One Cataract Gone, One More To Go

October 8 — My cataract surgery went well yesterday.  So well I feel silly having worried and sweated and stewed about it–which I did, big time.  Something about knowing my eye was going to be sliced and then blasted with a laser while I was AWAKE.  I thought it was pretty crazy that anyone wouldn’t be sweating over it.

They kept telling me they would be giving me large doses of “don’t give a shit” meds in my IV, but I was convinced that I would, indeed, give shits up the kazoo.  It turns out I survived.  And I’m even looking forward to having the same thing done to eye #2.

The lasered eye is still a little blurry but the colors at first were amazing.  The sky was iridescent blue.  The grass was bilious green.  I couldn’t stop looking at my tangerine.   I wonder if this is why children find everything so wondrous?  When we lose the ability to see colors as they really are, do we lose the ability to appreciate them? I don’t know, but I love how everything looks, now that the haze is lifting from my left eye.

The staff at the ophthalmology clinic told me that the older cataracts get, the more discolored they become.  Everything I was seeing was as if I was seeing it though a nicotine film.  Whites, as seen through my left eye, are dazzling today.    My pupil is still dilated so I will need sunglasses when I go out.

10/9 — So now it’s two days after my surgery and things are still a little blurry but much better.  I saw the doctor yesterday and he said everything was coming along normally.  The fuzzies, the floaters, the rainbow ring around lights.  All normal.

But nobody told us about the eye drop regimen.  It’s crazy!  Three days before the surgery it’s two different drops five minutes apart three times a day.  After the surgery it’s three different drops five minutes apart three times a day.  This goes on for a full month.

But it gets better.  The surgery on my right eye will be on October 28, which means we’ll be putting drops in both eyes in an overlap for several days, and then it’ll be another month of drops for just the right eye. And since my hubs has taken on the job of chief eye drop dropper, it’s his burden to bear as well as mine.  Ha!

The drops are steroids and antibiotics and something else for my own safety, so I shouldn’t complain.  And, as everyone has reported, the colors are so much brighter.  And true.  But it’s not brain surgery and nearly everyone of a certain age either already has done it, or will be, so reporting on it in a blog is pretty lame.

But they sliced into my eye and busted up the cataract with a blast of a laser and rolled up the new lens and stuck it in there and it magically unrolled and settled into place.  And don’t forget that amazing iridescent blue.  And those whites.  They’re dazzling.

So toodle-oo and tweedledum.  I’m off to see what I can see.

Michael in the ferns


Posted in Beauty and joy, Just for Fun | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Should I Die At 75? Oh, Wait. Too Late.

many candlesOn September 17, the very day–I mean, the exact day I turned 77, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel’s essay, “Why I hope to Die at 75″ appeared in The Atlantic magazine.   You could have knocked me over with a feather.  Really?  (We old people say, “really?” while you say, “seriously?”.  There’s one difference right there.)

Emanuel is a bioethicist and breast oncologist who is for Obamacare and universal health care and against euthanasia for the aged.  Nevertheless, he apparently believes that because most people over 75 are no longer as vibrant as most people under 75, and many of them have insurmountable health issues, there should be an arbitrary cut-off date after which any reasonable human being would do humanity a favor and go find themselves a nice iceberg somewhere and float off into the darkness. Singing.

I have admired Zeke Emanuel for. . . I don’t know. . . a long time now. I can’t remember.  (Don’t kill me!)  I always thought that of all the Emanuels, he had his head on straightest.  But it could be that on the very day I turned 77 my brain read Emanuel’s piece, took notice that I was exactly two years past the cut-off date, and got confused about what it was supposed to do now.  Whatever happened, I don’t get this guy.  Not this time.

He said:

By the time I reach 75, I will have lived a complete life. I will have loved and been loved. My children will be grown and in the midst of their own rich lives. I will have seen my grandchildren born and beginning their lives. I will have pursued my life’s projects and made whatever contributions, important or not, I am going to make. And hopefully, I will not have too many mental and physical limitations. Dying at 75 will not be a tragedy. Indeed, I plan to have my memorial service before I die. And I don’t want any crying or wailing, but a warm gathering filled with fun reminiscences, stories of my awkwardness, and celebrations of a good life. After I die, my survivors can have their own memorial service if they want—that is not my business.

Ooooh. . . weeping here.  So sweet!  (Except for that part about “dying at 75 will not be a tragedy”.   Easy for him to say.)

And then he said:

. . .the fact is that by 75, creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us. . . This age-creativity relationship is a statistical association, the product of averages; individuals vary from this trajectory. Indeed, everyone in a creative profession thinks they will be, like my collaborator, in the long tail of the curve. There are late bloomers. As my friends who enumerate them do, we hold on to them for hope. It is true, people can continue to be productive past 75—to write and publish, to draw, carve, and sculpt, to compose. But there is no getting around the data. By definition, few of us can be exceptions. Moreover, we need to ask how much of what “Old Thinkers,” as Harvey C. Lehman called them in his 1953 Age and Achievement, produce is novel rather than reiterative and repetitive of previous ideas. The age-creativity curve—especially the decline—endures across cultures and throughout history, suggesting some deep underlying biological determinism probably related to brain plasticity.

Hold on a minute.  Old Thinkers.  Processing. . .

Nope.  Nothing. Never mind.

There are people who are still brilliant–or at least special–long past the time most of us would have given up and moved on.  They’re Emanuel’s exceptions and the older these people get the more they become potential national treasures.  It’s because they’ve beaten the odds and are living proof that, even at such an advanced age, they still have much to contribute.  It’s also true that younger admirers have put themselves in their place and feel better about their own chances of making waves for that long.  But too often they stop celebrating that person’s achievements and begin celebrating their longevity.  Any mention of them from then on ends up being a eulogy. As if whatever they were is in the distant past and now they just are.  This sort of thing doesn’t help.

A cut-off date of, say, 75 when even Emanuel, the chooser of the cut-off date, admits that nobody ages in the same way during the same time-frame, is so dumb all I can figure is that he needed an attention-getter to make a few points about how terrible it will be when he’s no longer at the top of his game.

Take it from me, Zeke.  You’ll get over it.

Posted in Art and Artists, Beauty and joy, Social Justice | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Seven Reasons Why I Won’t Hold My Breath Waiting For HGTV To Call

There are many reasons why I won’t ever be seen on “House Hunters”.  The main reason, I suppose, is that I’m not looking for a new house at the moment.  I’m happy in my little cabin on the shore–the one with the outdated kitchen, wood paneling on the walls, and linoleum on the floors. There is no automatic dishwasher (I almost said there is no dishwasher until I remembered I live here) or automatic garbage disposal (That would be my husband).

There are two bedrooms, one with a small sleeping loft.  There is another bedroom (i.e., a room with beds) above the detached garage, in what we laughingly call “The Penthouse”.

There is only one bathroom.   There is a shower, but no room for a tub.  The septic tank  threatens to vomit its guts out whenever there are too many people around.

So since I seem to be pretty content with a home nobody in their right mind on the current version of  “House Hunters” would want,  you might be wondering why on earth I would be watching it in the first place?

I watch it because it’s like watching a drama from another world.  “House Hunters from Oz”.  Who lives like that?  Where do those young people get all that money?  Why aren’t there more divorces?

Plus, it’s fun.  I love that they all know they’re on camera and they feel forced to drag out their puny but hilarious acting skills.  (“Now that’s what I’M talkin’ about!”)

I love that they’ve created a whole new homeowners lexicon: “upscale”, “price point”, “deal-breaker”, “curb appeal”, “man cave”, “bonus room”, “en suite”, and so on.

But here’s why I’m pretty sure I’ll never be in a position to have to say “no” to “House Hunters” (or any other HGTV show):

1.  I hate granite counter-tops.  They’re ugly, food looks gross on them, they echo, and the breakage on those super-hard surfaces increases the irritation factor in the kitchen by at least a thousand percent.

2.  I hate stainless steel appliances.  They only look good the few seconds after you’ve wiped them down, they cost an outrageous bundle, and they don’t function any differently from those old-fashioned white appliances.

3.  I have no use for walk-in closets.  Unless I could turn them into bedrooms.

4.  I don’t need double sinks in my bathroom.  I don’t want anybody else in there with me.

5.  I don’t need or want to have to live in a house so huge there are rooms I almost never go into.  I can live so comfortably in a dwelling under 2000 square feet, I have to wonder what that couple was thinking a while back when they walked into a house that was just shy of 3500 sq. ft and said, right off, it was too small.  There are two of them.  What do they do in there that requires that much space?   I can only guess that it’s so they don’t have to run into each other too often.

6.  I can look at an ugly painted wall and think, “Hmmm, a little bit of paint will fix that up just fine.”  It’s not a deal-breaker.  (And speaking of deal-breakers, I saw one yesterday where a woman said, “Oh, no, the microwave is above the stove!  That’s a deal-breaker, right there.”  Honest to God.  Lady, a screwdriver to release it and a strong pair of arms to lift it away is all you need.  You’re welcome.  Jeez!)

The same with carpeting or tile or popcorn ceilings.  All easily fixable–unless you’re over your price point (Oy) but you love this place. Then, sweet darlings, take a deep breath and live with the flaws for a while.  It’s being done everywhere on earth.  It really will not kill you.

7.  I know in my heart that my choices are not really down to three homes, all of which have problems.  Somewhere out there my dream home hides.  I can find it myself, without having to roll my eyes on camera, or make fun of someone else’s decorating choices, or pretend that I’m this close to stamping my feet and throwing a tantrum if I don’t find what I’m looking for.

I’m been watching “House Hunters” since it first began, way back in the days when they were showing ordinary people looking at houses most of us could afford and most of us would want.  I remember a great rustic cabin that was built over a river.  It was amazing.  And small.  And affordable.  And the woman who looked at it chose it and loved it and didn’t think she needed to change a thing and I loved her for loving it because I did, too.

I remember a couple who chose an exquisite Arts and Crafts bungalow and promised to keep it in the Craftsman style and not ruin it completely and forever by “updating” it to meet today’s standards.

cottage drawingI remember when the best of homes shown on HGTV didn’t have to be upscale or ostentatious or predictable.  Now, if you’ve seen one show you’ve seen them all.   They’re either McMansions or Condos or they’re older homes destined to be upgraded to look like newer homes.

And they’re so above anything people like us can afford, it’s clear that the folks who run the show don’t have a clue about how most Americans really live.

Which is why, if the folks at HGTV do happen to find that letter I wrote them a dozen years ago and call me at my home number (which is still the same), I will be giddy with delight at the prospect of . . .

. . .um.

Never mind.

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North Carolina’s Gov picks a Poet-you know-Laureate

A bit of a stink going on in North Carolina this week.  Nothing so serious that lives are at risk, but serious enough, in a state that prides itself on its ability to nurture and grow literary giants, that the story moved all the way up the Looky Here ladder to the New York Times.

I’ll get right to it:  After North Carolina Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti’s two-year term was up, Governor Pat McCrory took it upon himself (a big no-no right there, see below) to appoint Valerie Macon, a nearly unknown poet, to the prestigious post.

what is poetryI am not going to pick on this poor woman  who, as I understand it, writes poems about the homeless, a subject after my own heart.   No, I’m going to pick on Pat McCrory, the governor of North Carolina, the guy who appointed her, subjecting her in the process to  intense scrutiny and extreme humiliation, all because the dumb bugger apparently didn’t know the first thing about appointing a Poet Laureate.

Not every state has a Poet Laureate.  (Michigan, my Michigan doesn’t have one, though the folks in the U.P took it upon themselves to appoint one for our neck of the woods.)  But North Carolina has a long  history of producing and nurturing poets and writers. within the state itself and within the writing program at Chapel Hill.   They take their writing claim-to-fame seriously.

Note to Michigan writers:  Not saying we don’t take our writing seriously.  We do.  Some pretty famous writers and poets have come out of our beautiful state.  So really, folks, why don’t we have a Poet Laureate?

But back to NC:  Traditionally–and rightly–writers from all over the state, including members of the North Carolina Arts Council, have always been consulted before the poet laureate selection.  They’re the only ones in a position to actually know which poets have the credentials to be up for consideration.  They then pass along a recommendation to the governor, who, since he has bigger fish to fry (we’re hoping), just goes along and signs the decree.  Then almost everyone is happy.  (The exceptions being the poets who thought they should have been chosen, of course.)

Gov. McCrory has only been in office for a year and a half.  His previous job was with Duke Energy.  It could be that Valerie Macon is the only poet he knows in the entire state, and since he’s the governor he thought it was his duty, and his duty alone, crazy as it seems, to choose a Poet Laureate, whatever that is.

But didn’t Valerie Macon know enough about the job to be able to say to McCrory, when he asked her if she was interested, “Are you nuts?”  She had to know her flimsy credentials didn’t even begin to qualify her for such a post.  She self-published two chapbooks,  claimed she was a Pushcart Prize finalist (an impossibility for a self-publisher), and has had to admit she didn’t actually win the prestigious award cited in the governor’s press release about her new position.  (The award went to a poet who had mentored Macon.) Right there, she should have known there would be trouble ahead.

So, okay, poor unsuspecting Valerie Macon.  She was thrilled.  And who wouldn’t be?  But for over a week now she has been subjected to unrelenting, mostly hateful comments about her ethics, about her life, about her work as a poet.

I won’t repeat them here, or link to them.  She doesn’t deserve all that hate.  They’ve attacked her abilities as a poet and that’s not fair.  She may not be Laureate material, but poetry is so uniquely personal and individual, who gets to decide what’s good and what’s not?

At least one screed ended on a thoughtful note,  saying, in effect, “Let’s help Valerie be the best Laureate she can be by inviting her to places where she can be exposed to actual poetry”.  The writer then went on to publish an entire poem written by Macon–without her permission–and take it apart in an appalling, insufferable, holier-than-thou critique.

In a little less than a full week, Valerie Macon resigned her new post.

Governor McCrory owes her an apology.  And so, by the way, does that patronizing poetry critic who went on to call her poem “patronizing”.  (And me, too, for even bringing it up again.)

It’ll all be over soon.  With the help of the literary community in North Carolina, a new Poet Laureate will at last be chosen.  And everyone can get on with their lives.

Except maybe Valerie Macon.

Posted in Art and Artists, On Writing and Media, poitics | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Harper Lee: You Don’t Know Me

Harper LeeMore than 50 years ago Nelle Harper Lee wrote a book called “To Kill a Mockingbird”.   It was her one and only book and it is a masterpiece, but the story behind it has always been a tantalizing enigma.

Through the years there have been rumors that her best friend and neighbor, Truman Capote, edited her writing so much, by rights he actually wrote it.

The fact that Lee never published another book gives doubters reason to corroborate that notion, but I’ve never bought it.  She lived in a small Alabama town, her father was a trial lawyer, she knew well the story of the 1930s Scottsboro trial, where a group of young black boys were accused of raping a white woman in Alabama, she studied law herself, was a Fulbright Scholar at Oxford, and she was not a novice at writing. 

It isn’t that Capote couldn’t have overwritten it to suit his own style–his  book, The Grass Harp, is as sublime, as bitter-sweet, and was also written from a child’s point of view.  But everything I’ve read about Harper Lee says she has her own specific talents as well as a formidable stubborn streak.  Her friend Truman might have helped her with the technical aspects of a manuscript, but it’s an insult to suggest she’s not the true author of that beautiful book.

We’ll never know for sure, of course, because Harper Lee isn’t talking.  She sees no need to tell her side of the story.  The story is the book.  She is a writer, not a celebrity, and the limelight isn’t what most writers strive for.  Their goal is to tell a ripping good tale, and Harper Lee has done that.  She owes her fans nothing more.

She is now 88 years old.  For over a half-century people have been knocking at her door, trying to find out who Harper Lee really is. In all these years she has never let them in.  It isn’t that she is such a recluse she has never appeared in public, never spoken publicly.  She has.  Many times.  And it isn’t as if she has never left Monroeville, Alabama.  She kept an apartment in New York City until fairly recently and went back often, for months at a time.  Until recently, when both of them moved into a nursing home, she lived with her older sister, Alice (102 years old!),  in the town where they grew up.

She speaks publicly but only when she wants to.  She is not keen on inviting the inevitable over-analysis of her famous book, and has no interest in being a celebrity.  So because she is who she is and would rather be left alone, she is seen, of course, as the ultimate “get”.

No matter how much time has passed since her one and only book was published, the author Harper Lee can’t get away from celebrity scrutiny.   In 2004 Marja Mills, then a journalist on leave from the Chicago Tribune for medical reasons, moved into the house next door to Nelle and Alice and stayed for a year and a half   She had many conversations with Nelle’s sister, and with friends and neighbors.  She assured her publishers that she had also spent a considerable amount of time talking to Nelle.  But Nelle denies ever giving her more than the time of day.

Now, 10 years after Mills left Monroeville and the Lee sisters, the book, awkwardly titled The Mockingbird Next Door, Life With Harper Lee, is out.  If you believe Harper Lee,  Marja Mills lied to get this book published. There is no other way to look at it.  Yet the publisher’s note on the Penguin Press page says the following:

In 2004, with the Lees’ encouragement, Mills moved into the house next door to the sisters. She spent the next eighteen months there, talking and sharing stories over meals and daily drives in the countryside. Along with members of the Lees’ tight inner circle, the sisters and Mills would go fishing, feed the ducks, go to the Laundromat, watch the Crimson Tide, drink coffee at McDonald’s, and explore all over lower Alabama.

Nelle shared her love of history, literature, and the quirky Southern way of life with Mills, as well as her keen sense of how journalism should be practiced. As the sisters decided to let Mills tell their story, Nelle helped make sure she was getting the story—and the South—right. Alice, the keeper of the Lee family history, shared the stories of their family.

Nelle Harper Lee says that never happened.  She says she never agreed to tell her story to Mills, and she never developed a friendship with her.  In fact, Lee says, she would go out of town whenever she heard Mills was coming because the woman hounded her so much.

As early as 2011, when the news came out of the forthcoming book, Harper Lee denied any cooperation with Mills.  Mills’ agent calmly suggested that Lee may have “forgotten” her cooperation since her stroke in 2007.

So even with Harper Lee’s painstaking efforts to get the word out that Marja Mills’ book about “life with Harper Lee” is stacked with lie upon lie, the presses rolled.  The book is in print.  The reviews have been written.  (Note that there is no mention in the Washington Post review of Lee’s 2011 insistence that she did not cooperate with Mills.  Not a hint that she fought hard against it.)

If Marja Mills had written an unauthorized book about Harper Lee, I might hold my nose but be forced to agree that she has that right.  But if, as Harper Lee accuses, Marja Mills and her publisher, Penguin Group, pushed forward with the publication, knowing full well that the entire book was built on the lie that Lee gave it her blessing,  that whole conversations were real and not imagined, then the subtitle, “Life with Harper Lee”, is a falsehood.

So who are you going to believe?  Nelle Harper Lee or Marja Mills?  Is there some truth, some lie in both stories?  Could be.  But if Harper Lee says she’s the unwilling subject of a book and the author claims otherwise,  there’s a problem.

I don’t know Harper Lee but I do know “To Kill a Mockingbird”.   More than 50 years after it appeared, the book still resonates.  It is still a classic, so beautifully written we’ve never been able to get over it.

The author did good.  She gave us an amazing gift.  Now she should be able to rest.

Posted in On Writing and Media | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

What Does The Death Of Cursive Mean?

As someone who dreaded Penmanship class, and who always–and I mean always–got poor grades in it, let me just say if writing in cursive  goes away I’ll be right up there in front mourning the loss.  (Cursive:  flowing letters all connected to make one word.  What we used to call “handwriting”.)

We learned the Palmer Method in grade school, where every letter had to follow a pattern and fit between the lines, and where loops and curlicues had to loop and curl, but not too little or too much.  Just right.

cursive palmer methodSo much pressure!  I choked.  I couldn’t do it.

But some time after the 6th Grade, after penmanship was no longer required and I could relax, I realized that if I could barely read my own writing there was no chance that anyone else could, either.  I began looping and curling on my own, starting with row after row of connected capital S’s.  I spent hours over the course of many days looping and curling, not worrying about staying within the lines, and before long I found to my amazement that I was creating letters and then words that were actually legible.   It wasn’t exactly true Palmer Method–it was better.   It was a variation on the theme of Palmer and it was all me.

Maybe it’s because handwriting came so hard for me, I don’t know, but I’ve been taking the news of it’s imminent demise pretty hard.  I’ve noticed over the years that fewer and fewer people were actually writing in cursive and more and more were printing, but I had no idea there was an entire movement bent on killing off our lovely, traditional form of English handwriting.

In a USA Today article called “Is Cursive’s Day in Classroom Done?” I was shocked to read that 41 states do not require the teaching of cursive penmanship.  When did this happen?  To the casual observer it might seem obvious that cursive should go the way of the quill pen.  It takes up valuable class time to teach it, and, since the advent of the computer and digital keyboards, pecking has already taken over for block printing, which took over for cursive writing.

Nobody wants to actually write anything by hand anymore but when they have to they want it to take longer (In speed trials between cursive and printing, cursive wins, hands down) and look like the plain letters kindergartners use before they’re ready to try real handwriting.   I get that.

There are already young people out there who learned to read and write block print only and can’t read or write cursive.  That’s astounding, but apparently true.  When a witness in the George Zimmerman trial, a friend of Trayvon Martin’s, was handed documents written in cursive she was embarrassed to have to admit she couldn’t read them.

But in a Washington Post article, “Cursive is Disappearing from Public Schools”, there was this:

Deborah Spear, an academic therapist based in Great Falls, Virginia, said cursive writing is an integral part of her work with students who have dyslexia. Because all letters in cursive start on a base line, and because the pen moves fluidly from left to right, cursive is easier to learn for dyslexic students who have trouble forming words correctly.

Another side of it is that there is an art to writing in cursive.  With a stroke of the pen, we can set ourselves apart.  Whether our handwriting is beautifully executed or more akin to chicken-scratching, it’s all ours.  Nobody else can do it like we do.

I admit that I do most of my writing on a keyboard now.  It’s so much faster and ridiculously easy to correct.  It has become second nature to think and type at the same time.  I will even admit that electronic word processing has changed my life.   But when I want or need to write by hand, nothing is more satisfying than creating a visually satisfying sentence that couldn’t have been written by anyone but me.

But in that same WaPo article, here comes this guy:

Steve Graham, an education professor at Arizona State University and one of the top U.S. experts on handwriting instruction, said he has heard every argument for and against cursive.

“I have to tell you, I can’t remember the last time I read the Constitution,” Graham said. [in answer to the claim that if the teaching of cursive dies out there may come a day when people won't be able to read the original manuscript of the constitution] “The truth is that cursive writing is pretty much gone, except in the adult world for people in their 60s and 70s.”

Well, that would be me, buddy, but I’m not such a stickler for traditional anachronisms that I want to keep this particular kind of handwriting around for old time’s sake.  (Though, of course, that’s a part of it.)  No, I want to keep it around because to kill it off severs one more part of us that is unique and individual and takes some effort.

We’ve done enough of that already.







Update: My former friend Frank from the website “Frankly Curious” has taken issue with my piece here and has curiously chosen to take me down a peg or two. Over handwriting, of all things. It’s here. Give him a thrill. Read the damned thing.

Posted in Beauty and joy, On Writing and Media, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Detroit’s Rivera Murals are now a Historic Landmark. Bloch and Dimitroff Would be So Proud

Great news today:  The Diego Rivera “Industry” murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts have been designated a National Historic Landmark.  Before we get too excited and actually think this will allow us to breathe easier about the ridiculous but real threat of a forced sale of certain treasures at the DIA, this is an honor more honorary than it is concrete. (I know! Concrete!)  But since the murals are embedded into the walls, I’m guessing the Big Guys will think twice once they realize removing them means destroying them and there’s no real money in rubble.  I’m guessing.

In March, 1986 I went to the Detroit Institute of Arts to interview Lucienne Bloch and Stephen Dimitroff, two fresco artists who fell in love and married while working on those famous murals in the 1930s.

Lucienne and Stephen were in the area teaching and lecturing for a couple of weeks, so after our initial interview at the DIA, I talked to Lucienne on the phone a few times, either to clarify my notes or to add something she remembered and wanted me to include. Once we got the business out of the way, our conversations turned to the difficulty of being liberals in the Land of Reagan. (I wish I’d had the good sense to have recorded those conversations.)  

 Lucienne and Stephen were funny, smart, quick and totally devoted to one another. Even after all those years, Stephen still seemed in awe of the fact that Lucienne, the daughter of a famous composer (Ernest Bloch), was his wife. She knew it and used it playfully. They were quite a pair. Lucienne wrote to me after she got back to California and invited me to their ranch. I didn’t, of course, hold her to it; I I don’t know how sincere the invitation was, but the invite itself was enough for me. I still have it, along with the copy of Dimitroff’s book, which Stephen insisted I keep. When I asked him to autograph it, he was as flustered as I would have been had he asked me for mine.

I wrote this piece for the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers, where I wrote a weekly book column and occasional freelance articles. This piece was published on March 20, 1986.

When artist Lucienne Bloch was a young girl in her 20s, during the height of the Great Depression, she gave up a job teaching sculpture for Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin to grind powdered paints for Diego Rivera–a backbreaking, poor-paying, thankless job at best.

She met the famed Mexican muralist in 1931 in New York, at a banquet given in his honor during an exhibition of his work. “My romantic notions of art and life, at age 22, were knocked out of joint by this burly giant of a man, and I marveled at his preposterous opinions,” Bloch wrote in a recent article for Art in America titled, “On Location with Diego Rivera”.  What swayed her the most, Bloch wrote, was Rivera’s notion that man doesn’t control the machines, “The machines control us,” he told her. “We are the catalysts that transform the raw materials of the earth into energy. We are the continuation of the geologic process.”

Last week Bloch and her husband, Stephen Dimitroff, another of Rivera’s early assistants, stood in the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Art, transfixed by the 53-year-old Detroit Industry murals. They stared at them, moved closer to pick out certain touches, and delighted in them as though they were seeing the 27 frescoes for the first time–as though they themselves had not worked on them.  “Can you imagine the genius of the man?” Dimitroff said. “He was incredible. It was the thrill of our lives to work for Diego.”

Dimitroff and Bloch – Rivera muralists, DIA

When Bloch asked Rivera at the banquet if he would let her grind colors, she did it knowing the muralist already had a reputation as a self-centered perfectionist who worked his assistants until they dropped, then refused to pay them a dime when a nickel would do. He had the energy of 10 men half his age, and if he worked 20 or 30 hours straight, as the Dimitroffs said he often did, his assistants worked as long, without questions. Yet there were plenty of young artists, including Dimitroff, who begged for the job.

Stephen Dimitroff was born in Bulgaria but his family eventually settled in Flint [Michigan], where he and his father worked in the auto plants. He went to Chicago to study art, but left in a fury when the art school wouldn’t recognize his three yeas of night art courses in Flint.

In his book, “Apprentice of Diego Rivera in Detroit”, Dimitroff remembers: “An overwhelming urge to reject art schools and meet a living, active artist, Diego Rivera, had propelled me by night bus and streetcar to the DIA. That early chilly November, 1932, I ran up the marble steps boldly. I winked at the bronze hulk of Rodin’s The Thinker – then the fact hit me that this was Monday, when all the museums of the world are closed!” Dimitroff cajoled the guards and finally got in by saying he had to get back to Flint “where my dad was laid off from Buick”. The guard turned away,saying, “Well, son, if I don’t see you go in I can’t stop you.”

He met Rivera and told him he just wanted to watch. He did that for days, going back each night to his $2.50-a-month room, until finally somebody let him grind colors. “It was the depression then, you have to remember, and nobody mentioned money,” Dimitroff said with a laugh. “But I was there to learn. It was what I wanted to do.”

He was finally hired when one of the assistants suddenly quit. Rivera asked to see some of his paintings and the young man was terrified. “I showed him landscapes and still lifes and portraits of my family, including one of my dad coming back from the factory with his lunch pail. [Rivera said] ‘Very fine, sketches good–but why you not paint workers’ factory? That’s interesting.’  “I was stunned”, Dimitroff said. “I didn’t know how to answer. The factory was just plain routine to me.”

At one point Dimitroff stopped working long enough to pose for Rivera, whose habit it was to choose real people for the subjects of his paintings. He appears as a pink-shirted worker on the North Wall lifting a motor block with another Rivera assistant, Art Niendorf.

Stephen Dimitroff, cleaning his 1933 portrait – DIA 1986

Though Bloch and Dimitroff both worked with Rivera in Detroit, they didn’t meet there. “I left for New York one day, and Steve showed up in Detroit the next day,” Bloch said. They met for the first time months later in New York when Dimitroff and Niendorf came to her door begging for money. They’d been sent from Detroit to Rockefeller Center to prepare the walls of the RCA Building lobby for Rivea’s next job–three frescoes commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller depicting “Man at the Crossroads”. Rivera kept “forgetting” to send the two men their living expenses and they were dead broke. “You’re the only one we know in New York,” Niendorf told Bloch. “Can we borrow $20?” When Bloch hesitated, Neindorf said she could be chief photographer for the Rockefeller project. Bloch says now “It was the most significant $20 I ever parted with.”

Throughout her days with Rivera in Detroit (where for several months she shared an apartment with Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo) and in New York, Bloch managed to find time to keep a diary. A passage, dated March 20, 1933 has Bloch looking for the Riveras in New York after they’d arrived there fresh from the Detroit project: “I met Dimi (Stephen Dimitroff) at RCA. We went together to the Barbizon-Plaza and looked all over for the Riveras. They were in (Mexican artist) Covarrubias’s apartment. They looked great! Diego is relating with hilarious gestures the scandal in Detroit about his frescoes. There are many ‘experts’ who want to remove them–or whitewash them. Puritanical groups are shocked at the big nudes. Some object that the workers in the factory scenes don’t look happy. But the greatest of the commotion is the panel which some call a ‘travesty on the Holy Family’. This is a small panel, glorifying the great medical research work of science. It shows a blond baby (The model, Bloch said later, was the kidnapped Lindbergh baby, which Rivera sketched from newspaper photos.) gently held by a nurse with a pretty white cap framing her face. A doctor, the likeness of Dr. Valentiner, director of the DIA, stands by, vaccinating the child. In the foreground are the ox, horse and sheep–the source of serums needed to control epidemics. A beautiful theme! Newspapers are having a holiday on the furor the mural causes. Luckily Edsel Ford shows real GUTS not to weaken before the hue and cry of the bigots. I’m impressed. Maybe he’s got some of his Dad’s stubbornness. Diego says that thousands of people are visiting the Art Institute who never went there before.”

Today, a half-century later, Rivera is back at the DIA in the form of a major retrospective, on view through April 27 before going on to Philadelphia, Mexico City, Madrid and West Berlin. It includes Rivera’s huge preparatory drawings–or “cartoons”, in museum lingo–found in the basement of the museum in 1979, after the Dimitroffs and others assured staff members the drawings existed and should be there.

And the Dimitroffs, major forces during Rivera’s United States stay, are back, too. They’re here at the DIA’s invitation to teach and lecture on Rivera’s Detroit frescoes. Twice a week they’re at Detroit’s Northern High School teaching the lost art of fresco painting to gifted students who “with such joy, do all the dirty work”, Bloch said.

The adults in the class come from the Cranbrook Academy of Art. “There’s a 70-year-old man who’s just marvelous,” she said, “So full of life!” Bloch herself is a 75-year-old dynamo who admitted she works all the time. “We’re only happy when we’re working,” she said, “Our work is our joy.”

The lecture schedule is filling up: Oakland, Jackson, Flint, Adrian College and more, before they head back on March 30 to their home in Gualala, 125 miles north of San Francisco, on the edge of California’s wine country. And if the year 1986 is significant at the DIA (the retrospective celebrating 100 years since Rivera’s birth is a major event designed to coincide with the DIA’s Centennial celebration), it is no less significant for the Dimitroffs. In September they celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

The two fell in love in New York while they worked on the ill-fated Rockefeller Center frescoes. After seven months of work the murals were almost completed when Rivera, an avowed Communist trying to get back in the good graces of the party, painted the head of Lenin into one prominent scene. The sponsors protested, but Rivera refused to remove it. All work stopped and the murals were eventually smashed to bits.

Earlier, as Dimitroff and the other assistants ground colors and applied the five coats of plaster needed for Rivera’s style of fresco, Bloch, the designated photographer, shot roll after roll of film. Later, when the assistants got wind of the shut-down, the photographs took on a new importance. Near the end, when RCA guards were ordered to confiscate cameras, Bloch tucked her little Leica into her blouse and entered the building with Dimitroff, saying they had last-minute work to finish up. While Dimitroff pounded on boards to mask the sounds of the clicking shutter, Bloch took the final photos of the murals–including the controversial head of Lenin.

“It was insane, that destruction,” Bloch said. “Ill never understand why they couldn’t just cover the murals with canvas. To destroy such a work. . .and to think it could have happened to the Detroit murals, too.”

Rivera went back to Mexico and the Dimitroffs never saw him again, though Bloch corresponded with Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo. The Dimitroffs set up a lecture tour to discuss the “Fresco Debacle”, as they called it, and when the interest waned, Bloch signed on as a WPA artist.

“You had to take what they called a ‘pauper’s oath’, saying you didn’t have any money, ” Bloch recalled of the government project. “Steve absolutely refused to do it, even though he was so broke, but I wanted to. They asked me how much money I had and I told the truth–I said I had $60. They weren’t going to let me sign up and I said, ‘Listen, by next week I’ll have nothing. My rent is due and I have to eat.’ Well, they wanted a woman fresco painter so they let me go.”

She painted two frescoes in New York City, one at the Washington school, since torn down, and one at the Women’s House of Detention. About that mural she later wrote,” Conversations with the inmates revealed with what sarcasm and suspicion they treated the mention of art. I chose the only subject which would not be foreign to them–children–framed in a New York landscape of the most ordinary kind. In their make-believe moments the children in the mural were adopted and renamed. Such response clearly reveals to what degree a mural can, aside from its artistic value, act as a healthy tonic on the lives of all of us.”

They moved to Flint, Dimitroff’s hometown, where he worked as a machinist and later a draftsman, and she taught art classes twice a week at the Flint Institute of Art. “After we’d been there about eight years–by that time we had three kids and a house–we proposed a mural for the offices or dining room at General Motors,” Bloch said. “Something in the style of Rivera. They weren’t the least bit interested. That’s when we decided we had done all we could in Flint, so we sold the house, loaded up the kids, tents and sleeping bags into the car and headed out west.”

As they surveyed the frescoes at the DIA last week before rushing off for another speaking engagement, Bloch said, “Since those days with Diego, Steve and I have never stopped working together. And our great love is still fresco painting. We do other things out of necessity. You can’t make a living from frescoes–each one takes too long–so we’ve done book illustrations, mosaics, anything anyone asks of us.

“Sad to say, fresco painting is becoming a lost art. It’s scary to see in print how much work goes into it. It sounds more complicated than it really is. There’s a joy to it. You can see it in the students at the fresco workshop. But it is very difficult work–time consuming–and artists nowadays seem to want to do everything spontaneously. They don’t seem to understand that even the spontaneous Japanese and Chinese brush painting is done only after 30 years of study. Very disciplined study.

“So our joy is turning people on to painting frescoes again. Aside from a man we heard about in Texas, we seem to be the only true fresco painters left in this country. And that is so sad.”

( Stephen died in 1993 and Lucienne in 1999. Her NYT obit is here)

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