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.

Holiday Shopper's Helper

I'm just posting these here in case you or I misplace the Dec. 4 issue of the NYT Book Review and can't find the holiday scorecards it contains of the 10 Best Best Books of 2006 and 100 Notable Books of the Year when we're rushing to finish our holiday shopping. (To my way of thinking the "10 Best Books of 2006" list falls a bit short since it doesn't include "The Echo Maker" by Richard Powers, although they did put the book on the "100 Notable Books of the Year" roster.)

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Sunday Sunset Blogging

The December sun setting in the west windows of the Wisconsin State Capitol dome just before the start of the 83rd annual Capitol Christmas Pageant.

It'll take more than a posturing governor to kill Festivus in its 40th anniversary year

Looking ahead to this year's Festivus, there's a grievance I would like to air -- about our governor's using the traditions of this great holiday to score political points.

A year ago, no doubt looking to gain some Seinfeld fan votes in his reelection campaign this year, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle -- photographed by Henry A. Koshollek of the The Capital Times -- set up a Festivus Pole (made by a firm in Milwaukee) among the holiday decorations in the governor's mansion.

But this year, he's boycotting the holiday on account of the racist outburst by Michael Richards in a comedy club.
Festivus just isn't the same this year for self-professed "Seinfeld" fanatic Gov. Jim Doyle.

In fact, Doyle said he won't be recognizing the made-up holiday after Michael Richards, aka Kramer, unleashed a string of racial slurs at black patrons during a recent comedy club appearance.
Thanks, Gov. Doyle, for one more symbolic gesture by a politican that completely misses its mark. I hate Michael Richards's outburst as much as you do, but he really doesn't have anything to do with Festivus. After all, it wasn't Kramer's father who invented the holiday. It wasn't even George's father, Frank Constanza, played by Jerry Stiller, who invented the holiday that figured in that famous December 1997 episode of "Seinfeld."

No, as Allen Salkin reported in the NYT Dec. 19, 2004 (Times Select Archive Link), the holiday was a family tradition dating back to 1966 in the family of "Seinfeld" writer Daniel O'Keefe.
Those two rituals -- accusing others of being a disappointment and wrestling -- are traditions of Festivus as explained on the show by the character Frank Costanza. On that episode he tells Kramer that he invented the holiday when his children were young and he found himself in a department store tug of war with another Christmas shopper over a doll. "I realized there had to be a better way," Frank says.

So he coined the slogan "A Festivus for the rest of us" and formulated the other rules: the holiday occurs on Dec. 23, features a bare aluminum pole instead of a tree and does not end until the head of the family is wrestled to the floor and pinned.

The actual inventor of Festivus is Dan O'Keefe, 76, whose son Daniel, a writer on "Seinfeld," appropriated a family tradition for the episode. The elder Mr. O'Keefe was stunned to hear that the holiday, which he minted in 1966, is catching on. ''Have we accidentally invented a cult?'' he wondered.
The cult has taken on a life of its own. And we cultists do nurse our grievances (in order to air them once a year). So, go ahead, boycott Kramer. But leave Festivus alone.

UPDATE: The Wagner Companies, Milwaukee, makers of both the 6-foot floor model aluminum Festivus Pole ($38) as well as the 2-foot-8-inch tabletop model ($30), apparently hasn't heard of Gov. Doyle's change of heart about Festivus. They're still using his name and photo to proudly promote their product. Maybe that's a sign Doyle might yet consider using his pardon power to give the holiday a well-deserved reprieve.