Thursday Photo Challenge: FAMILY

Moai at Rapa Nui

Serenity At Rapa Nui, originally uploaded by JoeWorldTraveler.

The moai of Rapa Nui remind us of the accumulated wisdom of those passed over. As we return their steady gaze, we look out over the beckoning seas. Can we abandon the island of our fathers and mothers?

The Ugly American

Reuters today tells us of a guide to overcome the stereotype of the ugly American. It's distributed by Business for Diplomatic Action, a non-profit founded to help overcome a single contributing factor of increasing anti-Americanism: our "collective personality" abroad.

We are seen as loud, arrogant and completely self-absorbed," said Reinhard, chairman emeritus of the advertising agency DDB Worldwide. "People see in us the ultimate arrogance — assuming that everybody wants to be like us."

This is a worthy project, yet a look at some of the principles shows an obstacle. Talk slower and lower: fast talking is seen as aggressive and threatening. Listen at least as much as you talk; talk about America and your life, but ask about their country and their lives. Dress more conservatively. These are the stuff of common courtesy. It seems that we can overcome the stigma of the ugly American by not being ugly Americans.

It's not that easy to do. The savvy business people among us have used their hardcore personalities to get to where they are. Business is business, and why should they change for anyone? Better others should change for them. That involves no loss of personal pride; that keeps the other folks on the defensive, which is how you advance your goals. Acting in a polite, respectful manner puts us in the defensive. We set ourselves up as chumps and easy marks.

Ever since I visited the pyramids of Giza, I've thought that any aspiring sales company would do well to take their sales force there. The hawkers and moneygrubing on display is a tribute to the mechanics of the deal. Speak low, ask about their families, and you will pay through the nose.

It didn't help that I had a hangover. The magnificent thrill of actually being in this spot had almost balanced out the difficulties of the trip. We'd driven an hour and a half from Alexandria to Cairo. The bus was barely airconditioned, and the sun through the windows had put half of us down for the count. But now we were here. These buildings had been constructed over three thousand years ago. It was a sight many on Earth never see but in photographs, and we were here.

We drove up the hill to the gate. There stood the Great Pyramid. We waited while the tickets were purchased and then wound our way past the pyramids to a parking lot back behind them. This, we were told, was the best place for a panoramic view of the spectacle.

As we got off, we saw many things. The pyramids, backed by the city of Cairo. A huge amphitheater, built for the opera Aida, waiting for the season to reopen. A long row of vendors, running along the back end of the lot. And as we disembarked, the vendors swarmed to us as we tried desperately to escape.

"Hello! Welcome to Egypt!" "Welcome to the Pyramids, my friend, what is your name?" "Hello!" "Excuse me, sir, hello? Hello?"

One man focused completely on me. I found this to be a pattern in many places. I'm in my thirties, I dress nicely, and I have a nice digital camera on my arm. To the sharks of this world, this evidently means wealthy more than not. For myself, it means I've spent all my money on clothes and cameras. It's not an easy place to be in.

"Hello, sir? Hello, welcome to Egypt, hello? My name is Mohammed. (Every person in a Middle East country that ever attached themselves to me was named Mohammed) Hello? I wish to show you the site, welcome to Egypt!"

I can see the pyramids fine. I don't have any money.

"No money! No money! Please, hello!"

He was late forties, white turban, tan colored robe. He had his security badge prominently displayed. I kept walking towards the line of tourists taking pictures. He followed doggedly.

"Hello? My name is Mohammed. What is your name?"

Mine is Joseph, I say. He gets it – Joseph in Egypt. "That is a good name, a very good name. It is one of the prophets!"

I stop to get my camera ready. He remains by my side, though I do my best to ignore him completely. He offers me his hand. I react – I don't want to buy anything, I say.

He is wounded. His hand is empty. He turns it over to show me so. "You will not shake my hand?"

And there it is. The fisherman sets the hook. You are the rude ugly American I've heard so much about. A lifetime of snatching a dollar or two from this pack of ingrates who flock here day after day, it has weathered this man but he still possesses the ability to express his wounded pride. I look at him across the cultural gap, knowing exactly what he is doing. He has no real concern for this transaction. For whatever reason, I appear to be an easy mark, flush with cash, and he's not letting me close him. He is going to close me.

I shake his hand. It's rough, but the hand doesn't grip mine tightly. Every chance to display weakness, that's his strong point.

I surprise him then. "Ma'salaami." I turn and move closer to an unobstructed view. I hear him say "Ma'salaami" as well, but he's turning over his next approach in his mind. It's not usual for the tourist to have any kind of Arabic. He follows me. I suppose he considered that learning any part of his native language means I want to talk – i.e., I'm still the weaker party.

He makes a pest of himself. He asks to take a picture of me. I refuse; I have friends that will do it for free. He's frustrated. "No money! I am proud of my heritage! I show you the site." He wants me to take his picture. He moves down, blocking what view I have. "Please! No money! No money! You take my picture."

Finally I relent. The picture is taken. On the instant, he moves up, thumb moving across his fingers in the universal sign. And I am undone. "Please," he says, "please, a gift for my family."

The heat is splitting me open, the moment of being with the pyramids alone is rapidly escaping, and the never disguised sales tactic reminds me of past jobs. I lay into the man. "I told you I have no money, you said no money, and now you are ASKING FOR MONEY!" I hit Review and began to erase the picture. "You see, I'm erasing the picture. It's deleted. It's gone. I owe you nothing." And I cut through the crowd again, the ugly American, what can you say, they're all like that.

I move to another place. I get my pictures. I sit staring out at those massive structures. For a few minutes I am there.

Another vendor approaches me. This one is in his late teens. He smiles. "Welcome to Egypt! My name is Mohammed. Will you shake my hand?"

I look at him calmly. "I've already shaken the hand."

He gets it. He moves on. He'll learn.

Boltraffico’s Reluctant Donor

Giovanni Antonio Boltraffico – you’ve probably never heard of him. From what I can find, he was a minor portrait painter in the Italian Renaissance who studied under da Vinci for eight years. He lived in Milan almost his entire life – twice he flirted with other cities. There are some Boltrafficos in local Milanese politics of the time, so I’m assuming he was connected there.

However, he has a painting in the Louvre. It’s called Virgin with Child and Sts John the Baptist and Sebastian and two donors. A clunky name for an intriguing canvas. It was the most artistic Boltraffico ever got, and what a crazy little story it tells…

The digital file I’ve linked to doesn’t do the canvas justice. For one, the expressions are priceless, especially the baby Jesus. He looks out at the viewer with what I interpret as the most sublime version of “Whatever” I’ve ever seen in a painting. John’s expression, too, is much more put-upon and arrogant when you’re standing before it.

Understand this: when I went to the Louvre, I wandered down the right side of the long hall that houses most of the Italian collection, the side that contains the entrance to the Mona Lisa’s gallery. Boltraffico’s painting is hung on the left. So before I got there, I found another painting – Guido Reni’s Abduction of Helen. It captures the two lovers as they leave together for Troy. It’s an incredible puzzle that you could follow right through.

Helen is caught stepping off the threshold of her home. A servant carries a little dog (symbol of marital fidelity) that is looking back forlornly at the door they’ve left. Another servant carries a box, supposedly of jewelry, but reminiscent of Pandora’s box to me. In the foreground another cute little dog is staring at a crouching monkey held by a romantically clad black servant boy. The servant boy is also stepping off the threshold, and the monkey is primed to attack the puzzled little dog. It reminded me more of a large iguana or lizard in its shape, and when you learn that a monkey is the symbol of naked desire and treachery, it’s apparent why. The poor little foreground dog has no chance in the painting at all – Paris’s foot, stepping on the road behind the dog, can also be seen as about to step on the dog itself.

In the corner of the Paris/Helen painting, Cupid points to the scene with a cherubic sense of knowing pride: “That’s all mine!” His foot rests on a fallen chunk of masonry, and so will Troy be once the event we are witnessing plays through to the end. It’s a crisply executed cartoon of sexual politics.

Cupid should have made an appearance in Boltraffico’s work as well, for it’s unmistakably coded with a story of gay love. As it is, we must only see the weeping wounds of Sebastian as evidence of Cupid’s arrows. St. Sebastian has long been recognized as a gay icon whether his portrayers knew this or not. After a detailed study of the painting, I’m going to say that Boltraffico knew full well what he was doing.

The first thing that caught my eye was St. Sebastian’s package. Here is another place where the digital copy doesn’t do the painting justice. Let me assure you: we have a banana hammock going on. It startled me on first viewing. Sebastian’s male bits are usually de-emphasized. He’s the patron saint of power bottoms after all. Yet Sebastian is nearly nude; the resulting emphasis of his small patch of clothing in the painting is unmistakable. I wondered how Boltraffico got away with it. And then I moved on to the wounds. The arrows are missing, and Sebastian is not gazing up, but down. It’s a unusual depiction of the saint all together.

However, John the Baptist is in all his usual trappings. He’s clad in his rugged clothes, he’s got a cross, he’s pointing at the Christ Child…but he’s not. Follow the line of the Baptist’s finger – it moves first through the cross trimming on top of the Virgin’s head and then straight on to Sebastian’s groin. This is not a mistake on Boltraffico’s part. Now the Baptist’s expression becomes totally obvious – another gorgeous straight man who has to put up with the desires of a gay man in love with him. The Baptist’s cross also intersects a sight line – if the Baptist and Sebastian looked at each other, the wooden cross would come between them.

But they are not looking at each other. The Baptist turns his bemusement to us, while Sebastian is gazing down, again through the cross detail of the Virgin’s head covering, at the Christ Child. His serene gaze is one of beatific contemplation, and only the tears of his wounds (almost clear like the fluid that came from Christ’s side) give a hint of his eternal sadness. It is as if the pain of the Baptist’s rejection has been mitigated by Sebastian’s suffering and devotion to the Christ Child. Mitigated, I say, not removed – the wounds weep still.

Which brings us to the anonymous donors. They also split the frame, one on the Baptist side, the other on Sebastian’s. Both kneel in prayer. The donor on the left, the Baptist’s donor, holds his hands forward from him. His expression is hauntingly beautiful, one of the best of the piece. It’s in shadow, and yet the beseeching eyes are remarkable. They look, not at the Virgin or the Child, but at Sebastian’s donor, who does not return his gaze. Stubbornly, he looks down at the Child, his hands clutched flat against his chest as if armoring his heart against another blow. What wound did he receive long ago from the beautiful man on the left? Does the Baptist’s donor seek forgiveness for an youthful insult? And having retreated to the symbology of the church to assuage his pain and guilt, does Sebastian’s donor now find himself unable to forgive, fearful of another blow to the heart?

The Baptist and his donor are very different in demeanor, much more so than Sebastian and his. The Baptist is almost contemptuous, looking at us, while his donor is gentle and insistent, looking at his counterpart. Both Sebastian and his donor look to the Child, Sebastian with utter serenity, the donor with a measure of pouting. Sebastian and the Baptist become idealized expression of the inner state of these men, what both men ultimately long to be internally. Sebastian’s donor is looking for that blissful ignorance of everything but Salvation Born. The Baptist’s donor is much more conflicted. On the surface, he’s benevolent and gentle, but his aggressive gaze and prayer posture allows the Baptist’s attitude to filter through the deceitful kindness.

The standoff between these two will continue. The frustration of the Baptist will go unrelieved. And in the midst of it all, Mary and Jesus regard us. Mary meekly sits there, almost embarrassed to be seen in this setting. The Christ Child doesn’t take in his admirers, but impishly points to the evidence of his own power to confound men, the reluctant donor.

What Will This Site Be About?

I'll make it up as I go along.

We are all wheels within wheels. What's your inner engine about?

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