What I Know about Art

 

          What are we doing here in this life anyway? For a lot of people, a six pack of beer and a football game answer that question very nicely. For others it’s family, grandchildren, and community. To be an artist is to not be satisfied by those happy ways. To be an artist is to be an outsider looking in, like Thomas Mann’s “Tonio Kroger”, a character to whom I related strongly as a teenager. All those material and social comforts are not for us.

An artist has to find his own way, driven to respond to his experience of life in the best way he can. As my teacher and friend Harry Callahan put it, to share “what I feel and have always known”. That is the motivation, to do something, say something, make something that is a deep expression of who you are and how you feel about this mysterious life. On the most basic level, the artist is someone who produces something, but to be called Art the thing produced must have special qualities attached to it. Skill coming from talent is appreciated by everyone, easily appreciated. Skill is important but, to my mind, other values are more important.

          In the best work there is a sense of passionate intention, the desire to capture a feeling in whatever medium. I started as a photographer and the great photographers were able to do that. My heroes were Cartier Bresson, Danny Lyon, and Harry Callahan. I knew them all. But for me, the simple, direct approach of a reed pen drawing in india ink on paper and oil paint on canvas provided a more satisfying experience. So that is what I have been doing now for over forty years.

How did this all happen? Why did it happen? The oracle of Apollo in Delphi said in Greek, “Gnothi Seauton, Know Thyself.”It is a hard directive, easier said than done. For whatever reasons, this idea attracted me strongly from a young age. When young Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye, smack dab in the middle of teenage angst and confusion, went on a quest “to find himself” I related.

          The affluent world I was in after WWII was not satisfying to me. And I noticed that it didn’t seem to make the adults I knew very happy either. It certainly didn’t solve the problems of our family, something I wrote about extensively in my book, The Painting of My Life.

          What did make sense was my father’s clever and skilful cartoons, his writing, my mother’s excellent painting, the painting of my sister Mary, and the good reproductions of Van Gogh paintings on the walls of our house, “La Berceuse” and “Boats at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer”, as well as my father’s black and white photographs. Our neighbour Rowl Scherman was a teen idol with the guitar and later a fine photographer working for Life Magazine. A book and a film about him came out in 2016: Eye on the Sixties: The Iconic Photography of Rowland Scherman.  His brother Tom was exceptionally talented in drawing and went on to work at Disney. Down the street, a woman twenty years my senior, Lee Schoenburg, was the editorial director at Magnum Photos. We became lifelong friends. My godfather, Paul Rhymer, wrote over three thousand episodes of Ma Perkins, one of the most popular shows on radio before television took over. He is considered one of the great American humourists of the twentieth century, in a class with Will Rogers. That is a whole lot of background, something I haven’t mentioned before.

          For me, Art seemed to make sense as an antidote to the materialism surrounding me. I had spiritual awareness from an early age. Art seemed closer to religion than to business. The idea of it in my mind was quite pure. That being said, I think most of us start out wanting the élan, the fame, the honour, and the glory we associate with “specialness” and our art heroes. It is easy to forget that Van Gogh shot himself in the stomach and took three days to die, that he sold only one painting in his life, and that his mother used his paintings to plug holes in her chicken coop. We remember those things later when the artist’s path gets bumpy which it does.

I became a photographer and studied painting in the New York museums to understand art principles: light, composition, contrast, values, and many other things which were also applicable to photography. With my Magnum Photos connection, I worked in photojournalism, working to capture the street events of the nineteen sixties, working in league with great photographers as much as I could. I was just a kid, in my early twenties and they were twice my age, most of them.

But I also felt that photojournalism was not enough, not what I was looking for exactly. The beautiful idea of art was what I was seeking and if I didn’t know what that was, I did have a sense of what it was not. So I packed my bags and took my small R-18 1965 Renault all the way across America to Yosemite National Park to meet Ansel Adams and learn about photography as Art. He was a technical master and just at the beginning of getting the tremendous recognition he deserved.

But somehow his wonderful pictures, so controlled and technically beautiful, seemed dead and less personal to me than the street photography I knew so well. The workshop was a few weeks long and we had been asked to submit some of our prints for evaluation on acceptance, and I had done that. At a big introductory meeting of the whole group in Yosemite, I was very surprised to see that Ansel had made slides of several of my photographs, one of Janis Joplin I remember and a couple of others, and he talked, without having met me, about how good they were. This was very confusing since I was here in Yosemite to be more like him and less like me, or so I thought.

This gets into the essence of the oracle’s message, “Know Thyself”. Art is all about that, about being comfortable in your own skin, about showing who you are through your work. I now know I was better than I thought I was. Lack of confidence was blocking my path.

We need skill; there are technical aspects, but the important part, as I know now, is honesty, sincerity, purity, true feeling, those kinds of qualities. When you know art history from the Venus of Willendorf to the work of Cy Twombly, or Horace Pippin, or Pierre Bonnard, or Joan Mitchell, you will know this is true. Unfortunately, most people don’t know much about art at all and real artists suffer from that, being compared unfavourably to the slick practitioners who fill the commercial galleries all over the world. That’s why most artists give up, fall by the wayside or sell out, even the most talented ones.

At about the time I made my journey to see Ansel and find out about photography as Art, I met Herman Cherry, a first generation New York School abstract painter and friend of David Smith, the sculptor, Ruben Kadish, the sculptor, Charles Pollock, Jackson’s brother, also a  painter, and many more. He was part of the scene from the beginning and knew them all. I was twenty four when I met Cherry and he was fifty nine. We met through a mutual friend, Zena Voynow, a film editor who was the sister in law of Sergei Eisenstein, the legendary Russian film director, someone you study if you study film. We met in East Hampton, the most important place outside of New York City for artists. Jackson Pollock had a studio there and Willem de Kooning whom I got to know.

My first wife, Melynda, and I were sitting on the veranda of Zena and Andrew’s house and some small crab apples came rolling off the roof and onto the veranda. “That’s Cherry,” said Zena, and so it was. We hit it off immediately despite the fact that when he took us over to his house and showed us his new paintings, I said, innocently, “They look like what Frank Stella is doing.” Of course that is one of the worst things you can say to an artist, since artists, as I have mentioned, try like hell to let their own individuality come out, not someone else’s. Zena told me very quickly, pulling me aside, “Don’t ever tell an artist his work looks like someone else’s.” I remembered that.

I think Cherry appreciated my innocent honesty even if it hurt. At that time he was stuck as a painter, and not long after that he stopped painting for a number of years and wrote poetry, quite good poetry. He published a few volumes and was respected as a poet. From that point on I saw all of his life since we became good friends. I did some abstract acrylic paintings, small ones, which he liked and he was very appreciative of my photography. I became friends with his friends, Edie and Ed Dugmore were favourites and I still admire “Doug’s” abstract paintings very much.

Cherry was respected by everyone as a colorist but also as being super knowledgeable about painting, art history and many other things related to Art. He was exceptionally smart without making a big deal about it but it was recognizable to those who paid attention.

Over the next twenty four years, until his death, we were in touch and visited as frequently as possible. He started painting again and the work he did the last fifteen years of his life was truly great and appreciated by galleries and buyers. I was with him when I met my French partner, Francine, and I was at his wedding when he married a German woman my age.

He knew Aaron Siskind who became a photography teacher of mine at Rhode Island School of Design, (RISD). He had known Siskind’s great friend Frans Kline, whose work Siskind had followed in photography, a clear path and a successful one. And this mention of Aaron Siskind, a very good guy and a great teacher, ties into the fundamental value I am trying to reveal. I pondered this deeply at the time; how much of what Siskind accomplished was due to basically imitating in photography what Kline did with paint on canvas? Aaron did what he did very well and I won’t try to take that away from him. But what I was looking for was something more personal, deeper, and connected to the core identity of the person. If one believes in the idea of a soul, then that is what I was hoping to express. I want art to be, above all, soulful.

 In photography Harry Callahan had that gift and so did Henri Cartier Bresson and some others but not many. For me expression in the way I sought was very difficult with a camera because of the machine itself, the mechanical thing between you and what you were hoping to express. And that’s why, as soon as I got to RISD at age thirty and was encouraged by classmate Jenny Holzer, (“If you want to paint, paint”), I jumped ship and spent the next three years drawing and painting with the support of very astute and kind teachers.

My first drawings in ink drew immediate attention. Out of my lack of experience came a direct, unfiltered, strong expression. Most of my classmates were impressed and encouraging but a few were upset because their more technically skilled works were not so appreciated. Technique is respected by everyone but not loved and technique alone is not Art, far from it.

I was thrilled to see what I could do with a reed pen and India ink and I still am. I believe strongly in what I do that way. Painting has been a lot harder although I think, after all this time, there is a sense of me, my own style and personality in my painting. It can take years to work through influences, other peoples’ ideas, before you become you as an artist.

What I might hope for is that my painting be as personal and individual as my drawing. I think that is everything I know about art. It is a special calling. Art is a rejection of materialism and comfort in order to find a deeper meaning and it comes from the belief that the individual has something special to say, to contribute. It is beyond the glitz and noise of this grinding world. It is an oasis of purity in the middle of all that. In its essence, Art is spiritual.

 

Ricker Winsor

Surabaya April 2018

Tik Tok, Poems by Ricker Winsor

 

Mud Flat Press has published  my first poetry collection, Tik Tok, thirty six poems and thirty two ink drawings done with reed pens and brushes. My relationship to poetry began with an epiphany in 1973. Only poetry spoke to me during the intensity of that experience.  I had left New York, Brooklyn, and started life over again close to nature in the deep north. And I was in love.
It is available at Amazon:
https://www.amazon.com/Tik-Tok-Poems-Ricker-Winsor/dp/1974539865/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1505266650&sr=1-1&keywords=tik+tok+ricker+winsor

My two previous books, Pakuwon City; Letters from the East and The Painting of My Life, are also at Amazon.
My page at AuthorCentral:
https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00GU143TW

Mud Flat Press has published  my first poetry collection, Tik Tok, thirty six poems and thirty two ink drawings done with reed pens and brushes. My relationship to poetry began with an epiphany in 1973. Only poetry spoke to me during the intensity of that experience.  I had left New York, Brooklyn, and started life over again close to nature in the deep north. And I was in love.
It is available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Tik-Tok-Poems-Ricker-Winsor/dp/1974539865/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1505266650&sr=1-1&keywords=tik+tok+ricker+winsor

My two previous books, Pakuwon City; Letters from the East and The Painting of My Life are also at Amazon.
My page at AuthorCentral:
https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00GU143TW

Finding Indonesia

Kampieng by the River_reworked

          After four years as an expat here in Indonesia, with permanent residence status and no idea of turning back, I might be able to say a few things about this extraordinary country, a country made up of seventeen thousand islands stretching three thousand miles. It is the biggest Muslim country in the world.

          Seven years ago, during a long-distance call, I said yes to a school director in Surabaya, and, within three weeks, packed up my house, found some tenants, sent a parcel ahead with books and art supplies, and got on the plane. I think I had just enough time to look at my atlas to see that, yes, Indonesia did exist, and, yes, it was “over there,” wherever that was, in Asia.

          It is worth mentioning that this happened in the afflicted year of 2009. Like so many other people, I was affected by the greedy worshipers of Mammon having stolen everything in sight by selling junk bonds, phony mortgages, and things of that nature at the expense of the helpless citizenry. My job as a part-time college administrator was eliminated so “Indonesia here I come.”

          I wrote extensively about my initial year here in my first book, Pakuwon City, Letters from the East. I only stayed a year at that time due to many things including homesickness, tenants in my house deciding not to pay, things like that. But the fine woman I had met in Surabaya followed me several months later and that autumn, on a crisp October day, we were married in Vermont, in a field belonging to the justice of the peace. After a year in the snow and two more teaching in Trinidad, we came back to Indonesia, first to Bali for two years, and then to Surabaya, my wife’s home town.

          Now I have a Chinese Indonesian wife, an extended family, two language teachers who teach me twice a week, a teaching job twice a week and full life in all ways. I am on the East side of Surabaya, the old side, and not the side where one might find other foreigners. I go months without seeing another bule, (pale face), which is fine with me. I speak Indonesian and have an Indonesian driver’s license and a Kitap Visa, permanent residence status. This is not so easy to obtain since they, perhaps wisely, and perhaps as a reaction to three hundred and fifty years of colonial life under the Dutch and three under the Japanese, don’t want foreigners involved here too much. Makes sense to me.

          That being said, there are plenty of foreigners if you look for them, mostly in Jakarta or in Bali, and they pay their visa fees and enjoy a fine life. All this is a very brief introduction to what I want to say, that Indonesia may be the best place in the world to live at this time, perhaps at any time. And that is not because of the cost of living or the excellent cuisine. It is because of a culture of non-aggression, non-confrontation, a culture “sopan dan rama” which means polite and friendly. The subtlety of this goes down levels deeper than I can venture yet. Even the beginners’ depths are astoundingly different from what I am used to as a product of a violent, competitive culture, America.

          Indonesian people go to great lengths to avoid any direct confrontation, any unpleasantness. As I learned from my teacher, Djoni, today via Skype, they, the Javanese, always put the other person higher than themselves. Djoni, by the way, is Javanese and Muslim like most of the Javanese. We are on the island of Java, (coffee to us in the west), and Jakarta is the biggest city and capital and Surabaya is the second biggest city, a business city where things are made, where money is made.

          Here is an example he gave. If some Javanese people come to my house and I ask them if they would like some coffee, or tea, or some water they will say no even if they want some. Why, because to say yes would mean the host would have to go to some trouble to prepare it. Wow. So, if you want to take care of them that way you just bring it out and they will not have had the shame of creating that chore for you.

          The directness we know in the west does not exist here. Very little is direct; even bad news or rejection is done with smiles, jokes, and laughter. I had an art show of my paintings, (a rather important event for me), at The Surabaya Museum. Because I am a rarity, a westerner and also a painter, I received huge publicity including a television spot and large articles in the important newspapers. And yet, very few of my colleagues from school showed up. I told this to Djoni and told him that what we would do “back home” is to say something like, “It’s great you had that show and all that publicity. Sorry I couldn’t be there and so forth, make some excuse.” And I would say, “Thanks and sorry you couldn’t be there.” And that would be that. But, my teacher told me that for them to say they were busy or give an excuse would be ‘impolite’ so they don’t say anything at all which, for me, seemed very weird.

          There is a lot to say about life here and I want to do it a little at a time because it is complicated and easier to process is small doses. My intention is not travel writing. I am motivated because I think we westerners can learn important things, necessary things, from this ancient and complex culture. There is a condition of connection with other people here, of relationship and belonging, of an end to the kind of loneliness I felt for much of my life in the United States, a loneliness that pushed me onto the peripatetic road of my restless life and got me, finally, to this special country.

Ricker Winsor

Surabaya, Indonesia

http://www.rickerwinsor.com

 

Ahok!

Ahok

          The governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known by all as Ahok, has been sentenced to two years in jail for blasphemy. His record of public service has been proclaimed wonderful by all those who want to see business and government here in Indonesia run efficiently without the plague of corruption. He stands for transparent budgets, bureaucratic reform, and better urban infrastructure. His motto is “work, work, work”, and that is what he has done, a modern man, fifty years old, working for a bright Indonesian future.

          My family members, laughing, because laughing is better than crying, say, “Ha ha ha, only in Indonesia is the just man thrown in jail while the corruptors go freely about their business.” Why? Because Ahok is ethnic Chinese and a Christian as are most Chinese here. That fact has easily been used by politicians manipulating the uneducated masses. More to the point, I am sure, is that Ahok won’t play the corruption game.

          Ahok accomplished great things for Jakarta as vice governor under Jokowi and when Jokowi became president of Indonesia, Ahok became governor of Jakarta. After three years of working hard to clean up the mess that is government and business in Indonesia, three years of trying to keep money out of the pockets of corruptors so it could be used for the people’s work: education, infrastructure, and environmental improvement, he had to stand for election.

          His opponents used a verse from the Koran to dissuade voters from voting for Ahok. Verse 51 says, “Don’t choose a “kafir” as your leader” which means don’t vote for an infidel. Ahok made the deadly mistake of telling a crowd not to be dissuaded from voting for him on this basis, something to the effect that ‘you should use your brain and vote for the best man for the job.’ This was construed by radical Islamists as “disrespecting the Koran” of being “blasphemy”.

          Indonesia aspires to be a modern country with a fine constitution based on The Pancasila, an inspired and inclusive document expressing five guiding principles for the country. In 1945, during the formation of Pancasila, there was much debate between nationalists who called for a pluralistic state and Islamists who wanted a religious state ruled by Islamic law or sharia. The nation’s founders chose religious tolerance. Fundamental to Pancasila is respect for each of the six major religions practiced in Indonesia. Considering this, what has happened to Ahok is almost unbelievable. But there it is.

          The leaders of this current Islamic justice are known as the FPI, which means the “Front to Defend Islam”. They want to see sharia law proclaimed across the land as in Iran or as it is in Aceh province here in Indonesia, a place famous for the deadly tsunami that killed two hundred and fifty thousand people in two thousand four, and for its magnificent and lucrative marijuana crop. How the latter jibes with the Koran is unclear.

          As one might expect there is much more to this story, layers upon layers, but, for now, the simple facts suffice. Ahok will go to jail for the offense stated. Despite very moving demonstrations in his support involving thousands of people, the fact remains. What it says about the Indonesian constitution and the ability of secular forces to resist pressure from fundamentalist Islam is the question to be addressed now and going forward. Now you know something about Ahok.

 

Ricker Winsor

Surabaya, Indonesia

May, 2017

Sniper, A Dog Story

Sukolilo-20150730-02890

Nana visiting with Sniper before we let him in….

I have to wonder why such a dramatic and fraught story, so vivid in memory, has taken this long to write. Maybe post traumatic stress disorder, maybe.

In Bali, we adopted a village-dog puppy we named Nana. She and her sister found their way, at about seven weeks of age, to the office of our neighbor. The security people there were about to throw them against the wall, a customary way to kill puppies.

It has to be said that the dog situation in Bali is out of control. Many dogs run wild, some with rabies, especially in the villages. Puppies can be born with rabies, a disease that kills them and the people they bite. Every once in a while, the government issues an order for the police to “thin the pack”. The last time this happened the dog death squad killed about nine thousand dogs.

And so, the situation in Bali is a bit different than other places. Once in a while I would wake up in the middle of the night and look out on the street. Making their way silently, five or six very strong, healthy, wild dogs carefully checked the garbage at each house. Medium-sized, strong village dogs, streamlined, well proportioned, like a pack of tropical wolves, they commanded respect and some fear. The street belonged to them. Once the sun was up they disappeared, vanished like the night.

As the aforementioned puppies were about to end their life, our neighbor, Hanny, got involved and saved them. He is a nice man and took on this responsibility despite having two dogs himself. Hanny offered us one of them and we refused. I refused knowing how much a dog, no matter how great it is, changes your life. But I have always had dogs and my wife also loves dogs so I took a careful look and I saw that one of them had long legs like a ballet dancer and perfect proportions, some kind of a Dalmatian mix with black and white patches. That was Nana.

We brought her with us to Surabaya and settled in. She is a great dog but not in the way we know from Labradors and Goldens and Shepherds, dogs like that. A village dog has thousands of years of DNA tweaked by their special lives surviving on the street, avoiding endless dangers including poison. They are not the loyal dog we know who can’t wait to lay down its life for you, not like that. They don’t trust easily; it takes time, but they are more interesting and a lot smarter than the “normal” dog but paradoxically not in trainability. A friend who has had one of these dogs for many years cautioned,
“there are some things they just won’t do.” In some ways, they are smart more in the way a cat is smart. It is difficult to explain. I tell a good friend, a veterinarian, that she is more like a fox than a dog and that seems almost right.

We moved to Manyar, East Surabaya, into an old but decent house in a middle-class neighborhood, a great location convenient to important things in our life. During walks around, we noticed up the street a way, about six houses, that a group of black people were living in a communal way, so it seemed. It was not clear how many people were there. We found out they were from Papua, New Guinea and later I found out that the Indonesian government sponsors some the “best and brightest” to come to Surabaya to get an education since Papua is still quite primitive. Later, I also found out that less than fifty percent finish their studies. Aside from being black and looking aboriginal, they are Christian, not Muslim, and they like to drink.

None of that would have made a difference to me even if I knew it before interacting with them since I try to take people for who they are. We stopped when we encountered them, said hi, and then came inside to talk with the leader, Vincent, who also had some political agenda as part of his mission, probably Papua Independence or some iteration of that. He was friendly and spoke good English and it seemed to me they were lucky for his guidance and leadership.

There was a dog loosely connected with this commune, a dog named Sniper. We saw him around the neighborhood going through the garbage here and there, galivanting happily. Sniper is a border collie. He is a medium-sized dog about like Nana but with big bones, strong, compact. He was about two years old at the time and Nana only one year old and here’s what happened.

Our house, like most in the area, has a wall and a big iron gate. At some point, we noticed that Sniper was coming by in the afternoon. Normally Nana, at that time in her life, would bark at anything, the endless neighborhood street cats, vendors, butterflies, anything. But not with Sniper, not a peep. I am not sure how long it had been going on before we noticed. They would just be there together on either side of the gate talking and kissing between the vertical stiles of the heavy gate.

Writers get in trouble attributing human characteristics to other forms of life and inanimate things too. It is called “pathetic fallacy” which is to say “you must be a dumb shit and we feel sorry for you if you think like that.” Personally, I am not prone to that kind of thinking, although I do ponder that we share forty percent of our genes with a corn stalk, so it seems we are all connected more closely than we normally think.

This love fest with Sniper and Nana went on every day. In my long experience, I had never seen anything like it. It was Romeo and Juliet or Lady and the Tramp, Disney’s masterpiece. I even downloaded the movie to remember what he knew about this kind of dog love. And that is what it was, total unabashed love.

We didn’t know much about Sniper’s personality beyond what we saw in his relationship to Nana. And, by the way, we had her “fixed” at an early age so the pheromones were not responsible. Because of how close they were and how happy they were to be in each other’s company we decided to let him in and see what would happen. And what happened was total ecstasy for them and a lot of vicarious pleasure for us. They played and romped and wrestled and kissed and smelled and raced to exhaustion, except exhaustion never happened.

 When we felt it was time, we let Sniper out, back to his life on the street, a free dog. And he respected that play time was over. Border collies are considered at the top of dog smartness but they, paradoxically, are stubborn and not easy to train unless they want to be trained, a little like that famous Japanese dog, Hachiko. And, I need to say now, although he is a border collie and consequently smart, he is nowhere near our village dog, Nana, in the brightness category. Just sayin.

This went on for weeks and we earned Sniper’s trust and found that he had a beautiful face and a warm, loving disposition. We fell in love with him for himself and also because of Nana’s love for him. With love comes concern and responsibility. We were worried about him living on the street eating garbage, dodging cars, avoiding poison people put out. Dogs are Haram to Muslims. Haram is like not kosher but stronger. They hate dogs mostly and fear being bitten or even kissed which is something even more terrible somehow, and so poison is part of what street dogs need to avoid or die. Throw in whatever else they might eat from the garbage and endless interaction with cars and motorcycles and it is only a very cautious, intelligent animal that will survive.

And so, we made our way over to “his people” and sat down with Vincent and asked if it would be ok for us to “take care of him” from now on since we were concerned about him and wanted to protect him from the hard life of the street. Vincent was fine with that, not caring really, and happy to do something we wanted and not have the dog around for whatever reasons. It didn’t seem to make much difference. And so, we took charge and brought Sniper into our life without many difficulties or adjustments, just the normal settling in, learning the routines that are so important to the man-dog relationship.

If you know about Border Collies, they are not even recommended as pets. My friend Charlie, the veterinarian, advises people who want to buy a border collie to also “buy three sheep”. That’s because border collies are super energetic and, without enough to do, these working dogs can raise a whole lot of hell. Lucky for us, and not knowing any of this at the time, Sniper was already two years old and not totally crazed but plenty strong and energetic. I walk him three times a day, every day, a long one in the morning and two shorter ones so he can mark his territory and feel some freedom.

I found that I couldn’t dominate him the way you can with a Labrador or other dogs like that who are so eager to please and so submissive actually. He almost bit me a couple of times, not a bite really but enough to show me that I had better be careful, that this was more a relationship of equals and not the master/slave thing. Once I got over the shock to my ego I accepted it and learned. He taught me that what we do together is something we share. It is quite amazing and I love how that has evolved. It was less easy for me than it was for him.

I found that his tail had been broken in a fight and hadn’t healed very well but healed it did with a crook in it now. I learned that he is a tough, dominant dog who will attack any male dog whenever possible and win. He has bones like a Swedish peasant and can pull me miles, which at my age is not a bad thing. Having him in the harness, you could plow a field. We found he had some medical problems, liver problems, and that required a couple of trips to the veterinary hospital and medication and x-rays. We learned how to feed him better as to not stress his liver and he is super healthy as a result. My wife cooks for the dogs twice a day, bathes them, and treats them like the children and family they actually are for us. I don’t see a lot of difference between their antics and affection and those of a couple of five year olds but that is a whole different discussion.

After six months and with “peace in the valley” domestically, one afternoon a Papua man I had never seen came to the gate and wanted “to take Sniper out to play.” That was not something I wanted to do and I told him I was not comfortable with that. He was drunk, a young Papua guy with shaggy hair, strong, getting mad. He started yelling and pushing on the gate, shaking the gate back and forth and then the gate broke, a crucial weld having given way. I retreated to the house pushing my wife back and locked the door while she called the security and also her mother who lives not far away. I grabbed an iron piece of exercise equipment and waited to see what would happen next as he pounded on the door. He stepped back and took the broken piece of metal from the gate and slung it against the door and then retreated to the street. The security man finally showed up, not too happy since they are scared of Papua people and are not used to having to actually act like security. Mostly they usher in cars at the gate waving and taking it easy most of the time.

Then the real police arrived, someone “Mom” had called, something you pay for here but at least they have some training. From my view this was serious and I wanted the man arrested and prosecuted. As I told Vincent later, “If this had happened in America he would probably be dead” and I don’t think that is an exaggeration. But Yudi, the police’s name, convinced us to handle it “as a family” and so, despite my anger, my wife negotiated with them, some hands were shaken over at the Papua house, and we went back to our life but now with misgivings, with trepidation, with fear for the future. Because they maintained that Sniper was their dog. We showed the x-rays and told about how happy he was. They didn’t care about that but agreed that we could continue to keep him, for now.

On my daily walks, I started carrying a heavy walking stick my sister had given me years ago. I had to look over my shoulder, something we normally don’t have to do here. I came home one afternoon and there were two of them there, always different people, wanting Sniper again and again I refused, shaming them, cursing them as drunks and people who couldn’t care less about the dog because if they did they would be happy for him. I don’t have much patience for this kind of thing, and it became clear that my wife would have to handle it going forward.

In another few weeks, we came home after dark and there were five or six of them at the gate, just the whites of their eyes glinting in the streetlights. I started in again and our driver at the time also started to get into it. They stood their ground unimpressed. It felt sort of like dealing with people from a different planet who have totally different life experience and values not shared by the majority. And that is what it was.

My wife, Jovita, a brave person with a strong character and real negotiating ability, took over. My sister in law was there and my mother in law showed up and Yudi came again, the police.

The Papua people were moving soon to another house, thank God, or going back to Papua. And they wanted to take Sniper with them. Whatever Vincent had told us carried no weight and he was not around in any case. Finally, I said to Jovita, “This can’t go on. He is not our dog. We have to give him up,” and everybody agreed. So, with some tears, my wife and sister-in-law brought Sniper to his Papua “family”. We tried to process what happened, the fact that we had no formal papers showing ownership that we should have gotten in the beginning. We were just “hoping for the best” which is definitely not good business.

Two days went by and then my wife called me at school and said “Sniper is not eating and they have decided to give him back to us.” “Wow”, I said, “Great. They decided to do the right thing.” And I began to adjust my attitude toward them in a favorable way. The next call I got a few hours later was different. My wife said, “They want $200 or they are going to butcher him and sell the meat.” Westerners are not used to people eating “man’s best friend” but they do that in Papua.

The next day my sister-in-law, “Sis”, and my wife went to the Papuans and negotiated down to $100 and got signed papers giving ownership and saying that any further contact with them would result in police action. Sniper came home to us; he is now lying on the floor in Marine-crawl position watching me write this.

Honestly, I used to think I would like to visit Papua because of its natural beauty and because of the birds and wildlife one can see there but I have no interest in going there now. I have no interest in ever seeing a Papuan person again. I can see their features in people here now and again and I don’t like it. That is what one drunken idiot and his friends did for his people.

What makes me feel better about them is what a beautiful dog Sniper is, so full of affection for those he trusts. You can pick him up like a baby with absolutely no resistance, totally relaxed, and I know that could only be because he was so loved by his Papuan family.

Ricker Winsor

Surabaya, Indonesia

January 2017

“I Can’t Breathe”

chicago-1968

Chicago 1968, photo RW

          I feel like I can’t breathe, drowned by the tsunami that just befell my country and the whole world. All of a sudden everything is up for grabs, including a woman’s right to choose, steps to combat climate change, NATO alliances, trade agreements, immigration, just about everything. But I won’t talk about all that; so much has been said and is known by the reading public. Over the last eighteen months the brightest writers and thinkers had intellectually tied up Trump and thrown into the scrap heap of history. They were all wrong.

          What has been thrown out is an approach to life that is egalitarian, compassionate, and respectful, an ethos based on the humanitarian ideals of a liberal democracy. Not too long ago all political combatants could be found in the shelter of that umbrella no matter what their differences. No more.

          This debacle has been characterized as a “revolt against the elites” but it is more like revenge against “those who think they are better than us”, those who worked to improve their minds through education and got ahead using their brains. It comes out of deep anger and resentment and a serious sense of inferiority. How else could the populace turn their backs on Trump’s blatant disrespect for: women, Muslims, Mexicans, and those who prepare and do their homework, (e.g. Hillary and the debates). Our new leader thinks it is ok to grab women “by the pussy.” “When you are a star you can do anything you want,” he said. He laughs at the disabled and, well, no need for me to go through the long list. What kind of message does this send to young people trying to grow up? ‘Nice guys finish last,’ is what it says; it is ok to bully anyone to put yourself forward, to win the race.

          I get invited to certain occasions at the American Consulate here in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia, the second biggest city. And today I was invited to witness the final day of the election. I prepared myself to answer questions about how I felt, never for a minute believing that Trump could win. I prepared my thoughts like this: ‘I am honestly disgusted that a man like Trump could actually have gotten this far in the election process. That fact itself discredits America and debases, if not annihilates, the idea of American exceptionalism.’

          Now what do I do? Our new chief has a majority in the House of Representatives and in the Senate. Checks and balances are minimal. He also won decisively, very decisively. All of the bruhaha about every woman in America standing against him, the surge of Latinos voting, the blacks and minorities being involved and taking a stand, never happened. A lot of them voted for Trump.

          It is important to say something about Hillary Clinton beyond how she has been portrayed and the consequent vague or not so vague opinion of her. Even those who are dismayed by the existence of Trump often expressed dislike or suspicion about Mrs. Clinton. Based on what? Nothing, only lies and bullshit. She is of my generation, the idealists, the ones who dreamed of “open borders,” of everyone “getting along,” of equal opportunity and service. Her whole life has been dedicated to that. I witnessed it all, and not from so far away because of university connections. She is one of “us” the sixties generation that fought for civil rights, for women’s rights, for Vista, for the Peace Corps, for inner city programs. We fought against that ill-considered debacle, war in Viet Nam. And yet, through a steady campaign that would make Joseph Goebbels smile from hell, where he no doubt dwells, the ‘no nothings’ polluted the spring until they created “Crooked Hillary.”

          The email “scandal” was truth twisting for political gain. It never had “legs”. At a time when vagaries and pitfalls of email were still not well known, she opted for a private server that would guarantee her some control over her communications. No damage was done. There was no nefarious purpose. Colin Powell, that respected and gullible general, suggested she do it since he had done the same thing. It worked for him and he thought it was a good idea.

          With thirty years’ experience in government and having survived one excruciating battle after another, Hillary was the best and most qualified candidate ever to run for president. And she happens to be a woman. How is it possible for someone with those credentials to lose the election to a spoiled egoist who can’t speak good English and has absolutely no experience in government.

          The world has changed since I was a boy growing up in the glowing aftermath of WWII. And it was glowing in America. We didn’t have to be starving while we rebuilt our cities like they did in Europe and Japan. We were kings of the world and the white middle class was “comfortable” with appliances and new cars and kids going to affordable colleges. That is not the world we live in today. Now, for the middle class, the American Dream is further and further out of reach because of competition from immigrants, because of trade policies that have shipped jobs overseas, and because of wars we fight for other people and receive no compensation or thanks, only crippled and suffering veterans coming back and needing care. This is part of the stew creating the present moment. Throw in “that nigger in the Whitehouse,” a phrase I have heard many times, and you get a xenophobic, paranoid, proto fascist electorate, the “deplorables” who are stupid and proud of it.

          Ignorant people like simple solutions to complex problems. They may not be able to articulate their confusion and frustration but they feel it. And so, they follow the “big man” who seems to have the answers. It is remarkable that they think a billionaire who had never done anything for anyone other than himself will be their savior.

 

Ricker Winsor

Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia

November 9, 2016

 

Photograph by Ricker Winsor from the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968

 

 

The Incredible Shrinking Man

    For a long time now I have wanted to write about how aging affects our appetite for life, how it constricts our activities and shrinks our comfort zone and our energy level. I have been thinking about it now and again, when I get around to it. Thinking about it seems like enough work even without the writing. The writing can happen, of course, between naps.

          There is an age zone that occurs like a whisper; you are not young anymore but not old either. But one thing is true; you know for sure that time is conspiring to eliminate you. It is no longer hypothetical as it was previously.

          Over years, watching friends age, sometimes with ten or twenty years between meetings, I observe a contraction of life, both physically and intellectually. The safe zone gets smaller, more precious, and the ability to accept and embrace new experience declines.

          A friend and veteran of wilderness adventure, a man in his seventies, is part of a breakfast group that meets once a week to “shoot the breeze”, to keep each other company, especially through the long northern winters. “I can’t get them to do anything,” he says. “I suggest a relaxing canoe trip down the Allagash river, (about as easy as it gets), and they looked at me like I am crazy.”

          The whisper in the ear, “Don’t take any chances. Just be quiet and stick to your routine. Maybe death won’t find you for a while.” The routines of our lives become ruts. Even a visit to a new restaurant or a drive through unknown territory, taking a new route, can produce discomfort, a mild fear.

          It is tempting to take a mocking, sardonic tone about this. One wants to separate oneself from the afflicted. But I decided to research a bit about it and very quickly read about how age coincides with almost every aspect of our physical system falling apart. It is a law of physics, entropy; all systems fall apart. It is a law.

          For the human body the result is that you don’t have the energy you used to have. That is an understatement. And why? Well your heart is not pumping as well, your arteries are not so clean, your kidneys don’t work great, and, by the way, neither do your lungs, your eyes, your ears, basically everything.

          My friend George is one hundred and five years old. When I was growing up we rarely heard about anybody reaching ninety and now more and more people live beyond that. I spoke to him on his one hundredth birthday and he was cogent, sharp as usual. We talked about the fly fishing we used to do on the Catskill Rivers. He said, “I get on my treadmill every day and I have a keyboard to play some music but I don’t have much energy.” At one hundred and five I didn’t talk to him but got the report that he is the “darling of the home” where they take care of him. They all love him and when they greet him in the morning he says, “Could I please have bacon and eggs for breakfast?”

          Mockery is not the appropriate tone for a consideration of aging but compassion is, since mostly this is beyond our control, mostly. “You can’t unscramble the egg.” my friend stated. And yet inevitable deterioration, in process from about age thirty, can be resisted to some degree.

It gets harder to push oneself. That is true. A younger teaching colleague of mine is a body builder. He keeps encouraging me since I already have a good base after a lifetime of sports and gym. He tells about and provides written material and videos of older guys who still “look great”. Because of him I am a bit inspired to push my gym routine beyond the lazy normal. I took some comfort in his telling me that Arnold Schwarzenegger, about my age, says, “I work twice as hard for half the benefit,” which seems accurate. It does take twice the effort with half the energy, no small task. But he does it anyway. That seems to be the key.

I would not even have heard about Schwarzenegger’s senior workout thoughts if I had not said yes to teaching teenagers a couple of days a week. I am seventy-one. It is not easy to muster the energy to face twenty-five kids twice a day. but I do it. My teenagers help keep me fresh and I feel it is worthwhile because I consider that my experience is a benefit to them whether they know it now or not.

          There are a lot of cliches, adages, and homilies about old age. I suppose they are supposed to provide some comfort as we sink deeper into the couch and give ourselves up to the inevitable. “Old age is not for sissies” they say, as if saying it is enough to prove “they” are not sissies but well up to the challenge. Mostly they/we are not up to the challenge but we do the best we can.

          Recently I heard the term “mild depression” from a friend and I think that is more prevalent than generally known. A sense of defeat can pervade everyday life without being apparent except to our closest people. Even within the person it can go unacknowledged. And yet it can cripple us softly.

          Throwing down the gauntlet for yourself and picking it up is the hero’s path through the “dark wood” of age. More and more there are things I don’t actually feel like doing but I push myself through that barrier of resistance and am glad of it every time.

          So much for the negative aspect of aging. There are positives and they seem to be agreed upon by people researching and writing about this topic. We know ourselves better, are less neurotic, more confident, and more liberated, care less about what other people think, and have a great store of experience and knowledge to share. If we can succeed in maintaining our deteriorating bodies so they don’t bother us too much, we can enjoy what’s left of our life in a much deeper way than we could before.

Ricker Winsor

Surabaya, Indonesia

October 14, 2016