Saturday, March 03, 2007

Edie Sedgwick's great aunt with badger

Andy Warhol elevated Edie Sedgwick to her 15 minutes of fame, but it was the state of Wisconsin that raised her great aunt to immortality atop our state capitol dome, where she presides in 22-carat gold-gilded glory with a badger on her head. This photo from the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society shows the statue being raised in 1914. (Click on photo to enlarge and get a better view of the badger.) The real name of the Daniel Chester French statue is "Wisconsin," but locally she's often misidentified as "Miss Forward," probably because "Forward" is the state motto. Madison writer Jay Rath provides more information about Sedgwick's great aunt Edith Minturn Phelps Stokes and her connection with the statue at his blog The Rath of Madison.
"Wisconsin" was created by Massachusetts sculptor Daniel Chester French. The setting for his most famous work can be seen on the back of every penny; French sculpted the figure of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial at Washington, D.C.

Edith posed for French's 65-foot statue of the "Republic" at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. It became the model for the statue on top of our capitol.

Edith was a New York socialite, heir to a shipping fortune. She would have been 24 when she posed for French. She later married millionaire Isaac Stokes, an historian, social reformer and leader in the Beaux Arts movement. At their wedding, the Rev. William Rainsford said, "I have known one or two women as beautiful; one or two women as interesting; one or two women as spiritual; but for the combination of the three I have never known her equal."
I've always loved this photo. There's something comically touching about the workmen carefully, almost reverently maneuvering the gigantic, classically sculpted female figure with that absurd badger nested in its hair. It's probably just as well for our state image, however, that the badger is scarcely visible from street level.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Peacock Throne nostalgia driving Iran policy?

Up until just over 28 years ago, the Shah of Iran sat on the famous Peacock Throne and everything was pretty much hunky-dory according to the cons and neocons in the Bush administration. The Commies had been decisively defeated years before, and Iran was governed by a strong "authoritarian" regime that knew how to keep order, bought lots of American weapons, sat on a nice big pool of oil, and was a great friend of the United States of America.

Sure, there were a few dissenting voices. But the SAVAK, the Shah's secret police unit that was set up with the help of the CIA in 1957, knew how to deal with them through intimidation, exile, imprisonment, assassination, and torture. In short, just the sort of regime the Bush gang seems so fond of. Then the damn mullahs came along and messed everything up. So it's understandable if nostalgia for the good old days is driving the aggressive U.S. posture toward Iran these days.

Note to President Bush about solving the Iran puzzle: Still trying to puzzle out what happened to the good old days of the Peacock Throne and how to put the Iran you love back together? You don't really need covert ops, aircraft carriers, cruise missiles and nuclear bunker busters. Just play with a peacock jigsaw puzzle. It's fun and challenging, the puzzles are readily available and you don't have to kill anyone. Just take the pieces one at a time and play around with them until you can make them fit. Here's a partially completed one to get you started. Don't those eyespots look pretty?

When modernism went to kindergarten

Frank’s mother was ambitious for her young son. In fact, she was a bit of a stage mom. In 1876, she visited America’s epic Centennial Exposition in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. There, she happened upon a small building attached to the Women’s Pavilion that demonstrated a decades-old experimental German day-care system, and had an epiphany. Here, thought Mrs. Lloyd-Wright, were the fundamental building blocks to set her son on the path to architectural greatness. She returned home to Boston with a selection of the specialized learning equipment she discovered (including the building blocks), enrolled in an authorized teacher-training course, and set to work very deliberately and very successfully molding the mind of the quintessential Modernist architect. The name of the little building in Philly -- Kindergarten Cottage. -- Doug Harvey, LA Weekly
Frank, of course, was Frank Lloyd Wright, and the blocks his mother brought home to develop little Frank's mind were called Froebel blocks, named after the 19th century German scientist and educational reformer, Friedrich Froebel, the inventor of kindergarten, along with a host of tools to develop the creativity of young minds. You can see a set of Froebel blocks at Taliesin, the architect's home and studio near Spring Green, Wisconsin.

Harvey's passage is the opening of his review of "Inventing Kindergarten," an exhibit at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena that closed in January. But you can still see a selection of the works and an introductory essay, at the online Institute for Figuring. The exhibit is filled with pedagogical tools that have a surprisingly modernist look to them, like the first two pages (pictured above) from Zum Nachzeichnen für Kinder (Copy Drawing for Children) by B.Adamek. Vienna, c. 1830.

The artifacts are from the collection of author, artist and gallery owner Norman Brosterman. The exhibit draws on the thesis of his 1997 book, Inventing Kindergarten, suggesting that Frank Lloyd Wright wasn't the only one. According to Brosterman, many of the founding geniuses of 20th century modernism -- artists like Braque, Klee and Mondrian -- were influenced by the geometry of modernism that was part of the Froebel legacy in their childhood education. Kindergarten, intended to expand the growing minds of little children, ended up seeding the garden of modernism with a unique way of seeing.

Clearly, many things influenced the development of modernism. Brosterman takes a single factor and explores it in depth, making for a provocative and thought-provoking analysis. And the visuals are gorgeous. You'll never see the visual environment of the 19th century in quite the same way again.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Photographs taken by the mind's eye

Michael David Murphy is a talented photographer who displays some of his photographs here. He also displays photographs he did not take at a stark, minimalist site he calls Unphotographable. There's a brief explanation and a link to a CBC radio interview on this page. Here's an example, which he calls "Paso Robles Cutoff."
This is a picture I did not take of the sound a rental car makes early in the morning when it passes a long line of tractor trailers slowly pulling over for the night on the Paso Robles cutoff, the moon high and halved, Orion low in the sky and moody through fog, AM radio pulling-in callers obsessed with the supernatural and shadow people, the interior smelling like bags of coffee beans squirreled away in a box in the back, car filled to the brim with everything I own, and despite months of planning, I still couldn't picture how it would feel to drive away and toward at the same time, the road as wide open as the sky, both ahead and always ahead as I drive down one and toward another but feel like I'm going through both in a way that reminds me it's been far too long.
He calls these brief paragraphs unphotographable. I call them prose poems. They're also reminders that memory is still the best point-and-shoot imaging device there's ever been. Don't leave home without it.

The world could sure use a lot more of this

Received this from my favorite artist. Thanks, M --
I was going to save it for next year's Valentine's Day post, but it
makes me feel good, and I like looking at it too much to wait.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Torpid snow primates found in Midwest

In Madison, Wisconsin, to be precise. These primates hunker down on the ice and exhibit what can only be described as a form of social bonding based on communal outdoor hibernation.

Good news that breaks your heart

Watching "To Iraq and Back," last night's ABC's documentary about Bob Woodruff's miraculous recovery, wasn't just extraordinary television, it was also heartbreaking. If you missed the airing, you can stream it here at ABC. Framed by the good news about Woodruff and his recovery, the broader picture of the injuries suffered by American troops and the Iraqi people was all the more heartbreaking.

Woodruff suffered terrible head injuries from an IED in Iraq, with more than 100 small stones and rock fragments lodged in his head. His life was saved and his condition stabilized by the same dedicated surgeons in Iraq who have saved the lives of so many American troops. After that, he had the best civilian state-of-the-art medical and rehab care that money could buy. The stone fragments were extracted by the nation's leading small cranial tumor surgeon (the surgical challenges were the same). Therapists worked with a loving family to help him through the process of learning to use language again. His recovery was a stirring tribute to human courage, hope and the best that medical science had to offer.

What was heartbreaking was the contrast between the care he received and that received by soldiers Woodruff interviewed with similar traumatic brain injury (TBI) conditions. They all received the same amazing care as Woodruff at field hospitals in Iraq. They received extraordinary care at Walter Reed and at four regional trauma centers after that. But when they returned home after that, things often fell apart quickly without adequate support from a system that is strained to the breaking point. It left Woodruff discussing with his surgeon his own feelings of guilt about having care that was so much better than the men and women who had put their lives on the line for their country. All this heartbreak, and we haven't even discussed the Iraqi people, who suffer even worse injuries, with almost no medical support at all.

Near the end of the program, Woodruff moved on to discuss an even more widespread problem. TBI isn't always visible. With what we now know about the brain, it's clear that people in the immediate vicinity of an explosion may suffer brain trauma that is not visible or immediately apparent. It may not manifest itself until months or years later. Experts say as many as 10% of the 1.5 troops we've had in Iraq and Afghanistan may be at risk. Yet their problems are barely on the radar screen.

If the Iraq war had been an honest response to a real threat, these terrible injuries and ruined lives -- both American and Iraqi -- would be the tragic price of fighting for freedom. But this war was based on lies, and there never was a real threat to our national security. This war was not a cause, it was a crime.

Snow blogger's lyrical post on the joys of winter, with a barbed invite for the Decider

Blue Wren has been snowbound, and loving it. She's been snow blogging eloquently about the joys of winter, including wood fires and playing with her dog (until he got grounded) in the deep snowdrifts around her home in a small town in the California mountains. And now she invites someone else to join her in this form of winter recreation.
I hope you’ll all forgive my spate of snow-blogging. It’s been fun. I needed the gentle diversion. And frankly, I’ve been so dismayed by everything I’m reading in the news lately that I simply haven’t been able to pin down a single coherent point.

In that, I’m sure I’m much like our Dear Leader, who has long had coherence issues. George, I’ve got a suggestion for you. Try snow-blogging. It’s non-impact exercise, isn’t fattening unless you bring the package of Chips Ahoy with you to your desk and, as far as I know, hasn’t taken food or medical care from little kids, elders or veterans, interred any illegal immigrants or their children, got anyone killed or started any new, deplorable wars.
Excerpts don't do this snowy, satirical fantasy justice, but here's another one anyhow.
Snow-blogging makes you sleepy, too, because throwing snowballs and walking to the market in the snow is sorta hard work. Now I know you’re good at hard work, George, because you’ve talked about how much of it you do all the time. What’s nice about this kind of hard work is that no one has to die because you’re doing it! And after you come back inside, and warm your butt by that nice fire and eat some of your blueberry-walnut bread, you’ll want to stretch out in your favorite Presidential Chair with a comic book and indulge in a nice nap.

Naps are good. Everyone likes naps. Even the Iranians.
The world would clearly benefit if George chilled out and went to a fulltime schedule of gamboling in the snow with Barney. But wouldn't Dick Cheney continue to stir up trouble? Don't worry -- Wren's got that covered, too. Click here to read the entire post.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

According to Berra, Bohr, Stengel, Twain, Einstein, Shaw (and at least 19 other people, probably more)

Last December, in "Bohr leads Berra, but Yogi closing the gap" I posted about the origins of the saying, "Prediction is difficult, especially of the future." The leading candidates were Niels Bohr, Yogi Berra, Albert Einstein and Mark Twain, their order depending on how you structure your search. Now a reader with either a lot of time on his hands or a search algorithm with a far greater reach than mine has extended that list to 25 people and several general attributions, such as "wise/old Chinese saying/proverb" -- with links to lots of examples. His name is Larry Denenberg. You can check out the original post at the link above and click on his link in the comments, or you can click here to go directly to Denenberg's list.

Wisconsin winter warning re: plastic flowers

"We told you so," the Cemetary Association seems to be saying. (St. Paul's Liberty Lutheran Church Cemetary, County Highway W, just off U.S. 12-18, between Madison and Cambridge.)

Monday, February 26, 2007

"Watch thy neighbor, then pick up thy phone"

That's how Anthony Lane neatly characterized the late German Democratic Republic's widespread domestic spying in his recent New Yorker review of the movie that did, indeed, win the Best Foreign Film Oscar last night.
If there is any justice, this year’s Academy Award for best foreign-language film will go to “The Lives of Others,” a movie about a world in which there is no justice. It marks the début of the German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, of whom we have every right to be jealous. First, he is a stripling of thirty-three. Second, his name makes him sound like a lover with a duelling scar on his cheekbone in a nineteenth-century novel. And third, being German, he has an overwhelming subject: the postwar sundering of his country. For us, the idea of freedom, however heartfelt, is doomed to abstraction, waved by politicians as if they were shaking a flag. To Germans, even those of Donnersmarck’s generation, freedom is all too concrete, defined by its brute opposite: the gray slabs raised in Berlin to keep free souls at bay.

It is a tribute to the richness of the film that one cannot say for sure who the hero is. The most prominent figure is Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), yet if you passed him on the street you wouldn’t give him a second glance, or even a first. He would spot you, however, and file you away in a drawer at the back of his mind. Wiesler, based in East Berlin, is a captain in the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, better known as the Stasi—the state security service, which, by the mid-nineteen-eighties, employed more than ninety thousand personnel. In addition, a modest hundred and seventy thousand East Germans became unofficial employees, called upon to snoop and snitch for the honor—or, in practical terms, the survival—of the state. “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” Jesus said. The German Democratic Republic offered its own version: watch thy neighbor, then pick up thy phone.
"The Lives of Others" is about the tangled web of relationships involving Gerd Wiesler, the playwright he is spying on, and the playwright's mistress. The events in the film begin in 1984 and proceed all the way through the collapse of the GDR and its aftermath.

Christa Wolf covers somewhat related territory involving a writer and the collapse of the GDR in her semi-autobiographical stream of consciousness novel, In the Flesh. A best-seller in Germany several years ago, it was not reviewed by the New York Times and received little notice in the U.S., but it was one of my best reads last year.

It's about a woman writer feverishly fighting for her life as she struggles in a hospital with a mysterious, virulent infection that won't let go. Her illness is also a metaphor for the illness of the East German body politic. That sounds as if it might lead to some pretty heavy-handed symbolism, but no -- Wolf's account is a riveting, hallucinatory description of the patient's thoughts, feelings, memories, all interwoven with literary allusions (since she is, after all, a writer). Wolf has a great ear, and her use of language to evoke the different mental states of serious illness, in which the narrator alternates between "I" as active subject and "she" as passive object to describe herself, is brilliant.

The Complete Review's take on In the Flesh is one of the few reviews I've been able to find online.
Words are all she has, and this stream of them that makes up the novella is the hold she needs to get through the ordeal. The effect is even more obvious in the German original, but even in the English Wolf's use of extremely short sentences at moments when the patient is particularly weak and lost -- and then longer, more flowing sentences, either when she is stronger or drifting off -- is particularly effective. Even at her weakest the attempt at describing what is happening -- and she always seems to be trying to put this experience into words -- suggests the inner strength needed to get through all this.


Illness is, of course, also metaphor, and this story isn't just about a personal struggle against a life-threatening infection, an internal rot. The patient lives in a state -- East Germany, just before its collapse -- that is also rotten within. From the shoddy surgical gloves (repeatedly the doctor needs two or three pair because some inevitably tear) to medicine that has to be rushed over from West Berlin, the signs of how decrepit the state truly is are everywhere.


Recollections, dreams, and hallucinations add to the picture of the state gone wrong, in particular in the character of Urban ("whom I once liked very much, whom I liked less and less as the years went by"). The nearly effortless mix of allusion, reflection, and reality impresses: there's a surprising depth to the text in how they are woven together. From the straightforward and clinical to the very playful (such as the description of the bronze statue of Brecht who: "studies us slyly out of the corner of his eye, pretending that he's dead, a tried-and-true strategy not available to everyone") it's a remarkably multi-faceted (and inter-connected) text.
Christa Wolf's personal backstory also relates to the subject matter of "The Lives of Others." Probably Communist East Germany's best-known novelist in the West, Wolf was born in 1929, grew up under the Third Reich and then went on to success as a writer in the GDR. During the Cold War, she was traveled widely to the West, where she was seen as a brave, feminist dissident who somehow managed to stay out of major trouble with the authorities. She was probably best known in the West for Cassandra, her feminist reimagining of the Cassandra legend, with sly allusions to the GDR mixed in.

But after the wall fell, a period of disillusionment set in, when thousands of people's reputations were tarnished by the release of Stasi records. It turned out that Wolf's position in the GDR wasn't quite what people had thought. Not only had the Stasi spied on Wolf, but they had also recruited her to spy for them. This became a huge story in Germany. Wolf was reviled as a collaborator. Her accommodation with the regime -- such as it was -- was a vivid example of how the corrupt, totalitarian East German state tarnished everything and everyone it touched.

Eventually a sense of proportion returned to Germany. Wolf insisted on publishing her complete Stasi records, and it became clear that she never gave the Stasi any information of any importance. While the NYT apparently hasn't been able to forgive her, Wolf is once again a highly respected writer in her homeland, as the success of In the Flesh demonstrates. And with "The Lives of Others" winning an Academy Award, it's probably no coincidence that In the Flesh has just been reissued in paperback here. Check it out.

ATD update: Workers' Own Songbook

I mentioned this in the comments below, but I like the lyric, and am posting it here so it doesn't get lost in the comments. My Christmas Village Idiot bookmark is at an anarchists' meeting (p.49), where they are singing a song from the Workers' Own Songbook that begins:
Fierce as the winter's tempest
Cold as the smoth'ring snow
On grind the mills of Avarice
High rides the cruel-eyed foe....
Where is the hand of mercy,
Where is the kindly face,
Where in this heedless slaughter
Find we the promis'd place?
Almost as if it's ripped from today's headlines, isn't it?

Madison side streets after the Oscars

Enjoyed the Oscars -- especially the two Oscars for "An Inconvenient Truth." I picked Melissa Ethridge for Best Song, which propelled me to a tie in our family competition and my best score ever as an Oscar picker. I'm usually terrible, voting my heart and getting hammered for it. Still voted my heart, mostly, but hearts must be in this year. Maybe someday we'll look back at this Oscar ceremony as the one the president won his Oscar at -- and the one at which Ellen DeGeneres began her run as the "new Johnny Carson" of the Oscars. She was appealing and funny, without selling out the whole thing just to prove how funny she was.

Drove M home afterwards. The main roads are fine, but the cleanup crews haven't gotten to the side streets yet, so our own block was kind of dodgy. You have to get a good run at the hill and stay in the ruts. Once you drift off to the side, you're done for the night. We made it.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

"A screaming comes across the sky."

You want to scream -- or is it that you're hearing a scream echoing back to us from the future? The latest Seymour Hersh story in the New Yorker has more to do with the world of Thomas Pynchon than with the world of cover kid Eustace Tilley, who just celebrated his birthday on Feb. 21. No wonder they didn't run it in the anniversary issue. "A screaming comes across the sky," the famous opening line of Gravity's Rainbow, might just as well be the title of Hersh's report. The media sound bites about the story were about Hersh's almost passing reference to attacking Iran.
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Despite the Bush administration's insistence it has no plans to go to war with Iran, a Pentagon panel has been created to plan a bombing attack that could be implemented within 24 hours of getting the go-ahead from President George W. Bush, The New Yorker magazine reported in its latest issue.

The special planning group was established within the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in recent months, according to an unidentified former U.S. intelligence official cited in the article by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh in the March 4 issue.

The panel initially focused on destroying Iran's nuclear facilities and on regime change but has more recently been directed to identify targets in Iran that may be involved in supplying or aiding militants in Iraq, according to an Air Force adviser and a Pentagon consultant, who were not identified.
But this is not new. The real news in Hersh's story -- titled "The Redirection: Is the Administration’s new policy benefiting our enemies in the war on terrorism?" -- concerned a new and deeply unstable strategic realignment by the Bush administration, involving as it does ongoing covert action, the willingness to use force, the implementation of tactics developed secretly in the vice president's office, and a decisive tilt toward the Sunnis throughout the region, against the Shiites.
In the past few months, as the situation in Iraq has deteriorated, the Bush Administration, in both its public diplomacy and its covert operations, has significantly shifted its Middle East strategy. The “redirection,” as some inside the White House have called the new strategy, has brought the United States closer to an open confrontation with Iran and, in parts of the region, propelled it into a widening sectarian conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has cooperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.
The penchant for secrecy, contempt for Congress and willingness to work with our nation's enemies -- after all, most U.S. casualties in Iraq are caused by Sunnis, not Shiites -- has a lot in common with the good old days of Iran-Contra, not surprisingly, as some of the players are even the same.
The Bush Administration’s reliance on clandestine operations that have not been reported to Congress and its dealings with intermediaries with questionable agendas have recalled, for some in Washington, an earlier chapter in history. Two decades ago, the Reagan Administration attempted to fund the Nicaraguan contras illegally, with the help of secret arms sales to Iran. Saudi money was involved in what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal, and a few of the players back then—notably Prince Bandar and Elliott Abrams—are involved in today’s dealings.

Iran-Contra was the subject of an informal “lessons learned” discussion two years ago among veterans of the scandal. Abrams led the discussion. One conclusion was that even though the program was eventually exposed, it had been possible to execute it without telling Congress. As to what the experience taught them, in terms of future covert operations, the participants found: “One, you can’t trust our friends. Two, the C.I.A. has got to be totally out of it. Three, you can’t trust the uniformed military, and four, it’s got to be run out of the Vice-President’s office”—a reference to Cheney’s role, the former senior intelligence official said.
No matter how the administration spins what's going on, it's a recipe for disaster -- especially if considered along with other breaking stories. Like The Sunday Times story that a number of senior U.S. military commanders are preparing to resign if Bush gives the order to attack Iran. Or the Haaretz story that three Arab Persian Gulf states have agreed to allow Israeli overflights in the event that they attack Iranian nuclear installations. (Via TPM)

Is Bush trying to bluff and threaten the Iranians into submission? Maybe. Who knows? But as we saw in the buildup to the Iraq war, the threat of force by these guys has a way of turning into the use of force. We're rapidly approaching an apocalyptic future that has a screaming written all across the sky -- unless there's a real screaming right here, at home, on the ground.

UPDATE: Ever wonder what "a screaming comes across the sky" looks like? Check out this post about artist Zak Smith and his book that illustrates all 760 pages of Gravity's Rainbow.