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Dress Goes Transparent If You’re Aroused

Intimacy 2.0
Intimacy 2.0

It’s here — a dress that becomes transparent when you’re in the mood.  (And you thought only Steve Jobs had cool ideas.)  Advanced tech artist Daan Roosegaarde and fashion designer Anouk Wipprecht produced the dress. It’s called Intimacy 2.0 — the name doesn’t sound like haute couture, but it does suggest the high degree of science and technology that went into the garment.

The dress is made of leather and — here’s the good part — conductive e-foils that become transparent when exposed to electricity. It’s possible to design a circuit that is activated by an accelerated heart beat or an increase in body heat. And the subsequent flow of electricity will cause the e-foils to become transparent.

According to Studio Roosegaarde’s web site, “Studio Roosegaarde creates interactive designs that explore the dynamic relation between space, people, and technology.” And “By creating interactive designs that instinctively respond to sound and movement, Roosegaarde explores the dawn of a new nature that is evolving from technological innovations.” (more…)

The Flexible Flyer

Flexible Flyer sledWe thought the Flexible Flyer sled was gone forever. True, it remained in memory, but we thought the Flexible Flyer was a victim of indifferent history, tossed on the pyre of worthless junk like the Rosebud sled that closes “Citizen Kane.” But fortunately we were wrong! The Flexible Flyer in the cellar is no longer lonely — Flexible Flyers are being made and sold today

The S.L. Allen Company of Philadelphia patented the Flexible Flyer in 1889. It was revolutionary, because you could actually steer the sled.  Prior to that, sleds were built like small sleighs — they had immovable runners. But the Flexible Flyer was flexible; the front section of each  runner could be aimed left or right by pulling on a wood crosspiece that was pivoted at its center and attached to the front part of the runners. Soon the Flexible Flyer was the most popular sled in the United States. The next improvement came in the late thirties or forties when the straight back end of each runner was twisted up and around until it faced forward and was bolted safely to the underside of a wooden rail.  Prior to that improvement, the back end of the sled was simply lethal. Fortunately, thick winter clothing prevented most kids from getting impaled.

The Flexible Flyer sled gradually disappeared from  sight in the 1960s when the S. L. Allen Company was sold.  Just about then the two-steel-runner sled began to be replaced, first by aluminum saucers, which were lighter and maybe safer than sleds though they had no steering ability,  and then by sheets of sturdy, bright colored plastic that were much cheaper and even safer than metal saucers — and they went down a snowy slope faster. That’s pretty much what you’ll find on the snowy slopes today. Sure, kids fall off and even when they don’t they bump into each other, but the chances of their getting badly hurt are minimal compared to what it used to be like on those old fashioned sleds.

Today we learned from NPR’s “Only A Game” that the Flexible Flyer is back. The company that ended up owning  S. L. Allen Company’s patent went bust and sold the Flexible Flyer rights to an old, old sled making rival of the S. L. Allen Company, namely the Paris Manufacturing Company, now known as Paricon. (The business started in South Paris, Maine – not France.)  The excellent and informative Flexible Flyer article  at “Only A Game” is by Doug Tribou.  The Flexible Flyer sled in the photo above comes from our childhood, which was a long, long time ago.

Winter Solstice

Christmas cookiesKeep calm and eat Christmas cookies. Today is one of those rare times when the longest night of the year coincides with the predicted end of the world. The most important thing when facing Doomsday is not to panic. As usual, to be prepare for such an emergency situation you should have a good flashlight,  candles, a pack of wooden matches, a supply of water and some trail mix, plus a map of your state and the intervening states between your home and the Canadian border. Or you can stay where you are and wait it out, for like other days, Doomsday is only 24 hours long.  If you decide to remain where you are,  stay calm and eat lots of Christmas cookies.

Among the Christmas cookies  in our photo are a couple which will be recognizable to fans of the wonderful British science fiction TV show, Dr. Who.  The show began running in 1963, cancelled in 1989, then resurected in 2005 and is still going.  The central character, the Doctor, has been played by 11 different actors, the change from one actor to another being written into the script as a “regeneration” of the same person, a Time Lord. The Doctor travels around the universe in his TARDIS, a space and time travel machine. On the outside it looks like a blue British police box, common in Britain in 1963 when the series began. The Doctor’s machine is a defective old-fashioned model he stole from a museum, but it does retain a primary characteristic of being much larger inside than outside. Various Dr. Who series are available in the United States on BBC America, and possibly other channels as well.

(The absolutely excellent cookies in our photo were made by Linnea and are vanishing fast into another dimension.)


The Light of St. Lucy’s Day

St. Lucy processionOur friend Jo Page,  fiction writer, essayist and journalist, is also a Lutheran pastor.  She’s more informed than many of us when it comes to the liturgical calendar, and in this Christmas season she’s written about the beautiful —and, as she notes, strange —celebration of of St. Lucy’s Day. Perhaps you’ve seen the procession of St. Lucy Day, at least in photographs. In fact, it’s extraordinarily beautiful; nowadays the young women wear crowns of electric candles, but not so long ago those were real candles — the youth, the beauty and the danger were all there together. Here’s Jo in her own words:

On Dec. 13th, St. Lucy’s Day, in many Scandinavian countries and in Lutheran communities in the United States, young girls wearing crowns of candles and bearing plates of saffron buns—to represent St. Lucy’s gouged-out eyes—come before their families to sing “Santa Lucia.” Originally this was a Neapolitan sailor’s song, but the words to the Scandinavian versions plea for the return of light and for the release from winter’s darkness.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. One of the weirdest things about the observation of St. Lucy’s Day concerns the legend of the saint and how then how this 4th-century Sicilian saint came to be venerated by Lutherans, who tend not to put much stock in saints.

St. Lucy was a 4th-century Christian martyr during Emperor Diocletian’s widespread persecution of Christians. St. Lucy’s crime was that she had consecrated her virginity to God and wanted her dowry to be distributed to the poor.

Well, when her pagan fiancé found this out, along with her refusal to marry him, he did the stand-up guy thing and denounced her to the Roman authorities. After she refused to burn a sacrifice of the Emperor’s image (this was done to show fealty to the Roman authorities and to reject Christianity), it was determined that a fitting punishment would be to stick her in a brothel where she wouldn’t be able to protect her virginity.

The legend says that when the guards came to take her away they found her so filled with the spirit of God that she was as stiff as a board and too heavy to move even when they hitched her to a team of oxen. In some traditions St. Lucy is tortured by having her eyes gouged out with a fork. In another legend, her fiancé comments on the beauty of her eyes and she gouges them out herself, declaring, “Now let me live to God”.

(This explains why she is seen in paintings bearing her eyes upon a plate and also why she is the patron saint of the blind and those with vision problems. It also explains the grisly custom of having saffron buns represent her eyes. Does put a damper on the appetite.)

Whether or not she was actually burned on a funeral pyre is unclear, but many martyrs under the Emperor Diocletian were. And in St. Lucy’s story, she continues to confess her faith in God’s love while burning to death. Even a spear thrust through her throat could not silence her.

So how does a 4th-century Sicilian martyr become the poster child for the mid-December tradition of putting candles into a crown and having a procession of girls in white robes with red ribbons come in singing a lilting Italian song that had originally been written to request favorable winds while sailing around the bay of Naples?

Well, it’s not clear.

But the lyrics to the Scandinavian versions all share in common the plea for the return of light amid winter darkness:

The night goes with weighty step
round yard and hearth,
round the earth, the sun departs
leaving the woods brooding
There in our dark house,
appears with lighted candles
Saint Lucia, Saint Lucia.

It is, indeed, a strange and beautiful tradition, but more than its strangeness is how it speaks to that common need for light to return and to outlive the darkness, not merely of winter and of night, but the darknesses we find in our lives. When Christina Rosetti wrote “In the bleak mid-winter, long ago/Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone,” I think she was talking about a lot more than just the climate. She was talking about existential isolation and the hope—the need?—for redemption, which for her came with her faith.

In the Santa Lucia processions, almost pagan in their evocations of nature and the spirit of St. Lucy, I think we find that same deep yearning for restoration, for light and for renewal. Because the storied St. Lucy, bearing her eyes on a plate, represents a vision for more than what our eyes, in this darkness, can see.

Jo’s blog is at jo-page.com. For a poem about St. Lucy, visit jo-page.com

American Ecstasy

American Ecstasy book imageIn 1982 Barbara Nitke began to take still photographs on pornographic movie sets. “The porn business is my alma mater,” she’s written. “I learned the craft of photography there, from the cameramen, the lighting guys, and all the other hopeful kids who came into the business straight out of film school.” Nitke worked as a set photographer in the porn industry just as the Golden Age of Porn was coming to an end. (You didn’t know porn films had a Golden Age? Now you do.) Eventually, the social scene, AIDS, the video camera and the Web ended the large scale movies she had been photographing, along with the actors and directors. Nitke’s attention shifted to the SM scene and in 2003 she wrote Kiss of Fire: A Romantic View of Sadomasochism, a collection of photographs of sadomasochistic couples published by Kehrer, a distinguished German company  producing books on culture, fine art and photography. Kiss of Fire was too hot for an American publisher to handle.

E. J. Bellocq’s photos of Storyville prostitutes waited fifty or sixty years before they were published by the Museum of Modern Art, but Barbara Nitke didn’t want to wait that long.  Nitke  worked through Kickstarter, the crowd-funding website,  and today we have American Ecstasy, a memoir in pictures and words of the years she spent taking still shots on porn movie sets in New York City. It’s a beautifully produced coffee-table book with superb color photographs, a fluent text by Nitke herself and an introductory essay by Arthur C. Danto, Professor Emeritus of philosophy at Columbia University and former art critic for The Nation.

American Ecstasy contains sixty-eight large color shots. A  few, a very few,  are of bodies (a back, an arm or a leg) but all the others are portraits. These are  portraits of people caught in the midst of a sexual encounter or, far more often, pausing or waiting in the act, gazing inwardly, bored or sleepy or curled up asleep on some fancy bed that was used in an earlier scene. And often a camera intrudes, a 35mm machine — bulky, glittering and dark — edging in from the margin. It’s the camera’s alien presence, of course, that produces the dissonance in these pictures.  The women themselves, and it’s mostly women we see, often look looked wiped out — maybe they’re dulled or maybe just emptied by hours of work.

Barbara Nitke has given us people in moments of bizarre comedy or innocence and even tenderness.  Her color work, those gauzy whites, soft tans and gentle defining edges, evoke a kind of pathos, for the photographs are chromatically beautiful whereas the people are working in a porn movie and that kind of  work is not beautiful. Nitke’s text doesn’t sentimentalize or romanticize the porn movie industry.  She’s a responsive photographer with a deep understanding and affection for her utterly human subjects, and those qualities raise her images beyond mere documentary or social insight into the realm of  art.

Breast Feeding Time Magazine

Time magazine cover May 2012We 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.

Middle Class & College Class

Diploma from Messina, class of 1672
Diploma from the University of Messina, Class of 1672

College students are now more than a trillion dollars in debt. That comes as news to anyone who isn’t a college student or the parent of a college student. The young and old who graduate this year are quite aware of it. Last year’s college grad started working life — if he or she could find a job — with an average debt of $27,000.

That average of $27,000 is the debt owed only by the student. Mark Kantrowitz, a knowledgeable expert in the field of student loans and student debt, estimates that if you add in the loans taken by parents to pay for their kid’s education, you get an average total bill of $34,000. That was last year. The numbers have been getting worse, year after year. (Kantrowitz was quoted in the New York Times last year, saying that student debt goes up and it doesn’t ever go down.)  If student debt goes up 5 percent this year, as it did last year, then the burden — well, you can do the depressing math.

The economics of borrowing and debt often inspires comfortable  moralists to criticize the profligate borrowers. But there’s been no criticism of students’ or parents’ borrowing. Over the past 30 years the purchasing power of the middle class has remained flat or has declined.   Our average worker hasn’t been able to make the necessary strides ahead of the cost of living which permits increased savings or increased purchasing. But in that same period, the price of a college diploma has steadily gone further and further ahead, rising between 4 and 6 percent a year.

As has happened repeatedly over the past three decades, parents  —  and now their college-bound children —  have to borrow. The gradual erosion of the middle class has increased so that now we are witnessing something rather like a collapse. The rich float further and further up, the poor drift further and further down.

But that’s a terrible note to post during the month of college graduations, so we’ve illustrated this with a diploma from the Italian University of Messina in 1672.  We think it’s a great diploma with great but serious colors, a truly intricate initial letter and fancy writing. That’s something worth hanging on the wall! Even if it does put us a bit in debt.

April Is National Poetry & Financial Literacy Month

April is National Poetry Month and National Financial Literacy Month, too. If you knew about the one, you probably didn’t know about the other, so we’re spreading the word about these national observances.

National Poetry Month was started by the Academy of American Poets in 1996. It’s relatively well established, kept alive and vigorous by booksellers, publishers, libraries, schools and poets. According to the Academy of American Poets, “Thousands of businesses and non-profit organizations participate through readings, festivals, book displays, workshops, and other events.” And if you go to the Academy’s website you can find a good list to this year’s programs.

National Financial Literacy Month was born as Financial Literacy for Youth Month in 2000, inaugurated by the The Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy. In 2003 it received the imprimatur of the US Senate, and in 2004 the Senate dropped the youth part and passed a Resolution naming April as our National Financial Literacy Month. Apparently, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) has become the leading organization to celebrate and promote Financial Literacy Month.

We thought it would be nice to merge Poetry and Financial Literacy and we’ve come up with two quite different songs. The first is “The Banks Are Made of Marble,” sung by The Weavers, with that rousing chorus:
But the banks are made of marble
with a guard at every door
and the vaults are stuffed with silver
that the farmer sweated for.

Unfortunately, though you’ll hear a great song by the Weavers, there are no visuals to accompany it. By the way, you’ll hear Pete Seeger singing the first stanzas. It’s a great little song and always comes back during hard times. Take a listen.

The other song, quite different in sentiment, is “The Fear,” sung by Lily Allen. Lily Allen’s songs are generally characterized as “explicit,” as is this one. We warn you of that, and warn you also that the video is one of the silliest we’ve ever seen. The song begins with:

I want to be rich and I want lots of money
I don’t care about clever I don’t care about funny
I want loads of clothes and fuckloads of diamonds
I heard people die while they are trying to find them.

You see how it goes. We like Lily Allen for her cheerful vulgarity and we don’t know what she’s doing dancing around in that stupid dress in this lame pastel video.

Easter and Rebirth

Quem Quaeritis manuscript
Quem Quaeritis mss from Bodleian Library

Scripture tells of the resurrection of Jesus on the third day after his crucifixion, the day we call Easter. And the celebration of Easter in the church gave birth to, or resurrected, theatrical drama in the western world. Drama as a living art had perished with the collapse and break up of the Christianized Roman Empire. But at an Easter service which took place in the decades shortly before the year 1000 the people in charge devised a very brief skit to dramatize the events of that third day. After the execution of Jesus, when “the three Marys” went to the tomb to anoint the body, they found an angel seated on the edge of the tomb. The little drama, enacted by church singers, went like this —

[Angeli]: Quem quaeritis in sepulchro, o Christicolae?
Responsio: Jesum Nazarenum crucifixum, o caelicolae.
Angeli: Non est hic; surrexit, sicut praedixerat. Ite, nuntiate quia surrexit de sepulchro.

Or in English —

Angels: Whom do you seek in the tomb, O followers of Christ?
Response: The crucified Jesus of Nazareth, O heavenly beings.
Angels: He isn’t here; he’s risen, as he foretold. Go and announce that he has risen from the tomb.

From this slight beginning, drama was reborn.

Nos-tal-gia [fr. Gk nostos + algia]

It turns out that the word nostalgia means homesickness. I guess some of us weren’t in class the day the teacher talked about nostalgia. Some of us thought the word referred to that feeling of pleasure, tinged with gentle melancholy, that can arise when you think of something that had been familiar and meaningful to you in the past.

As it happens, we were wrong. All of us around here were wrong. The word was composed in the 17th century to describe a malady, severe homesickness, which was first noticed in Swiss mercenaries. Those Swiss mercenaries were sent all over Europe and, no surprise, they got homesick, extremely homesick. The word incorporates two Greek words, (nóstos), meaning a return home, and (álgos), meaning pain or ache.  When it comes to making new words, the obscurantist medical profession gets out the Greek and Latin dictionaries.

We looked up nostalgia in Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Fifth Edition. (That’s a classic edition.) Yup, there it was. The total definition is one solitary word: homesickness. That edition was based on the famous Second Edition of Webster’s New Internatinal Dictionary which was copyrighted in 1934, so we turned to a more up-to-date volume, Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, which was copyrighted in 1989. The number 1 definition was still homesickness.

But there was also definition number 2:  “a wistful or excessively sentimental sometimes abnormal yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.” Have you got that?  OK, we’ve already admitted  not being in class the day our teacher discussed nostalgia, but I’m sure neither Miss Hammerstone nor Miss Bundelmom would ever speak so strangely.

I don’t know if looking at some old tie-dyed T-shirts and torn blue-jeans would give you a wistful or excessively sentimental sometimes abnormal yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition. On the other hand, if you’re in Rome and visit Vatican City and you see one of the Pope’s Swiss guards looking rather sickish, you can say, Ah, nostalgia!

Swiss Guards  at St. Peter's
Swiss Guards. Some may suffer from acute nostalgia.


More Notes

The World Happiness Report, released by the United Nations, ranks countries on six key variables that support well-being: income, freedom, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support and generosity. This year, Finland is first, followed by Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland, followed by Netherlands, Canada,New Zealand, Sweden, Australia. The United States, which has never been in the top ten, silpped down four places from last year and is now 18th. President Trump may make American Great Again, but apparently not happier.