Sunday, June 20, 2010

Moving Notice

HH will be quiet for a couple of weeks. In a few days, Elizabeth and I begin the drive west; as of July, I'll be a Californian resident.

I haven't known so heightened a degree of nervous anticipation since I sat on my hands in the passenger seat of my dad's Ford F-150 and, wide-eyed and gape-mouthed, emerged from the Holland Tunnel into Manhattan.

That New York City birth occurred more than ten years ago, but I recalled it earlier this week, as I bounced a four-and-a-half month old baby on my lap. Whenever the two of us made eye contact, the baby would smile toothless at me and drool on the chest of his Snagglesaurus onesie. Each time, though, his eyes would soon drift away from mine, his smile would open into an imperfect "O," and he'd stare, head lolling, at some other object of wonder.

I've got thirty-two years on the little guy, but I don't believe that my appreciation of the world is altogether dissimilar. Certainly, I slip into self-conscious, myopic modes (say, when I'm packing for a major move!), but much of each day is spent squinty-eyed happy or struck dumb by wonder. I don't drool as much as I used to, but the stupidly sublime fact of being wows and humbles me no less than it did way back when.

Despite the long hours and the relative monotony of Interstate driving, I look forward to crossing this spectacular land. Along with books on tape and downloaded lectures, Elizabeth and I will have a road trip playlist to listen to. I added Liz Phair's "Go West" to the tracks last night.
"Safe on the interstate
New York is 3,000 miles away [...]
I've closed my eyes and my bank account
And gone west, young man

Take off the parking brake
Go coasting into a different state
And I'm not looking forward to missing you."
And I'm not looking forward to missing you New York, but life rolls on and I keep on smiling.

Image credit: State flag of California, ripped from Wikipedia

Friday, June 11, 2010

Rescuing Hokget and Everybody Else

Several months ago, I read "The Problem With Human Compassion," an excerpt from Shankar Vedantam's book The Hidden Brain, printed in the February 19th issue of The Week. I include a lengthy selection here.
"On March 13, 2002, a fire broke out in the engine room of an oil tanker about 800 miles south of Hawaii. The fire moved so fast that the Taiwanese crew did not have time to radio for help. Eleven survivors and the captain’s dog, a terrier named Hokget, retreated to the tanker’s forward quarters with supplies of food and water.

[...] Drawn by wind and currents, the Insiko got within 220 miles of Hawaii. It was spotted by a cruise ship, which rescued the crew. But as the cruise ship pulled away, a few passengers heard the sound of barking.

The captain’s dog had been left behind on the tanker. A passenger who heard the barking dog called the Hawaiian Humane Society in Honolulu. [...] The Society alerted fishing boats about the lost tanker and soon media reports began appearing about Hokget.

[...] Money poured in to fund a rescue. Donations eventually arrived from 39 states and four foreign countries. One check was for $5,000. 'It was just about a dog,' Pamela Burns, president of the Hawaiian Humane Society, told me. 'This was an opportunity for people to feel good about rescuing a dog. People poured out their support. A handful of people were incensed. These people said, ‘You should be giving money to the homeless.’' But Burns thought the great thing about America was that people were free to give money to whatever cause they cared about, and people cared about Hokget.

The problem with a rescue was that no one knew where the Insiko was. The U.S. Coast Guard estimated it could be anywhere in an area measuring 360,000 square miles. Two Humane Society officers set off into the Pacific on a tugboat. The Society paid $48,000 to a private company called American Marine to look for the ship.

[...] The U.S. Coast Guard had said it could not use taxpayer money to save the dog, but under the guise of training exercises, the called the U.S. Navy began quietly hunting for the Insiko.

[...] Human beings from around the world came together to try to save a dog. The vast majority of people who sent in money would never personally see Hokget. It was, as Pamela Burns suggested to me, an act of pure altruism and a marker of the remarkable capacity human beings have to empathize with the plight of others.

There are a series of disturbing questions, however: Eight years before the Hokget saga began, the same world that showed extraordinary compassion for a dog sat on its hands as hundreds of thousands of human beings were killed in the Rwandan genocide.

The philosopher Peter Singer once devised a dilemma that highlights a central contradiction in our moral reasoning. If you see a child drowning in a pond—and you would ruin a fine pair of shoes worth $200 if you jumped into the water—would you save the child or save your shoes? Most people react incredulously to the question; obviously, a child’s life is worth more than a pair of shoes. But if this is the case, Singer asked, why do large numbers of people hesitate to write checks for $200 to a reputable charity that could save the life of a child halfway around the world—when there are millions of children who need our help?

The answer is that our moral responsibilities feel different in these situations; one situation feels visceral, the other abstract. We feel personally responsible for one child, whereas the other is one of millions who need help - there are many people who could write that check.

[...] The brain is simply not very good at grasping the implications of mass suffering. Americans would be far more likely to step forward if only a few people were suffering or a single person were in pain. Hokget did not draw our sympathies because we care more about dogs than people; she drew our sympathies because she was a single dog lost on the biggest ocean in the world. [...] We are best able to respond when we are focused on a single victim."
Vedantam and Singer are correct; we humans act more compassionately when we are able to put a face to a cause, yet too many faces dull our response.

I've noticed such a benumbing in myself recently, an unexpected consequence of my transitioning from New York City to San Francisco. Both cities have substantial homeless populations, but panhandling in San Francisco is far more common. My street charity policy, modeled on the approach of a rabbi I heard lecture, is simple enough: I give change to any panhandler who says that he or she will use the money for food (or cites hunger as their reason for begging). I don't give change to those individuals requesting money for any other reason. In New York City, confronted with a few beggars each day, I typically gave change two or three times every week. In San Francisco, however, beggars ask for handouts on every other block, and a good number of them say that they're hungry. If I hold to my standard, I'll give change two or three times a day, if not more often! Shamefully, I've noticed that I've almost ceased giving during my visits to San Francisco.

This is a personal failure that I must address. Each of those many faces is an individual, a single person in need, despite the fact that their larger numbers and concentration counter-intuitively make them relatively anonymous or invisible. The rabbi's rule should be no less applicable in San Francisco than it is in New York. I'm confronted, then, with more need, and I must respond in kind; a hungry person is a hungry person.

But what about a hungry dog? Is Vedantam right to suggest that the thousands of people who contributed money to the Hokget search did not "care more about dogs than people"? Not exactly.

Our species' evolved, inborn behaviors haven't made our adaptation to the globalized world easy. In fact, it seems that contemporary humans are increasingly suspicious of other humans, especially of those outside our respective tribe, whereas animals (and perhaps especially dogs) are seen as uncomprehending innocents. I don't mean to suggest that no one cares about miners trapped in a coal mine, but it's clear that the little girl trapped in a well sells more newspapers, and that the little dog trapped on an abandoned tanker not only sells newpapers, but also inspires a flood of unsolicited donations and generates public outcry.
"Facing intense public pressure to save Hokget, government officials concluded that asking the Navy to sink the tanker—750 miles from Hawaii and drifting away from the distant U.S. mainland—posed unacceptable environmental risks. The Coast Guard finally agreed to access $250,000 in U.S. taxpayer funds to recover the Insiko. It wasn’t officially called an animal-rescue effort. Instead it was authorized under the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, based on the argument that if the aimless Insiko managed to drift westward for 250 straight miles, it might run aground on Johnston Atoll and harm marine life.

[...] On April 26, nearly a month and a half after the dog’s ordeal began, the tugboat’s crew found the Insiko and boarded the tanker. Hokget was still alive, hiding in a pile of tires. [...] Hokget arrived in Honolulu on May 2 and was greeted by crowds of spectators, a news conference, banners welcoming her to America, and a red Hawaiian lei."
What a marvelously strange species we are!? I applaud our ability to extend compassion to other animals (we're one of handful of species that have demonstrated such empathic ability), but I wonder at our brains' curious moral calculus.

I suppose all I can do is begin with myself, and humbly pledge to keep my pockets filled with coins.

Image credit: ripped from Corbis Images

Sunday, June 06, 2010

"Single Lady" Opens Tuesday

Jackie Gendel
Oil on panel

One of my "Synesthesia #1" limited edition prints is included in "Single Lady," a group exhibition that opens on Tuesday evening. The show is curated by Jenny Salomon, Candice Madey, and Kate Gilmore, and includes a good number of terrific artists. Importantly, half of all proceeds will benefit Afghan Women Leaders CONNECT.

"Single Lady" Press Release:
Opening reception: Tuesday, June 8, 6-9pm
224 Washington Avenue
Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, NY

For Single Lady, Jenny Salomon, Candice Madey, and Kate Gilmore invited 33 artists to exhibit art works in which the central subject matter references the female figure. Works are figurative and abstract, and in various media.
Half of all proceeds from sales will be directed to the artist and the other half will benefit Afghan Women Leaders CONNECT, an organization founded by Diana Rowan Rockefeller that invests in local leadership and community-driven development in Afghanistan. The organization evaluates and supports Afghan women in delivering health care, education and economic empowerment to Afghan women and children.

Through Afghan Women Leaders CONNECT, proceeds from Single Lady will fund a vocational training program (tailoring and embroidery) for 100 women in Kabul. The women will learn technical skills as well as marketing skills. After graduation, they will receive a tool and material kit to be able to start home-based businesses. A marketing officer will help to develop market linkages between the women and local sellers, and will contact microfinance organizations such as First Micro Finance Bank, BRAC, ASMED /USAID and FINCA-Afghanistan to introduce the women as loan applicants. The trainees also will participate in a literacy course that follows the Ministry of Education’s curriculum for one hour per day, five days a week.

Single Lady features works by Bill Adams, Fariba Salma Alam, Pedro Barbeito, Rhona Bitner, Michael Paul Britto, Patty Chang, Patricia Cronin, Nancy Davidson, Jenny Dubnau, Joe Fig, Natalie Frank, Zipora Fried, Jackie Gendel, Kate Gilmore, MK Guth, Jesse Hamerman, Karen Heagle, Marie Lorenz, Sangram Majumdar, Suzanne McClelland, Kelly McRaven, Ivan Monforte, Erika Ranee, Christopher Reiger, Jaye Rhee, Jenny Salomon, David Schoerner, Jenny Snider, Jennifer Viola, Stacy Lynn Waddell, Jo Ann Walters, Martynka Wawrzyniak and Francine Wolterbeek.

The exhibition is open by appointment June 8 – June 29.
For more information or to make an appointment please contact Jenny Salomon at

Friday, June 04, 2010

Fogged Clarity Print Edition

The first print edition of Fogged Clarity will soon be released.

One of my 2009 drawings, "living, moving, in the space between," illustrates "Eels," a quiet, bitter-sweet story by celebrated writer Joe Meno.

You can pre-order an issue now and receive free shipping.

Note: The cover art for Fogged Clarity #1 is "Red Cosmonaut," by Jeremy Geddes.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Calling All Coleopterists

Phil Knoll
Graphite on panel
23.75 x 17.5 inches

Several of Phil Knoll's mixed media drawings currently on view at Morgan Lehman Gallery are quite lovely. "Buster," the piece reproduced above, is by far the show's standout work. Unfortunately, I am unable to identify the species of beetle Knoll depicts. Any coleopterists reading?

Update: A big thank you to Chris Rywalt, who identified the beetle as Lucanus cervus, one of the better known varieties of stag beetle. Chris is also an artist and art blogger. Visit his NYC Art site to read his essays.