William Van Doren

Metaphysical sunset painter, self-taught. Painted every sunset for eleven years, 1-1-06 to 12-31-16. Experimenting with sunsets since 1995. Author, 47 Minutes on Christmas Eve (Third Edition). Currently completing The Sunset Chronicles: Paintings and Notes from Four Thousand Nights. 


See recent paintings on my Facebook Page@714bastille on Twitter; Instagram @williamvandoren.








Entries in Laurence Shatkin (4)


One Moment on the Trail, or A Roundabout Weird Way to Realize Something About Twitter

“The trail leads through the veil.” I was actually walking up a trail when I decided to see if the voices I sometimes hear – more about them some other time – had anything to say. That’s when I heard: “The trail leads through the veil.”

I experimented a moment, in case they might have meant “The trail leads through the vale” – which seemed possible, and which got me singing “Church in the Wildwood” – but soon I was satisfied the intended meaning was ‘veil’.

The trail I was on was a good-sized one, an old jeep trail, with so much forest around it, it was nearly a green tunnel. As soon as I heard this line, I felt the beautiful dense green woods ahead and on either side rotate, subtly disassemble, and shift, and my field of vision become capable of re-forming in new ways, as in a kaleidoscope. The world I normally know was still there but had become a blur. The trail became more symbolic than real, as if I were walking on a vector through a plane, almost like on a bridge in the sky or in space, rather than on a roadway through the trees. There was a moment of some kind of cognitive power, or possibility.

I couldn’t hold on to it. So I had to try to go back to it, as I’m doing by writing this, to see if I can manage a further step.

As soon as I wrote that, I remembered something from the moment. I’d been assuming that whatever there was to discover in that “re-formed” reality would be visual, but apparently it wasn’t going to be that easy. It did involve a visual clue – in the broken stained glass blur of colored pieces of woods and sky, I suddenly realized there was one odd, blank, completely white piece – one piece that didn’t belong with the others. The trail had to go through that piece.

As soon as I focused on the blank piece, it led into sound. Strangely enough, it was something like a podcast, or a radio program, but of a kind that I don’t think yet exists. A spoken-word Twitter feed.

Specifically, for me, it was much like one of those apps that lets you organize what you’re getting on Twitter. It was a sort of symposium or collective feed from four very different people. One was @MJonesStudio, or fellow artist and writer Michael Douglas Jones. Michael tweets often, in a rich vein of material closely related to my own work. Another was @samwisebruce, longtime editorial peer and colleague Sarah Bruce, who hardly ever tweets but who understands my work and has always been one of my ‘early adopters’. Third was @LaurenceShatkin, because even though Laurence tweets almost exclusively about his professional findings as a leading career consultant, he’s my friend and college roommate and I like to keep track of what he’s doing and vice-versa. Finally there was David Johansen, of the New York Dolls, who doesn’t seem to be on Twitter but who should be.

Needless to say, perhaps, but none of these people bears any responsibility for this crazy construct.

Here’s the thing: I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. That’s when I realized something critical about the people I follow (and who may follow me) on Twitter. It isn’t – necessarily — the specific things they say. It’s often just the sound of their voices – as befits a program named after bird songs. It’s a sympathetic, or inspiring, or challenging, or reassuring personal chorus. I realized what I was meant to take from them was encouragement, or courage. Perhaps this is completely circular, but going into that white, blank piece of mystery gave me courage to write this, first of all. Beyond that, I’ve taken encouragement to go further in my work than I may have done before.

An insight about Twitter doesn’t seem much like piercing a veil of metaphysical mystery.



Sunset, Friday, 20 November 2009

William Theodore Van Doren. Stony Point, Albemarle County, Va. Oil on paper, 16 x 20.

I’m happy the sun came back out for my brother Steve’s 60th birthday.

Rain, earth, sun. That’s more or less the theme from a long walk today, although those three elemental words immediately distracted me by making me think of writing about D.H. Lawrence. Another time. D.H. did loop back around to my brother, whose middle name is Lawrence, but I guarantee Steve wasn’t named for any author.

My college roommate recently wrote, “I was raised to consider myself part of an intellectual elite.” That just goes to show what an interesting culture gap we had to deal with in our early days at Hopkins. Steve and I et al. were raised to consider ourselves ... I have no idea!

Steve’s name was inspired by Steve Van Buren (Stephen W.), a pro football hero whose greatest fame came with the NFL championship games of 1948 and 1949. I don’t think Steve has ever given much consideration to the curious fact that he was named after a running back for the Philadelphia Eagles, of all things – not exactly a well-loved franchise in our experience.

Anyway, even though the Van Doren family, at least, had, in previous generations, a pretty strong tradition of preserving and passing names around, I suspect my parents were part of a (possible?) postwar trend toward naming your kid any damn thing you wanted. I’m the only one who got someone’s name – my grandfather’s – which was his grandfather’s, so break out the roman numerals. I think the story we always heard was that ‘Stephen Lawrence Van Doren’ sounded good.

Sounds very good to me.

Rain, earth, sun. But look, before I get there, I have to ask. My wonderful, many-marvel’d spouse, who is hardly ever wrong – as a consequence of which I now owe her exactly $8700 from all the bets I’ve lost with her – thinks that posts like this one – you know, the ones where it sounds like maybe I got only three hours of sleep and then walked seven miles, so that I go off on the slightest tangent through a lack of inhibitory frontal cortex function – anyway, that people might not like such long posts. What do you think? If you disagree with Laura I will be especially interested in hearing from you. There’s no money involved, unfortunately.

At the first stream we (Flint the foxhound and I) crossed today, I was struck by the effects of yesterday’s storms. The stream banks, where they’re normally a smooth, almost shiny sandy clay, had been beaten down into a flat, matte, finely stippled surface much like the beach after a long steady rain. The water of such a small stream, only yards from the source, is usually quick to rise and just as quick to fall, leaving a clear low current just as before – but today, 12 hours after the rain had ended, the water was still somewhat up and, I was surprised to see, slightly turgid. Dead leaves were pasted to the ground, the trunks of beeches, hollies and poplars looked scrubbed and a clearing sky seemed reflected in the field. 

The rain, in short, had washed the face of the earth. (And even though hundreds if not thousands must have written this before, it feels so accurate to my impression I don’t care.)

Thanks to the wash, we could see along the jeep trail that no hunters had come in today. This meant a lot less uncertainty about what was out there in the 1000+ acres, and less likelihood of “Cold Mountain moments.” That’s what I call creepy, spooky feelings like those the reader gets when Inman is up in the isolated deep mountains and you don’t know if the Home Guard is about to find him. In my case, they can come from not knowing where hunters are or not knowing what Flint may be barking at or chasing, off in the distance.

As for Charles Frazier’s intensely wrought creation – I don’t mean to quibble – it’s not every book that earns a place in one’s vocabulary – but I wouldn’t have minded holding it open to the rain and washing out just a little of the melodrama. In a sense I wanted fewer Cold Mountain moments in Cold Mountain. But that’s me. I’m also crazy enough to wonder, quite seriously, if entire novels might be constructed from rain, earth, sun.


Sunset, Wednesday, 18 November 2009

William Theodore Van Doren. Stony Point, Albemarle County, Va. Oil on paper, 16 x 20.

This note is for anyone who might have been interested in my post the other day about Ayn Rand and Objectivism. Laurence Shatkin has posted a terrific essay at DailyKos on strained right-wing efforts to claim Rand as ideological godparent, excuse the expression. Shatkin simultaneously shows that the current crop of ‘conservative’ politicians and pundits hold positions completely at odds with Rand’s, and that, in any event, her ideas have been proven inadequate to the task of governing the country. His analysis of Sarah Palin as the apotheosis of what Rand called ‘the second-rater’ is priceless.


The June 9th Primary

As I’m writing this – now, I hope, with enough time to get from start to finish – I realize I should probably recap a couple of background items from other posts, so that everything’s right here in one place. Those who already know these things, please excuse any repetition, but it may help when we get to the heart of my story.

From June 8th:

Tomorrow morning we get up at 4 to go work as county election officers in our precinct, for the Virginia Democratic primary ... and they don’t let us out until after the polls close at 7 and we’ve recorded the votes. These primaries usually mean a very light turnout. So I’ll have some time, and depending on how much sleep I can get, may be able to write and sketch for tomorrow night ...

For all you pollsters whose calls I never picked up, at the moment I’m leaning heavily toward Creigh Deeds.

From the Update:

I might add that that’s exactly the kind of thing I can’t say, breathe, or in any other way indicate, once I’m in the polling place. Something to be thankful for, seriously.

So, indeed, being an election officer on some primary days can be pretty boring, and expectations were that the turnout this time might only be five percent of registered voters. That’s not quite as awful as it sounds, since only the Democrats were holding a primary – to determine candidates for governor and lieutenant governor. But it’s also slightly worse than that sounds, because all voters can vote, people do not register by party in Virginia.

As we always do, we had a friendly little competition to predict our precinct’s turnout. (No prize, unfortunately for me.) We had 1,428 registered voters, so five percent would have been 71. Seventy-one voters in 13 hours – that’s what I mean when I say we were looking at an uneventful day. Laura guessed a turnout of 46; the precinct captain predicted 64; the assistant captain said 73; another officer said 80; and I went with 95. The turnout turned out to be 94. (But then I actually even made a little money as a ‘psychic’ for a brief period. If you wait for more details about that, you might have to wait a while.) (I predict.)

No matter whether there were going to be 46 or 71 or 95 voters, that’s not exactly a stampede, and there would be time. On other election days I’ve actually had fun drawing and writing during slow periods, but this was not a scintillating day for me, for the arts.

In posting these little sketches, I’ve asked myself, do I really want my readers to be as bored by my drawings as I was?

Possibly. I think the sense of tedium may help frame the delirium that broke out around lunchtime, and which is the real reason for this post.

First I sketched the exit sign. Hmm, wonder why I’d do that ...

Then, a Croc worn by our precinct captain. Remarkably, not only was he in bare feet and Crocs, as we sat out in the church hall that is our polling place, I had the opportunity to sketch his left Croc while his foot was not in it.

It may be slightly significant, concerning the incident that occurred later in the day, that these were desert camo Crocs; anyhow, as you can see, I didn’t bother with the desert camo.

Then I sketched what some might understandably call routine random clouds floating by in a blue sky, as I looked out the big windows of the hall.

Finally, or maybe I should say penultimately, a potted palm by the big front windows:

Boring! I did wonder, for a fraction of a second, why a potted palm, which seemed a little decorator-ish for a conservative, evangelical Christian church, then realized – Judea, Palm Sunday, hosanna, etc. Kind of nice.

I think the implied ‘pace,’ or maybe I should say the level of intensity – the low level of intensity – of these drawings may give you an idea of the humdrum rhythm of the day. And in whining so much about boredom and tedium, I should add that as many times as I’ve wanted to quit this gig – which is to say, every time I’ve done it – especially as I’m preparing to get up at 4 – just as many times I’ve gotten a happy sense of satisfaction from doing something to support the process of democracy. In the end, it’s an amazing experience.

Now, in addition to the long day’s routine, there’s the underlying interpersonal and political friction. I should explain that even though voters don’t register by party in Virginia, the two major parties supply the pool of officers to work the polls. Ideally, if there are six officers working a precinct, three of them represent the interests of the Republicans, and three were supplied by the Democrats. I don’t know, but maybe this system came about when someone decided that countervailing interests were more dependable than simply trusting someone to be disinterested. Sounds reasonable to me.

Perhaps because our chief is Republican and the assistant chief has usually also been Republican, and our other longest-serving precinct officer is Republican, our crew has always seemed to have a right-wing slant, accentuated by our polling location in a conservative evangelical church, where one of the officers is a member. (We even had voting in the sanctuary, in the 2008 presidential election – not a very secular atmosphere.) (Obama won handily.) In addition, that officer’s spouse, also a church member and a most vocal conservative Republican, is present throughout the day, bringing her husband food and checking on this and that – when she isn’t out in the parking lot politicking for the GOP ticket.

In none of this is there any real problem, except for the discomfort Laura and I sometimes feel when our colleagues make casual political comments to us or to each other, and except for a certain sense of lonesomeness or disaffection. We’re under strict instructions not to make any political statements or gestures of any kind toward or in the presence of voters during the day, and usually everyone observes this rule, but my feeling is that we should avoid political discussions altogether at the polls, just to keep the atmosphere ‘clean’ of politics.

Heretofore, the political comments have been pretty minimal and harmless, but not this time. This time I felt forced to say something, and since then it’s had me thinking about the nature of right-wing rabidity.

To be strictly fair, it probably would never have happened except for the aforementioned spouse, who is not an election officer. To make this long story as succinct as possible, she, in conversation with the others, simply started going off on President Obama as ‘The Anointed One,’ asking if we’d all heard how Rush Limbaugh had ‘dismantled’ Obama’s Cairo speech, speculating that the partial takeover of GM meant that we were now a ‘communist country,’ repeating the Limbaugh line that Obama was systematically destroying America, etc., etc. One of the chief officers, who had said to Laura and me that he really wanted to ask us what we thought about Obama now, enthusiastically joined in (“Rush Limbaugh is a great American”), as did another, who wound up saying that no one had dared even touch Obama on Jeremiah Wright or Bill Ayers (?!), and who, within two minutes (don’t ask me to explain how we got this far), was saying that Bush’s Air National Guard service didn’t bother him because Bush had flown the most advanced model of fighter plane “that protects this country,” while John Kerry’s Vietnam service was “a fraud.”

It was 2004 all over again, except worse. Actually, it was 1993 (let’s say), 2004, and 2008 all rolled together into one steaming little killer asteroid aimed right at the future.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, I broke the personal code of circumspect silence that had gotten me through maybe a dozen similar previous incidents at various public and private functions. I just had to say something. And what I said has to do with what I’m here about to write: It isn’t the positions, the beliefs or the contentions of these people that bother and astonish me, it’s the complete lack of awareness of the social context in which they’re speaking. They truly do not know or care that there are others in the room who would find their comments disturbing or offensive – and that we, the others, would never dream of subjecting them to an unsolicited rant on our opinions and beliefs.

And this lack of awareness, far from being a mere social disability or passing aggravation, has much to tell us about the sources of extremism on the Right and its oddly refractory nature. None of the people in that room was remotely capable of a violent crime, but, to agree with Paul Krugman in his column on “The Big Hate,” and Judith Warner in “The Wages of Hate,” I believe such virulence can promote violence.

I probably wouldn’t have said anything, except that I’d already seen – more than once – grandmothers and aunts and thirty-something businessmen roil the atmosphere at events as innocent as a small child’s birthday party with loud conversations voicing views such as these as if they were facts everyone knows, and as if no one could possibly be offended, even though, in fact, they were sometimes the only diehard Republicans in attendance and would normally have realized this.

When I told the folks at the church that I had heard so many of these conversations that completely ignored the feelings of other people, they hardly blinked. The spouse asked Laura, “Are you an Obama supporter?”

Laura answered, “Yes, I am.”

The immediate response: “I will pray for you.”

And this was taking place right by the pollbook tables in a voting precinct in one of the more cosmopolitan counties in Virginia.

What I think I’ve finally seen about these crypto–talk radio eruptions is that the participants become truly unaware of their social surroundings and instead lock in to each other as if there were no other people of significance. (In the spirit of the 2004 bumpersticker ‘Republicans For Voldemort,’ it’s a little like Death Eaters who have seen each other’s mark. However, Death Eaters would be capable of great discretion, and the followers of Limbaugh are capable of none.) What I believe is that they can’t afford to acknowledge an opposing view, especially as embodied in a real person.

While I was writing this, a friend, Laurence Shatkin (my Hopkins roommate and co-conspirator), posted the following on his Facebook page, in connection with the shooting at the Holocaust Museum:

When I was in college, it was the Left that acted out its violent, paranoid fantasies. It’s an interesting question why they did not return to that during the Reagan/Bush years, while they were in the wilderness as the Right is now. Is it because previous extremes discredited violence? If so, how long will it take for the violence of the Right to discredit itself? Why wasn't Tim McVeigh enough to do that? Or is there something about right-wing extremism that refuses to die?

I believe the answer may be that the source of their extremism is not any ideological idealism, as in the old radicals of the Left, but a deep, desperate grasping for a sense of personal security.

Extremism born of ideals is susceptible to mellowing and change through personal experience and growth. Extremism born of insecurity blocks out the very experiences that could alter it.

Unlike, say, people who were dismayed and angered by Bush while he was President, the Right radicals who stage these spontaneous parlays actually seem to enjoy every single complaint they express. Their eyes glitter with almost a sort of joy, they smile, albeit often with downturned corners of the mouth showing their sarcasm. The heavy sarcasm they voice toward someone like Obama is for them, I believe, pretty much a case of whistling past the graveyard. They’re afraid – too afraid to recognize or accommodate the social landscape in which they’re standing – incapable of the simple adult acts of nuancing their opinions or even lowering their voices.

In our case the storm was over in around five minutes – I don’t remember, maybe an actual voter walked in. The rest of the day was pretty uneventful, and the colleague who had wanted to ask us about Obama decided that he didn’t want to ask.

Polling Place View. Pigment liner pen and watercolor pencil in Moleskine notebook, 3.5 x 5.5.As I’ve mentioned, it was a rather uninspired day for sketches, so that this ‘thang’ represents the best of the lot – the view from the pollbook table in the hall of the church. Bushes, parking lot, light poles, the Southwest Mountains to the ... southeast.

(‘Southwest’ in the southeast is discussed here– oddly enough, in a retrospective post concerning another year on June 9th.)

Creigh Deeds, having won the primary, will now face, in addition to his legitimate opponent and good people who support that opponent, the dragons of extremism.