Sunday, December 31, 2006

Visiting the Milwaukee Art Museum

Milwaukee Art Museum Whenever we visit the Milwaukee Art Museum, as we did yesterday, I grab my camera and start shooting their stunning Quadracci Pavilion, the first building in the U.S. designed by Santiago Calatrava. It's one of the most beautiful and by far the most dramatic work in their collection -- just endlessly fascinating from every angle. Kudos are also deserved for the museum's liberal policy on photography, which generally allows visitors to shoot photographs for their own use of the building and most exhibits. It's a great way to take notes for yourself. That includes their marvelous Bradley Collection. The exception, of course, is shows in which loaned art comes with restrictive rights.

An example of the latter was their much lauded Biedermeier show. Here's Roberta Smith in the NYT on this groundbreaking reevaluation of early 19th century Central European design, positioning it as an under-appreciated bridge to modernism nearly a century later. For my part, I just wandered through the show marveling, "I didn't know they did stuff like that back then."

The real revelation for me on this visit was a retrospective of the work of a photographer I had never heard of, Saul Leiter, who must now be considered one of the true pioneers of modern color photography. Milwaukee photographer Tom Bamberger posted a penetrating review at Susceptible to Images.

Saddam's dead and so are 3,000 American troops. Can we bring the rest home now?

So we end this year with the depressing fact that U.S. military deaths in Iraq have reached 3,000 -- not to mention the larger number who have been seriously wounded, often maimed for life, or the even larger number whose lives have been thrown into chaos and long-term trauma. For what? Saddam is dead. George W. Bush not only has the feeling of a job well done, but he also has Saddam's gun as a souvenir.
Aides said the president made a point of not personalizing it. "I never heard him take any particular relish in Saddam's capture or the fate that obviously awaited him," said Matthew Scully, a former White House speechwriter who helped prepare Bush's remarks about Hussein's capture. "I remember vividly that the president's reaction that day was kind of businesslike. He always saw Saddam as part of the larger picture."

Still, in his White House study, the president keeps a memento -- the pistol taken from Hussein when he was captured. If there ever was a duel, it is now over.
Yeah, right. Go tell it to the Washington Post. Oops, he did...

If it had been about justice, Saddam Hussein would have been tried for his vast crimes against humanity -- the worst of which took place with U.S. complicity in his war against Iran -- in an international court in The Hague. Instead, he was tried and executed by the U.S. occupation's puppets of the moment, following a U.S. timetable and political agenda. Conveniently, like Oswald being shot about by Jack Ruby, he died before key questions about his past could be answered in a court of law -- questions leading to answers that would have been embarrassing to the U.S. government. No matter how they dress it up, Saddam Hussein is dead because George Bush wanted to prove he was man enough to kill him.

Josh Marshall summed it up perfectly at Talking Points Memo.
This whole endeavor, from the very start, has been about taking tawdry, cheap acts and dressing them up in a papier-mache grandeur -- phony victory celebrations, ersatz democratization, reconstruction headed up by toadies, con artists and grifters. And this is no different. Hanging Saddam is easy. It's a job, for once, that these folks can actually see through to completion. So this execution, ironically and pathetically, becomes a stand-in for the failures, incompetence and general betrayal of country on every other front that President Bush has brought us.

Try to dress this up as an Iraqi trial and it doesn't come close to cutting it -- the Iraqis only take possession of him for the final act, sort of like the Church always left execution itself to the 'secular arm'. Try pretending it's a war crimes trial but it's just more of the pretend mumbojumbo that makes this out to be World War IX or whatever number it is they're up to now.

The Iraq War has been many things, but for its prime promoters and cheerleaders and now-dwindling body of defenders, the war and all its ideological and literary trappings have always been an exercise in moral-historical dress-up for a crew of folks whose times aren't grand enough to live up to their own self-regard and whose imaginations are great enough to make up the difference. This is just more play-acting.
How many more lives will be lost pursuing George Bush's thespian ambitions? How much longer will this charade continue, now that it's arch-villain has been disposed of? To what end? Oh, I forgot -- it's about democracy.
Saddam Hussein's execution comes at the end of a difficult year for the Iraqi people and for our troops. Bringing Saddam Hussein to justice will not end the violence in Iraq, but it is an important milestone on Iraq's course to becoming a democracy that can govern, sustain and defend itself and be an ally in the war on terror.
How about if we just call it "mission accomplished' and get the hell out of there?

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Herblock blogs from beyond the grave

A few months ago I asked, "Where is Herblock when we need him?" Turns out he's over at Digby's place, guest posting from beyond the grave.
When Nixon left office, there was a general sigh of relief. And in his first talk as President, Gerald Ford said that "our long national nightmare" was over. But one month later, in the Sunday morning statement that shocked the country, he said he could not "prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed." So he issued a "full, free and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon," and decided that Nixon should have control over access to White House tapes and documents. He thus insured that the nation's bad dreams would be prolonged far into the future.
Truly a "blockquote." Read the rest here.

John Kerry finally polishes that talking point

Like somebody who thinks of a dashing riposte days after leaving a dinner party, John Kerry finally got that talking point straightened out, in a WaPo Op-Ed about Bush's Iraq policy.
There's something much worse than being accused of "flip-flopping": refusing to flip when it's obvious that your course of action is a flop.
Too bad it took a couple of years to come up with that. If Kerry had been quicker on his feet in 2004, maybe he wouldn't be quibbling from the sidelines today.

Want to jump start the economy? Unclog our economic arteries with health insurance reform.

In addition to its obvious inequities, our inefficient and dysfunctional system of health insurance has become the plaque clogging America's increasingly arteriosclerotic economy. Not only does the American approach to health insurance impose huge, anticompetitive costs on mature rust belt manufacturers like the auto industry in the face of foreign competition, but it is stifling the entrepreneurial energy of the American people.
As health costs soar, more would-be entrepreneurs are reluctant to quit Corporate America and its blue-chip benefits to start businesses, entrepreneurship experts say. That raises alarms about the impact on innovation and job growth, when both are of growing importance to the U.S. economy.

"This is a real problem," says Carl Schramm, CEO of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Mo., one of the USA's biggest entrepreneurship advocates.
Energetic young people with ideas can't afford to pursue their dreams by leaving the jobs that provide their health insurance for themselves and their families. Boomers who would love to retire from jobs that have grown tiresome -- perhaps to start part-time businesses of their own -- grimly hold on to ride out the years until Medicare kicks in, because of the sky-high cost of individual health insurance premiums a their age. It's a progressive hardening of the arteries of an economy that was long regarded as the most dynamic in the world.

It's all so unnecessary -- and accidental, as blogger Ezra Klein pointed out in his LA Times Op-Ed the other day. The result of World War II tax legislation, our ramshackle healthcare system is one of the more dramatic examples of the law of unintended consequence.
Few mention this, but the American healthcare system is something of a mistake. It blossomed out of a World War II tax reform meant to guard against corporate war profiteering. Liberals, with their usual combination of good intentions and inadequate foresight, imposed massive marginal tax rates on corporations, effectively freezing their profits at prewar levels. But the law had a loophole: Corporations could funnel their wartime riches into employee benefits, such as healthcare, thus putting the cash to use within their company. And so they did, creating the employer-based healthcare system.

But healthcare was simpler in the 1940s, and far less expensive. In the 21st century, it's not simple at all. Once a perk of employment, health insurance is now a necessity, and a structure that dumps such power, complexity and cost in the laps of employers is grotesquely unfair to both businesses and individuals. There's no logic to an auto manufacturer running a multibillion-dollar health insurance plan on the side; it should stick to making cars. There's no excuse for pricing the self-employed and entrepreneurial out of the market. And there's no reason the owner of a three-employee start-up should have to go to bed with a heavy conscience because his coffee shop can't pay for chemotherapy.
Klein argues that pressure for reform has reached a tipping point, and that the time for reform has finally come.
The work is not done, of course. There are arguments yet to be had, wars yet to be fought.

Insurers want to retain their ability to discriminate against the ill and the old; conservatives want individuals to assume more risk and expense in order to force wiser health decisions; liberals want the government to guarantee universality and utilize its massive market power to bargain prices down to levels approximating those paid by other developed countries.

What's important, though, is that for the first time since the early years of the Clinton administration, these arguments are being made, and employers, insurers, politicians and, most crucially, voters are making their way back to the table.

The realization that our illogical, mistaken healthcare system can't go on forever has dawned, and so it will end. The question now is what replaces it.
For the time being, progress will probably have to come from the states. It's hard to imagine a presidential candidate having the guts to go out on a limb on health care in 2008, given what happened to Bill and Hillary's plan. But Massachusetts enacted the nation's first nearly universal plan, and California Gov. Schwarzenegger is going to announce his own plan for reform in his State of the State address Jan. 9. I wouldn't quit my job just yet, but it's a start.

If you love movies most people hate, you'll love these -- and may even hum the scenery

"Bombs away! -- Movies that everybody hated...except me" was the self explanatory title of the Kent Williams roundup in Isthmus last week. I tried to use it as a guide to my holiday rentals, but the rest of my family wouldn't let me, which gives some idea of just how uncompromising the list really is. Kent, however, maintains this just proves he's an optimist.
The thing is, of all the words that have been hurled at me over the years, the one that bothers me the most is “negative.” I’m sorry, but I just don’t see myself as a negative person. I see myself as — I’m just going to go ahead and put it out there — a positive person, a glass-half-full kind of guy. And to bring that point home, I’ve assembled a list of movies that everybody, critics and audiences alike, hated, everybody except me.
My favorite line in the piece appears in his capsule review of "One from the Heart," which he gives the subhead "Apocalypse Now and Then."
“Coppola seems more fascinated by reflections of the actors than by the actors themselves,” Pauline Kael wrote. Touché, but is it always such a bad thing when we leave humming the scenery?
To me, this makes perfect sense. Many of the movies that stay with me the longest and return to inhabit my dreams are movies that I remember less for what happened in them than for their visual qualities.

Here are Kent's other subheads. Can you guess which movies he's suggesting we give a second look?
Oh for Heaven’s Sake
Hell, Caesar
Lost in the Desert
Rhymes With ‘Really’
Groucho, Meet Ingmar
Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance
It’s Alive
I Want My Mommie
Read "Bombs Away!" here and find out.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Selected December posts, in case you missed them the first time during the holiday rush

Because I'm feeling sort of tired and a bit lazy, trying to catch up on my Christmas reading, and because things scroll by so fast, here are some links:

"Prediction is difficult, especially about the future." Who said it? Bohr leads Berra, but Yogi closing the gap. And what about Borat?

What's that breaking sound? Just more breakage for this guy: Santa Bush and the Christmas Barn Rules. He broke it. He'll fix it, sort of. Oh oh oh. (Photo)

Bush Iraq policy summarized by The Donald. He may be a litigious lunatic about Rosie, but he's right on about Bush.

Fighting the winter blues: Here in Madison we didn’t get London’s fog or Denver’s blizzard. No, just a steady December drizzle all day long on the shortest day of the year -- the Solstice, celebrated by making an ice lantern by the side of a dark and thawing lake and lighting the candles. With photos and a passing discussion about Robert Frost and the Solstice, including link to Library of Congress handwritten manuscript of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

Rust Belt Blues: Partly an overview of the history and sociology of Kalamazoo, partly a personal meditation on the self-loathing malaise she sees running through her adopted Rust Belt city like a buried stream of toxic waste, Jaimy Gordon's essay, "Little Man in the Woods," is set in the town that once headquartered Gibson Guitar and other companies, now gone. Self-hating towns and their residents. With update on China connection in the comments.

The Unbearable Lightness of Listening to Bush. Not winning, not losing, gonna hang in there, more troops, wouldn't be there if we couldn't succeed. Nothing new and I drive off to work, scanning the radio stations for the news conference. Can't find it. That figures. Must not be important.

The magpie theory of book selection in the library: Of course I had to check out the book once I saw the bright yellow slip sticking out of it.

The Dr. Pangloss "Best of All Possible Worlds" Award goes to David Brooks. For actually writing “In general, poor people today live at about the same standard of living as middle-class people did in the 1960s.” Relying on American Enterprise institute research does that to people.

The calendar says three months, but in Wisconsin winter lasts six months. Seeing is believing: The meteorology of winter in Wisconsin. (And according to the calendar "winter" hadn't even started!)

The bloodless abstraction of a lot of the neoliberal discussion about Chile, rooted in the murderous abstractions of the Cold War, is so reminiscent of the arguments with similar historical origins (Jeane Kirkpatrick = mother of all neocons?) used to sell the Iraq war. in both cases, realpolitik over principle, with the result that real people -- not abstractions -- were killed and tortured. Nothing can justify that. When the pull of abstraction gets too strong, take a moment to read about Victor Jara.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

TIME puts Madison Guy in the spotlight!


What a rush! There I was, my picture glowing in the newsstand spotlight, right in between the boob jobs, best foods and the latest Bradjolina family pictures. I felt both elevated and humbled at the same time. TIME magazine had named me -- me!!! -- Person of the Year, and not only that, they spoke directly to me and reminded me how great I really was.
Who are these people? Seriously, who actually sits down after a long day at work and says, I'm not going to watch Lost tonight. I'm going to turn on my computer and make a movie starring my pet iguana? I'm going to mash up 50 Cent's vocals with Queen's instrumentals? I'm going to blog about my state of mind or the state of the nation or the steak-frites at the new bistro down the street? Who has that time and that energy and that passion?

The answer is, you do. And for seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game, TIME's Person of the Year for 2006 is you.
They know me so well. They know it hasn't been easy seizing the reins of the global media. And, pros that they are, they graciously saluted a competitor who beat them at their own game, little old me, armed with just my keyboard. They understand!

Or so it seemed at first. But disillusionment soon set in. Who was TIME to name me Person of the Year, and did they have to be so goddamn patronizing? Was this their way of trying to sell a few extra ad pages, or trying to coopt the entire blogosphere with their corporate blather? I wasn't sure. But Frank Rich nailed it [Times Select Link] when he wrote in the NYT:
The magazine’s disingenuous rationale for bestowing its yearly honor on its readers was like a big wet kiss from a distant relative who creeps you out.
That's why, only somewhat regretfully, I am declining the award and asking TIME to remove my picture from their cover. I feel violated.

My favorite Christmas card


Cheerful, seasonal and festive -- and accurately portraying our not-so-esteemed president as a complete buffoon, with bells on. This is my idea of a great Christmas card. My daughter bought this for me three years ago, misplaced it and then recently found it again and attached it to a Christmas gift. When I opened it on Christmas day, it seemed more relevant than ever. It's from Cara Scissoria Greeting Cards, and you can find a lot more of their wonderfully acerbic, political collages at their website. (This one is #4238.)

Baghdad = Stalingrad?

The analogy may seem far-fetched, but it's significant that it was made at all in a major newspaper. W. Patrick Lang and Ray McGovern in a Miami Herald Christmas Eve op-ed on the proposed Iraq troop surge:
A major buildup would commit the U.S. Army and Marine Corps to decisive combat in which there would be no more strategic reserves to be sent to the front. As Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway pointed out Monday, "If you commit your reserve for something other than a decisive win, or to stave off defeat, then you have essentially shot your bolt."

It will be a matter of win or die in the attempt. In that situation, everyone in uniform on the ground will commit every ounce of their being to "victory," and few measures will be shrunk from.

Analogies come to mind: Stalingrad, the Bulge, Dien Bien Phu, the Battle of Algiers.

It will be total war with the likelihood of all the excesses and mass casualties that come with total war. To force such a strategy on our armed forces would be nothing short of immoral, in view of predictable troop losses and the huge number of Iraqis who would meet violent injury and death. If adopted, the "surge" strategy will turn out to be something we will spend a generation living down.
Iraq is the neocon wet dream turned nightmare, and it looks as if it just won't end until Cheney and Bush leave office.

It's probably this aura of blind, doomed hubris that led Lang and McGovern to compare Baghdad and Stalingrad. You do have to roam pretty far afield to find a metaphor that does justice to the neocons now planning to double down their Iraq bet with a troop surge. One thing it does bring to mind is the image of the Germans overconfidently pushing east in the face of the approaching Russian winter. And we know how that turned out.

November 2008 has never seemed farther away. It can't come soon enough. And let's not be too quick to take the "I word" off the table.

UPDATE: Check out "The Inevitable Blowback Against the Inevitable Escalation" at Booman Tribune (h/t Rants from the Rookery).

Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas lights



Merry Christmas, and let's hope that, against all odds, we really do see the beginnings of peace on Earth next year.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Snowless Christmas Eve walk


Owen Park, Madison. Then home. Shut off computer. Merry Christmas!

Informal, totally unscientific bumper sticker poll of Madison's last-minute book shoppers




It's the afternoon of December 24, and all of Madison's grasshoppers -- the book buyers who somehow just couldn't manage to complete their Christmas purchases by Amazon's shipping deadline -- are swarming to Borders and Barnes & Noble while the ants curl up by the fireplace, watching football or maybe popping a DVD of "It's a Wonderful Life" into the player. I enjoy being out then, because I enjoy the company.

Of course, I am there purely in a research capacity, analyzing whether the last-minute shoppers have any particular political leanings. I undertake a bumper sticker survey of the parking lots of both West side megastores. I probably look as if I lost my car, but this is serious sociological research.

The results: At Borders, progressive bumper stickers outnumber conservative ones, 6-0. Oddly enough, at Barnes & Noble, I can't find any political stickers at all -- until finally, a sheepish looking Feingold supporter pulls up uncertainly in an ancient Toyota Corolla. I did, however, spot a bumper sticker promoting Drama and Forensics, and another urging "Save the Ales," paired with "Saving the world, one beer at a time."

Conclusion: Last-minute shoppers are overwhelmingly liberal. No wonder I enjoy hanging with the other grasshoppers.

Wisconsin State Capitol



So that would be a holiday tree, with handmade decorations from the state's schoolchildren. And that would be the dome that is still anchors the Madison skyline, despite the encroaching condos and office buildings.

Holiday cheer at the Blue Moon Bar & Grill


The Blue Moon (scroll down for online jukebox) has some of the best burgers in Madison. Great place to enjoy good company, have a few beers, check out the games on the tube and soak up a bit of holiday cheer.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

A lone star holiday in Wisconsin


In an era of over-the-top Christmas decorations, too bright, too sparkly and too inflatable, there's something to be said for keeping it simple and taking a minimalist approach -- though that may be more in keeping with the spirit of Festivus, which is celebrated today. Happy Festivus!

Bush Iraq policy summarized by The Donald

Noted foreign policy expert looks in his crystal ball:
“When you’re a president who has destroyed the lives of probably a million people, our soldiers and Iraqis who are maimed and killed — you see children going into school in Baghdad with no arms and legs — I don’t think Bush’s kids should be having lots of fun in Argentina,” he says.

[...]

“No matter how long we stay in Iraq, no matter how many soldiers we send, the day we leave, the meanest, most vicious, most brilliant man in the country, a man who makes Saddam Hussein look like a baby, will take over and spit on the American flag,” he says. “Bush will go down as the worst and by far the dumbest president in history.”
Donald Trump, interviewed by Maureen Dowd.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Santa Bush and the Christmas Barn Rules


Sure, I broke the reindeer named Iraq. So I own it now. But, hey, no problem -- after all, how broke can a plywood reindeer really be? No matter what those lefty liberal defeatist media say -- a little Elmer's glue, a little duct tape, a little fresh paint, it'll be good as new. If not, whathehell, we'll just buy some more duct tape. You ask me, the damn thing should fly for at least a couple more years. And, hey, after that there'll be a new Santa anyhow. Let him (or her) handle the repair bills. Meanwhile, a Merry Christmas to all. Oh oh oh.

Shameless Christmas Cat Blogging


He's ready. Bring on the catnip filled stocking and new string toys! And since he's usually on my lap when I'm blogging, providing as much creative inspiration as a sleeping cat can (quite a bit, actually) -- I suppose he's justified in demanding a bit of exposure.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Solstice with ice lantern and umbrella


It was that kind of day, one of those December days when you wouldn't want to go out without an umbrella. Wet and rainy, with a steady drizzle all day long -- what happens when warm Gulf air pushing into the Midwest mixes with the leading edge of the giant winter storm that buried Denver. They've got enough white for many Christmases, here in Madison we've got zilch.

What was cool was that a melting Lake Wingra (so recently crisscrossed by iceboats flying across the ice) provided a nice supply of construction materials for our traditional Solstice ice lantern. Miniature ice floes floated obligingly close to the shore, and we scooped them up. T leaned them against each other to build an ice shrine with the sure instincts of a natural ice sculptor and lit the candles.

Since the sunset was not visible, we had to time it with our watches. 4:25 CST marked the start of the longest night of the year, after which the days grow longer again -- or is it the darkest night?

Not an insignificant point. They were talking about Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening [links to Library of Congress handwritten manuscript] on the radio as I drove home through the gloomy rain past dark, snowless wooded hills. According to the consensus on Jean Feraca's "Here on Earth" (archives) the last line in this famous quatrain made "Stopping by Woods" a Solstice poem.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
I had never thought of it that way. I think of Solstice poems as poems of rebirth and celebration, but Frost's poem is about other things, some of them very dark. It seemed to me that if Frost had meant "longest evening," he would have said that, and that he chose the words "darkest evening" for their symbolic resonance more than their euphony. And in a sampling of critical opinion, there are few mentions of the Solstice, none of them central to the interpretation. But I looked that up later.

As we stood watching the icebound candles flicker in the soggy darkness, I was still wondering if I was the only person on earth who had never thought of the Solstice in connection with this poem. (I so often miss the obvious.) So I asked T if she ever thought of it as a Solstice poem.

"No, why?" she asked.

I told her about the discussion on the radio. "You know, stopping on the darkest evening of the year."

"That's symbolic. He wrote darkest, not longest. That can stand for many things."

As we headed home I thought about the irony that, by bringing up the poem on the Solstice, I had in a way made it a Solstice poem, or at any rate, part of our Solstice. But ours had something Frost's poem lacked. As we approached our house, all the way across the dark expanse of the park we could still see the glow of our candles in their little ice cave along the lake. They could probably see them flickering from the other side.

Seeing what happened to Atrios, I guess Letter from Here will stick with Alpha Blogger as long as it can

As I write, Atrios is a link to nowhere, and has been for nearly 24 hours. The day's essential read has gone dark and is being held hostage by the former Blogger Beta, now known as the New Blogger. (UPDATE: He's up here now for the time being -- h/t Avedon.) Is Googlesoft turning into the Baghdad Power & Light Company? Does it need a troop surge to fend off the insurgents? Think I'll pass on the new contractor and stick with Alpha Blogger until further notice.

UPDATE 2: Atrios was back at his regular URL at 1:13 EST.
And, for those who love to harsh on blogger, everyone has tech problems. Blogger's free, works most of the time, and though it fails spectacularly and stupidly on occasion, their gnomes usually come through and fix things.
I see his point, but still, will hold onto Alpha Blogger for awhile. Give the gnomes a little time off.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Great career advice

From Matt Yglesias, to David Petraeus, former commander of the 101 Airborne in Iraq, one of the few senior military figures to come out of that hellhole with his reputation not only intact but burnished to a fine glow. He's been suggested as a replacement for John Abizaid at CENTCOM or George Casey in Iraq. Don't do it, says Yglesias. You'd have to start spinning for the administration:
The last thing you want to do is become a spin artist on behalf of a lame duck administration fighting a failed war. That means staying as far away as possible from the chain running from the White House to the Pentagon to Tampa to Baghdad.
Especially, I'd think, if we go ahead with the troop surge to bring Baghdad under control, or any of the other panaceas being proposed.

The Unbearable Lightness of Listening to Bush

I'm getting ready for work -- running a bit late, all the big deadline projects are done, we're coasting till after the holidays now -- when the big "Special Report" graphic breaks into the Today show with its blaring, excited fanfare and I wonder, "Oh shit, what now?" But it's just a Bush "news" conference, and with it, the unbearable lightness of listening to the Deluded Decider stumble along and do the same old same old one more time.
My comments -- the first comment was done in this spirit: I believe that we're going to win. I believe that -- and, by the way, if I didn't think that, I wouldn't have our troops there. That's what you've got to know. We're going to succeed. My comments yesterday reflected the fact that we're not succeeding nearly as fast as I wanted, when I said it at the time, and that the conditions are tough in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad.
Yeah, right. So go ahead and tell us you're blowing off the Iraq Study Group. We already know that. I go back to finish shaving. From the other room I hear T voicing her thoughts:
I keep expecting the part where he declares himself our Immortal Emperor. But so far, so good...
Thank heaven for small favors. As I leave the house, he still has not assumed the dictatorial powers he clearly wishes he had. I get in the car and drive off, scanning the radio stations for the news conference. Can't find it. That figures. Must not be important.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Thursday we'll be celebrating the Solstice


As the sun goes down on the day of the Winter Solstice, in our household we celebrate by lighting candles at sunset to celebrate the return of the light. The exact nature of the ceremony depends on our extremely variable December weather, ranging from arctic wind chills some years to balmy thaws other years.

This was one of the best. Four years ago we went to one of our favorite locations, a little cove on Lake Mendota here in Madison. The weather was about in the middle of the spectrum. We'd seen better, and we'd seen worse. It was cold, the wind was whipping off the freezing but not yet frozen lake, and icy stalactites were hanging from the rocky outcroppings. We needed something more than our little plastic cups to shelter the candles, and as luck would have it, when we climbed down the hillside to our secluded retreat, we found that somebody had already prepared a sort of Solstice altar for us. It was as if Andy Goldsworthy had passed by and just happened to throw together a little stone cairn on the spur of the moment. Or maybe it was one of his followers like Marissa. The miniature neolithic construction felt primal and ritualistic, and it seemed as if we were marking the Solstice at our own private Stonehenge, built by someone who had passed by earlier.

How will we celebrate this Thursday? Judging from the weather forecast, it will probably be a ritual involving umbrellas.

Found object homage to Duchamp


Found on the UW-Madison campus a couple years ago. Question: If you're invoking the name of Marcel Duchamp, would it be proper to use the Photoshop clone stamp to get rid of the cigarette butts? I think not, but the sad, crumbling leaf in the sink had to go. It was pathetic and distracting. You'll never see it.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Meteorology of winter in Wisconsin (Part 2)


Sure, in Wisconsin we often get some snow in December. Sometimes it's white knuckle time on the road. But, on average, we only get a white Christmas three out of every four years. This is not one of those years. (Part 1)

First they came for the terrorist suspects and threw away the key, and then they came for Donald Vance


Peter Wynn Thompson for The New York Times

This is a Bible. These are some of the notes a prisoner at Camp Cropper, the United States military’s maximum-security detention site in Baghdad, wrote in his Bible. The thing is, the prisoner was a U.S. citizen and an army veteran named Donald Vance, who when he was working in Iraq as a contractor and became aware of corruption at the security firm he worked for started reporting on it to the FBI. And the worst thing of all is that he was swept up in the resulting raid and was detained for more than three months under harrowing conditions and denied access to counsel.
“Even Saddam Hussein had more legal counsel than I ever had,” said Mr. Vance, who said he planned to sue the former defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld, on grounds that his constitutional rights had been violated. “While we were detained, we wrote a letter to the camp commandant stating that the same democratic ideals we are trying to instill in the fledgling democratic country of Iraq, from simple due process to the Magna Carta, we are absolutely, positively refusing to follow ourselves.”
This is ridiculous. Ridiculous that it happened, but even more ridiculous that this could happen to "one of the good guys" and there's no big national outcry. Kudos to the NYT for digging this story up and making their thorough account the main front page story today. In the progressive blogosphere, Think Progress, Atrios, Christy at Firedoglake and Echidne of the Snakes all covered it (and Echidne had to reach all the way back to Kafka to express both her outrage and the surreal nature of Vance's detention).

But there was no immediate wave of national revulsion and outrage. Granted, it's the last week before Christmas and people are wrapped up in their holiday preparations. But the man smuggled his notes out of detention in a Bible, for God's sake. Doesn't anything shock this country anymore?

We started by torturing and abusing suspected terrorists. Then our procedures and our constitutional protections grew more and more lax under the malignant leadership of the Bush administration. Pretty much anything goes these days. Where will it end?

I'm reminded of First They Came..., the famous poem that has appeared in many versions but is generally credited to Martin Niemöller, the German pastor and opponent of the Nazis who spent the war years in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps.
First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up,
because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left
to speak up for me.
When will we wake up?

Gardening for peace

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Holiday magic at Olbrich Gardens


Faerie cottages by Tatiana Katara are on display at the Olbrich Holiday Express Holiday Flower and Model Train Show at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison. Find out more about Tatiana and her work here.

Of course I had to check out the book once I saw the yellow slip with the strange doodle sticking out of the book

Of Course I Had to Check Out the Book Once I Saw the Bright Yellow Slip Sticking Out of It
The guiding principle of my visits to the Madison Public Library is serendipity. Put me in front of the "New Fiction" or "New Nonfiction" shelves, and I'm like a magpie -- I go for the shiny new things that catch my eye and spirit them off to my nest. And there's no rhyme or reason as to what snags my attention. In this case, it was a bright yellow slip of paper poking out of a book in "New Nonfiction" -- J. Anthony Froude: The Last Undiscovered Great Victorian, by Julia Markus. Froude was one of those cold and rather forbidding Victorian figures mostly forgotten now.

The flimsy little slip with a doodle on the back was a checkout receipt from the library that a previous borrower must have used as a bookmark. Listed were two books on painting: Paul Cezanne and Composing Your Paintings. What sort of person was interested not only in an obscure Victorian writer, but Cezanne and how to compose a painting as well? It made me look at the anonymous doodler in a new light.

Maybe the doodler was an artist. Whoever made the drawing has a nice, fluid line. And judging from the person's reading, it might be more than a doodle -- it might be a snapshot of the creative process at work. Perhaps these scribbles were the first tentative iterations of a work of art just emerging from the depths of the artist's unconscious, a thumbnail sketch of something that might eventually be fleshed out as a full-fledged painting. Or not.

I drag home so many more books from the library than I ever have time to read. After spending part of the afternoon skimming Froude's life, will I read the whole thing? Probably not. I don't have time for a long trip back to the 19th century right now, although I enjoyed my brief visit. I'll probably settle for the parts I've read, plus the NYT review. Just another one of those passing, accidental encounters in the library. I'll probably return the book soon.

But I'm keeping the drawing. It may be small -- 1-1/2" x 2" -- but I like it. Finders keepers.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Mezzotint of the NYT Arts page about a drawing of the NYT Arts page by Turkish artist Serkan Ozkaya

The NYT went wading in the waters of recursive art today. Their Arts page is a collaboration between the NYT staff and Turkish artist Serkan Ozkaya, who drew the entire page and whose drawing was then repeated on the page in an endless recursive regression of pictures of pictures within pictures. Copies of the page along with drawings the artist made of it are being displayed at a show called “Altered, Stitched and Gathered” at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City. As NYT reporter Randy Kennedy noted, it made for a strange interview.
It turns out to be a strange thing to interview someone for a newspaper article who you know will then hand-copy some of that article before it is printed, including some of the sentences he is just then uttering. During the interview that afternoon at P.S. 1, Mr. Ozkaya and this reporter talked admiringly about Borges and his “Pierre Menard” short story, giving the reporter the idea of mentioning the story in the article while at the same instant knowing that Mr. Ozkaya would later transcribe the words, reminding him of the discussion during the interview.
The story at the link includes reflections on author Jorge Luis Borges and his short story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” as well as -- naturally -- critic Walter Benjamin. There's also a video showing Ozkaya creating the drawing and an explanation of how the page was made up. I wanted to keep the chain of recursive transformations going, but didn't have the time or the patience to draw the page. Instead, I shot a photo and converted it to a mezzotint in Photoshop (click to enlarge).

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Accident, or was Diana's killer "licensed to kill"?

Still wondering what really happened to Princess Diana? The official inquiry report calling Diana's death "a tragic accident" did little to diminish speculation by conspiracy theorists. Ellis Sharp pokes huge, gaping holes in the leading conspiracy scenarios -- and then tops them with his own completely over-the-top take on what really happened.
The Prince of Wales’s face was a cruel mask as dawn broke over Highgrove...
Read the rest here. It goes downhill quickly. Very funny.

The Dr. Pangloss "Best of All Possible Worlds" Award goes to David Brooks

Quick: In which of all possible alternate universes could this statement possibly be true?
In general, poor people today live at about the same standard of living as middle-class people did in the 1960s.
It's a universe in which David Brooks actually knows what he's talking about (Times Select link) when he nominates Nicholas Eberstadt's "The Mismeasurement of Poverty" in Policy Review as one of the best essays of the year. Here's the link, if you want to try to wade through Eberstadt's article in the Hoover Institution's Policy Review, which itself is a summation of the longer version of his study being published as a monograph by the American Enterprise Institute Press. (Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute, not to be confused with the Dr. Pangloss Chair in Political Economy at the Candide Institute in the alternate universe). Or you could check out an economist who knows what he's talking about here.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

With strokes, time is of the essence

In recent weeks, a couple family members of friends of mine -- one in his sixties, and one in her twenties -- have had strokes, which is why the Jane Brody health column in the NYT this week caught my eye. In the wake of Senator Tim Johnson's apparent stroke this afternoon, Brody's article seems especially timely. As Brody cautioned her readers, minutes count when it comes to strokes.
This treatment, with a drug called t-PA (for tissue plasminogen activator), can help dissolve a brain-damaging clot in thehttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gif 80 percent of victims who have strokes caused by them. But it must be administered within three hours of a stroke to be effective, and the sooner the better.

About only one stroke victim in five who could benefit from t-PA receives it, primarily because people don’t realize a stroke is happening and wait too long to get to the hospital.
Medical experts are trying to help people react more quickly by summarizing the warning signs and what to do in an acronym, FAST.
  • Face weakness or numbness, droopy mouth or crooked smile.
  • Arm or leg weakness or numbness.
  • Speech difficulty in understanding or speaking.
  • Time to call 911.
According to early news reports, the South Dakota Democrat was able to get medical care very quickly. Here's hoping that Senator Johnson makes a speedy and full recovery.

Paul Krugman without the Times Select filter and with lots to say about why we're all falling behind

Paul Krugman's "The Great Wealth Transfer" in Rolling Stone mercilessly dissects three "comforting myths" we tell ourselves to obscure the ever greater concentration of wealth in the hands of a very tiny, very rich minority:: 1) Inequality is mainly a problem of poverty; 2) Inequality is mainly a problem of education; 3) Inequality doesn't really matter.
Rising inequality isn't new. The gap between rich and poor started growing before Ronald Reagan took office, and it continued to widen through the Clinton years. But what is happening under Bush is something entirely unprecedented: For the first time in our history, so much growth is being siphoned off to a small, wealthy minority that most Americans are failing to gain ground even during a time of economic growth -- and they know it.
And don't miss Krugman's dramatic evocation of a way to visualize all this, an imaginary line of 1,000 Americans with their height proportional to their wealth, with the tallest guy in line now towering over everyone with a height of 560 feet, almost five times taller than his 1973 counterpart. (Via Avedon)

Note to Washington Post: Nothing can justify Pinochet's killings and torture

John in DC at AMERICAblog commented on the bizarre Washington Post editorial glorifying the late Augusto Pinochet of Chile.
This is a disgusting editorial in today's Washington Post praising Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Per the Post, Chile has seen great economic growth since Pinochet left the scene, so that makes him not so bad. Forget the fact that Pinochet killed thousands of his own people and threw their bodies into the sea simply because of their political beliefs. I mean, who hasn't? From CNN:
According to an official report by the civilian government that succeeded Pinochet in 1990, at least 3,200 people were killed for political reasons and another 1,197 disappeared.
Chile had ten million citizens at the time that Pinochet was busy killing them. The US has 300 million citizens, that's 30 times the population of Chile at the time. To appreciate how many political prisoners Pinochet had put to death, an equivalent number in American terms would be nearly 100,000 Americans put to death for their political beliefs, and another 36,000 Americans mysteriously disappeared by the government. Is that a price you're willing to pay for economic growth?
Just in case these are just number to the editors of the Post -- to be weighed on the economic and political scales just like other numbers -- that is, in case they have forgotten that these were real human beings, let's look at just one of those thousands and his brutal fate in the days after "the other September 11," Pinochet's coup that took place on September 11, 1973.

Victor Jara was a beloved folksinger, political activist and supporter of Salvador Allende. In the soccer stadium renamed Estadio Víctor Jara in 2003, he was brutalized and killed in a manner worthy of Saddam Hussein.
Jara was repeatedly beaten and tortured, the bones in his hands were broken as were the bones of his ribs. Fellow political prisoners have testified that his captors mockingly suggested that he play guitar for them as he lay on the ground. Defiantly, he sang part of a song supporting the Popular Unity coalition. He was murdered on September 15 after further beatings were followed by being machine-gunned and left dead on a road on the outskirts of Santiago. Soon after, his body was taken to a city morgue.
What goes around, comes around. Until Iraq came along, one of the more shameful episodes in our history was the U.S. complicity in the coup and our continuing support for the brutal Pinochet regime -- to the extent of even tolerating the murder of American journalist Ronnie Moffitt in Washington, DC. So perhaps it's not surprising that the Post, a major cheerleader of the Iraq war, concludes with this tribute to the realpolitik of someone who in this context should be considered the mother of all neocons.
The contrast between Cuba and Chile more than 30 years after Mr. Pinochet's coup is a reminder of a famous essay written by Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, the provocative and energetic scholar and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who died Thursday. In "Dictatorships and Double Standards," a work that caught the eye of President Ronald Reagan, Ms. Kirkpatrick argued that right-wing dictators such as Mr. Pinochet were ultimately less malign than communist rulers, in part because their regimes were more likely to pave the way for liberal democracies. She, too, was vilified by the left. Yet by now it should be obvious: She was right.
Just like Iraq, it was all about democracy. Yeah, right.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Meteorology of winter in Wisconsin


We got our first snow (2.3 inches, a record) on October 21st. That melted, of course, and then the Friday after the election we got some more. That melted, naturally, and then on December 1st it came down pretty good. That melted, in due course, and then it got just plain gloomy. Then the sun came out and with it a howling arctic chill that froze the lake, to the delight of the ice boaters. But that was then. Now it's warm again, the snow is disappearing, there's mud everywhere and fog as far as the eye can see (not very).

Welcome to Wisconsin in December -- and winter hasn't even started!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

If this isn't contemporary art, what is?

Neon ArtI took this photo in April 2004 at the Outdoor Neon and Light Exhibition in the UW Stock Pavilion. I wish I could tell you who created this lovely work, but I was too entranced to take notes (and, of course, it was dark). I still flash back on memories of the show. You can see more examples at Lisa Koch's website here.

It strikes me as ironic that in the very year our city proudly opened a shiny new Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in the Overture Center (known in some quarters as the condo magnet) the biennial light show was not held due to lack of funds. If this is not contemporary art, what is? If you have a few spare bucks to help bring it back, I'm sure the UW Glass Lab would love to hear from you.

Making a flying glass reindeer with legs



That's what they were doing at the UW Glass Lab open house when we went there this afternoon. Lisa Koch (orange t-shirt) and Quincy Neri first made the body, then attached legs (bottom photo) and built a base, all out of that hot, semi-liquid primordial substance we call glass. (You can see their highly technical pattern drawing pinned to the wall behind them in the bottom picture if you click to enlarge.) It was a fun event, and we bought a few pieces and wished when we got home we had bought more. But there was a twinge of melancholy intermingled with the enjoyment. One of the things the UW Glass Lab is known for is its neon program, along with the Outdoor Neon and Light Exhibition that was held here every two years since 1988. Except this year. No money. If you miss the Neon Show as much as I miss that magical event, contact the head of the program, Steven Feren, and let him know.

Surf's up in Cleveland. Who knew?

Here in Wisconsin we get excited about the lakes starting to freeze over. But according to the New York Times, in Cleveland they're made of sterner stuff. When the weather gets tough, the tough go surfing, heading for the big waves -- such as they are -- kicked up by the storms of early winter on Lake Erie before it freezes over.
They surf in Cleveland because they must. They surf with two-inch icicles clinging to their wet suits, through stinging hail and overpowering wind. They work nights to spend their winter days scouting surf. They are watermen on an inland sea.

Given its industrial past, Cleveland largely turns its back to Lake Erie, lining the coast with power plants, a freeway and mounds of iron ore to feed its steel factories. The shore is especially deserted in winter, when strong winds and waves pummel the land. In December, as temperatures dip into the 20s and ice gathers in the lake's small coves, Cleveland surfers have Lake Erie almost entirely to themselves.

"Surfing Lake Erie is basically disgusting," said Bill Weeber, known as Mongo, 44. "But then I catch that wave and I forget about it, and I feel high all day."
Looking for photographic evidence that this isn't just a sly hoax perpetrated on the NYT by some stringer with a bizarre sense of humor? Although the print edition of this NYT story didn't have any pictures, there's a chilly-looking photo at the online version. More photos here. Interested in joining the polar bear surfers? Blogging Ohio points to some resources.

Christmas ensemble glowing in the twilight


As a fading December sunset reflects on the roof of a car, figures of the Illuminated Nativity Village on Madison's Tokay Blvd. come alive with light, along with all of the ensemble's glowing livestock.

Self-hating towns and their residents

Saturday Night Live had a very funny bit tonight co-starring guest host Annette Bening as part of a duo of self-hating local morning show hosts whose contempt for themselves was only exceeded by their contempt for their audience. Their show was called "I Hate This Town."

Memory is a funny thing, and you never know when a web of associations will spin away from something and veer off into a completely new direction, completely different in tone and emotional resonance. My flashback, inspired by the skit, took me back to a very different meditation on self-hatred -- a vivid essay I read a couple years ago, which intertwines the theme of urban decay and moral decay to fashion a powerful statement on self-loathing. It was called "Little Man in the Woods" and written by novelist Jaimy Gordon a professor of English at the University of Western Michigan in -- yes -- Kalamazoo.
I feel at home in a town that hates itself. After I left it, Baltimore came up in the world and in its own eyes, but for me it was too late. I gravitated to another city rich in self-disgust, Kalamazoo, whose burghers sneer at its mistakes and whose youth can't wait to get out, or say they can't. If they are still here in their thirties (they usually are), they slouch around in jeans and flannel shirts, smoking cigarettes and grinning sheepishly. They blame no one else for their troubles. I like them, these good-natured volunteers for their own defeat.

If you want to meet the living creatures of a place, naturalists say, go to the edge of it, the wet meadow between pond and forest, the strip of brush between the last yard and the first farm. And this is how I've happened to meet orphaned deer in Kalamazoo, on the overgrown property of the old Home for Boys--three of them, milling about in confusion near the still warm body of their mother, who had been hit by a car on Oakland Drive--or a puff adder on my jogging path, nervously spreading its faux cobra hood; or, in the bog called Kleinstuck, with his back up against the largest bald cypress in Michigan, a scared little man masturbating. The modus operandi of this man's pleasure was to make women joggers run screaming out of the woods at the sight of his naked penis. And I make him the hero of my story, for an exhibitionist is the very flower of self-hatred, its extruded, visible sexuality. In showing his sex to you, he asks not for your love, but for your loathing. Kleinstuck, his chosen backdrop in this case, is what is left of nature in Kalamazoo. A leftover scrap of nature in the city is all edge. In such a place, neither this nor that, or rather this but also that, self-hatred, like wildlife, feels at home.

No city can have always hated itself, you think; but once a town begins to have that habit of mind, it colors the water, rusty and styptic, like tannin in an old cask. A self-hating town like Kalamazoo will long ago have buried the living stream it built itself on. Kalamazoo sank the wild Arcadia, which must have run amok in the mud streets of the pioneer town once too often. And when, in the restoration-minded nineties, the downtown authority decided to let the creek out again, they confined it like a bear in a zoo to a concrete trench so deep you have to stand at the railing even to see it. For acts of faint heart like this, Kalamazoo has nothing good to say of itself. Why? It still has handsome old neighborhoods, natural ponds, so many big trees that, flying over in summer, you might not know a town was there. It has history: an old railhead once on every self-respecting hobo's list, it gave the world the Checker cab, the card game Flinch, the Upjohn "friable" pill and the Gibson guitar. Abraham Lincoln slept here.

Nevertheless, Kalamazoo prefers to hate itself. Dan Mancilla writes that at a wrestling match put on by some low-budget promotion in a gym near the airport, the visiting "heel" tried to heat up the sparse crowd by telling the folks they were all losers for living in Kalamazoo. The people nodded their heads serenely. Hating itself is second nature to Kalamazoo; it has forgotten its first nature, whatever that was. True, Checker closed, Gibson went south, Abraham Lincoln never came back, Flinch sold out to Milton Bradley. The great paper mills shut down one after another, leaving great Superfund sites behind them. Maybe all that closing, all that submissive coming down in the world, poisons the mind of a town forever, as the paper mills poisoned the river. Still, some towns love themselves. Grand Rapids, fifty miles north, thinks well of itself, though it sports the fishy brand name Amway on its Grand Hotel. Ann Arbor, one hundred miles east, loves itself, and what does it have over Kalamazoo? A thousand restaurants. Houses cost half as much in Kalamazoo. Those who sneer at themselves in Kalamazoo are sneering in mansions, while those who gloat in Ann Arbor gloat, like as not, in shacks.
Partly an overview of the history and sociology of Kalamazoo, partly a personal meditation on the self-loathing malaise she sees running through her adopted Rust Belt city like a buried stream of toxic waste, Gordon's essay is about reclaiming her space, the “bog called Kleinstuck” where she regularly goes running, from the sad and self-hating exhibitionist who lurks there. But why is it part of Gordon’s personal story that she feels at home in a town that hates itself? She never says, and the question gives her essay an added dimension of suggestive mystery.

Check it out. You can read the entire essay here on Gordon's homepage. It's also available in book form as one of the essays collected as part of In the Middle of the Middle West: Literary Nonfiction from the Heartland.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Dysfunctional family blues, Oval Office style

They're trying to deprogram the wayward son who fell under the spell of cultists. They've locked the kid in the little study off the Oval Office with only his friend Barney for company. The Deprogrammer takes charge.
Baker gently nudges Laura aside. “Now son, hear me out. We’ve disabled your enablers. Rummy has written his last self-serving memo. Dick’s got his hands full explaining his darlin’ new grandchild’s Two Mommies. Don’t bother calling for Condi. She’s at the bottom of Foggy Bottom. You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.”

It’s not sinking in. “We must achieve our objective,” Junior sputters. “Our objective is success. To succeed we must have success. If we don’t win, we lose. We are the winners. We can’t let the ... we’re in an ideological struggle and that’s why we have a strategy ... AL QAEDA! We must help democracy in Iraq succeed because ... ISLAMOFASCISTS! ... that is the objective of a successful ...”

Barney scratches at the door, trying to cut and run.
That's how Maureen Dowd sees it, and excerpts don't do her vision justice. If you don't have Times Select, grab a copy of the Times on the newsstand. Or make a trip to the library. It's worth it. When Dowd says, "It is not a happy mood in the Oval Office," she means it.

"New ice is by far the best"

That's what the ice boaters told me, and you could see what they meant. Lake Wingra is by far the smallest of Madison's lakes, and so it freezes over weeks earlier than the others. With no major snow since it froze, the ice is inviting, sparkles in the sun and is smooth as a mirror, marred only by the cloud chamber tracks left by skates and ice boat blades. Oak leaves that fluttered into the water just weeks ago are now ruddy ghosts of themselves, entombed just below the surface.

The boats are elegant speed machines, and this is a perfect day with a steady, warming breeze coming out of the southwest.

The little boats glide across the frozen lake at warp speed. If they were cars they would get tickets for going too fast in the city. To the casual observer, they seem propelled by magic, because we "know" that nothing with sails goes that fast.

The lake is covered with sail machines flying across the ice. In the background there's a pickup hockey game. Dogs are exploring the frozen world. Life is good.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Wealthy outsider artist with hyperactive imagination looks for Rosebud all over the Yucatan peninsula


AP Photo/Icon Distribution, Andrew Cooper/SMPS

That's quite a spectacle Mel Gibson cooked up, down there in the Yucatan. "Apocalypto" is the story of one young Mayan's struggle to survive, rescue his wife and start a family against all odds, pursued and persecuted by a murderous, bloodthirsty regime -- and an angry momma jaguar. Critical opinion was mixed, with some hailing Gibson's vision as an auteur and his flair for blood-and-gore action sequences, others focusing more on the ultimately alienating incoherence of his vision. Ty Burr seemed to strike about the right balance in the Boston Globe, where he found an earlier precedent for Gibson's grandiosity.
If you have the stomach for it, though -- or if you like keeping in touch with the works of one of our wealthier outsider artists and/or don't mind funding an anti-Semite -- "Apocalypto" should be seen. Gibson is unique in modern pop culture: He's a troubled, self-made visionary with reprehensible personal ideas and real creative gifts, and he's financially free to do what he pleases. This is a dangerous and illuminating position, and where it will lead I haven't the foggiest.

It's fascinating to watch, though. Gibson may even turn out to be our generation's flawed, outsized Charles Foster Kane; if so, "Apocalypto" could be his Xanadu, cluttered with intermittent marvels. God help us if he ever finds his Rosebud.
Burr is right to compare Gibson to Kane rather than his creator, Orson Welles, who could only dream of having Gibson's flair for finding financial success. If he had, Welles wouldn't have had to make all those Gallo commercials and might have been able to make a few more films on his own terms.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

"If You Lived Here, You’d Be Cool by Now."
So where is here?


Photo cropped to obscure location. (Clicking on photographer's link is a spoiler.) Photo: Michael Schmelling

The "You’d Be Cool by Now" thing is the title of Adam Sternbergh's piece in New York Magazine touting the Next New Place, where you may or may not wish to move. But it's worth reading just for the lede, which vividly describes the game of musical neighborhoods that's played in New York and its environs as one neighborhood after another gives way to changing real estate values and coolness factors. It's a nice piece of writing and concludes with this:
As a result, even dug-in New Yorkers suffer from a kind of neighborhood ADD, perpetually suspecting that their dream of New York, whatever that might be, is happening elsewhere—not in another city, but in another borough, another neighborhood, another block. This is driven in part, of course, by money—priced out of Manhattan, you turn to Brooklyn; priced out of Brooklyn, you turn to Queens—but also in part by that anxious feeling you get when you’re attending a great party, but you can’t help hearing that there’s a louder, more raucous party going on down the hall. The reason many people come to New York, after all, is to marvel at its glories and revel in its parade of daily wonders. But to live here now is to endure a gnawing suspicion that somebody, somewhere, is marveling and reveling a little more successfully than you are. That they’re paying less money for a bigger apartment with more-authentic details on a nicer block closer to cuter restaurants and still-uncrowded bars and hipper galleries that host better parties with cooler bands than yours does, in an area that’s simultaneously a portal to the future (tomorrow’s hot neighborhood today!) and a throwback to an untainted past (today’s hot neighborhood yesterday!). And you know what? Someone is. And you know what else?

Right now, that person just might be living in ...
So where is here? (A question we ask often at Letter from Here.) Fill in the ellipses by clicking here.

ISG Report "minimizes its discrepancy" with reality

The Iraq Study Group is one of those high-level national commissions made up of Wise Men of the Washington political establishment -- in this case joined by one Wise Woman, who had to prove her gravitas by serving on the Supreme Court. They're experienced enough to mask the essentially political nature of their appointment and their recommendations with a dash of rhetorical flair, even if the rhetoric runs more toward euphemistic bureaucratese than spellbinding eloquence. Like other commissions before them, they've added an expression to the language -- in their case, a new definition of lying.
Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals.
In other words, a lie is just a falsehood presented in a way that "minimizes its discrepancy" with the truth.

This remarkable sentence appears near the end (page 62) of my downloaded PDF version of the ISG Report, which can be bought in book form at Amazon for $6.57 or downloaded as a free PDF here.

"Minimizing discrepancy" is also a pretty useful concept in describing the nature of the ISG Report itself. Although talk about the report dominated the airwaves and the headlines, with lots of talk about what a significant breakthrough it was, all of this tended to obscure the fact that the report is not only being rapidly outpaced by events but that its recommendations are basically an exercise in "minimizing the discrepancy" in regard to Iraq between what is politically acceptable at this point in time and what is actually possible.

Perhaps the most glaring example is the focus on training the Iraqi military. It's hard to believe that anybody on the commission really believes this will work. The point is, they don't need to believe it -- they just need to present it as an interim goal to provide political cover for our retreat.

Russ Feingold cut through the spin on Countdown.
So this is really a Washington inside job and it shows not in the description of what's happened - that's fairly accurate - but it shows in the recommendations. It's been called a classic Washington compromise that does not do the job of extricating us from Iraq in a way that we can deal with the issues in Southeast Asia, in Afghanistan, and in Somalia which are every bit as important as what is happening in Iraq. This report does not do the job and it's because it was not composed of a real representative group of Americans who believe what the American people showed in the election, which is that it's time for us to have a timetable to bring the troops out of Iraq.
Talk Left has more, as well as a link to the video. Also, don't miss Matt Rothschild's scathing analysis of the "Fantasies of the Baker Report" at The Progressive.
But having made its criticisms on the margins, the Baker Report is trying to silence others about the fundamentals.

“Success depends on the unity of the American people in a time of political polarization,” James Baker and Lee Hamilton declare in their opening note. “Americans can and must enjoy right of robust debate within a democracy. Yet U.S foreign policy is doomed to failure—as is any course of action in Iraq—if it is not supported by a broad, sustained consensus.”

That’s a bunch of crap.

The U.S. is going to fail there regardless of dissent here. And the Baker Report should not be used as a gag in the mouths of the majority of Americans who want all troops out within a year.

Just because James Baker and Lee Hamilton have spoken doesn’t mean the rest of us have to shut up and get in line.
And that, of course, is the greatest discrepancy of all that the report tries to minimize -- the discrepancy between today's public opinion about the total futility of the war and the Washington establishment's need to believe that there still something to be salvaged from it. In short, the ISG Group is still presenting information about Iraq in a way that "minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals." Not to mention its discrepancy with reality -- a gaping void so great there's little these Nine Wise Men and One Wise Woman can do to paper it over.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Why was this man crying?


Colin Hackley/Associated Press

When the senior President Bush shed tears a few days ago in the Florida Capitol about the memory of son Jeb's defeat in the 1994 Florida gubernatorial race, he supposedly was choking up about the grace in defeat showed by a son who had, at the time, represented the family's hope to someday put a Bush back in the White House.
"He didn't whine about it. He didn't complain," the former president said before choking up. As he tried to continue, he let out a sob and put a handkerchief to his face. When he spoke again, his words were broken up by pauses as he tried to regain composure.
Maybe. But my guess is Bush was really crying less about Jeb's injured decency than the simple fact that the '94 defeat was where everything started to go wrong for the family. It meant that the wrong son ultimately ascended to the presidency -- instead of the accomplished anointed successor, the wayward black sheep took over, with the result that the Bush family name will now be permanently blackened in the history books, linked with the single worst foreign policy mistake in American history. In short, tears of self-pity from a proud man who saw all his dreams turn to ashes.

Of course, he could have been wracked with sobs for the nearly three thousand American men and women who have been killed in Iraq since the wrong son was elected, the far larger number grievously wounded, with physical and emotional scars they'll carry for life, or the even greater number of Iraqi dead and wounded. He could have been weeping for the way worldwide sympathy for America in the wake of 9/11 was wantonly transformed into worldwide hatred. He could have been feeling the world's pain. But probably not.
"I'm the emotional one," Bush said later. "I don't enjoy breaking up, but when you talk about somebody you love, when you get older, you do it more.'"
It seemed to be all about the Bushes.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Beating the winter blues


The call it the winter blues, but that's not entirely accurate. For most people it starts in late autumn, when the light seems to go out, not just in their surroundings, but also inside themselves. The more technical term, seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, as Jane Brody points out in today's NYT, encompasses a broader seasonal range. In fact, many sufferers start to get better by the time midwinter actually gets here.
There are several remedies to help those affected by SAD escape an affliction that leaves many wanting to climb into bed, put their heads under the covers and not come out until spring. Indeed, some experts refer to SAD as a form of hibernation.

The problem typically starts gradually as the days become shorter in late summer or fall and peaks in midwinter in regions where there may be just 9 or 10 hours of daylight, if that.
Today's column by Brody offers a useful summary of current research and remedies. She also cites Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal's standard reference, “Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder,” which came out with a revised edition this year. She mentions light therapy and ion therapy (popularized in the TV show "Men in Trees," where a light box was part of a running gag)), but also recommends alternatives like cognitive therapy, eating more protein and cutting back on carbohydrates and getting plenty of exercise.

I'm probably in the middle of the SAD spectrum myself -- not enough to totally cripple me, but enough to often get really miserable after we set our clocks back. For what it's worth, the times I suffered least was when I was doing a lot of walking every day, come rain or shine, and eating a high protein diet.

Monday, December 04, 2006

MMoCA's exhibit of the significant art of Sol LeWitt



So sue me, Google -- they wouldn't let me take pictures at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's new exhibit of works both by Sol LeWitt and from his collection ("LeWitt x 2") -- so I used some of yours. I couldn't find a posting connected with the exhibit with a jpeg big enough to be worth displaying online. So here's a screen capture of part of the first page of a Google Image Search for "Sol LeWitt." Click on the link or do your own search and you'll find over 5,000 more.

I might also note parenthetically that this is one more way technology is changing the way we perceive the world -- the magical miniature, gridlike montage of an artist's work produced by Google Image Search is an amazing starting point, a nifty way to get an instant overview of an artist's career at a glance, in the same way that typing in the name of a city will bring up a kaleidoscopic jumble of images portraying buildings, people and maps that orient you at the same time they give you an instantaneous feel for the spirit of a place. In some ways it's almost better than going to a gallery or museum to see the work in person, sort of like savoring art on the run.

At least it was for me in this particular case. The Google search was an instant refresher course in the range of LeWitt's work, and it made me eager to see the show. But by the time I got there over the weekend, I found it all rather anticlimactic, and I didn't stay long. I was reminded of how I had always found LeWitt's work a bit too dry and cerebral in a sterile sort of way for my taste. Perhaps I'm not alone. On a Sunday afternoon an hour before closing, there was only one other couple in the cavernous main galleries -- a man looking on in indulgent boredom, while his significant other asked earnestly significant questions of the guard about why this was significant art, and he tried to reply with an appropriately significant sounding explanation of its significance.

My favorite local review of the show(s) was by Jennifer A. Smith in Isthmus. She wrote about LeWitt with insight and sensitivity and without condescending to her readers.
Now 78, LeWitt is associated with the post-World War II art movements of minimalism and conceptualism. But don’t let those dry-sounding terms scare you off. The paradox of LeWitt’s art is that it can be intellectually rigorous yet easily readable, with its familiar geometric forms. The austere and the sensual intermingle in his work.

“Structure and Line” spans over 40 years of LeWitt’s career, from the mid-1960s to the present. In his younger days, LeWitt and his friends shrugged off the freewheeling approach of Abstract Expressionism for something they hoped would be more stripped down and elemental. The earliest work on view is a 1965 wall-mounted sculpture — or “structure” in LeWitt’s preferred parlance — with the typically prosaic title “Modular Wall Piece With Cube.” It’s an open, lattice-like structure, and the open cube form recurs throughout LeWitt’s work.

Yet as the years have progressed, LeWitt has become more open to color and irregular lines. As visitors first step into the galleries, the 1965 sculpture faces off with a 2006 drawing created just for MMoCA, one of the artist’s famed “wall drawings,” which is exactly what it sounds like — the drawing is created directly on the surface of the gallery wall.
For the Capital Times, Kevin Lynch was, well, Kevin Lynch.
He's a bit of an artistic groundhog shrinking from the long shadow of high regard artists hold for him. Like Herman Melville's notoriously reticent legal copyist "Bartleby the Scrivener," LeWitt would "prefer not to" engage in actions he doesn't see as necessary: spotlighting himself. As with Bartleby, this amounts to a politely radical political statement. The kind our times needs desperately.
I don't know about Kevin. He's got a Melville things going, what can I say ? This time it's Bartleby, last time it was Moby Dick.
Regardless, the museum's iconic entrance is now an unforgettable experience of downtown Madison. One can imagine an Ahab-like incantation shouted from the stair top.
I looked for Bartleby throughout the LeWitt exhibit but couldn't find him. Perhaps he was scared away by Ahab's incantations from the nearby stair top. Need I say more? I would prefer not to.