Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hail to the (Forgotten) Chief

Can you name the commanding figure in this image? If you can't, don't feel too bad. Few people can. It is our beloved (more likely forgotten) 11th president; James Polk, popularizing the mullet long before Patrick Swayze. This is what happens when you forget your history; bad hairstyles make a comeback. The muttonchops have already returned, thanks to superhero Wolverine. What's next, the handle-bar mustache? But I digress. We are talking about forgotten presidents. Sure, we all know about Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln (it helps when your face is on our money) and we recognize the latest presidents (Clinton, Bush, Obama) but what about the rest? What about all those mediocre presidents who's name you recognize but can't recall any facts about? This week our LIFE class was joined by Professor Alex Smith, who gave us all the dirt about some of our less-than-memorable presidents.

First up; John Quincy Adams, our 6th president. J.Q.A. was a cold, austere and aloof man; definitely not a people person and could not get elected in today's world of 24 hour news and soundbites. Think the 2000 election between Gore and Bush was the first election where we had no clear winner? Wrong! The election of 1824 had 5 candidates, and although Andrew Jackson had the largest percentage of votes (43%), it wasn't a simple majority, so the vote went to the House of Representatives. Henry Clay, Speaker of the House and one of the 5 candidates who got the smallest percentage of votes, did not like Andrew Jackson and politically agreed most with Adams. Clay and Adams came to an agreement that Clay would use his influence as Speaker of the House to get Adams elected President if Adams made Clay Secretary of State, a position seen as a stepping stone to the presidency back then. The deal started off Adams' presidency with the whiff of corruption that he could never shake.

Next; Martin Van Buren, our 8th president. Van Buren was "the greatest suck-up of all time" according to Professor Smith. Very politically adroit, he was able to schmooze and flatter his way to the highest government positions without taking an official position on much at all. One man tried to force him to take a stand on the idea that the sun rises in the east. Ever a politician, Van Buren replied "As I never get up 'till after dawn, I really can't say." Van Buren inherited a weak economy after his predecessor, President Jackson, killed the national bank. Van Buren liked luxury and strove to live the upper-class lifestyle. The combination of a bad economy and his reputation as an elitist turned much of the country against him, and lies that he ate his food with golden spoons at the White House dogged his presidency.

John Tyler, our 10th president, was the first Vice President to assume the presidency through the death of the President, setting a precedent for future VPs. President William Henry Harrison died 30 days into his term, and Tyler took over the Presidency. Much of the country thought there should be an election, since technically he was not voted into that position, but he kept the office. Tyler had been a Democrat, but joined the Whigs over the Force Bill, a bill to send troops to South Carolina to force them to pay their tariffs, turning Democrats against him. But when he became president, his Democratic nature reappeared and he twice vetoed legislation to bring back the national bank, making him deeply unpopular with his adopted Whig party. So he had no party and no support for any interests during his presidency. He left the Presidency broke; he couldn't even pay a $1.25 grocery bill. He then became a traitor as he urged Virginia, his home state, to secede from the union, and was elected to the Confederate Congress. He died during the Civil War and was buried in Richmond, Virginia. His grave went unmarked and unhonored until the mid 20th century.

Millard Filmore, lucky 13, is known as the president who didn't do "squat". However, during his presidency he signed a trade treaty with Peru to import bird excrement as fertilizer, so now we know that he did indeed do "squat". But aside from that and opening trade with Japan, he pretty much didn't do squat. He also couldn't read. Perhaps that is why he was so inactive....

Franklin Pierce, our 14th President, had to have the most tragic presidency. His wife, Jane, was very puritanical, and believed they would be punished for her husband's biggest sin: ambition. So she was naturally upset when he ran and won the presidency. The train she and their son 11 year old son Benny were riding on the way to the inauguration crashed, and Benny was the only fatality. Their two other sons had died young. At his inauguration, Pierce said, "you have summoned me in my weakness, and you must sustain me with your strength." This proof of his sins doomed their marriage. Jane never left the top floor of the White House and Pierce drowned his sorrow in drink. Unfortunately, American needed a strong leader during this time; slavery and other issues were dividing the country. Interesting fact: Pierce is the only president known for getting a DWWI, driving a wagon while intoxicated. He ran over a man while driving drunk around D.C. The police let him go.

Lastly (for today, there are many more mediocre presidents) James Buchanan, our 15th president. Although privately an abolitionist (he would purchase slaves in the south and free them in the north) he drew great ire by constantly compromising with the southern states, which eventually seceded during his term anyway. For allowing the Union to fall apart under his watch, Buchanan has earned last place in many Presidential rankings. Buchanan was our only president from Pennsylvania, and also our only bachelor president (so far). Historians speculate that he may have been gay, but we have little evidence of that as his family burned most of his letters to his (alleged) lover.

Whew! What a mouthful, and we are only up to number 15 out of 44. Although we feel passionately about our current presidents, odds are they will likely end up in the mediocre pile of history, with someone blogging about their stories far in the future. As they said on the Simpsons, "We... are... the... adequate, forgettable, occasionally regrettable caretaker presidents of the U-S-A!"

Check out this SlideShare Presentation:

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Pearl Fincher Museum of Fine Arts

Hello LIFEers. This week's class was an exciting foray into the world of portraiture. Tim Novak, Executive Director of the Pearl Fincher Museum, joined us to talk about the history of portraiture and what it means today.

To most people, a portrait is a painting of a person, usually the head and torso, as distinguished from a landscape or still life. Scroll to the bottom of the blog and look at the image of the girl with the dog. This fits our definition of a portrait, but it is not a portrait; it is an ad for Coke. The girl is not the subject; Coke is. So we need to narrow our definition. Tim Novak taught us that a portrait is any image that describes a person. This greatly changes our thoughts on portraiture! Now look at the image of the chalkboard equation "e=mc²". By our old definition this image is not a portrait, because it is not an image of a person. But by our new definition this image is a portrait, because the equation makes us think of a person; Albert Einstein, the equation's discoverer.

Now that we have a new definition of portraiture, we can see the mechanisms behind many portraits. The artist isn't just trying to describe the subject; they are often trying to represent the subject in a specific way for a purpose. Look at the portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. This picture isn't just another painting of the Queen. She is making a statement. The painting is full of symbolism. The pearls, on the Queen's head and gown, symbolize purity. (Queen Elizabeth I was famously known as the Virgin Queen, since she never married). Next to her right arm is the imperial crown, and her right hand rests upon a globe with her fingers touching the Americas. In the background of the painting are scenes depicting the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588; a pivotal event during Elizabeth's reign and a great triumph for the English nation. So the purpose of this painting wasn't to show what Queen Elizabeth really looked like in her daily life. The purpose of this painting was to proclaim the Queen's dominion over land and sea, and her triumph over those who would challenge her sovereignty.

Now take a look at the painting by Norman Rockwell. It is a self portrait, or is it? Look closer. How did the artist manage to paint this? The only way he could have painted this from real life is if there was a second mirror placed in our (the viewer's) position. So Rockwell cleverly staged this painting to confuse the viewer about how it was made. What else does this painting say? Count the images of Rockwell in the painting. I counted 8 (notice the small sketches it the upper left of the canvas). Notice he includes the self portraits of master painters' Dürer, Rembrandt and Van Gogh in his painting too. Lastly, he included the eagle and a Roman warrior's helmet (placed just above his portrait's head). Perhaps Rockwell was trying to slyly tell us that he is a great American artist.

So the next time you are you at a museum and see yet another boring portrait, challenge yourself to step out of your 21st century perspective and try to see what the artist is trying to convey. Who is the subject? Do they seem happy, sad, serious, joyful? What are they wearing; nice clothes, simple clothes? How are they positioned in the painting? Are they commanding the space, or is it a more humble posture? Look at the other items in the painting; what are they symbolic of? What does all this put together tell you about the subject? And then think to yourself how you might want to be remembered in 200-300 years.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Cupcake Magic with Fondant

Greetings LIFEers! Our reward for braving the ice and wind today was cupcakes! Librarian Krissy Conn joined us to teach us how to make fondant flowers for decorating cakes, cupcakes, a table setting or just playing with for edible fun.

Fondant (pronounced fon-dent in English and fon-don in its native French) means "melting", because fondant rolls out very smooth and has an almost liquid-like appearance, which is why bakers like to use it on wedding cakes instead of icing, which can look lumpy and textured. But beyond making cakes look smooth, fondant is popular because it can be rolled or sculpted into just about any shape, making decorating ideas almost limitless. In our class today, we practiced making fondant roses.

Fondant dries out very quickly, so make sure you keep the fondant you aren't working with in a sealed container or bag. Roll your fondant into 9 marble sized balls; 6 being a little larger than the other 3. Pinch one of the larger balls at the bottom and form the top into a little cone shape for the center of your flower. One at a time, pinch the 3 smaller balls into petal shapes, and attach them to the center piece, overlapping the petals. When you have the first layer of three petals, pinch the edges to be very thin, like a flower petal. The petals should always be higher than the center. Repeat this process with the 5 larger balls, making the larger outer ring of petals. See photos below for an example of a completed rose. You can use paste or food coloring from a craft store to color your flower when you are finished.

Remember, fondant is similar to clay, so if you don't like what you created, mash it all up and start over. After kneading it for a minute and adding a tiny bit of water, you should be able to shape it again.

For ideas of fondant projects, see

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Are You A "Good" Bird, Or A "Bad" Bird?

Hello LIFEers. This week Professor Tim Sebesta came to our LIFE class to warn us that we are being invaded! They’re already here! No, it’s not the pod people, but birds, millions and millions of birds invading our towns and countryside. And while they aren’t attacking us directly, like Hitchcock would have you believe, some are threatening our native birds, crops and ecosystems. Hence the class’ title, “Are you a good bird, or a bad bird?”

Did you know that in North America today there are nearly 100 alien bird species? This includes game birds and escaped pet birds. Some alien birds got here on their own, such as the Old World Cattle Egret, which arrived in South America around 1880 and in Florida around 1940. It now thrives in the cow pastures of the southeastern US. Other species were brought here and released deliberately, such as the European Starling. In 1890, Eugene Schieffelin, a wealthy businessman, released 60 Starlings in Central Park, and then another 40 the following year. Today, Starlings live coast to coast, from Alaska to Mexico, with an estimated population of over 200 million.

Another introduced bird is the House Sparrow. People brought it to the US because they thought it was pretty and that they would control pests. After being introduced to North America in 1850 in Brooklyn, NY, it took only 50 years to spread across the US. But not all birds that are introduced to a new area are considered invasive. Out of the most familiar introduced bird species; European Starling, House Sparrow, Common India Myna, Mute Swan, Rock Pigeon, Ring-Necked Pheasant, Eurasian Collard-Dove and the Monk Parakeet; the last three are not considered invasive.

The Sparrow, Pigeon and Starling are considered the most invasive and damaging to the US. The Starling damages crops and livestock feedlots, the Pheasant eats sprouting corn, Starlings make dirty and smelly nests in cities, and all birds living in cities foul structures with droppings. It is believed that many years of bird droppings may even have contributed to the highway bridge collapse in Minnesota; the acid in the droppings accelerating the corrosion process.

So why are these birds thriving here? It is a combination of factors; they fight aggressively for territory and food, and reproduce more quickly. Meanwhile they kill or inhibit the reproduction of native species, bring parasites and diseases, contaminate our food storage facilities and are responsible for over $4.5 million in damage to aircraft.

What can you do about this invasion, you ask? You can start in your own backyard. First target: food. If you have birdfeeders, try to use thistle, safflower seeds, suet, nectar or fruit and nuts for food. Avoid corn, wheat, oats, millet and bread scraps, which are favored by invasive species. Avoid hopper-style feeders, platform feeders or putting food on the ground. Instead use clinging mesh feeders, sock or tube feeders with perches shorter than 5/8 of an inch, or feeders with weighted perches. Hanging style feeders that sway in the breeze are also good deterrents to invasive species. Finally, stop feeding in the summer. Food is abundant this time of year, and by providing food you are probably encouraging the spread of the invasive species. Feed only the winter when food is scarce.

Second target: minimize their nesting areas. Fill in gaps in your house, usually in eaves under the roof, by using 19 gauge hardwire cloth. Birdhouses with small openings will prevent the spread of Starlings, but won’t stop Sparrows. Third, you can trap invasive birds and destroy their nests and eggs. Last, be a good egg and inform your family, friends and neighbors about invasive birds so they can join the effort to minimize their spread.

See you next week!