Butterflies, Vermeer, and blind spots

by Rob Tiller

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After work on Friday, I zipped up to Raulston Arboretum with my camera to see what was blooming and flying. It’s a lovely place, and it’s soothing to stroll among the quiet growing things. But when you’re trying to manually focus the camera on tiny quick-moving creatures, there’s a burst of adrenaline. When it all clicks, I feel happy. This week there was a profusion of butterflies, and I had good luck in capturing images of a few.
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I’ve been reading the book Diane gave me, Travels in Vermeer, by Michael White. It’s a memoir about a tough time in White’s personal life, which was relieved by his falling in love with the art of Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch artist. I share his passion for these rare paintings, and like his accounts of his personal encounters with the master’s work.

White shows how feelings flow out of the paintings, and how they reward the viewer who keeps looking and looking. This is one way to tell when art is truly great — when you can’t exhaust it. I had the bright idea of googling the paintings as I came to his descriptions, and confirmed that Google takes far less than a second to locate a decent image of any Vermeer you care to name. It enriched the reading experience.
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As I mentioned last week, I’ve been listening to audio book lectures while working out about ancient Greece and Rome. This week I learned that as much as a third of the population of classical Athens were slaves. For all the pathbreaking philosophers among the Greeks, it appears that none of those great minds questioned the institution of slavery. Though I found this surprising, it also occurred to me that there have been and are still huge blind spots in our moral vision. I’m thinking of those things that are almost impossible to think about, let alone criticize, let alone change, because they’re so integral to the way we live. An example: our industrialized cruelty to farm animals.

Raulston Arboretum, July 24, 2015

Raulston Arboretum, July 24, 2015

But these things can seem unshakably settled and then get unsettled. Think of progress on racism, sexism, homophobia, and our heedless destruction of the natural world. This seems to be happening with our views of imprisonment. This week President Obama visited a federal prison and spoke out about some of our most egregiously cruel practices with regard to convicted criminals, including solitary confinement.

What’s wrong with solitary confinement? The NY Times nailed it.

“When they get out, they are broken,” said Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist in California who consults on prison conditions and mental health programs. “This is permanent damage.” Cornell William Brooks, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., said prolonged solitary confinement amounted to torture. “Putting someone in solitary confinement does horrible things to a person’s personality, their psyche, their character,” he said.

It seems like we’re starting to be able to see this problem and address it.
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And it seems like a good thing that Iran has agreed in principle to back off from building nuclear weapons. What’s not to like? Our usual unquestioning acceptance of the possibility of massive nuclear destruction is sort of like the Greeks and slavery – we just can’t bring ourselves to think about it. But we know, in the back of our minds, that existing hydrogen bombs, always on alert and ready for launch, always subject to human error, could quickly end life as we know it. Shouldn’t we be pushing our governments to find ways to back off the nuclear precipice? If you aren’t familiar with the science regarding nuclear winter, information is here.
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