All aboard. People I very much appreciate:

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


["La scuola di Atene" by Raphael - File:Sanzio 01.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -]

Over this text is a fresco. Fresco is painting in wet plaster. Not freehand, that would admit too many variables even for Raphael, who did this one between 1509 and 1511. One starts with sketches and incorporates their primary lines into a cartoon. Cartoon is a drawing on stout paper, same size as the projected fresco, which one goes at with a pounce wheel --bigger than tailors use on patterns but same principle-- then the image is transferred to the wall by puffing charcoal through the holes. After that, one tries to get the painting done before the wall dries. Tricky work.

Around 1510, Raphael produced this fresco entitled "School Of Athens". It was intended to decorate the Stanza della Segnatura, or Popehouse, for Julius II and Leo X, whose careers coincided so closely it's pardonable to assume they were roomies. The fresco is in a chamber dedicated to human intellect. That means there were intellectual things in there. Leo kept a pet named Hanno. I don't know if Hanno was an indoor elephant or an outdoor one --or if it was housetrained (lack of housetraining is why I became a gardener), but suspect it was the reason Julius moved out.

The fresco was Raphael's idea of what a college should look like: philosophers of all ages lounging around on the steps of fantastic architecture, learning and teaching, fiddling with stuff like kittens do. He's got everybody on those stairs from Socrates to Sartre --even Zoroaster and himself! When I first saw a slide of this thing in college, I looked down at my hard desk, my unlaundered jeans, sensible shoes and despaired. How much easier it would be each morning to simply roll out of bed in one's sheet and wear that all day.

Togas were a pre-Christian-missionary invention. You didn't have to make outfits to clothe the naked. You just tore off a bit of your sheet and let them spin into it if they wanted. I remember college and know many of the naked didn't want to be clothed. Students used to make friends among the naked and would not dream of insulting them with a whole industry designed to cover them up. But the composition has other points of interest. It includes Epicurius, Pythagorus, Xenophon, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Plato and Euclid. The central, reclining figure is Diogenes --but in the cartoon, which now reclines among the treasures of Milan, Diogenes is a talking duck in a sailor suit.

Point is, these boys all had two things in common. They all devoted their lives to a calm inquiry into existence. They valued existence especially because they believed in a universe that is geometrically closed. That means it only has a certain amount of energy in it, subject to laws of conservation. Because the universe is a closed system --that is, there's nothing until it gets there-- all energy can be traced back to its beginning. The energy I use to write this, and the energy you use to read it, connects us to the beginning and ends of time. In college we sometimes got off the stairs to protest war, which we considered poor use of the universe's finite energy.

Other thing the philosophers had in common was room in the imagination of Raphael, who was a good use of the universe's energy.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


In keeping with a somewhat irritating recent preoccupation with dates, I am going to examine 1964. Hadn't intended to, but I was in the pumphouse  and found an old uniform patch in a disused humidor --as one does. I picked it up, ran my thumb over its stiff threads and thought of old chums --Tom, Jack, the boys we used to be. The embroidered patch measures about one and a half inches by two and depicts our first president, Geo. Washington, on bended knee proposing to a lily.

The lily is a fleur-de-lis, a heraldic flower that does not occur in nature. It represents royalty, in which case it's unlikely Gen. Geo. was proposing marriage. It also represents north, which makes Washington's pose even more improbable. However, the patch was one I wore on my Boy Scout uniform that year and fleur-de-lis was on everything scouty. Also, north is a favorite direction of mine so I gave it benefit of the doubt.


I just made a long arm and fetched my Handbook For Boys --39th printing-- and found this: "You probably know there is a huge chunk of iron in the earth, up north, that attracts the magnetized needle of your compass -- that this iron deposit is known as the magnetic north pole." --page 162. I have never had reason to challenge this idea. Even now, the symbol attracts my memory like a big magnetic brain-chunk.

I am in my 60s now and highly suspicious of brain-chunks. I do not like to think my hairline is receding so much as my mind is expanding, but one cannot rule out brain-chunks. I was only 14 for most of that year and thought no more of them than I did of dingleberries on livestock.

In the summer of 1964, last half of July, I was one of 50,000 Boy Scouts camped in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. You probably know about Geo. Washington's awful winter there in 1777. It was all snow and blizzards and the Continental Army ruining in ice. If you were in a high school marching band in the 1960s, you probably know that's where your uniform got donated from. Here is a slight exaggeration of what Valley Forge looks like in summer:

It was hot. It was very hot and my chums, Tom and Jack, and I tried to do all the things Boy Scouts are supposed to do. We were, after all, young Americans with vigorous bodies, hearts of lions and the digestion of goats. We hiked and tied knots, worked on merit badges, cooked and puked. But usually we'd give in to the heat, find a little shade, share cigarettes and discuss the future. We liked discussing the future --there was so much of it back then-- and as our stay proceeded we got excited about it. President Johnson was going to visit the Jamboree on its final evening and give a lecture about the future.

That evening arrived, unfortunately not without incident. One scout, in a dash to catch up with his troop, was hit by a bus. Word spread and we all reflected negatively upon our illusion of immortality. Jack led Tom and me in a prayer over our little supper. Jack was very religious, even though he laughed when I once asked him why the Pope dressed like a hand-puppet and considered the symbolism instructive. He responded by asking why we dressed like circus chimps. There were no answers.


Doubts were forming even as we made our way to three hills that served as rough seating for 50,000 boys. Three slopes converged upon a dingle and we arranged ourselves like berries around it. There was a little stage and microphone down there. Lyndon Johnson arrived! We clapped and clapped.

The president began by assuring us we were "the hope of Amurricah", then outlined what we might expect of our country. He said: in the next 50 years tremendous progress would be made in medicine, the puzzling out of biological mysteries; space exploration would take us closer to the stars and advance earthly technology, especially in communication. From this remove of a half-century, I must admit he was correct. We clapped and clapped. But still, there was doubt. Jack and I looked over at Tom. He was not clapping.

"Come Tom," I said."Clap for Lyndon!"

He clenched his teeth and said, "Do you have any idea what that s.o.b. is going to demand we do in four years?"

Having learned sufficient wilderness survival skills to decide against a career in homelessness, I left the Boy Scouts shortly thereafter. Jack also quit to pursue an interest in sociology, then psychology and finally theology. Tom stayed in Scouts longest, well into high school and his teeth remained permanently clenched. Years later, I asked him why.

"Brown shirts," He said through teeth. "I like the brown shirtssss."

Tom became a neo-Nazi. Jack became a Catholic priest. As usual, I became a gardener.