your weekend so you can watch more tv or run a few more errands. Snow days are the only thing that simulate what I think holidays used be like—everything is just shut down, and there's a reasonable chance that you'll be without television and power, too.

It's not just shopping that I'm against (although I certainly have concerns about how we are all being increasingly defined primarily as consumers)—I just feel like we're losing the ability to unplug from our hectic lives, even for a day. People take their laptops with them on vacations, they take their PDAs to parties, and they take their cell phones with them EVERYWHERE. They seem to go into a panic if there's even a chance that they won't be able to run out and buy milk, bread, and toilet paper anytime they want to. Our museums are empty, our libraries are full of unread books, and most of us can't tell the difference between an opera and a symphony (an opera has singing, by the way). If we're going to have things open on holidays, why can't it be cultural venues like these (which are ironically the only things almost guaranteed to be closed on holidays; it seems artistic folk still take the notion of a day off seriously)? Maybe that would help us break out of our routines and take some time to do something different on holidays.

Am I starting to sound like a cranky old guy yet? Yeah? Good.

1.5.04
It seems like a lifetime since I've posted about personal stuff. So much has happened in the last few weeks that I never got around to writing about or which happened while I was in the non-posting period that always accompanies my trips out of state and away from daily access to my computer. It's hard to know what to write about first.

I guess I should get the stuff about my art class out of the way first, though. The Sunday before our last class, we took a trip to the Baltimore Museum of Art, which I had seen only once previously with Tori. During that visit, Tori and I spend the majority of our time in the Cone Collection, which focuses on art of the late 19th century and early to mid 20th, and in the modern art wing, both of which were, coincidentally, on the agenda for the trip with my art class. I wasn't too impressed with the BMA's offerings, finding most of the better-known artists in the Cone Collection to be poorly represented and finding almost nothing of value in the modern art wing, so I was very interested to see if my opinion of the museum and its holdings changed any after taking a course on modern art and revisiting the museum with my class.

Surprisingly, it did. The pieces in the Cone Collection by artists like Cezanne, Matisse, Monet, Van Gogh, and Delaunay, while still secondary works, all held new meaning for me, and I found a lot more value in them, particularly in the works of Matisse and Cezanne. I had never cared much for these artists before, but I grew to love them during this class, and it was nice to see some of their works in person after gaining this new perspective on them. Cezanne in particular I have a real affection for now, which wasn't completely solidified until I was able to look at two or three of his works up close and really understand what he was doing with depth and perspective in his paintings.

After that, we moved on to the modern art galleries, which I found almost laughable when I came with Tori. There was still a lot of stuff that I thought was stupid or pointless, but I have really embraced my strong responses to color (my professor for this class believes that people are primarily color reactors or line reactors when they are looking at two-dimensional art, and I am definitely a color reactor) and so I was able to look at a lot of the more abstract stuff that focused on color with a new sense of enjoyment. They also had a great painting by Hans Hofmann, one of the artists I did my class presentation on, and a representative painting by Rothko, the focus of the other half of my presentation and of my paper for the class (the painting was actually pretty good, but I didn't particularly care for the palette, so I had a harder time getting excited about it than I did with some of the pieces I had seen in the National Gallery with Tom a few weeks back). Probably the worst thing I saw (although it was a close call, believe me) was a work—and I'm using that term very loosely here—by Yoko Ono that consisted of a plastic dispenser bolted to the wall with several small pieces of paper filed neatly inside. You were supposed to take one out and do what it said. Here's what was written on it:


Front


Back

Yeah. Okay. Whatever. Shut up.

(I have to wonder, when the museum needs more of these, can they just make their own, or do they have to reorder them from some sort of art supply warehouse filled with blank canvases and small slips of paper cut to Yoko's exact specifications, two things on which her art seems to depend heavily?)

After two hours or so of looking at and talking about the works in the BMA together, the class disbanded for the afternoon (we were to meet again once more at our regular time later that week), but Brenda and I decided to take advantage of our free admission to the museum to have a look at some of the other exhibits. The big one was called Work Ethic, and explored how artists have challenged the traditional notions of who can call themselves an artist by removing themselves from the primary creation of a work of art by instead becoming the manager of the creation process or simply a generator of ideas. There was lots of silly stuff here, too, but it was still interesting to walk through. Yoko Ono was heavily represented, with at least three pieces that I can remember (two more read-this-piece-of-paper things and one where viewers were allowed to hammer a nail into a canvas, which I liked for the meaningless destruction aspect), along with a piece that had you walk down a really long, narrow hallway while watching yourself on a television monitor located at the end of the hall (that really creeped me out for some reason—I wouldn't do it until Brenda did it first). My favorite work was a piece by an artist named Tom Friedman called Everything, which was a big piece of paper onto which the artist had supposedly written every word in the American Heritage Dictionary with a ball point pen over the course of three years. I can appreciate that kind of dedication to essentially meaningless pursuits (did I mention that my job is really annoying me recently?). Another piece that turned out to be pretty interesting was a big pile of green candy strewn in a single layer in a rectagle on the floor that invited people to take a piece. So I did:


It's Art! Have a piece.

There were instructions that came with this installation, which I read before I took the candy. The way I remember it, the museum was responsible for replenshing the supply of candies so that visitors would not have to feel as though they were participating in the destruction of the work by taking a piece. But Brenda did not take a piece, because when she read the instructions, she thought that visitors who took a piece would be responsible for replenishing the supply, not the museum, as a way to get viewers to take responsibility for maintaining and giving life to works of art after their creators had released them to the public. We didn't discuss this until after we had left the exhibit, and neither of us felt like going back to find out what exactly the text said, so we left it unresolved. Which I kind of liked.

We strolled quickly around a few other exhibits, including some of the funiture and decor exhibits in the permanent collection and an exhibit called the Beaded Prayers Project that collected several thousand tiny packets made of cloth and adorned with beads that each contained a piece of paper with a wish or a prayer from the person who made it. The vivid colors are what drew Brenda and me in, but I like the idea a lot, too.

Brenda and I took a quick look around the museum store and then went our separate ways; she had papers to grade and I had some work to do at the office (conveniently located less than five minutes from the BMA) before heading home to work on my paper for class which was due Thursday.


1.6.04
I was going to post my paper from my modern art class today, along with some thoughts on its creation and the comments and grade from my professor, but it was taking a lot longer to format it for the web (it includes a lot of images as reference points for what I'm talking about), so you'll see it tomorrow. And then I'll move on to what happened during our holiday travels.

1.7.04

Towards Purity: The De-Evolution of Art
in the Works of Mark Rothko

or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Abstract Art*

*Apologies to Dr. Strangelove

Despite my love for the visual arts, the only other art course I had taken before this class was a survey art course during my undergraduate years that started with the Egyptians and worked up to the present century. Although I enjoyed the course immensely, it stopped pretty much after Picasso, meaning that we got into Dada and Surrealism but not really that much further. We covered some of the same movements that were covered in this course, but whether it was the living, changeable canvases of Impressionism, the fractured facets of Cubism, or the strange delusional dreams of Surrealism, the art of these movements still made sense to me: it was still largely representational, the artists were clearly skilled and very thoughtful about the work they were doing, and the works often contained overt references to the art that had come before them. Even though the artists in these movements were clearly reacting radically to traditional representational and academic art, their work was still obviously part of that tradition: I didn't have a problem fitting their art into the story of Western art as a whole.

The primary reason I took this class was because wanted to move forward in the 20th century and start to come to grips with the abstract, non-representational art that is what most people think of when you say the phrase "modern art", because it was when artists began to move towards pure abstraction that I began to have trouble fitting them into the big picture of the history of art. Despite my love for art and ideas (or maybe because of it), my reaction to most abstract pieces was of the typical "anyone could have done that" variety. I wasn't able to figure out how what these artists were doing fit into the evolution of art; rather, I considered what they were doing a de-evolution, a taking away from the layers of meaning in art that had been built up by the culture over centuries.

Modernist expressions in literature, my primary field of study, certainly struggle against the conventions of earlier genres and styles, but no matter how much modern authors might twist, reshape, and contort their sentences, they must still work within the rational constructs of grammar and syntax in order to make their work understandable; to tear the fabric of language radically would be to turn their work into gibberish. Painters, on the other hand, have no such constraints; reading is necessarily a more cerebral exercise than simply viewing (although it certainly helps to invest mental energy in "reading" paintings, it is not strictly required in order to understand the work on a basic level), and visual artists therefore have greater license to express pure intuition and imagination with line and color. But though we as viewers can react to these works on a purely visual basis, we also have a hard time resisting the impulse to attach meaning to them, no matter how much they might try to resist being categorized, classified, labeled, and named. From Mondrian's geometric grids with the occasional square of red, blue, or yellow to Duchamp's ready-mades, I wasn't quite sure what modern art was trying to tell me, or whether the people making it intended for it to tell me anything at all. It was as if I was reading a book that was written in English, but had no meaning, and arguably had no grammar or syntax, either. It was like looking at art from Mars.

The Abstract Expressionists were especially difficult for me. Jackson Pollock in particular, with his untamed, violent, and seemingly random spatters of paint and his rock star reputation, seemed to me to be the beginning of the end for art, the critics' exhibit A in the case that the debauchery of the 20th century was leading to the much-discussed decline and fall of Western civilization. The lesser-known Abstract Expressionists, from Pollock's counterparts in the action or gestural strain such as Hans Hofmann and William de Kooning, to the color field Abstract Expressionists like Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Barnett Newman, all baffled me equally. Whether it was paint that seemed wildly thrown, splashed or dripped on the canvas, or broad expanses of color, Abstract Expressionism always left me asking Duchamp's question: Is this art?

Part of the reason it was so easy for me to write off the Abstract Expressionists is because, without close inspection, they seem easy to write off. The initial "I could have done that" reaction to Abstract Expressionists is almost universal, and will likely continue for generations to come no matter how ensconced their work becomes in the canon of Western art. Their penchant for executing their works on large canvases adds to the problem: you can see them from across the room and walk away without ever getting close enough to get caught in Pollock's enticing web or sink into Rothko's pools of color bobbing gently above and below the picture plane. Though the epic scale of these works has as much to say to the viewer at a distance of 30 feet as it does at 30 inches, it also requires that you experience the works at both of these distances: you must approach the canvases and allow yourself to be engulfed by it, to experience it as an enveloping world of line and color, before you can truly understand these paintings.

I chose to focus on Rothko because, as a color reactor, he immediately appealed to me in a way that gestural artists like Pollock or even Rothko's color field counterparts did not. His works had more depth to them, more space than I felt in the works of other color field Abstract Expressionists like Still. And his palette choices, particularly in the works that were based on dark blues and greens, reminded me of my own paintings, which obsessively focus on the sea at night.

Much of Rothko's early work from the 1920s through the 1940s, when his work began to increasingly focus mythical subjects, deals with figures, though even in these figurative works we can see evidence of the classic style that was to later become his hallmark. Look, for example, at 1927's "Beach Scene" (figure 1), in which you cannot help but find harbingers of the classic period's rectangles of color in the three bands of the sand, the sea, and the sky behind the four female nudes in the foreground, or at the unknown painting from the early 1930s (figure 2) where the figure of a man hunched over and playing a banjo seems to blur indistinctly into the background in the same way that his rectangles, with their fuzzy, luminous edges, would later float above the undertone of color from the classic works. But even though you can find evidence of his signature style in the early period (which ends around 1940), the work is largely of figures inhabiting the world of everyday life: cities, landscapes, and rooms.

Figure 1

Beach Scene, c. 1927

Figure 2

[Uknown Title], c. 1933

But there came a time when Rothko felt compelled to abandon the figure: "It was with the utmost reluctance that I found the figure could not serve my purposes.... But a time came when none of us could use the figure without mutilating it." Here Rothko is referring to the increasing alienation that many felt in the fragmented modern world, especially in the wake of World War II, which caused the American-based artists of Rothko's generation to reject old traditions and values in the same way that the destructiveness of World War I had caused European artists a generation before to re-examine the way they were representing the world.

Rothko's move away from representational works towards a more abstract style began in the early 1940s, a period referred to as his transitional period. Here the subject matter of his works moves towards the mythical, employing titles like "Antigone" (figure 3), "Oedipus" (figure 4), and "Leda" which are inhabited by figures that are increasingly less recognizable as humans. By 1943, around the time of the famous statement written with Alfred Gottlieb and Barnett Newman, rectangular blocks of color have begun to assert themselves in Rothko's work, and from 1945 on they are always present in some form, although it will still take a few years before Rothko takes the final step of stripping away the extraneous material that contemporary viewers, knowing what is to come, might often see as getting in the way of the true Rothko work underneath.

Figure 3

Antigone, 1939-1940

Figure 4

Oedipus, 1940

The fanciful abstractions in these works are clearly inspired by the Surrealist automatism of Arshile Gorky (which was in turn heavily influenced by Kandinsky's attempts to free himself from form and paint from his unconscious), but that which seems so natural in Gorky's work feels forced in Rothko because we can feel the serene minimalism of Rothko's classic style straining to escape from the random blobs and squiggles. In an untitled 1945 work (figure 5), the abstract shapes laid over the rectangular bands of color are so spare, so sparse and minimal, that it's easy to see that Rothko himself was beginning to wonder if he really needed anything other than the richly textured and layered sheets of color that are relentlessly pushing themselves to the foreground of this painting. Another work titled "The Source" from 1945-1946 (figure 6) foreshadows the infamous "black paintings" that Rothko produced in the last two years of his life before his suicide. Again, to a viewer who knows those paintings and the despair that they evoke, the abstract shapes (figures?) that float in front of the barren landscape of desolation seem like a desecration, an unnecessary attempt at gaudy ornamentation.

Figure 5

Untitled, 1945

Figure 6

The Source, 1945-1946

By 1947, the rectangles of color had again receded below the surface of the visible canvas (although spiritually you can still feel their presence) and the abstract automatic lines and shapes had spread out into amorphous blobs of color that spread themselves slowly over the surface of the entire canvas. At their most transcendental, seen in untitled works from 1947 and 1948 (figure 7 and 8, respectively) and in "No. 1 (No. 18, 1948" from 1948-1949 (figure 9), the undefined slicks of color appear as shimmering liquid hues that bob gently in a reflecting pool situated in some Fauvist tropical wilderness raging with life and growth (the lower third of Gaugin's "Day of the Gods (Mahana No Atua)", which has abstract embryonic forms swirling in the sea, has some striking similarities to Rothko's paintings from this period).

Figure 7

Untitled, 1947

Figure 8

Untitled, 1948

Figure 9

No. 1 (No. 18, 1948), 1948-1949

The harder edged rectangles re-emerged in 1949, slowly becoming more defined elements in the formless pools of color and shape, but it is not until a series of paintings created in 1949 and shown together in the Parsons Gallery in 1950 that we see works that clearly prefigure what would come to be known as his classic style. "No. 1", "No. 2", "No. 3" (figure 10), "No. 5", "No. 6", "No. 7", and "No. 8" (figure 11) from that show all featured relatively clearly defined rectangles of color hovering above a larger color field. There are still works in this show that look back to the amorphous style of 1947-1948, but by 1950, there is no question that Rothko has entered his classic period.

Figure 10

No. 3/No. 13, 1949

Figure 11

No. 8, 1949

Like almost everything surrounding a discussion of Rothko's work, the line between the transitional period and the classic period is fairly hazy; just as you can look at one of his classic works and say definitively "this area is part of the background and this area is part of a different colored rectangle", but you'd be hard-pressed to define the exact point on the canvas where the one gives way to the other, so, too, you can watch the progression of his work from 1949 to 1950 and see that Rothko is ever trending towards what was to become his defining style, but you can't point at one particular painting and say "this is his first classic work". You can make a case for any number of paintings from this period, but in the end, there is no defining work, no "a-ha!" moment where he finds his classic style.

Nevertheless, from this point forward, Rothko works almost exclusively in his classic style. The palette changes, the size, shape, and number of rectangles changes, and occasionally even the orientation of the canvas is shifted from a portrait to a landscape, but the works are unmistakably Rothko. He created hundreds of these paintings; it is almost impossible to imagine that an artist of Rothko's depth and vision could remain so focused on a particular style for so long without exhausting it, or that viewers could find something true and unique and inspiring about each individual painting, especially when confronted with what is essentially a barrage superficially similar works. But the fact that Rothko was able to express himself in this style for this long without losing the ability to breath life into each work, and that viewers continue to find something worthwhile and distinct about these canvases speaks to the power of Rothko's defining motif, the elemental potency of simple geometric shapes and vibrant colors (for examples of his classic work, see figures 12 and 13).

Figure 12

Untitled, 1952

Figure 13

No. 27 (Light Band), 1954

In reading about the Rothko's works, particularly the works from the classic period for which he is best known, you tend to encounter the same kinds of imagery, and even the same words, over and over: luminous, diaphanous, shimmering, ephemeral, radiant, hazy, watery, translucent. They are said to have an aura, or to create a mirage, or to be imbued with a soul. What is striking, given the apparent simplicity of the paintings—two or three rectangles of color floating near the picture place which is established by a larger field of color that encompasses the entire canvas, even wrapping itself around the edges—is how hard it is to describe one of Rothko's works once you really start looking at it.

Rothko was clearly influenced by the color theories advanced by another Abstract Expressionist, Hans Hofmann, who was also well known as a teacher and who helped bridge the gap not only between the gestural and color field Abstract Expressionists but also between Abstract Expressionism and the earlier European movements of Cubism, Fauvism, and Surrealism. Hofmann was known for his concept of "push and pull", the idea that you can create the illusion of depth simply by placing contrasting colors next to one another (as opposed to linear perspective, which creates depth by having objects decrease in size towards a single focal point and by the use of atmospheric effects). "Push-pull is at the heart of the color theory of Impressionists like Monet and Seurat, who created canvases that seemed to move and vibrate by placing short strokes or dots of contrasting colors next to one another. While Rothko did not study directly with Hofmann, Rothko's later work is perhaps the best example of how an artist can use the "push-pull" effect to create tension and depth on the picture plane using nothing but color.

Rothko also shared with Hofmann an affinity for music, which was a primal influence on his work (as it was for many abstract painters). Hofmann often gave his abstract pieces musical names ("Orchestral Dominance in Green", "String Quartet"), and he had very well-developed theories about the relationship of colors in paintings to notes in music:

Continuity of color development is achieved through successful, successive development of color the color scales. There are comparable to the tone scales in music. They can be played in Major or Minor. Each color scale follows again a rhythm entirely its own. The rhythmic development of the red scale differs from that of the blue scale or the yellow scale, etc. The development of the color scales spreads over the whole picture surface, and its orientation in relation to the picture surface is of utmost importance.

The formal development of the work and the color development are performed simultaneously. The color development leads thereby from one color scale to the other. Since every color can be shaded with any other color, an unlimited variation of shading within every color scale is possible. Although a red can be, in itself, bluish, greenish, yellowish, brownish, etc., its actual color-emanation in the pictorial totality will be the conditioned result of its relationship to all the other colors.

Any color shade within one color scale can become, at any moment, the bridge to any other color scale. This leads to an interwoven communion of color scales over the entire picture surface.

(Hans Hofmann, "The Color Problem in Pure Painting—Its Creative Origin," quoted in Goodman 110-111)

Whether he knew directly about Hofmann's ideas on color scales, it is clear that Rothko intuitively understood these concepts. Looking at the blurred edges of his rectangles, you can see almost infinite shifts between the color of the rectangles and the undertone of color the creates the foundation for the painting, and even within the rectangles and the background color wash (which from a distance can appear to be flat fields of color), you can find subtle variations in the hue and saturation that give the work a layered, textured feeling when viewed closely. In his essay on Rothko in Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience, Stephen Polcari notes that Rothko often played music while painting in his studio, and repeats one of Rothko's best known quotes: "I wanted to become a painter to raise painting to the level of poignancy of music and poetry" (Polcari 145). Polcari also notes that Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, a work Rothko was obsessed with, had a clear influence on Rothko's ideas about the relationship between music and painting:

For Nietzsche, music is a Dionysian, tragic art, its melody primal and universal, a vehicle for the rendering of elemental passion, primal images, and primordial unity among man, nature, and the universe. Music is antiparticular and antiphenomenal, in other words, like Rothko's work, abstract, direct, and concrete. (Polcari 145)

Music manages to be both completely abstract (there is no way for sound to be directly representational of the visual world) and completely visceral; it has the power to grab you and consume you, and it influences your emotions and your mood. Rothko wanted his viewers to have the same sort of experience while looking at his work:

I am not interested in relationship of color or form or anything else...I am interested only in expressing the basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on—and the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate with those basic human emotions. The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point. (Polcari 144)

I would argue that he succeeds in this goal: as hard as it is to find a quiet spot in a museum where you can take the time to properly absorb one of Rothko's paintings, where you can allow yourself to become open to the sea of emotions and the universe of depth conjured up using only color on a flat picture plane, if you can manage to do so, it is easy to weep, or to become swept up in the same religious fervor that we see in Bernini's "Ecstasy of Saint Theresa".

Many art historians and critics have attempted to find meaning in Rothko's repeated use of the three rectangles, likening them to a landscape or seascape (land, horizon, sky or land, water, sky), the human body (head, torso, legs), or a window (two panes divided by a frame), and although these theories might give viewers another way to understand Rothko's works on an intellectual level, they are ultimately artificial constructs that are being applied to works that are intended to transcend rationalism. It's certainly possible to deconstruct them and create a historical, biographical, and cultural context for them, but does doing so add anything to the experience of sitting in front of one of the paintings and allowing yourself to be engulfed by it? In Rothko's classic period, painting, defined as the interaction of color and light on the picture plane of a canvas, has been so refined and purified that each work has become its own meditative space that is endowed with meaning both universal and individual by each viewer who allows him- or herself to inhabit it.

From 1950 to 1970, there are really only two significant deviations from the classic style. The first comes in the late 1950s when Rothko is given a commission to design a series of panels for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram building in New York. Beginning in 1958 and continuing through 1959, he paints a series of panels (figures 14 and 15) in dark maroons, browns, blacks, and purples that are in marked contrast to the almost Fauvist hues of the early classic period, when bright yellows, reds, oranges, and whites were prominent in Rothko's palette.

Figure 14

Untitled, 1958

Figure 15

Untitled, 1958

We also see a new shape motif emerging: rather than horizontally-oriented rectangles that seem to float above a larger color field, the Seagram murals frequently feature two-color canvases with a primary field of color covering the entire canvas with a single block of color floating above it with one or more "holes" cut into them so that you can see the primary wash of color in the center of the "higher" block of color. As a result, the imagery in the Seagram murals is dominated by openings: holes, doors, tunnels, windows, eyes. What lies beyond the threshold of these passages is implicitly brought to the works by the viewers, but it is hard to deny the feeling of being pulled into these works that is distinct from the emotions of the earlier classic works: as opposed to the sensation of floating in light and color evoked by rectangles hovering over the canvas, the Seagram murals seem to insistently pull at us, sucking us into a vortex, forcing us to confront the void.

The creation of more forceful, almost confrontational paintings was clearly intentional, reflecting his ambivalence about the appropriateness of the project and his antagonistic attitude towards the diners who were the audience for these works. He has a famous quote about this project—"I hope to paint something that will ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room"—and it's clear that these works were meant to stand apart from his earlier meditative works. For whatever reason, Rothko wanted the Four Seasons patrons to be looking into the abyss during their meal, and the visceral bloodiness of the mural paintings ensured that the abyss would be staring right back with unblinking eyes.

Rothko eventually abandoned the Seagram project, deciding that a restaurant was not the proper setting for his paintings (though they are almost shockingly confrontational for compared to his earlier classic paintings, it is doubtful that they would have made much of an impression in the dimly lit interior of a restaurant; it's likely that they would have been seen merely as the expensive ornamentation that the Four Seasons wanted them to be), but the darker colors he employed during that period never entirely disappeared from his work thereafter, and in fact both the Seagram palette and the window/door motif was revisited for another series of murals painted in 1961 for Harvard University, and again for the Rothko Chapel in Houston, a permanent mural installation created in 1965 which provided the serene, meditative environment he'd always desired for his paintings.

Rothko's second major break from his classic style came in 1969 in a series called "the black paintings" (also known as the "Black on Grays", figures 16 and 17). In early 1968, Rothko suffered an aneurysm, and this event signaled the coming end of his life. In the fall of 1968, after he had recovered somewhat, and through 1969, Rothko embarked on a project to catalog all of his works, working with his assistants to diligently label, date, and provide orientation information for all the works in his possession, as if he felt a need to sum up his life's work and preserve it for posterity. In early 1969 he produced the first of his black paintings, which are characterized by a dark, almost flat field of color covering the upper half of the canvas (usually black, dark green, or dark blue) whose weight you can feel pressing down on the lighter lower half of the canvas (done in whites, light yellows, or light blues). There are no more hovering rectangles, just two opposing fields of color recalling the vast, desolate landscapes of the arctic tundra at night or the cold emptiness of the moon.

Figure 16

Untitled, 1969

Figure 17

Untitled, 1969-1970

Rothko committed suicide in February 1970, slitting his arms and bleeding to death. His final works show a return to his classic style of hovering rectangles, but the palettes that he chose are telling: two of the final three are deep, dark blues and greens, colors traditionally associated with his periods of depression. The final canvas (figure 18) is done in rich, startling vermilions, and is brighter than anything he had done since his aneurysm. But it is not a color of happiness: it is the color of death, the same color as the blood that was to flow from his arms and leave him lifeless on the floor of his studio.

Figure 18

Untitled, 1970

As I began to dig deeper into Rothko's work in preparation for my class presentation and this paper, as I tried to use the rational construct of research and analysis to construct a meaning for Rothko's paintings, I began to grow increasingly uneasy with the cold critical methods I was forced to employ. I felt like I was putting Rothko's work in a box, pinning and mounting it as a collector of insects would a butterfly. But unlike an entymologist, who has no problem destroying something in order to preserve it and document it for science, I was uneasy with building a narrative around these works; I felt was removing the life from them, and I didn't like it.

Rothko hated art critics, and he hated speaking about his work; he didn't want anyone, whether a learned art historian, a gallery owner, or even the painter himself, to impose any sort of structure and philosophy on his work. He intended for his works to be meditative pieces for which each viewer would create his or her own individual meaning. He wanted them to be universal, timeless, tragic, and heavy with their own internal gravity. I understood this intuitively the first time I looked on a Rothko canvas with a truly open mind, and after learning about his own feelings regarding commentary on his work, I strenuously resisted the urge to explain his work in the context of his personal life, to attach his biography to works that he intended and I felt to be outside of time and history. Nevertheless, it is hard to resist using Rothko's own words to bring further clarity to his work:

The progression of a painter's work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer.... To achieve this clarity is, inevitably, to be understood. (Anfam, pp. 75-76)

Looking at Rothko's works in more or less chronological order (or at least the order the he decided to put them in when he started to catalog them in 1968), it is easy to see how germane this particular statement is to a discussion of Rothko's progression towards and through his classic style. Even from his earliest figurative works in the 1920s, we can see hints of the classic style, elements that will be used again and again in his art, sometimes distorted, sometimes seemingly abandoned, but always essentially present. Moving through the 1930s and into the 1940s, when he eventually gave up on the figure as a subject for his painting, we see a gradually reduction of Rothko's work, a stripping away of all excess material until we are left with the primal fields of color that were to occupy the second half of his career.

Attempting to write about the paintings of Mark Rothko is futile; we are using the blunt, clumsy instrument of language to try to capture works that have been purified and refined to the point where the only way to truly describe them is to stand in front of them and let your mind melt into the colors, to allow your consciousness to slip into a nebulous dream state as hazy as the edges of his rectangles which seem to melt into misty nothingness. Brian O'Doherty, in his essay on Rothko in American Masters, said that "Rothko's art utters a single word, insistently. But everyone hears a different word" (O'Doherty 192).

To reduce Rothko's paintings to a single word might be overly simplistic, but the essence of what O'Doherty is saying is correct. The typical three-rectangle composition may be better thought of as a haiku, a three-line minimalist composition elucidating a single idea that is nevertheless laden with layers of meaning, or a zen koan, an enigmatic riddle meant to be repeated over and over until a transcendental state is achieved. Rothko's paintings can be similarly experienced: it only takes a moment to take in the essence of the work, its basic colors and its composition, but you feel like you could spend a lifetime lost in the glowing edges and richly textured brushwork that creates so many tonal variations that you would find it difficult to find even a square inch of the canvas that holds a single color.

My initial supposition that artists like Rothko were leading to a de-evolution of art was essentially correct, but now I choose to see that as a positive thing. By abandoning academic, figurative, and representational traditions that fettered works of art to the time and place of the artists who created them, the Abstract Expressionists gave us timeless works that transcend the lives of their creators, the comments of their critics, and the entire culture that gave birth to them. Rothko's paintings in particular, with their focus on pure color and the picture plane, create a space that is outside of history, a place where each of us can enter and discover what it means to be human. The reduction of painting to its purest essence allows Rothko's works to become universal, and to hold ever deeper layers of meaning; they become mirrors for the tragedy, triumph, pain, and sadness that dwells within each of us.

Works Cited

Anfam, David. Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas: Catalogue Raisonné. New Haven: Yale University Press; Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1998.

Goodman, Cynthia (Editor). Hans Hofmann. Munich: Prestel-Verlag; New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1990.

O'Doherty, Brian. American Masters: The Voice and the Myth in Modern Art. New York: Dutton, 1982.

Polcari, Stephen. Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.


1.7.04
Despite my uneasiness about the quality of my paper, my professor seemed to like it. Here are her comments:

What a wonderful essay you have written about Rothko. It was an absolute joy to read. As far as I'm concerned, you've nailed both the artist and your reactions to his work, and while he'd have been pissed off about the former, he'd have loved the later. Course grade = A+

Wow. Another freaking A+. Either the professors in this program give these out like candy or I'm a bigger genius than I thought. Maybe I can talk the program head into letting me use one of my A pluses to balance out the A minus I was unfairly given in my Artificial Human class this summer so I can have that perfect 4.0 GPA.


1.7.04
I really had a tough time writing my paper for the modern art course I took last semester. For a while I couldn't even decide on a topic: should I write about Hans Hofmann, Mark Rothko, both, or neither? I had done my in-class presentation on Hofmann and Rothko, but I wasn't sure I could come to grips with either artist well enough to write 5000 words on them without more time for research. Two weeks before the paper was due, I hadn't written a word, but I decided to plow ahead with Rothko.

I agonized over this paper every minute of those two weeks, probably putting in between 25 and 30 hours in writing, re-writing, and selecting representative works and quotes from the critical literature. In the end, I still wasn't happy, though: I felt like I had begun to find my way through the morass of text I had written by the time I had to turn the paper in, but I really wanted another week to delete a few paragraphs, expand a few others, and just generally tighten it up. My time was up, though, and I had to turn it in, warts and all. I'll post my professor's comments and my grade after the body of the paper so you can see what she thought of it.

1.8.04
Dang it. Sorry. Again. Happy belated birthday, Doug.

1.9.04
Doug's email in response to my confusing his birthday with Elvis's yet again:

OK, in some perverse way I enjoy this evolving connection between my birthday and Elvis's. Maybe it's my love of percodan and fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

He's just kidding. He hates fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches.


1.12.04
I did something to the index finger on my left hand yesterday which made it very painful to type, so all the f, r, t, g, b, and v's in today's entries were typed with my middle finger instead, which also continued to handle its normal load of e, d, and c's. I just thought you all should know that.

1.12.04
For Christmas, we went down to North Carolina like we normally do, first going to Julie's parents in a small town in the middle of nowhere for a few days, and then going to visit my mom's side of the family in Raleigh for a couple of days. This year we also added an extra couple of days with my dad in Wilmington (usually we visit that part of the family for Thanksgiving, but this year we instead decided to stay up here and have people come to us).

It gets harder and harder for me to spend time at Julie's parents. She is an only child, so it's just us and her parents, and while Julie is able to spend a lot of time talking and doing stuff with her mother, I don't really have a lot to do. Her father, who has had several strokes in the past few years and seems far older than he actually is, spends most of his time watching movies on the western channel and the Independent Film Channel, and while there is a small television in the room Julie and I stay in, it just feels weird and useless for me to sit in there all day by myself doing nothing (we brought the GameCube with us thinking I could spend some time playing games in there, but it didn't have the right inputs, so that was a no-go). When we go to her parents' house, I feel like all I'm doing is killing time and waiting to move on to the second stop on our journey in Raleigh. I get a lot of reading done, and it's nice to take a few days off from this site to recharge my batteries, but still, by the time I leave there, I feel more like I've wasted several precious days rather than like I've had a few relaxing days off.

Tori came back into the country a few days before we got down to NC, and she was feeling settled in enough after a couple of days to come up and visit us at Julie's parents for a day, which was great both because I hadn't seen her in months and because it gave me something to do for 24 hours besides read my Lewis & Clark books. We didn't actually do much—mostly we just talked and hung out—but it was a welcome relief from the normal not-doing-much that I endure in that town. Julie's aunt and her husband came over for dinner the night Tori was there, too, and afterwards Julie and Tori and I played Boggle (I won overall, but Tori had a couple of great rounds after she got loaded up on sugar) while the grown-ups watched tv and talked.

The next day, Tori followed me to Greenville (it's the closest city to Julie's town with a mall, and it was also on Tori's way back to Wilmington) so we could do a little last minute Christmas shopping together and have lunch before she went back home and I went back to the middle of nowhere. I was looking for a copper birdbath for the back porch for Julie—I had found one online that she would like, but it wouldn't have gotten there in time for Christmas—and also a new everyday watch for her. Greenville had a Birds Unlimited and a couple of malls, so I figured I could get everything taken care of pretty quickly. But the Birds Unlimited only had a couple of ceramic birdbaths (though they non-helpfully informed me that they had some copper ones in stock at another store an hour away), so that ended up being a dead end. And let me tell you something: malls in the wilds of northeastern NC are only called malls because they don't have any real malls around to compete with them. They looked like malls—enclosed shopping areas, food courts, lots of retails outlets and department stores—but they just didn't have anything. After searching in several stores for a watch and not finding anything I liked, I went to a Target down the street and found four or five great choices there.

After a couple hours of shopping frustration, we had lunch at a Chili's and then each went out separate ways. I really wished we could have spent more time together, but I was grateful for any time I could get with her, plus I knew that I was going to see her again in a few days. I enjoyed my drive back to Julie's town, listening to music and watching the countryside go by.

1.13.04
Christmas day came pretty quickly, despite my near-continuous boredom. We did our normal Christmas Eve routine with Julie's parents: going to a Christmas Eve church service, riding around and looking at the houses decorated with lights, eating a dinner of snack foods and appetizers, and finally opening one present. Usually Julie and I give each other a relatively inexpensive present on Christmas Eve, in the $10 to $25 range, and save our bigger presents for Christmas morning. Julie also usually sets a $100 limit every year, which I have flagrantly ignored time and again but which she has usually adhered to until she realizes that I have not, at which time she'll usually add one more gift to my pile out of guilt.

This year, however, I had only three presents from her, and she indicated on Christmas Eve that two of them were approximately equal in value. So when I opened one of them and found an $8 pair of boxer shorts, I wasn't too psyched about the other one and I was also wondering what else she could have gotten me for my big gift and still stayed within her range (nothing I wanted was in the $80 range, so the only thing that made sense was that she had put two gifts together in one box, but that didn't make any sense either given the low number of presents that it left me with). Given her past behavior, I figured she had found something on my list in that range that I had forgotten about and had decided to focus most of her spending on that.

So imagine my surprise when I opened my big gift the next morning and found a shiny new 40 gig iPod in the box, meaning that Julie had spent more than five times her self-imposed spending limit and probably more than she had spent on me the previous three years combined. I was overwhelmed and extremely excited, but I had to put away my enthusiasm because I knew that I was at least five days away from being able to hook it up to my Mac and start transferring my CD collection to it.

In return, I gave Julie a hanging copper birdbath, a nice everyday watch, a sapphire bracelet, some handmade earrings from a local boutique, a set of chinese bowls and chopsticks (which I actually wouldn't find until a couple of days later in Chapel Hill), and a bottle of Ralph Lauren's Blue. From Julie's parents I got a couple of nice shirts for work, two new pairs of khakis, the SSX 3 snowboarding game for GameCube, and my annual pack of baseball cards (they also gave us money for another gift that I'll tell you about later).

After everyone opened their presents, we had our traditional breakfast of cheese grits casserole and ham biscuits and watched the omnipresent A Christmas Story on TNT. I took a short nap while Julie tried on her new clothes, but by noon we had packed up and were on our way to Raleigh to do the second half of Christmas with my grandfather and my mother's side of the family.

1.14.04
Around noon on Christmas day, Julie and I left her parents' house and started our drive to my aunt Cathy's house, where we usually have Christmas dinner with my mom and grandfather and everyone on that side of the family. Actually, I had never been to this particular house before; Cathy sold her old house last year and moved into a new monstrosity that is a very nice house but which is way too big for her and which is also probably a little out of her price range. But no matter; it's much better for hosting Christmas than her previous abode, since we all had room to spread out and stay out of each other's way when we started to feel cranky.

As is our custom, we got there before the other guests so that my mom, my sister, Julie, and I could exchange our gifts, since we always buy more for each other than the rest of the family (although Julie and I were pretty generous to everyone this year, so we didn't spend much more on my mom and sister than we did on everyone else). We got my mom a nice freshwater pearl necklace from Coldwater Creek, a catalog store she likes a lot, and for my sister we got a turtleneck shirt, some Victoria's Secret lavender stuff (perfume, body wash, etc.), and a nice $40 lighter that is supposed to be windproof and looks like that afterburner on jet when you light it, only to discover that she had quit smoking the week before (she has been smoking for well over a decade at this point). We offered to take it back and get her something else, but she said no, she could keep it to light candles with and light her friends' cigarettes. I hope she really has quit, but I have feeling that she's going to end up getting some use out of it herself.

As usual, mom got me a Wüsthof knife, this time a serrated slicer that had just been released by the company. I actually would have preferred a smaller 5 inch chef's knife to compliment my 7 inch chef's knife, which I love but which is sometimes a little to big for chopping up smaller vegetables. She got me a lot of other stuff, too, but I'm baffled as to who she thought she was buying it for. It was bunch of overpriced knicknacks and Christmas ornaments that are so far from who I am that I was wondering if I was opening the wrong gifts. It used to be that she would give Julie and I one ornament a year for our Christmas tree, and then she started giving us Winnie the Pooh stuff because she knew I liked the books (even though I don't particularly care for the merchandise), and now it's just exploded into this full-blown deluge of useless stuff. I hate not being grateful for it, but I hate it even more that she probably spent way too much on it. If she had taken half the money she spent on that junk and put it in a Best Buy gift certificate, I would have been much happier.

Julie got a bunch of stuff like that from her, too, but my mom also gave her a very cool gift: a needlepoint Christmas stocking that my mom had made herself to compliment the one she made for me when I was a kid. That meant more than all the stuff she bought us, most of which will likely end up in our attic. But the stocking, which probably cost her the least amount of money of all our gifts, will hang in our home at Christmas for the rest of our lives.

We finished our gift exchange around 4 in the afternoon and started getting ready for my granddad to arrive around 5 or 5:30 so we could have dinner and exchange gifts with everyone else. He still hadn't shown up by 5, which wasn't that unusual, but I was beginning to get a little concerned when he hadn't shown up by 5:30, since he may be a little tardy, but he's rarely out and out late. At 6, I was worried, and my fears were justified when a message showed up on my mom's cell phone a few minutes later: he and his wife Laryce had been in a car accident on the way to Cathy's.

1.15.04
I don't mean to leave you with that cliffhanger yesterday about my grandfather, but I just don't have the energy to write that entry today. Suffice it to say he and his wife are okay, and I'll give you more details tomorrow.

1.16.04
My grandfather's accident occured sometime between 5 and 5:30 in the afternoon. As he was driving his gigantic white Cadillac on his way to Christmas dinner at my aunt Cathy's house, a young driver in a red Lexus ran a red light and sped through an intersection. My grandfather, who had a green light, hit him broadside. Both cars were pretty much totalled. Before my grandfather could gather himself enough to get out of the car, the driver of the other car was at his side, checking to make sure everyone was alright. He apparently remained standing until the paramedics got there, but he was likely running on adrenaline; he was taken away in a stretcher and stayed in the hospital much longer than my grandfather or his wife, Laryce.

They arrived at the hospital around 5:30, and immediately tried to call us, but the phone was busy so they left a message. Both were badly shaken, and had pain in their neck and chest from the whiplash and the force of the seatbelts restraining them, and Laryce's leg had been hurt when it hit the glove compartment, but they were both triaged as non-critical and given seats in the waiting room with methadone addicts and people with the sniffles. After a series of frustrating phone calls with the hospital staff, we were finally able to talk to him around 6:30 or so. He downplayed the whole thing, and insisted that we eat dinner and exchange gifts and proceed as if nothing had happened. He was so convincing that we did just that, albeit hurriedly and with much anxiety.

The plan was for Julie and I to return to my grandfather's house and empty out our car (we were still carrying all of our luggage and gifts, since we had gone straight from Julie's parents to Cathy's), and then go to the hospital to sit with granddad and Laryce and give them a ride home after they had been checked out by the doctors. Mom and Carrie would then pack up her stuff at Cathy's, drive into town and drop off her stuff at granddad's, and meet us at the hospital. We probably left Cathy's around 7 or 7:30, and we got to the hospital around 8:30 or 9. My granddad and Laryce were sitting near the entrance to the waiting room, which was secured by a metal detector and a security guard.

Laryce was in wheelchair, her leg elevated, and my grandfather was seated next to her in a regular chair. We had brought snacks for them since they hadn't had any dinner and my grandfather also has a mild form of diabetes, but they had been given juice and crackers by the hospital staff. Despite their obvious pain, they had only been given a high dose of Advil or Tylenol, and they still hadn't been seen by a doctor even though they had been waiting for three hours already (I don't know about you, but when an 83 year old man who never complains about pain has just been in a serious car accident and says he has serious chest pains that rate an 8 on a scale of 10, I'd think you'd want to get him examined as soon as possible). They had been reevaluated twice, and both times had been deemed non-critical enough to continue sitting in the waiting room.

We sat and talked with them for a while, and I was amazed at how well they were taking it, at how normal they seemed. Laryce chatted about this and that, and granddad piped in with a comment every now and then, but they just seemed more bored and resigned to their fate of endless waiting than in pain or angry, although I know they were both hurting. They insisted that we go back home every 15 minutes or so, but we stayed until around midnight when my mom and Carrie showed up to take a shift. Granddad and Laryce still hadn't been seen by a doctor yet, seven hours after their accident, although they had been reevaluated twice more while we waited with them.

They didn't end up seeing a doctor until close to two in the morning, and then they had to endure x-rays and CT scans to make sure nothing was broken or hemorrhaging. Mom and Carrie waited at the hospital the whole time, and eventually gave them a ride home which included a stop at Hardee's for breakfast biscuits. The all showed up around 7 in the morning and promptly headed off to their various beds. Julie and I had only been asleep for around five hours at that point, and I was coming down with something, so the whole house remained in a state of slumber until around noon (except for Julie, who woke up mid-morning and started reading in bed so as not to disturb anyone).

Everyone acted pretty normal for the next couple of days, although we were all pretty shaken by it. After getting up on Friday afternoon, mom, Carrie, Julie and I all went to Chapel Hill, allowing granddad and Laryce to recuperate in peace, and the next morning we all went to breakfast at one of granddad's favorite places, where he acted as normal as could be. In the three weeks since the accident, though, as the aches have persisted and he's had to deal with lawyers and insurance companies and the potential for long-term pain as a result of this accident, he has become as depressed as I've ever seen him. He never complains about anything, he never admits to being down about anything, but he's been telling everyone about how overwhelmed he feels by it all. When I called him on the phone, he told me, "I lived though Pearl Harbor and fought in Europe, but I've never been this upset about anything." And knowing what he saw during the war—the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, seeing members of his unit blown into a red mist by artillery shells, finding the bodies of the Jews hanging from lampposts in Europe, the last desperate acts of the Nazis as they fled—hearing him say that almost broke my heart.

But he's strong, and I know he'll recover. The doctors think that his pain medication might have something to do with it, so they keep switching it and adding in various anti-depressants, but I do think that he's also genuinely (and appropriately) depressed about all this. Despite a real vitality (he's more active than most people 20 years his junior), he has started to slow down in the last couple of years, and for the first time has started to realize that his body is becoming less and less able to do the things that he expects of it. And with the prospect of a stupid accident possibly causing its further deterioration, I think it's really given him a lot to think about in terms of his mortality and the quality of life that he's likely to experience as he continues to age.

But like I said, he's a tough old guy, and he's gots lots of people who love him a lot, and I know he'll get through it. I just hope he knows he can lean on us if he needs to.

1.19.04
The Saturday after Christmas, we left Raleigh about midday to drive down to Wilmington to my dad's house to spend a couple of days with Dodd, Tori, Rachel, and dad. We normally don't do this because we usually see that part of the family at Thanksgiving, but this year, since Tori was in Austria and we decided not to go down to North Carolina for Thanksgiving, we hadn't really spent any time in Wilmington.

We exchanged our gifts that night after dinner. Tori brought gifts back from Austria for everyone (Julie and I got to split a dozen Kinder Eggs between us), and dad and Rachel gave us a handmade mobile/wind chime for our back porch and some money (which we will likely use to help pay for our Orioles season tickets again this year). We got my parents a gift certificate to a nice restaurant in town, we got Tori a few CDs (the Decemberist's "Her Majesty the Decemberists", Rufus Wainwright's "Poses", The Postal Service's "Give Up", and Badly Drawn Boy's "About a Boy", which she already had but which she was able to exchange for Beulah's "Yoko"), and, for Dodd, as a combination gift for his birthday (which was in November), graduation (he had just received word that he had officially completed his studies at Duke), and Christmas, we got a GameCube and a copy of Madden NFL 2004.

You might notice that I didn't mention what Dodd got for anyone, and you might think that was an oversight, but you'd be wrong. Despite the fact that all my other siblings and I sort of instinctively realized that it was time to start giving gifts to our family members for Christmas and birthdays sometime during our early teens, and the fact that Dodd is 24 now and has been explicitly told that he needs to start participating in this activity, he had never given a gift to me or my sister Carrie ever for any reason and he has only given gifts to my sister Tori and his parents when they have both nagged him about it and given him money to purchase the gifts.

Up until this Christmas, his behavior has annoyed me, but not enough to get mad about it, but the combination of us getting him such a nice gift and the fact that he told my sister Carrie that he was definitely going to get gifts for all of us this year (his parents were nagging him about it when Carrie had come to visit earlier in the week and he had promised them in her presence that he would at least get Amazon gift certificates for everyone). While everyone else was exchanging gifts, he just kind of sat there opening his and not giving any out himself or telling us that we would get ours later, that it would be coming through email, etc., so I was skeptical that he had actually followed through with his promise to his parents, but since I couldn't check my email to know for sure, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt (it also wouldn't be out of character for him to order an online gift but then not mention that it was on its way). But a week later when I still hadn't gotten anything, and neither had Carrie, I knew that there wasn't anything coming.

And it's not so much about the gift itself or the value of the gift or anything like that, it's that if you care about your family members at all, you try to take a little time and find something they'll like for their birthday and Christmas. Even if the gift is inexpensive and relatively thoughtless, like a gift certificate, it's still an acknowledgement of the relationship: you are a part of my family and I care about you, and here is a small token of how much I value you. Dodd's difficulty with this concept is troubling in and of itself, but what disturbs me even more is that even though Tori has practically had to take him shopping at gunpoint, he has bought gifts for his mom and dad and Tori, his full-blooded family members, but he's never done it for me and Carrie (we are his half-siblings, sharing the same father, but I have never considered Dodd and Tori to be anything but my full brother and sister—I don't need any prefixes to qualify my relationships with them). Dodd actually called me on my birthday last year, but it turns out he just needed to ask me a computer question—he had no idea it was my birthday, and I'd be willing to bet that he only has a vague idea of which month my birthday is in (and that's probably just because it's the same month as my father's).

I'm going to talk to Dodd about his lack of gift giving sometime soon (I was going to do it if we went out to lunch last week, but the office kept on buying lunch for everyone, so we never went out) because I feel like it reached a point this holiday season where it really crossed the line from youthful absent-mindedness to out and out rudeness and disrepectfulness, and if I keep it to myself any longer, I'm going to end up being resentlful about it. I'm not sure what I expect his response to be; I probably know him the least well of all my siblings, not because I don't have desire to know him better, but because he has the most difficulty with communication (which I realize is likely a factor in his baffling lack of gift giving, too, since gift giving is really about communication, not gifts), and it's difficult to know until I talk to him if he's going to take my words to heart and think about how his actions are perceived by his family (which is what I would like to see happen) or whether he'll react with hostility and defensiveness. I'm going to try to use questions rather than accusations to open the dialogue, so I'm hoping for the best. I'll let you know how it turns out.

1.20.04
A few months ago, Adobe released new versions of its flagship products, Photoshop, Illustrator, GoLive, and Acrobat in a bundle called the Creative Suite (shorted to CS, as in Photoshop CS, etc., which is presumably meant to mimic with Macromedia's recent MX suffix for its competing media creation tools like Dreamweaver and Fireworks). Hopkins just got them in stock a couple of weeks ago, so I am only now installing them on my machines, and I gotta tell you, I hate the new icons. Hate them. A feather, a star, a butterfly, and a flower? Please. What the hell do any of those have to do with these programs?

1.20.04
On Sunday night in Wilmington, the whole family went out to see the final installment of the Lord of the Rings, the Return of the King. Now, like most people, I've seen some pretty bizarre behavior in movie theaters over the last few years, but something happened during this showing that takes the cake in my book. Dodd, Tori, Julie, and I were all sitting together in front of another family (it looked to me like a mom and her three sons, ranging in age from 6 to mid-teens). For the first ten minutes of the movie, the middle child, who looked like he was 8 or 9, was talking incessantly, and not too quietly, either.

As annoying as that was, however, that wasn't the weird part. The weird part is this: when Tori had finally had enough and issued a sharp "Shhh!", she was practically accosted by the mother, who leaned forward, stuck her head in between Julie's and Tori's heads, and started to hiss and spit: "You don't tell my child what to do! I'm the only one who gets to say things to my child! It's none of your business!" After a few seconds of this, I turned around and said "Hey, cut it out", at which point I guess she figured out that Tori, who looks like a teenager even though she's in her early 20s, wasn't there alone and had her family to back her up (i.e., this mom wanted nothing to do with it if she was going to have to pick on someone her own size). My blood was boiling, as was Dodd's and Tori's, and I think we all wanted to say something to her after the movie was over (such as pointing out that if she was really in control of her kids in the first place, no one would have said a thing to them). But after a bladder-busting near four hour film, the first place we all headed was the restroom, and by the time we got out to the lobby, she and her family were gone (each of them having gone to the restroom approximately three times during the film).

People never cease to amaze me. And not in the good way.

1.21.04
The Monday after Christmas, we left Wilmington and headed back home. I though about taking Tuesday off (I was already planning to be off the rest of the week using a combination of holidays and vacation), but I didn't really have anything planned for the day and I figured it would be good to go in when the office was quiet and try to get some things wrapped up without any distractions. Besides, Tuesday night we had plans to meet up with CO2 Jeff and his wife Andrea and my former coworker at CO2, Greg, and his wife Angie (whose wedding I was in a couple of years ago).

Julie decided to go into work that day, too, so she swung by and picked me up a little after five. We were meeting everyone at a Melting Pot restaurant in Towson, and I wanted to stop by the mall to visit the Apple Store and check out accessories for my new iPod and also drool over all the other goodies (my G4 is three years old now, and I'm about ready to pick up one of those spiffy new G5s). I wanted to find the bare minimum of accessories that I would need to insure that I could use my iPod in the car and charge it there if need by and also plug it in at work without having to lug around the specialized Firewire cable that plugs into the bottom of it.

The iPod section of the store was tucked away in one of the back corners, and was small enough that one person standing in front of it was enough to block anyone else from looking at it. Julie and I waited out turn, spent a few minutes reviewing our options, and then went to make sure there was nothing on the refurbished table that would suit our needs and save us some money. We returned a few minutes later to find another couple looking over the iPod inventory, so we wandered up and looked at the digital cameras for a little while, but when we returned, the same couple was still standing there. I was muttering something under my breath about them when I realized that it was Greg and Angie. It turns out that Angie had gotten Greg a 10 gig iPod for Christmas, and they had also stopped by to check out iPod accessories before dinner.

I picked up a car charger and an adapter that would turn a normal Firewire cable into an iPod-capable one (each was about $20). Greg was looking for an attachment that turns your iPod into a mini FM broadcaster so that you can play it over your car radio in case you don't have a tape deck and a cassette adapter, but they were all out of stock so he put his name on the waiting list. Then we all headed back to our cars to go meet Jeff and Andrea at the restaurant.

1.22.04
We shortly met back up with Angie and Greg at the Melting Pot, but Andrea and Jeff were nowhere to be found. We were supposed to meet at 6:30, but our time came and went and still no Jeff and Andrea. They finally showed close to 7, and luckily the restaurant still had a table available for us.

For those of you who don't know, the Melting Pot is a fondue restaurant, and Julie and I have been making occasional visits to various locations since we were in college. You generally order a package deal for two people that includes a huge salad, a cheese fondue with bread, apples, carrots, and celery to start out, a meat platter that you cook in oil with various batters and sauces for dinner, and then you usually pony up the five extra bucks for a dessert of chocolate with cake, bananas, marshmallows, and strawberries for dessert.

Normally, a single couple will share a single pot, and that seems about right. But the table we were seated at, while big enough for six people otherwise, only had two burners on it, which means that now there were three people to a pot, and one person at each pot was going to be an interloper from another couple. It was a little complicated, especially because no one else had ever been to a Melting Pot before and our waitress hadn't turned on the burners high enough so our first attempts at cooking dinner didn't turn out so well, but eventually everyone got into a rhythm and it all worked out. The great thing about a fondue restaurant is that you never just sit and eat all at once—you're constantly skewering something and dunking it in the oil pot while you're pulling something else out—so you always have time to talke and take youre time, and you also are forced to eat slowly, since it's literally at least two minutes between bites. It's a nice experience, though—you really get a chance to enjoy your meal and the people you're sharing it with.

Julie and I, being old hands, finished before everyone else, and just for the hell of it we decided to try and cook the uncookable potato slices, which seemed to remain cold and raw at the core no matter how long you left them in the pot. Supposedly all the vegetables were supposed to cook in two minutes, but I swear, I left one of those potatoes in there for ten minutes and it still wasn't done (it was a small one, too). Julie had similar results, so Jeff decided to go for broke in the other pot. He selected the smallest remaning potato wedge, speared it with his fondue fork, and submerged it directly in the oil without any batter. We must have waited 20 minutes for that thing, and I swear it was visibly smaller when Jeff took it out of the pot. And then he took a bite: still raw inside.

So we gave up on the potatoes and ordered dessert before saying goodnight. It was almost ten by the time we left the restaurant, and all of us had at least 45 minutes to drive before we got home. A night like this makes me really miss CO2, not just the work we were doing and the cool stuff we got to play with, but the people I got to hang out with everyday. We're all so scattered now that it's hard to find common time in our schedules to get together, but it's so worth it when we do.

1.23.04
Sweet zombie Jesus! It looks like Adult Swim has been forced by their tyrannical corporate overlords at Time-Warner (which owns the Cartoon Network) to start censoring some of the cartoons they air.

The specific cartoon I've noticed this on is Futurama, and the specific phrase is the one that opens this entry, which for some reason is seen as more offensive than asshole or shit or any of many, many other potentially offensive phrases that are uttered during the Adult Swim timeblock (11 pm to 2 am every night). This is apparently in reaction to right-wing christians claiming that "sweet zombie Jesus" is a religious slur and that they'll start all sorts of boycotts of the network if they don't remove the phrase from their programming, which I find ridiculous for a few reasons: 1) as a christian myself, but one with a sense of humor that is apparently lacking in some of the more intolerant followers of my faith, I think that "sweet zombie Jesus" is absolutely hilarious, since technically Jesus was a zombie, having returned from the dead; 2) Futurama airs late at night on a block of shows that are aimed at adults (it's named Adult Swim, for god's sake), and the Cartoon Network puts a warning at the beginning of each show saying that the content may be unsuitable for children under 14 (despite the fact that a lot of these shows used to air in primetime on Fox and there was no outcry then); and 3) how much damage would a boycott by christians really do to the Cartoon Network, which thrives on adult males who I would guess don't tend to be religiously dogmatic to the point of stupidity?

I went on the Adult Swim message boards to see if other viewers had complained about this and if any of the Adult Swim people had responded to the complaints, only to find that, sadly, many of the messages about this topic had been deleted from the board (when I did a search on "sweet zombie", it produced a list of about ten messages, but when I clicked on the vast majority of those, I got an invalid message error, meaning that the post itself had been deleted even though a record of it still remained in the database for the site). What's even more disturbing is that you apparently can't even type the words god, Jesus, or Christ in a message posted to that board, as some people who had attempted to recreate the phrase for people who didn't know which word was being muted on the show had their posts automatically edited to turn the word Jesus into ##### (of course, it's easy enough to spell it J.e.s.u.s. or J e s u s, which makes the filters miss it, but still). Ironically enough, at the top of the pages on the message boards, they have posted free speech empowerment quotes like "Power to the people, right on" (John Lennon). (Hilarious line from one of the threads that hasn't been deleted: "Censorship is evil. Almost as evil as the children it presumes to protect.")

When did we become so afraid of religious zealots in this country? Do we really want them in charge of our culture? Oh wait. 9.11 terror attacks, George Bush in office. We're screwed.

1.26.04
Now that it's the week before the Super Bowl, I suppose I should tell you how my fantasy football season went. I was a little apprehensive about it this year, because I know about one-tenth as much about football as the average American male and I got walloped in my two fantasy baseball leagues this year, a sport that I actually know quite a bit about. Nevertheless, I joined five leagues this year (that's actually not that many, because unlike fantasy baseball, which requires daily tweaking, you really only have to pay attention to your football lineups for about five or ten minutes a week): three free Yahoo! leagues, one pay league through CBS Sportsline started by one of the hardware IT guys at work, and an office pool with payouts for each weekly winner and the overall season leader.

I actually did pretty well: I made the playoffs in all three of my Yahoo! leagues, although I didn't win any of them (I only made it to the title game in one, which I obviously lost). I also won two individual weeks in the office pool and was the overall points leader at the end of the season, so after my $90 fee for the season ($5 for each week I played and $5 as a one-time entrance fee), I ended up netting $45.

My biggest victory, however, came in the CBS league, which cost $60 to join and charged fees for transactions as well. After starting strong, I settled into the middle of the pack by midseason. Going into the home stretch, however, I reeled off four victories in a row to squeak into the playoffs and then took both of my playoff games to win the season. I won the championship game by only five points, and I really shouldn't have won at all, but my opponent had phenomenally bad luck: his starting quarterback, who is usually responsible for at least ten points, was scratched minutes before gametime and he ended up getting no points from that position. But even if he had gone with one of his two reserves, he wouldn't have fared any better, because they freakishly garnered 0 and -1 points. Still, I'm not complaining: after taking out my entrace fee and my transaction fees for the season, I ended up with just over $250, making my total winnings from fantasy football this season just under $300. Now if I can just ride this momentum into the fantasy baseball season...

1.27.04
Ice, ice, everywhere. It remains bitterly cold here, so even though they've been dumping salt and magnesium chloride on the roads here since before the snow stopped yesterday morning, there are still lots of rough patches on the roads. This is excaberated by the intermittent rain we've had since the snow stopped, which hits the ground and immediately freezes. Hopkins closed yesterday (the first session of my new class at the Walters was also canceled, which is strange because my first modern art class last semester was canceled by Hurricane Isabel), but they are loathe to do that two days in a row, so I'm afraid we're going to be going in today even though the forecasters are saying that the second storm that's supposed to hit this afternoon could be even worse because it will be mostly freezing rain topped off with a few inches of snow. Nobody likes driving in this stuff, but for us it's especially bad because a) we grew up in the south (and no, Maryland is not really in the south, despite what the Mason-Dixon fanatics might believe), and b) we live a long way from where we work. I'm hoping the weather will hold off long enough for them to get the roads in decent shape for the morning commute and then let us leave work a little early to try and miss what is sure to be a disastrous rush hour.

1.28.04
Even though we're still two months away from finishing this application cycle, I'm getting excited about work again. As we've solved the majority of the problems related to our new database/web application for entering applications, I've recently been able to turn my attention to web issues, which is what I was hired to do and what I love to do but which I haven't really been able to work on in more than a year because of all the implementation problems with this software (it's essentially beta code, and so we spend an inordinate amount of time helping the developers debug it and/or finding workarounds for our staff). In addition, we're finally hiring someone to replace the database person we lost in August, and I'm even hopeful that I'll be able to bring on another low-level employee before the next cycle starts. We're still not out of the woods, and there's still a lot of hard work to do before we get our admit letters mailed at the end of March, but for the first time in a while, I'm looking forward to getting back to working on projects that I love.

1.29.04
Attention idiots: please stop opening emails with attachments, even if they're from someone you know. I would like very much to not get a virus-infested email in my inbox every two minutes. That is all.

1.29.04
Oh, and Microsoft? You know that big security kick you've been on the past couple of years? It doesn't really seem to be working, so could you please divert a few of your resources away from global domination and fix your damn code already?

1.30.04
One of the really cool features of the Xbox that I wish my GameCube had is the ability to transfer your own music tracks to the internal hard drive and substitute those for the default music in any of the games you're playing, which tend to be saturated with annoyingly repetitive hip hop and nü metal (especially the sports titles). Of course, Nintendo isn't a monopoly that gouges its customers on a few critical products so it can lose hundreds of dollars on each game console it sells...
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