Saturday, January 06, 2007

What to call this fifth season? Wintring?

Strange season, unmoored in time, both here and in Washington -- partly spring and the birth of hope, partly winter and the death of hope. Not winter, not spring. Here in Madison, it's as if we have a fifth season this year. We had that cold snap early in December that froze Lake Wingra and brought out the ice boats. But that's behind us now. Instead, it's greening out nicely, as in this view of Bill's Woods, just west of Picnic Point. Of course, winter will probably come back, but for now we need a new name for a new season. "January thaw" just doesn't seem to cut it. How about wintring?

This is not an ice boat.

The water itself has a slow, sluggish quality; the waves move with a tired, viscous lassitude. It's as if the water knows it's midwinter and it should be sleeping, but it can't. At the same time, it's too tired to move very energetically. That's what it's like in wintring.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Can Bush pass the buck to the next president?

It looks as if Joe Biden, never one to be shy about the spotlight, will start stirring things up in his role as chairman redux of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, judging from the interview he gave WaPo reporter Glenn Kessler about his plans for hearings starting next week.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said yesterday that he believes top officials in the Bush administration have privately concluded they have lost Iraq and are simply trying to postpone disaster so the next president will "be the guy landing helicopters inside the Green Zone, taking people off the roof," in a chaotic withdrawal reminiscent of Vietnam.

"I have reached the tentative conclusion that a significant portion of this administration, maybe even including the vice president, believes Iraq is lost," Biden said. "They have no answer to deal with how badly they have screwed it up. I am not being facetious now. Therefore, the best thing to do is keep it from totally collapsing on your watch and hand it off to the next guy -- literally, not figuratively."
When senators start talking about helicopters taking people off the roof, you know they're serious. Condi Rice "will probably testify next Thursday to defend the president's new plan." It will be fun to see her squirm. Hope she's the first of many. And I hope the hearings prove to be more than idle finger-pointing and that somehow the Dems find the backbone to derail Bush's ill-conceived troop surge before it ever gets off the ground.

My favorite trashy TV show bites the dust

It's been dying a slow death ever since the second season, but Fox TV finally made it official -- the once-hot "The O.C." will air its last episodee Feb. 22.
The finale "will deliver real closure to the series, to the story we began telling four years ago," series creator Josh Schwartz said in a statement. "It will be fun and emotional and I think really satisfying. It is the finale we always planned to do."
I'm confused. Wasn't this it?
Ryan crawls out, then pulls Marissa from the burning car. Cue tragic indie rock as Ryan carries Marissa's limp body along the road and the car explodes in the background. Marissa has dark red blood on the side of her head, but not enough to seriously impair her blow-out. She blinks prettily, but miraculously doesn't say anything like "I've always loved you," or "Stay sweet," or "See ya, wouldn't wanna be ya!" Instead, she groans, blinks and dies. Ryan clenches his jaw, but miraculously doesn't bellow "Noooo!" or nuzzle Marissa's bloody face. It's OK, we liked his happy-go-lucky, jewelry-making girlfriend much better than Marissa anyway.
They should never have let those twentysomething kids out of high school. There just was no place for them in the real world.

The art of Whole Foods

Co-publisher Debra Brehmer writes in the online art magazine Susceptible to Images about the arrival of Whole Foods in Milwaukee last September. Her essay pivots on a discussion of the organic food megamarketer's attempt to incorporate local art, beginning with the way they invited -- and then uninvited -- American Indian artist Matthew Kirk to show at their store's grand opening opening. Mike Brenner of Hotcakes Gallery in Riverwest, which represents the artist, commented on the chain's decision to rescind their invitation after a regional VP determined that “the work didn’t fit Whole Foods’ Corporate image."
Brenner says, “It’s hard to say why they pulled Matt’s work. I think like almost everyone in Milwaukee, I was initially fooled into thinking we were all lucky to have them here, like it said something positive about Milwaukee. I was flattered to think we finally deserved a salad bar with huge cloves of roasted garlic, stuffed grape leaves and salad greens other than iceberg, but when I walked through the new Whole Foods with designer’s eyes, I realized it’s all an act. It’s all marketing, catch phrases, and GIANT logos. I think they pulled Matt’s work because it’s real. It conveys emotion, doubt, honesty and a sense of history. Those ideas no longer have a place in American popular culture.
Brehmer writes that Whole Foods has since set up a local art exhibition program that seems designed to guarantee an appropriate level of corporate blandness.
In subsequent months, Whole Foods did get a “local art” program initiated. Art in the Market allows artists to submit proposals for periodic small shows in the store’s “lifestyle” corridor and its Allegro Coffee Lounge. Interested artists can access applications can be printed from the wholefoodsmarket. com website.

The first artist selected, whose work is currently on view (although you have to hunt for it in a rather remote back hallway on the way to the restroom) is Paul Matzner, a local photographer. He has a series of travel shots, which look like standard, pretty magazine fare, quite innocuous and essentially generic. The slickness of the photographic surface and the distance imposed by their foreign locales perhaps made them a perfect non-committal choice for a business that relies on packaging as its primary means of communication. On Nov. 30 at 6 p.m., a new show of work by Wauwatosa “expressionist” artist Pamela Anderson opens. But why show “art” at all if this is the goal? Politics, I fear, and an attempt to warm-up the corporate formula.
Brehmer has written a far-ranging essay on art, design and the ethics and esthetics of modern corporate organic farming and marketing. Read the rest of it here.

Childcare in NYC's East Village, circa 1959

From novelist Robert Stone's walking tour of his old haunts in New York's East Village with Charles McGrath in the NYT:
First stop: 13 St. Marks Place. “That’s where we were on New Year’s Eve, 1959,” Mr. Stone said, pointing to an upstairs apartment. “My wife and I and our first child. Of course the neighborhood wasn’t fixed up then: it was really an extension of the Bowery. When my wife or I used to go shopping, we used to have a choice about what to bring upstairs first, the groceries or the kid. I always figured there was more chance of the food being stolen, so I’d give some derelict a dime and ask him to watch the baby.”
The nostalgia trip continues with Michiko Kakutani's linked review of Stone's new memoir, Prime Green.

Proof that cyberspace is real?

Earthquake eats Chinese domain names.

Bush wrecking another career to prop up his ego

Ignoring the great career advice from blogger Matt Yglesias a couple weeks ago, Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus has agreed to replace Gen. George W. Casey Jr. as the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, becoming the latest soldier to sacrifice his career to George Bush's inability to admit a mistake. It's part of the shakeup accompanying Bush's latest attempt at a strategy to achieve success in Iraq, but as BarbinMD notes in Daily Kos:
Time ran out for success in Iraq nearly four years ago. And 3006 American deaths later, Bush's ego is now dictating policy.
How long will we continue to let this stubborn egomaniac sacrifice lives to cover his own lack of vision? Is Toto ever going to pull back the curtain?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

À votre santé, Pynchon

Reading a book is a journey. I'm as ready for a quick leap into the unknown as the next guy, but when it comes to major voyages I like to consult with people who've been there before embarking, to get some sense of the lay of the land and what to expect from the locals. Then I run their reactions through my own filter. Sometimes a strong negative response intrigues me more than a positive endorsement. Thus, some of the negative early reviews of Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day simply whetted my appetite and led me to put the book on my Christmas wish list. Santa obliged, and now I'm looking at starting the journey.

Still, when actually confronted by the entire 1,085-page white-clad destination looming up above me in the mists of my unallocated reading time like a distant and possibly unattainable mountain peak, I began to crave some reassurance. Could it be the critics were right and I was in danger of starting a long and arduous journey that turned out to lead nowhere ? Could it be that Michiko was right when she said it "reads like the sort of imitation of a Thomas Pynchon novel that a dogged but ungainly fan of this author’s might have written on quaaludes"?

I feel more confident now that I've read the thoughtful, appreciative review in the New York Review of Books by Luc Sante, who teaches writing and the history of photography at Bard College. He makes it clear it's no casual day trip.
Against the Day is a baggy monster of a book, sphinxlike and intimidating in its white wrappers, which are decorated with nothing but a seal containing an unintelligible glyph. It is appreciably longer than even Pynchon's longest previous books—nearly half again as big as Gravity's Rainbow (760 pages) or Mason & Dixon (773). Unlike Gravity's Rainbow, it does not have an easily describable subject, or one to which the average literary consumer is already attuned. Unlike Mason & Dixon it is not borne along by a couple of strong and affecting main characters. Its subject is slippery, mercurial, multifaceted, hard to explain, and nowhere near fashionable territory. Six or seven of its major characters are strong and affecting, but there are dozens of others here, and the story has so many branches and extensions, trunk lines and switchbacks and yards and sidings that characters regularly drop out for a few hundred pages at a stretch. It isn't always easy to remember who they are when they reappear.

Pynchon's novels always have their own peculiar rhythm and logic, setting the reader in terrain that is continually shifting and thus requires an athletic suppleness of attention and mood. Digression is the constant, not the exception. Sequences that seem to follow the traditional order of novelistic development tend to fade into extended prose poems, which turn into pages of abstruse speculation, which then, just as the reader's eyes begin to glow with a semblance of comprehension, tumble into slapstick, sometimes involving song-and-dance routines. Ideas powerful enough to drive whole books are prodigally thrown away, while the most gratuitous passing notions are taken up and pursued to the point of exhaustion. Some sequential and organizational decisions may have been made with the use of dice, or yarrow stalks, or tea leaves. Very occasionally, Homer nods.
But Sante also makes it clear that he found the journey well worth the effort. Unlike earlier reviewers, who, in all fairness, may have been hampered by the fact the publisher didn't give them much time with such a huge book, he engages the book on its own terms and doesn't try to fit the book -- to its detriment, like a round peg into a square hole -- into a predetermined slot. He makes it clear that Pynchon is trying to do things most novelists aren't trying to do, and that perhaps it should not even be called a novel at all, except what else would you call it?
Pynchon thinks on a different scale from most novelists, to the point where you'd almost want to find another word for the sort of thing he does, since his books differ from most other novels the way a novel differs from a short story, in exponential rather than simply linear fashion. Pynchon's work has absorbed modernism and what has come after, but in its alternating cycles of jokes and doom, learning and carnality, slapstick and arcana, direct speech and poetic allusiveness, high language and low, it taps into something that goes back to the Elizabethans, who potentially addressed the entire world, made up of individuals with differing interests and capacities. He also thinks big because he is extremely American (like many of his fellow citizens, he is never so American as when traveling abroad). In this way he is reminiscent of the "millionaire ascetic" in Borges's story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," who "declared that in America it was absurd to invent a country, and proposed the invention of a whole planet." Here, in Against the Day,by his own admission, he has made what "with a minor adjustment or two [is] what the world might be."
Check out the rest of the review, which is worth reading in its entirety. Meanwhile, I'll be off to Pynchonland. The journey is going to take some time, as it's not the sort of book you read in a couple of nights. I suspect the voyage will take me far from my customary shores, but I'll try to send back an occasional message in a bottle, if they even have bottles where I'm going. UPDATE:SteelR is going me one better (see comments) and doing away with bottles altogether. He's reporting back with some sort of newfangled contraption called a blog: Blogging Pynchon -- "Day-by-Day Against the Day." Cool commentary, too. From yesterday's post: "Zeros and ones, cattle gates to logic gates, we shuffle and are sorted."

And if you'd like to read more by Sante, try his essay on language, "French Without Tears," which appeared in the Threepenny Review. It's an elegant reflection on French and English, each refracted through the medium of the other, by someone who came to America as a child in a French-speaking home of Belgian immigrants. (His comments on French puns inspired my title -- sorry, I just couldn't help myself.)

UPDATE: To find other posts in this series, type "Bottle Notes" into the box at the top of the page and click "Search this Blog." Use quotes.

Learning to love the order in disorder and the beauty of the blooming penicillin mold

It's high time to get organized, according to the National Association of Professional Organizers, and they stand ready to help.
“January is the perfect month to get organized and start your new year off right. Getting organized is one of the top 5 New Year’s resolutions people make and with almost 4,000 NAPO members ready and available to assist, it is easier than most people think. NAPO is gearing up for our largest Get Organized Month(SM) ever with 11 industry partners and a nationwide radio campaign. NAPO members will help over 10,000 people get organized during this month-long event.”—NAPO President Barry Izsak
David H. Freedman has a better idea -- learn to embrace your mess. Freedman is co-author with Eric Abrahamson of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder. Penelope Green wrote about it in the New York Times.
The book is a meandering, engaging tour of beneficial mess and the systems and individuals reaping those benefits, like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose mess-for-success tips include never making a daily schedule.

[...]

In their book Mr. Freedman and Mr. Abrahamson describe the properties of mess in loving terms. Mess has resonance, they write, which means it can vibrate beyond its own confines and connect to the larger world. It was the overall scumminess of Alexander Fleming’s laboratory that led to his discovery of penicillin, from a moldy bloom in a petri dish he had forgotten on his desk.

Mess is robust and adaptable, like Mr. Schwarzenegger’s open calendar, as opposed to brittle, like a parent’s rigid schedule that doesn’t allow for a small child’s wool-gathering or balkiness. Mess is complete, in that it embraces all sorts of random elements. Mess tells a story: you can learn a lot about people from their detritus, whereas neat — well, neat is a closed book. Neat has no narrative and no personality (as any cover of Real Simple magazine will demonstrate). Mess is also natural, as Mr. Freedman and Mr. Abrahamson point out, and a real time-saver. “It takes extra effort to neaten up a system,” they write. “Things don’t generally neaten themselves.”
Granted, my desk probably won't neaten itself, but generally things sort themselves out just fine. When the strata become too deep I just throw most everything away and start over, figuring anything important is either in the computer or it wasn't that important anyhow. Meanwhile, there's some interesting looking stuff growing in that dish over there, by the telephone.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

"Bush's Death Factory"

I was wondering, in the aftermath of Saddam's grotesque execution by that gloating death squad, why there wasn't more commentary about George Bush's role the last time he was involved with executions, when he was the Death Penalty Decider for the state of Texas -- in which capacity he had been known to do his own share of gloating. Poking about on the Web, I came across an October 2000 piece about Bush published by Derrick Z. Jackson in the Boston Globe. It seems remarkably prescient now -- especially the title, "Bush's Death Factory."
GEORGE W. BUSH'S dogged denial of factory defects in the death machinery of Texas invites memories of Lyndon Johnson telling us how we were defoliating the North Vietnamese into target range. In the beginning, one could charitably concede that the two men were merely bullheaded souls, filled with false pride and false missions, trying to persuade us we needed to slaughter some criminals or a whole nation into submission.

Johnson's stubbornness became massacres and suicide battles abroad and dead students at home. Bush's pathological denials have exploded into a time line that makes it easy to depict him, in the political sense, as a serial killer, indiscriminately dispensing with the despised and chuckling over their bodies.

Bush, remember, has gloated about the death penalty in more than just the presidential debates. He is the same Bush who last year ridiculed death row inmate Karla Faye Tucker, whining in mock exaggeration in an interview that Tucker begged, "Please don't kill me." Bush, who has made his Christianity part of his resume, mocked Tucker even though she said she had found Christ.
Jackson went on to speculate about how this man might conduct himself as president.
Three decades ago, a president refused to change course, and it cost thousands of American lives. In two weeks, the nation may elect a president with a similar hubris. If Bush will not change course on the death penalty, there is no telling what he will not change course on if elected president.
It was all there. Even before the election, it was perfectly clear what Bush was peddling. I wonder why we bought it. Oh, that's right -- we didn't.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Does free will exist, or is it an illusion -- and does it really make any difference?


New York Times / Jonathan Rosen

Just when we all have our New Year's resolutions in place and are charging into the future with firm resolve, or at least good intentions, the New York Times knocks down the whole flimsy house of cards with today's report on the likely non-existence of free will. The scientific consensus seems to be that it's an illusion, or at best some sort of fuzzy-muzzy "emergent" phenomenon, whereby something arises from nothing. Just when we thought we had broken free of the clutches of Calvinism, they pull us back in again.
“It’s an illusion, but it’s a very persistent illusion; it keeps coming back,” he said, comparing it to a magician’s trick that has been seen again and again. “Even though you know it’s a trick, you get fooled every time. The feelings just don’t go away.”
Free will is always going to be an insoluble mystery hard-wired into the very nature of human consciousness, which of course won't keep scientists and philosophers from continuing to poke at it, or the NYT from continuing to report on their progress. For the rest of us, I suspect it's a bit less complicated.

Free will -- can't live with it, can't live without it.

Monday, January 01, 2007

New Year's foliage


Today's weather in Madison, Wisconsin -- green is good, but this is weird, if you ask me.

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?