June 24, 2010

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Plugged in, tuned out

Over the last year, a lot has been made of the phenomenon of people texting while driving. There have been studies of the habit. Legislation criminalizing it. Reams and reams of paper spent on editorials bemoaning it.

Few, however, have noticed that texting and smart phone use in general has made morons of more than just motorists. People are out on the sidewalks gazing at e-mail, riding bikes and scooters while they check the World Cup updates. They’re dawdling in parks, their dogs on leashes, while they check out their Facebook newsfeeds. As a culture we’re completely plugged in but tuned out.

Last year, Dr. Ira E. Hyman Jr. of Western Washington niversity in Bellingham, Wash., conducted a study of pedestrian awareness in a major public square at the University.

One of Hyman’s students dressed up as a clown ­— rubber nose, clown suit and all — and pedaled a unicycle around the square for an hour. Other students watched pedestrians cross the square and asked them before they left if they had seen anything unusual. They tracked a total of 347 pedestrians.

When asked directly “Did you see a clown on a unicycle?” 71 percent of the people walking with a friend recalled the clown. Sixty-one percent walking while listening to music and 51 percent of those walking alone recalled the clown.  But only 25 percent of those using a cell phone (including just talking on the phone, not necessarily texting, etc.) had seen the clown.

“It’s a huge drop off of awareness of the environment around them,” Dr. Hyman told the New York Times after the study.  “It shows that even during as simple a task as walking, performance drops off when talking on the cell phone. They’re slower, less aware of their surroundings and weaving around more.”

If people simply chatting on a cell phone can’t see a guy on a unicycle, imagine the other obstacles they’ll miss. I’ve personally seen people texting on their phones walk into telephone poles. I’ve seen them tread in the path of oncoming traffic. Several news stories I’ve read in the last year have described people actually being hit and killed by oncoming cars and even trains.

But cautionary tales are only so valuable. People tend to be pretty confident of their abilities to multitask. How hard can it be to text while walking? It’s like chewing gum and running at the same time, right?

For most people on the move with their phones, injury is not right around the corner. People move around on the Avenue, their phones to their ears or their eyes on their iPhones. Maybe they’ll miss a friend as they pass. Perhaps they’ll stumble a bit on the sidewalk. Maybe they’ll even cross the street against the light. But they’ll come out unscathed 99 percent of the time.

The real loss here is not that of safety. When we’re on our phones, we’re losing our communities and our homes. We’re not just missing unicycling clowns. We’re missing trees. We’re missing architecture. We’re missing sunny days. And we’re missing each other. As our phones get smarter and connect us to more information than ever before, our communities continue to disappear to the point where we can’t even see where we are.

Pete Mazzaccaro


Commentary: ‘Fresh Artists’ is well-intentioned exploitation

I am an exhibiting fine artist and an art educator. My belief in the necessity of arts education for all children throughout all of their schooling is resolute. I find the “business model” of Fresh Artists (“‘Fresh Artists’: Taking student art to the marketplace,” June 17) to be antithetical to the goal of that education. I do not think their means justifies the end.

I truly believe that funding arts education and getting money for teachers to use for more supplies is noble, honorable, necessary and essential. I absolutely believe that the way Fresh Artists raises those funds is exploitative of children and insulting to working, adult, professional artists.

I have been impressed in the past with Ms. Chandler Allen’s goal of inspiring children with the idea that being an artist was a viable choice in life. However, arts education does not have to do with creating grown-up, professional artists. It has to do with tapping into the complex capabilities and sensibilities of the mind, of teaching creative thought and approaches to problem solving, of expanding ideas.

One issue I usually address with young students is what will they be when they grow up.  We talk about how not all of them will be mathematicians, not all will be scientists or writers, and not all will be artists. It is still important for us to learn about all of these areas of study and that all of these areas overlap. Children seem to understand this far better than legislators. 

Artwork made by children can have a raw exuberance and energy that can be moving and inspiring. This purity should be valued and not in the monetary sense. I have been in situations at exhibitions of original artworks (not prints) by my students where adults expressed interest in purchasing the work. Just because a work is innovative, beautiful, or precocious does not mean that the children understand what it means to sell it. They are not equipped to make such an assessment of worth or value.

I have always felt, too, that with children’s’ art – even though it can be astounding – it is usually a “flash in the pan” and a onetime event or accomplishment. By saying this I do not mean to demean the work or the child, but just to be realistic. Not all children, even the one that made that one fabulous painting or sculpture, are going to grow up to be artists, although I have made clear that I believe in including the arts in all levels of education.

I did grow up to be an artist. I have worked hard to become a professional artist and to find venues for my work. I take great pride in the technique I have perfected. I take pride in the concepts that inform my work. I am proud of recognition I have received in the form of awards, reviews, and the sale of my works.

It is not easy, and most artists I know spend a lot of time looking for funding for their art. Many artists also teach, and I know of one who actually advises parents of his students not to pursue a career in art because it is so difficult to get recognition and/or equitable funds/compensation.

In the Fresh Artists brochure, a CEO is quoted saying “it’s hard to be grumpy when you’re walking past great contributions by young artists who personally donated their artwork for such a worthy cause.” These are not artists. These are students. These are children. I could argue that these are not artworks.

I have about 50 available artworks of mine that would most definitely make that CEO smile, if that’s what he would like. My art, unlike a child’s, is informed by concept, research, experience and purpose. I have a body of work that reflects a particular philosophy for the visual presentation. There are many, many artists who could say the same thing.

As an alternative, how about having temporary, revolving showings of original childrens’ art in corporate lobbies or boardrooms? What about having video screens showing innovative art teachers at work and interviews with students?  What about corporations hosting exhibitions of professional artists with receptions/presentations by the artists on how much their art teacher(s) shaped their lives? Maybe more effective – why not interview some successful folks not in the arts who feel that the art education in their lives helped them to achieve that success?

 (I am appalled that the writer of the article – I assume, not Ms. Chandler Allen – would compare a collection of children’s’ art to the Barnes Collection.)  

These children “artists” do not know what they are getting into, and neither do their families. Most artists I know are constantly being asked to donate a piece of their artwork for some charity or another so that they can get “exposure” and further their career. Is this how we value the worth of the art of those children who did grow up to be artists?

How about some of my, and my colleagues’, “fresh” art on some corporate headquarters’ walls? What about adult artists agreeing to donate a percentage of sales of their work that is sold to corporations to the cause of funding art education for children? Why can’t these corporations just write a check, which they could certainly do!

I know that Barbara Chandler Allen is a champion of the fine arts, and her energy and zeal are amazing. My hope is that she will consider my concerns about the Fresh Artists program. 

Laura Pritchard is an artist and teacher who lives in Wyndmoor


In the great stare-down, the literary agent blinks and Hugh’s back in the game

In trying to get my novel, “AmericanaRama,” sold, I’m turning into one of those salesmen who gets his foot in the door and won’t shut up. How about this? How about that? The process may not be pretty, but I’ve just bought myself another three weeks of hope.

To refresh your memory: I’d been sending around a query letter, synopsis, and brief autobiography to various (36 at last count) literary agents, trying to find one who wanted to represent my book (i.e. sell it to an editor or publisher).

After 34 robo-rejections, #35 — “Mr. Goodtaste,” I call him — wrote back, saying, “Sounds strangely fascinating, send me the complete manuscript around June 1.”

I did. For one wonderful week I hung suspended in air, inflated by hope. And then his reply came:

Thanks so much for sending AmericanaRama. I like the writing very much and the way the story unfolds in a Pulp Fictionesque way.  I also like the insights into the book world and the setting is very defined and clear. 

Unfortunately, though, in the end, the story did not quite stand out enough for me … it kept me interested, but I did not jump out of my chair with super enthusiasm.  Also, the “panties” theme, while unusual, in the end kept me more at bay than involved.

“Thus, with regret, I am passing, but I like your writing so hopefully you will contact me in the future.

“Sincerely, ‘Mr. Goodtaste.’”

I loved his compliments, but his final verdict left me stunned, down-in-the-dumps, listless, and devoid of confidence. And puzzled about how one writes something that makes a reader “jump out of his chair with super enthusiasm.”

The choice was clear, however: Try another approach or give up on two-and-a-half-years’ work. I had before me a real, live agent who answered his e-mail. One agent like that in hand was worth a hundred agents in the New York bush. I wrote him again last Tuesday.

I thanked him for the compliments and the critique. I told him I had rewritten the entire book, incorporating his advice. And not just one rewrite, but had done three (!) rewrites, for which I gave one-sentence descriptions. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

Gulp. Three hours later, an e-mail arrived from Mr. Goodtaste. What follows, since it is a masterpiece of brevity, is his complete response to my offer to submit a revised version:

“Hugh: 3 might work but I am going to be on vacation … maybe you can send me the version in mid July. Best, Goodtaste.”

“3 might work.”

Can you imagine how that little gem could energize a hungry writer? And send him scurrying for his word processor? I’ve been banging away since then. Hope floats me once again.

Some of you may be disappointed in me for what follows, but it’s more instructive to tell the truth. I am busily making superficial changes throughout my book. You’ll need examples to understand.

First, my bad guy’s name was Klaus Richter. He was a German immigrant, a grad student in physics, who failed to finish his Ph.D. and has stayed on to work in a bookstore in a city not unlike Ann Arbor, Mich. He is virtually a sociopath. Intelligent about everything but people. Huge, frightening, self-pitying, but never giving sympathy to others. His is one of five points-of-view in this book, but he’s the catalyst. He begins and ends the book.

Klaus Richter is now Bruno Khoury, a Lebanese Christian, given a French-y name by his parents during the time Lebanon was heavily influenced by French culture. When his family died during the Civil Wars in Beirut, his uncle, Salim, brought him to America, where a large Lebanese population lives in the Detroit area.

I transformed Klaus to Bruno for several reasons. First and foremost, very few, and I mean very few, people who read literate fiction nowadays read fiction concerning the affairs of Americans. The shelves of the literate fiction readers I know are filled with novels that concern the lives of Europeans, Asians or Middle Easterners. It’s the literary equivalent of driving an imported car or eating imported cheese and drinking imported wine – a hallmark of exalted taste.

Yes, Klaus was European, but Germans are still not perceived sympathetically, and I wanted his new incarnation as Bruno to be felt as a warmer character. Oh, did I say that the agent, Mr. Goodtaste, is himself a German immigrant and possibly sick of negative German stereotypes? My bad.

Next – and this is where I really wimped out: the “panties theme.” I avoided mentioning this last week, because it’s a family newspaper. As a plot device, a pair of ladies drawers is stolen during a burglary by a guy with that proclivity. They are given away to Klaus, who is so untutored in the world of love, romance, and knickers that he practically swoons over them.

When he discards them, they become found and get embedded in the center of a murder investigation. Even though they have nothing to do with anything. They’ve got DNA on them and that’s too good a clue for the lead detective to pass up.

Nonetheless, the level of detail at which I’d described the peregrinations of these unmentionables made me uncomfortable in recommending the book to persons of taste. And they certainly kept the agent “more at bay than involved.” I guess there’s “noir” and there’s “gross noir,” or something.

Off with the pants and on with a flower-shaped hair barrette, taken from the crime scene by Bruno (a witness, not the perp). When the barrette turns out to be tainted by traces of the victim’s blood, we’ve got an ironic plot twist, a Hitchcockian pursuit of an innocent man from a new angle.

There are more changes, but those are crucial. How do I justify them, you might ask? After all, what about my “artistic integrity”? My answer is that the heart of my book is contained in the insights and observations I have to offer about humans and their hopes, dreams, and fates.

What uniforms they wear matters very little to me.

Hugh Gilmore can be reached at





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