Tuesday, August 27, 2019

With A Master On The Mountain

Babb's "Copley Plunge" Boston Museum of Fine Art
When I contacted Seth Lipsky, a summer friend from New York City who has a place in Waterford, Maine, he suggested we have an early breakfast in Bethel. He had plans to meet another friend there, then go up Mount Washington to paint. As we finished eating, in walked none other than Joel Babb of Sumner, Maine, an accomplished painter of Roman and Boston cityscapes, interior and coastal Maine scenes, as well as other subjects. I was thrilled to meet him because I’ve been admiring his work ever since the Portland Press Herald did a big spread on him exactly a year ago. I saw his exhibition at Portland’s Greenhut Gallery this summer and was sorry to miss his talk there a month ago.

Babb's “Bernd Heinrich’s Brook” 40 by 52 inches
Seth is the founder and editor of the New York Sun, an independent conservative daily paper in New York City that published in hard copy for several years and continues to exist online. Seth has time to paint now and met Joel in that pursuit. I had told him of my recent photographic ventures which led to my interest in Babb because I had shot some of the scenes he painted in Rome and in Maine. I was doubly thrilled when both invited me to accompany them on their artistic expedition. I wasn’t dressed for a day on “the rock pile,” as locals refer to Mount Washington, but Seth said he had an extra slicker in his car so off we went. I left a voice mail for my wife as we drove.
Seth and Joel on the rock pile
Each artist had already started two canvases — one from around the 4000-foot mark and another from 6000, both looking north toward Mount Adams. Joel often works from photographs, but these were plein air style (in the open air). They let me watch, take pictures, and ask questions as they discussed how to mix various colored paints to match the gray stone piles and dark green fir trees on the slopes, as well as the blue sky and white clouds beyond. Several tourists stopped to watch them work. The ever-gregarious Seth conversed with them, describing Joel as the master and himself as acolyte. Babb certainly is that. It’s hard to tell his work is a painting and not a photograph. It’s that good.

It was a lovely day, cold at first and a bit breezy, but the sun was strong and it soon warmed enough that I only needed a light fleece to stay comfortable. Only once before had I been on the Mount Washington Auto Road and I had vowed never to drive it again. Steep, narrow, winding roads with near-vertical drop-offs give me the willies, as they did in the west of Ireland earlier this year. Seth drove, however, and it didn’t seem to bother him. He has a season pass and goes up there a lot. I sat in the back and sometimes had to close my eyes. 
The artists discuss colors
Knowing nothing about oil painting, I was continually impressed by their strenuous efforts to render the scenes before them just as they existed. They scrutinized each facet of the view much more closely than I ever do with my camera and conditions changed by the hour as the sun moved. Joel pointed to a patch of snow on one of the canvases he had begun back in July. He wasn’t satisfied with his shades of green on the fir groves and worked to mix more colors to strive for a closer match. I felt privileged that they both answered my questions and I tried not to be a pest.

His paintings at Greenhut Galleries in July were priced in five figures, while I only charge $300 for one of my photos. He asked how my sales were going and I told him selling my stuff was a new endeavor and I only photographed only things that interest me -- and I resisted requests to do otherwise. At that he raised his white eyebrows, saying, “You turned down commissions? You know, Leonardo said once: ‘Give them a few virgins. Then paint what you want.’” Babb had studied Da Vinci extensively during his year in Rome. Like him, he attended dissections at BU Medical School to understand musculature — although Da Vinci had done the dissections himself.

Da Vinci anatomy drawing
Seth and Joel both immersed themselves in their work. For Joel, though, it’s total immersion and has been for decades. He majored in art history at Princeton, but decided to be an artist instead of an historian. He said only two others in his class had done so. At about three in the afternoon, I helped them carry their equipment back to Seth’s minivan and we drove back down the rock pile. Again I closed my eyes at precarious points but Seth remained undaunted.

As we each walked to our vehicles at the bottom, Joel invited me to see his studio in Sumner. I intend to take him up on that sometime this fall.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Portland Maine Students Vote With Their Feet

Deering High School
School choice is a good thing, and it is highlighting problems in Portland, Maine. The city has two large high schools and students can attend whichever one they choose. The Portland Press Herald ran a series of articles over the summer indicating why so many students and their parents are choosing Portland High School over rival Deering High School. Most cited student discipline, or lack thereof.

Meg Baltes (Portland Press Herald photo)
They like Portland High School because, as Meg Baltes — president of the rising junior class at Portland High School — put it to Press Herald reporter Rachel Ohm: "I think things are handled very swiftly and very aggressively at Portland. Any kids who get into trouble are dealt with pretty immediately. It’s a very no-nonsense policy. I know students see that and that helps a lot with problems being diverted.”
Students at Deering (from Press Herald)
It’s a different story at Deering. As former math teacher Tim Eisenhart put it in the same article, “There’s a weird lack of discipline inside the building. [The administration] is too soft and what ends up happening is kids do whatever they want.” Eisenhart resigned mid-year and went back to his engineering career. “I think you will find there’s a lot of shoveling it under the carpet, because [administrators] didn’t do anything. They send kids back [to class] less than 15 minutes later with a cupcake without doing anything.”

As a retired teacher with two years teaching delinquent high school students in Lowell, Massachusetts and thirty-three years in Maine public schools, those two quotes sum it up. If teachers aren’t backed up by building administrators when disciplining a students, everything breaks down. If I sent a student to the office (which I rarely did) and a principal sent him back with no consequence, I’d send him out again and inform the principal that he was not allowed in my classroom until an appropriate consequence was enforced, and I would not continue teaching otherwise.

From Portland Press Herald
Projected enrollment for the freshman class in Portland next month is 272, while at Deering, it’s only 127. Nine years ago the numbers were roughly equal with Deering at 245 and Portland at 232. Clearly things have changed at Deering. As Meg Baltes went on to say: “A lot of students at Deering feel the administration is chill and relaxed. They feel they can talk to them and have a more honest relationship, but it also means there’s less discipline and a feeling they can get away with stuff.”

Principal Gregg Palmer in drag (Press Herald photo)
Neither Deering Principal Gregg Palmer nor Assistant Principal Abdullahi Ahmed would answer specific questions from the Press Herald. Principal Palmer did, however, perform in Deering’s Gender Sexuality Alliance 2nd Annual Drag Show dressed as a woman. “This is all about them [the students],” Palmer said. "They are brave and they encourage the rest of us to be brave,” as he told the Press Herald. Too bad that bravery didn’t enable Palmer to back up teachers dealing with his problem students. One parent said to the Press Herald: “I think they’re too scared to discipline students in a way that would have an impact, so they just let things go a lot of the time without even a slap on the wrist.”

Superintendent Xavier Botana (Press Herald photo)
Deering administrators referred all the Press Herald’s discipline questions to Superintendent Xavier Botana who tried explaining it away as a lack of communication regarding violent incidents at Deering last year. Then he indicated that, “[H]e plans to start a conversation with the school board about capping the number of students that can attend each school.” In other words, Superintendent Botana wants to limit school choice. He doesn’t want students voting with their feet because that’s making his job difficult.
School board Chairman Rodrigues
Even if Superintendent Botana were to pressure his administrative team at Deering to toughen up, he may not be backed up by his school board. Board Chairman Roberto Rodriguez told the Press Herald: “It’s difficult to change the expectations of what discipline truly means. If we have an old-school expectation of what discipline is, something like zero-tolerance, then yes, you’re not going to see that today. That’s not how we want to discipline our students.”
Really Mr. Rodriguez? How would you do it? It looks like Deering is in for another tough year.

From Portland Press Herald
Complicating all this are changing demographics. Though it used to enroll the poorest kids in the city a generation ago, Portland High School is located on Portland’s peninsula where real estate values have skyrocketed. The Deering neighborhood used to be more prosperous but has lately absorbed a high concentration of so-called “refugees” and “asylum seekers,” many of whom speak no English. The Press Herald reports: “In 2018-2019, minority students accounted for about 47 percent of the Deering student body. Twenty percent were English language learners and 57 percent were economically disadvantaged, according to school district data.”

Portland from South Portland
Big city problems have arrived in once-placid Portland, Maine.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Signs of Summer's Eb

Looking out over the yard two weeks ago I noticed spider webs on the lawn sparkling with morning dew That’s been a sure reminder that summer break is past its late-July halfway point and schools will be reopening in a matter of weeks. Today, crickets are chirping in the yard during daylight hours and that’s an August sign that fall is getting even closer. The autumn chill the past few mornings brings a certain fragrance with it and nothing brings back memories more powerfully than familiar smells.

It’s been more than eight years since my retirement, but from ages six to sixty my life was dictated by the academic calendar as student or teacher. These distinctly New England sights, sounds, and smells will always affect me the same ways. I would feel a combination of lament for the fading summer mixed with dread and pleasant anticipation of going back to school. Soon the big yellow school bus will go by my house at 7:00 am. I’ll look up from my reading and remember all those times I’d be heading out the door to follow close behind it. Not anymore though, because I’m no longer captive to the academic calendar. Now I can choose how to spend my day. I can go anywhere, do anything. 

Dawn at Moose Pond in Bridgton, Maine

For example, watching sunlight fill the day with a camera in my hand is one of my favorite things. That’s more difficult from May through July when the sun clears the horizon around five am. I’m usually up by 4:30 but I prefer to shower, exercise, dress, and drink coffee before going out. From late August through November, it is much easier to accomplish that. Being out and about at dawn is usually a solitary endeavor, but sometimes I’ll see another dawn person on my sojourns. I’ll nod to them or perhaps say good morning, but they usually enjoy their privacy as much as I do. They’ll nod back and then we’ll each go our own way.

Twilight at Kezar Lake in Lovell, Maine

Watching daylight fade at dusk is another special time. I like to be out and about then too, but so do many others. Unlike the solitude of dawn, twilight is more of a social time, especially in late summer and fall when daylight diminishes at an accelerating rate — from two minutes per day June to July — to three by end of August. By September 1st those small increments have added up to the point where daylight has diminished by two hours since school let out in June. In early August we see the first leaves turning red, usually on maples stressed by various factors like too much or two little water. Sumacs change early as well and sometimes it starts as early as July. Certain ferns turn yellow and then brown. Soon the sweetish smell of decaying vegetation can be detected after a rain.

Our back field in Lovell, Maine
For months, there’s been a big pile of tree-length hardwood in my back field. It’s hard to estimate but there are probably twelve cords plus or minus, and it needs to be cut and split. I used to do that work every year at this time, and I may go out there and do a little just for old time’s sake — but that’s all. I miss the unique fragrance given off while splitting red oak and I want to experience that again, but I don’t need the wood. It’s all there because I asked someone to cut the trees beyond the field that were getting too tall and blocking some of our view. I didn’t think it would amount to that much firewood, but a former student has agreed to work it up in September.

My daughter and grandson
In a few more weeks people will be donning an extra layer as they go out in the morning. Some may even start a fire in the wood stove. Then they’ll look at their wood piles and think about adding to them. It’s hard to get motivated to do that kind of thing in August when the temperature is in the 80s every day. It makes me tired now to remember myself as a young man spending two August weeks getting out my firewood, hauling it home, and sweating off ten or fifteen pounds in the process. I’ve been heating with oil the past several years and only keep around a little wood for the fireplace. These days I’d rather go out and take pictures to sell — then pay someone else to work up all that wood.

Sunrise at the Eastern Prom in Portland, Maine

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Left & Right July 31, 2019

Newspaper publisher Mark Guerringue sits in the left chair for this episode. The producer gives us two questions to start with: Are Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren too far left to beat Trump? I answer that if the election were held today, Trump would win, but it's a long way off and anything could happen in the next fifteen months. The Democrat field is so far left that what we used to consider centrist has also shifted considerably to the left to the point where John Delaney is called moderate. Mark believes Delaney, Hickenlooper and Bullock to be moderate because they're capitalist and don't want to give free medical care to undocumented immigrants. Mark also contends that Mitch McConnell is blocking efforts to monitor/regulate social media, thus enabling Russians and others to continue influencing elections. I say all that is overblown and an issue manufactured by Democrats to harass the Trump Administration. Mark asked what I think of Meuller's appearance before Congress. I said Meuller appeared doddering, incompetent, showing signs of dementia. Mark emphasized that Meuller responded "Yes" to a Democrat congressman's question: "Would you have recommended indictment if Trump were not president?" Mark believes there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia in spite of the Mueller report claim that there wasn't. I question whether Meuller wrote the report, that he appeared incompetent at the hearing and I believe the entire Russia collusion affair was invented by the Obama Administration intelligence apparatus, the Hillary Campaign, and the DNC, that they all spied on the Trump Campaign, the Trump Transition Team, and the Trump White House. I believe there will be indictments of several people associated with those organizations. A grand jury is right now investigating this under special prosecutor Durham. I contend there is little or no evidence for the ubiquitous charges that Trump is racist. All his "evidence" is circumstantial, that he questioned Obama's birthplace only because Obama was black -- that he criticized the Squad because only because they're brown and black. He [Trump] just is [racist], Mark claims. It's obvious, he says. Not to me it isn't. I claim Trump's criticism of the squad is because of the Squad's views, but the left, including Mark in this case, says it's only because of their skin color. I contend that cities around the country that Democrats have run for sixty years are hell-holes. Mark says they're thriving, that they're centers of entrepreneurship. He discounts that the murders in Chicago and Baltimore have anything to do with Democrat leadership.

Monday, August 05, 2019

I'm Harassed And Assaulted Wearing A MAGA Hat

Young man who knocked the hat off my head
It’s dangerous to wear a MAGA hat in liberal cities like Portland, Maine. Remember when the left appealed for tolerance of their views on social and political issues? Well, many have become most intolerant of conservatives — sometimes violently, as I personally learned at Portland’s “First Friday Art Walk” last week.

Jahagir Turan beaten in Manhattan last week
A quick online search reveals several instances here, here, here, and here over the past two years in which people were physically assaulted for wearing MAGA hats — including a Manhattan man who had his face smashed in last week, but the incident was ignored by mainstream media. With all this in mind, I put on a MAGA hat and walked down Portland's Congress Street during that city's monthly event.

Artists selling their wares filled the sidewalk from the Museum of Art to Monument Square. My wife agreed to come if she could walk twenty feet behind and pretend not to know me. Along the way, I saw several stylized paintings of breasts and “Buteruses,” short for “Beautiful Uteruses.” Another woman sold T-Shirts proclaiming “F**K ICE” and “F**K THE POLICE.” I asked questions of several artists who were happy to discuss their work. Some, however, looked at my hat and answered through gritted teeth.

At the Art Walk in Portland
Two men walking by and nodded approvingly. Other people elbowed each other and pointed at me. A small group in Monument Square held up a large piece of canvas with the words: “Say No To Racism!” I walked around them as they stared at my hat. It was much the same on the return trip until a young black man snarled, “Why you wearing that hat? You shouldn’t be wearing that!” But he kept walking in the opposite direction so I proceeded on.

On Congress Street last Friday
There were more dirty looks from artists and passers-by until I got back to the intersection with High Street. In front of the Museum is an open triangle on which several artists had set up. A young man there said he admired my courage and took my picture. Then dozens of people applauded as a group of 20-30 demonstrators marched by with signs proclaiming “MAINE JEWS SAY CLOSE THE CAMPS — NEVER AGAIN IS NOW” and “ABOLISH ICE!” and “STOP FAMILY SEPARATION!” I went to the curb and took pictures.

On Congress Street last Friday
Back at the triangle, I saw the young black man had returned. In a more civil tone, he asked why I was wearing the hat. I said I liked Trump’s policies on immigration, his judicial nominations, his handling of the Middle East, the economy — until someone shouted: “What’s your job?” I said I was a retired teacher. “What did you teach?” I told them US History. “So you know about US History?” said the young black man. Yes, I said. “Trump hates people like me!” he responded, getting hostile again. “You shouldn’t be wearing that!”
Looking at my hat
Seven or eight others behind him, all white, joined him saying loudly, “Trump is racist!” I asked them what evidence they had. A young woman said Trump called white supremacists in Charlottesville “fine people.” I said Charlottesville began as a demonstration against removing statues honoring soldiers who fought for the South, but the angry group wouldn’t let me finish. Several shouted at once: “He’s racist! He raped women!”

What the left sees when looking at a MAGA hat
As they loudly berated Trump and me, I asked if I could photograph them. “No!” they said, except for the young black man. He extended his arm with his middle finger out and said, “Go ahead.” I snapped the picture, then noticed our audience had expanded. The black man got more hostile and said, “You can’t wear that hat! This is my city! I told him I watch the news, form my own opinions, and I have a right to express them just as others do — and this isn’t your city. He clenched his fists and pretended to rush me. Another man appeared at my side and told the young man to “cool it.” Still another said, “You’re saying that because he’s black! Why don’t you tell me to cool it? Because I’m white?”

At that point, the young black man knocked the MAGA hat off my head and ran off down Free Street. I put it back on and turned around to face the crowd again. Some apologized for what he had done. Others got more civil at first but soon resumed shouting at me. I offered counterpoints whenever I could though I doubted I would change any of their minds. But others were watching and listening so I calmly stood my ground.

My wife, however, looked very worried and asked me to leave but I wanted to continue. I parried verbally with the hostiles a little longer until she pulled my hand and whispered in my ear: “Those children are getting scared.” Behind her were three kindergarten-aged kids sitting on the curbstone who looked at me wide-eyed and upset. That bothered me more than my opponents did. A man, their father maybe, watched over them.

Once more my wife pleaded with me to leave, so I did, promising myself I’d return next month — wearing my MAGA hat again, of course.