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Monthly Archives: October 2011

Feral Child

In “Mr Blandings Builds his Dream House”–one of my favorite movies and one which should be required viewing for all students of architecture–Jim and Muriel Blandings are harried apartment dwellers fleeing Manhattan for the post-WWII joys of a suburbanizing Connecticut. Mr Blandings is ill-prepared for the process of building a home, however. After all, he’s an advertizing executive. How hard could it be? 

But it’s difficult to say whether Jim or Muriel (played to comic pathos by Cary Grant and Myrna Loy) is more naive. For me, the most memorable line–the one that has stayed with me more than fifty years–is this: Muriel says to Jim, “There are only two kinds of people in this world: those who observe and those who participate.” I have always been one of the former.

Growing up in 1950s Chicago (technically the burbs) I might have known Jim and Muriel, but we lived toward the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, in a blue collar suburb with limited upward mobility. Two other things shaped my youthful world view: 1) I was the only child of an only child, and 2) my parents divorced when I was eight, leaving me in the care of a distant father who did not know how to cope with his own needs, let alone mine, and a widowed grandmother who had endured an abusive marriage, though I did not learn these things for decades. The upside of it all–and there definitely was one–was that I became a feral child.

My grandfather had been an atheist and my father, at best, an agnostic who succumbed to the wiles of organized religion just three days before his death at the age of sixty-one, a forty-year victim of unfiltered Camels, Chesterfields and Lucky Strikes. Leave it to Roy to cover his ass within sight of his own end.

My Polish Catholic grandmother rarely went to Mass, no doubt a habit reinforced by her husband, a man I barely knew but had every reason to love as much as any five-year-old is capable. A rosary hung from the corner post of her dressing table and prayer cards from her many Catholic sisters rimmed the mirror there. More of a shrine than many I have seen since.

Yes, I said my prayers each night, including one for our deceased parakeet Mickey. And, yes, the Miller family two doors west took my spirtual welfare in hand and brought me with their daughter Andrea to the Congregational Church about a mile away. But, other than baptism a few weeks after my birth, religion had not branded me in any meaningful way and I grew toward adulthood wondering why God had not spoken to me, as so many around me claimed he had to them. Perhaps, as for Muriel Blandings, religion was always a thing to be observed.

I grew up almost exclusively among Christians. There were three Jews in my high school (one student, one teacher, one librarian), but no Muslims and surely no one beyond the People of the Book. America may have been more homogenous then; certainly Bedford Park was. So I was immediately curious why there were so many competing ways to God. Long before Baskin-Robbins gave us thirty-one flavors, I wondered why there were more Christian denominations than Heinz had pickles. If God was Great and God was Good, why hadn’t his believers managed to present a consistent message? Apparently, it was a good deal more complicated than a conflicted teenage mind could comprehend. As in so many other areas, I was left to find my way through detached observation. Decades later I discovered syzygy–the pairing of opposite or adjacent ideas–and resolved my discomfort oh so simply: spirituality and religion have little to do with one another.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”

Though I grew up believing in the separation of Church and State, the current state of affairs is very different. Churches are tax exempt, yet their budgets and physical plants (and a lot of their profit-making real estate) can be used for activities that are probably illegal and patently unethical. Partisan political activities, for example, workshops and rallies promoting hatred and political action based on race, ethnicity, religion [there’s that word again], gender or sexual orientation are commonplace. How is that OK?

Congress hasn’t established a religion or even religion in general; it didn’t have to. But it has certainly discriminated against those of us who choose not to play in that sandbox. Since I have been able to vote, candidates for public office have increasingly had to pass a litmus test, demonstrating not only their religiosity, but also its intensity and flavor–shades of Baskin-Robbins and H. J. Heinz! Each candidate must not only like pickles, he or she must also prefer dills and find fault with those partial to gherkins. Heaven help ye of the kosher persuasion. And chutney is simply out of the question.

Scan the Republican horizon and what do we see? I’m reminded of Dorothy Parker’s review of a stage play staring Katherine Hepburn: “Miss Hepburn’s performance ran the gammut of emotions from A to B.” Other than LDS adherents Huntsman and Romney, the remaining candidates are so hudled in the Fundamentalist camp–each one hearing God’s clear voice–as to be indistinguishable. Never mind what I was told about the Bible (or what I found there on my own, but that’s another story), Rick Perry can’t execute Texans fast enough. The terminally ill can’t die too soon to suit Ron Paul. Michelle Bachman will tell us when the End Times have arrived. And the Herminator apparently has not read the New Testament. I have. Except for the Mormons, who get to become Gods, the rest of them had better hope there is no Hell.

“…or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Go ahead, believe whatever claptrap you like and allow me the same right. Notice I didn’t say “privilege.” But don’t expect me to sit idly by while you spout my damnation.

The Constitution grants you free and unfettered exercise of your religion–devoid as it may be of spirituality. But also know this:

  • I will not subsidize it through my taxation;
  • I will not permit it to harm those who do not believe as you do or who believe nothing;
  • I will continue to be both spiritual and irreligious and enjoy the company of my kind and those of you willing to endure my point of view, and
  • Please leave science alone and allow it to do what your God surely intended: that we learn from, love and nurture Creation, whatever its source.

After years of observation, it may be that I’ve decided to participate.

Landscapes and Livestock

I’ve seen a large part of the Agincourt collection—the part that isn’t total fiction—and believe you’re in for a treat. The new exhibit—”Homecoming/Coming Home”—opens eleven months from now at the Plains in Fargo, and this show-within-the-show will constitute about fifty works from this collection, lent to us through the courtesy of our friends in Iowa. Looking at what’s in hand, I’m struck by two things: 1) the cohesiveness and quality of the earliest acquisitions, and 2) the enormous gaps in work representing the years after 1950. It’s embarrassing how little I know about the art of my own lifetime, though it may be fair to say that we are far less objective about that which is closest. Perhaps some of you will be willing to lend a few pieces and fill the cracks.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

“Tell me what you collect, tell me how you collect, and I will tell you who you are.” —Jean-Willy Mestach 

On the eve of its hundredth birthday, the Agincourt Collection (displayed in the Tennant Memorial Gallery) has reached a milestone. The gallery is too small for all 200 pieces to be hanging, so only fifty, more or less, are up at any one time. We cycle through the collection about once a year. Next March, however, it’s all coming out of storage and being hung in European style—cheek-by-jowl, one above and beside another—for a gala public opening. For the first time, all of our cultural laundry will hang at once.

Sunsetfieldfence

Late next year, about twenty-five percent of the collection will also hit the road: between forty and fifty pieces will travel—again, for the first time—to the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, North Dakota. Ron Ramsay, a friend of Agincourt and professor of architecture at North Dakota State University, has arranged the loan exhibit. I’m curious about two things: what we’ll send and how the folks in Fargo (and her sister city, Moorhead, Minnesota) will react. If Jean-Willy Mestach is correct, what and how we collect will have much to say about who we are.

Categories, clots and clumps

Like the Japanese renga and jenga, any collection—of art, coins or pogo sticks—is a living thing. It grows through time and its character thereby changes; nuanced, each new piece alters our perception of what has come before and changes the direction it might take. Looking at the Memorial Collection last weekend (not all of it at once, but in bits and pieces, and not knowing completely the order of acquisition), I can report the following:

  • Portraits are a small but significant segment. I’ve known some of the subjects and one of the artists.
  • Landscapes play a big role—no surprise there—because we live on, of and off the land. Several pieces pay poetic homage to that which sustains us—and that which we have all too often abused in return. They also record the vastness of our weather conditions (bucolic, threatening, elegiac….) and make me glad I live here.
  • Then there are several pieces without an easy explanation: views of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty, for example, American icons that exist despite not seeing it from my kitchen window. And portraits of sheep. And stuff from Europe that must have traveled here by steerage. Each and every one tells a story worth knowing.

Some of us (though not me) have called our collection “Landscapes and Livestock”; disparaged it as a waste of money (though no public funds are used for either acquisition or upkeep) and suggested it be sold and the proceeds used for band uniforms or a hockey rink or to buy better art! Luckily cooler heads prevail and the collection grows, one or two pieces a year. The folks in Fargo are in for a treat.

If the choice were mine….

Jim Crow

Ed Raymond’s “Gadfly” column in this week’s High Plains Reader is about Jim Crow, the experience Ed had in the South during the years of racial unrest that influenced my own young adulthood in the late 1950s and throughout the 60s. Ed’s article brought back memories.

Going to a high school that was one-third Black and Puerto Rican, I suppose I subliminally understood the separation of the races—though in my frame of reference, that awareness exhibited itself in all the “wrong” ways: walking down the hall arm-in-arm with Winona Green and fooling around in choir practice with Kenny Herd, both friends, both Black. Did I seek or accept their friendship because they weren’t White or did I simply allow an affinity to occur despite our superficial differences? Looking back that far, I can’t say. Shall I give myself the benefit of doubt?

I graduated from high school in 1963 and left home, the only home I’d ever known, for the first time that Fall to enroll in architecture at the University of Oklahoma. I chose OU for two reasons: first, it was a looooong way from home and I needed that distance; and second, I was drawn to the school where eccentric, organic architect Bruce Goff had recently held sway. Goff had left teaching two years before my arrival in Norman and his protege Herb Greene had departed only the year before, but I hoped there would still be enough residual independence for me to explore without shackles.

Dorm life that freshman year happened in the Woodrow Wilson Center, a dorm and dining complex at the far south edge of campus which had been a Naval Air training center during World War II. The dorms were really barracks and “mess hall” more accurately described where we ate. My assigned roommate Lennie Cantrell was from El Paso but I soon made friends with a wide variety of students from various parts of the country. As a Yankee, the “native” population tended to find us brash and fast-talking, so many of my closer acquaintances were from the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon. I did have one very good friend two rooms down the hall—Harold Lee Andrews—who was both Oklahoma-born and Black (as we said then, rather than African American).

Harold was from Oklahoma City and had been raised by what has all too often been a norm in Black America: the fatherless household. I never met his mother, but I did get invited to Oklahoma City (only 20-25 miles north of Norman) one weekend for supper at the home of “Big Momma,” Harold’s grandmother. Since I too had been raised by a grandparent, it was a very comfortable evening. Big Momma’s parents, by the way, had been slaves. And I’d comment on the quality of her fried chicken, but that would be a racial stereotype, wouldn’t it.

Harold’s roommate was Calvin Luper, son of Clara Luper, a Black woman engaged in voter registration and other equal-rights activities in Oklahoma and throughout the state, which caused us all to be a bit more aware of what was going on around us. Rumors abounded that early some morning a blazing bottle of gasoline might fly from a passing car into Calvin’s window (we lived on the street side of the dorm) and Harold, me and all the rest of us would be collateral damage. You should be aware that the University of Oklahoma had become fully integrated only two years previous, in 1961.

To prove that point, Harold took me on a walk one day toward downtown Norman—the “town” part of “Town and Gown”—for a visit to the public lobby of the Cleveland County Courthouse, an Art Deco building of no great distinction, as I recall, just south of the CBD. There in that lobby Harold called my attention to a wall with two drinking fountains, mounted at the same level. You could never mistake them as intended for adults and children. Above each fountain there were patches of institutional green paint that differed from the equally offensive institutional cream that surrounded them. Multiple layers of paint had built up quite an edge, so whatever covered those two green rectangles had been there a very long time. Harold had to explain to me, a Northerner who had never seen such a thing, that these had only a year or two earlier been the location of signs identifying the drinking fountain for Whites and the identical fountain for Everyone Else (that expansive label meant Blacks, Native Americans and Hispanics). As an eighteen-year-old, that afternoon was an important moment in my coming of age.

As an electrical engineering major, Harold had signed on for a five-year curriculum, just I had done in architecture. We had plenty of time to grow in parallel, though I suspect Harold grew more of that than I did. Eventually he married a beautiful young woman named Amour, though I can’t recall her last name. And I was honored to be a groomsman in their wedding, the first ceremony in the new Angie Smith Chapel at Oklahoma City University, a Methodist-affiliated school with a large percentage of Black students. Incidentally, the Smith Chapel had just been dedicated, a design by noted ecclesiastical architect Pietro Belluschi; it’s stained glass windows were a rare example of good liturgical art in an era not known for such quality. Also, by the way, there was one White bride’s maid, but we were organized by height, so I escorted another beautiful Black woman and recalled my high school friend Winona Green as we marched toward the altar.

The bottom line here—literally—is how racially progressive Agincourt may have been during these years. Remember the Ku Klux Klan was a Northern institution and there had once been a chapter in Hillsboro, North Dakota, for krysake. These are issues I’m not anxious to explore—yet eventually I must.

The way things work

Ebay continues to be a source of many objects and images for Agincourt. This postcard, for example, was easy pikkens since it is unidentified, bearing neither address nor postmark. But I valued its evocation of small town life a hundred years ago: when the scale was pedestrian in the better sense of the word (walking to school, to church, to the grocer and butcher) and prior to the very social networking that I’m using here to tell the story of Agincourt, when the only tweets were heard from the branch outside your bedroom window. Yes, the Agincourt Project has tread a not-so-fine line between awareness of the past and nostalgia for it, and I have often strayed to the latter side. For those who do not see this project as respectful of history, however, mea culpa.

Samuelallison

I often forget that Agincourt has topography; that its land sloping toward the Muskrat River and Crispin Creek was apt to flood each spring. This photo struck me as a way to understand and interpret those contours and to populate them. But the photo itself is instructive.

What, for example, is going on between the two board fences? There’s also a wire fence along the street, and the sidewalk, if there is one beneath that snow, is interrupted. It doesn’t seem the proper season for construction, so I’m betting on livestock: both horses and milk cows were kept in town and needed pasture. They also added sounds and smells to a world we all too often interpret in only visual terms.

These are, it seems to me, humbler homes, probably on the northwest side of town. Don’t I see the bell tower of Darwin School through the trees on the right? We might be looking north on Third Street NW. I’m also guessing the streets in this part of town were unpaved and that they would be difficult to drive until late April or even May. When were Agincourt’s streets paved? With what and in what pecking order?

This card lacks an address, but it does have a name: “Master Samuel Allison” in fine penmanship. Someone began to send this card but was diverted or distracted. Perhaps the writer was an amateur photographer, proud of a novice effort: a photograph from his or her front porch looking toward Sam’s house two lots away. But the one cent stamp may have been an extravagance, or perhaps it just seemed more sociable to put on galoshes and slog the hundred feet to Sam’s front door.

I suspect young Master Allison will show up elsewhere in the story.

Tangent Lives (Part 3—A reflection)

In its first thirteen months, this blog has suggested that the people outlined here aren’t real—with a handful of exceptions. The vast majority don’t exist and probably never have, for one obvious reason: real people are nuanced complex creatures influencing and influenced by their fellows in a constant evolutionary state. My limited abilities have given you postcards, when you should have been given novels about Dickensian characters told with the complexity of Proust. I can dream.

Half-term Agincourt mayor Ed Flynn (no relation to the former half-governor of Alaska) and his beautiful widow Amity Burroughs Flynn are composites of many people I have known—and some that I hope not to. But I also hope that aspects of their necessarily cropped profiles have resonated with your own life experience. Agincourt is, after all, about us. But it is also by us, to the extent that I’m able to involve more participants in the matrix. Hint, hint.

I have a meeting next week to discuss a new venue for The Project, as we’ve come to call it. Yes, I am both grateful and relieved to have this opportunity, but I also hope to negotiate the best conditions for you to maximize the Agincourt experience—whatever the hell that is.

The first thirteen months of this blog have been reflective, setting out what I’m trying to accomplish and how this organic participatory process has worked, or not. The next thirteen months—dare I say it?—are going to be a rollercoaster. And the best I can hope for is your forebearance when I’m stressed, cranky or depressed (and I will be all of them), as well as your constructive criticism, even your active participation, as we approach the Big Day in the fall of 2012.

In the meantime, Howard doesn’t seem to be finished with the Flynns. I’ll trust his insights over mine any day.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Ordinary People

I’ve never read Judith Guest’s novel Ordinary People. It only took four years from book to film, though, and I’m certain that much was changed and some may even have been lost in the transition from paper to celluloid. It is one of my favorite movies, however, in which each of the four principal characters (played to critical acclaim by Timothy Hutton, Judd Hirsch, Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore) are brought together by the missing fifth character, Hutton’s older brother lost in a foolish boating accident. 

Edmund Fitzgerald Flynn and Amity Burroughs Flynn may have been ordinary people, like Judith Guest’s characters, who were also thrown into extraordinary circumstances. The Flynns migrated literally half way across America, from Boston to the Midwest, from a dense urban area to a small town with far less diversity and fewer places to hide. They may even have arrived thinking that Agincourt would be like a play, a theatrical production, with a handful of defined roles, two of which they had chosen for themselves. 

Ed Flynn lived here only five years; yet his wife Amity was among us those five and twenty-five more. We know nothing of their lives before and only what the fat file of news clippings have to say, 19th century equivalents of sound bites and talking points while they were here. From those clippings, I’ve outlined many of Ed Flynn’s activities (women in the 1890s were nearly invisible, except in upper class cultural settings) and shown them to a psychologist friend of mine who’s willing to put Ed retroactively “on the couch” and interpret him in an early 21st century frame of reference. If Ed were alive today he’d be sporting the number 301.81, Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the current diagnostic manual.

Our guess is that Ed lived the NPD role from arrival to his untimely death at age forty-eight, but that Amity, freed from her husband’s shadow and perhaps appreciating the changing role of women at the turn of the last century, may have blossomed as her own person. The portrait we have of her (painted by New York artist Joseph Newman and now part of the Tennant Memorial Collection) shows a stylish but introspective woman. And the clippings cast her as latterday suffragette and social activist. I wish Aunt Claire were here to offer another perspective. Between the two of them—Ed and Amity—his life doesn’t interest me in the least. But Mrs Flynn may very well have changed, grown, become worthy of that elegant mausoleum at The Shades where they rest. 

On their respective shelves, I hope that she’s on top.

Tangent Lives (Part 2—Immortality)

Amity Burroughs Flynn, widow of Agincourt mayor Edmund Fitzgerald Flynn, held sway over what passed as the Arts in our community  for nearly thirty years. She and her husband had come here from the East—Boston, most likely—though they were an odd and unlikely pair. Let Howard tell us a bit more about them, especially hizzoner Mayor Flynn.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Immortality

In a corner of The Shades, our Protestant and non-sectarian burial ground, surrounded by forsythia his widow herself had planted, Edmund Fitzgerald Flynn entered his final rest in 1896. You don’t have to ask which grave is his: the Flynns built Agincourt’s first and, to date, only mausoleum, a surprisingly tasteful pile of neo-classical marble, with a pair of Fs back to back above its single Ionic column. Most of us will enjoy eternity safely ensconced below ground, while the Flynns are shelved a few feet above the earth, as detached from it in death as they may have been in life.

Ed had come to town in the very early 90s with swagger and cash, a self-styled “capitalist” in the city directory for 1892, in fact the only listing in that category. Before income tax, long before labor, anti-trust and other government regulations cramped the style of America’s robber barons, Ed Flynn might have claimed the political talking point du jour of “job creator” as his own and only role in the community.

The Flynns took rooms at The Blenheim, an East Coast affectation that raised a few eyebrows hereabouts. Hotels hinted at transience, while homeownership had begun to connote more trustworthy long term Midwestern values. But the Blenheim was our foremost hostelry and residence there afforded its permanent guests a civic presence and entertainment opportunity literally larger than life—used to great advantage by Ed and Amity, who sailed about town like Cleopatra’s barge.

The barge analogy becomes even more appropriate, since its oars were not their own. Flynn’s stock in trade was the “Big Think,” lofty thoughts expectant that others would carry out his schemes and intuit their details. Indeed, Flynn had money because, like many of the rich, he kept his cash close at hand. His greatest skill, in fact, may have been the essence of diplomacy: the art of letting other people have your way, for Flynn’s schemes were largely underwrittten by others. And in the meantime, those schemes swept him into politics and a successful run as mayor of our city council—all of this in the wake of economic panic in 1893 that hadn’t quite washed upon our shores.

Flynn played havoc with local government, talking the business model but playing the role of autocrat. The essence of his term as mayor inspired the image of bloated haughtiness Karl Wasserman captured in the WPA mural circling the city council chamber; on your way out, look at the pair just left of the entry vestibule and I suspect Ed and Amity are looking back at you. They exude an air of Manifest Destiny.

Mayor Flynn built himself a House of Carte Blanche which collapsed shortly before his death. Bank draughts from Boston came with less regularity and we found that Ed was, indeed, a “remittance man,” one of those 19th century ne’er-do-wells whose abilities (or lack thereof) had banished them as far from home as the dollar would stretch; the monthly checks flowed as long as they stayed away. Despite his Boston Brahmin accent, the family’s money had come from brewing rather than inheritance, and the Panic of 1893 slowed his cash flow to a drip feed. So, with civic schemes aplenty and little to back them up, hizzonner slumped one day at his personal trough of narcissism (the monthly dinner of the Commercial Club, of which he’d become president) and he was dead within the hour.

Amity Burroughs Flynn, wife, now widow, comported herself with characteristic grace and more than a little hauteur, convinced the community had lost its guiding light–and looking very good in black, by the way. Accompanied to their mausoleum by a cortege of complicity, one wonders how many attended his funeral to protect their own reputations as they buried his.

Edmund Fitzgerald Flynn has achieved a measure of immortality, but perhaps not the sort he wished.