Sometimes life makes sense and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes that matters, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you get the most unexpected surprise gifts for your birthday. Or maybe it’s not your birthday and you receive gifts anyway. Or maybe you simply receive surprises. The poet and songwriter Marilyn Robertson isn’t fazed by any such surprises, as she tells us in her poem “A Change of Scene.”
I was sitting in the comfortable chair —
the green one — and I remember
someone had come in from the kitchen
with a cake — chocolate with white frosting —
and a pinball machine w rapped in yellow paper.
It was the only thing I’d really wanted
for my birthday. That and the set of law books
an aunt wheeled in later on a trolley.
It was always a comfort to know there would be
plenty of small print nearby.
After that there was ice cream —
And after that I began to play.
My game had improved considerably in the last year.
Everyone called me the Pinball Queen.
But then, well, things started happening
and I stumbled in to another story.
This one has a mahogany sideboard
and four kinds of cheese.
You’re right. No one’s been posting. We’re busy and lazy. We admit it. But the warm rain has been at work and we have a fine crop of Siberian iris. We’re crazy about them. We admit that, too. OK. You can move on to your more important stuff on other web sites. This is all we have today.
We’ve called on our financial adviser, Chicken Little, for views on JPMorgan Chase’s loss of $2 billion in a trading mistake:
First we have to put the $2 billion in perspective. Jamie Dimon, the CEO, and all the others at JPMorgan Chase will be happy to tell you that $2 billion isn’t much of a loss when you consider that the bank had revenues around $90 billion over the past year. And, yes, we know JPMorgan Chase stock (JPM) has gone down, losing the company almost $20 billion in value, but it’s already on the way back up. So why are so many people upset about $2 billion?
Maybe it’s because the median household income in the US is $46,326. Let’s call that $50,000 just to make the math easier. Now, if you divide $2,000,000,000 billion by the median household income of $50,000 you get 40,000. In other words, that trading mistake equals the sum total of the year-long income of forty thousand households. (That’s a lot of households. Maybe you should check the math. We did. We kept coming out with 40,000 households.)
When Obama said that JPMorgan Chase was “one of the best managed banks”
and Dimon “one of the smartest bankers we’ve got,” the President was reflecting what most people in the banking and financial industry have been saying for years. After all, JPMorganChase was one of the largest banks that did NOT need a bailout,and Jamie Dimon has steered the bank through very troubled financial waters with great success.
It may be that Jamie Dimon had come to that point in his career where he believed he was as wise at investing and at managing risk as other people said he was. No matter the profession, when your work earns you continuous year-in and year-out praise as “the best,” and when you’re paid millions upon millions, you can believe that you simply do no wrong. Your colleagues grow deferential and no longer challenge you, nor do the directors on your board. That’s when you make a mistake, make the wrong assessment of risk, make the wrong bet, and then make another to cover the first. And another to cover the second.
Our prudent financial adviser believes that even pieces of the sky can fall.
We at Critical Pages always thought we were keeping current. We figured we were in the swim with the rest of the culture. We supposed we knew society, its older conventions and its newer, younger ways of doing things. But, OK, we were startled by this cover of Time magazine. I mean, TIME magazine!
The cover photo is certainly eye-catching. The striking young woman in those stylish black leggings is Jamie Lynne Grumet, a 26-year-old mother, breast feeding her three-year-soon-to-be-four-year-old son. The mother has a blog called I am not the baby sitter which crashed upon publication of the Time magazine cover. In her Time magazine interview, Grumet says that she herself was breastfed until she was six. Clearly we’ve not been keeping up with nutritional trends.
This might bring to mind the protracted breast-fed youngster in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, the kid who was nicknamed all his life as Milkman. But, no. This isn’t literature, it’s science. And it isn’t nutrition so much as psychology. And psychology is more or less a science. Well, sort of. Maybe you’ve heard about Dr. William Sears and his wife, the nurse Martha, and their books on “attachment parenting.” As we understand it, attachment parenting means getting close to your baby, as much of the time as possible for as long as possible. Bring the kid to bed with you. It builds confidence in the child, we’re told. OK, we’re cool with all that. Every happy family is happy in its own way. We were just startled by the magazine cover, is all. And only for a moment. We’re cool.
Maybe you had The Giving Tree read to you when you were a kid, or maybe you’ve read it to your children. Jo Page used to read it to her children when they were little, but she’s had some second thoughts. Here she is in her own words.
The last time my older daughter visited, she and her younger sister had a conversation about Shel Silverstein’s renowned book, The Giving Tree.
Whether you’re five, 45 or much older, you probably know The Giving Tree.
But if you’ve been living under a rock somewhere since it was published in 1964, here’s the plot: There’s a tree and a boy. The tree loves the boy very much and gives him whatever he needs to provide for his happiness: juicy apples, shade from the hot sun, branches on which to swing. As he grows he carves the initials of the girls he fancies on the bark of the tree. Eventually, of course, he grows—more or less—into adulthood and seeks to leave the tree. Only how will he, having no means by which he can survive without the tree?
So the tree offers to be chopped down so that the boy can make a boat and sail away. The boy, satisfied once more by the tree’s inventiveness and generosity, chops it down and sails away, leaving the tree a branchless, fruitless stump.
And many years pass.
In time, though, the boy comes back, no longer young but stooped with age and weary of life. The tree, in sadness, explains that she has nothing left that she can give him. The boy assures her: he needs little now. All he needs is a place to rest.
A stump can be a place of rest, she offers. Come, boy, come and rest.
Which is what the boy does. And the tree is happy.
I first read The Giving Tree when I was a teen-ager, fatherless, angry at my mother for her distracted passions, her vanity, her self-absorption. (Naturally I saw her with the total objectivity of an adolescent girl.)
So I loved the book. It made me feel sorry for myself. Why didn’t I have a giving tree for a mother? Why didn’t I have a mother who would put my needs ahead of hers? I would never be that kind of parent.
What kind of parent would I be? The kind who gave her daughters a copy of The Giving Tree, of course. The kind who read it to them in the regular rotation of the dozens of children’s books I read to them before bed.
But then, one day when I read it, it made my skin crawl.
This happened when my children were still very young; I hadn’t been made jaded or cynical by their adolescence. And I never wavered in my commitment to be anything other than the best of mothers to them. They were the loves of my life. However, this time when I read the book I saw a boy who really had remained a boy. I saw a one-sided relationship based on selfless giving that seemed to somehow endorse this as the ideal model for parenthood: the parent rightly fulfilling her role as a decimated stump.
As it happens, it’s been interpreted that way. Timothy P. Jackson, a former professor of religious studies at Stanford observed of it:
“Is it a sad tale? Well, it is sad in the same way that life is depressing. . . . The more you blame the boy, the more you have to fault human existence. The more you blame the tree, the more you have to fault the very idea of parenting. Should the tree’s giving be contingent on the boy’s gratitude? If it were, if fathers and mothers waited on reciprocity before caring for their young, then we would all be doomed.”
I’m here to attest to the fact that there are some damn bad parents out there. I’m sure they’re doing their best and all that. Or maybe they’re not. But the point is more that if self-immolation is the best model of parenthood, what are our children learning? What are we learning about ourselves? Is Shel Silverstein positing that the best parenting is a kind of personal crucifixion in which our selfhood is poured out to our children’s benefit and at peril to our own?
Yet our children don’t remain young. They age, even if they don’t grow up. Do parents have a responsibility to enable their growth or to mainly meet their present needs? It’s not a black-and-white question.
And take note: I’m not endorsing any position. I’m not going to do that in print. Not about something as incendiary as how to be a good parent. Lots of people love The Giving Tree. I think my girls do (I decided not to listen to their conversation since I didn’t want to know how I measured up against the tree or even what they thought of the tree) though I’m not really sure why. Neither of them seemed inclined to follow the tree’s extreme—neurotic?—selflessness, for which I am grateful.
Maybe the point is that The Giving Tree is a parable; it doesn’t make transparent sense even in its apparent transparency. And just like Jesus’ parables, The Giving Tree makes a lot of people uncomfortable. We’d just as soon forget those kinds of stories. And aren’t those just the kind of ones we can’t?
It’s hard to say which is better known, “The Scream” or “Mona Lisa.” The DaVinci has been called priceless, Munch’s painting has the more exact price of $119,922,500.00, which is getting up there toward priceless.
You may wonder why anyone would pay around $120 million for a piece of board, no matter what was portrayed on it in pastel. Of course, this is more than a board with a pastel drawing on it. It’s a figure of a man screaming under a blood red sky. Furthermore, it’s a fine example of Expressionist art, and in the view of some critics Expressionism was the bridge between Impressionism and abstract art, so this work has historical value as well.
It’s also true — and this may contribute more to answer the question of why pay so much for this portrait — that the image is remarkably recognizable, hence famous. OK, so it looks like the crayon work of a talented but deeply troubled adolescent. But people who have seen any of the artist’s four versions of “The Scream” remember it. It’s been reproduced on mugs, in cartoons, T-shirts and even an inflatable toy the size of a small child. It doesn’t matter whether you see it in a book or tacked on a college dormitory wall, the image is wholly different from what you’ve seen before.
So, like a celebrity who is famous for being simply famous, the painting has become famous, ubiquitous. Social critics and pop psychologists have contributed their heavy insights, saying that “The Scream” embodies contemporary angst and that the 1895 art work was prescient, forecasting the dreadful times that lay ahead. And maybe you’ve learned that Munch wrote about the inspiration for the work and later painted it on the frame, as a poem: I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.
Finally, during the past few months Sotheby’s, the auction house which handled the sale, pumped the media full of curious information about the work and it’s probable sale price. And Sotheby’s did well. Every report from those who were at the auction sounds as if the auction was a spectacular theatrical event all of its own.
There’s been some speculation that whoever bought “The Scream” — and the price rules out the notion that a museum purchased it — sought it simply as a way to bank some of his or her millions. I mean, you have to put your money someplace, after all. The idea in this instance is that no matter the vagaries of the stock market, the painting will go up in value. We skeptics at Critical Pages don’t think so. We think paintings have a hard time getting big bucks at auction when the stock market has collapsed and, furthermore, there are fashions in art just as surely as there are fashions in clothing.
There’s no telling why whoever bought it wanted it so fiercely that he or she was willing to pay so much. We doubt it was a lust for art. Anyway, it’s more colorful than the “Mona Lisa.” And “Mona Lisa” wasn’t up for auction.
- If you have a comment to make, we'd like to hear from you, so long as it doesn't reduce us to tears. Or, better yet, if you've written a couple of paragraphs on an engaging topic, send them along. Our email address is on the Contact page, and you can get there by clicking the word Contact just above the calender.
Gene Mirabelli writes most of the posts here, so we're very pleased to announce that his recent novel, Renato, the Painter, has won a first prize for Literary Fiction in the 2013 Independent Publisher (IP or "IPPY") Book awards.
The Awards program was created to highlight the year’s most distinguished books from independent publishers. Award winners are chosen by librarians and booksellers who are on the front lines, working everyday with patrons and customers. Some 125 books competed for the literary fiction Gold Medal. These books are examples of independent publishing at its finest.
Publishers Weekly says "In prose as lusty and vigorous as Renato himself, Mirabelli captures the feeling of coming to terms - ready or not - with old age." For more about the writer and his book, turn to our contact page or to the author's web site.
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