Friday, December 28, 2007

Fort Worth museum exhibit boasts earliest Christian art

Before Christmas Kathy and I visited this exhibit on early Christian art at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth - described here by the San Antonio Express News - "Picturing the Bible." It was a neat experience I'd highly recommend if you get the chance; the exhibit continues through March 30, 2008.

Nearly all truly ancient Christian art - even after the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the Fourth Century - has been destroyed as a result of later "Iconoclastic" movements bent on destroying images that portrayed the Divine or even humans since they were created in God's image. Countless ancient works were lost to these awful movements, whose motivations mirror those of radical Islamists today who object to portrayals of Muhammad.

We'd gotten to see some of the early Christian art that escaped the Iconoclasts when we were in Turkey, buried in underground temples and chapels carved from caves out of canyons in Cappadocia that to this day one must hike in to see. Many of these drawings in what today is central Turkey (and what in ancient times was "Galatia," as in Paul's epistle to the Galations) were done by monks loyal to St. Gregory, the earliest Christian monastic, who led his followers into the wilderness in central Asia Minor to contemplate God in true, remote isolation. (Some of these images were preserved because they'd become covered with smoke over time, and are only now being restored, often revealing brilliant color preserved by the ash, virtually untouched in more than a millenium.

In Fort Worth, though I got to see even older specimens, the most ancient from the catacombs around Rome excavated around the turn of the 19th Century. The paintings on these catacombs dated, at the earliest, from around 200 A.D., and constitute the oldest extant Christian art, nearly one hundred years older (and much more classically Grecian in style) than anything I'd seen before.

Discovered in the 19th Century outside of Rome, the Vatican commissioned what are known as the Wilpert Watercolors, named after Josef Wilpert (1857-1944), a photographer who took more than 600 photos of the ancient tombs and Christian paintings and sculpture inside, in many cases documenting art that was untouched since the graves were closed. The photos were in black and white, but we're incredibly lucky (since much of the art didn't survive excavation) that Vatican scholars had the foresight to commission artist Carlo Tabanelli to take the same photos into the catacombs and paint over them in watercolor to document the exact colors in the original tombs. The result is a 600 page book that must be out of print (I can't find it available online, but we copied the title from the exhibit), called Roma Sotteranea: Le pitture delle catacombe romane.

By far the most common themes from the catacomb art were the Good Shepherd and his flock, Adam and Eve (see the finely detailed ring in the first image above), Noah's Ark and Family, and the story of Jonah and the "great fish," which the ancients saw as directly foreshadowing Christ's resurrection (Jonah three days in the fish; Christ three days in the tomb). Interestingly, unlike today when we think of Jonah in the belly of the whale, ancient Christians believed Jonah had been swallowed by a Keto (at left), or a Grecian sea monster straight out of the Homer and the Odyssey. This early mixing of pagan Greek and Christian symbology was especially striking in light of how our conception of the story of Jonah has changed thanks to modern science and sea exploration.

The Kimbell has hosted some great exhibitions of religious art in recent years, including an exhibit Kathy and I saw in 2003 featuring mediaeval "illuminated manuscripts," and another in 2005 featuring Islamic art (which of course we also saw plenty of in Turkey). I was glad to get to see these excellent pieces, from which I learned quite a bit. Topping the visit off with a walk in the Botanical Gardens (a beautiful, Depression era WPA project) and dinner at the always excellent Realta restaurant downtown, I found the two-day sojourn to Fort Worth last week an enjoyable jaunt, well worth the trek.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Graffiti of the philanthropic class

Like taggers, rich folks like to see their names plastered on walls. It's just that they can afford to pay for the privilege, reports the New York Times. That's an interesting way to think about it - philanthropic naming rights as a formalized twist on invited graffiti, compensating the wall owner rather than the artist.

Writer Charles Isherwood wonders "what became of those wealthy philanthropists who used to support arts organizations and other not-for-profit and charitable institutions without requiring that their names be slapped somewhere — anywhere, it sometimes seems — on a building"? Answer: They have mostly succumbed to the narcissistic pleasures of uptown tagging.

Monday, September 24, 2007

How can employers reduce worker stress?

Stressed out employees are less productive, tend to have higher turnover than happy employees, and make more mistakes on the job. What can employers do about it? Here's an idea from Australia I bet most workers would support, via Science Daily:
The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing, found that 54 percent of the emergency room staff in summer and 65 percent in winter suffered moderate to extreme anxiety. However, this fell to 8 percent, regardless of the season, once staff received 15-minute aromatherapy massages while listening to music.

The study involved 86 nurses during two 12-week alternative therapy sessions provided over the course of one year. Sixteen massages were carried out over a two-day work period each week, with the names of staff working those days put into an envelope and selected at random.

"Introducing stress reduction strategies in the workplace could be a valuable tool for employers who are keen to tackle anxiety levels in high pressure roles and increase job satisfaction," study leader, Marie Cooke, of Griffith University in Brisbane, said in a statement.

"But what is clear from this study, is that providing aromatherapy massage had an immediate and dramatic effect on staff who traditionally suffer high anxiety levels because of the nature of their work.

At my last job I watched an insane level of stress make life unbearable for everyone there. Something like this would not only have benefited those who got the occasional treat, but would have helped repair an environment where employees felt alienated and unappreciated. That makes me wonder if there were any subsidiary effects for those who weren't chosen to receive a massage in the weekly drawings (only 16 of the 86 nurses would receive a massage in any given week)? I'd imagine that not only getting an occasional massage might help, just the idea of having an employer who gives a crap about your mental health might also bring stressed employees some comfort.

Friday, September 21, 2007

'Taps' may be the easiest difficult song in the world

I played a little trumpet back in the day ... not well, but maybe well enough to do this with some practice:

While a federal law requires a flag detail for every veteran's funeral service, buglers are optional. With too few military buglers available, some veterans' cemeteries, including Houston's, are turning to recorded or a digital version of taps played over a loud speaker.

Kirby's group helps provide buglers at funerals for U.S. veterans and active duty service members. Every fallen vet and service member, he said, deserves the honor of a live bugler, not a recorded song or a digital bugles.

"We feel every veteran should have a 21-gun salute and a live bugler," said Kirby, a disabled Navy veteran.

But of the group's more than 170 members, only about 40 are able to play taps. The rest are either taking lessons from volunteers or are awaiting the resources to buy instruments they can play.

Kirby learned taps in only four months, but he said it's still a difficult song to perform.

"At a funeral there are no redos," Kirby said. "It's the emotional side of it and getting through the actual song, the tradition of what taps means."

I'll bet that last bit is right about getting through the emotional side being the hardest part.

Taps in one sense is an easy song to play, in another sense a difficult one because of its musical purity. When you play Taps on a trumpet instead of a bugle, you simply don't push down any keys. One changes notes entirely by adjusting your embrochure, or how you purse your lips and how much air you blow through the instrument.

Bugles can only play a given set of notes in a single harmonic series by making your embrochure smaller for higher notes and slightly more open for lower ones. A trumpeter can use valves to switch to a different harmonic series.

In other words, when you hold down the valves on a trumpet to create a different note, you're not creating a single different note but shifting the instrument's tubing length to access an entirely different harmonic series, which itself can be adjusted higher or lower by changing one's embrochure and the velocity of air pushed through the horn.

So on the one hand, Taps is "easy," because it's simple. It explores the notes in a single harmonic series. You don't need to know how to use the valves on a trumpet, read music, or really understand anything about musical theory at all - the song basically uses the only notes the instrument (a bugle) can play.

On the other hand, its simplicity also makes Taps difficult because it's entirely about the purity of the notes, their tone, the performer's smoothness of transition - all of these are highlighted more because so much else has been stripped away, leaving pure harmonics and the musician's skill as the only featured elements.

I imagine Taps is most difficult, though, because of the pressure - the emotionalism of the moment and the fact that screwing it up in the middle of such a significant ceremony is really NOT an option. You'd really want to practice long and hard before showing up to perform, but I'll bet it's a rewarding thing to do.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

How did they know?

In a conversation with a doctor friend over a meal the other day, she marveled at the specificity with which marketers and list brokers were able to target a person's individual interests.

She'd received a catalog she hadn't ordered, junk mail, IOW, but said on her way to throw it away she realized she was actually interested in some of the things they were selling. She was both a little embarrassed that her interests were so transparent, and a little creeped out by it.

I mentioned that I'd experienced the same thing many times. I'll receive an email from someone I've never heard of asking, "Do you want to have sex tonight?" And I always wonder, "How did they know?"

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Shouldn't Austin respect Lady Bird Johnson's wishes about renaming Town Lake?

Burnt Orange Report and most Austin Democrats appear to support renaming Town Lake after the late Lady Bird Johnson, who by any measure was an icon who deserves recognition. As I wrote in the comments at BOR, though:

This would be great and the honor well deserved except for one thing: As I understand it the deceased opposed the idea for this eponymous honor for many years, including fairly recently if memory serves; this has been proposed several times.. I think they should honor Lady Bird's wishes and leave it "Town Lake" unless it turns out she specifically changed her mind and somebody can document it (allegedly whispering it into Will Wynn's ear on hear deathbed, e.g., doesn't count). Otherwise to me it feels a little creepy and opportunistic to use her name in a fashion with which she disapproved.

I really don't like that, at sort of a gut level. Maybe it's because I've lost quite a few beloved family members over the years, so I feel pretty strongly you should respect the deceased wishes to the greatest extent possible if you want to truly honor their memory. I wish they'd do what she wanted, not just whatever the two-bit wannabes on the Austin city council feel like doing.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Gâteau au yaourt

Kathy has just harvested a bunch of beautiful, ripe fresh figs from one of the two fig trees in our backyard, and I'm going to use them to make a "gâteau au yaourt," which "is a traditional French home-baker-friendly cake that is really easy to make," according to the wonderful culinary blog we discovered this morning, She Who Eats. I'll let you know how it comes out.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Missus and Willie and Me

There are two themes common to most all of the homemade CDs Kathy creates downloading music off of I-tunes. One is that almost all of them start with a song from Willie Nelson. (The one I'm listening to on the computer right now begins with "Shotgun Willie.") The other, perhaps more troubling commonality is they all contain songs about women leaving, cheating on or killing their husbands or boyfriends.

I'm not too concerned. In my house we tend to listen to both kinds of music: Country AND Western. So admittedly these are common themes.

However, they ARE the common themes. Hmmmmm. More on this as it develops.

Thursday, June 07, 2007


Nobody here
The one person who wants to be with me cannot
And I've driven everyone else away

No job, no career, only words
No shared goals, no workers' camaraderie
The writer's task is solitary

I've never accomplished anything
But alone is how I accomplish everything
So my achievements feel pyrrhic

I wish I found more comfort in God
I wish I were closer to my family
I wish I knew better how to have friends

The world is still a grand place, full of possibilities
People are kind, fear is surmountable, hope is justified
I don't believe that God is dead though he seems lost to the world

My muscles contract and my back wrenches
My mind seizes on itself, devoured by fear and self-doubt
I cannot comfort myself, I can only be comforted, but I am


Monday, June 04, 2007

The New Mexican Tortilla Wars

Thanks to Cargill and other grain speculators, the price of tortillas in Mexico increased 738% since the advent of NAFTA, according to this insightful article tranlsated from La Jornada on the political economy of the new Mexican tortilla wars.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Way He Ballz

You honestly can't make this stuff up: Via Pink Dome, meet Texas new Assistant Parliamentarian, Ron Wilson. He's the speaker sitting behind the desk at the beginning of the video.

Meanwhile, Pink Dome has its own legislative best/worst contest going, and since for some reason I couldn't leave this comment on the site, I'll include my suggestions here:

BDM - Royce West, no doubt, followed by the Lite Guv
BDF- Slim pickin's, but Hernandez or Van de Putte
WDM- Tie btwn Dunnam and Haggerty
WDF- Mowery, by a country mile
CIA- I love Jessica Farrar, but yes, it's her scarves
WH- Dan Patrick, with honorable mentions to Dunnam and Haggerty
LILF/F- With respect to Lois Kolkhorst, who is one of my faves, this must go to the angelic Veronica Gonzales
LILF/M- No opinion, except to say that whoever nominated Steve Ogden is one sick f%#k

Monday, April 23, 2007

Drinking with bloggers

Shaine Mata posted a nice picture from a beer and burgers outing at Mother Egan's last night. From left to right are Kevin Kennedy who writes about blogs for Texas Weekly, me, Vince Leibowitz from Capitol Annex, and the fellow who does McBlogger, who by his own designs shall remain nameless.

Shaine is a South Texas blogger who's working for House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Chairman Aaron Peña's legislative staff this session. He told me he's only gotten to go home twice to visit his family since session began, and that he supports dark horse Bill Richardson for president because "I'm dark, too." Shaine said he thought it was time Latinos began promoting their own leaders for statewide and national office and Bill Richardson is the only Latino in the field. The photo was taken from a cameraphone. Shaine has more pics.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

I've known no war, and if I ever do I won't know for sure

Can you even imagine living in a state of constant war? The Virginia Tech massacre shocked the nation, and yet that kind of thing happens in Iraq weekly, maybe daily. Mind boggling.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Thursday, April 05, 2007

This Week on Easter Island

I made this over at Witty Comics. Click on the image to view a larger version, and Happy Easter.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Primates lived in Texas 42 million years ago when Laredo was on the coast

Forty two million years ago, the area that today is quite-inland Laredo was a coastal lagoon, and researchers have discovered evidence primates occupied the area ("Researchers study evidence of ancient primates in Laredo area," Waco Herald Tribune, April 2). See an artist's depiction of one of the animals at left. According to news reports:

Lamar University Professor Jim Westgate and two colleagues announced the discovery of three new genera and four new species of primates based on their examination of material removed from Lake Casa Blanca International State Park near Laredo and the Mexican border.

Westgate said the Laredo area was a coastal lagoon during the stage of geologic history known as the Eocene Epoch, which was when primates were becoming extinct on much of the continent.

"It was kind of the last gasp for the primates in North America," said Westgate, a professor of earth and space sciences.

The researchers presented their findings last week at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Philadelphia.

Westgate and others are still studying the 15 tons of material excavated from the park's fossil deposits between 1983 and 1996. Researchers recovered 1,800 mammal teeth, including 50 from primates.

Dana Cope, a co-author of the study and associate professor of anthropology at College of Charleston in South Carolina, compared the teeth with other primate teeth from the same era. He said the newly discovered teeth, which measure about 4 millimeters, were not from known primates.

"This is a very important locality," Cope said. "Not much is known about Eocene mammals outside the Rocky Mountains."

The Beaumont Enterprise linked to these additional web resources on the topic:
  • Lake Casa Blanca International State Park near Laredo
  • The Eocene Epoch link 1
  • The Eocene Epoch link 2
  • The Eocene Epoch link 3
  • Tarsier link 1
  • Tarsier link 2
  • Tarsier link 3
  • Galago/Bush Baby link 1
  • Galago/Bush Baby link 2
  • Wednesday, March 21, 2007

    If I'd kicked Muhammed Ali's ass I'd brag about it, too!

    Meet Alberto "Tex" Henderson, who broke Muhammed Ali's jaw in the second round in 1972 in a San Antonio exhibition match while the champ was banned from boxing.
    He said the referee counted to 16 - one to eight, and then went back and started from one.

    "I said, 'Get your (rear end) up, boy. You ain't hurt,' " Henderson said he told Ali.

    Saturday, March 10, 2007

    My expectations of the general public continue to decline, until I look in the mirror

    If you don't believe that voters elect the candidates they deserve, consider that these have a market. Via MariaMaria.

    In the interest of full disclosure, growing up in Tyler I had a Confederate battle flag hanging over my bed until I left home to go to college at 18. The last time I was home it was still hanging in my father's garage. As I (half) joked with Maria in the comments, I've got relatives for whom these would probably make a good gag gift. What can I say? In the big picture, like a lot of multi-generation Texan families, a lot of my family came to Texas fleeing union occupation after the Civil War.

    That was true of everybody I knew growing up. The road from the Deep South into Texas literally led directly through Tyler and Smith County, and once they got to East Texas' Piney Woods, many of them traveled no farther. One of my best friends in junior high and high school, Waterson Calhoun, was John C. Calhoun's great-great grandson, if I remember correctly. (Wat's father was county judge in Smith county for many years, and I should add that his mother is a gracious, joyful and lovely woman.)

    That said, while I don't condone the use of Confederate symbology, neither do I automatically associate its use today in the South with racial hatred. (Whether it's smart or useful or necessary or unproductively provocative are all different questions than racist intent.) Many people are too quick to judge complicated historical situations and cultural associations.

    There was a time I would have thought this was funny. If I'm 100% honest, part of me, I guess, still does:

    Tuesday, March 06, 2007

    The Great Texas Archive War

    Did you know about the Great Texas Archive War? Coyote Mercury gave some wonderful history I didn't know, even though I'd passed by that statue on Congress Avenue a thousand times. I especially like CM's headline, "That ain't no open records request!" Excellent blogging from Texas Independence Day.

    Tuesday, February 06, 2007

    Perry: Bush administration empowers 'environmental extremists'

    In his State of the State address, Governor Perry said there are "environmental extremists" in the Bush Administration's Environmental Protection Agency. If the Bush folks are extremists, I wonder what that would make actual environmentalists?

    Saturday, February 03, 2007

    Marquez vs. Barrera

    I'm a boxing fan, especially of the smaller divisions where speed and skill matter more than the thunderous power of what have become truly massive heavyweights.

    Mexico, of course, is the Mecca of smaller boxers - that nation's mean streets have produced some of the toughest small men you'll ever see step into a ring. So I was interested in this piece highlighting two brothers from Mexico City, Juan Manuel and Rafael Marquez, two small men who have fought their way into the limelight of the sport called the "sweet science."

    The older of the two, Juan Manuel will fight Mexican legend Marco Antonio Barrera for the super featherweight crown in March. Marquez and Barrera share a high-profile common opponent, Fillipino Manny Pacquiao, who knocked out Barrera but whom Marquez fought to a grueling draw. Here's how Sports Illustrated described Marquez in that fight:
    Juan Manuel stepped into the spotlight when he fought the Philippines' Manny Pacquiao, considered the best featherweight in the world. After being knocked down three times in the first round, Juan Manuel battled back to earn a draw -- and, perhaps more important, universal respect in the division. "Each time I got knocked down I thought of my family and how important this fight was to them," says Juan Manuel. "I couldn't quit; it's just not in me."
    The fight with Barrera ought to be an outright war. I'll certainly be watching.

    While most of the big money boxing matches still happen in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, more and more quality fights are being held in Texas now, frequently featuring Mexican boxers working their way up the ladder toward the bigger venues. (Marquez last fought in the Rio Grande Valley at Dodge Arena in November.) Kathy won't go with me to the fights, but maybe I need to find some buddies to go with because we're getting a lot more chances to see high quality fighters here in Texas than we did just a few years ago.

    UPDATE: This turned out to be a high quality fight. Marquez won on both the scorecards and in my own estimation, though I certainly agree a flash knockdown by Barrera in the 7th round should have been called as such, and that round otherwise so heavily favored Marquez that could flip a closely scored bout. But it was a classic Mexican boxing war, the kind of closely matched slugfest that's good for the sport. For Marquez this opens up many options, not the least of which is a superfight with Manny Pacquiao. For Barrera, this fight might be a career ender unless he wants a rematch with Marquez. Like the HBO announcers who called the fight, I wouldn't mind seeing that.

    Monday, January 29, 2007

    You Tubing: Johnny Cash's prison blues

    Who doesn't love this song?

    My favorite line: "I bet there's rich folks eating in a fancy dining car. They're probably drinking coffee, and smokin' big cigars. Oh I know I had it comin'. I know I can't be free. But those people keep on movin', and that's what tortures me."

    Johnny Cash never went to prison himself, but early in his career he realized that prison was a brilliant metaphor for a set of human experiences in a raw, extreme form that are universal, that all of us endure at one time or another. Commenters at YouTube compared Cash's near-glamorization of prisoners and their crimes to modern "thug life" attitudes routinely expressed by rappers. There are songs where that is justified - for example, Cocaine Blues:

    But I wonder myself what Cash would have thought about modern thug life musicians? I don't think he'd hold as harsh an opinion as many of their critics. But I think in most of Cash's music about prisons there are a couple of differences with modern thug-life musicians, not the least of which is Cash's sympathy for the prisoners and his focus on remorse ("I know I had it coming") and often Christian redemption. For example, see God's Gonna Cut You Down:

    Crime should not be glamorized, just as the crime-reduction value of punishment should not be oversold. But crime and criminals must be humanized - made understandable to the broader public in human terms - in order for the public to consider evidence-based anti-crime proposals instead of fear-generated ones. Art can remind the public that these folks are all somebody's son or daughter, somebody's sibling, cousin, nephew or niece. And that nobody is ever as good as their best act or, just as importantly, as bad as their worst one.

    That's what Cash tried to teach through his prison-related art. Now that he is gone, who will pick up that mantle?

    Tuesday, January 16, 2007


    Via Tom Kirkendall at Houston's Clear Thinkers.

    Tom called it the play of the year, and I'd have to agree. As he described it, "During a key part of the 4th quarter in the state 5A D-1 championship game between Southlake Carroll and Austin Westlake, Southlake Carroll QB Riley Dodge barks out the signals, vomits immediately before taking the snap, then throws a perfect TD pass to put Southlake ahead for good in the game, and then is helped off the field by a couple of his teammates as he vomits again on his way to the sideline." See for yourself:

    How intense is that?

    Monday, January 15, 2007

    What did you learn in school today?

    This Pete Seeger tune could have been written today instead of 40 years ago:

    Surfing further around YouTube I also found this fine rendition by a much older Seeger of "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." I'd heard it before but somehow, at the present moment in history - with the Iraq war degenerating and parts of Louisiana still devastated after Katrina - it takes on a bit of a different sense, doesn't it? Check it out:

    Monday, January 08, 2007

    In search of bathroom graffiti

    After writing a couple of recent posts on Grits about punishing graffiti artists, I enjoyed this provocative mini-documentary filmed in Austin in the mid-'90s on bathroom graffiti, found via Dirty Third Streets, which also has up a great set of pics of Austin graffiti worth a second look.